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Sermon preached on James 1:19-21 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 02/07/2021 in Novato, CA.
Our passage for today marks a bit of a transition in the book of James. So far, the chapter had largely been instructing how our faith ought to think amidst the trials and temptations of life. Now James begins to address how our faith should be lived out in the face of some specific trials and temptations. Here we see James address temptations to sinful speech and sinful anger, both which are topics he will delve into more deeply as we work through the book. Surely James has in mind here a connection between sinful speech and sinful anger to the people that he is writing. I say that, because later in this letter he’ll address the conflicts that existing among them and how some of them had been speaking ill of their brothers in Christ. In contrast to these temptations, James then calls their faith to look what God’s Word has to say to them and to seek instead the righteousness of God instead of giving in to these temptations. May we too take these truths to heart today for these are very relevant topics still today and ripe for application.
Our passage’s three verses naturally form three points for our sermon. So let us begin by looking at verse 19. There we find James presenting contrasting exhortations: something we are to be quick to do and two things we are to be slow to do. We are to be quick to hear. We are to be slow to speak and slow to anger.
Quick to hear. The concept of being quick to listen is literally proverbial wisdom. A brief review of listening in the book of Proverbs tells us several things we need to be quick to listen to. Proverbs 1:27 says that we need to be people who listen to wisdom. Proverbs 5:13 commends listening to our teachers and instructors. Proverbs 13:1 calls a son to listen to his father’s instruction. Proverbs 19:20 says that we should listen to advice and counsel. Those are just a few references.
And of course, in the context of conflict with others, being quick to listen goes a long way in either resolving a conflict or preventing one in the first place. When we are in a quarrel, too often we can not carefully listen to what the other person is saying. In doing so, we can fail to properly appreciate their position and perspective. We can be more inclined to impugn their motives or simply misunderstand them. Listening careful to someone is imperative for peace among people.
And in the most immediate context of our passage, we see that we need to be quick to hearing the word of God. Last week’s passage spoke about how we Christians have been born again by the Word of God, verse 18. Then today’s passage ends in verse 21 calling us to receive the word that has been implanted to us. We need to be hearing and listening to God’s Word. The next passage will take that one step further, even, and say not only do we need to hear God’s Word, but we also need to do God’s Word. But for today, let’s not miss this lesson: that we need to be quick to hear it. We need to be quick to be giving attention to what God is saying to us. His word directs us how to think and live amidst the temptations and trials of life.
Slow to speak. The concept of being slow to speak is also proverbial wisdom. Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” Prov. 17:28, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” If you speak before you listen, you are surely going to get yourself in trouble. And when you are quick to spout something off you also run the risk of saying something you shouldn’t. In the context of conflicts, we can think of how our tongues can really contribute to an argument. As James will address in chapters 3 and 4, we can really sin against our brothers in Christ with our tongues. And so, both wisdom and love says to be very slow to speak. Yes, there are absolutely times that we need to speak up. And there can be times where we wait too long to say something. Wisdom picks the right time to speak and not speak; folly chooses the wrong time. But wisdom warns us that in general the most common temptation is to speak too quickly and in doing so speak sinfully.
Slow to anger. The concept of being slow to anger is also proverbial wisdom. Proverbs 14:17, “A man of quick temper acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated.” Proverbs 14:29, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” Proverbs 19:11, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Again, we can think of how this relates to quarrels and conflicts. You are likely to end up in an unresolved conflict if you are quick to get angry. If you are quick to anger you very likely are also going to be too quick in your speech too, so these things go hand in hand. In general, anger tends to be the most destructive in our life when it is allowed to rise quickly and be unleashed quickly. Often just slowing down and taking time to think and pray and reflect will help you to deal properly with your anger so it is not being unleashed sinfully.
