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Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 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.
The world of Christianity is full of professors and yet far fewer possessors. That is, many are quite willing to subscribe to the title of “Christian” while not following through on lives submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Claims never cost what the sacrifice of obedience does; it’s not a question of interest in Jesus, but loyalty to Him that is always at stake.
Today’s passage may be very familiar to you; it certainly is to me if boiled down to the phrase, “Be doers and not hearers only.” The truths of Scripture, especially those doctrinal passages of the New Testament letters, are often a cascade of theology, one point laying the foundation for the next. James 1:20 concluded a two-verse discourse on anger, that the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Upon the foundation of the righteousness of God, therefore, we step into verse 21.
Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. Once again, be reminded that “therefore,” often raises the question of, “What is it there for?” In relationship to a pursuit of the righteousness of God, believers are called to “lay aside…” It is the same phrase (one word in the Greek, apotithemi) used in Hebrews 12:1, which calls the reader to “lay aside every encumberance, and the sin which so easily ensnares us.” It is a word figuratively used towards removing clothing, to rid oneself of the carrying of something. Here, in v. 21, we are called to cast aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness. Another way to translate “filthiness” is vulgarity; obviously, both terms are meant to speak towards repulsive behavior. The “overflow of wickedness” speaks towards an abundance; think of living life in submission to sinful desires with little restraint, unbridled in such conduct.
A passage that would rightly fit with v. 21 would definitely be Romans 6:12-15, which says,
“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!”
We must carefully avoid the mentality of license as believers, that forgiven sin equals a form of spiritual fire insurance. On the contrary, a heart that has been gripped by the grace that it has received will be inclined to please God, not provoke Him. Grace is a concept that is often learned first and emulated second; anyone can learn the theology of grace, but to be transformed by it in our relating to others and to be certain of it for ourselves before God is the grounds of redemptive living.
Putting aside a life of wickedness and unbridled sin is meant to have such energy parlayed into obedient living, growing over the course of time all the more to be a doer of the word of God rather than just a hearer. Consider this: what would it be like if every person who postured themselves spiritually as best they could actually lived up to the front that they gave? If you’ve ever been somewhere like Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, you would know that on Main Street there is a row of buildings that look quite compelling from the street. Even Cinderella’s castle is like this; all looks but far less than what meets the eye. This would be what Paul speaks of in 2 Timothy 3:5, “having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” Form is the outward formal structure; denying is to disregard the power behind such form. Translation: (in the last days) there will be hypocritical fakers. Paul knew this, and James knew this in calling people to not just be hearers, but also doers of the word of God.
Given the length of the verses in scope today, I will not attempt to explain every definition, but there are some points to certainly be noted in the passage at hand. To receive with meekness the implanted word refers especially to the manner in which we are to hear God’s word. Think carefully about this one, because it absolutely applies to how we listen to sermons, lessons and reading Scripture ourselves. Meekness is “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance,” (BDAG, Bibleworks); in other words, with humility. It isn’t simply that God calls us to hear His word, but He also calls us to the manner in which we hear that word. This means that we need to check ourselves before listening, and that prayer is important not just for those presenting the word but also for those listening to it. Both the preaching of the word of God and the hearing of the word of God are incredible responsibilities that God entrusts us with. I would wager to say that many folks simply do not listen with a sense of responsibility, and that has hurt the church very much over the years. What does it create but exactly what James warns against? Hearers who are not doers of the word, people who are versed in Scripture but not necessarily empowered by it or committed to it.
How resilient is our faith in God and our commitment to obeying Him? It’s not often apparent in the seasons of ease but far more in pressing times of difficulty. Prayer is not a habit to start picking up when the soldier is in a foxhole with bullets flying overhead. Doing the word and being more than a hearer of it is not something to put off until life’s final moments begin taking form. It is a daily practice that if neglected will only result in people whose faith cannot withstand the storms of life, whose righteousness is nothing more than wishful fantasy rather than cemented reality in Christ. It is quite possible for any believer to fall into the rut of being a hearer and not a doer, but it poses a major theological problem if this “house of cards” is all that stands over the course of a lifetime. Ultimately, if all we do is hear Christ but not follow Him, we are not followers and have deceived ourselves. 1 John 2:4 says, “He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
Notice that the meek reception of the implanted word of God in our hearts is able to save (our) souls. Listening to the word, being informed of it while not regarding it does not translate into salvation. Many church-goers are in for a rough awakening if they have only trusted in the act of association with Christianity rather than the Holy Spirit’s indwelling found by faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus can live outside of us or He can live inside of us; one will never save, and one will forever save. It has been stated that many folks have missed heaven by a mere 18 inches; that is the general distance from the head to the heart.
What does it mean to deceive ourselves? This is an important question to answer in regards to the passage. It refers to miscalculation or false reasoning. We may very well sell ourselves on the idea that we are pleasing to God, acceptable in His sight when we are very much not. Religion is full of this very kind of thinking. We, even as believers, may have fallen prey to outward faith without any inner passion, conviction or submission, and in this case we would be self-deceived. This logic would be akin to stealing something but not considering it as stealing so long as we treat the stolen object with care or eventually return it after having used it for our purposes. People go to great lengths all the time to justify their actions; this is the art of self-deception.
Finally, let us consider the imagery James uses in this passage. 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. Let me summarize this very briefly: imagine that you went to your mirror, saw that you had ketchup on your face, your hair made Einstein’s look tame, and you had dirt smudges on your cheeks. Then, after making such observations, you walked away and forgot entirely what you looked like and you made no alterations. How would that go in a social environment? You see, we look in mirrors to do quick check-ups on ourselves to make sure that we are publicly presentable. We look into the word of God to see what we ought to be and to recognize where we stand in relation to that standard.
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. There is no blessing to be had in an unaltered life lived in relationship to the Scriptures. When the Bible calls us to believe in Christ, it does not assume that informing us of the necessity of believing in Jesus is the saving act itself; no, it is the follow-through of personal response in faith that saves. It is not the occasional glance is the spiritual mirror of the Bible that sets us right, but the continued perseverance in the word, living by it and submitting to it as the standard of our lives that alters us long-term and conforms us to the image of Christ.
This Christmas season, many people will give lip service to the Lord for a brief moment. Don’t let that be you; be a person who gladly goes to the Bible, spends time before it, looks and ponders not only what it says but who you are in relationship to it, and follow through by being a doer of the word. If you don’t know the Lord as your Savior yet, how about today? If you sense Him speaking to your heart, go before Him and place your genuine faith in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ upon the cross as a perfect sacrifice for your sins. That’s why Jesus came into the world in the first place: He was born to one day die upon the cross of Calvary. I hope you can celebrate Christmas this year with a greater sense of adoration for what that manger scene really means.
Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.