In our previous two posts, we’ve looked at how James 1:19-27 calls us to be hearers of the Word and receivers of the Word. Now, we will see that James’ ultimate objective in the passage is to call us to be doers of the Word:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:22)
Notice how James has phrased this. It doesn’t say “do the Word”. It says be doers of the Word. Be a person characterized by the doing of the Word. James is calling us to a lifestyle, not an activity. We shouldn’t think of this as a lifestyle of perfect obedience, but rather as a general pattern of obedience.
He contrasts this with another kind of lifestyle – being a hearer only. If you have been going to Providence Bible Fellowship for very long, you most likely have had at least a few times where you have been confronted with the truth and convicted that you should obey the truth. When that happens is any action taken in your life in response to that conviction? Or do you process it and then continue on your way?
If you have never thought about that, it's possible that you have deceived yourself. That’s what “hearers only” do, according to v22. They deceive themselves. But in what way do they deceive themselves? James explains by giving us a great illustration in the following verses to show us what is really happening when we are hearers only. Consider vv23-24:
23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. (James 1:23-24)
What would you think about a person who looks intently in a mirror – that is, really studies his reflection, looks at all the contours of his own face and the imperfections, possibly the signs of age – and then goes away and immediately forgets what he looked like? “That’s ridiculous. Nobody does that. Who forgets what they look like?” That’s the point. The absurdity is the point. That’s what we do when we hear the Word and are not doers of the Word. The clear push of God’s Word is that it makes claims on our lives. We are repeatedly called to obey. To be confronted with that and then not to follow through and obey is as absurd as looking intently at yourself in the mirror and walking away and immediately forgetting what you look like.
The one who is a hearer and not a doer deceives himself, v22 told us. The deception comes in the “looking intently”. Here’s how I think this works. You hear preaching or teaching or you read the Word, and you look intently at it in light of the mirror it holds up to your life. You contemplate what it means, you think deeply about it, and your eyes are opened to some flaws in your heart that you were previously unaware of. Your attention is fixed on that. You are convicted and you see what needs to change. And you talk to others about how convicted you are. And you spend much time thinking about that and how much you want to change…
And then you walk away and nothing changes. It’s easy to think that feeling conviction and even desiring to change and thinking hard about it causes change, but it doesn’t. You go away and forget what you saw when you looked into the mirror of Scripture. It happens all the time. And even though you were so convicted about your sin, you’re still doing it. That’s what it means to be a hearer only.
Now, what does a doer look like? V25 tells us:
25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts…
He describes the Word as “the perfect law, the law of liberty.” This law of liberty is the word of the gospel that frees the sinner from the power of his sin. And consider what the doer does with this law of liberty. He “looks” at it, the ESV says, but the underlying Greek word doesn’t just indicate gazing at something. It means “to make considerable effort in order to try to find out something.” It is the picture of deliberate, intentional time feeding on the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation, which includes sanctification (Rom 1:16).
So there is a difference between the looking that the hearer does and the looking that the doer does. The hearer looks intently at his reflection. In other words, he looks at his life in light of what the Word calls him to, and that is absolutely necessary. But the doer moves on and looks at the perfect law of liberty. He doesn’t just identify his imperfections, but he searches the Scriptures so as to bring them to bear on His sin. He seeks to appropriate the gospel to do something about his imperfections, to free him from the bondage of his sin.
It would be difficult to over-emphasize how important it is to preach the gospel to ourselves in our daily pursuit of godliness. The gospel helps us to understand clearly our sin problem, why we must change, the reality that Christ’s death has provided a mechanism for us to change, the reality that we can’t do it in our own strength, the gifts that God has given to assist us in this, and a growing affection for the Savior which becomes the overriding motivation to change.
That’s why in Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians Paul preaches the gospel to the reader before giving them any commands. The truth of the gospel is essential for being able to obey the commands. The doer of the Word focuses on the gospel.
But we see another huge difference between the hearer and the doer. Remember the hearer looks at himself in the mirror and goes away. The doer looks at the perfect law of liberty and perseveres. His gaze is transfixed on the gospel and it stays there. The Greek word for perseveres literally means “to stay with.”
And consider what it says about him next: “being no hearer who forgets, but a doer who acts.” It literally says, “not a hearer who becomes a forgetter, but a doer of work.” What is it that prevents him from becoming a forgetter? He doesn’t leave the Word, but he stays there. He doesn’t let the busyness of life pull him away.
After considering all of this, would you characterize yourself as a doer of the Word, or a hearer only. We probably all go through seasons of both. Where are you right now? Next time, we’ll consider some practical suggestions for how to do the Word. In the meantime, meditate on the truths of the gospel, all that God has done in Christ to save us and transform us into His image.