After James began his letter encouraging oppressed Christians in their suffering, he moves onto how to properly practice the faith despite of trials and temptations to sin. As James said before:
He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures (James 1:18).
Let’s move on with how Christians, as God’s first fruits, properly practice the faith despite of suffering:
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
This sounds all well and good, but just like when you are grumpier when you are tired or in pain, it is difficult to display these qualities in the midst of suffering. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. How can we, who are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, live in a fashion opposed to our calling?
Why must we be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger? Even “under afflictions,” Matthew Henry’s Commentary states, “this we shall learn if we are indeed begotten again by the word of truth.” For we must as spiritual people, by nature, produce spiritual fruit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
But, how many of us still struggle with anger? “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26). So, God knows we get angry. He forgives anger if we resolve not to hold a grudge that evening. However, that does not permit us to break into uncontrollable “outbursts” of fury (see Gal 5:20, Oecumenius p. 17).
Let me speak of my own sin. I used to own an auto repair shop. It was the most stressful thing I have ever done in my life. I was a born-again Christian, I have turned away from all sorts of sins. Yet, the ineptitude of my employees and ingratitude of my customers would get me angry. If enough buttons were pushed, I would break out into cursing and slamming my fist against something. I would pray daily not to get angry. I would initially be very patient. And maybe not today, or tomorrow, but then something would set me off in a fit of rage. Ask anyone who worked with me.
Can’t we see how I am the sort of man James is speaking to? He is telling me to pray as I ought, without doubting. He assures me that my sufferings were for my good, as the Father of lights works all things for good for those who love Him (Rom 8:28). And he humbles me with the knowledge that God tests me by handing me over to my own temptation to sin. James does not console me with easy forgiveness. He urges me on: be faithful and do not sin! Do not give in to anger, be patient and wait for God. Listen to His teaching!
After four years, God answered my prayers and He did more for me than I could have ever imagined.
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.
Stop making excuses for your sin! Your suffering, which God has ordained, does not cause you to sin. Your own temptations and lust are to blame, so cast them aside and accept the guiding of the Holy Spirit “implanted” in you, admonishing you to be joyful, patient, and peaceful. Put to death the lusts of the flesh!
The word implanted…is able to save your souls.
Just because you know the word of God, it does not mean you are saved. It is only able to save you if you accept it and truly believe. The word does not save when it is heard, but ignored. What does it mean to truly believe? It means to so let the word of God permeate your very being that it is evident from your actions what you believe. As Christ says:
The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart (Luke 6:45).
22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.
If you do not do what the word of God says, you delude yourself when you say you believe it. As Calvin writes:
[T]he doer is he who from the heart embraces God’s word and testifies by his life that he really believes, according to the saying of Christ, “Blessed are they who hear God’s word and keep it,” (Luke 11:28) for he shews by the fruits what that implanting is, before mentioned (1:22).
Let’s discuss this via anecdote. Charles Blondin in 1860 crossed Niagra Falls on a tightrope while doing any number of fears. The story goes like this:
He walked across, 160 feet above the falls, several times… each time with a different daring feat – once in a sack, on stilts, on a bicycle, in the dark, and blindfolded. One time he even carried a stove and cooked an omelet in the middle of the rope!
A large crowd gathered and the buzz of excitement ran along both sides of the river bank. The crowd “Oohed and Aahed!” as Blondin carefully walked across – one dangerous step after another – pushing a wheelbarrow holding a sack of potatoes.
Then a one point, he asked for the participation of a volunteer. Upon reaching the other side, the crowd’s applause was louder than the roar of the falls!
Blondin suddenly stopped and addressed his audience: “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?”
The crowd enthusiastically yelled, “Yes! You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world. We believe!”
“Okay,” said Blondin, “Who wants to get into the wheelbarrow.”
As far as the Blondin story goes, no one did at the time!
The true believer jumps into the wheelbarrow. The false convert speaks only words.
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.
In the words of Oecumenius:
Think of him as saying that someone who hears a sermon but does not put any of it into practice is like a man who having seen himself in the mirror immediately forgets what he looks like (p. 19).
