Faith: Just Do It James 1:19-27
6/30/2018 4:05:05 PM
June 24, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: James 1:19-27
James says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Right now, you are in church. You’re about to listen to the word. In a little while, you’re going to leave this place and go out “into the world.” Are you going to do what the word says? Or are you going to deceive yourself? Are you going to merely listen to the word, or are you going to actually do what it says? On Monday, when you go to work, or to school, are you going to do what it says? In your relationships with family, friends and co-workers are you going to do what it says? When you go home from church today, are you going to do what the word says?
I think James must have felt like the preacher in the video sometimes. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mcXtontujA) Actually, I think Jesus probably felt that way many times during his earthly ministry. I think God probably feels that way a lot with all of us! What are we doing? We’re making him look bad!
Last week, we began our summer-long look at James. We touched on a couple things that are relevant to today’s message as well. First, remember, James was writing to primarily Jewish Christians. They were familiar with living a “holy” lifestyle, a godly lifestyle. The lifestyle conversion from Judaism to Christianity would not be as radical as the lifestyle change of many Gentiles to Christianity. So, as James is writing to them, he does not need to remind them of the immorality of many things that Jews consider immoral. James doesn’t need to address sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, etc. like Paul had to because James was writing to people whose moral background, whose moral framework was pretty much the same as that of Christianity.
The error many Jewish Christians in the first century would be in danger of falling into was that they believed they were on good terms with God merely by being Jewish. Their identity as “the Chosen People” of God could lead them to a false sense of eternal security, a false sense of righteousness with God. Religious ceremony, like going to the Temple for festivals, reading the Law (the Old Testament), going to synagogue, etc. might lead them to think that they were “ok” spiritually speaking. This is one of the things James addresses in his letter.
Another idea I want to draw on from last week, to remind you of this morning, is the idea of “wisdom.” In James 1:5, he says that if anybody lacks wisdom they can ask God. We talked about the fact that there is a whole category of writing called “wisdom literature,” which includes books like Proverbs. Wisdom is about living a godly life. Wisdom is about how to walk with God closely.
Where we left off last week, the last verse of that section, was verse 18: He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created. There are two ideas in that we need to keep in mind as we approach our text today. First, the “word of truth” comes up in our passage today, “do not merely listen to the word.” Notice that it is through this word that God has given us new birth, or new life in Christ. Second, notice James is writing to those who have new life in Christ! He is writing to Christians, to believers. He is not writing to non-Christians, trying to win them to faith. He is writing to those who have faith, who have committed to Jesus.
Let’s turn now to our passage, James 1:19-27.
What It Says
So what is James saying to Christians? What is he saying to those who, through the word of truth, have new life? What is he saying about walking with God in wisdom?
The first thing he says for those who are “first fruits of all God created” is that they should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry. Here again we find a common theme in wisdom literature of the OT. Fools speak before they think. The wise are slow to speak. Furthermore, getting angry, being hot tempered,
does not lead to “the righteous life that God desires.” Remember, wisdom is about walking with God, living a righteous life. Human anger is unwise in that it does not contribute to a godly lifestyle. It does not lead to righteousness or a right relationship with God. In the heat of the moment, we often speak rashly and get angry with other people. But the godly person listens first and listens again, then, slowly, having thought things through, speaks.
Because human anger does not lead to righteousness, James tells believers to rid themselves, literally “to strip off” all moral filth and the evil that is abundant around us. The image is that of a person stripping off dirty clothing in order to get clean. [William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, p. 54; Douglas Moo, James, p. 86] This is the same image Paul uses several times in his letters (Rom 13:12; Eph 4:22, 25; Col 3:8) as well as the author if Hebrews and Peter (Heb 12:1; 1 Pe 2:1). In Colossians 3, Paul goes on to say we should clothe ourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Col 3:12).
In contrast to wearing filth, we are to humbly accept the word planted in us, which leads to salvation. James is clearly writing to believers! The word has been planted in them. A few verses before he speaks of the word having brought about new birth. So it is believers who, through humble submission to the word planted in them, are to rid themselves of immoral filth and evil. That sounds an awful lot like sanctification- the process by which the Holy Spirit transforms our character to be like that of Christ!
What does this submission look to the word look like? Verse 22 says that, at least in part, it means not merely listening to the word but doing what it says. The last part of that could equally be translated, “Become doers of the word.” [Daniel M. Doriani, James, p. 51] It is not enough to merely listen passively to the word, even to memorize the word, agree with the word and say, “Amen” to the word! We must become doers of the word.
