Practical Christianity: Receive the Implanted Word | James 1:19-25
Brian Hedges | June 17, 2018
Turn in your Bibles this morning to James chapter 1, James the first chapter. We’re going to be looking this morning at verses 19 through 25.
I’ve often thought that our relationship to God’s word is both a thermometer and a thermostat to our relationship with God himself. It’s a thermometer because it shows us the temperature. That’s what a thermometer does; a thermometer just measures the temperature in a room.
In a similar way, our relationship to God’s word is something of a measurement of our relationship with God. If we have a healthy relationship with God, we’re going to be in his word, we’re going to be listening to his word, hearing his word, responding to his word. In fact, when we relate to God we cannot really relate to God apart from his revelation and his word. Now, that doesn’t mean we always have to have a Bible right in front of us, but our only knowledge of God that is a saving knowledge comes to us from the word of God, from the truth of God.
So if we are to relate to God truly we must relate to him in terms of his self-revelation in Scripture, in terms of his word. So, our relationship with God is determined by our relationship to the word of God. It’s a thermometer.
But it’s also a thermostat, and a thermostat is what controls the temperature in a room, right? It’s what sets the temperature in a room. So if a room is hot and you want it to be cooler you turn the thermostat down, and vice versa. In the same way, our relationship with God is to some degree determined by our relationship with the word, so that if you’re cold in your relationship with God you want to warm that relationship up, you want to fire that relationship up, you’re going to do that by attending to the word of God.
When we encounter the word of God, we encounter God himself. It’s often been said that when the Scripture speaks, God speaks. God speaks to us through his word, his word is an extension of his will and of his heart and of his mind towards us, and so to relate to God we must relate to the word of God. So there’s really nothing more important, practically, for us in our Christian lives than a relationship to the word of God.
I just want to ask you this morning at the outset, what is your relationship with God’s word? Are you reading it? Are you hearing it? You’re hearing it this morning, but are you hearing it regularly? Are you receiving the word of God? Do you have a regular intake of God’s word? And not just that, are you not only hearing and receiving the word of God, but are you applying the word of God, so that God’s word has transforming power and effect in your life on a regular basis? Now, if that’s happening, you’re not a healthy Christian. If that’s not happening in our church, we’re not a healthy church.
That’s what this passage is all about. The passage we’re looking at this morning is all about the application of the word of God. We’re doing this summer series through James, and James is the most practical of all New Testament writers. [There’s] nobody more practical than James. James is blunt and to-the-point. He’s not like Paul, with long, discursive arguments for the gospel. James gives very little explanation, he writes in a proverbial style, and his writings are punchy, right, and to-the-point. I mean, you read James and it’s just like you’re getting the left hook. That’s the kind of writer he is, and he is especially concerned with the authenticity of our faith and with the practical application of the word of God and the outworking of that in our lives.
You get it very clearly in this passage, which is all about our response to the word. So let’s read it, and it’s a pretty simple outline this morning, as we’re just going to look at three things in relation to the word of God.
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant 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 who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
This is God’s word.
Alright, so three things that I want you to see from this passage, and all of these are really rooted in verse 21, which I’m taking as something of a lens for reading the whole passage, okay?
I. Preparation for the Word
II. Reception of the Word
III. Salvation through the Word
You see all three of these in verse 21. “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness,” that’s preparation for the word. You have to do something with sin. And then, “receive with meekness the implanted word,” there’s our reception of the word, “which is able to save your souls.” There’s salvation by the word. So, those three things.
I. Preparation for the Word
First of all, preparation for the word. “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness.”
Now, James, right at the outset here, is giving us intensely practical instruction about what we must do in order to be able to receive the word. We have to do some negative work, we have to do some demolition before we can do construction, right? You have to weed the garden, plow up the field, before you can plant the seed. So that’s the idea here.
The actual metaphor that James uses is that of putting away. The word there carries the idea of stripping off garments. It’s the same language that Paul uses in all of his famous put off and put on passages. Now, James doesn’t talk about putting on; he drops the metaphor. But here it’s very clear it’s putting away, it’s taking off, stripping away the soiled garments.
Of course, what James has in mind here are qualities in our lives that are sinful. He says, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness.” Let me take those in reverse order.
Rampant wickedness probably means excess of evil, or the remains of evil. The word “wickedness” here is the word for “malice.” So he especially has that in mind: malice in the heart, ill-will, evil intentions in the heart.
