James 1:22-25 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.
I grew up in a more rural area. There were lots of dirt roads and houses were usually quite a ways apart. On top of those things, there wasn’t much in the way of businesses, restaurants, or things to keep us entertained as kids. Frequently, my friends and I would pass time by driving around looking for stuff to do. As you can probably imagine, the combination of these things often left us board and free to wander into unwatched trouble.
One night in particular, I remember a group of friends driving around in two different cars. The car I was in got turned around and ended up heading the wrong way. Since we were out in the middle of nowhere, instead of continuing on to turn around in the next driveway, my buddy decided the best way to reverse direction was to go backwards as fast as he could and then turn the wheel sharply so that the front would slide around. To our underutilized teenage brains, this seemed like an awesome idea.
This is probably a good time to mention another unique geographical feature of my hometown. For reasons I still don’t understand, our roads typically had no shoulders and deep ditches on both sides. As you may have guessed, instead of coolly sliding around like cars do on TV, ours simply veered straight into the ditch. I remember sitting there for a moment staring at the tops of the trees across the street thinking, “We’re in trouble.”
Grace ,virtually every aspect of the Christian life is like the roads of my childhood; there is a godly path to walk in faith, with deep, dangerous ditches on both sides. In our passage for this morning, in calling his readers to remain on a particular stretch of the path of godliness, James focused a good deal of effort on describing a ditch he desperately wanted his readers to avoid (perhaps because they were already in it) and the benefits of staying on the right path.
Specifically, the heart of this passage is a call for God’s people to obey the Word of God no matter how counterintuitive it may be in light of their current circumstances. They ought to do so, James argued, because to do so leads to blessing, while failing to do so is total folly. Let’s pray for God’s help to understand, love, and obey.
THE ROAD OF GODLINESS
Look with me again at the beginning of this passage, at v.22.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
If you’ve been here with us for all of James, you know that this is the passage from which the series got its name. In many ways, the overall theme of James is God’s Word applied (especially in times of hardship). In this sense, walking the road of godliness—living as a Christian) means clearly and carefully taking in God’s Word and the responding to it as God calls us to. It involves hearing from God and then doing what God says (in that order). The simple truth James intended to communicate is that God graciously and benevolently tells us what He means us to do and He expects that we will do it.
Where our hearts are rightly tuned to God in this way, there is no ignorance, misunderstanding, disdain, indifference, fear, delay, or detour. Instead, there is knowledge, understanding, love, commitment, freedom, and instant and perfect obedience.
Grace, of course none of us are perfectly tuned in this way, nor will any of us be perfectly tuned until we die or Jesus returns. It is for that reason that Jesus came to die for us; to pay for our failure to live as God has made us to live. And yet, Jesus also came that we might not merely have our sins forgiven, but that we might also be completely renewed. Again, the renewing work of Jesus will not end until the next life, but it begins the moment we place our faith in Jesus as a mysterious combination of God’s power and our work (Philippians 2:12). God is gracious in giving His people the truth we’re meant to hear and the strength we need to obey. The path we must walk as Christians, James says, is the one where we receive His grace, listen to His commands, and whole-heartedly live as God calls us to.
The simple fact of the matter is that Holy Spirit empowered obedience is one of the most significant indicators of genuine, saving faith. As Protestants, we’re ever mindful and ever careful of any kind of good-works-based salvation. But in our mindfulness and carefulness, we must make sure that we don’t minimized the truly essential role of good works in the life of every Christian. Do you want to know if your faith is genuine, if you really are a Christian? God’s Word (James in particular) repeatedly teaches that your obedience is the first thing to check.
1 John 2:3-6 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
1 John 3:10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God…
Matthew 7:17 every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.
John 14:23-24 If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.
John 15:14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
In light of James’s words and these passages, we would all do well to consider carefully our perspective on and relationship with obedience to God. Is this your understanding of what God has called you to and made you for? If so, is it your eager aim? Is your life characterized by striving for glad-hearted obedience to the will of God, in light of the saving work of Jesus on your behalf?
If not, James says (as do John and Jesus in the passages we just read) you are deceiving yourself. Deceiving yourself about what? Deceiving yourself that you have been “brought forth by the word of truth” (18); deceiving yourself that you have genuine, saving faith in Jesus. You cannot be characterized by disobedience and have any legitimate confidence in the authenticity of your faith.
THE TWO DITCHES OF DISOBEDIENCE
Again, this is what James was calling his readers too. He helped them by stating this aspect of God’s will plainly. But more than simply naming this as the right aim of God’s people, James also helps his readers understand what was at stake in their obedience and disobedience. Let’s consider those things now by taking a look at the deep, dangerous ditch on either side of godly hearing and obedience.
