It is always fun to sit down with a group of children and ask them what they would like to “be” when they grow up. Some want to be Doctors, some ball players, some want to be singers, teachers, movie stars, policeman, or even the President of the United States. Of course, saying you want to be these things does not make it so. There is preparation, training and usually a lot of hard work involved in reaching any goal.
The Christian faith is a little like this. People make professions of faith. They declare that they are followers of Christ but there is a difference between professing discipleship and actually following Jesus. This is the point James is making in our text this morning. There is a difference between those who claim to be believers and those who actually are believers; there is a difference between those who go to church and those who follow Christ. James writes,
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But 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.
Hearers of the Word
The first groups of people are those who merely listen to the Bible. Listening is, of course, an important prerequisite for discipleship. James identifies those who listen but they do nothing in response to what they hear. Pastor Chuck Swindoll gives one of the classic illustrations of those who are hearers only,
Let’s pretend that you work for me. In fact, you are my executive assistant in a company that is growing rapidly. I’m the owner and I’m interested in expanding overseas. To pull this off, I make plans to travel abroad and stay there until the new branch office gets established. I make all the arrangements to take my family in the move to Europe for six to eight months, and I leave you in charge of the busy stateside organization. I tell you that I will write you regularly and give you direction and instructions.
I leave and you stay. Months pass. A flow of letters are mailed from Europe and received by you at the national headquarters. I spell out all my expectations. 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 into the receptionist’s room and she is 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 for weeks, and nobody seems concerned that the owner has returned. I ask about your whereabouts and someone in the crowded lounge area points down the hall and yells, “I think he’s down there.” Disturbed, I move in that direction and bump into you as you are finishing a chess game with our sales manager. I ask you to step into my office (which has been temporarily turned into a television room for watching afternoon soap operas).
“What in the world is going on, man?”
“What do ya’ mean … ?”
“Well, look at this place! Didn’t you get any of my letters?”
“Letters? Oh, yeah—sure, got every one of them. As a matter of fact … we have had letter study every Friday night since you left. We have even divided all the personnel into small groups and discussed many of the things you wrote. Some of those things were really interesting. You’ll be pleased to know that a few of us have actually committed to memory some of your sentences and paragraphs. One or two memorized an entire letter or two! Great stuff in those letters!”
“Okay, okay—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.”
This is the kind of response James rebukes. He says a person who hears the Word but does not respond to it is like a person who looks at himself in a mirror and then forgets what he looks like.
A person can glance in the mirror and have no recognition. In other words you look in the mirror and don’t even notice that your hair is a mess, your mascara is running or you have toothpaste on your chin. There is a sense in which you are looking at yourself but you don’t recognize the person you are seeing. I love this story,
Many years ago in eastern Tennessee the story went around about a mountaineer’s contact with some tourists who had camped in the hills around his area. Because the mountain folk didn’t see many tourists in those days, when the tourists left, this particular mountaineer went to look around the area where they had camped. He found several things they had left behind, including a mirror. He had never seen a mirror before. He looked into it longingly and said, “I never knew my pappy had his picture took!” He was very sentimental about it, of course, and took it home. He slipped into the house, climbed up into the loft and hid the mirror. His wife saw him do that but didn’t say anything. After he went out of the house, she went up to see what he had hidden. She found the mirror, and when she looked into it, she said, “So that’s the old hag he’s been running around with!”
Too many people read the Word of God and conclude that it is talking about someone else! They hear God’s Word preached and think about all the people they wish had heard the message. They love the stories and the wise sayings of the Bible but have simply no realization that it is talking to US!
Others look at themselves in the mirror and do see the areas where corrections need to be made but they don’t do anything about what they see. Similarly there are those who understand the Bible is talking to them but refuse to respond.
Suppose you go to the Doctor in great pain. The Doctor diagnoses the problem and writes out a prescription to correct the problem. You thank the Doctor for his insights and you leave the office. You put the prescription up on your refrigerator so you can look at it every day. After a few weeks the pain has only gotten worse. What do you do? You change Doctors because the first Doctor was obviously incompetent.
As ridiculous as it sounds people do this with the Lord all the time. They hear the Word of the Lord proclaimed. They underline the verse. They may even be greatly moved by the power and clarity of the words. But they do nothing in response to them! Since their life remains unchanged they move to a different church in the hope it will be better at “meeting their needs”.
James tells us that these people deceive themselves. They believe they are living the Christian life. They believe they are faithful disciples. They believe they have been truly “born again”. However, in truth they are “hearers only”.
Those Who Obey the Word
The flip side of merely listening to the Word is to listen to the word and DO what it says. James will make this same point several times in his letter. James is not telling us that we have to earn our salvation by doing good things. We are not saved by what we do . . . we are made right with God by what Christ has done! All the Lord requires is that we trust Christ to save us. HOWEVER, (hang on for a profound statement!) trusting Christ means trusting Christ! It means doing what He says and following where He leads. We are saved by grace through faith, but the faith that saves is active not passive!
Notice the three characteristics of these people. James says, “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.”
This person has more than a casual acquaintance with God’s Word. They not only look at the Word they study it. They are careful to notice the words that are used, the context of the words, and what those words are teaching.
They don’t stop here however. They continue to look at the Word. They return to the Word often. They meditate (or ponder) the Word of God. These are people who read their Bible in the morning and they spend the rest of the day thinking about what the Bible meant. They take their reading that step further by asking, “What are the implications of these words for my life.”
I need to be careful here. I am not saying we should read the Bible and ask, “What does this mean to me?” That approach to reading the Bible is the doorway to various heresies and distortions of Biblical truth. Too often that question turns into “What can I make the Bible say?” When studying the Word of God we must ask two primary questions:
- What does the text mean? In other words, what is the author saying? What did these words mean to the people who received them?