James uses the illustration of looking into a mirror but walking away and immediately forgetting what you saw. Mirrors were common in the Roman Empire, but they were different than our mirrors today. They were sheets of metal that were highly polished to be reflective. James kind of mixes his illustration which makes it a bit confusing. First, he talks about looking into a mirror, then he speaks of looking into the perfect, freedom giving law. The illustration is probably best understood by considering why a person looks in a mirror in the first place. We look in a mirror to check our appearance. We look for hair out of place, dirt on our face, etc. If we look and see what is out of place, but immediately go away and forget, then what was the point of looking in the mirror? I think the assumption James has is that when we look in the mirror we don’t say, “Yeah, I look good!” Rather, when looking in the mirror we see things that are out of place. That makes sense when considered in light of the second half of the comparison- looking into God’s perfect, completing law that brings freedom. Looking into the law continually, not forgetting what one find, but actually carrying it out!
Notice that the law is called “perfect.” Last week we came across this word only it was translated “complete.” In Greek, it is the word for perfecting or completing with a goal. There is a trajectory in this word. So the law has a purpose, there is a perfecting or completing trajectory in the law of God. When we examine the law, when we look intently into it, and carry it out, we move along that trajectory. The Spirit works in us to bring us to maturity, to completion in our sanctification to be like Jesus, in our perfecting.
Like verse 22b, “Become doers of the word,” verse 25 says the one who examines the law and does what it says will be blessed. It’s not just about knowing what’s in there, but actually doing it. And last week, we saw that the blessing God has in store for those who love him (and, thereby love his law and obey it) is the crown of life. Verse 12 says, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial… he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” There’s a connection of blessedness, of happiness, of living life well, when we both persevere through trials aimed at maturing us as well as intently looking into God’s law and carrying it out. These are key to wisdom- to walking with God, which is the key to the good life now and eternal life in the future.
One example of “doing it,” of doing what is in the perfect law, is keeping a rein on your tongue. This is a theme James builds on throughout his letter. He already says that we are to be slow to speak. That is part of reigning in our tongue! In fact, all of our religious observance, is useless if our tongues are out of control. Remember, James was writing to Jews. Religious observance was very important to them and made up a great part of their daily activity. They washed their hands, they read the OT, they gave tithes, they went on pilgrimages
to Jerusalem to the Temple, they restricted their diet, they were careful in what they touched. All of this was based on their covenant with God. Their day to day lives were to look different from the nations around them as a sign of their special relationship with God as his people. Their religious activities were their evidence of their good standing with God.
But here James says that all of their outward religious activity, even if it is sincerely done, is actually worthless and they are delusional about it if they cannot control their tongues! This is interesting and I think it probably connects directly to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus said that it is out of the mouth that sin comes. He said that insulting your brother is just as sinful as murder! (Matt 5:21-22) We may not slay them physically, but slaying them verbally is subject to judgment and is just as sinful.
In contrast, God is interested in religious practice that takes the form of care for orphans and widows and keeping oneself from being polluted by the world. In the ancient world, orphans and widows were the economically hopeless. In those patriarchal cultures, it was pretty much men alone who could earn enough money to support a family. Widows’ husbands had died. Orphans had no fathers. So these two groups had no adult males to support them. There was no government social safety net. There were no food banks. There was no EI or ODSP (Employment Insurance or Ontario Disability Support Program). So what James is saying is that the religiously motivated activities God is really interested in is helping those who cannot help themselves and cannot hope to pay you back.
What It Means
So what does this mean? We’ve seen what James is saying. What did it mean for his original readers? What does it mean for us? I want to zero in on two aspects of this passage’s meaning, both of which centre on obedience.
First, notice that James says “get rid of all moral filth, etc.” This is an active command. We have an active role in this. It’s not just enough to say a prayer, ask Jesus to save you and then passively sit back and wait for Judgment Day. We must be active participants in our sanctification. Remember, sanctification is the theological word for the process by which the Holy Spirit works in Christians to transform their character to be more like Jesus. We have an active role in that process. We must cooperate with the Holy Spirit in this work because the Spirit will not to things in our character against our will. He will not “twist our arm” so to speak in order to change us.
When we come to faith in Christ, when we commit our lives to him, that is when, in James’ words, the word is planted in us and brings us new life. That new life must be nurtured. It must grow. We must mature in that new life. That means our active participation in our spiritual transformation. The Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting, but we must cooperate. We must make use of the tools the Spirit gives us for our transformation. When we “humbly accept the word planted in us” it allows that word to influence all parts of our life. This is the beginning of wisdom! This is learning to walk with God.
