James 1:19-27

The Response to the Word

James 1:19-27

 Introduction

1. The Word

Late in the 19th century, two men living in London went to a meeting of their geographical society to hear about a recent trip to China. During the report, the speaker spoke of being in a village and inquiring if any Christians lived there. The village chief told him there was one Christian living in a village about fifteen miles away. One of the two men leaned over to his friend and said: “Ah, there was only one Christian and he was fifteen miles away. But they knew exactly where he lived!”

Does the world know about our faith? Does our faith make us radically different from those around us? Do our deeds match with the Word that we profess to read, study, and believe.

Month after month, week after week we preach the word of God here at Declaration Church. That is because everything we need is found in the word of God. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 Paul writes: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

This comprehensive view of the importance of the Word is echoed in the Westminster Confession: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…”

The Word is the heart and soul of our Christian experience. In short, that’s why we preach the word of God — week after week, month after month — at Declaration Church. But we don’t preach it for preaching’s sake! We preach the Word so that we will live in a manner that is consistent with the teaching of the Word.

2. The Book of James

The passage that we will be looking at tonight is found in the book of James.

  •  The Author

Though there is some debate on the matter, conservative scholarship is almost unanimous in agreement that the author of James is the half-brother of Jesus known as James the Just (not James, the son of Zebedee, the brother of John who was martyred very early – see Acts 12:2).

  •  The Date

This letter was most likely written before A.D. 50 and the Jerusalem Council, since neither the Council nor its decision is mentioned in this epistle. If so, this book is the earliest book of the entire New Testament. [1]

 

  • The Audience

James addresses this work primarily to Jewish Christians who have been dispersed from Jerusalem due to early persecution by the Romans (Acts 8:1).

  •  The Purpose

Given that Jewish Christians were struggling with how to relate their faith in Jesus to their Jewish heritage, struggling with matters related to the poor and rich (due to battles between Zealots and Pro-Roman parties), and struggling with discriminatory persecution (the persecutions referred to in the book were probably the result of the impositions of the rich upon the poor and the injustices of employers toward their employees since official government persecution did not begin until the late 50’s), James provides his readers with a series of tests by which they could measure the genuineness of their faith.

3. The Text

Tonight, we will look at the third test – the test of the response to the Word (James 1:19-27). Let us read James 1:19-27.

This you know, my beloved brethren. Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. For the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted which is able to save your souls. But prove your selves doers of the word and not merely hearers that delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural in a mirror, for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer, but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does. If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Let’s pray. Our Lord, may we be both hearers and doers of the word. And so grant that we would hear with the desire to be changed. Grant us attention and search our hearts out by Your own Spirit. In Jesus’ name, Amen. [2]

4. Sermon Outline

The context of the passage tonight is all about the Word. You see the word of God mentioned in verse 21, verse 22, verse 23, and it’s referred to in verse 25 “as the perfect law, the law of liberty.”

More specifically, the context is about our response to the Word – how we receive the Word (vv. 19-21), how we do the Word (vv. 22-25), and how we apply the Word (vv. 26-27). Receiving. Doing. Applying.

 

Receiving (19-21)

Look back with me at verses 19 to 21. The key word here is “receive” (verse 21). These verses are talking about how you receive the Word. Using a simple illustration borrowed from John MacArthur, your dial is tuned to a particular radio station frequency. It is possible to receive the Word because you’ve set your spiritual dial to that frequency. And if you are dialed into that frequency, James tells us that we should have a willingness to receive the Word with three attitudes. [3]

 

  1. A Willingness to Receive the Word with Submission

First, there should be a willingness to receive the Word with submission. He says to them: “This you know...” What does he mean? Well, he’s really playing off of verse 18 – “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth…” You have experienced the power of the Word to transform your life and make you a whole new creation. Knowing this, let everyone submit to these imperatives: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” [3]

What does he mean by “quick to listen“? Is he just talking about being a good hearer? No! What does he mean by “slow to speak”? Is he just talking about giving a dumb opinion before you’ve heard the whole story? No! What does he mean by “slow to anger“? Is he just talking about not blowing your top? No!

