Faith That Works, Part 2
Eric Nygren, January 14, 2018
I want to start us off this morning with a little test of our listening skills. Hopefully you are awake and alert, you’ve had enough coffee, and the singing we’ve done together has energized you enough to stay focused. I have some questions I want you answer, so listen carefully and jot down your answers on your bulletin and then we’ll check and see how you did.
- How many of each species of animal did Moses bring on board the ark during the great flood? (Zero, Moses wasn’t on the ark.)
- In the state of Iowa, is it legal for a man to marry his widow's sister? (He’s dead.)
- Johnny's mom has 4 sons named Nickel, Dime, and Quarter. What is the fourth son’s name? (Johnny)
- Speaking of the fourth, do they have a 4th of July in England? (Yes)
- Some months, like July, have 31 days. How many months have 28 days? (12)
- In the game of baseball, how many outs are there in an inning? (6)
- You are the bus driver. You drive three blocks and pick up two people. You drive three more blocks and one person gets off. You drive around the corner and pick up five people. How old is the bus driver? (your age)
- A farmer has five haystacks in one field and four haystacks in another. How many haystacks would he have if he combined them all in one field? (1)
So, are you a good listener? How many do you think you got right? [review the answers]
As we turn our attention to God’s Word this morning, we start with what may be one of the most well known verses on the topic of listening in all of Scripture. Turn with to the book of James in the New Testament where we will continue in chapter 1 from where we left off last week. Last Sunday, Pastor Jim introduced our sermon series through the book of James, a series we’re calling Faith that Works: All Day, Every Day.
As we saw last week, the first half of James chapter 1 is all about remaining steadfast even in the face of suffering. The believing community that James was writing to had been experiencing what James called in verse 2 “trials of various kinds.” Some were experiencing financial hardships, perhaps related to persecution for their faith in Christ. Others may have been experiencing the physical trials many of us face when our bodies break down because of sickness and disease. Still others were facing trials related to the temptation to revert to sinful choices and behaviors that were a part of their pre-Christian life.
Whatever form suffering took, James brought encouragement to the church when he reminded them in verse 12:
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)
That was our memory verse for this past week. Remember that as part of this sermon series through James, together as a church family we are seeking to memorize a new verse each week. We’ll come to a new verse for this week in a little bit, but let’s try and say James 1:12 together, and if you need a little help, pull out the card from last week. [Say the verse together]
Hear the Word
James’ letter is filled with spiritual wisdom like that in verse 12, and now we come to another word of wisdom in verses 19-20:
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
Maybe you noticed that this is now the third time that James has addressed his readers as “my brothers” or “my beloved brothers.” 15 times in this letter James uses language like that to speak to these believers. Of course, James wasn’t limiting his words to only the male members of the congregation by using the term “brothers.” Maybe you’ve got a footnote in your Bible that notes that this could have easily been translated “brothers and sisters” to include the whole body of Christ. But by using the term “brothers,” we get the sense that James is speaking truth to the members of his spiritual family and not just giving impersonal advice to whoever might read his letter.
The wisdom James begins with is extremely practical:
“Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
Husbands and wives would be wise to let these words guide their conversations. Parents would be wise to put this into practice with their children, and kids would be wise to listen carefully to mom and dad. The same goes for employees and employers, students and teachers, friends, neighbors, pastors, elders, and members of the church.
James gives the reason why this is wise advice in verse 20: when we are quick to voice our opinion and assert our need to be heard, our temperature tends to rise and we become angry. But anger doesn’t produce in us the kind of behavior that is pleasing to God. We may be God’s people, but when anger fuels our speech, we aren’t behaving in a way that demonstrates the godly life that should be true of us. James will have a lot more to say in this letter about the use of our words, especially as it relates to sinful speech. It may have been the case that this was one of the particular sins that James’ audience struggled with the most.
For us though, we’re left with the question, “What then does produce in us the righteousness of God? What can bring about transformation in us so that the fruit produced in us is behavior that is pleasing to God?” We’re not asking, “What kind of behavior must I have in order to earn God’s favor or to be right with him?” Christians know that our righteous standing before God is ours not because of something we have done or need to do, but because of what Jesus Christ has done for us.
