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“Doers of the Word”

James 1:19-27
Bob DeGray
January 28, 2001

Key Sentence

The Word of God should be practically applied to every area of life.


I. The Word and Anger (1:19-27)
II. The Word and Application (1:22-25)
III. The Word and Appropriate Application (1:26-27)


        Chuck Swindoll has a memorable, if a little dated, illustration in Improving Your Serve: “Let’s pretend you work for me. In fact, you’re my executive assistant in a rapidly growing company. As the owner I’m interested in expanding overseas. To pull this off, I make plans to travel abroad and stay there till the new office gets established. I take my family to Europe for six or so months, and I leave you in charge stateside. I tell you I’ll write to you regularly and give you direction and instructions.

        The months pass, and a of flow of letters are mailed from Europe and received by you at the national headquarters. I spell out all my plans and give detailed instructions. Finally, I return. Soon after my arrival I drive down to the office. I am stunned! Grass and weeds have grown up high. A few windows along the street are broken. I walk in to find the receptionist doing her nails, chewing gum, and listening to her favorite disco station. I look around and notice the waste baskets are overflowing, the carpet hasn’t been vacuumed. I ask about your whereabouts and someone in the crowded lounge points down the hall, “I think he’s down there.” Disturbed, I move that way, and finally find you finishing a chess game with our sales manager. I ask you to step into my office (which has been temporarily turned into the television room for watching afternoon soap operas). “What in the world is going on, man?”

        “What do you mean...?”

        “Well, look at this place! Did you get any of my letters?”

        “Letters Oh, yeah – sure, everyone of them. As a matter of fact... we’ve had letter study every Friday night since you left. We have even divided all the personnel into small groups and discussed the things you wrote. Some were really interesting. You will be pleased to know that a few of us have actually committed to memory some sentences and paragraphs. One or two memorized an entire letter! Great stuff!

        “OK, OK. – you got my letters, you studied them and meditated on them, discussed and even memorized them. But what did you do about them?”

        “Do? Uh – we didn’t do anything about them.”

        Our church’s vision statement says that we commit ourselves to learn and obey God’s word. If we believe James, then learning God’s word is important but obedience to it is even more important. James teaches us in clear and unambiguous language that we must be doers of the Word and not merely hearers who deceive ourselves.

        We find in our text for this morning, James 1:19-27 that the Word of God should be practically applied to every area of life. Each of the three short paragraphs in this section says something important about the application of the Word. The first paragraph, verses 19 to 21 teaches about God’s Word and our anger. James 1:19
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

        This is the second time in the letter James has addressed his readers as ‘dear brothers’ or ‘beloved brothers’. He often does this when he’s about to give difficult instructions. This time the command he gives is easy to understand but very difficult to live out. ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.’ These three things are almost a complete set of instructions for communication, whether between couples, or in families, churches, businesses or global politics. First, we’re told to be quick to listen - to listen well, to hear what people are saying, and process it. The famous psychologist Paul Tournier once said “listen to the conversations of our world, between nations as well as between couples. They are, for the most part, dialogs of the deaf.” Simon & Garfunkal, sang of “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening’

        All of us regularly have “conversations” in which we’re speaking, but the face and eyes of our “hearers” and their body language indicate that they do not hear. Sometimes our listeners are “on another planet,” sometimes they are so self consumed they cannot listen, other times they are so intent on what they want to say next they are not catching a word we are saying. And to be honest, you and I are often like this toward others. But Simon Kistemaker has said “listening is loving your neighbor as yourself; his concerns and problems are sufficiently important to be heard.” Listening requires interest in the other person, eye contact with them, sensitivity to their gestures and moods and silences, so that we can understand their needs.

        One of the key tools in listening is to shut up. James says it politely: ‘be slow to speak.’ Someone at the men’s study pointed out that “we have two ears and one mouth, therefore we should listen twice as much as we speak.” The Hebrew rabbis said: “the ears are always open, ready to receive instruction; but the tongue is surrounded with a double row of teeth to hedge it in, and keep it within proper bounds.”

        Proverbs, that great source of wisdom for right living, says a lot about our speech. Listen to these truths. Proverbs 10:19 “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” Proverbs 11:12 “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue.” Proverbs 13:3 “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.”

