Series > James: The Wisdom of Faith
The Wisdom of Doing
Ryan TOmpkins // January 13, 2019
scripture Passage // James 1:17–27 (ESV)
“ 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 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.
26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. 27 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.”
Last week we started a new sermon series in the book of James, and what James holds out for us is a vision or a picture of very practical wisdom, wisdom for a living kind of faith. And particularly what James has for us this morning is a massive emphasis on the importance of the Word. What James will say is that the Word is what actually gives us life, we must be intimate with the Word, and apart from doing the Word we never are actually being transformed by the Word. So if you long for a transformation that comes by virtue of the gospel, understand that James is going to challenge you today, and say that transformation only comes by doing the Word.
If you're only a hearer of the Word, don't expect to change. All right, God's work is done in the midst of transformation, and really remarkable language about the Word this morning. He will say that the Word is what brings you forth, as God rescues you. Gonna say the Word is what saves your souls, the Word is that which is implanted in you. The Word is that which you must receive, right, and the Word, doing the Word, is what results in receiving and enjoying the blessings of God. Really remarkable language about the Word and how it plays out.
So the way we're gonna attack it this morning, is to consider first being born of the Word, two, living by the Word, and three, being blessed by the Word. Born into the Word, living by the Word, and being blessed by the Word. So first of all, what does it mean to be born of the Word? Well in verse 18, James states that God has brought us forth, meaning He's rescued a group of people that are intended to be the church, identified by His will in this world. And that those people, the church, are intended to be a kind of first fruits of His creatures. What does that mean? That we are intended to be a first fruits of His creatures?
Well, first fruits is an idea that comes from the Old Testament, when you had grew something, say you're an apple farmer, and you bring in the first of the harvest, it's considered the best part of the entire harvest, and you would commission it to God, you would give it to God as a gift to represent that you recognize that all good things come from God. This was the notion of first fruits, and it was a way to honor God in the Old Testament. Well, what does it mean then when James and Paul both will talk about us as first fruits? That we're the beginning of a harvest that God is engaged in, of people in this world.
Well the first thing that you have to realize is that you're not the first, first fruit. Who is? Well, Jesus is the first, first fruit. Paul will write in First Corinthians 15:20, "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep." So Jesus, in his resurrection, begins a harvest of people who will be unified to him, and those who are unified to him become this kind of first fruit, putting on display to the world the power of God and his resurrection in this world, his intent to make all things new. This is what James is writing to the church, he said, "This is what you're called to do and to be in your union with Christ."
Well, does that mean we are first fruits, resurrected first fruits now. How does this actually play out, what are we talking about? You could ask the question, are you resurrected? Well, no, in the sense that you're not even dead, right, you're sitting here alive. So if you haven't died yet, you couldn't be resurrected yet. But on the other hand, scripture says unequivocally yes, you are resurrected. In Roman six, Paul will say, "You have died with Christ, you have been buried with him, and you have been raised with him." So by virtue of your union with Christ, you are indeed resurrected, and thus first fruits putting on display the resurrection power of God in this world.
This is what, in fact if you were to ask, say where do you see the authority of God put on display, where do you see resurrection at work, the answer should be, well, you look at the church. You look at the first fruits of God's harvest, and this is where it's put on display. Well that's a high calling. How in the world do we go about really being those first fruits on a regular basis? How does that play out? Well we learned first, in verse 18, that it begins by understanding that we are brought forth by God, how? He, God, brought us forth by the Word of His truth. We are brought forth, we are rendered, we are brought into existence, by the Word of God. That is what initiates our being in this first fruits, resurrected state.
So we're brought forth by the Word, we're first fruits, we're supposed to put on display resurrection. What does that look like? If I were to ask you right now, okay, you, Joe, what does it actually mean for you to be a first fruits of resurrection? What does it mean for you to put this on display for the world, what does it mean for you to understand that you are brought forth by the Word of God's truth? What does that look like? Not just what is it theologically, or how do we wax eloquently about it, but what does it look like, and of course, this is where James is gonna go, because he's so practical. And he's going to move now from, understand that you've been born of the Word, to instructing you on how to live by the Word.
And again, for James, our entire life is to be informed by God's word. Now, the Word for James certainly means the Old Testament. We already said last week that James is probably one of the first books of the New Testament, so he's not referring to the New Testament, but certainly his notion of Word, when he uses that language, it encompasses Jesus' fulfillment of the Old Testament. It's the Gospel that he's talking about. And so, he goes on to talk about this putting, you know, what does it look like to be first fruits, what does it look like to put resurrection on display as first fruits, what does it look like to be brought forth by the Word, and in verse 19 James writes, "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."
