If you’re new this week, or if you haven’t been here for a while, you’re in luck, because today James is starting a new topic, so we get a fresh start. Starting in verse 19 where our passage begins, James takes a breath from his line of discussion about faith in trials to start a brand new section. We know this in part because of what Kelly told us a few weeks ago – James often starts new sections with the tell “My brothers”. So here in 19 he says “Know this, my beloved brothers;” signaling us he is beginning a new idea.
We will come to see that James’s new concern, starting here through 2:26 (and really again and again throughout the rest of the letter) is that his readers give evidence that they are spiritually whole, that they are perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James doesn’t actually claim that we will attain perfection in this life. Later, in 3:2 he says that Christians sin – he says “we all stumble in many ways”. However, if we have been brought forth by the word of truth (v.18) then our lives should give evidence of this by a heart-felt obedience to God’s Word. And that is what James is going to hammer home the next couple of weeks.
Because of this, the theme verse of this section (and it could be argued for the whole book of James), which I’ve written on the board, is 1:22 – “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Because of its importance, I want us today to examine this verse in its context. I think it will help us both in our Christian life and will set us up well to understand what James will tell us in the coming weeks and months about faith and works.
First, what exactly does James mean by the Word? the question isn’t as straightforward as it seems since James was one of the earliest NT books written. What word is he talking about? Putting on our Bible scholar cap, we can ask, well where has James used the word “word” before? And how has he used it? The last place was just a few verses back in 1:18 where he said Christians have been “brought forth by the word of truth”. If you remember from last week, Ephesians 1:13 told us the phrase “word of truth” means “the gospel”. So it’s possible that James is encouraging us to be “doers of the gospel”. To repent and believe the good news of Jesus Christ. But I think James is doing a little more than that here because this verse is surrounded by the moral teachings of Proverbs and Jesus himself. James is calling us her to be doers of, or obedient to, the gospel and to the entirety of Scripture. And not to be merely hearers of it.
Then end of the verse comes with a warning – hearers of the word only can be deceived. James is saying we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are religious, we are Christians if we spend a lot of time hearing the Word but have no concern about doing it.
I think Keri Folmar is right this week to ask us how we can get more time hearing God’s word. We want to be soaked in it so that it permeates our hearts and minds. That’s why we come to the Bible study, right? But as James and Mrs. Folmar also point out, our hearing must result in action. If it doesn’t, we haven’t heard it in a way that matters. And if our hearing of God’s Word doesn’t result in obeying God’s Word, it may be evidence that we are not really one of God’s people, that we are deceived.
In the James commentary that our pastors use to teach the Book of James Sunday school class right now, the author Douglas Moo says the following on this verse:
People can think that they are right with God when they really are not. And so it is for those people who “hear” the word – regular church attenders, seminary students, and even seminary professors – but do not “do” it. They are mistaken in thinking that they are truly right with God. For God’s word cannot be divided into parts. If one wants the benefits of its saving power, one must also embrace it as a guide for life. The person who fails to do the word, James therefore suggests (in an anticipation of his argument in 2:14-26), is a person who has not truly accepted God’s word at all. (Douglas J. Moo. The Letter of James (p. 90). Kindle Edition.)
Now to many women who have sensitive consciences, reading this could be pretty discouraging. I know that on any given day, someone looking at the record of my actions, speech and thought life could find my obedience to God’s Word seriously lacking. And there have been times in my life when I have seen so much of my sin that I have wondered if I am a Christian at all. Let me remind you again that James is not advocating sinlessness. He is advocating a life that looks more and more obedient to God’s word, increasingly like Jesus. Even though Satan could accuse me to the Father for all the ways I fall short of obeying His Word each day, I also can find ways each day (some days more than others!) that He who began a good work in me is bringing it to completion. And let’s not compare ourselves to yesterday or last week which is vulnerable to ups and downs, but look at the long term picture. Am I more concerned about and successful at obeying the Word now than I was five, ten years ago? Sometimes when I’m in despair about my sin, my sweet and loving husband will encourage me, “Honey, you are so much more like Jesus then when I married you. You’re not nearly as arrogant and self-absorbed!” Thanks? J
I think this verse also has a particular warning for many of us in this room – we who are here at Bible study, who are regular church attenders and mothers or we volunteer with children in church. If as Doug Moo suggests, seminary students and professors, regular church attenders can be deceived into thinking they are right with God because they merely hear God’s word, how much also can our children who have been raised in the church be deceived into thinking they are saved because they merely hear God’s Word frequently?
One caveat before I go on – full disclosure – this topic is very close to my heart because I am a mother and because my husband is a pastor of students and families. So I want to apologize to all the children’s and youth moms in here who have heard this teaching probably multiple times from my husband. Sorry, you get to hear it again now, but I also put it in this talk because it’s so plain right here this verse and because we believe it’s so important.
I think some of the best gifts God has given my kids are to have believing parents and to hear God’s Word spoken daily in our home and weekly through our church family. God can and often does work through us and our churches to save our children. But we must also be careful not to allow our children to be deceived about their standing before God and for us not to be complicit in their deception. This can happen when a child who regularly attends church with us assumes the identity of a Christian, starts referring to themselves as a Christian or maybe makes a more formal profession of faith like repeating the sinners prayer. It can be very tempting at that point, for many reasons, for us moms to assure the child that he is going to heaven, or that she is a Christian before we see evidence that this child is a “doer of the Word”.
