Man's Anger Does Not Produce God's Justice
Passage: James 1:19–21
Sermon from James 1:19-21 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word
Delivered on May 8, 2016
A World of Angry People
We live in a world full of disappointment, trouble, injustice, imperfections, evil—and you get angry and I get angry. In one sense, anger is natural because we’re created in God’s image. We have a built-in capacity to be angry at all that belittles the glory of God and questions the ways of our Creator. It’s the righteous anger that should’ve been in Adam when the Serpent tempted his wife. And it is the anger we see in Jesus when he rebukes those who pervert the worship of God.
But the anger that we’re more familiar with is sinful anger. Everybody born into the world since Adam fell has a broken moral compass. And our passions are all disordered. We’re bent-in on ourselves. That affects our anger. Our anger no longer squares with producing the righteousness of God, as James will soon enough teach us. It leads instead to self-righteousness, backbiting, mild irritation, grumpiness, an overly-critical spirit, quietly shutting people out, complaining, harsh tones, quarrels, fits of rage.
We live in a world of angry people. People are angry at each other, angry with their circumstances, angry at the government. A few of us at the church got cussed out the other day by a guy who was fuming mad because we mowed down some bluebonnets in the field over here. No law against it, he just loves Texas way too much.
And we’re no better. Perhaps you were angry this past week over the direction of our nation—you were seething in anger over the way people are actually voting. Or maybe you spoke harshly to your children. Maybe nothing was voiced at all, but your thoughts at some point went something like this: “This isn’t fair! What’s wrong with you? Are you kidding me? Again! What is the deal?” We walk out of rooms in a huff. We grit our teeth. We get angry.
God’s Word Births the New Humanity
God has words for us, beloved—words that take us into a new world, a new creation. Remember verse 18, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” There’s hope for us. God regenerates the human heart. God creates in sinners new spiritual life in union with Jesus. And he does it by the word of truth, the gospel. Basically, God’s word births a new humanity, a new people. And this new people represent God’s ongoing work to eventually renew the whole creation.
Which is huge when you consider what we just said about the world being so angry. People are normally angry because they’re so bent in on themselves. But God’s word gives birth to a new humanity. The new birth necessarily leads to the new life—the life where one is slow to speak, slow to anger. God’s word creates an alternative society that looks much different than the world—and that is you, church.
If you asked the question, “What kind of people does the word of God create?” Verse 18 taught us that his word creates a new humanity; verses 19-21 are going to teach us how that new humanity lives. So, let’s see how this new life goes…
19Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
1. Quick to Hear God’s Word
Three things that must characterize the new humanity. Number one, the new humanity must be quick to hear God’s word. The command to hear in verse 19 is closely connected with “the word of truth” in verse 18.[i] Also, verses 22-23 further explain this command to hear, showing that hearing the word must result in obedience to the word.
So the context suggests that what the community should be quick to hear is the word of truth, God’s word. They should also be quick to hear one another—we’ll get there soon enough. But the primary voice they should listen to is God’s, which we find in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The word that gave us new life is to be the same word that sustains our life.
There’s a sense of urgency in the heart of God’s children to hear their Father speak. Many of you get text messages throughout the day, or other notifications. And when that phone dings in your purse or buzzes in your pocket, you’re quick to snatch it up—sometimes midway through conversation. You got a word from somebody. Somebody commented on your Instagram. But I wonder if we’re just as quick to turn to God’s word? To snatch it up often throughout our day.
The problem isn’t that we don’t have access to it or the time for it. Our problem is that we often don’t want it enough. But James encourages us to have a readiness about us for God to speak to us in the Scriptures. “Hearing” isn’t merely recognizing that God spoke words. It’s taking in those words with attentiveness, with thanksgiving and compliance to his will.
We must be attentive to God’s word in private devotion, for example. Sunday morning can’t be the only time you’re hearing from God’s word. Yes, make the most of it. But open the Bible often in private devotion. Sometimes that’ll be before the rest of the house wakes up. Sometimes it might be integrated with a lunch break or the kids nap time. Sometimes you and your wife might read together before bed time. But whenever you open the word, come to God’s word expecting him to speak.
We must be attentive to God’s word also in person-to-person encounters. You have brothers and sisters in this church who are reading the word with you. And if the word of Christ is to dwell in us richly (Col 3:16)—if part of the regular Christian life is teaching and admonishing one another—how quick are we to listen when God’s word is shared? It could be an encouragement or a rebuke—but what sort of attention do we give it? Does it push us to greater faithfulness to Christ?
