Righteous Living God's Way
Topic: Expository Scripture: James 1:19–1:27
Last week we talked about the first major theme of James' Letter, perseverance through trials, and this week we will be looking at the second major theme which is righteous living. At the heart of this issue is that fact that, as we learned last week, many of the trials we face come in the form of temptations to sin. The truth is that within all temptations to sin there is a lie and that lie is almost always the same. The lie is that by disobeying God you can somehow profit more or gain more joy than you can through obeying Him. In other words that the forbidden things are sweeter than God's gifts to us. Unfortunately for us, this lie is told to us continuously every day from a variety of sources including our own hearts. Even worse is the fact that God's Word tells us that we are not only bent towards disobedience at birth, but we are also utterly unable to straighten ourselves out. This causes us, in our human context, to struggle when we read the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:48 as he reveals the standard of righteousness that is expected of us if we are to be with God: “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
The wonderful news of Jesus' life, death and resurrection is that when we put our trust in him, his perfect righteousness is credited to us and our disobedience is completely paid for by Jesus. We are forgiven and free from God's wrath. But we still have a struggle to face against sin as we are in the process of becoming the righteous people that God wants us to be. This raises a practical question of how do we live the way God wants us to? What brings about God's righteousness in our lives?
James, in our passage today provides us with four practical ways that God's righteousness is brought about in our lives. These are through recognizing God's righteousness, humbly accepting His word, taking action in light of His Word, and practicing true religion. Now James was not a man who minced words or sugar-coated his teaching. In order to make these points abundantly clear, he grabs our attention by confronting us with our sinful attitudes first and afterward teaches us what we ought to do instead.
The first point in verses 19 and 20, is that in order for God's righteousness to be produced in our lives, we must first be able to recognize the difference between our justice and God's justice.
19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,
The most urgent road signs are often painted in bright colors and might have a word like, “Beware!” written in big red letters. The people who made the sign wanted to grab our attention so that we might take notice of the warning. In the original language of this passage, more than in this English translation, James uses the same method to strongly exhort his readers to pay attention and not to forget what he is about to say. James says, “Know this!” and then tells us what it is we should know. That we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.
The word for anger in the original language of this passage is 'orgae.' This is a strong word for anger as it pertains to indignation or vengeance. Basically, intense anger that is brought about by the feeling that some injustice has been committed against you. With that in mind, we can see that James' advice is that when we find ourselves in a situation where it seems that some injustice has been done against us, we should hold back our anger and our desire for vengeance, we should close our mouths, and we should listen to find out the truth of the situation. The beauty in this advice and the way it connects with our topic is that we are actually being called to humble ourselves. You see in order to do what James is telling us, we must accept our own fallibility. In other words, I must accept that I might be wrong. A prideful person such as myself often has a great deal of difficulty doing that.
But what is so urgent about this advice that James tells us to 'beware!' He gives the reason in v.20.
20 for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
The original words translate along the lines of “For human anger does not bring about the righteousness of God.” You see, the anger that we experience when we feel that someone has wronged us is based on our broken sense of justice. We have all inherited this broken sense of justice that's been passed down through all generations since the first man and woman decided to try to take God's authority and judge for themselves what was right and wrong. Our judgments are divorced from God and full of selfish pride, and lead us to unrighteous anger. This unrighteous anger is actually a barrier to recognizing the true righteousness of God. Therefore we must beware of our unrighteous anger.
In his emphasis on the inability of human anger to bring about God's righteousness, James highlights the point of God's anger as well. You see, God's anger, is always based on His good and perfect judgment; it always brings about His righteousness; always displays His glory. Many times I've heard people say that God is not a judge, but the truth is that God is the only perfect, reliable judge and He will certainly judge all unrighteousness. So once again we are warned to beware of our unrighteous anger.
The point is that in order for God's righteousness to be produced in us we must be able to recognize His righteousness. In order to recognize His righteousness, the barrier of our unrighteous anger must first be removed. The practical advice then is that we must hold back our anger, close our mouths, and listen to hear the word of God.
Verse 21 begins with the word 'therefore.' The word therefore means that what we are about to read next is what we should do in response to what came before.
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.
When we come to the point of being able to recognize what is righteous by God's standard, especially when we recognize that God's standard of righteousness is very different from our own, we should be compelled to get rid of or 'cast off' all that is filthy and wicked in light of it.
This brings us to the second way that God's righteousness is produced within us. That is through repentance of our sin and belief in His Word. Once again, James first confronts us with our sin, saying cast off our moral filthiness and the evil prevalent among us. I suppose James may seem like a pessimist in assuming that there is sin and evil in the lives of his readers, but this is actually a very important truth for us especially these days when the dominant philosophy is that people are good and getting better. The truth is we are all covered in filth from our sins and we must repent. Even as believers, we have no reason for pride in ourselves because not only are we saved by God's utterly undeserved favor toward us, but we still haven't completely stopped sinning. This is a lesson in humility.