One of the most important and powerful tools the Spirit has given us for our transformation is the word of God. We have this recorded in the Bible, the Old and New Testaments. One of the best ways we can cooperate with the Spirit is to “look intently into [it]” on a continual basis, doing what is says and not forgetting what it says as soon as our devotional time is over, or as soon as we leave church. Part of our active participation, our active role in working along with the Holy Spirit, is to remember God, his activities in the past and his teachings. Remembering these things means not only knowing about them, but “contemplating them in such a way that they make a lasting impressing on our heart and mind.” [Moo, p. 93] This takes effort! It is the opposite of superficial hearing or reading in which we spend a few minutes, maybe even half an hour listening to or reading God’s word, and then walk away having forgotten what it showed us both about God and about us.
How many of us listen to sermons and then, by Monday, have forgotten everything we’ve heard? How many of us spend time in the Bible (which is good) but once we close it, we forget it? God’s word, read or preached, serves as a mirror to our souls. It reflects God’s character to us, which, when we compare it to our own character, shines light on our sinfulness. It highlights the filth and evil that have infected us. But too often we gaze into that spiritual mirror and, without doing anything about what we see, we walk off and forget about it. We are fooling ourselves!
Jesus said, as recorded in Luke (11:28), “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” It’s
not enough to just sit under good preaching. It’s not enough to just read your Bible. Obedience to the word is key. Good news of the gospel is that God graciously initiated the way of salvation for us. But another necessary aspect of the good news is our grateful response in the form of obedience.
Let me make this crystal clear. Our obedience to the word does not cause God to save us. God saving us is the cause of our obedience to the word. We have to get those in the right order. But too often we focus on the gracious initiative taken by God, the “salvation by faith” aspect of the gospel without taking the “obedience as a result” aspect of the gospel seriously. The word “gospel” means “triumphal good news with earth shattering consequences.” Has the good news had earth shattering consequences to our lifestyle? To our attitudes? To our language and speech?
In Jesus’ day, and James’, many Jews were guilty of thinking that their covenant with God, their status as Jews, was all that was necessary for salvation. They thought following the letter of the law externally, going through the rituals of Jewish worship, were enough to keep them in a right relationship with God. But their hearts were hard, their attitudes were wrong, their desires were fallen, the way they spoke to others and about themselves was corrupt. Today, many of us fall into the same trap! We think that because we said a prayer one time, made a commitment one time, or we go to church regularly, or we read our Bible regularly that we are in a right relationship with God. But our attitudes are still fallen, our hearts are still hard, our desires are corrupt, the way we speak about others and ourselves is wrong!
God’s perfect law, as interpreted through the lens of Christ, has a goal. Its goal is to bring us to completion, to maturity. It gives us freedom in that it leads to life, it leads to a deepening relationship with God. It brings wisdom. That is, it brings knowledge on how to walk with God all our life.
Religion that is the genuine article manifests itself in being careful with what we say and do. Failing to control our tongue means we deceive ourselves our other religious activities become useless and empty. They become an outward show, mere words. God’s word, God’s law, shines light on these aspects of our character that need to change.
As we cooperate with the Spirit, as we cooperate by using the word of God as a mirror to our souls, it shows us what God’s character is and what that character should be like in us. We’ve talked a lot before about God’s character. We talk about agape love- that divine, self-giving love primarily concerned with the well-being of others.
Bearing in mind this concept of agape love as God’s character and the defining character of the Christian, let’s consider what James says in this passage. The Christian whose heart is filled with agape love is quick to listen to others. Why? Because when our primary concern is the well-being of others, rather than our own well-being, our own convenience, our own status and prestige, we are keen to hear what the other person has to say. We are quick to listen and slow to speak because we want to hear what’s going on with the other person, we want to know what they think, how they feel and why they might be thinking and feeling that way. When we listen to others well, it shows we are concerned with their well-being.
Similarly, when we are primarily concerned with the well-being of others, we are slow to speak. We don’t want to be too hasty. We don’t want to cut them off. We don’t want to say something in the heat of the moment. In our best moments, we are slow to speak out loud because we are silently praying and listening to God for what he would have us say to the other person we are listening to!
The agape-filled Christian is slow to anger. We are slow to get riled up because the fruit of the Spirit include patience and gentleness. We are slow to anger because we are listening to the other and to God. We have a kingdom perspective on things. We may, with careful consideration, get angry at deep injustice perpetrated on others, but we don’t get angry easily or over non-eternal things. Agape love reminds us of our status with God- dearly loved, saved sinners. It gives us a perspective on life that changes what we get angry about!