The Word of God is the theme in this passage. Thus, each command should probably be viewed in light of how we receive the Word of God. When he says “be quick to listen,” he means be quick to listen to the Word of God. Grasp every opportunity to increase your hearing of God’s Word. When he says “be slow to speak,” he means be slow to hold yourself out as a biblical expert of the Word (see James 3:1). Be slow to be a teacher. And when he says “be slow to anger,” he means don’t build up resentment inside of yourself (“orge”) to the Word. Don’t resent it because it doesn’t agree with what you thought or because it confronts your sin. [3]

James is concerned with your reaction to the Word. So first of all you should be willing to receive the Word with a submissive spirit by being “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.”

 

  1. A Willingness to Receive the Word with Purity

Second, there should be a willingness to receive the Word with purity. James uses a word picture in verse 21 to drive this point home. It is clothing imagery. James wants us to imagine our sins — our bitterness in trial, our lack of faith, our critical tongue, our love of the world — as a “filthy” garment that we must remove. Many of us just shrug our shoulders and say: “I’m only human,” implying that our sinning is O.K. because everybody does it. Every person does sin. But sin is never O.K. We must rise above this apathetic “I’m only human” philosophy, and strip off our filthy garments of bitterness, anger, worldliness, and lack of faith. [7] We should receive the Word with purity.

  1. A Willingness to Receive the Word with Humility

But there is more. James not only instructs us to dispose of the negative, but he gives us an instruction to appropriate the positive. Thirdly, James tells us to “in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls“.

James moves from clothing imagery to farming imagery. [7] James has just told us that it is the Word of God that was the instrument of our conversion (verse 18). Now he tells us that the implanted Word of God is the instrument of our sanctification. As you can see, I understand the expression able to save your souls as a reference to the present aspect of our salvation. There is a past dimension (our conversion), a present dimension (our sanctification or growth in Christlikeness), and a future dimension (our glorification, e.g., 1 John 3:2) to our salvation. [1] We are to receive the Word with humility – recognizing that the Word is the instrument of our spiritual growth – not anything that we bring to the table.

So, verses 19-21 are a call to correctly receive the Word of God. We are to receive it with a submissive heart, with a pure heart, and with a humble heart.

For a moment, do a little personal inventory. Do you hunger for the Word? Or are you always checking your watch to see when the sermon is over? Do you love studying the Word? Or do you find its study to be laborious? Do you cast aside sinful habits? Or do you just shrug your shoulders and say that you are only human? Do you receive the Word with humility? Or do you get mad that the Word instructs you to do something you don’t want to do?

When I see someone who has no particular appetite for the word of God, no particular longing to struggle with sin, no great passion for conforming to the demands of the Word — I conclude one of two things is true. One, they’re not Christians. They don’t really know the Lord because they don’t have the love of the Word. Or two, they know the Lord but have chosen to not remove their filthy garments of bitterness, anger, and worldliness. It is as if their ears are plugged by sin and they cannot hear the commands of the word of God. [3]

That is the receiving of God’s Word in verses 19-21. Now let us consider the doing of God’s Word in verses 22-25.

 

Doing (22-25)

Doing is introduced by the very famous line in verse 22 where we read, “But prove your selves doers of the word and not merely hearers that delude themselves.” The word “but” is important. It’s wonderful to hear the Word with submission. It’s wonderful to hear the Word with purity. It’s wonderful to hear the Word with humility. But it is not enough to just hear. You have to go one step further and do the Word. It must be obeyed in life. [5]

My daughter Hannah loves horses. From the first time she rode on a horse at the age of 3, she wanted to be around horses. Even to this day – after years of lessons, working in the stables, and riding on the college equestrian team – she has an urge to be around horses. Can you imagine me giving her a beautiful Quarter horse or an Arabian and her not choosing to do something with it? Can you imagine her never placing a saddle on its back or never taking the horse for a ride? She would just allow it to wander around the pasture grazing. She would receive my gift, say she loves it, and do nothing with it.

James wants us to be different. James wants us to receive the Word and to do something with it. James wants us to be “doers.” To help us understand what James means, let’s consider three things.

  • What does he mean by a “doer”?
  • What does he mean by a “hearer”?
  • What is he telling us with his mirror analogy?