From last weeks passage on up to this point we can see that James puts a very high value on humility. And it's not just James, but is an emphasis found throughout the Bible. So, I want to take a moment and answer the question, “What is humility?” We tend to think of humility as lowliness or submissiveness, which is true, but is not the whole meaning of biblical humility. This is something that I struggled with as a very young Christian because I couldn't understand why God's word goes on and on about His glory, power, and entitlement to be worshiped and yet tells us that we have to be humble and submissive. This sounded very self-serving to me until I realized that God wasn't commanding us to put ourselves down as much as to have a realistic view of ourselves and our position. You see, the only reason I thought God could be self-serving in commanding us to worship Him was because of my own king-sized, beastly pride. I had a grossly unrealistic view of my own greatness until God began to show me the very edges of how awesome and wonderful He is.
In Isaiah 6:1-5, the prophet was given a glimpse of God's awesomeness and it had a profoundly humbling effect on him.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." 4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.5 "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
True humility is not about putting ourselves down, but living in the knowledge of who God is and how we compare to Him. You see, when we realistically evaluate ourselves, we see our wickedness compared to God's righteousness, and we know that we need to be saved.
James tells us to cast off our filth and evil, but he doesn't say that doing so will save us. Instead he tells us in the second half of verse 21 that humbly accepting the implanted word is what can save your soul. This is one of the main differences between believing Jesus as opposed to believing any world religion. Every other belief system, whether it's Shamanism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam, you must do in order to get. You must do things in order to receive the favor, avoid the torment, etc. But Christians get in order to do. We have received grace in order to do the good works God has prepared for us. But, you might say, isn't believing something we had to do? Sure, but even that was in response to the Holy Spirit applying the word of the gospel to your heart. And that word was planted in you. Let's look again at these words in verse 21: humbly accept the word planted in you. The obvious questions are what word and planted in whom? James was writing to people who had already heard the good news of Jesus and therefore had that word planted within them. Now, every person in this room has heard that good news at least once. I made sure of that in the beginning of this message. And just in case you missed it, here it is again in greater detail:
God, who deserves to be admired and worshiped, created all that there is including the first human beings. He gave them the world to rule and rightly required obedience of them. When tested, they rejected and disobeyed God and as a result everyone born of them afterward has been born separated from God, naturally predisposed to reject and disobey him, and consequently subject to His righteous anger. The result is that we owe God a debt that we have no ability to pay. Therefore, God the Father, in His love for the world, sent God the Son to the world to become a man in order that he might be an acceptable sacrifice of redemption. To reconcile us to the Father, Jesus paid for our lives of disobedience. To receive this redemption, all we are asked to do is put our trust in him. This news demands a response. You can remain in your pride and reject it, or you can humbly accept it and be saved. Humbly accept the good news, and the righteousness of God will begin to be accomplished in your life.
James' third point is that God's righteousness is worked out in our lives when we take action in light of His word. Let's read v. 22-24.
22 Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the Word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.
Again James confronts us with an issue of sin that we must deal with. That is failure to apply God's Word to our lives. James says that when we fail to apply God's Word to our lives, we lie to ourselves. As human beings, we have a staggering ability to deceive ourselves, especially into thinking that we are right. It reminds me of a column I read about a doctor's frustration at getting overweight men to change their eating habits and start exercising. He said that he could not count how many times he has seen men come into his office with a large belly that's been forced over the years by a belt to expand only above the trouser line. Whenever the doctor told them that they need to lose weight, they invariably reply, “But doctor, my waist is the same size it was when I was in college!” This is self-deception and it's something that we are very good at, even when it comes to God's Word.
James compares the believer who does not put God's Word into practice to a man who looks at himself in a mirror and then forgets what he saw. In Greek, the phrase is, “like a man who fully observed his natural appearance in a mirror, then after fully observing himself, went off and immediately forgot what kind of man he was.” There is an emphasis in this phrase on fully observing something that is amiss. It seems like a ridiculous thing to do. I just think about the many times I wake up in the morning and look in a mirror. My face is greasy, my hair is standing up at odd angles, and I know that unless I take some action this condition will not be improved. It would be ridiculous for me to think otherwise.
It is the same for us in our walk toward God's righteousness. When we listen to a sermon, or participate in a Bible study, or read our Bibles, the Word of God has a way of fully exposing our unrighteousness. When this happens, if we just think what a good word it was and yet take no action against our unrighteousness, we lie to ourselves essentially saying, “I'm already righteous enough.” The truth is, we will never reach perfect righteousness in our lifetime. Yes we are saved by grace already, but we are also commanded to live righteous lives, and if we only listen to the Word and don't take any action we cannot expect to be able to follow that command.
There is another way that we can deceive ourselves when hearing the Word that I want to quickly mention. How many times have you listened to a sermon and the first thing that came to your mind was, “I wish that person would listen to that!” Whoever 'that person' is for you. Do you realize that when you do this you completely remove yourself from the responsibility to take action in your own life? It's ok to share a sermon or a scripture with another person who you think needs to hear it, but please apply it to yourself first!
In contrast to the ridiculous man who forgets what he looks like, James gives us an example of what we should do in verse 25.
25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.
