James 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Do What the Word Says
It would be natural for James, as a Jew, to refer to the Old Testament Scriptures as "the word," since this is a designation found within the Old Testament itself. We also find him using some distinct phrases (royal law and the perfect law that gives freedom) to express a new meaning which the word of God has assumed for him as a Christian. Add to this the fact that we find his letter permeated with references to the teachings of Jesus, and it becomes likely that when James refers to God's word he has in mind not only the Old Testament but also (in fact, especially) the teachings of Jesus which form the heart of the New Testament. It is appropriate, then, for us as Christians to take this as teaching about the proper use of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments.
For some people, reading the Bible is an unpleasant chore because their perception of the Bible's message is "Do this; do that; do this other. And do more of this and more of that and more of the other." The effect is only a building of stress and guilt. On the other hand, some people find Scripture to be indeed the perfect law that gives freedom. I recall a young man who was, by God's grace, taking some very large steps to walk more thoroughly according to Scripture. His humble acceptance of God's word was admirable to me; his resulting spiritual growth was exhilarating to him. One day in my office he said in amazement, "I am internalizing God's word so much more now; it makes me wonder how I could have called myself a Christian before. It's like it was all just head knowledge before."
It is that "internalizing" of Scripture that James describes now. As before, his style is to present two complementary images: do not be only hearers of the word; instead be doers of the word. To guide our inquiry here, we can ask three parallel questions of each image.
1. What is the pattern of the deception/blessedness?
2. What then is the nature of the word?
3. How would one be a hearer/doer of the word today?
The one fact James emphasizes about "hearers only" is that hearing the word without doing the word is an act of self-deception. The nature of the self-deception has received different interpretations that will make a large difference in personal or homiletical application about salvation. Martin's view illustrates one tradition, which says James is defining "the nature of true piety" (1988:49). Davids represents the other major tradition, which says the term means here "to deceive oneself as to one's salvation" (1982:97). In the former alternative, the passage is applicable as a warning to genuine Christians who are nevertheless not putting Scripture into practice seriously enough. The latter alternative makes this passage a warning against a false presumption of salvation in the first place.
The actual term for "deceive," paralogizomai, does not offer much help in this debate, as it is used only one other time in the New Testament (by Paul writing later in Col 2:4). However, James's own choice of analogy in 1:23-24 does provide material by which to interpret his intention. Here the text supports Davids's view that the passage is a warning against a false presumption of salvation.
1. What is the pattern of the deception? The hearer of the word is self-deceiving, like a person who looks in a mirror and then goes away without thinking further about his or her appearance. At this point the NIV's rendering is misleading by connecting 1:23 to 1:24 as a continuing clause with a compound predicate: "a man who looks . . . and . . . goes away," leaving the impression that the man's error is in going away while neglecting to change something that he ought to have changed about his appearance. If this were the case, then the analogy would be saying that the primary function of Scripture is to expose our faults and to tell us, "Do this; change that." While the word of God certainly does expose our sins so that we may repent, this is not the whole picture of Scripture's function.
The NASB more accurately captures James's grammatical stop at the end of 1:23 with a semicolon. This conveys that the analogy is complete at the end of 1:23. What James explains in 1:24 is additional, but not essential, information. The point is that the man does not need to keep thinking about his appearance; he can forget his appearance, because it is useless to him once he has finished looking. James's phrase prosopon tes geneseos ("natural face" or "face he was born with") does not imply that the man is seeing something in his appearance that he ought to change. It speaks of the ordinariness of what the man is seeing; he doesn't need to think further about his appearance. His reflection in the mirror is useless for him in going about his daily business of life. This makes the application clear. If I hear the word of God but do not do what it says, I am treating the word as if it were useless. I am deceiving myself about the very nature and purpose of the word of God.
James's thought in the analogy is for the purpose of the word. If he has just stated a purpose of the word, that would most naturally be the purpose he has in mind now. When we look back at the text for such a statement of purpose, it is immediately before us at the end of 1:21: the word can save you.