Now of course we don’t want to discourage the child. If a child professes faith, we don’t want to respond with a bland, “well, we’ll see”. And we also don’t want to be overly pessimistic. Maybe God has saved our child, but as proverbs states, folly is bound in the heart of a child, and maybe it’s harder to see the evidence of their budding faith. We want to encourage them in their desire to follow Jesus, to lavish them with God’s love and grace, teach them to obey His Word, point out evidences of God’s grace in their lives if we see real repentance, real love toward others, obeying from the heart. But I think it wise, based on James’s teaching, to stop short of giving them assurance of salvation. Let’s let God assure their hearts as they increase in being doers of the Word.
A few weeks ago my four year old son was stalling bedtime by asking me questions about what it means to follow Jesus (at such a tender age he knows what will keep me talking!). We had talked about the gospel a bit that day, he then informed me that he wants to follow Jesus. So I said, “That’s grea! Nothing would make mommy happier than if you followed Jesus. And I am praying you will follow him all your life.” He responded, “but if I follow him all my life, when do I get to come home?” So he probably doesn’t yet understand saving faith. But God knows. My husband, however can look back on not a perfect life, but a life of real faith working through love that he believes began when he professed faith with his mom and dad at age 4. So we believe children can be saved and should be led to Christ, we just don’t want to deceive them by assuring them falsely.
If, however, you have children or loved ones who professed faith many years ago but are not walking in obedience to God’s word today, let me encourage you that if they are still alive, their story is not over yet. James would exhort you: instead of pinning your hope for their salvation on a profession they made years ago, put your hope in God. God can still grant them real, saving faith, a faith that hears God’s word and does it. Pray earnestly without ceasing that He would!
Moving on, and final question, what specifically does James mean by “doing the Word”? We’ve talked a lot about obedience to scripture, but doesn’t Jesus reserve His harshest words for the Pharisees, those who sought to “obey the law”? James tells us in our passage, based on Jesus’s teachings, what true religion looks like. And he will go on in his letter to talk about it much more. Doing the Word is not puffing ourselves up by following a written code of do not handle, do not taste, do not touch, but following the law and the prophets as summed up in these commands: love God and your neighbor as yourself. James will flesh out how we are to live this out in specific ways throughout this book. Here, he briefly gives us three ways. First, in verses 19-20 and 26 he tells us we must have a bridled tongue; in verse 27 we must be loving toward those who can’t pay us back; and in verses 21 and 27 we must keep ourselves unstained from the world.
Because James will go on to discuss each of these later in the letter among others, I’m just going to touch on them briefly now and then I’ll close.
In saying that we should have a bridled tongue and that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak, I don’t think James is advocating that Christians should just be quiet a lot (though I can certainly think of many times in my life where that would have served me well!). He’s telling us to sacrificially love our neighbor by seeking to hear and understand her instead of selfishly demanding that we are heard, that we are understood. And doesn’t the venting of our anger often come when we feel we have been denied these demands? One of my most frequent prayers for myself is psalm 141:3-4: Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord, keep watch over the door of my lips, lest my heart be drawn into what is evil.
Next, James says that a pure and undefiled religion looks after widows and orphans in their affliction or distress. Probably in your groups you talked about how, lacking social welfare programs in the new testament era, widows and or orphans were economically vulnerable, they were in danger of being mistreated or marginalized. To a lesser degree, this is still the case today and I think Christians should look for opportunities to take care of the widows and orphans among us. Our church does this in one way through an organized effort to regularly visit the homebound widows who are members of our church. They may not be economically vulnerable, but they are relationally vulnerable, largely unable to foster friendships unless people come to them.
But I also think James is pointing us to a broader group – that doers of the Word reach out to those who are unable to pay us back. Remember, once we were all spiritually poor and needy, but God has saved us, people who will never be able to pay him back. Recognizing this, it should be our heart’s desire to show his love to others in this way. And it doesn’t need to be through a formal effort. James says to visit “needy” people in their affliction. Many of you do this already as you out of your love for Christ, care for elderly parents, befriend people in our church who are socially, emotionally, or physically challenged, reach out to foreigners or visitors or the elderly, show love to people who are hard to love, disciple children or youth who are not your own. I am so encouraged and challenged by you ladies. However, let’s be careful not to be legalistic about this or compare ourselves in this to others – how God leads you in reaching out to the needy will look different from person to person and in different seasons of life. Pray that God would lead your heart to wise opportunities to do this, that you may be blessed in being a doer of the Word.
Lastly, we are to keep ourselves from being stained or polluted by the world. James also says earlier we are to put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness. God is holy and He wants us to look like Him. He wants us to be salt and light to the world, not to blend in with their darkness.
I should conclude. The Bible is clear: we are saved by faith alone. But as we will continue to see in James, real faith, saving faith is never alone. Saving faith hears God’s Word and does it. But if thinking this way this morning is tempting you to guilt and despair, I urge you to look to Christ. He is the only one who perfectly obeyed God and His righteousness is or can be credited to you. Worship Him, love Him, find rest in His great love and let that motivate you to follow Him in obedience.