Not Just Hearers, But Doers
January 19, 2014 / No. 3707
Dear radio friends,
Faith without works is dead, being alone. Faith is not faith unless it produces good works in a person’s life. This is the emphasis of James, the brother of Christ, in the letter he writes to the scattered believers. As such, this letter of James perfectly complements Paul’s epistles. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8, 9, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” James writes: “Faith without works is dead.”
James does not claim that good works in any way merit salvation, but he does state boldly that good works are a result of salvation. They are the fruit of faith. If faith is found in a person, then good works will also be evident in his life.
It is on this that the instruction of the Word of God we consider today is based. That Word is found in James 1:22-25: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.”
When a person has faith, then he will not only be a hearer of the Word of God preached, but he will also be a doer of that Word. As such, the instruction given us by James here is very practical in nature. It does not leave the reader with any doubts. James is very clear and to the point: if all we do is come to church on Sunday and hear the Word and then leave without doing the Word, we are fools and the truth is not in us.
Hearing the Word
The admonition before us in these verses is that every believer must be a hearer and a doer of the Word. In order to understand this command, however, we need first of all to understand what James means here by the Word. He uses that term “word” twice, both in verse 22 and verse 23. Now, it would not be all that necessary to explain this simple term if James did not further define it for us in verse 25. We would simply say that the Word refers to Scripture and leave it at that. But when James speaks of this Word as “the perfect law of liberty,” it automatically requires our attention. Obviously, the Word referred to here by James requires an understanding of the content of the Word of God. When we hear the word we hear the perfect law of liberty.
The law that James refers to is the moral law, that is, the law of the ten commandments. Although the whole of the law is indeed the Word that we hear, James emphasizes the second table of that law, the table dealing with how we are to behave ourselves toward our neighbor. Jesus summarizes the law in these words, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” That summary includes the last six commands of the ten: honor parents, no stealing, no adultery, no murder, no lying, and no coveting. That is the law—and that is “the word” that we must hear and do: we must abide by the ten commandments especially as these have to do with our life in relation to the neighbor.
But there is more to this law than merely a set of objective commands that God gives to His people. This law is a perfect law, and it is a law of liberty. These are the two ways James describes the law of God.
These laws are perfect. This word does not mean that the laws of God are flawless and without error, even though that is very true. But it refers to the fact that these laws that God gives us are complete. They express for you and me the complete will of God for our lives. These laws are not useless and outdated for the modern man. These laws are vital and dynamic for the life of God’s people today too. They did not disappear with the coming of salvation in Christ. Christ did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. That is what the word “perfect” here in our text means too. God’s law is perfect, that is, it is fulfilled or brought to its completion in the very work of Jesus Christ on the cross! Christ established the law. By means of His work on the cross the laws of God have become inscribed on the fleshy tables of our hearts. We carry God’s law within us. The ten commandments are not external codes to which we are forced to conform ourselves. The law of God is become to the believer the very center of his existence. He loves the law! He desires to do God’s will. All this because Christ has fulfilled or perfected that law within us. It is the perfect law of God.
And for that reason too, it is the law of liberty! You see, when Christ conquered sin and Satan at the cross, He gained for you and me our liberty, our freedom. Christ set us free from the bondage of sin. When we were lost in sin, we hated the law of God and refused to walk in obedience to it. We were rebels who had no ability in us to walk in God’s precepts. But through the power work of our salvation we have been set free from the slavery of sin. This does not mean, however, that we are free to do what we want to do. It means that we are free to do the will of God again. The law is the law of liberty. It is the law of liberty in another sense too. It guards our liberty! It protects our freedom! (Our country has been free and still is to a large extent. That freedom is protected by the laws of our land. Freedom is not without law.)
So, we are called to hear and do the perfect law of liberty. But let us not forget that this law of liberty is, in fact, the Word we hear! It is the Word. And although the law of God may be a part of that Word, it is not the all of it. It is obvious from what we have already described that the Word used here is in fact Scripture—Scripture that indeed contains the law of God but at the same time contains for us the word of the gospel. The law can never be viewed apart from the gospel, fellow saint! Never! The law indeed leads us to a knowledge of our sin. When we look into the mirror of God’s Word, the first thing we are able to see is that by the deeds of the law no man can be justified. We cannot be righteous before God on the basis of our good works. The works of the law cannot merit anything in the sight of God. On the contrary, the law reveals that we are guilty before God and stand in need of the righteous blood of Jesus Christ. That is what Scripture teaches us. And that too is the word we must hear.
