Hearing and Doing

James 1:19-27, James 2:14-26

2 November 2003

Greyfriars Church


It will be a great help if you could keep your Bibles open at James chapter 1 on page 1213 as I want to look at our text this morning in some detail.

We've got a lot to get through, so I'll drive off immediately without any waggling at the tee. I'm going to summarise James' teaching in our two passages with three headings. First, read the Bible. Second do what it says. And third do what it says. Read the Bible; do what it says; do what it says.

Read the Bible (1:19-21)

At face value the first verse of our passage is simply a useful bit of advice about how to get along in life: verse 19, My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angryref. And it's good advice, isn't it? Our world would be so much more pleasant if everyone was quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, wouldn't it?

However, I really don't think that this is James' primary focus here. If that really were his point then why put it here and not in chapter 3 where he talks about taming the tongue? Advice on listening and speaking would fit much better there.

No, I don't subscribe to the view that the letter of James is a kind of patchwork of disconnected ideas and advice. Throughout his letter James is building a coherent argument for his readers, although perhaps it's not always obvious to our 21st century minds. To find out what he really means in verse 19 we must not look at it in isolation, but in the context of the verses around it: what comes before and what comes afterwards.

Have a look at verse 18, just before our passage: what is James talking about? He's talking about the word of truthref. Have a look at verse 21: what appears again? The word planted in youref. And in verse 22, again he talks about the wordref. So I think it's a safe assumption that in verse 19 James has God's word on his mind.

James' burden in this paragraph is that his readers do what it says in verse 21, and humbly accept the word planted in them, which can save themref. How are they to "humbly accept the word"? The answer is in verse 19: they should be quick to listen to God's word; they should be slow to jump in with their own opinions and judgements about it; and they should be slow to become angry about God's word when it confronts them with things they don't like to hear.

I've occasionally been to lectures given by Professor Stephen Hawking. Even if you've never heard him speak you are bound to have heard of him: he's the scientist who suffers from motor neurone disease and is almost entirely paralysed. The way he communicates is truly extraordinary. With just about the only muscle function he has he uses a single button to laboriously select words from a computer screen on his wheel-chair, and when he's finished a speech synthesiser delivers his words in a Dalek-like voice. Doing a question and answer session with him is an amazing experience: it can take him five or ten minutes or even longer to compose a reply to a question, but during that time theres's not a whisper in the audience. Everyone is eager to hear what the great man has to say. No-one jumps in with their own answer to the questions because they know they'd look a fool. And if he says something controversial people don't get up and rant at him: they weigh what he says, because he is after-all probably the greatest theoretical physicist alive. It's far more likely that he's right than they are.

This is the attitude to God's word that James is commending. God has gone to considerable trouble to give us his word: let's be quick to listen to it. Let's be slow to jump in with our own views: we'll only look a fool. And if God's word offends us, let's remember that it comes with His authority—and He's far more likely to be right than we are—, so let's be slow to become angry. This is what James means by humbly accepting the word.

The alternative is to be proud, isn't it? The proud are more interested in what they have to say than what God has to say. The proud are reluctant to come to God's word, and when they do they are quick to leap in: "that didn't happen!" ; "that doesn't apply today!" ; "that's just Paul being a bigot!" . When God's views clash with their own views the reaction of the proud is to become angry: "I can't believe in a God who sends people to hell!" ;.

James' warning is serious. Our pride and anger in the face of God's word only keeps us from Him. Rejecting his word doesn't accomplish God's purposes. Rejecting his word doesn't make us righteous in His sight. Only humbling ourselves before His word and living our lives accordingly can save us.

Which camp are we in: the humble or the proud? Well, James' test is to look at our attitude to God's word. Are we quick to listen? Are we eager to hear from God?

Well, I'm sorry to say that the statistics are bleak. A recent survey conducted by a Christian publisher amongst churches considered sound and keen revealed that fewer than one in three of the congregation were reading the Bible at all during the week, and fewer than one in ten were reading it daily. If those statistics are reflected in our congregation as well—and I see no reason why we should be any different—that means that the majority of people here are not doing any personal Bible reading from week to week.

Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.ref Never mind David Blaine: in our spiritual pride we are starving ourselves to death. Nothing but the Word of God can save us.

