James: The Essence of Christian Living

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on August 18, 2002

James 1:19-27

James 1:19-27
The Essence of Christian Living

you have your Bibles I would invite you to turn with me to James chapter one as
we continue through this great book together. In the very words of greetings the
first week we were studying this book, we said that James was preparing us for
the trials of the Christian life, even as he called us the twelve tribes
scattered abroad in that language which harkens from the Old Testament. And the
story of the Exodus and of the exile does indeed remind us as pilgrims that we
are, as Christians, we are pilgrims in this world. We are God’s children, but we
are not yet home, and what perfect language to prepare us for his discussion of
trials. We looked at those verses last week, and we saw that James was very
concerned that we respond to trials in an appropriate Christian, and biblical
way. What do you do when you run into the ordeals of life, the afflictions,
unexpected trials, that stunning grim diagnosis is given, the loss of a child,
the loss of a job, infidelity of a spouse, seriously difficulty with children,
and on, and on. How do you respond? Well, James is very concerned that believers
respond in the right sort of way. He says that in those circumstances we are to
“consider it all joy.”

How in the world can that be realistic? Well it can only be realistic if
we believe that the heavenly Father has designed afflictions as the medicine of
grace. Those afflictions and trials which we face in this life are designed to
make us to be what He intends us to be, and consequently, the way that
Christians view trials is entirely different from the way anyone else will. It
is typical, isn’t it, for so many to respond to difficult trials by saying,
“Why? Why has this happened to me? Why has God allowing this to happen.?” And
we said that James’s instruction presses us in another direction.

Let me illustrate this for you. If you had been with the men who were
going ashore at Normandy, on D Day, all those years ago, I don’t think you would
have found many of them turning to their chaplains, as the gates swung down into
the water and onto the beach and saying, “Why is this happening to me?” It was
what they had been training for. That was their moment, that’s the preparation,
that was what they were out there to do, it was the job that they had been
prepared for. Well, so also in the Christian life when we face trials our
response is, “This is what the means of grace have been preparing me for. This
is what The Catechism was for. This is what the memorization of Scripture
was for. This is what all those Sundays under the word of God was for, to
prepare me to be faithful in this time, that I might be proven in this trial.”
And so the Christian response to trials is very different from the response of
the world around us.

Now, when you get to James 1:19, it seems again as if James has changed
the subject on you. And you maybe wondering, “How do we go from trials, to
distinguishing true Christianity from false Christianity? What’s the
connection?” Well, you’ll see the connection in the very first words of verse
19, and you’ll see it in the content that James has been talking about in the
previous verses, the verses immediately prior to verse 19. But let’s hear what
James has to say by going to God’s word in James 1:19.

“This you know, my beloved brethren. Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to
speak, and slow to anger. For the anger of man does not achieve the
righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that
remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted which is able to
save your souls. But prove your selves doers of the word and not merely hearers
that 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 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.”

Amen. This is Gods word may He add His blessings to it. Let’s pray.

Lord, this day, we would be both hearers and doers of the word. And so grant
that we would hear with the desire to be changed. Grant us attention and search
our hearts out by Your own Spirit. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

The Bible teaches, that it is possible to claim to be a Christian, and
yet not to be a Christian. James in particular teaches that it is possible to
claim to be a Christian, and yet not to be one. And James will be relentless in
his diagnosis of this from this point in James 1:19 all the way, at least, to
the end of James chapter two.

What is the connection between that and trials? Well, you have perhaps
already sensed that James teaches that trials often reveal to us whether we are
that double minded man who does not trust in the Lord, or whether we are that
single minded man whose faith is in the Lord. And towards the end of his
discussion of trials, he’s already talking to us about the impact of the new
birth in us, and the change, the difference that that makes in our lives. And so
he naturally transitions from that discussion to a discussion of the difference
between true Christianity and false Christianity, between true godliness and
false godliness, between those who profess to be righteous but aren’t, and those
who are in fact righteous, between those who profess to be religious but aren’t,
and those who are in fact professing the true religion.

And so as he pursues those goals here, he teaches us at least three
things, and I’d like for you to see those things with me today. First, in verses
19 and 20, you will see James teach that true Christianity permeates our
relationships and behavior. Secondly, in verses 21-25, he’ll teach that true
Christianity, not only hears the word of God, but does the word of God. And then
in verses 26-27, he teaches that true Christianity entails both personal piety
and public morality. All three of those things he teaches in this passage. Let’s
look at each of them, first in verses 19-29.

