by Mike Ratliff
22 Γίνεσθε δὲ ποιηταὶ λόγου καὶ μὴ μόνον ἀκροαταὶ παραλογιζόμενοι ἑαυτούς. James 1:22 (NA28)
22 Now be doers of the Word and not only hearers deceiving yourselves. James 1:22 (translated from the NA28 Greek text)
In 1997, about three years before God moved my wife and I from the OKC area to Tulsa, our Pastor contacted me during the week and told me that he wanted me to fill in for him on Wednesday night after our weekly meal. That meant I would conduct a short Bible study and then have a question and answer period in which adults present could ask anything they wanted about doctrine or the Church or the Bible and I would attempt to answer it. The Bible study part was not a problem since I planned on simply using one I had prepared for another study that I had not yet taught. However, the Q & A was a bit unsettling. I had seen how that went. It was a bit like “Stump the Pastor.”
All went well until about the end of the Q & A session when I was asked what was really meant to be a doer of the Word and not a hearer only from James 1:22 and was that meant for everyone. The question was asked in the context of are there two levels of Christians? Are there simply believers and then disciples who take up their crosses and follow Jesus? Let me say that the discussion we had about this went over our allotted time about 30 minutes. The group in the room grew to about twice the number with which we started. I was most definitely in the minority position equating true believers with what our Lord said in Matthew 17:24-26; Mark 8:34-37 and Luke 9:23-25. Here is that passage from Matthew.
24 Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ· εἴ τις θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἐλθεῖν, ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν καὶ ἀράτω τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀκολουθείτω μοι. 25 ὃς γὰρ ἐὰν θέλῃ τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ σῶσαι ἀπολέσει αὐτήν· ὃς δʼ ἂν ἀπολέσῃ τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ εὑρήσει αὐτήν. 26 τί γὰρ ὠφεληθήσεται ἄνθρωπος ἐὰν τὸν κόσμον ὅλον κερδήσῃ τὴν δὲ ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ζημιωθῇ; ἢ τί δώσει ἄνθρωπος ἀντάλλαγμα τῆς ψυχῆς αὐτοῦ; Matthew 16:24-26 (NA28)
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If someone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and let him follow me. 25 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it. 26 For what will it benefit a man if he acquires the whole world but he forfeits his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16:24-26 (translated from the NA28 Greek text)
However, there was a cadre of very vocal people there that night who simply would not give it up. They actually took the vehemently held the view that there were normal Christians and then there was a smaller more commited level of Christians who were Disciples. In their concept of Christianity saying a believer could simply pray that sinner’s prayer and then live any way he or she desired; they were still secure in their salvation. They also insisted that any call for Christians to walk in obedience to Christ’s Lordship was works salvation. I asked again about these passages about Jesus call to discipleship and they kept insisting that there were disciples and then everyone else who were simply believers. When our Pastor returned from his trip, I shared what happened and he simply smiled and walked off. I was never asked to do that again.
The passage in question in the Epistle of James is so often ripped from it context that it is no wonder that so many look at it as a doorway into legalism. Therefore, let us put it into context.
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17 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. 18 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.
19 This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 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; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 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. James 1:16-25 (NASB)
Reading this passage in context makes it very clear. The verses prior to v16 are speaking of trials and James equates them at the same level as a good and perfect gift, which is the Word of truth that brings forth our salvation. In v18 he tells us that true believers are “a kind of first fruits of his creatures” brought forth because of the gift of the Word of truth. Therefore, in v19 he tells us that all of us should be quick to hear the Lord’s truth, but slow to speak. This means we are to respond positively to Scripture, and eagerly pursue every opportunity to know God’s Word and will better, but at the same time, we should be cautious about becoming a preacher or teacher too quickly. What about this “slow to anger” stuff? What does it mean that this anger does not produce the righteousness of God? This is talking about our taking upon ourselves, without depending upon God’s grace, without abiding in Christ, to bring our anger to bear against some wrongdoing. James is saying that no matter how right we are, outside of God’s intervention, it cannot change another person’s heart and, therefore, does not produce the righteousness of God. Only he can do that.
In 21 we have what believers must do in their repentance in order to “hear” and “receive” God’s truth. This is written to believers and yes, believers can be fleshly. If professing believers turn from the faith to wallow in their sin and revert to the world then that means they were never born again, but genuine believers do sin and some can have long-term problems with some sins, but because they are in Christ and he hates sin, they can never live comfortably with those sins. James is telling believers here that the way to become a doer of the Word and not only a hearer of the Word is to put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and then receive with meekness the implanted word. The power to repent comes from the receiving of the Word of Truth, but notice that it must be received with meekness, that is, in humility. When this happens, the implanted Word takes root in God’s people. It is these believers who are the doers not just hearers of God’s Word.
In vv22-24 we are given the description of one who is deceived. He hears the Word, but does not do the Word. He is self-deceived. He is like one who sees his sin, but forgets about it because he is religious thinking that that is enough. On the other hand, the doer of the Word in v25, looks into the perfect law of liberty, acts, and is blessed in what he does as the Holy Spirit works in him in a personal walk of repentance.
Are those who are not doers of the Word, but are only hearers really Christians? God knows.
Soli Deo Gloria!