The mature Christian, whose character is shaped by agape love, is concerned with the well-being of orphans and widows. In our day, this would mean being concerned with the well-being of the mentally ill, the poor, the disadvantaged, the addicted. Agape love means taking action for the well-being of those who cannot help themselves and cannot repay us in kind. True religion, then, shows up in care for the hungry, the outcast, the helpless. If your religion doesn’t affect the way you live, if it doesn’t affect the way you speak, if it doesn’t affect what you do for others, especially the helpless and hurting, then you are deceiving yourself! This is not wisdom.
This is not walking with God through life. This is foolishness and a dangerous foolishness at that!
So what are we to do about this? How do we apply this? One of the most concerning verses in the Bible for me contains Jesus’ words, “Many will come to me on that day (the day of Judgment) and say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast our demons and in your name do mighty things?” But I will say to them, “Depart from me. I never knew you.’” (Matt 7:22) Jesus gave that warning in Matthew 7, on the heels of a command to obey!
Is the good news of Jesus affecting your day to day life? Does it affect how to speak to people? Does it affect what you say about yourself and your own religious life? Throughout James, there are a great number of statements about speech. We are not to flatter the rich with our word, nor insult the poor. We are not to wish a person in need well, but fail to do anything for them. We are not to proclaim, “I have faith” if we do not have actions to demonstrate it. We are not to praise God and then curse people! There is a lot in James about how we speak. Here we see that we are to reign in our tongues, not to speak to quickly, but to listen and keep our anger in check. It’s not just about saying bad words. It goes beyond that. It includes listening to others, not bragging or boasting about your own religious performance, it’s about ridding ourselves of gossip and slander, of complaining and griping, of outright lying, but also of deception. There are lots of ways in our speech we can be deceitful without telling an outright lie. This is not controlling our tongue!
During your week, does the new life Jesus has brought you affect the way you talk? If not, are you deceiving yourself? And let me add, that it isn’t just about what you say, but also about what you type or write. Many supposed Christians tweet and post stuff on social media, send emails that would make James’ list! Does your written speech reflect the love of Christ, the new life planted in you by the word of God? How many of us have fired off angry emails? How many of us have made snide comments on Facebook, or other social media?
Many of us are feeling convicted right now! And that’s a good thing. That means that the spiritual mirror of God’s word is shining light on something that needs fixing. Don’t, please don’t walk away and forget what you’ve seen!
But James goes beyond our words. What about our actions? Are we caring for the marginalized and helpless? Does the new life growing in you offer new life to those who need it? One test of genuine religion is “the degree to which we extend aid to the ‘helpless’ in our world.” [Moo, p. 97] What impresses James is not religious devotion, attendance or ritual. What impresses James is “devotion to God that manifests itself in concrete acts of love and righteousness.” [Doriani, p. 57] There are some who are a big deal at church, they volunteer at church, they serve at church, they’re very popular at church, but when they get home they leave church behind. Their families don’t see the same devotion to Jesus in the way they are at home. Others are a big deal at church, they’re very active on Sunday, but from Monday morning to Friday evening they’re a bear to work with. They’re hard on employees, or co-workers, impatient, angry and difficult. These are people who are deluding themselves through their religion on Sunday that doesn’t shape their character every day of the week!
I have had a couple conversations lately about the recent Supreme Court ruling in Canada upholding two provinces’ objection to a Christian law school in BC. Trinity Western was trying to start a Christian law school and that included signing their covenant on behaviour that said no sex outside of marriage and that marriage is between a man and a woman. Ontario and BC law societies objected and said this was discriminatory. The Supreme Court ruled in their favour overriding religious freedom protections for Trinity Western.
In my conversations, we’ve talked about increasing potential for persecution against Christians in Canada. This is a scary thing. But I tell you, in the long run, tough times for Christians lead to Christian maturity. In times of persecution, there are no casual Christians. For generations in Canada, it’s been socially expected to go to church. There have been a lot of lukewarm Christians who go to church on Sunday and that’s the extent of their faith commitment. Their new life doesn’t affect their everyday life. And the church has suffered greatly. We’ve made God look bad to our nation. And that is coming back to haunt us now.
Where is your faith from Monday to Saturday? Are you quick to listen? Slow to speak? Slow to anger? Are you doing anything for the helpless and hopeless of our day?
What is the perfect, freedom bringing law of God saying to you right now? Where are you feeling convicted? What is God asking you to do? Just do it.
In a little while, you’re going to leave this place. You have heard the word. Are you just a hearer of the word, or are you going to become a doer of the word? Do not be deceived! We have held up the mirror of God’s law to our souls. As you physically walk away now, do not mentally and spiritually walk away from what you’ve seen in the mirror. Do not forget what you have seen, but humbly submit to the word planted in you which can save you. Amen.
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