We must be attentive God’s word also in public preaching? Make the most of Sunday mornings. Pray for whoever might be preaching. Read the sermon passage the night before—we usually print it in the eNews. And then come with a readiness to hear God speak through his word. These are just a few examples, but whatever the circumstances, be quick to hear God’s word. James is describing what our general disposition should be in all that we do.
Often we make haste to listen to news media, talk radio, and the latest Facebook trends. And yet none of their words are one-hundred percent trustworthy, nor do they guarantee eternal life. God’s word is and does. The Bible gives us the authoritative word on the world and the purpose of our life in it. And it reveals Jesus, who is able to save us. James has been encouraging us into wisdom. It’s the word of God that gives wisdom. And when we’re quick to hear God’s word, that word leads to a couple more characteristics.
2. Slow to Speak
Secondly, the new humanity must be slow to speak. That doesn’t mean we don’t speak at all. What James has in mind is that the tongue is often a loose cannon. The letter of James suggests that the church is using their tongue to curse each other (3:9), boast in the wrong things (3:14), quarrel (4:1), speak evil of one another (4:11), grumble (5:9), and swear false oaths (5:12). As he says in 3:6, the tongue is a “world of unrighteousness.” That’s why we need to slow this little mechanism down.
And James is really just building on the wisdom of the Old Testament. Proverbs 10:19, for example, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” Proverbs 17:27, “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.”
The idea is that it’s the fool who thinks he has to run his mouth all the time. It’s the guy on Facebook who puts himself in the Judge’s seat and thinks that he must give his opinion on every issue without understanding or desire to listen. It’s the fool who—instead of listening—is building up what he’s going to say next, and next, and next without being subject to the word of God in content, rhetoric, or tone. Quickness to speak shows a lack of regard for God’s word.
Quickness to speak shows a refusal to bring all speech first under the rule of Christ as articulated in the Scriptures. The tongue is a revealer of what we’re really like inside—of whether we really want Christ to rule us in every way. Jesus raises the stakes even higher. In Matthew 12:36 he says this, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
James and Jesus aren’t trying to put a damper on casual conversation; but they are trying to show us how much the word of truth must be treasured in our saying anything. God’s word must so arrest our hearts that what comes out pleases God.
One of the things that gets repeated in our household is this test when we’re speaking: “Is what you’re saying true, kind, and helpful?” That question helps our household become slow to speak. First off, is it true? Not only must we speak the truth to each other—Ephesians 4:25—but we must work to understand every situation truthfully. How quick we are to give our opinion about something before we’ve ever done the patient work of getting the facts straight. Our perception of things isn’t always reality; and we must be humble enough to admit that and work first from what’s true.
Sometimes our kids are quick to accuse each other of lying when they just really haven’t understood each other. We have to help the work toward the truth. I’ve also heard Christian men debating various points of theology without first understanding the terms they’re using. I’ve been in counseling sessions where poisonous words are hurled across the table before there’s ever a desire to understand.
Is it also kind? “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil”—2 Timothy 2:24. Will the words you speak to this or that person show kindness? Have you made the effort to charitably listen to the other person’s perspective? Or, will your words just stir up strife unnecessarily?
Is it also helpful? Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” We take great pains to find words that match the occasion. We haven’t fulfilled our duty to Christ if we merely drop clichés on our brother or sister in their weakness. We must speak in ways appropriate to the situation—What’s happening? Are they grieving? Do they have tangible needs I can meet?—and appropriate to the individual—Who are they? How mature is their faith? Do they trust me?
Is what you’re saying true, kind, and helpful? That’s just three questions we try to ask, and the Bible has others just like it. Sometimes assessing these questions will mean that we shut-up and pray and wait to speak. But the point is that God’s word must inform what we speak and how we speak before we speak. His word will make us slow to speak.
3. Slow to Anger
His word will also make us slow to anger. That’s the third characteristic of the new humanity we see here. Again, that doesn’t mean there’s not a place for righteous anger. We should be angry with the things God is angry with, the first thing being our own sin. But how careful we must be that our so-called “righteous anger” never becomes just a cover-up for what’s really our personal irritation, a façade for what’s really self-righteousness, a disguise for what’s really a self-centered attempt to get what we want.
James is dealing with our sinful anger—“the anger of man,” he calls it in verse 20, that can’t produce God’s righteousness. And again, James is building on the wisdom of the Old Testament. Proverbs 14:29, for example, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” Ecclesiastes 7:9, “Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.”