True Christianity permeates everything in life.

Here James makes it clear that true Christianity permeates our
relationships, our behavior, everything in life. As far as James is concerned,
true godliness is integrated, not segregated. That is, it permeates all of our
life and relationships. Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to
anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of god. Isn’t it
interesting, that in diagnosing our claims of Christianity, James goes
immediately to the practical issue of Christian’s behavior in relationships.
Listening is a relational action. Speaking is normally a relational action,
although some people have conversations when nobody’s there and then you begin
to wonder about them. Anger is again a relational response, an emotional
response in the context of a relationship and James goes right to these things
and says, these things must evidence the reality of the new birth. In other
words, in the Christian life the evidence of the new birth is a new life. Our
speech ought to evidence a new life. Our listening ought to evidence a new life.
Our control of our emotions, our emotional disposition and temperament, is to
reflect the new life.

Why does he choose to talk about these things? Because it is in these
things, not in our quiet time, not in our small group, not even in our Sunday
morning attendance in the pews at 11 o’clock, not even there, do we see the
measure of our Christianity, but it is in our life, our character, our
responses, our relationships that we see true Christianity. Spiritual life is
not something practiced privately. There are private components to spiritual
life, but spiritual life is not that time when we’re doing our quiet time, or
family devotion, or with a small group or with accountability partners, or off
on a retreat. Spiritual life is woven into the fabric of who we are.
It’s not done on Sunday morning at 11 o’clock; it is manifest in all of our
waking hours and in every relationship of life. In other words, it’s integrated
not segregated. It is woven into the whole, that’s what I mean by that phrase.

A segregated spirituality encourages us to live a parallel life. On the
one hand, reading the bible, praying occasionally, meeting with a group, doing
devotions, and yet that same person participating in that activity, living a
life which is essentially worldly, making worldly choices, acting with a worldly
value system, doing immoral things, living in his business relationships in a
way which dishonors God, living in his family relationships in a way which
dishonors God. That kind of parallel life is characteristic of segregated

But James is calling for an integrated spirituality in which church and
family worship, and accountability partners, and Bible study are the means to
help you live the Christian life in Christ, and to manifest your Christianity in
your character and relationships. And James picks one example to diagnose a
Christian life which is out of whack, and you see it in verse 20. “The anger of
man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” He could have chosen other
things, but this one speaks to so many of us. Our inappropriate anger manifests
a heart condition that is the opposite of God’s righteous plan for us. His plan
is to transform us by grace, and anger which is out of control and inappropriate
is a sign that something is deeply wrong. Our emotional life, our speech, the
way we listen, our relationships, all of these things provide an indication of
our sanctification. They are a test of our real godliness. They show us the
state of our Christianity.

What do those things tell you? Some of us, today, having heard what James
is saying, ought to be saying to ourselves, “I’ve been fooling myself. I call
myself a Christian, but I’m not.” If that’s your reaction to James’ diagnosis
here, to God’s diagnosis through the words of James, there’s only one thing for
you to do and that is run to Jesus Christ and the cross because you can’t fix
yourself. The Christian life is not an endless series of resolutions to do
better. The Christian life is not turning a new leaf. The Christian life is not
just the latest and greatest of self help remedies.

The Christian life is a recognition that we do not have within ourselves
the energy, the power, the ability to change ourselves, we need to look
somewhere else. And the only ‘somewhere else’ to look for that is in Jesus
Christ and at the cross. It’s when we renounce our own ability to try and change
ourselves and we run to Him for grace to change us that we find salvation and
grace to change. And so, if you having been diagnosed by the word of God and
realize that you’re fooling yourself, that’s where you need to go. If you
profess the faith but realize that you don’t possess it, you need begin by going
to Jesus Christ.

For others of you, it may just be dawning on you that your view of
Christianity is out of whack and that you need a new mindset. You may be one of
those people practicing a segregated spirituality. You do some things that are
spiritual, you read your Bible, you pray occasionally, you will go to a group, a
men’s meeting, a ladies Bible study and to church, but you realize the things
that you are doing there are not permeating the rest of your life. And you
realize that you need an integrated spirituality. Well if that’s the case then
you need to go to God the Holy Spirit. And you need to ask the Holy Spirit to
renovate the whole of your life, to change your mindset and your outlook, to
give you new priorities, to determine not to be a Sunday morning, 11 o’clock
Christian, but to live the life of faith, to worship God in all of life, even as
you come to worship.