- How do these instructions and principles apply to the way I live my life?
Let’s say a foreman on a job site tells his crew: “I’ve got to leave so keep working until lunch time.” As soon as the boss leaves (around 9:15 a.m.) the men decide since they are supposed to work until lunch time they would have lunch that day at 9:30 a.m. When the foreman returns at 1:30 the guys are still doing nothing. When asked why the job wasn’t finished they reply, “You only told us to work until lunch. You didn’t tell us what to do afterwards.”
This is the way some people read the Bible. They look for loopholes rather than for guidance. The person who is a doer of the Word takes the time to understand what the text meant and then draws appropriate application.
There is however a third step in the process. God also wants us to ACT on what the Word of God says. A.W. Tozer writes,
No man is better for knowing that God in the beginning created the heaven and the earth. The devil knows that, and so did Ahab and Judas Iscariot. No man is better for knowing that God so loved the world of men that He gave His only begotten Son to die for their redemption. In hell there are millions who know that. Theological truth is useless until it is obeyed. The purpose behind all doctrine is to secure moral action.…
Warren Wiersbe has remarked that “too many Christians mark their Bibles, but their Bibles never mark them!” The person who does not obey or follow God’s message is only lying to themselves about their faith. They believe they are true followers but they are not.
It is not enough for a teenager who wants to get his drivers license to know all the rules of the road. It is not enough to know how an engine works. That teenager will not be given a license (or shouldn’t be given a license) until they demonstrate that they can actually drive a car and keep it under control.
There are many believers who know much about the faith but have never taken it for a drive in their daily living. These people are students of religion, not followers of Christ. They are like the Pharisees in the days of Jesus. They have information but that information is not changing the way they live. Jesus called these men “whitewashed tombs”. They looked good on the outside but on the inside they were filled with dead men’s bones.
I see three applications to these words from James 1. First, there is A Warning to Heed. James says those who merely listen deceive themselves. This is a warning to everyone who calls themselves a believer. It is possible to be knowledgeable about Biblical truth and still be an unbeliever in God’s mind. It is possible to be active in a church and still be an unbeliever. It is even possible to be a “believer” (one who affirms the truths of Christianity) and yet not be a follower of Christ. Knowing the facts about Jesus is not the same as trusting Christ.
I encourage you to take a hard look at your life. What makes you think you are a child of God? Is it the knowledge you have? Is it your church membership or the titles you wear? Is it your reputation? You can have all of these things and still not be a child of God. To be a child of God you must trust and follow Jesus.
A Command to Obey The admonition of James is to be “do-ers” of the Word; people who respond to God’s directives. We need to examine our own lives. Let’s be practical,
- Is there a sin you need to confess? Do you need to stop ignoring a problem and identify it as such? God does not expect you to be perfect but He does want you to be honest. We need to admit when we have fallen short of God’s standard.
- In what ways is God calling you to change your course? Is He pressing you to change a certain behavior? Does He want you to reach out to someone, to forgive a transgression, or to express a kindness?
- Is God calling you to step out in faith? Perhaps He is calling you to begin a ministry? Maybe He wants you to mend a relationship? Perhaps He is calling you to take a different job.
The real test of a believer is how he or she responds to what God tells us to do. The real test of faith is not what we say as much as what we do in response to what God says.
A Promise to Claim James gives two promises to those who act on God’s command rather than simply listening to them. First, he tells us that the Law will give freedom. This seems contrary to what we have come to believe. We tend to think about the Law as being restrictive. We think of rules as restricting our freedom.
Contrary to public perception, true freedom is not the absence of restraint. True freedom comes when we are set free to be what we are designed to be. The Laws of our country are designed to safeguard our freedoms. The law and directives of God are designed to do just that. God does not give us His Word in order to hold us back. He is not trying to inhibit our lives. He is trying to lead us to life.
If I knew of a restaurant with great food and you wanted to also eat at that Restaurant, I would give you directions on where it was located and how to get there. Those directions could be general or very specific. I might even give you a specific phone number you needed to call in order to get a reservation. These directions would not be seen as restrictive to you. You would not chafe at the directions; you would probably write them down and follow them closely. These instructions would not be seen as burdensome but they would be necessary for you to enjoy a great meal.
It is the same with the Law of God. God’s desire is to give us directions to true life and real freedom. He offers us something the world cannot duplicate. His Word provides specific directions on how to reach this goal. God’s law does not rob us of life . . . it leads us to life.
People say Christians are narrow-minded, restrictive, and weak. They make fun of God’s law. They ridicule His commands. They even try to legislate against God’s law. They believe they will find greater joy and freedom in doing whatever they want. But look around. These people are miserable. Their relationships are shallow. They live recklessly and need all kinds of drugs to dull the emptiness. They find their thrill in engaging in greater and greater perversion. They claim they are for the cause of freedom, but in truth, they are enslaved.
God gives us a way out of the garbage dump of our society. He invites us to know peace, joy, and a secure relationship with Him. We have a choice: to follow His directions or to ignore them. We can choose between liberty or becoming more deeply addicted to sin.
Finally, James says the person who dares to take on the challenge of obedience will discover that God blesses the work they do. They will be more productive, more joyful, their work will be more fulfilling, and it will have a greater impact. When we do what God commands we will discover the warmth of His love, the security of His guidance, the peace of His forgiveness, and the perspective of His providence.
James wants us to know that when God blesses our work we will discover what God can do in and through us. And you never know, some of those grand dreams we once had of making an impact on the world, may actually come true.