May 22, 2014
“Hearing and Doing”
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. James 1:22-27
How do we know God’s love? We look to where he revealed it to us. We look to the Son of God. What did Jesus do? There you see God’s love. You see his kindness toward all people, his compassion for those who are suffering, his grace toward sinners seeking salvation from sin – and when you see what he does, you are struck most by what he chooses to endure. The act of Christ by which God’s love is most famously known was not Jesus doing; it was Jesus being done to. He suffered betrayal, arrest, abuse, scorn, crucifixion, and death. There God reveals his love.
God doesn’t just talk. He does. His deeds prove his words. We can count on whatever he says because he always backs up his words with deeds. So it must be for us who bear his name. When we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, God joined his name to us and claimed us as his dear children. We are clothed in Christ, covered by his righteousness. We are Christians. Christians imitate God. He says it and then does it. So it is for us. We hear what he says and we do it.
St. James writes: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” God’s word tells us what we are. The word “Christian” is seldom used in the Bible to identify a Christian. Most often, the word “righteous” is used. God calls his Christians the righteous. This righteousness does not come from us. It isn’t our doing. It’s Christ’s doing. It is his obedience and his suffering that he, as our representative, offered to God for us. We are justified – that is, we are reckoned by God to be righteous – through faith in Christ, not by our good deeds.
But we are righteous. It’s not as if God is kidding around when he says that we are. God isn’t pretending to justify us when he justifies us through faith in Christ. He says, “You are righteous” and so it is. We are righteous. We are righteous with nothing less than the obedience-wrought, blood-bought righteousness of Jesus Christ! So then, act like it! That’s what James is saying in our text. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Righteous people live righteous lives. You’re a Christian. Act like one!
James goes on:
The perfect law of liberty is the gospel. The gospel tells you that you are a child of God, at peace with God, righteous before God, all for the sake of Christ. Look to the gospel and listen to what it says. Then you will do what God wants. We are used to thinking of the law as a mirror. That’s how we teach the bitter but necessary truth of God’s word that the law shows us our sins. We look at what God demands of us, summarized in the Ten Commandments he gave to Moses, and in taking those commandments to heart, according to what they require of us in thought, word, and deed, we see reflected back to us our sins. The law is a mirror to show us our sins.
Here, the Apostle James wants us to consider the gospel as the mirror that shows us what we are in Christ, for Christ’s sake. Then go out and do the living of Christ. St. Paul talks about this when he writes:
For a Christian to ignore the life that God has called him to live is to forget that he is a Christian. Christians live the life of Christ. We are bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. He is the head and we are his body. There is a mystical union in which Christ is joined to his Christians in a bond that cannot be broken. This is what we acknowledge, confess, and believe. Live like it! Living the Christian life brings blessing to the one who lives it. It is a life of joy because it’s a life worth living. It bears fruit that lasts. Act like a Christian. Be what you already are. Do it!
Do what? He’s not talking here about talking the talk. He’s talking about walking the walk. James continues:
If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless.
Put a bridle on your tongue. Control what you say. James is not talking primarily about avoiding cursing, filthy talk, lying, gossiping, and other sins whereby worthless and cruel words gush out of the mouth like sewage. That is included, to be sure, but the primary bridling of which he is speaking is to rein in self-promoting, self-congratulatory boasting. People think that religion is a matter of how you talk. It’s not. It’s how you act. Talk is cheap. Anybody can spout off about how religious or “spiritual” he is. Talking about you isn’t talking about Christ, but Christ is the Savior and you’re not. Christ’s righteousness avails before God, yours does not. So quit presenting yourself as God’s gift to the world or to the community or to the church. True religion is not just talk. It is deeds. The great Danish hymnist, Thomas Kingo, gets to the point of our text when he writes:
Christians talk. But not all the talk of Christians is Christian talk. That’s what James is saying. Talking without thinking is common among folks who like the sound of their own voice. But the word “religion” means God-fearing; not man-pleasing. True religion doesn’t boast or elevate oneself. To fear God means to care more about helping those who cannot help you than it does in promoting you.
St. James writes:
The world pleases itself. When we think of particularly obnoxious or obvious sins we think of such things as sexual immorality, drunkenness, violent outbursts, stealing, killing, and so forth. But to be unspotted from the world does not mean simply to avoid such obviously destructive sins. It means that our hearts are directed according to that pattern of love we have learned from our Savior, Jesus. Consider the gospel in which we trust. It is for the helpless. It is for the helpless that need help. This is why James mentions specifically visiting widows and orphans in their trouble. True religion – genuinely God-fearing and pious behavior – is to help those who cannot pay you or reward you or do you any good. To love for the joy of loving is what Christians do. That’s what Jesus did and Christians belong to Christ Jesus.
The world does good to be praised. Jesus addressed this view of good deeds in his Sermon on the Mount when he said:
Good deeds aren’t done for the benefit of the one doing them. They are done for the benefit of others. This is what Christians understand. When we look into the perfect law of liberty – that is, when we look to the gospel in which we trust and that makes us righteous before God – what do we see? We see the love of God in Christ. We see God rescuing us from the guilt and punishment of our sins. We see divine mercy and forgiveness. We see our lives. The true Christian religion is to imitate the love we see in Christ.
Visiting widows and orphans entails much more than visiting widows and orphans. It refers to an entire category of behavior. It means a radical break with the world’s view of religion. Our religion doesn’t help us. It helps others. The good life is not a life of wealth, worldly success, the amassing of power or prestige, or any of the many pursuits that occupy the attention and capture the affections of the world. The good life, that is, the life truly worth living, is the life lived in service to those in need. What does this mean?
It means that human life cannot be measured by material measurements. When we do what we do to get more and more stuff that will perish with the world we are living our lives in service to what will perish. What a child of God does as a child of God to benefit the neighbor is done for those who are created in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ. They have value, and thus what we do to help them in either body or soul must have value. It is an offering to God. The service of a Christian father or mother for their children must have value. God values it. The Christian soldier who gives his life for his fellow citizens is never wasting that life. Even if the nation forgets, God does not forget the service his Christians offer him.
Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, taking away our sin and making us fit for heaven, was valuable. It was the most precious act anyone ever did. When we imitate that love by what we do, what we do is precious to God and we are blessed in doing it.
Rolf D. Preus