Be Doers of the Word
Passage: James 1:22–1:27
Sermon from James 1:22-27 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word
Delivered on May 15, 2016
Let me stop and recognize all of our Discipleship Hour teachers, from those who led the children in DIG to the adult class. I speak as an elder and as a parent when I say this: thank you for your self-less labors in preparation and getting here earlier every week and patiently caring for and instructing the people given to you. God uses your gifts to build up this body, and we’re all the stronger by the example you’re setting. I was particularly amazed this year at how many of those who served in DIG either don’t have children or don’t have children in DIG. You get the local church and what it’s about in terms of sacrificial love and commitment to one another and jumping in to meet needs. I’m so encouraged by all of you.
One way I’ve been able to leverage what you’ve taught my children this year in DIG is with all the storms we’ve been having lately. We had a full rainbow the other day after one storm, and my kids remembered that God set his bow in the sky. Of course, they then proceeded to jump in the water with their pajamas on right before bed time. On another occasion, it gave me opportunity to talk about Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:
24Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.
Our house standing after the storms became an illustration—one that you had shared with them in class: “Kids, if you just hear Jesus’ words but don’t actually do them, you’re setting yourself up for destruction.”
Jesus’ words are sobering for all of us, not just our children: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). In our passage today, James is tracking with Jesus. James is saying very much the same thing as Jesus—that we cannot be mere hearers of the word, we must also be doers of the word.
We ended last week on the note of receiving the implanted word; this week we look at what must characterize that receiving, namely, doing it. That’s the main command we’ll touch on today—be doers of the word—and everything else just builds on it and illustrates it for us. But let’s begin by reading verses 22-27…
22But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. 26If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
One Command: Be Doers of the Word
One command, two illustrations, three tests—that’s how our passage unfolds. First we see one, simple command. Verse 22, be doers of the word. The word that we must do is the implanted word of verse 21. It’s the law of God written on the heart. We’ll get to more of that in a minute. What’s important to note right now is that hearing God’s word without doing God’s word isn’t an option.
It’s super important that we be quick to hear God’s word. But never can that be the end of our receiving it. If our hearing of the word never turns into action, then we’re not really hearing as the Bible expects.
Anybody who’s worked with children perhaps has experienced this. “Okay, get your bags and get in the car; it’s time to go.” You arrive at your destination… “Where’s your bag?” “I left it at home.” “Did you hear me say, ‘Get your bags’?” “Yes.” “But you didn’t get your bags.” “No.” “That’s not right hearing,” we might say. Why? Because it didn’t result in obedience, in doing it.
How much more when it’s God who speaks. He is Creator and King of the universe, and when we hear him speak in the written word, we must obey. I remember Jason Lee preaching on Jesus calming the storm with a word from Matthew 8. And the disciples ask, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matt 8:27). And Jason looked at us and asked, “The winds and sea obey Jesus, how about you?” How about you after your quiet times, after a Bible study during the week, a Sunday sermon, an exhortation from a sister, a devotional from Dale? Is it moving you to action?
To hear the word of God and not do it is self-deception, verse 22 says. That is to say, there’s a false reasoning going on: “As long as I’m reading my Bible regularly and going to church every Sunday, I’m okay; I’m making progress as a Christian.” James is basically saying that those things are well and good, but they mean nothing if you’re not obeying what you hear. If you’re merely hearing and not doing, there’s a good chance that you’re just faking a relationship with Jesus. If you’re merely hearing but still a slave to your passions and addictions, then you’re not okay.
True faith in Jesus will necessarily lead to obedience. The goal of the gospel spreading among all peoples according to Romans 1:5 is the “obedience of faith among all nations.” The point is faith that obeys. John 15:14, “You are my friends,” Jesus says, “if you do what I command you.” This is basic to being a Jesus-follower. Genuine hearing expresses itself in doing. Otherwise, it’s self-deception.
James is guarding the church from self-deception. His words guard us from patting ourselves on the back for having our theological ducks in a row without ever doing what God says. We cannot say that God is generous and never give our money. We cannot say that God is love and never lay down our lives for each other. We cannot champion grace and look down others. We cannot hear that people are totally depraved and going to hell and not do something to help them hear the gospel.
We can’t come Sunday after Sunday; we can’t go to this or that Bible study; we can’t attend this or that Bible conference; we can’t read the Gospel Coalition blog and attend seminary classes and download sermons for the drive to work—just to come away saying, “Yeah, that’s what I believe!” or “I could’ve said it better than he did.” We must be doers of the word. Not just willing to do the word, but actual doers. If doing the word is absent, we must test whether faith in Christ is absent as well.
