But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does. If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless. This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
My theme this morning is, "Two Kinds of Christians". Obviously, one could divide Christians into as many "kinds" as one wanted, depending on the criteria for establishing the various kinds. For our purposes this morning, however, we are going to use James' distinction, those who are "doers of the Word" and those who are "merely hearers". We could call them "Christians" and "hypocrites", "True believers" and "the deceived", or maybe, "disciples" and "philosophers". This text is addressed to those who call themselves "Christians", and so we will stick with the distinction of James - Doers and merely hearers.
There was a problem, particularly among the Jewish converts to the Christian faith in the first generation of Christians. Many of them had grown up in the church, albeit the temple religion which preceded Christ, and so they had a sense of religion connected to the Messiah and to the true God which they brought into their Christian church. They were the ones who struggled with the freedom of the Gospel, and the new sense of intimacy with God. They were more accustomed to, and therefore more comfortable with the Jewish idea of God as distant and demanding, a God to be known and feared, but not really involved in one's daily life. No one ever taught this faulty idea of God as truth or doctrine. It was simply the cultural attitude about God for the first century Jew.
The modern Christian Church as we see it in the world has the same problem among certain elements of the church. The problem was not so much Jewish as it was the idea that 'familiarity breeds contempt'. It was more prevalent among the first century Jewish converts to Christianity because they felt that they knew God and God's kind of religion, and Gentile converts tended to be so new to this idea of God and worship and such that they took a while to presume on God in the same way. But we have it down pat in the modern age.
In the days of the early Church, this attitude created errors like the "Circumcision Party" because they thought that they came to the Christian experience with a prior and clear understanding of God and all that He would naturally expect. They were the 'Judaizers' and the original "legacy" Christians.
You know what a "legacy" is, right? The member of the sorority or fraternity whose mother or father had already been a member of the house, and so they were automatically admitted to membership. That describes some of the attitude of the people to whom James originally wrote - and it describes a number of modern church-goers. How many people do you know that go to the church they attend simply because their family did? As a pastor, I have served several parishes where members proudly told me that their parents or grandparents had participated in founding the congregation. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but some of those who were so proud of their family connections to the founding of the congregation seemed to have little concern for the well-being of the congregation or for the preservation of the faith that drew their forefathers together to establish a congregation among them.
Hearers are those people who come to church and then, when they go home, nothing they heard or saw changes them in any way. They continue to do the same sinful things without any apparent sense of the sin of it. They still withhold themselves and their time and their resources from the things that need to be done, and from the people around them, particularly the church people, brothers and sisters in Christ, who need their help, their time and energy, their prayers and their concern. It is like they think that this is church and once they leave here, that is everyday life - and the two are not necessarily linked in any meaningful way. Particularly not in any difficult, unpleasant, or demanding way.
God says, "love one another," and they think it means say nice things when you are face-to-face. God says, "flee fornication", and they think it means 'look but don't touch'. They think forgiveness is something meant to be given to them from others - and some people presume on forgiveness awfully hard. They do not let the things they hear from the Word of God color their attitudes or change their hearts or behavior. Old hates are still carried. Old prejudices are still guiding them. Old attitudes - like what I have a right to, and how I deserve what the other guy has, too - still determine the course of our conduct. All that God-talk stuff is fine for church, but it has no useful function in day-to-day life.
James says that to sit in church and listen to the Word of God and then go back home and live just the way you always have is like looking at your face in a mirror, and as soon as you walk away, you forget what you looked like. My Grandmother always said, "My face, I don't mind it, because I'm behind it, it's the ones out in front that it jars." But this 'forgetting what kind of person you are', that James talk about, is like forgetting that you are white when you walk into a ghetto of blacks - or vice-versa. It is like forgetting that you are notorious criminal and walking around in public expecting everyone to treat you like a nice guy.
This is hearing the Word of God and continuing to imagine that you are a decent person, and not such a sinner after all. We can all call up examples of others doing this openly and offensively in our pasts, but James means that we have to remember that we are guilty, too.
The one who is a doer of the Word, and not merely a hearer who deceives himself, is the one who keeps the Word of God before him or her - in their mind, and on their lips. You hear the sermon and you take it to heart. That means you honestly assess your sins in the light of the Law - and that you hear the Gospel of your forgiveness and believe it!
I want you to notice that James talks about the doer as "one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it". This is not about the Law, but the Gospel. He calls the Gospel, "the perfect law, the law of liberty". It is the Law - or principle - which sets you free! And nothing sets you free but the Gospel of your forgiveness and salvation.
It is the forgiveness of your sins which compels the hearer of the Word to new life. You have been set free from death. You have been ushered into the family of God. God loves you and will guard you and guide you and protect you and preserve you. Even when your health fails and your body collapses in illness or age or death, God is with you to rescue and save and raise again to new and eternal life because Jesus has redeemed you "with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death." You are secure. It doesn't matter if you can see it or feel it. It is true - and it is the substance and content of that perfect law, the law of liberty, the Gospel of your salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
The doers are those who look intently at this wonder of grace and love. They don't look and listen, and then walk away and get distracted by life and forget that they are sinners whose claim to fame and life and health is the love of God for them. No, the doers never look away from the Gospel. Their forgiveness is the source of the forgiveness they have for others. God's love for the sinner that they are is the source of their love for those who God places in their lives. God's abundance and generosity is the cause of their abundance and the motive force for their generosity. And the truth that this world is but for a time is the rationale for their looking forward to eternal life, and their desire to help as many of their fellow Christians, and their unbelieving neighbors, to also gaze intently into that law which makes men free and join them in their heavenward journey.
James also warns about the one who does not bridle his tongue. He is not talking about someone who uses vulgar language, but someone who uses their tongue in a way that hurts others, or brings disgrace to the communion of saints. Such a person is the sort that goes to church and imagines that they are what a true child of God is, and yet says things which are known to be hurtful to someone, deliberately troubling, or contrary to the Word of God. James says that their religion is worthless, that is, it doesn't accomplish for them what they think it will. They are merely deceiving themselves. They don't deceive others, and we have no reason to pretend about them either. Their lovelessness and verbal violence reveals who they are.
Pure and undefiled religion, and James puts it, is the kind that changes you. It works from the inside out. Your forgiveness prompts you to forgive others. God's love opens your heart to those He gives you to love, which is one another, first, and then those others closest to us. That genuine religion, true faith, will bear fruit such as concern and compassion for the lonely, the grieving, the destitute and the helpless. We start here, with our fellow members of the body of Christ, and we work outward in ever widening circles with our compassion and love. This is not a program of helping the poor, but the response of the heart that truly believes that it has everything it needs because it has the love and grace of God.
And such a doer of the Word will seek - deliberately - to stand on God's grace and love. You will make it a priority to build your values and attitudes and desires on the Gospel, and not let the world subvert your faith with its agendas and values. That is what "keep[ing] oneself unstained by the world" means. The one who merely hears the Word doesn't care, doesn't mind adopting the values of the world around him or her, and doesn't see what difference it makes.
Obviously, the text invites you to ask yourself what kind of Christian are you? The answer is, it doesn't really matter what you were yesterday. Your sins, though they may be many, have been punished in Jesus, and you are forgiven. What matters now is what sort of Christian you want to be right now, and what sort of Christian you are in the days, and weeks and years to come. There are two kinds of Christians. "But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For the one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does."
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
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