Faith Proved by How We Receive the Word of God: James 1:19-27

James 1:19‑27  •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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The next subject that James addresses is how we treat the Word of God—the Scriptures. Having mentioned “the Word of truth” by which we have been born again (vs. 18), he goes on to speak of the place that it should have in our lives. In this next series of verses, James shows that the way in which a person handles the Word of God will manifest whether he or she has real faith or not.
The Jewish converts to whom James was writing had identified themselves with the Christian company, and were attending the meetings where the Word of God was ministered (Acts 2:42). However, it wasn't long before some of them gave indications that they might not be real believers (Gal. 2:4; Titus 1:10-16). Thus, it became evident that there was a mixed multitude among them. Knowing this, James teaches us that the way a person receives and responds to the Word of God will manifest the reality of his or her profession. Those who are not real will show it by habitually being “hearers only.” They will listen to the Word being ministered, but it will have no practical effect in their lives. On the other hand, a person with real faith in Christ will show himself to be a genuine believer by being a “doer of the Word.” James, therefore, focuses on two things in this passage:
Being receptive of the Word of God (vss. 19-21).
Being responsive to the Word of God (vss. 22-27).
Receiving the Word of God
Vss. 19-21—As stated already, James addresses certain idiosyncrasies that were peculiar to the Jewish mindset and way of life which they tended to carry over into Christianity. These were "graveclothes" that needed to be taken off these new converts. One such thing, in connection with the Word of God, was their love of sitting in the synagogue on Sabbath days, and discussing and disputing the things that were read from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2-3, 17; 18:4; 28:19). They imagined themselves to be masters (teachers) and critics of the truth (Rom. 2:19-20; 1 Tim. 1:7), and they loved to debate their opinions. While this may have been tolerated in the synagogues in Judaism, it is something that has no place in Christianity (2 Tim. 2:14). God would have Christians to gather together to hear the Word of God read and expounded (1 Tim. 4:13), but such occasions were not to deteriorate to the debating of one's opinions (2 Tim. 2:14).
James begins by stating the right and proper posture we are to have in the presence of the Word of God. He says, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” These short, but pointed, exhortations, show that there is to be reverence for God's Word when it is opened and read, and it should result in self-restraint on the part of the hearer (Psa. 119:161).
Firstly, we need to be “swift to hear.” This refers to a readiness of mind to hear and receive the truth of the Word of God. We should be eager to seize every opportunity for learning it. The person who has a teachable spirit—taking the seat of a humble learner and listening intently when the Word of God is ministered—will most certainly profit from the occasion (Deut. 33:3; Luke 8:35; 10:39).
Secondly, we should be “slow to speak.” This is a reference in regard to making remarks on Scripture. We know in part, and at best, we can only prophesy in part (1 Cor. 13:9). To assume to be an authority on the truth of God is to think of ourselves more highly than we ought (Rom. 12:3). It manifests an ignorance of the greatness of God's Word (Psa. 138:2). James, therefore, insists on a restraint being made on the desire to project our thoughts on Scripture. In chapter 3:1, he warns against wanting to have the role of a teacher and a communicator of divine knowledge, because all such are held to a greater standard of responsibility. The person who is constantly transmitting his opinions and views is not in a position to receive truth and to grow in his understanding of the divine revelation. Therefore, comments on the Scriptures should be made with caution and a conscious realization that it is God's holy and infallible Word that we are commenting on.
Thirdly, we must be “slow to wrath.” Sad to say, fleshly discussions over the truth of God's Word can sometimes result in heat and anger. This was all too often the case with the Jews in their synagogues. James, therefore, insists on the restraint of such fiery passions. Trying to get our point across by raising our voice and arguing will never help advance the declaration of the truth, because, as James says, “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” God will not identify with such fleshly actions. The truth of God should be communicated and received in a setting of quietness and peace (Deut. 33:3; Eccl. 9:17; Luke 8:35; 10:39).
Vs. 21—James goes on to show that in receiving the Word of God there should not only be self-restraint, but also self-judgment. If we expect to profit from reading God's Word, it is imperative that we lay aside all “filthiness” and “overflowing of wickedness.” Without this necessary judgment of self, "the engrafted [implanted] Word" will never properly take hold in our souls and cause us to grow. If the soil in a garden is full of weeds, the roots of a good plant will not take hold and grow properly. A wise gardener, therefore, prepares the soil by pulling up unwanted weeds that choke out the growth of good plants. Similarly, we must prepare our hearts to “receive” the Word by getting rid of everything in our lives that is inconsistent with God's holy nature (1 Peter 2:1-2). This is done through self-judgment (2 Cor. 7:1).
The spirit in which we are to receive the Word is that of "meekness." This indicates a reverence for the Word and the One who has given it to us. James calls it “the engrafted [implanted] Word” because, if received properly, it will take root in us and become an integral part of our lives. The Apostle John speaks of this, saying, “The Word of God abideth in you” (1 John 2:14).
James adds, “Which is able to save your souls.” For those who were not saved (the mere professors among them), reception of the Word of God in faith would result in their eternal salvation. But for those who were saved, there would be a great practical benefit in having the engrafted Word as an integral part of their Christian life. If there is obedience to the principles of God's Word, the believer can be saved from the many spiritual dangers and pitfalls in the path of faith (Psa. 17:4).
