Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Byron Center Protestant Reformed Church in Byron Center, Michigan.
“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 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: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. 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.”
The epistle of James calls those who profess to have faith to live their faith in all of their life. Our text shows where living one’s faith begins: being doers of the word. The preceding verse provides an important key to knowing what makes one a doer of the word—to receive the engrafted word with meekness (James 1:21). This points out that what interferes with our receiving the word is pride. Meekness, or humility, is a key to understanding what makes one a doer of the word, instead of a hearer only.
This inspired Scripture admonishes the readers to be doers as well as hearers of the “word.” This word is the speech of God. The readers of James’ epistle were members of the visible church (“the twelve tribes scattered abroad,”James 1:1) and were accustomed to listening to the Old Testament Scriptures explained to them. They heard the word of God.
Note that our text speaks of the word in two other ways. It is called the “law,” and it is presented as a mirror. When all the word of God is called “the law,” then the word is viewed as the means God uses to show that He is sovereign and must be obeyed. The word is the speech of God, who calls His human creatures to love Him with their all, and to show their love for Him by loving the neighbor He has put in their path. The word that is to be heard and done is a law.
Also the preaching of the word is described as being a “glass,” or mirror. This figure means that the word confronts hearers with the answer to the question, “Do you love God with your all and your neighbor as yourself?” As a mirror, this penetrating question reveals to us whether we do love God with our all or whether we are just saying that we love Him.
Our text says that, when the word of God is preached, there are two kinds of hearers. There is the forgetful hearer, and there is the hearer who does not forget. The forgetful hearer truly listens. He knows what the message is about and he is able to talk about it. When the text says that he is a forgetful hearer, it does not mean that he forgets what is said in the preaching. He can, in fact, remember sermons, and it is likely that he even conforms himself outwardly to its demands. But he forgets the one essential of the preaching of the gospel that would make him a doer.
The other hearer of the word hears the preaching as well. He hears, listening carefully and meditating. And he strives also to apply the word he hears to himself and to his daily walk. But what makes him a doer, in addition to his being a hearer, is that he does not forget something—something that is a most important element of the preaching.
What exactly is it that the one who is only a hearer forgets and that the one who is also a doer remembers? What is it that makes one a doer of the word, in addition to being a hearer of it?
Both the hearer and the doer are described as seeing their “natural face.” The preaching of the word serves as a “glass” or mirror in which is seen one’s natural face. This is, literally, “the face of one’s birth.” It is what all men are by nature, by virtue of their relationship to Adam. Every descendant of Adam has this ugly depravity or sinfulness, out of which all of his sinful thoughts, words, and deeds arise. Also the regenerated believer continues to have this “natural face.” That is why even the most holy has only a small beginning of the new obedience. He still has his “natural face.”
According to our text, both the hearer and the doer stand in front of the mirror of the preaching of Scripture and both clearly see their natural face.
The difference is that the hearer forgets. He forgets “straightway,” that is, quickly. It is implied that he wants to forget, that he deliberately forgets his own ugly depravity. He remembers many other things that he hears. He may have a great objective knowledge of the truth and of a holy walk. He may be able to define heresies. But when it comes to himself, he quickly forgets “what manner of man he was.” He sees his natural face for a short while, but he wants to forget quickly the ugly image he saw of himself. He deceives himself.
The hearer only, who quickly forgets his natural face, will always be characterized by a lack of humility. When he talks about world issues or ecclesiastical church matters, when he talks about the sins of others (in the ungodly or in a fellow professing believer), his talk is always without real humility. He speaks as if he would never do such a terrible sin. Or when his sins are presented, he has all kinds of excuses and reasons. Always there is the absence of meekness. He hears the word. He knows a lot about the word. But always he is as one who quickly forgets his natural face. He deceives himself.
The hearer who is a doer of the word is described simply and only as one who “continueth” in the knowledge of his sinful nature. He is humble because he never forgets his sins and miseries. He always remembers how great they are. He may see sin and error in others, but he always sees it in himself (too and worse). He identifies himself as less than the least of all saints precisely because he knows himself so well. He sees himself as the chief of sinners exactly because he does not forget, but purposely strives to remember, that he is the sinner. To keep this knowledge he remains near the word, taking the picture of himself with him wherever he goes.
The hearer who is a doer of the word goes forward another step. Even while he deliberately remembers his natural face, he realizes that he is looking into the “perfect” law, that is, the law that is perfected, fulfilled, or completed. The same law that shows him his sinfulness (and sins) is recognized by him to be a law that is fulfilled for him by God’s Son, Jesus Christ. He knows that, as sinful as he is, he cannot make himself clean. So he is constantly pleading for mercy in the blood of Christ. And he finds in the same word that identifies himself as a sinner the good news of the Savior. Jesus came into the world to save sinners—even the chief of sinners. Not only are his sins forgiven, but also the law is fulfilled for him as if he never did any wrong and as if he only kept the law perfectly himself.
The hearer who is a doer of the word takes one more step. The law that shows him his natural face and the good news of the Savior is identified as the “law of liberty.” The preaching of the gospel of the Word of God proclaims that in the crucified and risen Savior there is freedom from the guilt of sin, from the fear of death, from the bondage of despair, and from the bondage of having to sin. There is freedom to love God with his all, and his neighbor as himself. The gratitude of the real hearer, who is a doer of the word, is real and constant. He strives to do what God commands as an expression of his thanks to God for saving a wretch like him.
“This man shall be blessed in his deed.” He finds blessing in his hearing (really hearing) the Word (Jesus).
The first and constant blessed deed of the doer of the word is repentance. The doctrines of total depravity and of sovereign grace become a part of his everyday life in the way of his humbly repenting. He is not a perfect doer, but he is a constant confessor and a constant striver.
The doer also finds blessing in hearing that he is free from the bondage of sin and death. He is given to see in the mirror, behind himself, the likeness of Christ in all His righteousness. This makes him blessed or happy.
And the doer is blessed in his deeds of loving God and his neighbor out of the motive of gratitude. He is blessed because he “walks humbly with his God” (Micah 6:8). He constantly sees why he is to be humble. And he conducts himself humbly with his neighbor. The doer of the word not only walks humbly with his God, but he also “loves mercy” (Micah 6:8). Having been the recipient of so much mercy, he strives to exercise mercy toward all others.
And, ultimately, the doer is blessed in his … hoping. Remembering, always, his natural face, he desires more and more the transformation that awaits him in glory. He longs for heaven, where he will finally and forever be free of his natural face. Blessed indeed, and blessed now, is one who has such a hope.