Ditch One – Doers Only
James mentions only one of the two ditches connected to the obedience God requires. We’ll come to that ditch in a few minutes and spend most of our time on it, but I do want to quickly mention the second ditch as well.
This ditch is most often found by those who stop after James’s first three words in v.22 (“but be doers”). They act as if James didn’t have anything specific in mind for them to do; as if James intended to leave it up to them to decide what to do; as if James didn’t write the next three words (“of the word”) as well. For them, godliness is nothing more than Nike’s slogan, “Just Do It”—whatever “it” may be.
God’s people have always been vulnerable to falling into this ditch. Perhaps the most pointed biblical example is in 2 Samuel 6:5-7. Having recaptured the ark of the covenant from the Philistines, King David, along with 30,000 Israelites were bringing it back to Jerusalem.
And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. 6 And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. 7 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.
This might seem like an overreaction on God’s part, but it perfectly illustrates the fact that God is not interested in doers only. On the surface, Uzzah’s doing makes total sense, doesn’t it? The oxen stumbled, so he put out his hand to keep the ark from falling onto the ground. How could he have stood by and watched the ark crash down? Common sense says that would have dishonored God more than a simple touch, right?
Well, common sense never trumps God’s clear commands. God had explicitly forbidden the Israelites from touching the ark and, consistent with that command, God ordered the ark designed with rings on the sides so poles could go through them and people could carry the ark without touching it. The Israelites were also sinning when they put the ark on a cart (instead of carrying it as God commanded), which is what put Uzzah in the lose, lose situation where he acted as a doer and not a hearer also by touching the ark (which God had prohibited).
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and Sadducees, were unfortunate examples of this as well. In Matthew 23:15, Jesus harshly rebuked them for being doers only when He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” They worked hard at their own work instead of God’s.
People of this mindset make up a not-small percentage of professing Christians today. There are many who work fervently, sometimes at great cost, doing what seems like godliness to them. Their standard is typically little more than their own sense of things. Sincere as they might be, God is not honored when people aren’t doers of the things He has commanded, even as He isn’t honored when people are doers of things He hasn’t commanded (even if they do them under the (self-styled) banner of God).
We are not at all exempt from this temptation here. It happens every time people in our church busy themselves with tasks not aimed at discipleship. God hasn’t called us to be busy around the church with religious-seeming programs or events. He has called us to make disciples. Likewise, people at Grace fall into the doer-only ditch every time we build a house or meet some physical need in a manner disconnected from the gospel. The service God calls us to is always evangelistic service. God’s people end up in this ditch every time we do the work of Bible study, without a right understanding of the Bible. We fall into it every time we seek justice or reconciliation in ways not prescribed by God.
James has called the people of God to listen carefully to God’s Word and then bravely obey it. The first ditch, the one James does not directly mention here, is the ditch of being doers only; of being doers of our own will instead of God’s. It seems that James’s readers weren’t struggling in this area so he didn’t feel compelled to address it, but it is every bit a dangerous and foolish as the one he did mention. Let’s turn to that ditch now.
Ditch Two – Hearers Only
As I mentioned earlier, this second ditch—the hearers-only ditch—is the one James was most determined to help his readers avoid (or get out of). The context of v.22 suggests that James’s readers were familiar with the Word of God. There were things he needed to teach them, but it seems that James’s bigger concern was that they would put the things they’d heard into practice. Their main problem wasn’t a shortage of knowledge on the will of God, but a shortage of application of it in their trials. They knew what God wanted them to do, they just weren’t doing it. They were hearers only.
To help his readers understand both the meaning of his command and the seriousness of falling into the hearer-only ditch, James gave his readers a reason to avoid the ditch and a reason to stay on the road of righteousness.
1. Reason to Avoid this Ditch – Folly
There are plenty more reasons to avoid the hearer-only ditch, but the one James chose to highlight was that it’s absolute folly to listen to the word of God and then fail to obey it.
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.
Just think of the ridiculousness of this situation. Mirrors were different (finely polished metal rather than the crystal-clear glass we’re used to) and less common in James’s time, but it is almost certain that his readers would have had the opportunity to see themselves fairly clearly in a mirror on more than one occasion. They would have known what they looked like. It would have been entirely inexplicable for someone in their situation to forget their face. But James presses further.
To help his readers understand that it’s well beyond ordinary foolishness to be a hearer, but not a doer of God’s Word, He compared hearers-only to a man who, in addition to whatever glimpses he’d already gotten of himself over time, had just looked “intently,” that is, studied carefully his own, already familiar image in a mirror, taken a few steps away and completely forgotten everything he’d just and ever seen of himself. It really is—and is meant to be—almost impossible to imagine what kind of thing could explain such an experience.