It’s the same word that Peter uses in a similar passage, 1 Peter 2:1-2, “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, and like newborn infants long for the pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation.” It’s the same kind of structure. There’s a putting away so that you can receive the word; in Peter’s language, so that you can drink the pure spiritual milk; but in James’s language so that you can receive the implanted word. But you have to put away the malice, the rampant wickedness.
The other phrase here is “all filthiness.” The word here, commentators tell us, is a word that’s closely related to the term used for wax in the ear. Have you ever gone swimming and gotten swimmer’s ear and then you can’t hear very well because you have the wax buildup in the ear? That’s kind of the metaphor that lies behind this word, but the word “filthiness” actually has an ethical connotation, and it refers to that which is sin, that which is unclean.
The Puritan commentator Thomas Manton said there were three things in Scripture that were called filthy. I didn’t check this out myself, but I’m taking his word for it. He said it refers to covetousness. So that’s pretty obvious; you think of Titus 1:11; the Old King James talks about “filthy lucre.” Our modern translations are different, but the idea is a love of money that is defiling. Alright, so that’s one thing. Then the second thing was lust, so thinking of moral impurity; that’s pretty obvious. And then Manton said the third thing that in Scripture is filthy is anger. It’s anger. It’s a heart that is contaminated by anger. Certainly in this context that seems to be especially what James has in mind. So, if you just back up two verses and you look at verses 19 and 20 you can see this.
James says, “Know this, my beloved brothers,” so here’s an appeal, an appeal to his brothers in Christ, those who (verse 18) have been brought forth by the word of truth, they’ve been born again by the word of truth. So here’s an appeal to his beloved brothers. Then three short commands: “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
Now, the quickness to hear may in general mean a quickness to listen to anyone, but in its larger context, which is obviously about hearing the word, it probably means be quick to hear the word of God. But then he tells us we are to be slow to speak. James is very concerned about our use of the tongue, as will become clear especially in chapter 3, when he talks about the tongue. We’ll hit that in another sermon.
“Be slow to speak,” and, “Be slow to anger,” and then he elaborates. Why should you be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger”? “For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God,” and by "the righteousness of God" James has in mind the righteousness that God requires. God requires of us righteousness, and the anger of man does not lead to righteousness.
Now, again, James is writing in a very proverbial way, so he makes strong absolute statements. We might balance that with the words of Paul in Ephesians chapter 4, where Paul says, “Be angry, and do not sin. Let not the sun go down on your wrath.” There is a kind of anger that is righteous, alright, and I think James would have agreed with that.
But James is writing in this punchy, proverbial style, he makes a broad, absolute, general statement: “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires.” Of course, he means the filthy anger, the defiling anger, the sinful anger, the outbursts of anger, or the settled disposition of the heart that reacts negatively and sinfully to circumstances and relationships. That kind of anger does not produce the righteousness of God; you have to get rid of it. That’s the idea.
I think right here we see that we cannot separate our posture towards God from our posture towards people. We cannot receive the word of God unless there is in our general posture towards one another a slowness to anger and a slowness to speak, because (I think here’s the very practical reason, and all of us know this) when you’re angry, the emotions of anger can be so strong you can’t hear anything else.
Have you ever gotten in an argument with someone, and you get to that point in the argument where things have ratcheted up, you know, and to a certain point; you keep escalating, you keep escalating, both sides are doing this, keep escalating. You get to the point where you’re just talking past each other and you’re not listening anymore.
Now, James knows that. James is very practical, and he knows that, and he knows that if the disposition of your heart is an angry disposition, you can’t receive the word of God! You have to do some cleaning out your ears, so to speak. You have to get the filth out in order for the word to get in.
Now, this makes, I think, a very specific point that also leads us to a broader point of application, and that’s this: sin prevents proper hearing of God’s word, which then presents us with what C.S. Lewis called the choice. What are we going to do in response to God’s word? Will we put away sin in order to give room to God’s word in our hearts?
Lewis talks about this all over the place in his writings, and I’m quoting Lewis a lot right now because I’m reading a book by Lewis and I’m reading a book about Lewis that just came out. There’s a new book by Joe Rigney called C.S. Lewis on the Christian Life. There’s a chapter in the book where he kind of analyzes Lewis’s writings on this topic, and he talks about the choice that is consistently presented in Lewis’s writings, a choice between good and evil, a choice between our own way, the way of self, or the way of God. There’s a choice to be made.
