by Mike Ratliff
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. 26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:19-27 ESV)
Martin Luther hated the Book of James. He called it an Epistle of Straw and questioned whether it should be included in the Canon of Scripture at all. Why? His opponents in the Roman Catholic Church misapplied what James taught to try to support their theology that stated that people are saved by their works. A careful study of this wonderful book, however, does not support that. In fact, we find that James and Paul are in full agreement. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and the Book of James both speak of works and its place in the Christian walk in relation to Grace. They present the truth from different sides of the issue so when people who do not possess the spirit read James they often twist the word to fit their false theology.
In the passage I placed at the beginning of this post we read that James implores us to be doers of the word and not hearers only. This sounds reasonable doesn’t it? What good is it to read traffic signs while driving if we do not follow what they are telling us? James speaks of a dividing line in this passage that we need to understand, grasp, and apply to our lives. There seems to be two types of people who hear the word, or God’s commandments, or The Law. One group hears but does not obey it. The other group hears and obeys. William Tyndale broke people into three groups. The following quote is from his The Obedience of a Christian Man.
God requireth the law to be kept of all men to let them keep it for whatsoever purpose they will. Will they not keep the law? so vouchsafeth he not that they enjoy this temporal life. Now are there three natures of men, one altogether beastly which in no wise receive the law in their hearts, but rise against princes and rulers whensoever they are able to make their party good. These are signified by them that worshipped that golden calf. For Moses brake the tables of the law ere he came at them.
The second are not so beastly, but receive the law, and unto them the law cometh: but they look not Moses in the face. For his countenance is too bright for them, that is, they understand not that the law is spiritual and requireth the heart. They look on the pleasure, profit and promotion that followeth the keeping of the law, and in respect of the reward keep they the law outwardly with works, but not in the heart. For if they might obtain like honour, glory, promotion and dignity and also avoid all inconvenients, if they broke the law, so would they also break the law and follow their lusts.
The third are spiritual and look Moses in the open face and are (as Paul saith the second to the Romans) a law unto themselves, and have the law written in their hearts by the Spirit of God. These need neither of king nor officers to drive them, neither that any man proffer them any reward for to keep the law. For they do it naturally.
The first work for fear of the sword only. The second for reward. The third work for love freely. They look on the exceeding mercy, love and kindness which God hath showed them in Christ and therefore love again and work freely. Heaven they take of the free gift of God through Christ’s deservings, and hope without all manner doubting that God according to his promise, will in this world also defend them and do all thing for them of his goodness that is in them. They consent unto the law that is holy and just and that all men ought to do whatsoever God commandeth for no other cause, but because God commandeth it. And their great sorrow is, because that there is no strength in their members to do that which their heart lusteth to do and is athirst to do.
These of the last sort keep the law of their own accord and that in the heart, and have professed perpetual war against the lusts and appetites of the flesh, till they be utterly subdued: yet not through their own strength, but knowing and knowledging their weakness cry ever for strength to God which hath promised assistance unto all that call upon him. These follow God and are led by his Spirit. The other two are led of lusts and appetites.- William Tyndale
Despite the archaic English in this wonderful passage we see clearly that the authentic Christian is a doer of the word not a hearer only. He or she obeys God’s law because it is natural for them to do so. They are in a constant war against the lusts of the flesh. What about disingenuous Christians? Are they doers of the word? They may very well keep the law but not from their hearts. They may be incredibly bound to legalism and appear very godly. However, they disobey the spirit of the law because the spirit is not in them. As James said in 1:27 — Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
I would like to close this discussion with one of my favorite passages.
1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-3 ESV)
Just as Jesus said that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees that we would never enter the kingdom of heaven, John tells us that all genuine Christians seek purity as they keep themselves pure. From James and Tyndale we learn that the ability to do this is born from our regenerated hearts. Unless God writes His law on our hearts we can never keep it outside of the bonds of legalism and in that it is dreadful sin. When legalistic people attempt to put us into the irons of their warped view of God’s law we must counter them with the truth and seek for the Holy Spirit to continue to supernaturally enable us to keep God’s law naturally.
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