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Don't Just Hear, Do.

James 1:19-27

Whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.


James continues in what we now refer to as “chapter 1” with discussing being not just hearers, but doers of the Word. Knowing that the major theme of his letter so far has been trials and our response to them, we can see here his exhortation in that light. Our response to trials should be to seek out, hear, and fulfill the commands found in the Word of God. He warns us against anger and being a Christian only in name but not action.

As before, this passage is very easy to understand and apply to our lives, and is a great culmination to round off chapter 1. Let’s dive in!

Leaving Anger to God

Have you ever been angry and done something you regret? Or perhaps you’ve heard of a ‘holy anger’ where the Spirit acts through you. An anger that God would approve of! Among some, a ‘holy anger’ is touted as a legitimate and righteous act, but I think we need to be careful about how we define the word ‘anger’ when we are talking about these subjects.

According to Webster’s dictionary, anger is defined as either “a threatening or violent appearance or state” or “a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism.” While the second sounds closer to what some would typically use to justify anger as ‘holy,’ the first is what I have found to be true in my life and observed to be true in the lives of others.

Psalm 29:11 tells us that “a fool gives vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.”

[19] My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, …

When we find ourselves faced with certain trials or temptations, we often naturally and impulsively react. These impulsive reactions are seldom thought through and often come from a place of anger. James here is offering us ancient wisdom found throughout scripture and proclaimed throughout history; it is more wise to listen than to speak, to think rather than to react, and to exercise self-control when it is the hardest for that is when we need it the most.

His opening to this section is so heartfelt and genuine: ”My dear brothers and sisters…” He refers to his fellow believers as “dear” or “beloved”. The transliterated Greek word used here is agapétos meaning “beloved” or “divinely-loved” and is assigned solely to those who have experienced God’s “agape love.”

Even in this minute detail we can see the point James is trying to solidify as a foundational element in our faith. Regardless of the trial or circumstance we find ourselves in, we are to remember the hope that we have in Christ, that we are recipients of His gracious love, an unconditional and undeserved love. We are to remember that we are made to be co-heirs with Christ, not because we love, but because He first loved us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8)!

By claiming the name of “Christian” we are declaring ourselves as “little Christs” and proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God! When we do this, we accept the calling to be set apart from the world through righteous living, being set apart for the work of Christ (1 John 3:10; 1 Peter 2:9).

[20] …because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

Why should we beware anger? Because it does not produce righteousness.

We do need to be clear here: anger itself is an emotion, not a sinful action (Ephesians 4:26-27). But anger can easily and often be the conduit that brings forth sinful actions. When Paul is describing the works of the flesh in Galatians 5, he specifies “fits of anger” as being a fleshly, sinful action.

What we need to be wary of is giving way to the emotion of anger and allowing it to erupt into a sinful reaction or response (or a ‘fit’ as Paul describes it). James here is cautioning us to “be quick to listen, slow to speak or become angry.” We are to be very aware of how we react, and our first reaction should always be to refocus on God before responding through speech or action.

While human, emotional anger does not always give birth to sin, it never does give birth to righteousness.

[21] Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

“Therefore” should always catch our eye. A fun little saying my pastor (and I’m sure many others) are fond of is something like “If you ever see the word ‘therefore’ you need to see what it’s there for.” In this case, it is the transliterated Greek word “dio” which points in two directions:  looking backward at what was written/learned (“because”) and looking forward at what is about to be stated (“therefore”).

Because human anger does not produce righteousness, and often produces sin, we are to get rid of all immorality and evil within us. This is a feat we cannot accomplish on our own, so how do we accomplish this?

We shed immorality and fleshly desires by accepting the Word of God planted in us, which solely has the power to save us. The original word used here for salvation is primarily used throughout scripture as the act of God rescuing believers from both the penalty and power of the flesh (sin) and into His divine grace and protection.

The only way to accomplish this is to hear God’s Word, and accept what it teaches us. To do this, we should be regularly, habitually, and even desperately seeking out His Word (scripture).

[22] Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

It can’t get much more clear than that! Seeking out the Word of God (through church, study materials, or reading the Bible) is not enough, however. We are not to merely listen to the Word; we are to obey it and do what it says. As we will see later on in James (2:17), “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

If you claim Christ, but have no desires to follow Him or do what His Word says, then you are likely deceiving yourself. And the result of this self-deceit will be Hell.