 

  1. Doer

James chooses a word for “doers” that is meant to characterize our whole personality. Instead of saying “do the Word”, he says “be doers of the word.” It’s one thing to fight in a war, it’s something else to be soldier. It’s one thing to build a house, it’s something else to be a builder. It’s one thing to teach somebody, it’s something else to be a teacher. James wants us to understand that doing should characterize our whole life. We are characteristically to be “doers.” [5]

 

  1. Hearer

The word for “hearers” is very interesting. In verse 22, James uses a Greek word that is the ancient term for auditors. John MacArthur [3] compares listening without doing to auditing a class in college. As an auditor, you enroll in, pay the tuition and fees for, and attend classes. However, you do not take tests, turn in papers, or complete any assignments. In other words, you “listen” to the course but you don’t do anything with what you hear. There’s no accountability, and therefore, no credit for the course.

Hearers think they are secure before God because they walked an aisle, prayed a prayer, sent a check to a worthy cause, or performed some good deeds. But if the word was truly implanted in them, and they truly received it with humility, then the word will set off an intense struggle with sin, like that which James has just described in terms of the need to continually put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness. Those who are only hearers of the word, don’t struggle with sin. They are comfortable wearing their filthy clothes. They are merely spiritual auditors. They are not “doers.”

 

  1. Mirror Analogy

As he often does in this epistle, James now uses a vivid illustration of a mirror to press home his point. The person who merely hears – but who doesn’t do what the word commands — behaves as follows. Verse 23: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural in a mirror, for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer, but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does.

The contrast which James sets out here is an important one and we need to carefully unpack this. The spiritual auditor (hearer only), looks at the reflection of himself in a mirror. He gazes intently upon his reflection, but when he walks away he almost immediately forgets what he looks like. Isn’t that crazy?! To look closely at something and then forget what you see? That is James’ point exactly. It is absurd that we would listen intently to the words of Scripture and then NOT DO THEM? [7]

But the doer of the word – notice in verse 25 — looks not at himself. He gazes upon the Word, which James calls the “perfect law, the law of liberty.” And when you look into the word of God intently, you see the revelation of your sinfulness. You see how you need to repent. You see how you need to throw off the filthy garments of sin. You see the need to adorn yourself in the beautiful robes of righteousness. The one who looks intently at the Word and then chooses to abide by it, becomes an effectual doer. And the effectual doer “will be blessed in what he does.” Do you want to be blessed or unblessed? I’d rather be blessed. Wouldn’t you?

That is the doing of God’s Word in verses 22-25. Now let us consider the applying of God’s Word.

 

Applying (26-27)

In verses 26-27, James provides three examples of how applying the Word manifests itself not in words, but in concrete actions:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion 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.”

Earlier in the sermon, I talked about my giving a gift of a horse to my daughter and her receiving the gift but choosing not to ride the horse. Isn’t that absurd? But even if she had chosen to ride the horse (do something), there is so much more that should be done with the horse. The horse was given as a gift so that it could be used for jumping, cutting, or roping. The horse was meant to be used for concrete purposes – not just ridden around in a circle.

Likewise, James wants us to apply God’s word. He wants us to take concrete action. Those who hear and do the word tame their tongues, they remember the poor and the afflicted, and they make every effort to avoid being contaminated by the world. Let’s look briefly at each of his three applications.

 

  1. The Tongue [2]

In verse 26, James uses the tongue as a diagnostic device for taking stock of the heart. Our speech, our tongue, our self-control or lack of self-control, is a manifestation of what is in our hearts. And James flatly says: “If you do not bridle your tongue, you are deceiving yourselves. Your religion is worthless.” It’s a hard word to speak, for there are few areas more difficult for us, than to control than our tongues. Nevertheless, James is saying that if you want to be a “doer” of the Word, if you want to take concrete action — you need to bridle your tongue.

 

  1. Compassion in Need

In verse 27, James goes on to say that our compassion for those who are in need, is another example of being a “doer” of the Word. As the tongue is not comprehensively indicative of being a “doer”, so visiting widows and orphans is not comprehensively indicative of being a “doer.” But visiting orphans and widows in their affliction is a concrete example of pure and undefiled religion.

God has always been concerned with the fatherless and widows (e.g., Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 24:17-22; Deuteronomy 27:19; Psalm 68:5; Psalm 68:5). He has a special heart for people who have great need. He wants us to visit them in their affliction. The word “to visit” means more than just to go by and say “Hi.” It carries the idea of bringing love and pity to someone. It’s used in Matthew chapter 25 where Jesus says: I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:36). It doesn’t mean you came by and waved. It means you came, you nurtured, you cared, you loved, you provided whatever was needed. [6] James is saying, if you want to be a “doer” of the Word, you need to show tangible compassion to those in need.