Responding to the Word of God
Vss. 22-25—James, therefore, goes on to speak of the importance of responding to the Word in practical obedience. He exhorts us, not to be “hearers only,” but also “doers of the Word.” Ezra is a good example of this. It says that he “prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it” (Ezra 7:10). This, then, is another test of a person's reality. If he or she has faith, being a real believer, it will be evident by obedience to the Word. A believer may, at times, fail to put the Word of God into practice in his life as he should, but he is characteristically a doer of the Word. If, on the other hand, a person habitually neglects to practice the principles in the Word, it calls into question whether he or she is a real believer. It may very well mean that such are not saved at all.
We are told in Hebrews 6:4-5 that it's possible for an unbeliever to come in among Christians where God's Word is ministered, and thus taste "the good Word of God" and partake of what "the Holy Spirit" is doing there in an outward way—yet remain unsaved. Such people would be "hearers only" in its primary sense; the Word has never been received in faith. However, trafficking in the truth, without being a doer of it, is a dangerous thing; it can lead to self-deception. James adds, "Deceiving your ownselves." Many a person has been spiritually blinded in some way because of his unwillingness to obey Scripture after he heard it. James says that he is like a person who looks into a “mirror,” and then goes away and forgets what he saw—thus, it produces no effect in him. Note: it is ourselves that we deceive, not others around us. People who know us are not usually deceived by our hypocrisy.
This empty facade of being "a hearer of the Word, and not a doer" has had a history among the Jews. Those in the days of Ezekiel are an example. The Lord told him that the people would come and sit before him as the people of God should do in the presence of a prophet of God, but they wouldn't do what he said. “They will hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they show much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness. And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not” (Ezek. 33:31-32). The Pharisees, in the time when the Lord was on earth, were the spiritual descendants of those in Ezekiel's day. The Lord said of them, "All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not" (Matt. 23:3). This problem is not something exclusive to the Jews, we all know how easy it is to read the Bible without being affected by what we read. We all need to be exercised about this.
Vs. 25—James goes on to state that being a doer of the Word should not be a burden to a believer, because to be asked to do something that you want to do is not a burden; it's a joy. This is what James calls “the perfect law of liberty.” It is mentioned in contrast to the law of Moses. The Mosaic law is occupied with restraining the impulses of the old nature. It is filled with the often-repeated, negative phrase, “Thou shalt not ... ” To attempt to perform all those injunctions was a burden to all who were under that obligation (Matt. 11:28; Acts 15:10). The law of liberty, on the other hand, focuses on encouraging and directing the new nature in positive things that the new life delights in doing. It is marked by the phrase, “Let us ... ” Doing these things is not a burden for the new nature because it delights to do the will of God marked out in His Word (Psa. 40:8). Similarly, to ask a horse to eat hay is, to a horse, perfect liberty—it’s exactly what it wants to do! However, to ask a dog to eat hay is another thing—it's pure bondage to him. Hence, the man walking in the Spirit enjoys doing the will of God; it's not a burden to him. The perfect law of liberty, therefore, is when the Lord’s commands and the believer's desires symphonize.
To encourage the practice of God's Word, James reminds his audience of the present reward for doers of it. He says, “He shall be blessed in his doing.” The root meaning of the word “blessed” is happy. Hence, the person who walks in the truth will be happy in his soul, because there is a joy in obeying the Word of God that is known only to those who do it. This is illustrated in the first miracle that the Lord Jesus did when He turned the water into wine (John 2). Drinking “water,” in Scripture, refers to the refreshment of the Word of God. “Wine,” in Scripture, often speaks of the joys of Christian living. In performing the miracle, let us ask, "When did the water turn to wine?" It was not when the servants poured the water into the vessels, but when they picked up those vessels and carried them out to the governor. Somewhere along the way, as they walked with the water, it turned into wine. Similarly, when we carry out the Word of God in our daily walk, it becomes a joy to us.
A Three-Fold Test of Reality
Vss. 26-27—Since there is a danger of professing faith without having inward reality, James shows that a man's religion is to be put to the test. He says, "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." ("Religion," in the sense that it is used here, is the profession and practice of certain religious beliefs and doctrines.) This statement shows that it is quite possible for a person to have an exterior that projects the image of being a real believer, but there is no inward reality. Hence, James presents three things by which all profession of true religion can be tested. He tells us that there will be unmistakable evidence of faith in a person's life. The Lord spoke of this in His ministry, saying, "By their fruits ye shall know them" (Matt. 7:16, 20).
SELF-CONTROL—The first thing is self-control. If a person makes a profession of being “religious,” but habitually doesn’t control his tongue, it is a tell-tale sign that he may not be a real believer. The vanity of his religion is exposed as being merely a “vain” show in his life. He has deceived himself.
LOVE AND SYMPATHY—The second thing is love and sympathy. If a person’s faith is real, he will care about those who suffer, and it will be seen in his life by extending himself in some benevolent way to those who are in need—i.e. "the fatherless" (orphans) and the "widows."
PERSONAL HOLINESS—The third thing is personal holiness. This will be a result of practical separation from the world. If a person’s faith is real, then he will be careful about his associations and will “keep himself unspotted from the world.”
Hence, the reality of one’s faith in God and His Word will be evident in right speaking (vs. 26) and in benevolent actions towards the needy (vs. 27a), and in personal holiness maintained through separation from the world (vs. 27b). This shows that hearing the truth is not an end in itself; it is only the beginning. God wants inward reality in His people that results in practicing the truth (Psa. 51:6).