For still others of you, these words may be revealing to you serious
deficiencies in your own character and relationships. You may recognize the
anger that James is talking about. You may recognize the lack of appropriate
speech, or listening, that James is talking about. For you, James’ words ought
to move you to repentance, to change, to growth, and again you will need the
help of the Holy Spirit to grow and change. Spiritual life is not the work of a
moment; it’s the work of a lifetime. And James is calling us in this passage to
grow in grace, to manifest the new life and not to manifest it in one private
part of life, but in all of life.

II. True Christianity not
only hears God’s word but does God’s word.

Secondly, in verses 21 through 25, James goes on to say that true
Christianity not only hears the word of God but does the word of God. True
godliness doesn’t merely ascent to the word of God, it lives the word of God.
James reminds us in this passage that true godliness involves both a negative
and a positive activity. It’s both active and passive. In this case in verse 21,
James enjoins a negative activity. We are to put aside sin. It kind of reminds
us of Paul’s word about putting off and putting on. We are to put aside the
remnants of sin in our own lives. We are to get rid of it, we are to
deliberately seek to expunge it but correspondingly he speaks of a positive
activity. And that activity is receiving the word of God implanted, and by the
word he means the Scripture, the Law of God, the royal law, all of it,
the whole of Scripture.

And so he is speaking of the word of God as a means of grace for
sanctification. It is the way that God grows us, it is the instrument that God
uses in our lives to grow us in grace. Sitting under the reading of the word of
God, sitting under the proclamation of the word of God is not merely to tickle
our ears, or to tickly our fancy, it’s not merely to interest us or to inform
us, it is designed to transform us by God’s grace. And our temptation here at
First Presbyterian Church, because we have had so many years of faithful
teaching, faithful teaching in years past in the pulpit, faithful teaching in
the Sunday school class, is to be passive listeners, to sit back, to be
spectators in the teaching in the preaching of God’s word.

Do you hear God’s word as a spectator? Do you hear God’s word as a sermon
taster? Do you think, “Boy, Dr. Currid sure does know a lot about Egyptology
and the book of Exodus.” Do you think, “Boy, I like Derek Thomas’s accent.” Or
when you come to hear the word of God do you come as a spiritually starving
believer desires, hungry to be fed with God, to be fed with His grace, to be fed
with the truth of the word so that your life will be transformed? Do you come
realizing that you need this as a means of grace that you are going to walk
faithfully in the days ahead? Do you come hungry for spiritual nourishment and
looking for sanctification? James says, true godliness doesn’t just hear the
word and ascent to it, “Oh, I believe that, I can accept that.” True godliness
hears and lives the word of God. And James gives the diagnostic for this right
here in this passage.

In verse 22 James speaks of hearers and doers of the word. “Prove
yourselves doers of the world and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”
Now, be clear about this, James is ripping this off from Jesus. This whole
section of James is a pure rip off of Jesus, it comes right from the Sermon on
the Mount and the regular teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. James should have
put a footnote at the bottom saying, “This whole thing was borrowed from Jesus,
I’m not giving you a single original idea.” This is Jesus’ teaching that James
is reduplicating. And he says simply this, “Are we hearers or doers? Do we
listen but never learn in practice, or do we listen and live. Are our lips and
our lives coordinated?”

In versus 23 and 24, James describes the hearer, the sermon taster, the
one who listens but who doesn’t learn. He is one who listens, or to use his
word, looks at the law, looks at the word of God, and then he goes away and he
forgets what He taught him. That’s the hearer, he ascents to it, not that he has
an argument with it, it just makes no impact, it never permeates his heart, it
never touches him in the deep recesses of his soul, or impacts him in his
character or behavior.

On the other hand, in verse 25, he describes the doer, which is shorthand
for the hearer and doer. The doer, James says, looks at the law, looks at the
word, and he lives by that word, he acts on that word, he lives it out, he obeys
it, it frees him, it’s a law of liberty and freedom, he loves it. Why, because,
God has done in him what He promised to do through Jeremiah, He has written His
word on his heart. So he abides it. That word is constantly reminding him of his
need for forgiveness, and God’s provision of that forgiveness, by grace in Jesus
Christ. That word is constantly reminding him of His way or righteousness and he
is therefore walking it.