The urgency of his message must be faced. He is warning us not to be self-deceived about our very salvation. James has emphasized that sin leads to death (1:15). We cannot claim a salvation from death while we carelessly persist in sin which kills. If sin is seen as our choice to run our own lives instead of submitting to God's rule, we cannot ask Christ to save us from sin and then go right on running our own lives; it is self-contradictory. To think we can so live is to practice self-deception. The core of accepting salvation is accepting Christ as Savior and Lord. If I am saved, I will give myself to the doing of my Lord's word. It is not that I will attempt to save myself by obeying commands; rather, because I am saved, I will set my heart on doing the will of God who is my Savior.
This is consistent with the teachings that James had learned from Jesus and that are expressed later by Paul just as clearly, that the follower of Christ will die to self-will and live unto the Lord's will. James is earnest about specific moral issues in this letter because he is earnest about the lordship of Christ.
2. What then is the nature of the word? James's analogy places emphasis on the usefulness of God's word for our salvation in daily living. Unlike our useless reflection in a mirror, the word of God is to be taken into our daily decisions and actions. For the analogy of the mirror to be appropriate, James must have believed in both the perspicuity and the applicability of Scripture. He believed the word of God to be clear and understandable, comparable to a mirror that gives an accurate reflection rather than one so clouded or distorted that the viewer would gain no real understanding from looking at it. James believed also that the word of God reveals matters upon which the readers should take some appropriate action; the word is relevant in application to our lives. People who are hearers only are deceiving themselves because they ignore these two features of the word of God. They treat the word as if it were useless because of being either unclear or irrelevant.
3. How would one be only a hearer of the word today? By the description James has given of God's word, at least four approaches to Scripture that are common today should be repudiated as examples of merely listening without doing and so deceiving oneself.
Relativistic. The scholarly study of linguistics and literary criticism during the past few decades has been characterized by an increasing skepticism regarding the possibility of absolute truth. Formalism, structuralism, phenomenology and deconstruction have some diversity of forms, but they have led to some common philosophical assumptions, including the impossibility of objectivity, the relativity of truth, the subjectivity of meaning and the resulting primacy of experience (since ultimate meanings are regarded as indeterminate).
Relativism as a worldview now pervades contemporary thought and even pressures many Christians. A common assumption today is that Christianity is an alternative that has already had its day. This is so persuasive precisely because modern culture has adopted the notion that everything changes and anything becomes passe, whether fashions or automobiles or religion or, ultimately, truth itself. One perceptive businessman in the church I pastor commented to me, "I find the persuasiveness [of this view] very sophisticated and tugging at my elbows every day! And I consider my faith reasonably strong."
The impact of relativism is to undermine exactly what James prescribes for our study of Scripture. We say the Bible is the word of God; then we contradict that belief by conceding a cultural relativity to points of doctrine that are presented in Scripture as transcending culture. We say we believe in the authority of Scripture; but we have so often been told "It may be right for you, but not for me" that we begin to believe this relativism in our own hearts. Then, when we read the word of God, it falls on ears that hear but do not respond with action.
Superstitious. In 1 Samuel it is recorded that the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines. The elders of Israel conferred and decided to bring the ark of the Lord's covenant from Shiloh "so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies" (1 Sam 4:3). When they next went into battle, this time with the ark of the Lord present, Israel was again defeated, and the ark was captured.
What went wrong with their plan? They treated the ark of the covenant as if it were magical, as if it could save them. Instead, they should have sought the Lord. Doing so, they would have realized that they could not expect salvation from a holy God while persisting in wickedness. They would have to do what James says to do: act on God's word.
This is not far off from the way some people treat Scripture still. The Bible is revered as an object, as if it would bring blessing on one's life. The Bible may be read often; prayers may be said frequently; church services may be attended; yet there may still be a self-satisfied overlooking of gossip or lies or irresponsibility or emotional abuse of one's spouse. This amounts to a superstitious use of Scripture.
