Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 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. 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.
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God 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.
"Listen up!" I know my children have heard me say that more than once. It’s a cue—an attention grabber. It communicates a desire for the audience to pay close attention to what you’re about to say. You certainly want them to “listen” well—you want them to hear everything you say—but it’s more than that, isn’t it? When we tell someone to “listen up!” we have a reason. We want them to listen carefully, for a reason.
What do you think that reason is? WHY do you want your hearer to catch the whole message and not just part of it? Maybe you’re thinking, “Because it’s important!” That’s certainly part of it. Every time I tell my kids to “listen up” I’m convinced, that what I’m about to say to them IS important. But WHY do I think it’s so important? That’s the question we want to answer. Why do we want people to listen to an important message? We can find an answer to that question by breaking down the most important message ever communicated—the message God communicates to us in his Word.
The fact that you’re reading this tells me something. It tells me that you think it’s important to learn more about God. And that’s true. Spending time in God’s Word gives you—and it gives me—another opportunity to “LISTEN UP!” as God speaks to us through his Word. It gives us another opportunity to sharpen our consciences as we review God’s Law—his will for our lives.
The hymnal we use at Living Shepherd (Christian Worship) has a hymn that communicates this well. It’s called “The Law Commands and Makes Us Know.” We’ll use it to prepare us for what James has to say. In the first verse we sung, “The law commands and makes us know, what duties to our God we owe.” (CW 286 vs. 1a) So God’s law communicates what God wants us to be doing. But, as we study Gods’ Word and come to better understand his desire for us to love him with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind—his desire for us to love our neighbor as ourselves (paraphrase of Mt 22:37-39)—we start to see some problems. Verse two put it this way. “The law uncovers guilt and sin and shows how vile our hearts have been.” (CW 286 vs. 2a) It is God’s Law—his will for our lives here on this earth—which ultimately reveals to us how we’ve failed to live according to God’s will. It’s also God’s Law which communicates the price of that failure. For our failure to live according to God’s Law we deserve physical death and eternal separation from God’s love in Hell. Verse 3 of our opening hymn put it this way. “What curses does the law pronounce against the one who fails but once!” (CW 286 vs. 3a) It’s a good thing these are not just half of the hymn verses we sung a while ago, but also only HALF of God’s important message!
“The law commands and makes us know what duties to our God we owe, but tis the gospel must reveal where lies our strength to do his will.” (CW 286 vs. 1) AH! So while God’s law does make us aware of God’s will for our lives here, it’s the gospel—the good news that Jesus lived according to God’s will PERFECTLY—received the punishment we deserve for FAILING to live according to God’s will perfectly—and then, through faith, credited his perfect obedience of God’s will to you and to me—it’s THIS good news that gives us the strength to now DO God’s will! “The law uncovers guilt and sin and shows how vile our hearts have been; The gospel only can express forgiving love and cleansing grace.” (CW 286 vs. 2) Again, while the law DOES uncover our guilt—our sin—the gospel reveals God’s forgiving love and cleansing grace! Do we deserve this? NO! That’s grace! “What curses does the law pronounce against the one who fails but once! But in the gospel Christ appears, pard’ning the guilt of num’rous years.” Yes—we all deserve the horrifying verdict of Hell—we would have deserved it even if we only sinned once. But we won’t suffer that verdict. We’ve received a pardon that frees us from a lifetime of guilt! (CW 286 vs. 3) The last verse of that opening hymn ties this all together for us and helps us to see the impact this most important of messages has in our day to day lives. “My soul, no more attempt to draw your life and comfort from the law. Flee to the hope the gospel gives; the one who trusts the promise lives.” While we live on this earth, there will always be a part of us that desperately wants to be able to keep God’s Law perfectly. Keep in mind, this desire exists even though God has already shown us through his Law that we cannot. As the hymn so beautifully points out, we do this because we think there is comfort to be found in the things we control. But as Christians we know better. We know that comfort is a false comfort—a lie. And so we “flee to the hope the gospel gives.”
This is where James comes in. (Feel free to scroll up and reread the section from James chapter 1 printed above!) To put it lightly, the book of James has caused confusion in Christians congregations for a long, long time. Here’s why. When read out of context, there are a number of verses in James that seem to contradict other clear portions of God’s Word. For example, in James chapter 2 we hear these words, “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) But then in Romans chapter 5 we hear “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1) And in Ephesians chapter 2 we hear, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”(Eph 2:8,9) See how these portions of God’s Word seem to contradict? On the surface, it seems as though Paul—the writer of Ephesians and Romans holds to a theology that’s different from James. It seems like Paul preaches we’re justified (declared not guilty) through faith while James preaches that we are justified by what we do and NOT by faith alone. But that’s only on the surface. That’s only when you rip James out of context.
In context, you begin to see that Paul and James do not have different theologies, but do have different audiences. Paul writes to people who are newer to Christianity—people who, by nature, focus on the things that they do. Paul’s message to them is simple. If you rely on the things you do in an attempt to please God, you’ll end up in hell. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) So don’t rely on yourselves and the things you do. Rely ONLY on the God who saved you. We call that faith.
James, on the other hand, writes to more mature Christians—people who have been Christians for a while, but have fallen into the trap of oversimplifying the relationship between faith and works. James says that when people do this they deceived themselves. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 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.
That’s an interesting picture, isn’t it? James says that person who “listens” to God’s Word but doesn’t “do” what it says is like a man who looks in the mirror, walks away and immediately forgets what he looks like. No one does that. No one looks in the mirror and immediately forgets what they look like. The same thing is true for Christians! When we listen to God’s Word we hear about our sins and we learn about our Savior from that sin. James’ question is this, “When you walk away from that mirror—when you walk away from listening to God’s Word—will you forget what you look like?” Will you forget that you’re a blood bought soul? Will you forget the peace you have with God through faith in Jesus? I sure hope not! So, what does it look like when you DON’T forget what you look like? “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.”
That’s what it looks like! It looks like doing! The person who listens to God’s Word and walks away knowing they are a forgiven child of God will walk away and DO what God says! Not to somehow earn their salvation! That would make no sense at all! In listening to God’s word that Christian has already learned of their inability to save themselves and the forgiveness given them through Jesus. This “DOING” is a result of who they are in Jesus!
Listen up. A Christian not only listens to God’s Word. A Christian also does what God’s Word says! Why? Because we can’t help but WANT to do what is asked of us by the God who saves us through faith in Jesus! So, as James encourages, we are “quick to listen and slow to speak. We want to get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent. We DO keep a tight rein on our tongues. We DO look after orphans and widows in their distress and we DO make every effort to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world.”
So why does God want us to “Listen Up?” Why does he want us to listen to his most important message? Because he knows it will have an impact on our lives. It will lead us to know the forgiveness Jesus won for us—EVEN FOR THE TIMES WE FAIL TO DO WHAT GOD SAYS. But then, as we stare into that mirror and see a forgiven child of God, we walk away and live like a child of God. We not only listen to what God says—we do what God says.
Blessings on the rest of your week!