Lewis describes a heart that is "bitter with prolonged rage at every thwarting," what he calls "the burst of passionate tears, the black satanic wish to kill or die rather than to give in"; and all of you have recognized this in your two-year-old, right? I mean, there’s a stubbornness, there’s kind of an innate stubbornness, and you see it in children and also, sometimes, in adults, that just refuses to give in, because “it must be my way! I must have my way!” That’s really the root of all anger, and it’s right at the heart of sin; it’s the root of sin. Lewis is always presenting us with this choice, as James does right here. You must choose against that, you must choose against this way of the Self and choose the way of Christ instead. We’re confronted with this choice.
I want to give you one Lewis quote that I think is just a profound statement about the nature of this choice and how it works itself out in our everyday lives, because some of us are being confronted with this right now. This week, today, there are choices to be made, and those choices, the little innumerable choices that you make every day, are making up the overarching choice over your entire life.
This is what Lewis says. “Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. Taking your life as whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning the central thing into either a heavenly creature of into a hellish creature, either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures and with itself or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God and with its fellow creatures and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven, that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power; to be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us, at each moment, is progressing to the one state or to the other.”
So the stakes are really high, alright? The stakes are really high. I don’t say any of this to discourage you if you’ve made bad choices in the last week. God’s mercies are new every morning, and if you made a bad choice on Thursday or yesterday or this morning on the way to church, you have a new choice to make right now. Will you lean into grace, will you turn to God, will you turn away from self towards God’s grace given to us in Christ and repent and move in the right direction, or will you lock down, plant your feet firmly on the turf of self, and stay right where you are, which really is not staying right where you are, it’s actually moving the wrong direction. So, the stakes are high, but the grace is real. We have preparation to do.
Now, one more comment before moving to point number two, and this one is from Thomas Manton, the Puritan. Thomas Manton has 12 observations in ten pages just on verse 21 of James chapter 1! This massive Puritan commentary is so good, and this one is the one that kind of stuck to me as I was reading it.
He said, “Do not exclude God out of your preparations.” This was his caution. He said, “This is my caution regarding preparation: do not exclude God out of your preparations. Usually men mistaken this matter and hope by their own care to work themselves into fitness of spirit. Preparation consisteth much in laying aside evil frames, and before you lay aside other evil frames lay aside self-confidence.”
Alright, so we’re not talking about working yourself up into holiness here. We’re not talking about making yourself worthy of grace here. “Lay aside your evil frames,” such as anger and bitterness and rage and malice and all those things, but also lay aside the evil frame of self-confidence, self-righteousness. You can’t do this on your own, so even here, in the preparatory work you have to do in order to rightly receive the word, you need grace to do it! And God gives you grace to do it. So let’s lean into it right now, okay? Just say a little prayer in your mind right now. “Lord, give me grace to deal with this sin,” whatever the one is in your mind at this moment, “to deal with this and lean in towards you.”
Alright, so preparation for the word.
II. Reception of the Word
James says we are to put away “all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word.” “Receive with meekness the implanted word.” To expound this, let me just ask three questions.
(1) Number one, what is the implanted word, or why is it called the implanted word? He’s already described the word as the word of truth, which is a phrase that connotes the gospel, the word of truth, in verse 18. Why does he now call it an implanted word?
There are two reasons. The first is because the word is a seed. It’s a seed. You remember Jesus’s parable of the soils? Jesus talks about the sower that goes out to sow and he sows the seed, and the seed is the word, and it falls on four different kinds of grounds. Three of those kinds of soil do not bear fruit, only one does. Mark 4:20, “But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit.”
The word is the seed, and that means that the word is powerful. I mean, seeds are really powerful things, aren’t they? I mean, it’s just one of the great mysteries of nature. An acorn can become an oak tree. I mean, seed can split concrete, can split pavement. (Our parking lot is a wonderful testimony to that fact!) Seeds are really powerful things, right? And the seed of the word is powerful in our own hearts. So that’s the first reason.
Here’s the second reason: because it must be and it is planted deep into our hearts. So, this is an inside-out kind of thing. The change that happens in our lives happens by the word as the word is implanted in us and then works its way out, and probably lying behind James’s whole vision and understanding of how the word of the gospel works itself out in our lives in transforming ways is Jeremiah, the prophet, and his prophecy of a new covenant; Jeremiah 31:33.