So the question is “What can produce in us the righteousness of God?” James gives the answer in the next verse, verse 21:
“Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
How many of you have a set of grubby clothes that you put on when you have a particularly messy job to do? Maybe it’s clothes you wear that are covered in little splotches of paint from every time you done some painting. Or maybe it’s the shirt you wear when you change the oil in your car, one that you don’t mind wiping your hands on when they get dirty. Maybe it’s an old pair of shoes that you wear when you mow the lawn, or a particular pair of boots you wouldn’t wear anywhere else because these are meant for tromping through places where manure is prevalent. Or maybe you simply need to picture the outfit you were wearing the last time you had a bad case of the stomach flu. We’ll leave that image alone.
That’s the picture James wants us to have in mind when we come to verse 21. Like a set of soiled clothing, Christians are to take off the behavior that belongs to our former non-believing lifestyle, and in its place we are to receive something that James says we already have: the implanted word. That word “word” is going to be a key word in this passage.
Go back a second to the last verse that Pastor Jim pointed us to last Sunday, verse 18. There James spoke of “the word of truth” and said that it was the means by which God brought about our spiritual regeneration, the means by which God caused us to be born again. James must be referring to the gospel. The Apostle Peter says something very similar in one of his letters:
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:22-23, ESV).
When we came to faith in Christ, like a seed planted in good soil, the gospel--the word of truth--was implanted into our hearts. As we allow that word to germinate and take root in us, the fruit that is produced in us will be behavior that is not like that our old way of life, but behavior that pleases God our Father. So James’ command to his readers is to humbly receive the word of truth that is implanted in us. How do we receive it? By opening our ears. Be quick to hear. Listen to the gospel. Hear God speak through the word of truth. That’s the first major point James is making in this passage: hear the word. And that command comes with a promise, the promise of salvation.
In your outline you can write this down: There is salvation for all who receive the word of truth and hear what it says. (vv. 19-21)
Here James isn’t necessarily thinking about salvation in terms of coming to Christ or initial faith in Jesus. James has in mind the ultimate end of salvation, that one day we will be fully restored and made to be like Christ himself. Those who receive the implanted word, those who listen to what the gospel is saying, they will experience the saving transformation that God promises. As the gospel takes root, it shapes our words and our works.
Before we move on to the second half of this passage, let me offer one way to begin to put this into practice. Pray that God would give you a teachable spirit. Here’s what I mean by that. Notice that James says in verse 21 that we are to receive the implanted word “with meekness.” Meekness may not be a word we use much anymore, so let’s go with something like gentleness, or better yet humility.
How many of you missed one of the listening exercise questions that we started with? When you heard the right answer did you feel a little foolish that you missed it? I mean, did you forget that it was Noah and not Moses who led the animals on the ark two by two? Were you humbled a bit?
The kind of humility or meekness that James has in mind isn’t meant to make us feel foolish or embarrassed. But it is meant to show us that we are not nearly as wise as we think we are. In our own wisdom, we are quick to speak, and often we get angry when others don’t see things the way we do. But what if we humbly came to the Scriptures and admitted that our pool of wisdom is relatively small? The good news is, as we saw last week in verse 5, that God loves to generously give wisdom to anyone who asks of him. That’s what I mean by asking God for a teachable spirit. Pray like this: God, open my ears to the word of truth that I might grow in wisdom that would lead me toward Christlikeness. Lord, humble me enough to listen to others when they are pointing me to your word. Father, may the gospel implanted like a seed in the soil of my heart take root and begin to grow into every area of my life so that the life I live might be pleasing to you.
The promise God has made through James to us is this: There is salvation for all who receive the word of truth and hear what it says.
Be Doers of the Word
But merely hearing what the word says is not enough. Take a look at how James finishes the chapter:
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For 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. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 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.
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” (James 1:22-27, ESV).
The instruction that he gives in verse 22 isn’t too difficult to figure out. There is a big difference between merely listening to what the word says and putting what it says into practice. Hearing isn’t doing. And those who settle for hearing the word only are in fact deceiving themselves.
The one who hears only deceives himself into thinking that listening is all that God really expects of the Christian. He listens to sermons on Sunday mornings, he learns things he didn’t know before, he may even feel challenged by what God is saying in Scripture. But as one who merely listens, he never takes action so that the implanted word of truth begins to sink its roots into his work, his relationships, his thought life, or his behavior.
The one who hears but fails to do what the word says may be someone who faithfully attends a weekly Bible study. She underlines passages in her Bible during her daily devotions. She answers all the questions in the study guide correctly. She’s a Christian but she doesn't have any sort of plan to put into practice what she’s reading in her Bible.
Or perhaps the one who only hears is someone who attends church because their spouse is the one who is serious about religion and because a little Sunday School is good for the kids’ development. He’s not as into Christianity as others are, but hey, at least he’s getting his family to church. James says to this guy, “You’re deceiving yourself.”