Notice the phrase 'looks intently'. The voice changes from the inactive 'hearing' of the Word in verse 22 to the active 'looking intently' into it. I think this brings up an important point about how we get God's Word into our heads. Listening to sermons, audio Bibles, and Christian music are all good things, but in order to really know God's Word and be able to apply it well, we need to plumb the depths of it through study, deep thinking, and prayer.
The next words of this verse are also very compelling. The Word of God is referred to here as the 'perfect law that gives freedom.' Let's unpack this phrase for a moment. God's law is like a reflection of His personal character and so exposes our unrighteousness because like God, His law is perfect in righteousness. The freedom that God's law gives is exactly in this power to expose us.
It's just like when you shine a light into another corner of your house, say under the bed, and expose more dirt. You generally don't feel that the light has brought you trouble, but rather that it has helped you find dirt that needs to be cleaned up. When you clean up that mess, the underside of the bed is now free from dirt and you are also free to shine the light and search elsewhere. In the same way, as we look intently into God's word, our filthiness, as James says in verse 21 is exposed and we are able to start the work of cleaning it up.
Now here's the practical part of this passage. As you persevere in shining the light of God's word into more and more parts of your life, you must not only shine the light and say, “look at all that mess!” You must take action to clean it up. As you do so, you will find yourself ever more free from the unrighteousness that enslaved you. The freedom that the law of God can give you is the freedom to be righteous. In your doing of God's law, you will be blessed as the righteousness of God is produced in and through your life.
The final point that James makes is on the public outworking of God's righteousness in our lives. Let's read verse 26:
26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
Right away we are confronted with the potentially uncomfortable word religion. These days it's not a very popular word among Christians. One of the things that a lot of Christians say, myself included, is that we don't follow a religion, but we have a personal relationship with God. And this is true. So we need to know what is meant by this word to understand this passage. It's important to note that there are several different words in Greek that all translate to religion in English, but have different nuances. In this case, the word is 'threskos,' which means the ceremonial practice of worship. The religion that James is talking about here is the way we display our worship of God to others. In other words, the public things we do as a result of being Christians.
Once again, James begins by confronting us with a sinful attitude that proceeds from self-deception. James uses the example of controlling one's tongue because we are easily tempted to consider this to be of little consequence. But the truth is, even so small a thing as not watching what we say can cause the public practice of our faith to become worthless. James wants us to realize that the little things really matter. So, what is meant by our religion becoming worthless? We are commanded to be living publicly in the righteousness of God, displaying His righteousness, in what we say and do. So when we do things like tell dirty jokes with our co-workers, yell nasty things at the other drivers on the road, or share gossip with our friends, we are violating that command. We are failing to publicly display lives of worship to God in the eyes of the world. This is one of our main purposes as Christians that our righteousness should draw people to God. If it does not, our religion is worthless.
This is something that I have personal experience in. There was a period of my life when I stopped going to church and engaged in a very unrighteous lifestyle, much more than not controlling my tongue. I still called myself a Christian even though there was nothing to distinguish me from any non-believer. I really thought I was doing the right thing, but the truth was that I was lying to myself and I was not displaying God's righteousness at all. Consequently, not one person was drawn to God because of me during that time.
So how are we meant to display God's righteousness in public? Basically our faith must translate into action. In verse 27, James gives us another example of what we should do.
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.
As we have already seen, the religion, or public practice of worship that God requires of us extends into our daily lives, our work and our relationships. God is not interested in Friday Christians. He wants all week Christians. To illustrate this point, the example of helping widows and orphans in their distress is given. This is not meant to say that this is all we must do to be acceptable, but an example of this point: We know that we have been saved solely by the love, kindness, and benevolence of God. Therefore, as recipients of this, we should naturally show the same love, kindness, and benevolence of God to other people, especially those who are having a hard life. This, together with keeping ourselves pure from the unrighteousness inherent in our culture, is the religious worship that God desires of us. When we do these things, God's righteousness is brought about in our public worship, and made known all around us 'in order that they may see your good works and give glory to your Heavenly Father.'
We have had a lot of practical advice on how the righteousness of God is brought about in our lives. There is logical progression of this throughout this passage. We started with overcoming the barrier of unrighteous anger in order to recognize our need for God's righteousness. This proceeded to the righteousness that is credited to us from Jesus when we repent of our unrighteousness and believe. After this came a practical way to take action to produce righteousness in our lives through studying and applying the word of God. Finally we came to the importance of displaying God's righteousness through our lives to the world. This is the process of being saved, sanctified, and prepared for good works. From beginning to end it is the work of God in our lives to bring us to Himself and then through us to bring others. You see, God reveals Himself to us, God humbles us, God provides the way for us to be reconciled to Him, God gives us His Word to assist us in becoming more like Him, and God shows us love and kindness so that we can do the same for others. In all of this though, we also have the responsibility to take action. We must take down any barrier that prevents us from seeing God's righteousness and seeking Him, we must humbly repent and accept His word, we must stop deceiving ourselves and obey what He commands, and we must, through the righteousness He builds within us display our good works, and draw others to Him.
More in James
July 22, 2011Finding Joy in the Midst of Trials