        Proverbs 17:28 “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” Proverbs 18:21 “The tongue has the power of life and death” Proverbs 21:23 “He who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles.”

        There are some people, and I’m not one of them, though I long to be, whose maturity is evident in how few words they say. They listen carefully, consider carefully, and speak carefully. And though they say little, their words are valued. This is the kind of speech James calls us to imitate, the kind Jesus modeled. With a few carefully chosen words Jesus could penetrate a heart, deflate an opponent, reassure the meek, or build-up the discouraged. He never said too much, but he never said too little.

        Quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Are you and I slow to get angry? We’re not just talking angry words or angry displays - we’re also talking about the internal feeling of anger, whether you bottle it up into bitterness or let it out in an explosion of rage - or both. This anger, James says, does not achieve the righteous life God desires - it doesn’t show his righteousness worked out in our lives. This isn’t because God never gets angry. It’s because his anger is always and invariably righteous anger, whereas our anger is almost always unjustified. James makes this distinction when he says man’s anger does not achieve God’s righteousness.

        So what is man’s anger? You know the answer. It’s anger when you are inconvenienced, when somebody cuts you off, when something you expected to take twenty minutes takes an hour, when your wife or children make demands on your time or energy. It’s selfish, self-seeking anger that obviously doesn’t reflect God’s righteousness. In addition, man’s anger can come from some hurt we have suffered. This can be physical - I got momentarily angry at one of my daughters recently and all she did was ask if I was OK. But she asked about three seconds after I’d whacked my head into the freezer door handle, and though I wasn’t hurt, I was in enough pain that I responded “No I’m not OK.” Then I apologized. The same can happen emotionally. When you have an emotional wound, or you are under stress you are often near the edge of anger. But it still isn’t justified. It is not God’s care for the innocent.

        A third anger is what we call ‘righteous indignation’ - anger over a wrong done. Of course if we presume a wrong has been done to us, that often takes us back to the first kind of anger, selfish anger - with righteous indignation as an excuse. But there are cases where a wrong done to someone should get us mad. Anger is justified and righteous then - but not rage or loss of self control. God, though angry, never loses control.

        But how do we control our anger? It is only by the application of the Word to the heart of the problem. You cannot do this on your own - but look at verse 21. “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” Do you want to get rid of moral filth and evil, especially anger, which is so prevalent? Humbly accept the word planted in you.

        Now what is this word? Look back at verse 18, just before the start of our section: “He” - God - “chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” It’s the word of truth, a phrase in the New Testament which is identified as the Gospel, the message of our salvation and rescue from sin. It is by humbly accepting this word of truth, planted in us at our new birth, that we are saved. But note the word humbly - it means without pride, recognizing that I absolutely need and depend on God for my salvation, and for rescue from anger or any sin that plagues me and brings forth evil. The key to the Christian life is humble acceptance of the Word of God: first, as revealing Jesus who saves me, and second, as having authority to tell me what to do and how to be. The Word of God must be practically applied to every area of my life: My anger, my listening, my words.

        This truth is brought out very strongly in the middle paragraph of our section. James 1:22 22Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.

        What is it that the Nike commercial says? “Just do it!” James agrees: don’t just listen to the Bible, but apply it to your lives - do what it says. Someone who merely listens to the Word but doesn’t let it affect his or her life is deceiving themselves. The Word has not been truly received until it is put into practice. Hearing is necessary and important: James isn’t against listening to the word. But what James strenuously opposes is any hearing of the word that does not lead to doing.

        In this emphasis James echos the teaching of Jesus, who says “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Luke 11:28. Douglas Moo adds “Jesus’ preaching is, of course, filled with the overwhelming, amazing wonder of God’s sovereign grace reaching down to sinful men in the gospel. But equally prominent is Jesus’ summons to radical obedience – an obedience that is the necessary human response to God’s grace. Both factors, the gracious initiative of God and the grateful response of man, are part and parcel of the gospel. The word, through which we are born into new life and which becomes implanted in us, is a word to be put into practice.”

        Those who fail to do the word, who are hearers only, suffer a dangerous and potentially fatal self-delusion. James says people who only hear the word deceive themselves. They think that they have a relationship with God because they regularly attend church, go to Bible studies or have family devotions. But if their listening is not accompanied by obedience, their true situation before God may be quite different. Self deception can sometimes extend even to the issue of our own salvation.

