This sermon is part of the sermon series "Txt Msg". See series.
Today we're going to be looking at the Book of James—incredibly practical and poignant letter for the spiritual life. This is the final sermon in our series entitled "Txt Msg: What We Believe About the Bible," and the intention of this series has been to give us a greater appreciation and confidence in God's Word together. All of the topics we've studied so far—inspiration, canonization, illumination, and meditation—have been leading us to the logical outcome of application. If you understand how the Bible came from God, how it was assembled by men and translated so that the common person can read it, how the Holy Spirit takes it and puts it in our hearts, and how we carry it around in our hearts, but you do nothing with it, then all of those other things are really irrelevant. They don't make any difference to life. They have informed us, but they really haven't done anything to transform us. It is important that we understand how God's Word now applies to life, and that's what our passage wants to lead us today. James 1:22-25 says:
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 the mirror and after looking at himself he goes away and he 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.
A warning against misuse
If you go to the store today and you purchase a product—a toy or some food or some hardware—you're probably going to find a warning or caution note on the side of the package. Those caution labels can be useful, but sometimes, if you look hard enough, you can find some warning labels that are utterly ridiculous. For example, on the side of a baby stroller box, there is this warning: Remove child before folding. On a cardboard sunshield that you put in your windshield to protect your car from the sun, there was this warning: Don't drive with sunshield in place. On a toilet bowl cleaning brush: Not for oral use. On a Bic lighter: Light this lighter away from face. On the package of a rain gauge, there was this comment: Suitable for outdoor use. On a 500-piece puzzle: Some assembly required. I love this, from the manual of a chainsaw: Do not attempt to stop the blade with your hand. And finally, on the package of little juggling balls, there was this warning: This product contains small granules under 3 millimeters, not suitable for children under the age of 14 years in Europe or 8 years in the United States. Proof that our children this side of the ocean are able to digest little 3-millimeter granules a lot easier than children in Europe. The reason these labels exist is because manufacturers produced a product that they thought was pretty straightforward, but along the way something went terribly wrong. Someone opened a package and began to use the product in a way in which it wasn't intended, which I'm sure led to some sort of catastrophic problem, and probably a lawsuit along the way. So the manufacturers decided they needed to clarify with the warning label.
Our passage today in James is a warning label. James is writing to inform believers how the Word of God is intended to be used. He obviously knows enough about human nature to realize that there is a great tendency for us to mishandle the Word of God. And if we mishandle or misuse the Word of God, it leads to very, very dangerous consequences. James highlights two of those consequences in this passage. He begins, "Do not merely listen to the Word." Don't merely be a hearer of God's Word. Now, we have to remember that James is writing this passage to a predominantly oral culture. People would receive the Word of God by coming and listening to other people. Many of the people didn't read, and none of them had Bibles of their own, so they would receive the Word by listening to it. If James were writing to today's audience, he would probably broaden his command and say to us sitting here today, "Do not merely be listeners or readers of the Word. Do not merely be just students of the Word, do not merely podcast the Word, do not merely download the Word, don't simply tweet the Word, and don't simply look at the Word online." It's not that James was against listening and reading and studying and discussing and memorizing and meditating and podcasting and tweeting, because in order for the Bible to get into us, we must get into the Bible. He was all for communicating the Word. But James' point is that merely listening or hearing or receiving the Word of God into your life is not enough. In fact, it can be rather dangerous to your spiritual life. There are two reasons why this is so.
The first reason why merely listening to the Word can be dangerous is that listening, all by itself, can be self-deceiving. James says, "Do not merely listen to the Word and so deceive yourselves." That word deception or deceive means to cheat or to falsely reason. It means to misunderstand. And when we simply listen to the Word—when we receive the Word into our lives and it stops there, we cheat ourselves. The Word of God can warm your heart without ever moving your soul. The Word of God can inform your mind without transforming your life. The Word of God can educate the sinner without eradicating sin from a person's life. It has the potential to make a person theologically smart, biblically informed, and apologetically smart, and yet while the person continues to grow in her mind, she can be left immature, unmoved, and unchanged. She can have a false sense that she's gone farther in her spiritual life than she has—a false sense that she's walking with God when she isn't.
The apostle Paul points out this problem in 1 Corinthians chapter 8 when he says that knowledge puffs up. Knowledge by itself—receiving information into your life—can make you smarter and sharper and quicker on your feet and can give you the right words to say, and yet it gives an inflated picture of spiritual maturity. A person can have a big head and a strong mind and really have all of the answers from Scripture, yet inside there is nothing but puffed up air. There's no substance, no maturity, no reality inside of them. Simply reading, coming here and listening to the Word, or opening your Bible and reading a few passages from Scripture can really be quite self-deceiving if it gives you the feeling that you're growing when in fact you're not developing at all.