David Powlison gives a great definition of anger in his article, “Understanding Anger.” He depicts anger in terms of a self-contained judicial system, and then says this: “[anger] is an emotionally aroused form of judgment against perceived evil.” In other words, anger is not a mere emotion. It’s not merely something inside us. It’s a moral act. It’s something we do. It’s a judgment we make—with all our faculties involved—against something we’ve perceived is evil.
When James commands us, “be slow to anger,” he quickly explains why from a basic gospel truth: “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Or, “man’s anger does not produce God’s justice.” When we refuse to turn from our sinful anger, what we’re basically saying is that we can dish out God’s justice better than he can. We foolishly attempt to put ourselves in the Judge’s seat.
In contrast, James is telling us that we must put off the old-self, who constantly attempts to be God, and to put on the new-self, who is wholly content with God being God. The new-self is at peace with God exercising his justice with wisdom in his timing. The new-self rests in God’s righteous judgment most pointedly seen in the cross of Christ and in the final Judgment. God will make right all the wrongs this world knows.
He will punish all sin and prove his righteousness to all. He does this either by punishing the sinner in final judgment, or by punishing Jesus in the sinner’s place. If you trust in Jesus, that’s where your sins are punished. It’s where God proves himself righteous by forgiving you on the one hand, but still punishing your sin on Christ.
That’s what the cross is about. The cross is where heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love. God displayed in the cross of Christ that he was righteous, and that he will not overlook sin. The question for us is whether we trust him, whether we trust him to bring his righteous purposes to pass? Or whether we will choose to take matters into our own hands.
We must be slow to anger, because the God who saved us is slow to anger. Yes, he doesn’t overlook iniquity. Yes, he punishes the evildoer. But he also proclaimed to Moses, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6). And the writers of Scripture continue to announce that truth about our God, until we see how patient he really is when he gives up his only Son for us.
And it’s this Father who births the new humanity with his word. In other words, James tells us to be slow to anger, because our Father is that way. Like Father like son. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). And our Savior is that way. He loved us while we were still enemies. He returned good for evil. When he was reviled, he didn’t revile in return. Why? First Peter 2 tells us it was because he trusted him who judges justly. We must follow in his footsteps.
When people riot in the streets…when people slander each other in the public square…when people feed off the angry populous to win a vote…each of these situations become an opportunity for the church to stand out as the only alternative society with any hope. The church cannot follow the world into its sinful anger. We have been brought forth as the firstfruits of God’s creatures, his new world.
So, how might we grow into being this kind of people who are slow to anger? I’m going to take David Powlison’s lead again, and give you just a few questions to ask yourself. The Bible gives us several questions to ask in cultivating a heart that’s slow to anger.
First off, “Am I angry about the right things?” As we see from verse 20, God’s righteousness must be at the forefront of our minds. So we have to ask ourselves whether we perceived evil accurately to begin with. And the only way we’ll know that is by reading the Bible. The Bible tells us what things line up with God’s character and what things don’t; what things are truly commanded of us and what things are just a matter of personal preference and personal expectation.
Another question: “What do I really want in this moment? What’s motivating this anger?” Is it a love for the glory of God to be made known? Is it a passion to grow in personal holiness through the trial testing you? Is it a compassion and a love for the persons involved? God’s anger works like that for us. His anger at our sin drives him to patiently and compassionately sanctify it out of us by the Spirit. Or is your anger rooted more in being inconvenienced? More in winning an argument? More in getting your own way? Anger that is truly righteous will bring God glory and compel love for neighbor.
Another question: “Is my anger expressed in the right way? How controlled is it?” Often times, this is where we fail. Even when we get angry about the right things, we express anger in the wrong ways—raised voice, harsh attitudes, cunning remarks, exacting discipline, fits of rage. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness. In our anger, we must always submit to God and his purposes and reflect his character.
Another one: “How long does my anger last?” That’s a great one from Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” Paul knows how susceptible we are to sin in our anger. So he puts a time limit on it—don’t even go to sleep that night stewing over it. If you do, Satan will use it against you and the relationships you’re in. This is why Rachel and I tell couples in our premarital counseling to reconcile swiftly; don’t stay angry with each other. It's also why Rachel and I throughout our marriage have shared some late nights together, striving and working toward peace and forgiveness. If your anger is lasting a long time, you’re in dangerous territory.