James is insisting that the words of Scripture are of no value unless put into practice. If you study the word of God and begin to see a picture of true justice or genuine love or real holiness, then start practicing what you are discovering. This is the passion on James's heart.
Emotional. The word of God is certainly intended to affect our emotions. Jesus himself told his disciples that he spoke his words to them so that they might not fear but instead have joy (Jn 14:1-2; 15:11). The misuse of this is the employment of the word of God only for emotional comfort while avoiding obedience. By James's instruction, one should not be satisfied with a superficial devotional reading merely for emotional satisfaction. He demands a reading of the word with the goal of doing the will of God found there.
Theoretical. James's instruction also repudiates the merely theoretical use of the word of God, in which a person may study the word in exhaustive detail but then use the word only as material for philosophical or theological debate. The result is an abundance of doctrinal correctness but a scarcity of biblical godliness. The ones who are "hearers only" after this pattern tend to build a reputation for holding proper theology while leaving behind a trail of divisiveness and damaged relationships.
The better alternative of being "doers" (RSV) is introduced in 1:22 and then described further in 1:25. The initial imperative in 1:22, Do not merely listen to the word. . . . Do what it says, probably again recalls parts of Jesus' own sermons, such as Matthew 7:21-27 and Luke 6:46-49. Instead of a relativistic, superstitious, emotional or theoretical approach to the word of God, James urges a practical approach. Do what the word says. The chief fact which James emphasizes about doers of the word is that they will be blessed.
1. What is the pattern of the blessedness? The phrases flow from James's heart, dramatizing the pattern of being blessed and making his appeal more emphatic. Forms of the verbs do and forget are repeated from 1:23-24, maintaining clear contrasts with the pattern of deception. The pattern by which one is blessed is stated in four successive terms rather than portrayed through an analogy.
Looks intently. This is a participle parakypsas which continues the image of a person looking into a mirror. Now, however, the person is looking into the word of God itself, which is worthy of an intent look because it is the perfect law that gives freedom.
Continues. The looking is now augmented by a second participle, parameinas, for James means we should not only look intently but also persist in looking.
Not forgetting. Still not satisfied with the emphasis, James further adds, literally, "being not a hearer of forgetfulness."
But doing. The full participial phrase makes a striking contrast of images: "being not a hearer of forgetfulness but a doer of action."
After this piling of phrases for emphasis, the conclusion of the sentence is like a climax reached within this one verse. This is the crowning goal of looking intently, continuing to do so and not forgetting but doing: He will be blessed [makarios] in what he does [poiesei]. The statement recalls two dramatic scenes in Jesus' teaching ministry, once again revealing how studiously James has learned the teachings of his half-brother who had become so thoroughly his Lord. The first, of course, would be the Beatitudes, in which Jesus repeated the same term "blessed" makarios. That scene exhibits how the term makarios took on a particularly Christian and eschatological content in the New Testament, where the Greek term occurs fifty times and forty-four of them are beatitudes. Jesus based blessedness specifically on the coming of his kingdom, and the blessedness was often identified in paradoxical contrast to the world's usual standards for happiness. Jesus made it a point to declare "blessed" those who were poor, mourning and persecuted. Now James is writing to Christians who are often poor, mourning and persecuted, and his promise of blessedness carries this Christian content. True blessedness--the joy of Christ's kingdom--comes not by escaping trials but by doing the word of the Lord.
The second scene would be the Last Supper, at which Jesus washed his disciples' feet, instructed them about servanthood from his example and concluded, "Now that you know these things, you will be blessed [makarioi] if you do [poiete] them" (Jn 13:17). It was not enough for Jesus that his disciples "know these things." Likewise, it is not enough for James that his readers be hearers of the word. Blessing is found in the doing of God's will through a life of active obedience.