 

  1. Resisting the World

Finally in verse 27 James goes on to say that our determination to resist worldliness, in heart and action, is a concrete example of being a “doer” of the Word. James is saying that there is no such thing as justification without sanctification, there is no such thing as the new birth without the new life, and there is no such thing as grace without obedience. [2] That is because anybody who is a friend of the world is the enemy of God. The two are incompatible. You love the world, you don’t love the Father. You’re a friend of the world, you’re an enemy of God. There’s no place for compromise.

Look at people around you. Do they love the world? Do they live for the world? Do they indulge in the world? If so, there is good reason to believe they may not be a believer. [6]

What do I mean by the world? Am I concerned that they drive on the freeway? Stay in a hotel? Go to a restaurant? Buy their clothes at a department store? No! I mean do they buy into the world’s philosophy? Do they buy into its cultures so that impacts their life and governs their behavior? Do they love fame, success, power, and wealth? Do they find their purpose and joy in this world rather than in the next?

James is saying that a “doer” of the Word shows an inner control manifest in their speech, shows a love for people in need, and stays away from being stained by the surrounding culture. [6]

 

Closing Thoughts [2]

We opened our study of James 1:19-27 by stating that the purpose of this text was to instruct us in our proper response to the Word. We saw how we are to receive the Word (with submission, with purity, and with humility), how we are to do the Word (and not be just a hearer or spiritual auditor), and how we are to apply the Word (by showing an inner control manifest in our speech, showing a love for people in need, and staying away from being stained by the surrounding culture). That is the receiving, doing, and applying of the Word.

In closing….. What do these things tell you? Some of us ought to be saying to ourselves: “I’ve been fooling myself. I call myself a Christian, but I’m not.” If that’s your reaction to the Holy Spirit’s teaching through the words of James, there’s only one thing for you to do. You need to run to Jesus Christ. You need to run to the cross. You can’t fix yourself. The Christian life is not an endless series of resolutions to do better. The Christian life is not turning a new leaf. The Christian life is not just the latest and greatest self-help remedy. The Christian life is the recognition that we do not have within ourselves the energy, the power, or the ability to change ourselves. We need to look outside of ourselves. We need to look “somewhere else.” And the only “somewhere else” is in Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. It’s when we renounce our own ability to try and change ourselves and we run to Him that we find salvation and grace to change.

For others of you, it may just be dawning on you that your view of Christianity is flawed. You are comfortable being a Sunday Christian. You do some things that are spiritual. You occasionally read your Bible. You occasionally pray. You may even occasionally takes notes during a sermon. But you realize the Word is not permeating the whole of your life. Well if that’s the case then you need to ask the Holy Spirit to renovate the whole of your life, to change your mindset, your outlook, and to give you new priorities. You need to ask Him to make you more than a Sunday Christian. Ask Him to enable you to receive the truth of the Word with submission, with purity, and with humility. Ask Him to make you a doer of the Word as well as a hearer. As Him to give you the grace to faithfully “apply” the Word by controlling your tongue, showing compassion to those in need, and staying away from worldliness.

Let us pray. Father – We pray that You will cause us to desire to study your Word. We pray that You will cause us to receive your Word in submission, purity, and humility. We pray that You will cause us to be hearers of the world who hear and do. We pray that You will cause us to look into the mirror and see what needs to be removed from our life. We pray that You will cause us demonstrate our faith with concrete acts of obedience. We pray that You manifest in us genuine saving faith. May the fruit of our efforts be blessed and may we give You the praise which is due Your holy name. In Your Son’s name we pray — Amen.

 

Endnotes

[1] Robert Deffinbaugh, “Accepting Adversity” (James 1:1-27)

[2] J. Ligon Duncan, “The Essence of Christian Living” (James 1:19-27)

[3] John MacArthur, “Responding to the Word” (James 1:19-27)

[4] John MacArthur, “The Belief that Behaves” (James 1:19-21)

[5] John MacArthur, “The Belief that Behaves” (James 1:22-25)

[6] John MacArthur, “The Belief that Behaves” (James 1:26-27)

[7] Bryn MacPhail, “Our Battle with Hypocrisy” (James 1:19-27)

[8] Kim Riddlebarger, “The Law of Liberty” (James 1:19-27)

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