Last time we finished up with verse 18 in which James said we were brought forth by the word of truth that we might be the first fruits among His creatures. He is speaking there in the phrase “brought forth” about our new birth, our spiritual birth. We are saved by grace, through faith, given new life in Christ, a new heart, new desires, a new way of living.
Then he says that we might be the first fruits among His creatures. That refers to our new life now that we are saved. He uses the analogy of a plant, which springs up in life, and then bears fruit in kind. And as we are now sons and daughters of God, our lives are to bear fruit which is like God. If we are born of God, then we are to bear the likeness of God, we are to live godly lives.
Godly lives is the produce of our new life in Christ. That’s what theologians call sanctification. We are conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. And as we walk by the Spirit, we produce the fruit of the Spirit. And Galatians 5:22 tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Now that fruit of our spiritual life is what James now turns to. He gives us several instructions for how we are to live and act, which are the fruit of a godly life. He moves from principles to practices. And I must say that sanctification is something that comes through practice. Sanctification is another way of expressing spiritual maturity. And Hebrew 5:14 tells us that maturity comes through practice. It says, “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”
So James begins these practical instructions for daily life with instructions concerning our speech. He says in vs 19, “[This] you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak [and] slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”
There is some debate among Bible scholars as to whether that opening phrase belongs to the previous verse, or this verse. I think it’s best translated this way, “My dear brothers, take note of this; everyone should be quick to listen…” In other words, James wants to emphasize that this is something important. Listen up, take note of this.
James thinks that the tongue, or our speech, is important. He will go on to say in chapter 3:8-10 “But no one can tame the tongue; [it is] a restless evil [and] full of deadly poison. With it we bless [our] Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come [both] blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.”
James says the tongue is full of poison. And we know that is true. Who among us have not been severely wounded by something that was said. You know, I still remember a few teachers from when I was in high school that said something that left a scar for decades afterwards. I remember in my junior year of high school, I was the junior class president. This one teacher was one of two advisors for our class. I worked with these teachers on class meetings and activities throughout the year. But this one teacher was a piece of work. She was just a mean woman, and she liked being mean. She waited to the last day of the school year, when I came to get something signed by her, to tell me that I was the worst President that they had ever had. She may have been right, I don’t know. I didn’t do a whole lot other than make a few remarks once a month at our class meetings. But why not tell me something when I could have made improvements? She did it obviously to hurt me. And 40 years later it still stings.
But all of you I’m sure can think of things that have been said in the past to hurt you. I’m sure if you’re like me, you remember three hurtful things for every one good thing that was said about you. So I’m sure we can agree that the tongue is a restless evil and full of poison. But maybe what we haven’t thought of too much is that what we say is important to God.
Notice then what James says. First he says, be quick to listen. I think he actually is talking about listening to the word of God. That’s who we are to take our cues from. I’m constantly being approached by people who want to teach. Who want to speak. But God is saying it’s more important to listen than it is to speak.
But also in practical social situations, we should be quick to listen. Many of our conversations with other people end up being contests in oneupmanship. As you are telling something that is on your heart, the one listening is nodding his head, but actually is thinking of what he wants to say in response. And many times, they end up interrupting you to tell you something that is even more exciting, or amazing, or terrible or whatever, than what you were saying.
If we really practice loving our neighbor, our brothers and sisters in the Lord, then we should be quick to hear, quick to listen, to lend a sympathetic ear. More good can be accomplished in counseling by listening, than by speaking. If you go see a good therapist or psychiatrist you will find that out. They are trained to listen, to prompt their client to speak. And in speaking, the client finds relief many times from his troubles. In the church, the same might be true. James says “confess your sins one to another that you might be healed.” There is great comfort in confession. But confession needs a listener. God wants us to be listeners.
Secondly James says we should be slow to speak. Slow to speak means that you hold your tongue. You don’t respond quickly, but you think about it first. Sometimes, it may mean it’s better not to speak at all. I remember hearing as a kid that you should count to three before responding. Then later I heard you should count to ten when you get angry. I don’t know how long you should wait to speak, but I will say that the longer the better.
And by the way, speaking includes comments on facebook and instagram and other social media platforms. There is a grave danger in those mediums in that what you have written ends up getting passed around to the wrong person. Or some deeper meaning you intended is lost in translation. Things you quickly respond to on social media have a tendency to blow up in your face later on. But what you have written you have written. You can’t take it back.
The same is true of hurtful things you say. You may apologize for it later, and they may say “that’s ok,” but I can assure you that 99 times out of a hundred it’s not ok. They will remember what you said for a long, long time. Be slow to speak. Let me also say this; if you don’t have much to say, people think you are smart. Proverbs 17:28 says, “it is wise for learned men to be silent, and much more for fools.” The quiet person in class always seemed to be the smartest person in class. Or at least we thought so. You seem smart when you’re silent, but when you open your mouth, you reveal your ignorance.
