“Be Ye Doers of the Word”
The book of James is thought to be the earliest of all the New Testament epistles. It was written by James, the half-brother of our Savior. The epistle was written to Jewish believers who had been greatly scattered in God’s good providence (1:1).
In these five short chapters James addresses those to whom he writes as “brethren” fifteen times (1:1, 16, 19; 2:2, 5, 15; 3:1, 10, 12; 4:11; 5:7, 9, 10, 12, 19). He is writing to men and women who were born of God, to people who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. This epistle was written to all in every place who are washed in the blood of Christ and robed in his righteousness, to all who trust the Lord Jesus Christ.
In these five chapters James gives us divinely inspired instructions about how we are to live in this world for the glory of God. He is not writing as a counsellor offering advice, but as God’s messenger giving authoritative instruction. Throughout the book, James speaks in imperatives.
In chapter 1 (verses 2-12) he tells us that we are to always look upon our trials, those things that try, test, and prove the reality of our faith in Christ, as tokens of God’s grace. Those heartaches and troubles God’s saints experience in this world are not evidences of anger, wrath, and judgment, but evidences of mercy, love, and grace (Heb. 12:5-14). This is particularly true when the things we suffer are the result of our faith in Christ (2 Tim. 2:12).
In Acts 8:1 we read, “And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” In chapter 11 we are told that the persecuted saints were scattered “as far as Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch,” and that they went everywhere “preaching the word” (Acts 11:19). Our Savior said, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matt. 5:10-12).
James seems to have those very words in mind, as he writes the opening verses of his epistle. He urges us to always count it our honor as the children of God to suffer anything at the hands of wicked men for Christ’s sake. Yet, what he says to us applies to anything we suffer in this world in the good and wise providence of our God.
“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience…Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him” (1:2, 3, 12).
“God in Israel sows the seeds
Of affliction, pain, and toil;
These spring up and choke the weeds
That would else o’erspread the soil.
Trials make the promise sweet;
Trials give new life to prayer;
Trials bring me to His feet;
Lay me low and keep me there.”
The word “temptation,” as it is used in these verses, refers to a test or a trial by which our fidelity is proved, by which our faith is proved. In verses 13-16 the same word is used, but it is obvious that it is used in a different sense. In verses 13-17 the word “tempted” refers to an enticement to evil.
Our trials we are ever to ascribe to the work of our heavenly Father and his goodness. They are always the blessings of his grace and favor. Our temptations to evil we must never ascribe to or blame on God. This distinction James makes with great clarity in verses 13-16.
“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. Do not err, my beloved brethren.”
God sends us trials to teach us patience (v. 3), to cause us to grow in grace and in faith; but God never tempts anyone to sin (v. 13). Yes, God has ordained from eternity all things that come to pass in time (Eph. 1:11). Yes, God works all things together for the good of his elect (Rom. 8:28). And, yes, God graciously and wisely rules and overrules the evil deeds of men and devils to sovereignly accomplish his will (Ps. 76:10). But the holy Lord God cannot be tempted with evil and he does not tempt any to evil.
When we sin, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Let us never seek to excuse our sin by attributing it to God’s sovereign purpose. We are tempted to evil when we are drawn away by our own wicked lusts. It is our lust, nothing else that is to be blamed for our sin (vv. 14-15). “Do not err, my beloved brethren” (v. 16). Your sin is your fault — no one else’s, your responsibility — no one else’s.
In verses 17-25 James tells us that God’s work is good. He tells us that every good thing in this world comes down from our Father in heaven. Just as all the evil there is in this world erupts from the festering corruption of our vile hearts (Mark 7:20-23), every good thing there is in this world comes down from the throne of God and is the gift of his grace. — “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (v. 17).
Then, in verse 18 James tells us that it is by the work and good gift of God’s omnipotent grace that chosen, redeemed sinners are born again, born again by the good gift of the gospel. — “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” What a blessed good gift the preaching of the gospel (“the Word of truth”) is! Let us ever cherish it. By it God has been pleased to save us (Rom. 10:10-17; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). He has done so “of his own will” (Rom. 9:15-16), “that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” Firstfruits are the best. Firstfruits belong to God. Firstfruits are the pledge of the full harvest.