        People find it hard to be honest with themselves. I heard about a dieting documentary on PBS. Scientists were testing to see if overweight people had a different metabolism. They kept saying they gained weight while eating the same amount others. But then a new technique was used that tracked exactly how many calories were being consumed. One dieter reported 850 calories of intake: the test showed it was more like 3,300; and this kind of result was found over and over. The dieters didn’t mean to be dishonest, but they deceived themselves. “The heart,” Jeremiah teaches, “is deceitful above all things.” Are we really doers of the word, or are we deceived?

        James explains the distinction in the rest of the section. He uses the illustration of a man who looks into a mirror, and sees his own reflection, but when he walks away he forgets what he has seen. This is contrasted to the man who looks into the perfect law that gives freedom. He can walk away from this looking, and remember what he is truly like, remember what he has heard, and respond to the perfect law.

        But what is this law? Simply the Old Testament Law? I don’t think so. Remember that James has already identified the Gospel as the word of truth. Now he identifies the word of truth as the perfect law. He’s talking about the law as understood in light of the Gospel. For example: James calls this law perfect or complete. But we know James is familiar with the teaching of Jesus who said he had come to complete or fulfill the law, that the law pointed to him. When we look into the perfect law we see Jesus. It was his law-keeping that qualified him to rescue us from lawbreaking.

        In return, it is our imitation of him, devotion to his teaching and gratefulness that call us to obedience. James says that this is a law of liberty, a law that brings freedom. We are no longer slaves to law, bound to keep it without error and damned if we don’t. Instead, through Jesus the law has become our teacher; a guide; wisdom for right living. We are gratefully guided by it rather than fearfully enslaved to it. The greatly loved Bible teacher Henrietta Mears knew the secret of true freedom. “A bird is free in the air. Place a bird in the water and he has lost his liberty. A fish is free in the water, but leave it on the sand and it perishes. So the Christian is free when he does the will of God and is obedient to God's command. This is as natural a realm for the Christian as the water is for the fish, or the air for the bird.”

        When we consider the Scriptures and apply them in the light of the Gospel, James says we will be blessed in what we do. So the question is, have you done this? Do you read the Word of God for application, asking seriously to see what in your life might need to change, and how that change can happen? Do you allow the Scriptures to really have authority over how you behave from moment to moment? To do this takes wisdom, because the commands of Scripture have to be understood in their contemporary implications. It takes practice: it is a skill we must learn. It takes determination, because the heart is deceitful. And above all it takes submission - the fixed idea that the Holy Spirit has the right to tell me what to do by God’s Word.
        The third section of our text will help us in this endeavor to apply Scripture to our lives. James 1:26-27. 26If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

        Here are three examples of appropriate application of Scripture, set in contrast to what James calls simply ‘religion’. This is a rare Greek word, carefully chosen. It means outward religion, an external religious show. A dictionary says “religious worship, especially external: that which consists in ceremonies.” In the present verse it refers to attendance on the exercises of public worship, as well as other observances of religion such as alms giving, prayer, and fasting.” R. Kent Hughes lists three areas in which outward religion is common among us. The first is vocabulary. One is considered a Christian if they use the vocabulary of the evangelical church. Words like “fellowship,” “brother” and “saved” are passwords: use them with the right inflection and you’ll be considered Christian. The second is the keeping of social conventions. If you show the right attitudes toward alcohol and tobacco, social issues, modesty and style, you’ll be thought religious or pious. Finally, external religion is found in worship. If we carry a Bible and are a little familiar with it, if we attend church regularly, sing the hymns and choruses, apparently listen, and especially if we give, we can easily deceive ourselves into thinking we are properly and adequately religious. Our doing can produce a deadly religious delusion.

        This analysis by Hughes points out to the critical need for the right application of biblical truth. We cannot simply look at the commands of Scripture and pick and choose those which would show us in the best light to others, without taking to heart the radical need for change in our own lives: without applying the Scripture to that.

        The three categories of application mentioned in these two verses are not only great examples, they are also so diverse that I doubt any of us can walk away without seeing at least one opportunity for change. The first is something James has already mentioned, and to which he will return in chapter 3: control of the tongue. “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” James undoubtedly remembers the words of Jesus that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” Such things as filthy or unwholesome talk, lying, and gossip, slander, and raging are the sinful products of a corrupt heart overflowing into an uncontrolled tongue.