Isn’t it foolish to forget what you look like right after you look into a mirror? Then, isn’t it foolish to look at the mirror of God’s Law (see Hillary of Arles, p. 18; Oecuminius, p. 19) which reflects back to you all of your sins, and not, in the words of Matthew Henry’s Commentary: “repent of them and get them pardoned?” As Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:5).
“Why do I have to do that?,” some may say. “Aren’t we not under Law, but under grace? Why should it matter what the mirror shows?” To this James responds:
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.
First, he says, we are not without Law. The faithful indeed look to a Law, the perfect Law of liberty. Paul says as much in Rom 8 in that:
…the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death…He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (v. 2-4)
[I]f the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live (v. 11-13).
Taking into account what Paul actually said, we should notice that we are under the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, but we do not fulfill the Law. Christ condemned sin on the cross, fulfilling the Law, and gave us His Spirit. If the Spirit indeed dwells in you, you are no longer under Law, because God fulfilled it on your behalf and He literally dwells in you. The evidence that this is true is that you walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh.
So, this is the Law of liberty: that you are no longer under compulsion to fulfill the Law, because your inability to do so brings death. However, because you are given true freedom and peace with God by the indwelling of the Spirit, you will by nature do what is right.
James’ point is obvious. One truly redeemed by Christ and indwelt by the Spirit will look at His liberty and happily put to death the deeds of the body and produce the sort of spiritual fruit spoken about in Gal 5.
This man will be blessed in what He does
In the words of Matthew Henry’s Commentary:
The apostle does not say, for his deeds, that any man is blessed, but in his deed. This is a way in which we shall certainly find blessedness, but not the cause of it. This blessedness does not lie in knowing, but in doing the will of God.John 13:17; If you know these things, happy are you if you do them. It is not talking, but walking, that will bring us to heaven.
26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.
James returns to the idea he spoke of in verse 19 by cautioning about the tongue. We often speak words we regret out of anger instead of listening and being patient. Such a man whose “anger…does not achieve the righteousness of God” worships in vain, for he proves not to be freed from his sin, but rather enslaved to it.
James, in saying this, causes all our mouths to close. To some extent, every man struggles with this sin, particularly adolescent males between the ages of 19 to 25.
[T]hey who have put off the grosser vices, are especially subject to this disease. He who is neither an adulterer, nor a thief, nor a drunkard, but, on the contrary, seems brilliant with some outward shew of sanctity will set himself off by defaming others, and this under the pretense of zeal, but really through the lust of slandering.
How many seem to be great, learned Christians but appear absolutely incapable of speaking with charity? The Scripture for a reason admonishes wives to win over their husbands without words and for husbands, in the same way, honor their wives and not embitter them with theirs. For we all too easily prove faithless with our words, destroying our brothers and sisters whom the Lord has redeemed.
27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Pure and undefiled religion is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). As the Apostle John writes:
Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3:15-18).
In light of this, it is eminently reasonable to teach that undefiled religion is to selflessly love the helpless, as Christ did the same for us. We are completely helpless, unable to break the bonds of sin, apart from the grace given to us by Christ. Knowing this profound love we cannot help but live by it.
…to keep oneself unstained by the world.
How do we keep ourselves unstained by the world? First, we must understand what the Scriptures teach the “world” is.
Simply put, the “world,” other than being the Earth itself, is the things, desires, and values that its fallen people have. For example:
…the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful (Matt 13:22)
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Eph 2:1-3).
To keep unstained from the world, we must not only avoid the sins the world practices, but also not desire what the world desires. We must not chase after the deceitfulness of wealth and things. They not only do not bring satisfaction but rather pierce us with pains. Further, to lavish oneself while ignoring your brother in need is an act of hatred. This is why James contrasts undefiled religion with worldly stain–undefiled religion is selfless like Christ, worldly stain selfishly accumulates possessions and esteem.
As God warns: “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared” (Luke 12:20)?
This is how you know you are in the world, but not of this world–that you live like Christ. As Calvin observes: “Let him who would be deemed religious, prove himself to be such by self denial and by mercy and benevolence towards his neighbors” (1:27).