Our obedience to the word of God, or response to the word of God, is a
diagnostic of our spiritual condition. The test of whether you believe God’s
word is whether you obey it, especially when it runs counter to your desires.
That’s when you know whether you are a hearer and a doer of God’s word. And true
Christianity not only hears the word of God, but it does the word of God.

True Christianity involves bother personal piety and public morality.

But James is not finished with diagnostics; he’s got one more. Look
at verses 26 and 27.
Here, he teaches us that true Christianity entails both personal piety and
public morality. True godliness is expressed both in our inner life and in our
outward practical compassion. James, in these two verses, gives you three more
behaviors, three more activities, three more instances by which we can get an
indication of the reality of our faith and religion. Look at these three things.
Look at your tongue, look at your compassion, and then look at your separation
from the world.

In verse 26, James returns to the tongue as a diagnostic devise for
measuring the inner life and taking stock of the heart. And again, it’s just
what Jesus said, “What comes out of a man’s heart,” Jesus said, “is reflected in
his speech.” Or, rather, this way, the things that come out of a man’s mouth,
issue forth from his heart. So that our speech, our tongue, our self-control or
lack of self-control, is a manifestation of what is in our hearts. And James
just flatly says, “If you do not bridle your tongue, you are deceiving
yourselves. Your religion is worthless.” It’s a hard word to speak, for there
are few areas more difficult for us to control than our tongues. But that in and
of itself, is only symptomatic of the heart issue, the issue of the inner life,
and James is reminding you of it.

In verse 27, he goes on to say that our compassion for those who are in
need, especially those who are part of the Christian family, is an indication of
grace in our hearts, tangible compassion towards those who are in need. This has
not been a strong area for evangelicals. Generally, when people start talking
about this, we suspect there is a liberal in the room somewhere, this is the
social gospel. But I want you to notice that James is not pitting
humanitarianism over against Christian faith and life as an alternative. He’s
not arguing that Christianity is a life, not a doctrine like our old liberal
friends used to do. He’s not suggesting an ethic as an alternative to a

No, he is saying this: Christianity has an indispensable corporate
external and social dimension. Our British Christian friends have generally
done better at this then American Christians. And this is precisely why we must
be so concerned for the ministry of mercy in our own midst. That’s one reason
that God gave us deacons, to be ministers of mercy and to teach us how to be
merciful, an tangibly, externally, and compassionately ministering to those who
are in distress, in need, and who are outcast and overlooked. It was john Calvin
who said that “Our Christianity is shown by self-denial, compassion, and well
doing to neighbors.” It wasn’t some liberal, it was Calvin.

And James is saying, you want to see if you really are a follower of the
Lord Jesus Christ? Take a look at your tangible compassion towards those in
need. What does it say about you?

Finally in verse 27 he goes on to say that our determination to resist
worldliness in heart and action is an evidence of the inner life. Keeping one’s
self unstained by the world. You see, for James true godliness is both internal
and external. True godliness entails an inner life, an embrace of truth, a
transformation of heart, a personal piety, but it manifests itself in the way we
show compassion to one another. You see, what James is saying is that there is
no such thing as justification without sanctification, there is no such thing as
the new birth without the new life, there is no such thing as grace without
obedience because grace works. That’s what James is saying. And he is saying
that because he doesn’t want anybody sitting on a chair or a pew in a Christian
church anywhere who thinks he’s a Christian, but isn’t.

Oh, we’re happy to have nonChristians sitting in a pew. It gives us an
opportunity to show our hearts and to press our claims with our friends. But
what a tragedy it is when there is someone sitting in a pew that’s a
nonChristian who thinks he’s a Christian. He’s immune from the gospel. And James
gives us this diagnostic so that we would not be self-deceived.

Oh, my friends, we must respond to that utmost seriousness. Look at our
lives, are we in Christ, is there in grace there, are we growing in grace? And
if we’re not, run to the One who can grant it. Let’s pray.

Our Lord, and our God. We bow before You, and we acknowledge our sin, we see our
own self in this passage. Convict us of it. Search us out by Your Spirit, change
us, grow us in grace, for Your glory and in our good we ask it in Jesus name.

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