Finally, “What is the effect of my anger? What does it produce?” Will it end up producing God’s justice? Will it bring about his righteous purposes for the community of faith and for the world? These kinds of questions will help you become slow to anger--not because there's something inherent in the questions, but because questions like this help lead to repentance and greater dependence on Christ for mercy.
Removing Evil; Receiving the Implanted Word
And really, what I’ve been trying to demonstrate with these various questions is how James goes on to instruct us in verse 21. You see, there’s an inference he draws. If it’s the case that man’s anger can’t produce God’s justice—if it’s the case that the word informs what we do with our ears and our mouths and our passions—then there’s two very practical steps that should shape our Christian walk.
Remove evil with vigilance
First, we remove evil with vigilance: “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness,” he says. The filthiness that he’s talking about is our moral filth. He uses the same word in 2:2 to speak of the poor man in “shabby clothing.” Here, it’s serving as a word-picture for our sin—much like Joshua the High Priest was clothed in moral filth before God in Zechariah 3. It’s a picture of the old self that we have to constantly put off.
The only way we can put off the old self is if it’s crucified with Christ. That’s how it loses its power. But salvation is also a process; and once it’s crucified, we must also keep putting it off (Rom 6; Gal 5; Eph 5; Col 3).
In fact, the idea of “rampant wickedness” is sometimes translated “rank growth” (RSV). Some of you are gardeners in here. And you know the ongoing work it takes, season after season, to keep your garden free of pesky weeds. Just when you think you’ve dug them all up, new ones are springing up somewhere else. James is saying that our remaining sin is like that. We must be vigilant to remove evil until Christ returns.
Receive the word with humility
But positively speaking, we must also receive the word with humility. He says, “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” So, you’re working hard to keep the weeds of sin out of the garden. But you’re also fertilizing the soils with meekness or humility.
In other places—like with the fruit of the Spirit—this word behind meekness is translated as “gentleness.” In a few places you see it paired with humility. One dictionary describes meekness like this: “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance” (BDAG). Isn’t that interesting? It’s the opposite of the guy who is quick to speak and quick to anger. Sinful anger will close you off to the word of God.
By contrast, meekness provides the best context for the word to produce in us salvation. The Bible speaks of our salvation as a past, present, and future reality. In this case, the emphasis is primarily future. If we want to obtain final salvation, we must keep receiving the word with meekness. With meekness, you’re giving the implanted word the best environment to flourish and bear fruit for your eternal life.
And why do you think he calls it the “implanted word”? Because God’s grace stands behind this charge. It’s the language of the new covenant. Jeremiah 31:33, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”
That’s really important. You see, James is not calling us to an external conformity to something outside us. He’s calling us to an internal conformity to what God has already planted by the Holy Spirit. The implanted word in verse 21 is also the word of truth in verse 18. That word not only brought us new life; but we continue to conform ourselves to it.
And not on our own either. The Holy Spirit is in here doing his thing to make us willing hearers of the word, to make us slow to speak, to make us slow to anger. It’s like saying, “Hey, the seed of God’s word has already sprouted. It’s made you into a new person. Now give it room to grow and nourish it with humility. God is already at work in you both to will and to do according to his good pleasure, so work, till, receive.”
And therein lies our only hope for change. We don’t have to be an angry people anymore. For those of us in Christ, God has changed our hearts. He has planted his word inside and given us the Holy Spirit. You and I have a ways to go—salvation is a process—but, hey, the initial seed has been planted. And the end is the salvation of our souls. This word is able to save your soul.
It’s able to save your soul from all your past sins. It’s able to save your soul from all your present struggles against sin. And it’s able to save your soul from all future sins. How? By revealing the person of Jesus to us, and uniting us to his death and resurrection life. Know this, my beloved brothers and sisters. Let’s clear the garden of sin. Let’s fertilize the roots of this gospel seed with humility. And let’s pray that God’s word shapes our church into a people who are quick to hear his word, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
[i] The ESV does not translate the particle, de (“and/but”), in verse 19. The ESV also punctuates the verse with a colon following the command, “Know…” However, I see the command, “Know…,” to bridge v. 18 with vv. 19-21, and then render the particle with “and” instead of using a colon. Thus, “Know that you’ve been brought forth by the word of truth..., my beloved brothers, and let every person be quick to hear that word of truth, slow to speak, slow to anger…”
More in James: Living the Implanted Word
October 9, 2016Gospel Truth & the Church's Role in the Saint's Perseverance
October 2, 2016A Church Filled with Righteous Words: Praise, Prayer, Confession
August 28, 2016The Need for Patient Endurance