This is what Jeremiah said: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord. I will put my law within them.” It’s not just external to us, it’s not just something we read; it’s planted within them, “and I will write it on their hearts.”
Now, that’s a miracle. That is the miracle of new birth. That is the miracle of regeneration, is that God takes the word, which always has just fallen on deaf ears, and all of a sudden it goes into the heart and something changes in the heart. That’s a miracle. If that has happened to you, you know it. If it hasn’t happened to you, that’s the miracle that you need this morning, and God can do that for you. He can plant his word in your heart.
The evidence of that word planted in our hearts is that there is a conviction of sin, that there is a desire for righteousness, and that there is a progressive - and sometimes it is a slow, three-steps-forward-two-steps-back kind of direction, but there is at least a progressive movement towards the application and obedience of the word. So, it’s the implanted word. It’s a seed, it’s the seed that’s planted in you if you’re born again, and it has transforming power.
(2) Now, secondly, what does receiving the word involve? James says we must receive the word.
Well, first of all, it involves hearing; that’s pretty obvious. He’s already said in verse 19 that we are to be quick to hear, and then in verses 22 through 24 he says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only,” but that implies you are hearers of the word. So you have to hear the word. That’s first; hear the word. The word must be heard.
Not only that, we must be doers of the word. So receiving the word involves not only hearing, it involves doing. Look at verses 22 through 24: “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 who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes at way, and at once forgets what he was like.”
So again, James is concerned with application. It’s not enough to hear the word; you must do the word. The word must be applied. It must be obeyed.
Now, James uses an illustration here, the illustration of a mirror, which I think we misinterpret. I don’t think we badly misinterpret, but I think we slightly miss the nuance. When we think of this illustration we think, “Okay, I get up in the morning, I look in the mirror, my hair’s messed up, haven’t shaved, need to brush my teeth, put on makeup,” whatever, “and I have to do that before I leave the house. If I don’t do that, I’m like the person James is talking about. I look at myself in the mirror, don’t really correct what’s wrong, and go on my way.”
That’s not really what James has in mind, okay, because in the first century people didn’t have bathroom mirrors, alright. They didn’t have that. There were not even mirrors made of glass. What they had was a mirror made of polished bronze, okay? Here’s a picture of it, a mirror made of polished bronze. They could see kind of a dim reflection of themselves in the polished bronze, they could see a little bit what they looked like.
But only wealthy people would have these mirrors. They didn’t have photographs, which meant that people went through their entire lives, maybe they would occasionally see themselves in the reflection of a polished bronze mirror or see their reflection in a pool; they go through their entire lives, they don’t actually know what they look like! They forget. So, you see yourself in the mirror and you go on.
The point here that James is making is if you are a hearer of the word and now a doer of the word you’re like someone who saw his face in this polished bronze mirror. You saw your face, but then you pretty quickly forgot what you look like, because you have forgotten the word. So, the concern here is with doing the word, not forgetting the word. That’s the issue. That’s the illustration at hand.
You see that in verse 25, where James contrasts those who are forgetful hearers with those who are active doers. Don’t be a forgetful hearer, be an active doer. So that’s what he’s after. He wants us to be doers of the word who are applying the word, who are putting the word into practice. I wonder what would happen if every single person in this room would just apply one tenth of what we already know about the Bible. I mean, what would happen? There’d probably be a revival. If we just actually put into practice what we already know.
It’s a little bit tempting to just shut my notebook here and just stop here and just say, “Okay, go and do what God’s word says!” But I’m not going to do that, because there’s more to be said. But don’t miss the pointedness of this. Apply the word that you know. Don’t be a hearer only; be a doer of the word.
Alright, so how do you do that? How do you do that? This is where we need help. How do I become a doer of the word and not just be flipping this willpower switch, because it doesn’t work that way, does it? What else is needed? Well, here’s the third thing: looking. We need to look. This is part of receiving the word: looking at the word.
Look again at verse 25. Let me read it in a different translation; this is the New English Translation. He says, “But the one who peers into…” I love that translation. “The one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out, he will be blessed in what he does.”
