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A Self-Test For Obedience
August 27, 2017, 12:00 AM

TEXT: James 1:22-25

Author:  Rev. C. David Coyle, DRE

I remember, several decades ago, hearing Dr. Howard Hendricks mention that a student of his passed him in the hallway, at which time Dr. Hendricks greeted him and asked how he was doing. The young man replied with, “oh, pretty well, under the circumstances.” In typical Howard Hendricks form, he responded, “Well, What in the world are you doing under there?” We are in control, in some measure, of our circumstances and we should never be dragged down by them where they are on top. We can all see the error of the seminary student's answer and yet, every one of us has been in his place and probably more times than we would like to admit.

      The very term “circumstance” refers to the things which are going on around us, over which we are to have and maintain control as they come around, one-by-one. Our place is the central position, in the control center of our circumstances, led and strengthened by our faith in Jesus Christ and directed by the Word of God. As long as we maintain that fellowship with both the written and the Person of the Word we will be in good shape and make responsible choices. But, if we do not, our decisions and both our actions and reactions will not be what they are supposed to be. I dare say that none of us is exempt, not this preacher or anyone, we all are under the circumstances at times and we fail to appear as blood-bought servants of God. Oh yes, people do notice, even if you or I don't. It is necessary to keep a steady watch on our testimony, our witness and our closeness to God. If this is intact, we are free from our circumstances and able to handle the affairs of our lives as we should, in a manner that will bring joy and inner peace.  

      Here is the text we are considering in James 1: “22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. 25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.”

      If we widened our text by a couple more verses we would see that it takes us from being “hearers of the word,” to “doers of the word,” to being “doers of the work.” If we pay attention, we find that being “doers of the word” is consistent with being “doers of the work.” The Word of God and the work of God cannot be separated. If you and I are ignoring the Word of God we are actually ignoring God Himself and the work we do, even if it is godly work, isn't done to please God at all. Therefore, it is possible to do a godly work, done in the flesh, that does not honor God. That is wasted effort. Now, this brings us, logically, to our text which will direct our thoughts, our hearts and our efforts. Remember, and this is crucial, the tests, trials and works produced by us are to be subject to us and performed in direct agreement with the Word of God if they are to have the power and the blessing of God. Christ is to have the preeminence in our lives and not the psychology of this world. This includes our best reasoned efforts of human thought rather than the divine counsel of the Word of God and profound prayer.

      When Jesus left His disciples to watch as He went to pray, alone, He found on His return that they were asleep. He didn't excoriate them as we would have no doubt done. He acknowledged the weakness of the flesh, even in the best meaning of human determination (Mark 14:38). When one is led by the flesh he will tire. Activity makes the flesh tired, weak, unobservant and sleepy. However, Jesus bids us to stand strong in the Spirit and not the flesh. The more you exercise the spiritual man, the stronger and more able he becomes. Our battle is not a “flesh and blood” warfare but a spiritual one. So, we must be ready spiritually to be adequately prepared to take on flesh, the devil and the world; “Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13), then, verse 14, “Stand therfore....” When we try to handle the spiritual life in the flesh, without God's input by prayer, conviction and the Word of God we diminish the role of God to observer rather than the Sovereign Lord that He is. We put our small, inadequate, self-serving and fallen nature and wisdom above His. We follow our hearts and not His and we wonder why God's blessing seems so far away. It isn't a mystery. You have put the cart before the horse. As one old country song puts it, you are “stepping over dollars just for dimes.” 

          Paul told us that if God had the diminished capacity to be able to exhibit foolishness, which He does not, His foolishness would be far superior to the greatest wisdom of man, any man, all men. So, you see we couldn't discern where He is in error if He could be in error. But, if He could be in error, He wouldn't be God. “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). This is the God whose strength is made perfect in [our human] weakness. That is why we are told to stand in Him so He can show magnificent and wondrous things through our poor, humble, frail and faltering human flesh. When we act on our own, according to our best wisdom, we leave God out, we leave the power to perform out and we make sure that God's blessing is not forthcoming and the result is weakness. This is why so many, “so called” ministries are falling to pieces all around us. They may have started strong and spiritually healthy, but they are not being maintained by that same dependence upon almighty God. We have to keep evaluating our own lives, that is true. But, we must also glance around us to be able to have an effect on the wasted world around us. Where we are, if we will be dependent upon God and His Word, will be the place of stability, of strength, of peace, of joy, of happiness and of profound fellowship.