Two Illustrations: Forgetful Hearer; Active Doer
To help us even further, James gives us two illustrations. The first illustration is of the forgetful hearer, and it’s quite ridiculous. He illustrates the forgetful hearer in verse 23 as “a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.” Now, mirrors in James’ day weren’t like our mirrors today. They were made out of polished bronze or silver, and at best gave you a warped image. That’s why he has to look intently to make out what might be out of place about himself, or his face.
But what’s ridiculous about the illustration is that even after the work of looking at himself intently, he just walks off without any change. Verse 24, “For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” Ladies, how many of you look in a mirror and see something out of place or on your shirt or in your teeth, and just walk away without making any changes? It’s meant to be ridiculous. The forgetful hearer is living a ridiculous life. It’s ridiculous not just because he’s ignoring what God’s word reveals about what we need to become, but he’s cutting himself off from blessing.
And this is where the second illustration comes in with verse 25: “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
So you have the ridiculous forgetful hearer—he looks, goes away, forgets. And now you have the blessed active doer—he looks, perseveres, acts. The contrast is between the results of their looking. The forgetful hearer—he hears the word, but he doesn’t internalize it. And he’s not using it to transform his life. But the active doer—he hears the word; he internalizes that word; and he uses it to transform his life. He obeys it. He does what it says. The word compels him to action. And so God blesses him.
And if you ask, “Are you saying, then, that God’s blessing is contingent on our obedience?” No…James is saying that. But let’s be clear how he’s saying it, because I don’t want you to mistake this for works-based salvation.
Notice what the active doer looks into. James calls it, “the perfect law, the law of liberty [or freedom].” What is this law? And how can James talk of law as liberty? Usually when we think of law, we think of constraint not freedom. What does he mean? Based on his use of the “law” in 2:11, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that James has in mind the OT law. But I do think that it’s wrong to leave it at just that—to leave it at just the OT law quite apart from the revelation we have in Jesus Christ.
Rather, what James has in mind is the law as interpreted by and fulfilled in Jesus, and as internalized by the Spirit under the new covenant. First off, James spoke of the “word of truth” that brought us the new birth in verse 18. That phrase, “word of truth” is used elsewhere as a reference to the gospel of Jesus (Eph 1:13; Col 1:5; cf. 1 Pet 1:23-25). And part of that message is what Jesus did to fulfill the law—to bring all that the law promised to its intended consummation, both in his person and in his people (Matt 5:17-19; Rom 8:1-4; 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:1-6:2; Jas 2:8, 11).
Something else is that verse 21 describes it as the “implanted word,” and we saw last week that’s new covenant language. Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Jesus inaugurates the new covenant and the Spirit writes the law on our hearts (Matt 26:28; Heb 8:7-13).
Also, in James 2:8, he speaks of us fulfilling the law through neighbor love—which Paul says in Galatians 5 is only possible in light of Christ’s death and resurrection (esp. Gal 5:6, 14; 6:2). In other words, what Christ does for us necessarily produces change in us; and that change leads to burden-bearing, to love, to the fulfillment of the law. What James calls the law of liberty, Paul calls the law of Christ (cf. Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21).
And then also, Paul develops this whole idea of liberty or freedom with the gift of the Holy Spirit under the new covenant in Christ. He does this in 2 Corinthians 3, especially verses 15-17 when he says this: “Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom is associated with the gift of the Spirit. This is not law as burden; this law under the new life in Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 8:4).
Let’s tie these things together. You see, outside of Christ the law is our enemy. The law condemns us. And really, the law exposes what God thinks of us. We are God’s enemies apart from Christ. God condemns us. But all of that changes with the gospel, and once we’re put into Christ—that means, once we’re united to Jesus by trusting in him for salvation. When that union happens, the law becomes our friend, because God becomes our friend. The condemnation his law once spoke has been hushed by Jesus dying in our place and suffering our penalty.[i]
On top of that, Jesus rose from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit. And part of the Spirit’s work under the new covenant is to internalize the law for God’s people. The new humanity that God creates has a new obedience empowered by the Holy Spirit who bears witness to Jesus’ finished work. Now when we read the law in Christ, it becomes a precious gift, not a curse. For the Christian, the law serves as a forward-looking witness to the gospel and present-day instruction for ethics. It gives ongoing prophetic witness to our Savior in all that he accomplished for us; and it gives wisdom for daily living as it reveals what our heavenly Father is like.[ii]
And that’s where freedom is found. Freedom is found in being enabled by the Holy Spirit to live on earth like our Father in heaven. Freedom is being enabled to bear the image of God in Christ that Adam once lost for us. Freedom is being enabled to live like Jesus, the true image of what humanity should be. And we get that freedom by God’s grace in the gospel. He doesn’t just give us forgiveness of sins, but also the power to overcome sinful living that contradicts his law.
