The Epistle of James
Swift To Hear
Now that the Christian stands before us as a new creation, James begins to mention things which accompany that new kind of life.
He says, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath.” The Greek has “knowing” rather than “therefore.” He says, “Knowing, my brethren.” Knowing what? What he has just been talking about. God willed our salvation, and brought us forth with the Word of Truth. Now that you know this, “Be swift to hear, and slow to speak.” One who is born again is but a babe in Christ. As a baby needs to learn a great deal before it can speak, so a babe in Christ should also learn much before attempting to speak publicly for the edification of the saints. It is seemingly characteristic of our day that when some noted celebrity believes, almost the next day he is shoved into the pulpit to deliver a message. According to divine intention, this should not be. He may testify immediately to his salvation, and attempt to lead others to his Saviour, but to get behind the pulpit to speak to edification of God’s people, should wait until he is more thoroughly instructed himself.
A New Creation
James continues to enlarge on the new life in Christ in verse 21, where he says, “Wherefore, lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted Word, which is able to save your souls.” The phrase “Lay apart” in English is a command, but in the Greek it is not a command; it is a second aorist passive participle, and is more correctly translated “having been put away.” When one trusts Christ as his personal Saviour, he becomes a new creation; old things pass away and all things become new. Filthiness and naughtiness are characteristics of the old things which have been put away. The Christian is not commanded to put away that which has already been put away, but now that he is a new creation, he should in meekness receive the implanted Word which is able to save your souls. The implanted Word is Christ, and He is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him. The Greek word translated into English by the word “save” has the meanings of “to save, to preserve, and to keep safe.” The mistake is often made when this word is used in the Greek to let it refer to the initial act of salvation, when it is translated into English. However, there are many cases where the word refers to the fact of being kept safe rather than the initial act of salvation. We who have been saved for many years are being kept safe by the intercessory work of Christ. He is able to save to the uttermost, because He ever lives to make intercession for us. So in this case we are to receive in meekness the implanted Word who is able to keep our souls.
Doers of the Word
In verse 22 James says, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” This is a definite command, and the present imperative is used in the Greek, which implies a continual process. However, the Greek word used is for “become” rather than “be.” We are commanded to continually become like those who hear and practise what they hear. To hear the word, and not practise it, is to deceive one’s self.
The Natural Man
Those who hear, but do not practise what they hear, are likened to a man looking at his natural self in a mirror. The Greek has a unique way of putting it, “looking at the face of his birth.” It is an idiomatic way of referring to what one is by nature. The Bible pictures the natural man as grossly wicked (Romans 1:18-32). The picture is repulsive. Some men read the portion and depart forgetting what sort of persons they are. The natural man does not like the picture, and forces himself to forget it. But it is difficult to erase the picture completely.
The Three Laws
The ideal Christian looks into the perfect law of liberty and perseveres in it. The perfect law is characterized by liberty. It is not the law of Moses, for that law genders to bondage. The perfect law is the Word of God rightly divided (2 Tim. 2:15). There are really three laws governing the Christian life. The first of these is the law of the Spirit (Romans 8:2) and it is characterized by life. This law operates as soon as a sinner trusts Christ as his Saviour. He is given life which the law of Moses could not give, and this brings with it enablement. The second law is mentioned in Galatians 6:2, where it says, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The law of Christ is characterized by love, and brings with it fulfilment. The Christian cannot keep the law of Moses in his own strength, but when the law of Christ is allowed to operate in his life, then the very righteousness of the law is being fulfilled in him, because he walks not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. Then the third law is the perfect law (James 1:25) about which we have briefly spoken. This law is characterized by liberty, and brings maturity to the believer. He becomes a full-grown son of God; he is a genuine Christian.
The Creative Work of Maturity
One who looks into the perfect law of liberty and perseveres in it, James says, “He is not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work.” There is a great deal more in the Greek text here than meets the eye in the English translation. The word translated “doer” in the Greek is “poieesia” which, according to Arndt and Gingerich means “to do something prescribed, or, the creative work of artists.” A good artist is not interested painting the same ideas into all his pictures. He is interested in doing creative work, putting new ideas into his pictures. James uses this same word of mature Christians who are interested in doing creative work for their Lord. Creativity is lost among God’s people when they are afraid to step out of the paths of their predecessors. We are living in a changing world, and we cannot do everything our forefathers did. The gospel never changes, but the methods of proclaiming that gospel change with the times. The same old truths are preached in new ways. In a former generation, someone’s creative thinking came up with the idea of a Sunday School. At first many people were against Sunday Schools because they are not mentioned in the Bible. Some flourishing Sunday Schools had to be closed in that day because of the opposition of the hierarchy in the church. But today no one is against the Sunday School because it has proven its worth through the years. The same thing can be said of Bible Schools, Bible Camps, Literature Crusades, Youth for Christ, Child Evangelism, and many other projects. Some mature Christians were interested in doing creative work for their Lord and came up with these projects. Millions of souls will be in Heaven, because someone dared to launch out in creative work for the Lord, in spite of the acid criticism that was hurled against him by devote ritualists who cannot step out of the old paths that their forefathers trod. But James says, “This man will be blessed in all his undertakings.”
James concludes this treatise by touching on the religious life of the genuine Christian. The word “religion” does not have a good flavor in the Bible. James is the only writer of Scripture, who uses the word in any good sense. Religion has been defined as “Man’s effort to attain God’s favor.” Christianity is God’s effort to bring man into His favor. There is a world of difference between religion and Christianity. Christianity really cannot be called a religion, because it does not have in it any characteristics of religion. James uses the word relative to good works one may do for God. These works are not meritorious, but are done out of gratitude for what God has done for him. If a man thinks himself to be religious (seems) is too mild a translation for the Greek used here. If he does not bridle his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion fails to achieve its goal. But religious service which is pure and undefiled before God, is to visit the orphans and widows in their distress, and keep himself unspotted from the world. This is religious service a genuine Christian renders for God.
17-18 All giving that is good, and every gift designed for perfection are from above and come down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shadow due to change. Having willed it, He brought us forth through the Word of Truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.
19-21 Knowing this, my beloved brethren, let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Because all filthiness, and the overflowing of wickedness have been put away from you, receive in meekness the implanted Word, which is able to keep your souls.
22-25 Therefore, become like those who practise the Word; do not become like those who hear but do not practise what they hear, for they deceive themselves. For if one hears the Word but does not practise it, he is like the man beholding his natural self in a mirror, and when he perceived himself, he departed and refused to remember what sort of person he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and perseveres in it, he does not become a forgetful hearer, but one who does creative work; this man shall be blessed in all he undertakes.
26-27 If any man thinks he is religious, but does not bridle his tongue, he deceives himself, and his religion fails to achieve its goal.
James is forthright in his ministry; he does not believe in compromise. His message therefore is needed in this day of moral and spiritual flexibility.
Had James been a painter, he would not have used grays, but pure white or dead black.
Would to God that we had men of such convictions now.