        True religion, by contrast, learns to control the tongue, just as a tight rein keeps control of a powerful horse. Let’s not have the epitaph found on a stone in a remote English cemetery which reads: "Beneath this stone a lump of clay; Lies Arabella Young; Who on the 24th of May; Finally began to hold her tongue." Maybe the application you need to take from James is better control of the tongue while still living.

        The second practical application is in verse 27: “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress...” Orphans and widows were the most helpless people in Jewish society, because they had no way to provide themselves food, clothing, or shelter. James uses them as representatives of all who are in need. Religious acts, no matter how reverent, are empty if there is no concern for the needy.

        The Evangelical church and other conservative churches in this century have tended to to applaud evangelism and disparage social caring. The liberal churches and mainline denominations have applauded social concern and disparaged evangelism. But it was not always so. William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army balanced social concern with a strong emphasis on the gospel message. Dwight Moody helped orphans in his boys and girls homes, and yet never strayed away from the truth of the gospel which was powerful to change their lives.

        All too often today we Christians find ourselves not caring either way. We don’t have the evangelistic zeal of a Moody, nor the caring heart of a Booth. My plea, my goal is that each of us would find those one or two areas where God wants us to be radical, to take steps of faith. If these are steps of faith in evangelism, wonderful. If they are steps of faith in caring for those in need, wonderful. In fact, evangelism is care for people at the level of their deepest needs. And social concern is evangelism if done as an example of the caring love of Jesus, and with his name and his gospel. So I don’t care what you do in response to James – but do something, sometime. Let God get hold of your life, and make some radical choice that requires you to go out on a limb to care for others. Those among you who have done this have no regrets, though they may be ripped off at times and criticized at others.

        Years ago the Chaplain magazine told how the noted preacher Charles Spurgeon and his wife were called miserly because they sold all the eggs their chickens laid and never gave any away. Because they always made a profit on their butter, milk, and eggs, rumors circulated that they were greedy. The Spurgeons, though, took the criticism graciously and only after Mrs. Spurgeon’s death was the truth revealed. The records showed that their entire profits had been used to support two needy, elderly widows whose husbands had spent their lives serving the Lord. Because the Spurgeons didn’t want to call attention to their giving they hadn’t defended themselves.

        The third area of appropriate application is purity. The end of verse 27: “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” We are all ecologically sophisticated enough to know how pollution works. It’s not that major amounts of pollutants are released into the air and water. Compared to the volume of air and water the amounts are relatively minor. But even small amounts of pollutants can render large amounts of air and water incapable of supporting life. These systems are in a delicate balance, and it is easy to locally upset that balance. so that great damage results. In the same way, a small amount of pollution from the world - pollution of our thought lives, pollution of our ethical stances, pollution of our use of time, our values, our priorities, can upset our Christian lives and render us useless and miserable. Like the Dutch boy at the dike we know instinctively that there are some little leaks that if we take our finger off the hole will enlarge to become a catastrophe. This may be true in allowing a little sexual sin into your life, allowing anger to be OK at times when it’s really not, allowing laziness to overwhelm your discipline just once too often, or whatever. You’ve got to keep your finger over that beginning of a leak, so that you can live more in holiness and purity.

        True religion - that is, true faithful dependence on Jesus - allows you to get a handle even on those sins that have characteristically tripped you up. A previous generation would have called them ‘besetting’ sins. You know the areas of your great weakness - you know where you have fallen in the past. An evidence of the true work of the Holy Spirit in your life is change in those areas. I know some of you well enough to know that you have seen substantial victory over your besetting sins. Not absolute victory - God rarely allows that - but substantial victory, substantial transformation from what you used to be. Some of you know me well enough to know that I’ve had similar experience with some - but by no means all - of the sins I struggle with. The real evidence of God’s word at work in your lives is when you can be a doer of the word even in your area of weakness.

        So how will you practically apply the Word to your life? James teaches clearly that we are to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. Normally I close a sermon with a story or illustration that shows the application of the truth. But today I want you to tell the story: tell yourself the story of how your life can be different if you will become a doer of the Word in a specific area of application. I’ll let you think and pray about this for a few minutes then I’ll close in prayer.

        Write yourself a story - and then live it.