In other words, it’s not works-based salvation if grace is behind our doing. Every act of true obedience to God’s word deserves blessing, because God is the author behind it, and he is worthy of all blessing. The blessing the doer seems to experience here is the blessing of the new life. It is a blessed gift to be enabled by the Spirit to live on earth like our Father in heaven. Everything about the Christian life in James can be traced back to one’s relationship to the Father. Why? Because the Father is the one who causes the new birth in us. He puts his DNA in us, so that we inevitably manifest his character.
Three Tests: Speech, Holiness, Care
And that’s where James heads next with his three tests. You see, at this point we’re forced to ask, “Well, what kind of hearer am I? Am I a forgetful hearer? Or, am I an active doer?” And James basically gives us three tests to see how much we live like our heavenly Father. James calls it “religion” in verses 26-27.
And yes, the word religion gets a bad rap in most of our circles because our minds immediately race to the Pharisee. We want to say to James, “Come on James! Don’t you know it’s about relationship not religion?” Well, James means it more in the sense of the relationship we have with God the Father. Religion is the outward expression of that inner relationship with the Father. So, how can you tell if you’re relating to the Father rightly in hearing and doing his word? These aren't the only tests, but a few he gives to those more prone to just lip-service.
Controlled speech from a new heart
A first test is this: you’ll be marked by controlled speech flowing from a new heart. Verse 26, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” We spoke more extensively of this one last week, so I won't belabor it today. But I do want to point out where James goes further. Notice the parallel between the unbridled tongue and the deceived heart.
James is following Jesus when he says, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:32). The tongue is a revealer of what we’re really like inside. Sometimes we say things that hurt other people. But then when we go to apologize we say something like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that.” No, James is saying that we mean exactly what we say. What comes up in the bucket was down in the well to begin with. Our speech tells the truth about the state of our soul.
If the general pattern of your life is harsh words to your spouse and kids…if it’s full of gossip and backbiting and bitterness and criticism of others behind their backs and complaining…if it’s full of cynical remarks and trivialities…you need to seriously ask yourself if you belong to the Father. To go on speaking in sinful ways without any self-control while at the same time claiming to be Christian is to lie to yourself.
If you truly belong to the Father, he will change your heart so that your speech brings him glory. I’m not saying that you’ll be perfect in all that you say. James 3:2 says that we all stumble in many ways. But there will be a marked difference. The new birth makes it inevitable. The new heart makes it necessary. We talk most about what we treasure in here. And the way we talk reveals the One we treasure.
Renounce the sinful ways of the world
A second test: you renounce the sinful ways of the world. The end of verse 27 says that part of pure and undefiled religion is “to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Don’t be mistaken here. There are many, many good things about the world that God made. There are many things in this world that God made specifically for you to enjoy and give thanks for. James isn’t telling us to renounce those good things.
Rather, James is speaking of the sinful world order. The “world” he has in mind is the system of evil and rebellion against God. It’s the world that warps and abuses God’s good gifts. It’s the old, disordered world that the Father rescued us from to make us the firstfruits of his new, ordered world. That’s why we must renounce it. We already belong to another world—God’s new world order.
Now, to keep ourselves unstained from the world doesn’t mean we isolate ourselves into holy ghettos and homeschool huddles. Church history has already shown the folly of the monastic life. And the Bible makes it very clear that, even though we’re not to be of the world, God left us in the world on purpose. He left us here for mission and evangelism and sacrificial love toward the lost.
To keep oneself unstained from the world simply means not to participate in its moral rebellion. The danger is that we eventually look just like the world and eventually have nothing to offer in the gospel, since our “redeemed” life is indistinguishable from theirs.
When the Father puts his DNA in you, you grow to hate what he hates. You hate sexual immorality. You hate pornography. You hate injustice. You hate demeaning remarks about women. You hate your idolatry. You hate greed and envy and half-truths and fear of man. But you also love what God loves. You love the glory of Christ. You love your neighbor. You love all that God created good. You love joy and peace and righteousness. In other words, you have a fondness for all that will characterize the new heaven and earth—because that’s where you’re heading—and it motivates you to renounce everything that will keep you from enjoying Christ in it.