But along with that word of the gospel we also learn that through the work of Christ on the cross we have been delivered from sin. He sends forth His Spirit to dwell in our hearts, and that Spirit works in us faith. Faith binds us to Christ in order that the life of Christ flows forth into us. And by means of that life we bring forth fruits of righteousness before God. As a result of the work of faith within us, we bring forth good works. Such is the word that we are commanded to hear and do.
There is one more truth about that “Word” spoken of here in these several verses: it is the Word preached. “Be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only.” It is a Word that we are called to hear. The emphasis of our text is upon the doing of God’s Word, but in order to do it we must first hear it. Neither does James neglect to remind his readers that we must be those who hear the Word of God. In other words, God’s people must come under the preaching of the Word. They may not merely sit in their homes and read the Bible for themselves or with their families. That is necessary too. That is the duty of every father in his home. But believers must come under the preaching of the gospel. All of God’s children are required by God’s Word to sit under the preaching of God’s Word and hear it proclaimed to them.
But the instruction of God to us in the verses goes beyond mere hearing. It has to do with the hearing and the doing of that Word preached. In order for us to understand, an analogy or comparison is drawn in this passage. The Word of God, the perfect law of liberty, is a mirror. When a person comes to church and hears that Word of God proclaimed, he is made to look into that mirror. He is made to see himself. He is made to see himself as he really is. God’s law does that. It exposes us for who we really are. Out of the law of God is the knowledge of our sin. In other words, it is like looking into a mirror when we first get out of bed in the morning. Our hair is messed, probably a bit greasy. Our mouth tastes like an army just set up camp in it. Our teeth have a film. Our skin is greasy, or, if a woman, our makeup is smeared. There may be sleepers in the eyes. We do not like anyone seeing us when we first get up because we need to clean up first.
Well, that is what it is like to look into the perfect law of liberty. That is what it is like oftentimes when we hear God’s Word and the law preached to us. We realize that we are not so pretty. We realize our sin. We realize that by nature we are prone to hate God and the neighbor. The filth of sin yet cleaves to us. We need to be cleansed. We need to be beautified. That beauty comes only through the cross of Christ. He alone turns our guilt into righteousness. He alone makes us, who are worthy of death, innocent in the sight of God. Further, He makes us, who are filthy in sin, holy in the sight of God. He cleanses us through His death on the cross and sends His Spirit into our hearts to make us holy.
Now, there are two kinds of hearers of that Word. There are two types of people who look into that mirror of God’s Word and law. One is a hearer who takes a look at himself in the mirror and his evaluation is: “Not the greatest, but it could be worse!” but after he walks away from the mirror he begins to think of himself as the handsomest man in the world. He deceives himself, James says. He needs cleansing, but he hears the Word of God, hears the commandments, and walks away satisfied with who he is. This is the forgetful hearer. The other hearer of God’s Word is one who looks into that perfect law of liberty, truly knows what he looks like, walks away continuing to remember what he looks like, and then applies the Word of God to his life in this world. He hears the Word preached, and not only hears it but is quick to apply it to his life in this world, so that he walks in that Word. He does the Word and does not merely hear it! And that Word continues all through the week to be before his mind’s eye. That is the analogy made here in our text. That is the comparison James uses to get his point across.