      In James 1:22, the apostle reminds us of our responsibility in this life, all of us, in all times not just those Christians of the First Century. This is a very short book of only five chapters, which you can read through in just a matter of minutes. Even so, you will note numerous allusions to the fact that he is writing to believers – Christians. In verse 22 we are addressed as “ye,” denoting all, not just some who follow Christ in faith and truth. If you looked at the Greek text you would realize our old English “ye” is a second person, plural, personal pronoun and is in reference to all who receive this letter or read it in all the time after them, until the end of the age. And doing the Word or the work is not just a one-time performance, leaving us free to go back to following our own folly or imaginations. The fact that it is in the present tense, this biblical imperative is on-going in the present time, in perpetuity. That puts a great burden of responsibility upon us as believers to be sure we keep up our relationship with God, with God's people and every duty and privilege He has given to us. As soon as and every time we do not appeal to the control and wisdom of the Spirit we condemn ourselves to the lack-luster life in the flesh. One more thing, this is an imperative—a command, a course of life we are all to take on and live up to. Also, just as important to note is this fact, an imperative gives an expressed starting point–the moment you learn this truth–but it has no ending point. So, we are to take God's commands to us seriously and as our business for life, beginning when we learn them to the point of our physical expiration. 

      James, in our consideration, here, sets forth the idea that we, being Christians, at least will hear the Word of God. It is also bespeaks a constant, willing acknowledgment and storing up of the Word of God and recognizing it as such. J. Vernon McGee spoke of a fictitious man who was a Sunday School Superintendent who claimed he loved his position because he so loved children. One day he laid a brand new sidewalk in front of his house and went in to take a nap. You guessed it, a little boy a few houses down rode his bicycle up the sidewalk and through the nice new patch that had just been laid. When the man saw it, he was incensed and was heard by the neighbors, yelling. One neighbor came out to see what was up and the man complained about all his work and the vandal who messed it up. The neighbor said, “Wait, didn't you just tell me how you loved children?” The man answered, “yes, I did. But, that statement was made in the abstract---but I don't love them in the concrete.” OK, it's a groaner. But, isn't that how we all act? We are saved and we believe the Word of God. It has a very important place in our consciousness and we want to obey Him and live for Him---but, it's in the abstract, not in the concrete. Intentions are one thing and actions are something else. Until it is in the concrete instead of just being in the abstract, we will never please God and we will never accomplish what He desires to do through and in us, individually, or corporately. 

      We are not to be “hearers only.” We must be intent, attentive and excited hearers and students of the Word of God, seeing it as our very breath. It has to settle in us into the very depths of understanding and volition if it is to demonstrate true faith. It must become obedience in us–“doers” as well as “hearers” of the Word of God. We should be so familiar with God and His Word that it is hard to define where our words end and God's words begin. We are to be constant hearers, continually meditating on all the truth of God so that it becomes interwoven in the very fabric of who we are and our actions become the “works” of God. If we do it right there is never disagreement between the two. That isn't our constant testimony, if we are being honest, but it should be. This is part of that “pure religion” that James speaks about in 1:26-27 and it is the will of God for each one of us.

      James has already discussed hearing the Word and becoming doers of the Word / work and now moves on with a serious sight-word concept. It is imperative that we hear and receive the Word of God, for, that is necessary in the living of the Christian life. But, in hearing the Word, it is equally important that we listen to grasp the Word of God. In other words, we are not only careful to be sure we are continually hearing the Word, but, also, how we hear the Word of God. We must realize it is God's message to us and that it is absolute truth from God. If any statement, person or opinion differs from it, it is that statement, person or opinion which is incorrect, not the biblical text. We examine it to see our Savior and the will of God, we also study it to be brought into conformity to it to be Christ-like in as far as that is possible while we remain in this world. To demonstrate this, the apostle makes his argument by employing a metaphor that everyone can relate to. 

