This section in the Book of James defines the type of thinking and behavior that constitutes the “bottom line” in what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
There has always been debate over various issues in the religious world. Our brotherhood is no different. Our journals and books are filled with passionate arguments over topics such as proper elements of worship, methods of evangelism and approaches to biblical interpretation. The early church was not free from this type of problem either. For example:
- Methodology versus responsibility: In Acts 6, a dispute over the distribution of food.
- Gospel of grace: In Acts 15, acceptance of Gentiles into the church.
- Freedom versus tradition: In I Corinthians, questions about the proper procedure in worship, and freedom in what people could and could not eat.
Does this not sound familiar? We should neither be surprised nor discouraged with debate and controversy in the church, it has always been and will always be until, “When the perfect comes, the partial will be done away” (I Corinthians 13:8). I believe that Paul not only refers to the full revelation of the Word here, but also the full accomplishment of everything in that Word. In other words, when all that is revealed in God’s word fully matures (such as the coming of Christ) we will finally have the knowledge and insight that will bring us into perfect unity and harmony with each other. In the meantime, there is still a struggle in the kingdom, and a multiplicity of opinions on a variety of issues that require patience, love, continued prayer and study in order to maintain unity.
However, this does not mean that we cannot come to concrete conclusions about significant points. We are not agnostics who throw up their hands and say, “if we cannot have a uniform opinion on one point, there is no use in trying to agree on others” and then use this as an excuse to drift off into disbelief. This is irresponsible. The entire book of James is a testimony to the idea that despite the disputes, we can still get to a common understanding about different aspects of the Christian religion.
This next section in James’ letter actually sets the tone for the rest of the epistle by clearly defining what type of thinking and behavior constitutes the “bottom line” in what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Bridge — 1:16-18
Verses 16-18 of chapter 1 form a bridge between the discussion about the mechanics of temptation and sin in general to the specific thought and behavior indicative of the Christian way of life. Remember, our general theme is that Christianity is a way of life, not just religious observances, and James articulates this way of life in clear and unmistakable terms.
Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.
– James 1:16
A simple imperative statement that says, do not be fooled and do not let others lie to you. You need to be on guard so as not to become a victim of delusion.
Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
– James 1:17
God sends good things. This is a reference to the previous passage where James teaches that God does not seduce anyone to do evil by enticing them with evil. James mentions some things that are not debatable:
- That God is good and pure, and delights in righteousness is a sure and eternal principle.
- There is never a compromise in His promises due to weakness or change of character (unlike the stars that change in brightness).
- Blaming God for the evil and sin in life is a sign that one has believed a lie.
In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.
– James 1:18
On the contrary, God’s will is not for evil or destruction but rather for good and life eternal. Through the Word we are born again, this was God’s will (preaching the gospel is what brings people to Christ). The Jews that James is talking to were among the first Christians, so James refers to them as first fruits (beginning harvest) of the new creation (those who are born again through faith in Christ).
Do not be fooled by the notion that evil desire and conduct comes from or is tolerated by God, God is good and He has saved you so that you can live a good and pure life.
The Bottom Line in Christian Conduct — 1:19-26
The balance of the epistle is a series of exhortations clearly defining the bottom line insofar as Christian conduct is concerned. In this chapter, we will look at the primary trademark of the Christian life: our attitude towards God’s word.
James has mentioned that our initial birth as new creatures was conceived by the Word of God which is the seed that produces the kingdom within us. Now he explains that the way we continue to respond to the Word will determine our growth as Christians. To summarize what James has said so far: God is good, sends good and wants you to be good. Being good is seen in your attitude (the way you live your life). A good attitude is seen in how you respond to the Word.
The proper response has two major elements:
The Way We Listen – 1:19-21
This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger;
– James 1:19
In view of God’s power we ought to be eager to hear what He has to say to us. Some are eager to be baptized for forgiveness, but not eager to hear about self-control, obedience, good deeds, giving, fidelity, worship, sacrifice, study, perseverance, etc. Slow to speak in the sense of talking back or rebelling against what God says to us (grumbling, complaining). Slow to anger at what the Word says. Many times we become angry at the teacher or preacher because he reveals our sins and calls us to change. This anger, however, is really anger directed at the Word.
for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.
– James 1:20
Responding to God in anger or doing His will with grumbling and complaining does not produce the right kind of works in His eyes. He wants us to do good, and to do good with a willing and humble heart. We must not have the “older brother” syndrome (parable of the Prodigal Son whose older brother resented his father’s mercy towards his wayward younger brother – Luke 15:11-32) or the “first son” syndrome (Parable of two sons’ response to a father’s command. The first son said he would obey but in the end, did not – Matthew 21:29).
Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.
– James 1:21
James suggests that the reason for back-talk and anger at God’s word is the presence of sin in one’s life. He tells his readers that they must first remove the sin in their lives in order to receive the Word in their hearts. Receiving the Word with meekness means that one is removing sin and receiving the Word in its stead. Only when this is done can the Word enter in to save and transform the person. We cannot receive the Word successfully without first removing sin. God provides insight and causes growth, but we are responsible for the removal of sin. Many times the reason that our faith is flat and we have no taste for God is because the sin in our lives will not allow the Word to enter in and revive us.
The Way We Respond – 1:22-27
The Christian life involves learning God’s word properly and responding to it effectively as well.
But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.
– James 1:22
There is another warning to not delude ourselves into thinking that simply understanding the Word is enough to create the spiritual transformation we desire. The only way that God’s word has any impact for change and transformation is when we act upon it.
23For 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; 24for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25But 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.
– James 1:23-25
James uses the illustration of a mirror to make his point. A man who hears but does not do is like a person who looks into a mirror, sees something that needs correction or change but does nothing and then walks away. The mirror has not helped him correct his problem and he remains unchanged. James then refers to the gospel (law of liberty: a law that frees us from sin, not the responsibility to do what is right and good) as a mirror in which a person can truly see himself for what he really is. Those who hear and do not do are like the people who see themselves in the mirror but change nothing about their appearance. Their experience was for nothing, useless and fruitless. The one who does act, however, on what he sees will be blessed in what he does. He has seen and changed, and is blessed because of it.
26If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27Pure 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.
– James 1:26-27
In these final verses James gives three examples of what the mirror can reveal and the proper response to each.
- Control of the tongue
- Purity of life
The proper response is present if a person, after hearing the Word, and seeing that gossip, coarse language, slander, lies or pride are part of his life, sees that a change needs to takes place and makes that change. Or, if after hearing the Word, and seeing a need to improve or increase her quantity or quality of good works, makes the necessary changes. And, if after hearing the Word and recognizing that one’s life is too full of worldliness and too little concerned with the kingdom of God, carries out the changes that will correct this attitude.
The bottom line in Christianity is that God’s word has the power to not only bring us to salvation but also to transform us. This transformation can only take place, however, if we eagerly do what God tells us to do and not just fool ourselves into thinking that sitting in the pew is enough.