2. What then is the nature of the word? In contrast to the hearer who is deceived, the doer is blessed. What is the nature of the word that makes it something which brings blessing? It is, literally, the perfect law of freedom. The phrase is unique to James in the New Testament, occurring only here and in 2:12. The primacy of freedom in the nature of the word is significant in two regards.
First, this is one of the phrases in James indicating that he is using the term law (nomos) with a connotation different from Paul's in Galatians or Romans. Paul would write about the law as an avenue by which one might attempt to attain a standing of righteousness before the holy God. In this respect, law would have to be treated in contrast to faith. James, however, is speaking of moral law as the deeds of the righteous life that God desires. The teachings of Jesus would especially be the perfect law to which James refers. As discussed in this volume's introduction, there is no need for the book of James to be read as a response to the Pauline letters. It is entirely clear and appropriate as a pre-Pauline encouragement by James for scattered, persecuted Christians to remain true to the word of God. By living according to this word, or law, they could live in true freedom in spite of their oppressors, for they would have the freedom to enter the kingdom of heaven and to live righteous lives. This theme in James can be seen to flow readily from Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17-20 and 7:21, 24.
Second, the emphasis on freedom shows James's integration of his Old Testament Jewish tradition and the teachings of Jesus. The Old Testament certainly emphasized the blessing inherent in obeying God's laws. Jesus then emphasized his commitment to fulfill the law (Mt 5:17) and to give freedom (Jn 8:36). For James now, the perfect law that gives freedom is the very word of which he has been speaking. His warning against being "deceived" (with two different verbs in 1:16 and 1:22) is motivated by his assurance that we have, in contrast to deception, a real "word of truth" from God. This word of truth is a "perfect gift . . . from above," for it gives us birth, it saves us and it gives us freedom. So it is again described as perfect in 1:25. Especially for people who tend to think of God's word as a collection of burdensome, guilt-producing demands, James is a marvelous corrective model. He exhibits the admiration for the perfection of God's will and the delight in doing God's will which are to be normative for God's people according to both the Old Testament (Ps 19:7-11) and the New (Mt 7:21; Jn 14:15).
3. How would one be a doer of the word today? What we believe about the nature of Scripture affects how we use Scripture. Some people, believing Scripture to be a list of performance demands, use it to see how to perform more and more instead of looking into Scripture for truly biblical standards of how God wants us to live. Others, with a more relativistic belief, use Scripture selectively; they accept what they feel comfortable doing while simply ignoring the more difficult steps of faith commanded in the Bible. Often this selective approach comes from fear of the demands of Christ's lordship; we simply do not fully believe that his word is the perfect law that gives freedom.
To find the freedom promised here, one would have to take the four stages in the pattern of blessedness and put them into practice. These are not to be four more steps added onto other humanly devised performance standards. Rather, these are the steps to take first with Scripture, so that Scripture can then reorder the rest of one's life.
Looks intently. We will search the Scriptures. We can go beyond a superficial devotional reading. We will bother to learn sound principles of inductive study so that we can dig deeply into the word and feed ourselves from Scripture.
Continues. We will stay in Scripture. We can learn to be regular and habitual, rather than occasional, in our Bible study.
Not forgetting. We will learn Scripture. We can study it so as to know its content and to remember it in our daily lives. Memorizing Scripture passages is an excellent discipline for the practice of this third step.
But doing. We will apply Scripture. We can afford to leave our mirrors behind because our reflections are useless. But Scripture is another matter. We need it in our daily lives. We will take Scripture into our thinking, submit our minds to it and formulate our beliefs by what it says. We will make decisions by Scripture--about how we will respond to trials, what goals we will pursue, how we will spend time and money, how we will use our tongues. We will dare to live by the word of God.
The church is much weakened today by the defective approaches to Scripture that I have mentioned. In one verse James has spread out the blueprint for how Christians can equip themselves with the word of God for freedom and blessing.