      I had a roommate one year in college who was very concerned about his appearance, especially, his hair. He was bordering on having a Narcissus complex. He would spend hours examining every inch of facial skin and every blade of hair to be sure it passed his approval and did exactly what he wanted it to do. When he walked out of the room he knew he appeared good to others. As he went along, he would check his appearance at different times throughout the day. You could say that he walked along constantly checking his looks. James tells us not to be Christians who keep looking into the mirror to see if we pass our own idea of what we should look like as Christians, yet, that is exactly what we do if we forget the purpose for our very being is to glorify our Father and not ourselves. We are not to try to appear to have no flaws to others on the outside, but, we are to be sure we are looking deeply enough to see more than the external but to expose the condition of our spiritual growth and that our minds are set on things in heaven and not on the earth. We are to keep on beholding ourselves in God's mirror, the Word of God to be sure we not only look good but are on track, spiritually. We don't want to just play the part of being a Christian in the presence of others, but, we want to truly be sure we are impacting others and our whole world the way a true child of God would. The purpose of the mirror is not for self adoration, but to show the true image of the person you are so you can fix the flaws and be the follower of Christ that honors Him.

      This idea of inspecting ourselves is introduced to us at the very end of verse 23, where he equates being a non-functional hearer with being someone looking in a mirror and looking to be sure he appears to others to be a child of God, judging by a shallow standard. And of course, he measures up to his own standard and he is satisfied in himself that he has no farther obligation to improve. In today's parlance, he's sure he has “arrived.” “For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass” (James 1:23). Be careful what you hear. Be careful what you see. Be careful to look and be careful how you look into the looking glass. If you and I look at ourselves from God's perspective there is no call for self-satisfaction. He shows us the truth about ourselves, all of it to make us see how we need to change to be a faithful and obedient servant of Jesus Christ. 

      Verses 23 and 24 look at this concept from the negative vantage point, showing that we are deficient if we only become hearers of truth with no concern about fulfilling the work of God, revealed in His Word, not committing ourselves to carrying it out in our own bodies. He goes on to state the principle in the positive sense in verse 25. What every child of God, that is, those who have through faith in Christ trusted Him unto eternal life, wants to see in his life is the blessing of God in the performance of his life of faith. But, as James reminds us, it is only possible to find and keep receiving that approval of God as we both keep hearing (listening intently) the voice of God through His Word, but, also, continually heeding the Word of God in how we live and how we impact others. If we believe God, we believe His Word. If we believe His Word as we ought, we do the work that the Word requires of us as His children by faith. This is to be our continued behavior, not just pointing to accomplishments of the past but seeing new examples of God's grace working in and through us. Our goal is not just to bring a great testimony in our lives, though, that is crucial. But, we are also to be committed to the Word of God to bring good things to bear in other peoples' lives. We are a body, not just individual cells, working together to work the will of God: “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another” (Romans 12:5).  He has determined that we should be led by His Holy Spirit if we are in Christ and desire to be a reflection of His grace. We are to break the entanglements we have with the flesh (self), the world and ungodly interests and be married together to Christ in life, in purpose, in passions and in all ways, that He, not we, may be glorified. “Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God” (Romans 7:4). We were born to honor God, though, few of us do and we were born again to produce fruit. We are not supposed to be weak, self-absorbed and unproductive concerning the will of Christ. It is necessary to do self-checks, often, but we are to look beyond our image to Christ's image and see if it is stamped upon the way we live our lives. If the people who behold us do not see Christ first, then, we have failed in our purpose for being. But, He isn't interested in casting us out but calling us back. He is the preeminent One in our lives not ourselves. If we can ever get a hold of that concept it would revolutionize the world.

      So, let's quickly sum up what we have looked at in these few short verses: 1. We are to be active, careful, excited hearers of the Word of God, realizing its importance in our lives and for the world; 2. We are to be willing, anxious and energetic doers of the Word of God that it would branch out in us as a great, living tree, continually nourished by Christ; 3. We are to be continuously and vociferously doing the works God has laid down for us to do in His Word, in general. And we are to do all the specific works He leads us to do, individually. There are many things laid out in the Word of God that all Christians are to be practicing simply because we are Christians and still others, in addition to these, that He will lead us to do which no one but us can do in the same way. I want to conclude with this thought from James; “ But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed” (James 1:25).