And what about our activities together as a church? Are we eager to humble ourselves before God's word? Of course we are! We are a nationally prominent evangelical church! But if James were to visit us and examine our homegroups, our cell groups, our youth groups, our weekends away and our church meetings, would he really find us quick to listen to God's word? And when we do listen to it, would he also find us slow to speak and slow to become angry?

I truly hope he would. But I really fear that he would find us proud: that our image of being a Bible-believing church is only skin-deep, and at the heart of our church we are hardly humble before God's word at all. Is that too harsh? Well, what do you think?

Let's infuse our lives with God's word, and truly make sure it is planted in us. Let's resolve to hear God's word, if not every day, then at least a few times during the week. And let's infuse our church with God's word, particularly in our homegroups and all the midweek groups: never miss a chance to bring out the Bible! And when we hear it let's be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry; humbly accepting the word planted in us, which can save us.

Do what it says (1)

Moving on to the next paragraph, if the first thing that James tells us is to read our Bibles, the second is to do what it says. Look at verse 22: Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.ref

Do what it says because listening without doing is deceptive.

Listening to God's word is vital, but if we only hear the word but fail to go on to obey it then we are in danger of deceiving ourselves. We will start imagining that all our Bible knowledge is doing us some good, when in fact it's as much use as knowing the 1984 British Rail timetable off by heart. Fascinating, but of no use to anybody.

James gives his own illustration of the pointlessness of knowledge without action in verse 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 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.ref

We all look in mirrors every day, don't we? Some of us more than others. The purpose of a mirror is to reveal things about you. It might reveal that your hair is sticking up all over the place, or that there's a cornflake stuck in your beard or spinach in your teeth. My recurring one is that since we don't have a mirror in our bathroom (due to incomplete DIY projects) I sometimes catch myself half-way through the morning in a mirror at work and find that I've cut myself shaving and I've been wandering around with blood running down my chin. Why does nobody tell me?

Anyway, a mirror reveals something about us. It increases our knowledge. But if we just wander away and forget what we saw then we are deceiving ourselves. We are fooling ourselves into thinking that we look fine, when we don't, and that's just absurd, isn't it? No, when the mirror reveals something about us we do something about it, don't we? We brush our hair or comb our beard or clean our teeth or wash off the blood, don't we. It would be crazy if we didn't.

Yet, so often that's how we are with the Bible, God's word. Sometimes we look into it, and when we do it reveals things about us. As the Bible holds up God's holiness and Christ's perfection it shows us the sin in our lives. Like a mirror it reveals us as we truly are. And it tells us what we need to do about it. Yet so often we just walk away and forget all about it. How many sermons have you forgotten by the time Sunday lunch appears? How many morning quiet-times have evaporated before you reach your office desk?

James' plea to his readers is in verse 25. Yes, we should look deeply into the mirror that is God's word—that is we, must read our Bibles—and continue to do this. But we must not forget what we hear. And we must then go on and do what it says. This is how to avoid deceiving ourselves. This is how to be blessed by God.

James shows us how easily we deceive ourselves in verse 26

If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.ref

A religion that doesn't affect our behaviour—that doesn't even affect what we say—is worthless. However great we think it is, we might as well not have it at all. We might as well be frog-worshippers.

If you want to know what your religion is worth, then listen to what you say.

James is more positive in verse 27 where he contrasts the ineffective religion that does nothing with religion based on doing what the Bible says.

Religion that our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.ref

Here he tells us that a religion that is worth something is one where our beliefs affect our lives. It affects both our actions towards others and our actions towards ourselves. It makes us different from those around us.

Is that what your religion is like?

When we read the Bible let's do what it says, because otherwise we deceive ourselves that our religion is worth something when the reality is it's worth nothing at all.

Do what it says (2)

Now we're going to skip over a few verses where James give further application of his point to verse 14 of chapter 2, where James urges us again to do what the Bible says, because faith without deeds is dead. Point one was "read the Bible" , point two was "do what it says, because listening without doing deceives us" , point three is "do what it says, because faith without works is dead" .

In the end, what does it matter if we deceive ourselves? After all, we sound, reformed people know that it is our faith that saves us, don't we? Ephesians 2:8 - For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, not by works.ref And this is true. It's the pinnacle of Christian theology, and the glorious heart of the gospel of Christ.