Okay, what is James after here? Is James really just after that the church should be characterized by very good manners? Is that the intent, that, you know, we're supposed to be slow to speak. Quick to listen, don't interrupt, be a good listener, don't be too angry. Well, James is indeed after something much bigger than how this passage is usually read. This is one of those passages in the New Testament that is often misread, and misapplied. James is certainly writing this because in some ways, his people are being quick to speak, and they're being slow to hear, and they're being very quick to become angry. But the real question then becomes, well what are they being quick to speak about? What are they being slow to hear? And what are they being quick to anger over?
We realize at this point that James has actually got a pretty sustained stream of thought throughout this passage, and the context of the whole is about the Word. If you look at the end, in verse 21, James writes, "Receive with me the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls." Ah. We realize we're still talking about the Word. And now James in verse 18 stresses ... or in verse 21 stresses that this word is both implanted in you, God has sovereignly put it there to renew you, and it must be received. You must respond to the Word. As always we see the delicate balance between God's sovereignty and our responsibility.
Now, if you're to consider, just verses 18 through 21, you realize that at this point, we're brought forth by the Word of truth, we're called to receive the Word, which is also implanted. Now that's a pretty complicated Word. There's a lot going on. Now, what you have to do is go back to verse 19 and understand verse 19 is in the context of the Word, and the church's appropriation of the Word. So what James is in effect saying is that hearing isn't just hearing, it's hearing the Word. Speaking isn't just speaking, it's speaking in place of the Word. Getting angry isn't just anger, it's thinking your anger will achieve in its own means the goals of the Word.
This isn't just a lesson in ethics, where we often say hey, you really, be slow to speak, and quick to listen, and you'll be a fairly nice individual who loves Jesus. That isn't what James is after at all. He's saying, you have to be really quick to hear the Word, and you have to be very slow to speak your own words, instead you should be able to speak the words of scripture. And you shouldn't be getting angry to achieve your own righteousness, your anger never achieves the righteousness of God. Instead, you should adopt a certain meekness. Okay, so what does this mean? Well, first and foremost, if James is actually saying, you need to be hearing, right, the Word, it means that we would be reading it quite often.
If he's saying, be quick to hear the Word, that means on a regular basis. Daily. We're in the Word, we're hearing what it has to say. Saying, how does this speak into my life? How does this speak into the world, how does this help me to understand? And this is why, again, it's a reminder, what's the first part of Rockwall Pres's mission statement? It's cross, and what do we mean by cross? It means understanding the world and ourselves from God's perspective. How do we do that? By being informed by the Word. Which is why we sit here on Sunday morning and talk about the Word. It's why we have RPC classes that we would sit and be informed by the Word, and talk about the Word, so that we can challenge one another, sharpen one another, and understanding that Word in how we should be shaped.
And friends, I mean this passage is gonna get pretty intense pretty quick, but if you're already sitting here, and thinking, "I don't spend much time in the Word at all," understand that James is saying to you, how do you think change takes place? You're brought forth from the word. The Word is implanted in you, you are required to receive the Word, and if you're not being serious about the Word, James very shortly is gonna say, you're not serious about faith at all, so stop fooling yourself. But we'll throw it out there now.
And secondly, if I'm supposed to be quick to hear the Word, what does it mean then that I would be slow to speak my own words, rather than the Word. Again, I would have to be drinking so deeply from scripture, that when I enter into a certain situation, and am inclined to say something to someone, I'm not just giving my own advice, but I first ask, what does the Word say to this situation? And I speak out of the Word first. That means really, I've not only read the Word, but I've studied, I've memorized it on various occasions, so that my words start to be saturated with the Word of God.
Last week I preached to you, we considered the first part of James, in which James says, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you face various trials." I don't wanna preach that. I know some of your trials, your trials are very difficult, and it's very difficult even for me to see where that joy exists in the midst of that trial. But what's my alternative? I give you my words? What good is that going to do you? My role is to give you the words of scripture, and your role to one another is to speak scripture to one another. Not to offer your own counsel, not to offer your own advice, right, but speak the Word into a situation, right. Slow to speak, slow to speak your own words, and rather be able to speak the words of scripture.
And lastly, what about your anger? Some of you know a lot more about anger than others. You live in a world of anger, and how often is your anger accomplishing the righteousness of God? Never. Pretty seldom. It's interesting that James would say no, your anger isn't going to accomplish the righteousness of God, what is? If you're committed, you get frustrated by a situation, and you think, ah I wanted to exert some justice. I want something right done, I want a situation changed, I'm going to flex my own muscles. And James says, don't bother. Because you're not going to do what God wants to see done. Instead, receive with meekness the implanted Word. Not necessarily the picture of strength, and power we sometimes gravitate towards as Westerners, instead, a picture that reminds me a lot of Jesus. A meekness. A reliance upon God's word rather than his own resources, a complete humility and obedience.