Care for the helpless around you
Finally, a third test: you care for the helpless around you. Verse 27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” Let’s not mistake the word “visit” for just “dropping by.”
It means going to them with the intent to help, give them aid, do justice for their situation. It’s more along the lines of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan where we make their needs our own. We’re called to help alleviate the distress of those who cannot pay us back—and, yes, do it all in the name of Jesus.
And this mark of God’s people isn’t unique to James; it’s the overriding testimony of the Bible. Again and again the Lord commanded his covenant community to care for the poor and the orphan and the widow. Isaiah 1:17, “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” Isaiah 58 even teaches that caring for the helpless proved whether there was true love in God’s people or whether they were just giving him lip service (Isa 58:15-17).
James is saying the same thing. Our religion is a sham if it shows no regard for the helpless. As Tim Keller puts it, “a sensitive social conscience and a life poured out in deeds of service to the needy is the inevitable outcome of true faith” (Keller, “The Gospel and the Poor,” 10). Those who identify with a right-wing, conservative platform should take good notes here…and make sure that while you’re fighting to protect morality in the public square, you don’t forget your Christian obligation to the oppressed. True faith produces both spiritual purity and social aid.
Now that aid for the helpless is going to look different for all of us. Each of us are in different places financially (2 Cor 8:13). Each of us have different margins for time because of other responsibilities God has called us to (Eph 4:28; 6:4). Each of us have different gifts and abilities to contribute (Rom 12). James isn’t saying that every person has to do everything. But he is saying that everybody in the church will be marked by at least some kind of care toward the helpless.
You might be one that tackles a big project like social reform. You get involved in leading in your community toward changing social conditions and structures, getting better police protection, establishing just and fair zoning practices. You might be one that works toward bringing a particular group of people toward self-sufficiency. That is, you’re not just giving them a handout, but actually equipping them with the skills and resources they need to sustain their own lives.
But far more accessible for some of you will be the opportunities you have for immediate relief. Stephanie Stephens has set up an evening where you can put together some care packages for the homeless in the area. It’s on the evening of May 20th in the Fellowship Hall. Sign up to bring items and come fill the bags. Gary Trojacek and Wes Duggins lead a group of folks that ministers to a nursing home every Sunday. World Relief is another organization that provides a great avenue to serve refugees.
If you’re in a place to do so, consider adopting one of the 853 children in the foster care system right now in Tarrant County. We’ve already set aside funds to help with these costs. Our care group is considering what it would look like to help collectively support one of the girls in the Haiti orphanage. Maybe you take your older children to volunteer at a homeless shelter. Or you and your wife answer phones and counsel folks at the Pregnancy Help Center. Maybe it’s being a father to the fatherless ones in your care group or in your community. There are a number of ways this could happen, and the elders are going to be praying about more ways we can help you into these things.
It’s really crucial that the church of Jesus Christ be marked by care for the helpless. Yes, the gospel of Jesus Christ is our center. It is what we’re build upon, and no other message. But, that gospel will produce care for the helpless. And you know why? Because the gospel is a message of the Father loving us when we were helpless. That’s what kind of God he is—Psalm 68:5, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” This is the kind of God he is.
And he came to us when we were without a heavenly Father. He came to our aid when we were dead in our trespasses and our sins without escape. We had no power to change our circumstances. No way to buy our way out of the slavery. No way to alter the course of our condemnation. He loved us when we were helpless. He sent his Son to die for us while we were still ungodly. He reached down while we were still alienated and adopted us as one of his own children—he looks on us as his beloved child and gives us his inheritance with Jesus. Every day he makes provision for us, and sees to it that are needs are met. And one day he will bring us all the way home.
This is what our Father is like, and O what an amazing opportunity we have as his new humanity to reflect his compassion to the world. Let’s be doers of the word, brothers and sisters, and not just hearers. Let’s glory in the freedom of being God’s children, and show the world what our Father is like in speech, in holiness, and in care for the helpless. Obedience is never obedience just for the sake of obedience; it's always to put on display the character of our heavenly Father and bring him glory. And if you fail James' tests, repent and turn again to Jesus. He has grace that is greater than all your sin, and God will make you his own.
[i] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, Oakhill School of Theology Series (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2006), 103. Another helpful resource related to this subject is Bradley G. Green, Covenant and Commandment: Works, Obedience and Faithfulness in the Christian Life, NSBT 33 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014).
[ii] Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, NSBT 31 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), has been immensely helpful in setting forward the law as prophecy and as wisdom for the one in Christ.
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