Third thing James says is be slow to anger. Let’s be honest. Anger feels good. We say we let some steam off. That means we had this boiling over in us, and it feels good to let it out and burn someone’s hair off. But James says man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
God is often spoken of in terms like the wrath of God. We sometimes hear about righteous anger. And maybe there is such a thing. I said last week that we must learn to hate what God hates. So there may be a place for righteous anger. But when James speaks of man’s anger, he is saying it’s not righteous anger. It’s anger that comes from impatience, or jealousy, or frustration, from hatred and other sinful desires. Anger is the opposite of the fruit of the Spirit. Rather than our actions, our words being guided by the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves guided by anger, which ends up hurting others. And people don’t respond well to anger. Our goal as Christians is to edify, to share the gospel, to bear testimony of God’s mercies. But if we share our anger instead, even if we think it is well deserved, it doesn’t achieve a good purpose in those people. They are turned off. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Therefore since anger does not achieve righteousness, James says, “putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.” Now understand that James isn’t introducing a new command here, but he is building on the previous commands. He is talking about speech, angry, abusive speech, filthy speech, ungodly speech, wicked speech. Put it away. Do away with it.
I know that foul language is a pretty common problem among Christians. I have often been shocked by what I thought were sound, mature Christians,, and yet under certain circumstances they cuss like a sailor. But James says, such things ought not to be. Look again at chapter 3, vs.10, he says, “from the same mouth come [both] blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” Christians cannot speak cursing and blessing at the same time. Even the unsaved people know that a Christian should not speak that way. They may curse along with you, but inwardly they take note of it, and as such they have an excuse why they think that the Christian life is fake, or for show, or hypocritical.
I will promise you this. If you sincerely pray and ask God to help you overcome that sort of speech, I believe the Lord will help you. I believe a Christian can have victory over his speech. And furthermore, God commands that we clean up our speech. And He will not command us to do something that He will not enable us to do.
Now I think as Christians we are to put away all kinds of filthiness, and wickedness, in all forms. But I think specifically James is still talking about speech here. Because he then gives the antidote, which is to receive God’s speech, God’s word, which He says is able to save your souls. Notice though he prefaces that implanting by saying that it must be received with humility. Humility is brokenness. The ground that is broken up is able to receive the word implanted.
Jesus talked about the different kinds of soils in the parable of the sower. He said the seed is the word of God. It’s cast by the preacher over the field, which is the world. Some seed fell on rocky soil, some fell on the by way. Some fell on thin soil and it sprung up but then the thorns choked the life from it so it did not bear fruit. But some fell on good soil. And it found root there, and grew up, and bore fruit. I suggest that the good soil is the soil that was broken up, that had been tilled. That is a picture of humility. Not a proud heart, that must be first, that must say what they think, that must stand up for their rights, that must be independent. But in humility, in brokenness, the word of God can find root, and then when it grows, it bears fruit.
Now we are not saved by our works. Eph. 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, [it is] the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” But how do we have faith? Paul says in Romans 10:17 “So faith [comes] from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” So the word of Christ is heard, is believed, is received, and it washes us, it transforms us, it saves us. That’s yet another example of how hearing is better than speaking. We need to hear the word of God. We need to read it, we need to listen to it, and we need to heed it.
I heard about a couple that came to church and the woman had been in the nursery or something, and she asked her husband who was leaving the building, “‘What, is the sermon all done?’ ‘No,’ said the man, ‘it is all said, but it is not begun to be done yet.’” It starts with hearing, then receiving, and then applying what you have heard.
To that point, about applying what you have heard, James says in vs 22 “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” James will go on to extrapolate from this principle that faith without works is dead. Faith is not just an intellectual exercise. Faith is trust, believing, to the point of doing. Believing doesn’t mean just intellectual assent. But it means acting on what you believe to be true.
The Bible speaks of Abraham as the father of faith. Again and again the Bible says, “Abraham believed God, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” But Abraham didn’t just believe intellectually. He didn’t just give intellectual assent to the idea of God. But Hebrews 11 says that “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.”
If Abraham just gave intellectual assent to God but stayed in Ur of Chaldees, then he wouldn’t have had saving faith. Abraham had faith because he obeyed, he went out of Ur, he packed up and moved out to the place God told him to go. Faith is trusting God enough to act on His word. God does’t just give us His word to inform us, but to transform us.
James then turns to an analogy to help explain this principle. He says in vs 23-24 “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for [once] he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.”
We’re all familiar with looking in the mirror, aren’t we? Some of us like looking in the mirror more than others. I personally don’t like to look in the mirror very much. And consequently, my kids are always pointing out that I missed a spot shaving, or I have hairs growing where hair shouldn’t be, or I am losing my hair. I always think of that country music song by Waylon Jennings, where he said, “I look in the mirror with total surprise, at the hair on my shoulders, and the age in my eyes.” I think he was talking about having long hair, but I tend to see the hair that’s fallen out and laying on my shoulders. So anyway, we look in the mirror and we see our face, our body, and usually we try to improve it, to put makeup on, or pluck our nose hairs, or make an attempt to do a comb over to hide our bald spot.