This is a beautiful word here, this word to look into. It’s the word used of Peter in Luke 24, when he came to the tomb of Jesus on the morning of the resurrection. What did Peter do? He didn’t just take a casual glance and then move on; he looked, and he then gazed, he peered into, he looked intently, he studied. I mean, can you imagine the curiosity, the excitement that Peter felt as he looked in the tomb? Jesus is gone, and there are the folded linens and the clothes and so on, and he’s trying to understand, “What does this mean?”
That’s the word that James uses here. It’s the word that is used in 1 Peter 1:12, where it’s talking about how the Spirit of Christ, through the prophets in the Old Testament, kind of looking forward to the coming of Christ, and it says that “these are the things which the angels desire to look into.” That’s the same word. The curiosity of the angels as they think about the mysteries of the gospel.
So, what this is commending to us is [that] one part of receiving the word is a deep curiosity about the word that causes us to look intently into the word. So, it’s not merely a matter of daily Bible reading, though that’s a great thing to do. It’s not merely a matter of hearing a message or hearing a sermon. It is a deep inquiry into the word, so that we are investigating, we are studying, we are meditating, we are ransacking, we are trying to figure this out and how does it apply to our lives. That’s the idea.
Here’s the fourth thing: persevering in the word. Again, verse 25, this time the NIV: “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it…” There’s the word, or “perseveres in it,” “not forgetting what they have heard but doing it, they will be blessed in what they do.”
Persevering in the word. That means, on one hand, this is an ongoing process. This isn’t something that you just do one time and it’s done. It’s an ongoing process; you have to continue in it. You have to continue in it. This is something you need over and over and over and over again.
Here’s encouragement for you: that also means that what is most important about your status right now at this moment is not whether you are perfectly doing this, it’s not an issue of perfection, because - news flash - you’re not. You’re just not. Neither am I. We’re not perfectly obeying the law. We’re not perfectly obeying the word, applying the word. We’re not doing that. The question is not one of perfection; it’s one of direction. What’s the trajectory of your life? Are you moving towards?
The wonderful thing about direction is you can be headed the wrong direction right now and do a U-turn. You can repent! You can repent, and you can do that right now. Here’s the choice, again. Will you, right now, incline your heart towards Christ and towards grace and towards obedience and then continue down that path in the direction of the word?
(3) Now, there’s one more question to ask under this second point (and I feel like the clock is ticking fast this morning. This is what happens when you don’t preach for two weeks; you know, it’s build-up!) Alright. One more question: what is the meekness, and then we’ll move to point number three. What is meekness? Because here’s a quality that is necessary in order for you to be able to receive the word. James says, “Receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls.” Now, what is that?
It’s the same word that he uses in James 3:13 when he talks about the “meekness of wisdom.” It’s the same word that’s translated “gentleness” as one of the ninefold fruits of the Spirit, Galatians 5:23. It is a word that is descriptive of the heart of Jesus himself. Jesus says, “I am gentle and lowly in heart.” “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” So, it’s gentleness, it’s humility. These would be the synonyms.
What does it involve? Again, Thomas Manton the Puritan is helpful, okay? He says what it’s not and what it is. Here’s what it’s not; he says, “It is the opposite of wrathful fierceness, proud stubbornness, and contentious wrangling.” Now, I don’t have to expound that. We know what that is. Anger, stubbornness, contention. James says, “Be the opposite of that.” Meekness.
And then meekness is characterized (again, this is paraphrasing Manton); meekness is characterized by a broken spirit and by a teachable heart. A broken spirit, a teachable heart. I mean, that right there - if there’s one thing that I’m after this morning, apart from just faith in Christ, if there’s one thing I’m after this morning it’s this right here.
Wherever you are, I mean, you may have just royally screwed up your life, and I want you to know, if you did, there is hope for you if you just have a broken heart. I don’t mean, necessarily, tears. I just mean that you give up the stubbornness, that you quit resisting, that you just say, “Alright, Lord. Change me. My hands are open. Show me what to do. Give me a heart to obey.” If you just have that, that’s what I’m after: a broken spirit, a contrite heart.
I mean, this is what Isaiah the prophet said. It’s really God’s words through Isaiah the prophet, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in heart,” or in spirit, “and who trembles at my word.” That’s what we need, right there.