In verses 23-24 compares this “hearer only” to a guy who checks himself out in the mirror. This guy gets up in the morning and starts getting ready for work. He walks into the bathroom and notices he’s got terrible bedhead, his five o'clock shadow now reads six o’clock, and whatever he had for dinner last night is still stuck in his teeth. “Yikes!” he says to himself. “I can’t go to work looking like this!” At that moment he walks out of the bathroom, finishes getting dressed, grabs his coffee, and heads to the office.
What’s wrong with this guy? Does he have short-term memory loss? Is he a lazy slob? No, this guy’s problem is that he just doesn’t follow through. He doesn’t act on what he’s observed in the mirror. He’s not intentional about correcting what the mirror reveals to be out of place. To mix the metaphor a bit, he’s listening to what the mirror is trying to tell him, but he’s not taking action. He’s deceiving himself into thinking he’s ok.
If that sounds like a silly example, then consider this. How many times have you taken notes from a sermon, discussed the Bible in a Small group, heard a lesson in Sunday School, or read something out of a devotional and said to yourself, “Yeah, I really need to work on that,” but then left it there? How many times did you look into the mirror of Scripture, allowed it reveal something true about God or about yourself and then you walked away and let that thought escape your attention? I know I have.
As I say this, I recognize the irony of the fact that in this sermon the “do this” application is to obey verse 22 and to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. But going back to being people who are quick to hear and slow to speak, don’t hear what I’m not saying. Don’t think for a moment I am saying, or that James is saying, or that God’s word is saying that you should try harder at being a doer. The gospel isn’t about trying harder. No, instead James says that the solution isn’t about trying harder, it’s about looking closer.
In contrast to our hypothetical man in the mirror, James gives us another promise in 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.”
You can jot this down as the other point on your outline: There is freedom and blessing for all who act on the word of truth and do what it says (vv. 22-27). The promise given to all who obey the word of truth is freedom and blessing. James says that this freedom and blessing come to us when we look into what he calls “the perfect law.” James is still talking about the gospel, the word of truth, but here he’s looking at it from a different angle.
When we hear the word law we tend to equate it with rules and regulations. We look at a speed limit sign and don’t see freedom and blessing, but rather restrictions and limitations. But James and his readers were Jews, and when they heard the word “law” they would not have limited it to just the legal statutes and commandments of the Old Testament. Their Bible, the OT Scriptures, was so much more than a list of rules to follow. The Scriptures revealed what God is like. They speak of how sinful man can be restored to fellowship with a holy God. Yes, the Bible gives us rules and boundaries for our protection, but it also gives us instruction so that we might find the freedom and blessing that God intends for us.
James says that looking into God’s law, his perfect law, brings those who hear and do freedom and blessing. That’s not what we’re used to. As recovering sinners, our tendency is to do what the rest of the non-believing world does. Our tendency is to pursue freedom by being unrestrained. We don’t want restrictions, we want to demand our rights. In fact we want to demand the right to determine what is right for ourselves. It’s in our genes. It’s what our great-great-great-great grandparents Adam and Eve wanted even though they had everything they could want in paradise. They wanted to have the freedom to be their own god, and so do we.
Spoiler alert: You are not God, and neither am I. We’re terrible at being God. You won’t find true freedom apart from the word of truth. You won’t flourish in life and find the blessing God intended for you apart from the gospel. If you truly want to know what it is to be set free and to be wholly blessed, you must turn your attention to the perfect law of God, the word of truth, the gospel.
So let’s do that. Let’s turn our attention once again to the word of truth. Last week we challenged you to memorize James 1:12. Hopefully you were able to do that. Scripture memory isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. If you were not here last Sunday, or if memorizing that verse just didn’t happen for you last week, don’t worry, Pastor Jim only gave you one verse to memorize. I’m sure you can catch up.
But this week I’m upping the ante. This week we’re giving you two verses to memorize. Let’s put them up on the screen and read them together.
“Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:21-22, ESV).
There’s your first opportunity to be a doer this week and not just a hearer. There’s your first chance took look into the mirror of God’s perfect law and let it reflect back to you something about who God is and who you are. There’s your first chance to find true freedom and blessing by listening to the word of truth and doing what it says.
James offers us two promises in this passage:
There is salvation for all who receive the word of truth and hear what it says.
There is freedom and blessing for all who act on the word of truth and do what it says.
Hear the word. Be a doer of the word.
You’ve listened, now do. Let’s pray.