And you can think of thousands of ways this would play out all the time, right, in any given week. Say I get really anger with Jennifer. And of course, right, scripture's there, and I'm thinking, she is not respecting me as Paul instructs in Ephesians five, and I am frustrated and fed up, and I am angry, and I'm gonna let my anger pour out, and it's going to affect and change the situation. And of course, my anger doesn't accomplish the righteousness of God. What would it look like in that situation instead, to with meekness receive the implanted Word?
Well, I'd have to be saying to myself, well, maybe before I speak Ephesians five to my wife, I should speak it to myself. Am I loving her as Christ loved the church, in the same way that I'm expecting her to respect me? Oh, and suddenly, I have a new humility. I'm hearing the word that is implanted, and asking what the Word says to inform my situation, rather than simply operating out of my own anger to affect my own justice. Instead, I am shaped by the Word, and as a result I look a lot more like Jesus.
Well, if this is so freeing, right, James is actually gonna call this the law of liberty, that you would be set free by hearing it and obeying it, what does it really look like to receive with meekness the implanted Word? James doesn't leave you hanging. He goes on to tell you what it looks likes is to be a doer of the Word and not a hearer only. This is how you know that you are receiving with meekness the implanted Word. And the analogy James uses here, he says, "Lots of people will look at the Word, and they'll be hearers only." And this is what that's like, it's like looking at a mirror, now for this analogy to work you really have to have a better understanding of how mirrors functioned in the first century.
A mirror is a luxury item. Most people have no access to a mirror, and most people have no idea what they look like. You think, today, you look at yourself many, many times during the day, and you have a pretty good notion of what you look like. In the ancient world, most people had no idea what they looked like. It would be a rarity that you would stumble upon a mirror that you could even use, and mirrors were not that great on top of that. They were just polished metal. There was no glass, no mirror reflecting your image, and so you got kind of a hazy image of what you looked like, and then you wouldn't see yourself again for years. And so when James says, you know, you get this glimpse of who you are, and see yourself, and then walk away and forget all about it, his people were like, yeah. Okay, that's exactly what happens. I have no idea what I look like.
James says, that's what a hearer of the Word is. Someone who can read it, spent time in it, but ultimately goes from that and doesn't do anything, their life doesn't change, they don't receive that Word if it's implanted, and as a result of not doing they don't actually change. And they forget who they're supposed to be, who they're called to be and what they're supposed to look like. And when you forget what you're supposed to look like, and who you're called to be, then you're left to just make it up as you go along. Which is why James just got done telling us last week, right, that without living out of this intimacy in the Word, we're like a wave of the sea that's tossed to and fro.
The wind blows us wherever it will. There's no direction, there's no unity, there's no accomplishment. You're simply at the disposal of whatever seems to be the priority in a given moment, which is a lousy way to live, even though more and more people are living that way all the time. But to receive the implanted Word, and to be a doer, right, is to look at the Word and to see, this is who I'm called to be. This is what I'm supposed to look like. And I go and then do that, I then become conformed to the image of Christ. But I'm so forgetful, I need to open it again, and again, and again. And this is James' desire, he's encouraging the body, he says, you have to be gazing regularly and intently at the Word.
This is what's going to show you who you are intended to be, and it's only with that image constantly in front of you that you move in the right direction, and continue to remain faithful. This is what he's saying in verse 25 if you'll look there with me. "But the one who looks into the perfect law," perfect because it has been completed by Christ, "The law of liberty," liberty because it sets you free from the shackles of sin to be like Jesus if you obey it. "And perseveres," this takes effort, "Being no hearer who forgets, but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing." Blessed, including being transformed as first fruits.
Now, this is still sounding a little bit abstract. Surely at this point it's not, it's not difficult to understand being a doer of the word and not a hearer only. James will go on to give us a very practical example. He says, "If you think you are religious, if you think you have faith," kudos for you. But if at the same time you can't control your tongue, then you have deceived your heart and your religion is worthless. Those are pretty serious words. James is saying is, you can be a hearer of the Word, and you can think you're doing quite fine in your faith, and in your religion, okay. What does your doing show?
If you open the Word and read its exhortations about how our tongue should be used to build others up rather than to tear them down, and you go from there and then you gossip, and you tear other people down, or you call people names, your religion isn't serious at all. You're not a doer of the Word, you're not being transformed. Your religion is actually worthless. Not only that, but you notice in verse 26, it's self deception. We trick ourselves into thinking, oh, I'm doing quite well. I've read so much Bible, and I really haven't done anything egregious, and when I look to my left and my right these other people are doing much worse than I am, and so I'm doing okay.
But that's ... what are you doing? What mirror are you using? A mirror of the world, a mirror of standards that's not intended to be your standard, the Word is intended to be your standard. So when you hold up the Word as the mirror, what does it truly show? Oh, well I have quite a long way to go. My heart is far from loving God, my heart is far from loving my neighbor. And I'm very, very reluctant to make any serious sacrifice on behalf of anybody. And if that's the case, then how can I say anything but I'm self deceived, and my religion is worthless?