Doing the Word
The point is, we must not only hear the Word, we must also do it. That is the command we receive here: Be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only. James brings this up because there are many who sit beneath the preaching and are forgetful hearers. Forgetful in this sense: they hear the preaching and even agree with it, but the moment Sunday is over, they forget the Word. They do not carry it with them into their lives. It never seems to direct them or change them in the ways needed. The Word preached may address how we are called to love our neighbor. It may address the commandments. It may explain and forbid rebellion, adultery, greed, murder, lying, and cheating. The church may be filled with hearers. Sometimes enthusiastic hearers. But though they hear, they straightway leave the church and forget about what they heard when in the world. They do not apply it to their lives in their parenting, or to their relationship with mother and father. They do not glean from the preaching the principles of God’s Word that ought to direct them in their dating life, or in their marriage, or in their relationship to their employer or employees, or in their relationship to their government. They do not apply it to finances, or to work, or to friendships, or to entertainment, or to the way they deal with others, or to their place in the church. They use their Bibles on Sunday, and the rest of the week the Bible sits on a shelf gathering dust. They hear it and forget it. They come to church willingly enough, but do it as a matter of custom or habit. The preaching is merely a matter of theology to them, but not a matter of practical life.
This type of a hearer is not merely a lazy hearer, but he is not listening in faith. The call of the gospel is: Believe! When one hears the gospel with the ears of faith, then the result is good works! It is hearing that perfect law of liberty and going out and using one’s liberty to walk in God’s precepts. It is living in connection with Christ, not just when we are sitting in church on Sundays but through the whole week.
One who does not hear in faith, James says, is just like that man who wakes up in the morning and looks at himself in a mirror and then walks away and forgets that his teeth are covered with a film, that he has bed head, that his sleepers are stuck in the corner of his eyes. He becomes busy with his day smiling at people with his dirty teeth, maintaining eye contact with people with his sleepers, and then walking away with matted hair. And all the while he deceives himself into thinking that he is an impressive picture of cleanliness. Such hearers of God’s Word go out of church forgetting to evaluate themselves spiritually. They forget what manner of men or women they are. They forget that only when they reflect the virtues of Jesus Christ, the fruits of the Spirit, are they truly beautiful. Only when they walk in God’s commandments are they truly holy. But they forget that, and they walk in the ways of sin, ignoring what they heard in the preaching. And they think they are beautiful! They deceive themselves into thinking that they are impressive.
Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only! That is the command we receive here in God’s Word. Do the Word! Keep the commandments of God. The commands teach us to love God and the neighbor. Do them. Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Do not just listen to them on Sunday, but go out in the week that lies ahead and do them. Walk in faith. Really, that is what this command of our text comes down to. Believe, and then walk in that faith. Faith is not dead. Faith produces good works—works that stand in conformity to the law of God.
Doing that Word has nothing to do with earning salvation. We are justified in the blood of Christ. He is the ground for our salvation. Be ye doers of the Word because this is the way you show thankfulness for salvation. Do those good works knowing that they are indeed the result, the fruit, of faith. Believers must walk in good works. They must be hearers but also doers of what they hear preached to them.
And when believers do the things required in the Word of God, they must remember what manner of people they are: sinners saved by grace; beautified with salvation. We walk in the consciousness that we are cleansed in the blood of our Savior. And we do not forget that.
Blessed by the Word
When we are doers of the Word and not just hearers, then we are blessed. This is how verse 25 ends: “this man shall be blessed in his deed.” That word “blessed” is the same as Jesus uses in the beatitudes of Matthew 5. It literally means happy. The believer is not just happy that he is saved by grace through his faith. But he is happy in the deeds of faith. He is blessed in life. He is so, not only on Sunday as he hears the Word, but also when that Word continues with him and he does it. And is that not the idea, people of God? What good is it when we sit in church on Sunday and then go out during the week and ignore what we heard? Where is the joy in that? Why even sit in church and hear? But when we hear God’s Word and use it to direct us in our walk of life in this world, that is joy.
In other words, what James says is correct; that man is blessed in his deeds. Jesus says it this way in Luke 11:28, “Blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.” The deeds we do are evidence to us of our faith. They are the fruit of faith. When we walk in sin and ignore what we hear in the preaching, where is our faith? Sin causes heartache and misery. Sin causes agony of heart and soul. The believer who does the Word of God is happy in the deeds that he performs.
That, then, is the incentive we receive in this Word of God. Let us not deceive ourselves. Do not walk away from the mirror of God’s Word and forget what that Word teaches us to do in life. Be doers of the Word and not hearers only.