The question we’re meant to ask ourselves is: Why is hearing God’s Word and then failing to obey it this foolish? The answer is tied to the nature of God’s Word. To understand what we have when we receive the Word of God is to realize that it’s 1,000,000x more foolish when God’s people have it and fail to obey it then it is to forget what we look like immediately after seeing ourselves in a mirror. In the last verse in our passage for this morning, James helps us to understand what God’s Word really is.
2. Reason to Stay on the Road – Blessing
What is the nature of God’s Word that makes it so incredibly foolish to hear and not obey? Consider again v.25.
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.
Do you see how James describes God’s Word? “The perfect law.” The “law of liberty.” That which causes the one who obeys it to “be blessed his doing.” Kids, that might not sound as awesome as it really is. If the specacularness of those claims isn’t already obvious, think on them with me for just a moment.
It is the law. That is, it is a description of what God demands and prohibits. The One who made you loves you enough to help you to see exactly what He made you for and how to live life as you were designed to live.
It is perfect. That is, it is without error or short-coming. There is nothing else you will ever encounter that is worthy of your complete trust. Even your best friends, who really want good things for you, are not perfect. God’s Word alone will never lead you astray.
It is liberty. That is, it is the one and only path to true freedom. This world is filled with people who feel the weight of guilt and shame and sickness and sin. In this way, his world is filled with people who (whether they realize it or not) are enslaved. God’s word offers genuine freedom (liberty) from every shackle.
And it is blessing. That is, it is the one and only path to fullness of life. Everyone, every single person, is on a quest for significance and satisfaction. The only questions are where we are seeking it and if we will find it there. James helps us to see that God’s word alone leads to true blessing—to true significance and satisfaction.
Do you see why it is such folly to be a hearer only? Do you see why it is far more foolish to have access to this perfect law of liberty and blessing and not obey it, then to look at your reflection in a mirror and immediately forget your own face?
Grace, it’s really hard to overstate the simple fact that obeying God’s Word is the only thing that makes sense. It is the only perfect and liberating guide to everlasting blessing. It is also the only true path to life and joy and satisfaction and forgiveness and fellowship and growth. Far from the cold, outdated list of restrictions that I grew up assuming it to be, James helps us to see clearly that obedience to God’s Word is not only necessary, but that it is an awesome gift, the only way to know true life and satisfaction.
Practical Ditch Observations
It is a real problem when people don’t have or ignore God’s Word but still claim to work for God (doer-only ditch). And it is another real problem when people have God’s Word but don’t put it into practice (hearer-only ditch). Before coming to the conclusion, I’d like to make two quick, practical observations to help us avoid these ditches and remain on the righteous road of clearly hearing God’s Word and then quickly obeying it.
First, it is often a right impulse that leads us into each ditch. It is right to want to get quickly to doing things to honor God. Likewise, it is right to want to be careful to understand God’s Word. By God’s design, this room is filled with people who more naturally experience one of those impulses more than the other. Rather than being a source of contention, these two groups with these two God-given inclinations are meant to work together to keep one another out of both ditches and on the road of life. As one more prone to the hearer-only ditch, I’m really thankful for the many people at Grace who are more inclined to act. I hope you feel the same way in reverse.
And second, those who grew up in a Christian home or who have long-been in a church that takes God’s Word seriously, are especially vulnerable to falling into the hearers-only ditch. We must be especially careful, therefore, to remember that there is a very significant difference between knowing all that God’s Word says about evangelism, and actually sharing the gospel with non-Christians. Likewise, there is a giant chasm between being well versed in the Bible’s teaching on orphan care and truly making a difference in an orphan’s life. It is one thing to know what holiness is according to the Bible and another thing altogether to fight for moral purity. And we might know everything there is about loving one another, without one ounce of love in our hearts.
What follows in the coming verses in James are many, many descriptions, examples, and commands of the doing that James has in mind. It is there that we hear what we are to do. The very next passage, for instance, calls all of God’s people to care for (not just care about) the most vulnerable among us—widows and orphans. Grace, by God’s grace, let us listen carefully to God’s Word. Let us be ever improving hearers. But let us also, by the grace of God, press on together to ever-increasing obedience. Let us continually encourage one another to put God’s Word into practices, not in the way of cold, calculated submission, but in the way of perfect, liberating, blessing, glad-hearted obedience for the glory of God. This is James’s charge to us and it is my charge to you: as those who have been given new life in Jesus and the power of the Spirit to obey, be not hearers only, but be doers also!