Well, that's a relief. James can waffle on as much as he likes about us deceiving ourselves if we don't put into action what we read in the Bible, but in the end as long as I have faith it's going to be all right, isn't it?

That question is James' starting point in verse 14. What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?ref

The scene is the throne-room of God. The event is the last Judgement. You are standing alone before His throne. "On what grounds will you enter my enternal life?" demands God. Being a good evangelical, you know the answer, don't you: "On the grounds of my faith in Jesus' death for my sins in my place." We smile a satisfied Christian smile. We know it's the right answer.

"And where is the evidence for that faith?" , God unexpectedly continues, for we have forgotten that there is no such thing as a faith-ometer that He can point at us to take a reading.

"Err..., well, I helped a poor person from our church the other day" you eagerly reply. "How exactly did you help him?" says God. "I wished him well, and told him to keep warm and well fed" , "Nothing else?" asks God. "No, nothing at all."

"Can such a faith save you?" James is asking, A faith correct in its beliefs without any deeds to prove it?

Jesus' answer in Matthew 25 is clear. When he comes to judge the world he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'ref

And James explains why this is. Just in case we miss it he says it at least three times. Verse 17, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.ref Verse 20 faith without deeds is uselessref, and verse 26 faith without deeds is dead.ref

It is our faith that saves us, James never denies that fact, but only a faith that is alive is any use at all.

There's nothing more useless than something that's dead, is there? Perhaps you recall the book "101 Uses of a Dead Cat". Frankly it's not very funny is it, but the limited humour that it does afford is solely down to the fact that there is in fact nothing more useless than a dead cat. Except perhaps a dead faith.

If you need any more convincing that correct belief without any action to accompany it is useless then have a look at verse 19. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.ref Even the inhabitants of hell have doctrine that is quite correct. They have read the Bible; in fact it seems that they have read the Bible more than most people in evangelical churches have read it. The demons believe that there is one God. But that knowledge alone can't save them: no, quite rightly it makes them shudder because they know that correct doctrine without correct deeds condemns them to the fires of hell forever.

The kind of faith that saves is a faith that is alive. It's the the kind of faith that saved each of the people James gives us as examples from the Old Testament in verses 21 and 25. Two people from opposite ends of the religious spectrum. Abraham, chosen by God as patriarch of his people, the father of the Jewish nation, and Rahab, a pagan, a woman and a prostitute. Their outward religion could hardly have been more different, but they were both saved by faith in God, because that faith was demonstrably alive.

James is urging us to do what the Bible says because it's the only way we'll know that our faith is alive. Verse 22: faith and actions working together make a complete faith, a faith that is living and breathing rather than a useless, lifeless corpse.

Perhaps you are the sort of person who worries whether your faith is alive or not.

Well, how do you know that I am alive? It's obvious, isn't it? Because I do things: I breathe, I'm talking to you, I'm moving around, I'm doing stuff. It's not a difficult question to answer.

So it is with your faith. How do you know if it is alive? Because it prompts you do do stuff. If when you read the Bible you try to do what it says, then rest assured: your faith is alive and well. Christian assurance is easy to obtain if you want it: just listen to Jesus and do what he says. As he himself puts it everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.ref

Perhaps you are worried that your attempts to do what the Bible says are a bit feeble. You try, but you fail; you don't feel like a very good Christian. Well, be assured, your faith is not dead as long as it's doing stuff. But you'd better make sure it's not terminally ill. Faith needs exercise to keep it well. By far the best way to revive a faith that is flagging is to get involved in some area of Christian ministry; to step out of the boat as our church theme for the year puts it. Our faith prompts our deeds, our deeds feed our faith: it's a win-win situation.

If your faith is feeling feeble this morning, come and pray after the service. Come and talk about how to give it a tonic.


Although we've spent some time on it this morning, James's message is very straightforward isn't it? Read the Bible; do what it says; do what it says.

To re-use the image that James gives us at the end of chapter 1, we've held up the mirror of God's word in front of ourselves this morning, and we've looked intently into it. Perhaps God has shown you some things you need to do; things about yourself that need putting right.

James leaves a challenge hanging in the air: what are you going to do about? Are you really just going to walk away and forget what you've seen? Or are you going to do what it says?