Well then, that leads us to our second point for today to turn to verse 20. Here we see the contrast between the anger of man versus the righteousness of God. In describing man’s anger, James asserts right away that it doesn’t produce righteousness. Now this is often a verse people point among those who are of the conviction that there is no such thing as righteous anger among humans. But surely James is speaking here more proverbially. In other words, we shouldn’t understand him absolutely. While he doesn’t nuance this statement, there is surely nuance that could be added. We see elsewhere the Bible speak in similar ways, Jesus for example at times makes some rather unnuanced statements, but clearly we must read them with wisdom and apply the right nuance – like when Jesus speaks against judging others, he clearly was addressing sinful judging. Similarly, James in this letter will later speak very negatively about the rich and from those statements it might sound like you can’t be rich and be saved, but that would be to take his words incorrectly in an absolute sense when he doesn’t mean them absolutely.
So then, what is James getting at? It’s a very important point. Generally speaking, too often, a person’s anger results in them sinning. James gets at this with the word “produce” here. It’s the same word as back in verse 3 that spoke of how when trials test our faith they “produce” steadfastness. In contrast, James speaks of how anger produces sin. Our anger is such a powerful emotion that while there is theoretically a notion of righteous anger, that ends up in practice being more theoretical than actual. We can go wrong, like Cain and Jonah in getting angry when we shouldn’t be angry. And even when we are right to be angry, we can express our anger in sinful ways. If we were to constrain our anger to what the word teaches us is right and wrong, then it can be a powerful force for change. But if we forget the great power of anger, we likely will be swept away quickly into some form of sin.
Let us instead look to put off the anger when we are angry about something we shouldn’t be angry about. And even if we are right to be angry about something, let us give thought about the righteous way to address what we are angry about. Of course, that’s the sort of thing James had just said. We need to be slow in our anger. Slow to let the anger rise. Slow in thinking of how to deal with our anger. While we are slowing down in giving vent to our anger, we should be quickly turning to God’s Word. It is the word that will help us to analyze our anger. It is the word that will help us to know if we are right to be angry about something or not. It is the word that will help us to know how we should and shouldn’t respond to something that we are rightly upset about. Our goal should be the righteousness of God in this.
That is in fact the contrast in this verse. James is directing us away from ourselves and our anger, toward God and his righteousness. Remember, this was Jesus’ exhortation in the sermon on the mount. Matthews 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Being directed here to God’s righteousness sets the stage for this book to be dealing with that topic. James is very much interested in the Christian pursuing the righteousness of God.
By the way, in case it is not obvious from the context to you, this reference to the righteousness of God is not referring what we get in our justification. When we turn and believe in Jesus we receive the grace of justification. In that, God declares us as righteous in God’s sight, not because of our own righteousness, but because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. In justification, our righteousness is an alien righteousness. We get credit for Jesus’ righteousness because we don’t have it on our own. This isn’t what James is address here. James isn’t talking about justification here but sanctification. Here James is wanting us to think of how God’s righteousness is something we should be concerned to see manifested in our own living. Our anger is not going to normally bring that out. What will produce God’s righteousness in our lives? That’s what our third point turns to address as James points us again back to the Word of God.
So then look with me at verse 21. This verse again gives us two contrasting things. It contrasts things we should be putting away, versus something that we should be receiving. James’ idea here in verse 21 shares some similarity with the Apostle Paul’s repeated teaching elsewhere about the put off, put on, dynamic. That’s when Paul calls us to pursue Christian sanctification by looking to put off various sins and to put on various godly actions in their place. James here speaks similarly of sin we need to put away from our lives and in turn to give attention to what God’s Word has to say instead about how to conduct our lives.
So then, notice what James wants us to put away. He begins by saying “all filthiness”. This word is as dirty as it sounds. It’s a word about dirt. But it’s a word that can be used metaphorically to speak of the dirtiness of one’s heart. It can speak of one’s unclean soul that is dirty with sin. That is obviously how the term is being used here. You can also think of all the Old Testament laws of outwardly cleanliness which repeatedly get applied to how God is concerned for the purity of our souls. So then, James wants to put out of our lives whatever sorts of things are going to defile us, and dirty us, spiritually-speaking.
He then adds “all rampant wickedness”. This too needs to be put away from our lives. The word “rampant” here is a word in the Greek that means above and beyond expectation, a superabundance of something. Here that is being used in a negative sense. It refers to a surplus of wickedness. Let us not have a surplus of wickedness! The word wicked here is a rather generic word for evil, depravity, and badness. So, this is a pretty catch all statement here, like the language of filthiness. Everything that is of our old sinful nature we want to continually and regularly seek by the grace of God to put out of our lives.