Secondly, along with the problem of being self-deceiving, we have to realize that listening by itself does not lead to life change. Listening alone does not necessarily lead to life transformation. A roadmap can tell me how to get where I want to go, but a roadmap cannot take me there. In the same way, the Bible is a powerful, but the Bible is not magical. Having head knowledge about the words on the page does not bring about life change. My life will change when I read the map and follow the directions of the map to get me from here to there.
James uses the illustration of a fellow who goes and looks in the mirror. Mirrors were designed to reveal imperfections. They were designed to reveal what needed to be changed on an individual. But the mirror doesn't have the power to change the looker, does it? The mirror informs the looker and then the looker has the power to go and deal with the change—to wash their face or comb their hair—to take care of something that's wrong with them. It doesn't matter if a person looks in the mirror ten times or in a hundred mirrors; the person will remain unchanged unless they do something with what they have seen. In the same way, if a person looks into the Word of God and does nothing, they can end up with a self-deceived, inflated picture of their own spirituality, and they can miss the life change that God intends for them.
Belief and behavior go hand-in-hand.
In my study of this passage in James, I came across another passage that really brought these pieces together. It's a passage from the Old Testament: Ezekiel chapter 33. This passage is worth highlighting as a complimentary passage to our text in James. God is speaking to the prophet Ezekiel, and he's letting Ezekiel in on some conversations that are going on among God's people when they leave their worship service. This is what God says to Ezekiel:
Ezekiel, as for you, son of man, your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of their houses, and they're saying to each other, 'Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.' Ezekiel, my people come to you as they usually do, and they sit before, you and they listen to your words, but they don't put them into practice. And with their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you're nothing more than the one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well. For they hear your words but they don't put them into practice.
Do you see the connection between these two passages? God says, Ezekiel, let me tell you the problem. The problem is that people are coming to your worship service, listening to your sermons, and taking notes. And on Monday morning they gather around the water cooler and they compliment you and applaud you, and they talk about what an amazing preacher you are. In fact, they downloaded every podcast from you, Ezekiel. They've got them on their iPods, and they listen to them while they run. They've gotten CDs and DVDs of your messages, and they've sent them out to all of their friends. In fact, Ezekiel, you've become one of the most popular preachers. But here's the problem. While they are devoted to your teachings, they are still greedy for unjust gain; their lives remain unchanged. They leave the Sabbath services and don't look any different than they did when they came.
You know, I think this is a potential problem for any one of us, and any Christian who sits in a church every week around the world today. Christians can come, receive the message, and walk away going, "I just love that guy. I love how he tells those stories. I love when he just nails the passage. I love when the Word of God is opened for us." But then we walk away and our lives are unmoved because information does not automatically lead to transformation. We must put it into practice.
Pastor Bruce Wilkinson once said, "The Word of God may stir your mind and warm your heart and transform your life, but only as you combine doctrine with duty, belief and behavior. The two must go hand in hand." And for the Word of God to be effective in our lives, instead of just puffing us up and making us more informed, we have to apply it. We have to do what it says. James says, "Do not merely be hearers or listeners to the Word and so deceive yourselves; do what it says." In fact, over and over again, if you look at just that small section of Scripture, you'll notice the number of times that the word "do," "doing," or "done" appears in that passage. That's the focus of the passage. James says we must be doers of the Word for God's Word to really change our lives.
Study the Word.
As we talk about the importance of application and applying the Scripture to our lives, I want to leave you with three words to think about the next time you open your Bible. The first word is study. We need to study our Bible. Study is different than just reading. Study is much more focused. In fact, this is how James describes the one who doesn't merely listen to the Word but follows it: "But the man looks intently into the perfect law." That word intently literally means to stoop down. It gives me the picture of a scientist who sees something special in the jungle, so he moves down to get closer and study and scrutinize it. That's the image that James is giving us here. It's not just a passing glance; it's not just a casual observance. It's not just looking over your shoulder and going, "That's kind of interesting." It's really digging down to get a little deeper. While many Christians might read their Bible or hear snippets from a devotional that comes through their email, that's a far cry from the focus and careful scrutiny of God's Word.
One of my favorite passages from the Bible that describes the power that the Bible can have in our lives is Hebrews 4:12. The writer says: "For the word of God is living and active, and it is sharper than any double-edged sword. Its pierces as far as the division of soul and spirit to both joints and marrow, and judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart." The writer says that Scripture is living, active, and powerful; it's alive. And it is sharper than any double-edged sword. It is sharp; it is severe. It is so sharp that it can even penetrate to dividing soul and spirit—a sharpness of which we can't even conceive. It can divide joints and marrow, and it can cut and get down into our thoughts and attitudes. It has the ability to literally split hairs in your spiritual life. That's what the Bible is. The Bible the surgical tool by which our lives are undone and redone.