This is a strong warning and a good reason to self reflect. Do you seek to know, love, and serve God, or just knowledge about Him?

[23-24] Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

The Word of God reflects absolute truth about the one who reads it. Upon reading it sincerely, the depth of depravity and sin of the reader (you and I) cannot be ignored. When we read the Word, claiming to be a follower of Christ, but do not obey the word as Christ has commanded, it is as if we are seeing our sinful selves needing Christ while reading yet forgetting that we need Christ when we are finished.

While we often try to minimize (through various justifications) the distance between us and God spiritually (comparing ourselves to Him), His Word reveals just how great that distance is. The more we read and understand the Bible, the more we will realize just how holy and righteous our God is and just how depraved and worthless we are.

When we do not follow God’s Word, we are deceiving ourselves by forgetting just how worthy of praise, adoration, and obedience God is.

[25] But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James echoes a promise we are given throughout Scripture: obey God and be blessed. He is calling us here to not just casually read, but to look into the Word with earnest and eager attention (intently) with the knowledge of its perfection and result (freedom). He is echoing the promise that when we do this, and when we remain steadfast and obedient, then we will be blessed.

Blessings come in many forms, and they can sometimes be physical, but in a culture overwhelmed with the “health and wealth gospel” that is vastly contrary to the Bible and entirely selfish I think we need to point out here that the blessings James is most likely referring to here. The original word here used by James is “makarios” meaning “happy, blessed, to be envied.”

In John 13:17 we see Jesus use the same word: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.“ As Matthew Henry points out in his commentary on this verse, “The apostle does not say, for his deeds, that any man is blessed, but in his deed. This is a way in which we shall certainly find blessedness, but not the cause of it. This blessedness does not lie in knowing, but in doing the will of God. […] It is not talking, but walking, that will bring us to heaven.”

Context is everything, so we must be careful to understand that the promise here is that if we remain focused on God, and are serving Him, then our service of Him will be blessed. What this looks like, we can only wait to see, but I would imagine at a minimum it would be blessings of wisdom (James 1:5) and greater understanding of Who He is which is the greatest thing we could ever hope for, and greater than we could ever truly imagine (knowing the Lord of lords, the God of all creation!).

[26] Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

On the back of a warning against being hearers and not doers, we are also warned against being one who claims to be religious (claims to be a Christian) but has no self-control. James says that such a religion is worthless!

Here James specifically calls out the lack of self-control in the form of “not [keeping] a right rein on [your] tongue…” We see in Proverbs 18:21 that the tongue has “the power of life and death” and in Psalms 141:3 a prayer to “set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.” Psalms and proverbs are full of verses about the power of the tongue to worship or sin, and how careful we must be with them.

Verse 19 continues to be applied here in that we should be “slow to speak” so that we can consider our words to be used to build up and encourage, that the words may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4:29). We will see James circle back to the tongue in chapter 3, but for now he moves on.

[27] Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

In contrast to the worthless religion of one who cannot tame the tongue, James describes here a “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless…” The religion that God accepts is one that so vastly altars our lives and reflects the life of Christ that we love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31, the second greatest commandment). The first and second greatest commandments are ones we see as driving forces behind everything Jesus does, and are the basis for a pure religion: a life of selfless servitude of Christ by serving others.

In Matthew 25, we see Jesus saying that those who failed to serve the least of all failed to serve Him (v. 36,42-43). He wraps up the moment by stating that “…‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Christ set a perfect example of servitude throughout His life, and leaves us with a stark warning that James echoes here: one who is truly saved will serve as Christ served.

If the LORD considered us worth humbling Himself and taking the form of a servant. If the Son of God ceased to consider Himself as equal with God. If Jesus served the orphans, widows, sick, dying, dead, rejected people of the Jewish culture, who are we to refuse to consider those who are in the most need of help and care in this world? How prideful must we be to ignore our dearly beloved fellow brothers and sisters?

We are called to be doers of the Word, fulfilling the will of God. So let’s run this race. Let’s discipline ourselves with self-control, being slow to speak and speaking with the grace, love, and mercy of God. Let’s allow God’s Word to inhabit us, so that we can become the mouth, hands, and feet of our Almighty Creator and our loving Father. Let’s be a people living out a religion that is considered to be pure and holy before a righteous, just, and everlasting God.