But when James speaks of the mirror, he is likening the word of God to a mirror in which we see not our physical bodies, but we see our soul in the mirror of God’s word. And when we see the imperfections of our soul, when we see our shortcomings, our sinfulness, we should immediately deal with it. But instead James says, too often we just turn and walk away, and forget what kind of person that we really are as revealed in the word.
The antidote for that, James says, is to look intently at the law of liberty and abide by that law. Vs 25 “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the [law] of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.”
Don’t be confused by the phrase law of liberty, as if James is giving us the license to live as we please. The law of liberty is simply a synonym for the word of God. In Psalm 19 David says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul. The statues of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. By them is your servant warned, in keeping them there is great reward.”
God’s law is perfect. His word is perfect. And God’s perfect law gives liberty from the bondage to sin. As we live within the boundaries of God’s law we are free, we enjoy the liberties which God provides in that environment. But when we cross His boundaries, we find ourselves once again a slave to sin. The analogy could be made with the freedom we have in living in America. We are a free people. We celebrate our liberty. But we live in an environment of laws. If we go outside those laws, then we lose our liberty.
James says that there is something even better for us though. He says that when we abide in God’s law, not just hearing it but doing it, then we will be blessed in what we do. God blesses those who obey Him. There is a reward for those who keep the statues of the Lord, David said. Sometimes that reward may come immediately as a consequence of doing right, other times it may be in the future, when God will reward those according to their deeds at the judgement. But God promises a reward for obedience.
Now in keeping the law of God, the perfect law of liberty, we can call that being religious. We are living godly, seeking to live for God, which is the definition of religion. But James says if you don’t control the tongue, control your speech, then your religion is worthless. Vs. 26 “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his [own] heart, this man’s religion is worthless.”
It’s a terrible thing to be deceived. We talked about Eve’s deception last week. But what’s worse than that is to be self deceived. Because when you are self deceived, you don’t know that you are deceived. James says if you don’t bridle your tongue, or control your tongue, you have deceived yourself in thinking you are religious through what you think are religious duties, like going to church, or singing songs, or any number of other things you do which you think will please God. But according to God, if you don’t have control over your tongue, your temper, then everything else you do accomplishes nothing.
But James doesn’t want to end this section with a negative, so he concludes with the positive thing you can do, which is pure and undefiled religion. We should be religious, but to practice pure religion, and not defiled, not corrupted by personal pride or personal agenda, then James says we must do the following. Vs.27 “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of [our] God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, [and] to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
So there are actually two things we must do to have pure and undefiled religion. One is to visit orphans and widows in their distress. James is addressing here the social circumstances and conditions of his day which were epitomized by orphans and widows. These were people in that society that had no guardian or breadwinner in the family. They had no social services from the government that provided for them. In many cases they were destitute, unable to work, unable to provide for themselves. We don’t really have the same situation in our society, at least in America. But we do have the poor. Jesus said the poor you have always with you. There are many people who are destitute in our society. And there are even people in our church that have needs that they cannot meet, that are beyond their means. We may have to look a little harder, but we can find people that are in need of a person who will help them. It may not just be financial, it may be other ways.
My sister is a widow. She lost her husband about 5 years ago. They had been missionaries for about 30 years, and then he came down with a deadly respiratory disease. About three years later after he died, she lost her son to ALS. He was the son who lived closest to her. Now she is not destitute by any means. She has a job teaching piano. But there is a man in the church who has repeatedly given his service to her around her house to fix anything that she needs fixing. He does all the things a husband might have done. He takes her car to the shop when needed. He hangs pictures, fixes the toilet, changes out the washing machine. He tries to serve as a substitute husband for her. I don’t know that that is reproducible for everyone of us. But maybe if we thought about it, we could find someone who could use our help in some way. But in general, I think this command to visit widows and orphans is simply a specific example of the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Loving your neighbor is pure and undefiled religion.
The other part to pure and undefiled religion is to keep oneself unpolluted by the world. Our relationship with the Lord is likened in the Bible to a marriage. But when we gravitate back to the things of the world, the lusts of the world, the wickedness of the world, it’s as if we are cheating on our Lord to whom we owe our complete devotion to. When we are attracted by the world, and we give in to the lusts of the world, then we have in effect committed adultery against the Lord.
I don’t have time to give you a laundry list of all the ways you can sin against God, and follow after the world. I bet you could give me a pretty long list yourselves if you thought about it for a minute. But if I were to just pick the one area that James had in mind, I would bet you that he was thinking about our speech, talking like the world, speaking in anger, speaking rashly, speaking wickedness. That type of speech is a stain on our souls and a blemish on our testimony. And as James said at the beginning, we need to put that away from us, and practice slow speech, quick hearing, and be doers of the word, applying the perfect law of liberty to our lives in practical ways, every day. Let us be doers of the word, that we might receive blessing from the Lord.