Let me say this: surgery doesn't happen very effectively on a subway, when you're going at breakneck speed. Surgery doesn't take place on the fly. Rather, surgery requires focus, attention, time, and deliberation. And for the Word of God to slice and penetrate and divide and surgically cut into my life so as to make a real difference, I've got to study it. I've got to stoop down and give it the time. I've got to read the Bible so that the Bible reads me, and study the Bible so that the Bible studies me, and mark the Bible so that the Bible marks me. That's a discipline of the spiritual life. You know, there is a discipline of reading, there is a discipline of memory, a discipline of meditation, but there's also the discipline of study—of taking the time to ask questions of Scripture, of looking at sentences to try to understand what they are really saying.
Stay at it.
The second word I want to leave with you is the word stay. Stay at it. Linger with God's Word. James makes an interesting statement in verse 25. He says, "But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues to do this …" The "this" is the continual looking intently into the perfect law. I think what James is talking about here is that it's one thing to study the Bible, and it's another thing to stay with your study. There are many times when I have studied my Bible, but I've studied it only to a certain point. I've arrived at what I've thought is application, but I haven't gone the full distance into the kind of application God really wanted in my life.
Let me explain. Howard Hendricks is an incredible Bible teacher at Dallas Theological Seminary. He's probably one of the foremost experts and trainers of helping people to study the Bible for themselves. In his book Living by the Book, Dr. Hendricks talks about some substitutions for application that we're tempted to make as Christians, some substitutions. Along the way what we've really done is stop short of the full distance of application that God wants in our life.
I want to highlight four of the substitutions that Dr. Hendricks highlights. First of all, he says we can substitute interpretation for application. This is what he means: we can study a passage, and as we study it, suddenly the lights come on and we go, I get it! I get the meaning of this parable! Have you ever studied and lingered long enough in a passage that suddenly you begin to connect the dots between the characters and you realize that the character in the story is really an allegory of who Jesus is and the action he does is really a picture of grace, and you go, Wow, that's unbelievable! I love this passage! You walk away amazed at this incredible new information, but that's as far as it gets. You're so amazed at the new revelation and understanding of your life that you just walk away feeling so filled. We all do this. And we substitute the information that we've received for the application. We think we've reached the point of application, but we haven't.
Here's a second substitution that we make. Dr. Hendricks says that we substitute rationalization for repentance. We read a passage and have a sense that it's changing us and charging us to do something; it's pushing us forward in our life, but we begin to rationalize and say, "You know what, I really appreciate that text. It's really good stuff, and God's really good. But you know, God, my life doesn't really fit squarely with this passage. My life's just a little bit different. And while I can appreciate how his passage will ordinarily apply to people that I know, it's not exactly precise for me in my life." We end up stopping short of the true repentance that God requires of us.
The third substitution, according to Dr. Hendricks, is that we can substitute an emotional experience for a volitional decision. This is similar to the first one. This is when you experience an emotional reaction to what you've read in Scripture—your heart is warmed and you feel overwhelmed by God's grandeur—but once you step away from the Word, you're life hasn't changed. You've not made conscious decisions to alter your behavior in your walk with God. You remember these times as powerful encounters with God, but you look back and realize that they were incomplete to bring about the life change that God was looking for.
The final one I will mention is when we substitute superficial obedience for substantive life change. This one really gets at me. We look at a passage and it encourages us to go the full distance in our lives, but we end up merely dipping our toes in the water. There are plenty of times when a passage will speak deeply to us, and challenge our direction. And we are called to go the full distance of the challenge. So we head in that direction, but we don't necessarily follow it through. We'll take a step, but we don't want to go the full distance in our hearts. You know, if we don't stay with the Scriptures and say, "God, I don't want to just study the Bible. I want to study it to the point where the reality of how it's supposed to impact my life comes to the surface and I change," will always miss the fullness of what God has for us.
Imagine that you're reading God's Word, and you come across a passage that really speaks to you. You're a workaholic father, and this passage opens you to see that you really need to spend more time with and invest in your kids. See if you can identify with me on this. As you study the passage, you say to yourself, I agree with this passage. So have you applied it? No. What if in the study of this passage you not only agree but you're convicted by it, so that your heart is moved and grieved? Have you applied the passage? No; you've got to push a little further. What if you say, You know what? I not only agree with this passage, and I'm convicted by it, but I'm going to do something about it. Have you applied the passage? Not yet. You've decided to decide, but you haven't done anything yet, right? You've got to stay with it. What if you say to yourself, Here's what I'm going to do: this weekend I'm taking my kids to the zoo. Have you applied the passage? No, not yet. What if you go up to your kids' rooms and you say, "I've got a great idea! We're going to go to the zoo this weekend!" to which your kids reply, "Yay, Daddy! You're the biggest hero in the world!" Have you applied the passage? Not yet, but you're getting there, you're staying with it. You see the point? Many times we can go part of the distance, and it feels like application, but we've not yet applied the Scriptures. We need to stay with it, stay with it, stay with it and find out how the passage works out in our lives.