This is what James would call us to account in. And he goes on, and he doesn't leave us thinking, you know, what does true religion look like. For James it's not that difficult. And friends, I can't tell you the number of people who have come in over the years, maybe you're sitting here today, where they will wax eloquent. They'll tell you how much reading in the Bible they do. I knew ... somebody came in once, and they said they were going through a season where they read through the Bible every six months. That's a lot of reading. That's a pretty serious pace. And they would wax eloquent on theology to a certain extent, but if you asked them to show you, what are they doing that actually gives evidence of their faith, they had a portfolio of blank pages.
James isn't asking, right, how much time have you spent studying, James is asking, how has the Word informed changes in your life by which you go forth and put the first fruits of resurrection on display? Which is why he goes on immediately to say that pure and undefiled religion is what? It's to care for widows and orphans in their distress. To visit them, that's what it means. The language there is to care for them. To help them in their distress, to alleviate their pain and their suffering, to bind up their wounds. And then second, the person of true faith will keep one's self unstained from the world. A commitment to actually doing, doing on behalf of those who are oppressed, and doing on behalf of keeping one's self pure and unstained. Even while being of service to the world, keeping one's self unstained by the world.
Now, that's a big ... I mean that's heavy, isn't it? You have such tendency to be self deceived, and if you're self deceived your religion is really worth nothing. Are you a doer of the Word? What are you doing on behalf of the widow and the orphan? What are you doing to make sure that you keep yourself unstained by the world? It might be such a calling that we might just like to back up and so often as we do this say, "Well, at the end of the day, Jesus' grace is enough, and all my sins are forgiven. And I'm just ... this is really heavy, and I'm kinda convicted, and I don't wanna make changes so I'm just gonna back up."
And of course you fall right into the trap that James is trying to hold out for you. And so as an encouragement, don't underestimate the blessing that is at stake, right. We're not just talking about obedience, we're talking about your freedom and joy. And if you want freedom and joy, it means moving forward in terms of doing, and not being a hearer only. If you look at the, what's held out to us. If you look first at the end of verse 21, James says, "The Word is able to save your souls."
Now, souls here is ... it means the whole person. It's not some notion that it's just your soul and your life is gonna be junk, you could easily translate this phase, "Which is able to save your lives." And what James is saying is that obedience to the Word will actually preserve you in this life. It will keep you from making the wrong step toward sin that will consume you and devour you, and keep you on a path that actually yields abundant life.
And, of course, it will preserve you for the life to come, but this is the blessing ... one of the blessings ... of actually doing the Word. That it will make your life better. You ... now, I'm not saying you won't suffer. You won't suffer your own foolishness. You won't suffer sin if you're busy about doing the Word. Will you suffer, sure you'll suffer. We're all suffering, right. That's not the point. But you won't suffer the nonsense that comes with sin if you're busy about doing the Word. Secondly, those who continually look at the Word, and only those who continually look at the Word, are the only people who have a true sense of what the self should be.
We live in an age in which people are going crazy trying to figure out who they are. Who am I, what am I supposed to do, what am I called to accomplish, right, who am I is the question of the day for most of ... particularly the younger generations ... in the west. And they have to ask it, because there's no definition they accept of who they are. But for the believer, and the reader of James, James says, this Word is who you are. This Word is who you're called to be, and if you get busy about doing that, then everything else will fall into place, because that is your identity.
And third, you get to practice a true religion, and have confidence. Confidence in that your obedience pleases the Father, and that you're not actually self deceived. It's a hard place to always wonder, am I really doing the Word, or am I a hearer only? And if I'm a hearer only, then as a result of that, my religion is actually worthless, and that's a scary place to be. So you know the peace of actually being obedient to the Father. And it's in these three ways, enjoying these blessings of being a doer of the Word, that we actually move forward to be a kind of first fruits of God's creation. Being those first fruits is being a doer of the Word and not a hearer only, and it's only in this way that we enjoy the law of liberty, that it sets us free. How does it set us free? When we're obedient to it.
Father, we give you thanks for your obedience ... your perfect obedience, Lord Jesus, under the Father, that you were obedient indeed unto death. We ask that you would forgive us this day, for so often we would move forward, and we are not mindful of your Word. We're very slow to hear, we're very quick to speak, and we're very quick to become angry. Is it not so because we have spent so little time in your Word, and not taken it seriously, and have been so reluctant to be a doer of the Word, and not a hearer only?
Would you make us doers, this day? Would you help us, convict us. Let the Spirit come and show us where you would have us to move forward, and in one way to be a true doer of the Word, and not a hearer only. And in this way, may we become true first fruits of the resurrection to your creation. May we put your resurrection on display, and may we know the true joy of the law of liberty. We ask it in Christ's name. Amen.