The Power of Godliness
“The Word of Truth” is the whole Volume of Sacred Scripture, which is the Revelation of Christ, redemption, grace, and salvation by him. The Word of Truth is the whole Revelation of God in Holy Scripture, the gospel of his free grace in Christ. This is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16-17), and the power of godliness, by which we live in this world for the glory of God (2 Tim. 3:5).
If we would live in this world for the glory of God in the exercise of true religion, our lives must be ruled and guided by the gospel of Christ. If we would live under the influence of God’s powerful grace, by the power of godliness, we must hear the gospel (vv. 19-20), receive the message of God (v. 21), and obey it (vv. 22-25).
Whenever we come into the house of God, it should be with an intense desire to hear the Word of God. Thomas Manton made this wise observation, “If we were as swift to hear as we are ready to speak there would be less wrath and more profit in our meetings.”
Usually, I find that when men do not profit from the ministry of the Word it is because they practice exactly the opposite of what James commands in James 1:19, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” They are slow to hear, swift to speak, and swift to anger. There are men who seem to come to church for no other reason than to find some point of disagreement. They can hardly wait for the preacher to finish his message so they can point out his errors. Such men are a continual source of strife and division. They do not worship, and they try to keep others from worshipping. Let us guard against this tendency of proud, self-willed flesh. May God make us swift to hear and slow to speak.
Hearing the Word
Let me give you some practical advice on hearing the Word of God. Prepare yourself to hear the Word (Eccles. 5:1-2). Before you go to the place of worship, spend some time in prayer. Ask God to speak to you. Ask God to enable his servant to speak with clarity and power. Go seeking a message from heaven.
Submit yourself to the Word of God. When you are sitting in the assembly, listen personally for yourself. Submit your ideas, your traditions, and your doctrines to the Scriptures. Be willing to forsake anything that is not plainly taught in the Bible. And be willing to obey everything that is required by the gospel.
Meditate upon the Word. Do not swiftly speak against what you hear. Do not become angered by what you hear. Rather, meditate upon it. Ask God to apply the Word to your heart and give you understanding. Seek the glory of Christ in your response to his Word.
Beginning in verse 26 of chapter 1 and going through chapter 5, James tells us how we are to live in this world for the glory of God. He tells us what true religion is in verses 26-27 of the first chapter. — “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Then, beginning in chapter 2, he explains the details.
True religion involves caring for one another, particularly caring for our needy brethren (2:1-26). You will notice that James speaks of good works, as they are ever spoken of in the New Testament, as works of faith and love. By these things we justify our professed faith in Christ before one another. There is no contradiction between James and Paul. James is not teaching that we justify ourselves before our God by our works. Rather, the Holy Spirit here teaches us that we justify our professed faith in Christ before one another by our works. Any professed faith that does not cause a person to take care of the needs of his brethren, be it ever so orthodox, is a useless, dead profession.
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” (2:14-20)
True religion necessitates the bridling of our tongues (3:1-12). Gossip and slander, speaking evil to or about our brothers and sisters in Christ, is totally inconsistent with a profession of faith in Christ (Eph. 4:17-5:2). We do more to hurt one another and do more harm by the use of our tongues than in any other way. If the Lord will give us grace and wisdom to control our tongues, we will be useful, not harmful to one another. The person who has learned when to speak, what to speak, and how to speak for the glory of God and the good of the church is mature in faith. His actions justify his professed faith. He is controlled in his life by grace and love.
True religion demands grace— grace that only God our Savior can supply (3:13-5:6). We must drink from the right Fountain— Christ (3:13-18). We must recognize that our greatest foe is ourselves (4:1-5:6). That will put an end to warring among ourselves. Let us resist the devil and submit to our God in all things, and be at peace. Loving one another, let us carefully guard against gossip and slander, hardness and unkindness, and protect one another. Let us particularly take care to protect one another’s name.
If we would honor our God, if we would do all things for the glory of our Savior, we must seek by his grace to be patient (5:7-12), pray for one another (5:13-18), and seek to restore one another (5:19-20). — “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself” (Gal. 6:1-3).