So, then we see what we are to receive, the implanted Word of God. But notice first how we are supposed to receive that. We are supposed to receive it with meekness. Meekness is really a great word to use here because it very much describes someone who is quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. The word for meekness is similar to the word for humility, but there is a nuance. Meekness should certainly include humility. But meekness itself is about gentleness of attitude and behavior in contrast with harshness in one’s dealings with others. You are mild not aggressive in an offensive way. Today, if you want to know what meekness looks like, just go on to social media and look at how people disagree with each other and do the opposite. There is so little meekness today, and so little examples of it. But it is a godly character and something we should seek to cultivate. And let me clarify that meekness is not weakness. You can exercise your strength of convictions while doing so in a meek and mild manner.
Stepping back, we see here that this meekness is describing how we should be receiving the implanted word. Let us note first that when it describes the implanted word that means the word is something already implanted within us believers. This follows from last week’s passage which had already described Christians as being born again by the Word. God has put his word into our hearts as believers. It is something that takes root in us. Think similar to how Jesus spoke in the parable of the sower of how the word is scattered and takes root when in falls upon the good soil and then bears much fruit. So, then we have this word that God has brought to our hearts. But then we are reminded as Christians we need to be people who are regularly receiving it and receiving it meekly.
What does it mean to receive it and to receive it meekly? Well, in terms of the receiving, this seems to be the idea of hearing it which was mentioned earlier. In other words, we need to give attention to and listen to God’s word which has come into our hearts. We need to look to hear out what God’s word is telling us regarding any given trial or temptation that is before us. I don’t mean that in a charismatic sense. But as the written word has come to us, it has begun to take root in our hearts. From our hearts which are being changed by the word, we should give heed to hear what it is saying to us. As for the meekness aspect, it describes how we receive God’s word. It means that when we give a hearing to God’s word we don’t try to defend ourselves against its charges; we don’t try to explain it away that it doesn’t apply to us; we don’t try to boast against its claims. No, we humbly acknowledge that it is right and we are wrong and we need to hear and heed what it says to us.
This all reminds us that our sanctification involves these warring forces. We can either give heed to the old man within us, who is filthy and evil. Or we can give heed to that seed of the new birth which God has placed in us by his word. The day to day living out of our faith is to be looking to put out of our lives that voice of the old man with its sinful desires. Instead, we daily look to put on the ways being commended by the voice of Christ at work in our hearts through his Holy Word. Implied in context is that this is how we are to pursue the righteousness of God which was commended in the previous verse.
Why this is important is stated at the end of verse 21 – the implanted word is able to save our souls. This is presumably a more holistic usage of our salvation than just simply our justification. God’s complete work to save us includes also what he’s doing in our sanctification and what he will ultimately do to perfect us in godliness in glory. No matter what we might claim of our faith, if we just outright reject the word of God which has come to us, then we don’t have a real saving faith. A true believer has humbly received his word and by God’s grace will continue to look to bear fruit for the Lord by his word.
This statement here about the saving of our souls should contribute to our meekness and humility. We need our souls to be saved. All humans need salvation in terms our justification. And we all need it in terms of our sanctification. Apart from God’s salvation we all just wretched sinners. Apart from his salvation we are all people eager to boast of ourselves and quick to justify ourselves. Apart from God’s salvation, our pride and folly is quick to speak, slow to listen, and quick to anger. We all need to be saved from our sinful selves.
And that is what we have come to know in Christ Jesus: Jesus, meek Jesus is our savior. Jesus, slow to speak, slow to anger, always giving heed to the word of his heavenly father: he has saved us from our sins. He did so even by opening not his mouth and being led like a sheep to the slaughter. This he did as the lamb of God to take away our sin. And it is this Jesus who says he is gentle and lowly of heart and calls us to come to him and find rest for our souls. May we each meekly receive that call again today. Receive the word of Christ unto the salvation of your souls. And as we come again to him today, may we be recommitted to seeking the righteousness of God by his grace. May that drive us back then to the Scriptures to look to learn and live out his righteousness.
May we each look forward to when he completes his sanctification in our hearts. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.