One time the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard (that’s how everybody would pronounce it; if you just read it it looks like Kierkegaard, but it’s really Kier-ke-gor, the philosophers tell me) he said in a sermon that is on this text, “What is required in order to look at oneself with true believing in the mirror of the word?” That was the title of his sermon, and he said two things are required; he said, first of all, “You must not look at the mirror or observe the mirror, but you must see yourself in the mirror,” and then he said, “You must remember to say to yourself incessantly, ‘It is I to whom it is speaking. It is I to whom it is speaking. It is I to whom it is speaking.’”
Receiving the word. God speaking to you through the word, right now. How do we respond?
III. Salvation through the Word
Alright, point number three; give me about seven or eight minutes, then we’ll be done. Salvation through the word. Alright, preparation for the word, reception of the word, salvation through the word.
Now, here’s the good news this morning: God’s word always comes to us as a word of promise and as a word of grace. Yes, there is confrontation; yes, there is law; yes, there are these commands of things that we must do, but when you look into the nooks and crannies of what James has to say here, there is grace, there is salvation. You see it right here in verse 21: “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” The word is able to save your souls. It is a word of salvation.
So, how is it a word of salvation? Let me show you in the text three ways. There’s a lot more that could be said, but I’ll limit it to these three things, how the word is a word of grace and salvation to us.
(1) It is, first of all, the means of our regeneration, our past new birth. Andy, in his very wonderful sermon last week, talked about this, verse 18: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” I mean, there’s grace, right there! The word brings us into new life! Born again, Peter says, by the living and abiding word of God, this seed, not of perishable seed, but the living and the abiding word of God. The seed of the word, God’s word, is powerful. It is powerful, it is effectual. We don’t bring ourselves into new life; God’s word brings us into new life. The word comes and the word, when it is blessed by the Spirit, becomes a seed that creates this new creature within us. So there’s the grace of regeneration.
(2) Alright, then secondly, the word is the means of our salvation, our future salvation. The word is the means of our future salvation. I just want you to note that in verse 21, “the implanted word which is able to save your souls,” that has a future prospective orientation. Often you find that in Scripture, that salvation in Scripture is not looking back to when you were saved, it’s looking forward to when you will be saved.
Now, we kind of use the word salvation reductionistically. So we’ll think back to when you were saved, and we mean when you were born again or when you were converted or when you were justified or whatever, and that’s fine. The Bible does talk that way sometimes, but often the word salvation is looking forward, it’s looking to future salvation, deliverance from the wrath to come.
For example, in Romans chapter 13 Paul says, “Now our salvation is nearer to us than when we first believed.” Now, you read that and you scratch your head, like, “Wait a minute. You first believed and yet your salvation is nearer? What do you mean, Paul?” He’s looking ahead. He’s looking to future salvation.
Now, I think James is doing the same thing here. He’s looking to this eschatological deliverance, future salvation from the wrath of God. Now, what I want you to see right here is that your whole Christian life and all of your salvation, from beginning to end, from alpha to omega, from first to last, from new birth to the consummation of deliverance when Jesus comes again and you are delivered from sin and judgment once and for all, fully glorified; from first to last, that salvation is through the word of God. You don’t get saved any other way. Through the word of God.
The best counsel for you this morning, if you are a struggling believer, is go to the word. The best counsel for you this morning if you are not sure you’re even a believer is go to the word. The word is the power of God, the word of the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” So, folks, let’s be word-oriented Christians. Let’s be in the word.
(3) The word is the means of our regeneration, it’s the means of our salvation, our future deliverance; but here’s one more insight. This is really beautiful. It is the means of our liberation right now, present freedom.
Look at verse 25. “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
So, James switches terms. This is really interesting. He switches terms. He’s been talking about the word. He’s been talking about the word of truth, being hearers of the word, doers of the word, and now he switches terms. He’s still talking about the word, but now he calls it the perfect law, the law of liberty, or if you’re reading the NIV, “the perfect law which brings freedom.”
Why does he do this? What does he mean by this? What is this law of liberty? I think this is really amazing, and I don’t have time to give you a full argument for how I’m going to interpret this, but I can point you to the argument in the books if you want them.
Alright, law. First of all, it emphasizes authority, okay? Law is given by authority, and James is emphasizing that. James is concerned with the law. He will be concerned with the law in chapter 2, where he will talk about the royal law and where he, again, will talk about the law of liberty, chapter 2:12, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.”