Seek the action.
This brings me to my third point, which is to seek the action. Seek the action. We study God's Word; we stay with it; then we look for the way it's supposed to change our lives. Listen: the Bible can change your mind, and the Bible can change how you feel, but ultimately, what God is looking for is for the Bible to change your life. Whenever I open up a passage and begin to study it, I'm asking the questions, "God, what will this change? How will it adjust my life? How will I be different? If this passage is true, how will it radically change my life?" Let me give you a few questions that might help you discover how this passage might change your life.
The first question is this: Is there an example for me to follow? When I'm reading someone's story, would my life be different if I followed their example? Number two: Is there a sin for me to confess? Maybe this passage highlights a shortcoming in my life and I need to be confession before God. Number three: Is there a promise for me to claim in this passage? Number four: Is there a prayer for me to repeat? Is there simply an affirmation of who God is that God wants me to speak back to him in prayer? Fifth: Is there a condition for me to meet? Is this an if/then passage? Does it give me a challenge through which I'm going to recognize something from God if I move through and follow him in obedience? Sixth: Is there simply a verse for me to memorize in this passage? Seventh: Is there an obstacle spoken of in this passage that God wants me to avoid in my life? Could this passage help me when obstacles come up in the future? Lastly: Is there a challenge that God wants me to face courageously?
A practice in application
Let's test this out on a passage of Scripture. James 1:26-27 says, "If anyone considers himself religious and 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 widows and orphans and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." If I were reading this in my devotional time, I would not want to go, "OK. God loves orphans and widows. There we go. I'm now informed." No, I'm going to dig down to study this passage. In fact, I'm going to study it in light of the verses before it, where James says, "Do not merely be hearers of the Word and so deceive yourselves." So I study these verses and pretty soon this passage begins to percolate a bit in my life and begins to come up. This may not be true for you, but it's true for me: When I read this passage, I begin to realize that talk is cheap—that a haughty spirit is nothing compared to a humble service to the least, the last, and the lost. And that real religion finds its way in being kind and compassionate to those who may never have the opportunity to even thank you.
And as I study this passage for myself, a couple of things begin to happen for me personally. I realize that I can be pretty arrogant sometimes about who I think myself to be before the Lord. In fact, I may not be arrogant in front of you, but I can be arrogant in my own thoughts, thinking that I've arrived. And that's a sin to confess: "If anything thinks himself religious …." I sometimes think of myself as religious, and I need to confess that not only because it's pride, but because that religion I think I've arrived at doesn't always work itself out in compassion. How have I shown compassion? Do I show compassion? What would it look like for me to show compassion in an ongoing way?
It looks like this: God, what do you want me to do right now? Right now, how do you want me to show compassion to someone? And God begins to direct me to particular people to whom I need to be generous or kind, and then I need to pick up the phone, I need to write that check, I need to take money to someone. I need to be serving now. This passage is so impactful. I want to apply this passage to my life every day, so I memorize it. Once you memorize a passage of Scripture, it will stay with you over years to encourage you and challenge you about what true spirituality is all about. Do you see how you begin to apply that to your own personal life? It takes study, and it takes staying and seeking what particular action God would have that passage to mean for your life. Be doers of the Word.
Do you remember the mirror in Snow White? The witch would come and say, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" Sometimes the mirror would tell her exactly what she wanted to hear. But there came a point—because mirrors don't lie—that the mirror told her, "No, you're not the fairest." And rather than receiving the truth, the witch walked away furious, missing an opportunity for her life to truly be changed. James' words for us today are a caution for us. James tells us that if you linger in the Word of God at any length, like a mirror it will expose and reveal what is true and not true of our lives. It will show us who we really are and who we're really not. At that moment that we see the truth of God's Word, we have a choice: we can either reject it or we can respond to it. If we respond and apply the Word of God to our lives—not tomorrow but today—in the words of James, we will be blessed. We will find gladness and delight in the life that God has planned for us. So my prayer for us today as believers in Christ is that we not merely be hearers and receive the Word of God, but that we be doers of God's Word and receive all that God has prepared for us.
David Daniels is the lead pastor of Central Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas.