Sermon preached on James 1:22-25 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 02/14/2021 in Novato, CA.
Last passage called us to meekly receive the Word of God which God has implanted in us. Here James further elaborates on what that means. To receive the Word of God is not simply to hear what it has to say. It’s not just that you give a welcome audience to God’s Word. Receiving is more than just about hearing, it also includes heeding. A true Christian doesn’t just give lip service to God’s Word. Nor does a true Christian claim to value God’s Word but ignore what it has to say. That’s not what our faith believes. No, our faith has come to see that Jesus has the words of eternal life. His Word we embrace and look to live out. As it says here, let us not be merely hearers of the Word but doers of it. This will be our topic for today.
Let us begin by considering how James in verse 22 says that if we are just mere hearers of the Word then we deceive ourselves. We’ve heard this idea of deception already in this letter. Back in 1:16, James warned against being deceived by your evil desires that will try to tempt you to sin. But the Greek word is different back in verse 16. There it was a word about being led astray. In comparison, this word here in verse 22 for being deceived is about deluding yourself with false reasoning. In other words, you mentally think and reason about something, but your logic is faulty and so you come to some faulty conclusion.
In context, he’s saying its faulty logic to think we can just hear the Word and not look to do what the Word says. If you think you will benefit from God’s Word by listening to it or reading it but not by looking to respond and act to its teachings, then you have deluded yourself. The Bible is not some magic spell that you just read over you and it does some magic. No, the Bible is God’s Word to you that teaches you what you need to know about him, the duty that God requires of you, and especially of how to be saved from sin and death in Jesus Christ. The mere hearing of the Word is not going to save you. This is what the Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes so wonderfully in question and answer 90. It asks, “How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?” It answers, “That the word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.”
For example, when the Word says that we need to repent of our sins and turn and put our faith in Jesus Christ to be saved, it’s not enough to just hear that if we want to be saved. We need to actually repent of our sins and turn and put our faith in Jesus Christ if we are to be saved. That’s an example when it comes to responding to the gospel. But we can apply this principal across the board when it comes to God’s Word. Think of all the laws in the Scripture. The Bible’s many laws are given for our instruction and have many practical benefits in life and it is what we Christians are to strive for as fruit of our repentance. But if you hear those commands but never seek to live them out, they won’t bring any benefit in progressing in righteousness. When the Bible says don’t lie but you just keep on lying, or when it says submit to your boss, but you keep trying to subvert your boss, you won’t know the fruit of righteousness that God would have you to have in those areas. While we know that we need God’s Spirit to help us understand the Word and live it out, we know that the Word itself is not mystical in how it instructs us and trains us. It speaks in straightforward terms that as we heed it we find its benefit. Otherwise, it serves to speak against us when we hear it but don’t look to heed it.
Our passage asks us each to consider if we’ve deceived ourselves in this regard. As we think of that question, we could imagine different forms this could take. We could think of someone who merely goes to church. They go to church, they hear the Word in the service, but it falls on deaf ears and they never really respond. They think by going to church and doing the religious motions that they are saved, but James here challenges such a superficial experience of the Word. Another form this could take is known as dead orthodoxy. That describes someone who has come to mentally know God’s Word. Academically they’ve studied it and come to comprehend its system of teaching. But they’ve never actually sought to put into practice what the Word has commended to them. Another form of this is known as antinomianism. That’s the person who basically says that because we are justified by grace through faith there’s no need to be a doer of God’s Word. And yet while it is important to distinguish the role of faith versus works in our salvation, clearly this letter written to James commends not just the Word in general for us to live out, but particularly God’s laws as well.
So then, James calls us to not be self-deceived into thinking we can merely hear the Word. We also need to be doers of the Word. Keeping this in mind, let us turn next to consider this analogy of a mirror that he gives us in verse 23. James paints the picture of someone looking at themselves in a mirror. He’s studying himself in the mirror. But then he goes away from the mirror and forgets what he looked like. This forgetting language probably also implies that he didn’t act on what he saw in the mirror. James says that is akin to someone who hears the Word but doesn’t do what the Word says to do. As verse 25 goes on to apply the analogy, he says that such a person is one who hears then forgets the Word. They forget the Word in the sense that they drop from their mind what it had called them to do. In other words, they forget the Word in the sense that the don’t keep the Word.
Another way this analogy is applied to hearing and doing what the Word says is with the contrasting language of going away and persevering. Verse 24 speaks of the person who “goes away” after looking in the mirror. In contrast, verse 25 speaks of someone who looks into the law and then perseveres. It doesn’t come across very well in the English, but the word “persevere” is the word for “remain” and is contrasting with the idea of “going away” in the previous verse. So, verse 24 describes someone who looks at himself in the mirror then goes away. Verse 25 speaks of someone who look at the Word and doesn’t go away. He stays. He keeps looking. He doesn’t forget what he sees because he never takes his eyes off of what he sees. He keeps looking at the Word and that’s why he then does what the Word says.
Another aspect of comparison here in the analogy is that of the natural face versus the perfect law. These are both described as something being looked at so they are clearly contrasted. In the analogy, looking in the mirror at your natural face is then compared with our spiritual duty of looking at the perfect law. By the way, here the language of the perfect law is another way of James talking about the Word which we are supposed to be doing not just hearing. But the contrast of the natural face versus the perfect law is suggestive. The natural face brings to mind our earthy carnal existence with all its frailties. But the perfect law reminds us how the law is used to perfect and mature us spiritually. Remember how he has been using that word “perfect” already in this chapter. He’s been using it in the sense of maturity and bringing something to its intended completion. In verse 4, he spoke of how trials perfect Christians in terms of our spiritual maturity. In contrast, verse 15 spoke negatively of how sin matures or brings to perfection death. But then verse 17 spoke of the perfect gifts God gives us and now here James speaks of the perfect law that he has given us. I made the case with the perfect gifts language that a possible interpretation is that they are gifts that work perfecting and maturity in us. So too here with this perfect law. While the law is certainly perfect and complete in itself, we know it also works to perfect us. Psalm 19:7 brings out this very point when it says, “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” The perfect law is given for our perfection – but only if we only remain in it and seek to put into practice what it has for us.
So then, this analogy of the mirror is meant to help us think of the contrast between hearing and doing the Word. To only hear the Word is to forget it and miss out on the perfecting that it is meant to bring. Nor will the Word be to the saving of your souls as it was described back in verse 21 if we merely hear it. Instead, we are called to not forget what we hear in the Word but to keep it and look to live it out.
Let us turn now in our third point to consider the outcome of blessedness that James describes here for doers of the Word. That’s what the end of verse 25 speaks of. This language of blessed is the same word used in verse 12 about the crown of life we receive as we are steadfast in faith under trial. It is also the same word used repeatedly in the beatitudes in the sermon on the mount. It is the same word from Psalm 1 (LXX) that describes the blessedness of the man who walks not in the way of sinners but delights himself in the law of the LORD. This word of blessedness is sometimes translated as “happy”, not in a superficial sense, but in the sense of a deep-seated happiness, joy, and contentment from knowing the peace and blessing of God in their life. Or to put it in even more general terms, this sense of happy or blessed is the idea that it goes well with you. It will go well with the person who is a doer of the Word.
That’s not meant in a wooden and overly simplistic sense, because we know there are things in this life that will not always go well for the Christian, even when he is generally faithful in seeking to live out God’s commands. But the point is that God’s way is the best way and we should not seek to find true joy, happiness, and peace apart from the way God has told us to live our lives. That’s true in our horizontal relationships with other humans. It’s especially true in our vertical relationship with our God and Creator.
So then, we can think of ways this blessedness is found in the here and now as we look to live out God’s Word and not merely let it fall on deaf ears. Despite the fact that we live in a world hostile to God and his people, what God holds out in his Word still is what we need for true blessedness. In a big picture, despite the reality of suffering, sin, and death, here and now we can know peace with God and the hope of eternal life and the assurance of an ultimate victory over sin as we do what God’s Word calls us to do: repent of our sins and put our hope and faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. In terms of our everyday living then as Christians, looking to follow God’s Word generally bears good fruits. I think this is easiest expressed by examples. If you are always living in worry and anxiety, instead of seeking to put that off as the Word calls, you know it’s not good for your soul. On the other hand, if you bring your worries to God in prayer and seek his help to wisely put them off, you’ll tend to find greater peace from God. Another example, if you lie and gossip and slander, as God Word condemns, it usually will come back to haunt you. On the other hand, when you tell the truth and speak well of others, it can make for healthier relationships with others. God’s Word says what it says because God knows the ways that are best.
We can also think of how this blessedness by doing God’s Word is especially seen from an eternal vantage point. At the end of the day, sin and righteousness lead in different directions. As James has already pointed out, sin that is full grown produces death. The righteousness of God, on the other hand, leads to life. Of course, I’m not saying we are saved by our works. Rather, we’re talking about those who’ve been born again by God implanting his Word in our hearts. Our new spiritual birth not only looks to Christ’s righteousness for our justification. It also looks to Christ’s Word for how to seek to live righteously as he is sanctifying us. The end result will be our glorification when in the age to come we will be perfected in this righteousness. Then, as we see pictured in Revelation, our life will be one of blessedness and happiness and joy and peace in the full.
Do you see now why James can also describe the Word here as the law of liberty? So often people incorrectly think of God’s laws as a burden that takes away our freedom. But God’s laws are meant to bring out the fullest expression of what it means to be human. God’s laws are meant to free you to enjoy the righteous life which he purposes for you. True freedom in the best sense is to not be enslaved to sin but free to live in righteousness to the full. I think of drug addiction, by analogy. When you are addicted you are a slave to that drug. Sure, giving up that drug might seem to an addict like a burden and that it takes away your freedom to do that drug. But to be set free from that enslaving addiction and to get that “monkey off your back” is indeed liberating. That’s like us and sin. God’s law is to work liberty in us so that we can be free of our slavery to sin and begin enjoying the free and good life of righteousness. But that’s something we only enjoy as we “do it”. Personal growth in righteousness doesn’t just happen. It’s as we actually begin to put God’s Word into practice that we find the fruit coming.
Again, none of this is saying that we are saved by works. The fact that any of us even have faith or even look to do God’s Word is a gift from God. It’s all about grace, including our growth. But the way in which God graciously works our growth is through his Word speaking to us and we, by the grace of God, looking to do what it says. Today’s preaching of his Word is also God’s grace to you – he is graciously reminding you and hopefully also convicting you of the value of actually looking to live out his Word. Indeed, there is great value in the keeping of God’s Word. That’s what this third point of blessedness is reminding us. Let us see again how blessed we are when we do God’s Word. Even if we don’t see the blessing in the way we think or in the time we think, let us believe in faith that we are indeed blessed in the keeping of God’s Word.
So then, in conclusion, may we rejoice that God has given us such a good and perfect gift of his Word. May we be encouraged that God lovess us so much to give us such a law that perfects us and brings us true liberty. May we be spurred on today to be renewed in being doers of the Word. May we not neglect such a mighty means for our growth. May we not deceive ourselves that we will grow as a Christian if we neglect his Word. Rather, may we become all the more excited today to look to do his Word.
And yet to do his Word does require that we first, in fact, hear his Word. Let us be reminded then today to be in the Word regularly. May we keep looking to hear it in church, and in our homes, and in our own personal studies. May we be people who are regular students of it. But then let us look to live out what we’re learning for all the good and perfect reasons we’ve seen today. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.