So, he’s concerned about the law, but it is not the law of Moses per se. He’s going to quote the ten commandments, but here’s the interesting thing about James: when you read James and you look for correlations between what James says and other parts of the Bible, James doesn’t correlate mainly with the Old Testament, although he quotes it and alludes to it. The main correlation between James and another part of the Bible is with Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
So this is the basic idea here, that James here refers to the word of truth, “he refers to the gospel as not the law of Moses as such” (quoting Douglas Moo) “but to the law of Moses as interpreted and supplemented by Christ.” I think it’s the same idea that Paul has when he talks about the law of Christ.
And then he calls it the law of liberty. Now, why does he call it the law of liberty? Because James knows that this law does not bring bondage, it brings freedom. James knows that this word of the gospel, unlike the law of Moses outside of Christ, which can only condemn; unlike that, the law of Christ, the law of perfect liberty, is a law that leads to freedom. The word of the gospel and all of the teaching of Jesus, including all of the ethical commands of Jesus, when they are heard, when they are received, when they are looked into, when they are obeyed, when they are persevered in, they do not lead to bondage! They lead to freedom.
You remember what Jesus said, John chapter 8; he said, “If you are truly my disciples, you will continue in my word, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. And if the Son of Man sets you free, you will be truly free.”
I think that’s what James means. I think what James means is that if you want real freedom, if you want real liberation in your life, the way you get it is through the word of truth, the perfect law, the law of liberty, the message of Jesus Christ.
This is what Spurgeon said, and I’ll end on this note. I love Spurgeon, and I’m on a C.S. Lewis kick and a Spurgeon kick both at the same time, so you’re getting 20th-century Anglican and 19th-century Baptist all in one sermon! So, here’s Spurgeon in a wonderful sermon on this passage.
Spurgeon said, “Looking so steadily, he [that is, the believer] discovers that the gospel is a law of liberty, and indeed it is so. Blessed is the condition of those who are free from the law of Moses and have come under law to Christ, who emancipates the soul from every form of bondage. There is no joy like the joy of pardon, there is no release like release from the slavery of sin, there is no freedom like the liberty of holiness, the liberty to draw near to God. He who hears the gospel aright soon discovers that there is that in it which will remove every fetter from his soul. He looks and looks and at last loves that perfect law of liberty, which sets his heart at large to run in the way of God’s commands.”
Now, that’s what I want to happen in my life increasingly, that’s what I want to happen in your lives increasingly, that’s what I want to happen in our church increasingly. The freedom that comes from a whole-hearted reception and embrace of the gospel and the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you prepared to receive the word? Do you have something to get rid of? I want you to do that this morning. Are you receiving the word, hearing and doing and looking and continuing in it? Let me urge you to make that your lifestyle, because if you do there is salvation through the word, salvation from first to last, all by the word of God. You’re born again by the word, you will be saved, at the end of the age you will be saved through the word, and you, right now, are liberated, set free, sanctified, growing through the word. The word, the word of Christ, is the power of God for salvation. Let’s pray.
So Lord, I would imagine that all of us have some heart work to do this morning as we think about our relationship to your word. As we look at the temperature of our relationship with you through how we relate to your word, we can see where things are off. Some of us have neglected the word, some of us know a lot but do not apply, some of us are just confused because we’ve never really taken the pains to get to know our Bible in the first place. Some of us, perhaps, this morning we see the book, but we see no beauty in it, so what we need is divine illumination; we need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see what is there and to write this word on our hearts.
Lord, you know the need, and we’ve heard the word. The word is powerful, but it must come not in word only, but also in the power of your Holy Spirit. So right now, Father, would you give your Spirit to us, and would you seal this word upon our hearts and use it to change us and transform us in every way that we need?
Lord, we thank you for the gospel. We thank you that the gospel is a gospel of freedom and that it means for us freedom from both the penalty of sin, where the curse is cancelled once and for all in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that it also means freedom from the bondage to sin, for you set the prisoner free. “[You] break the power of cancelled sin, [you] set the prisoner free,” and we thank you for that twofold blessing. We ask that we might experience it in all of its fullness, the assurance that our sins are forgiven and the victory that comes from not living in dominion to sin.
Lord, as we come to the table, would you even now prepare our hearts for the observance of this sacrament of Christ, that in taking the bread, in taking the juice, we would not merely physically take these elements into our bodies, but that we would by faith lay hold of Christ himself, that we would take all that Christ is into all that we are, that in union and communion with him we would receive that real power and grace that comes from your spirit that sanctifies and changes us? We need it this morning, so meet with us, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.