Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, 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.
James has had a great deal to say about the word of God. It is by the word of God that we are born again to be a kind of first fruits of His creatures.
This word of God therefore we are to receive. We are not to repudiate the word, especially as it is preached to us. We are rather to embrace it with a believing heart. Practically, this means that we must be quick to hear the word, slow to speak out against it, slow to become angry when it rebukes us.
Continuing in the same vein, James now instructs us to be doers of the word. Those who receive the word are swift to hear it. But this is not enough. They must not just be hearers of the word; they must also be doers of the word.
The perfect law of liberty
Notice that the word of God is identified in this passage with the law of God. First James speaks of being a doer of the word (James 1:22). Then he identifies the doer of the word as one who looks into the perfect law of liberty (James 1:25). The word of God and the perfect law of liberty are the same in the mind of this inspired writer.
It is significant that James identifies the whole word of God as law.
It is common today to make a division between law and gospel. When that is done, the idea is that the law is found in the Old Testament, whereas the gospel is found in the New Testament. And since we are no longer under the law but under grace (Rom. 6:15), the Old Testament really doesn’t have much value for us today. It belongs to the old covenant that God established with the Jews.
Contrary to this notion is the identification of the whole of God’s word as law. The implications are obvious. The law and gospel are inseparably connected. In fact, the law is an integral part of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. And that gospel with its law is found on every page of Scripture. The gospel of the New Testament is also the gospel of the Old Testament. In turn, the law of the Old Testament is the law of the New Testament. It is true that many of the requirements of the Old Testament law have been fulfilled in Christ, so that their Old Testament form falls away. Nevertheless, the essence of the Old Testament law remains with us until this day (Belgic Confession, Art. 25).
This law contained in the word of God is described as being perfect. We read of the perfect law of liberty. It is perfect in that it is complete. In other words, the law found in the word of God contains the complete will of God for our lives. We are not to turn to any other source to find the will of God. God’s will is not to be found in the news media or the advice columns of your newspaper. The psychology and philosophies of this world are not the key to knowing the will of God. God has revealed his will for our lives fully and completely in the law that is recorded in Scripture.
And this law is liberating.
This is evident from the fact that it is called the law of liberty.
The viewpoint of many today is that to be under a law is to be in bondage. True freedom is to do whatever you desire without the strictures of any law. However, the word of God calls God’s law the law of liberty. In it you find your freedom.
God’s law is our freedom only because of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Apart from the gospel of Christ the law is only bondage. Without the gospel the law becomes a means to earn your way to heaven. It requires of you perfect obedience and condemns you should you fail in that obedience. That can only bring bondage. For no one can keep the law of God perfectly. The law would condemn us all. This is what the Jews discovered under the yoke of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.
But when the law is placed in the context of the gospel, it serves to liberate us. It does so, first, because God uses the law to show us our sin and the need for the Savior. The law convicts us of our sin and drives us to the cross of Jesus Christ, where we find forgiveness and reconciliation with God. At this point the law serves yet another purpose. It becomes the rule for grateful living. God confronts the forgiven sinner with His law and calls him to express his gratitude by keeping the law. This inspires the reconciled sinner to turn once more to Jesus Christ to find the strength to keep God’s law. He cannot keep the law perfectly; but in Jesus Christ he begins to keep all the commandments of God. In this the sinner finds deliverance from the bondage of sin and the true freedom of salvation.
Looking into the perfect law of liberty
James compares the law of liberty to a mirror. First, he speaks of one who beholds his face in a glass. This glass is really a mirror, which in Bible times was not made of glass but of polished metal. Then James speaks of one looking into the perfect law of liberty, thereby comparing the law to a mirror in which we see ourselves.
It is not difficult to see how the law of God serves as a mirror. The law sets before us the requirements of God for our life. When confronted with that law, we are forced to examine ourselves in its light. And when one is honest in this self-examination, he sees himself for what he really is. It is as though he were looking into a spiritual mirror.
What a person does next determines whether he is only a hearer of the word or also a doer of the word.
One that is a hearer and not a doer is like unto a man that beholds his natural face in a mirror, then goes his way and immediately forgets what manner of man he was. He looks into the mirror of the law. He does that when he sits under the preaching. He does that when he reads the Bible for devotions. He does that when his parents bring him the word and apply it. What he sees is not pleasant. As he gazes into the mirror of the law, he sees his sins and shortcomings. He has sinned in his marriage, in his home life, in his work, in his schooling, in his recreation…. But then he goes his way and immediately forgets what he saw. The word of God that was brought to him or that he read is quickly forgotten. His sins that were exposed to him by the word of God have just as quickly left his thoughts. There are more important things in life. The word of God did not bring him to his knees in sorrow. It did not bring him to the cross to find forgiveness. Nor did it move him to turn from sin unto God. He was only a hearer of the word and not a doer.
In distinction from this, a doer of the word is one who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues therein. And being not a forgetful hearer, he becomes a doer of the work.
This doer of the work also looks into the perfect law of liberty, even as does the one that is only a hearer. He sits under the preaching of the word. He studies his Bible at home and in the fellowship of the saints. He is instructed in the word by his parents and teachers. The word of God and its law also serve as a mirror for him, to see his sins and many faults. In this respect he is no different from the one that is only a hearer.
How he differs is that he is not a forgetful hearer. Rather than quickly glancing into the mirror of the law and going his way, he continues to gaze at himself, inspecting himself very carefully. Leaving the figure and speaking of the reality, he is one that continues to meditate and reflect on what he saw of himself in the law. The sins that he has come to see in his life disturb him deeply. He is filled with a grief that brings him to his knees in prayer to find the forgiveness of the cross of Jesus Christ. But this isn’t all. One cannot be forgiven without becoming grateful. And so this forgiven sinner desires to serve God according to the law as an expression of his gratitude. This he cannot do perfectly, at least not yet. But in Jesus Christ he begins to turn from his sin to serve God according to all the commandments of God. And so he becomes a doer of the work.
This is what we must be.
Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.
This is possible only by a true and living faith in Jesus Christ.
In the next chapter James compares a living faith to dead faith. A living faith is a true and genuine faith. A dead faith is only an imitation faith. The difference between the two is that the one produces good works and the other does not.
A true and living faith produces good works only in response to the word. It is through the power of the word that one is brought to a true faith in Jesus Christ. The word is also the power to lead us in our faith to the cross to become doers of the word.
The difference between a doer of the word and a hearer only is that one has a living faith, whereas the other has only a dead faith. The one’s faith is genuine; the other’s faith is imitation.
He that is a doer of the work shall be blessed in his deed.
He shall find the blessing of God’s friendship and fellowship. This is a fellowship that will extend on into eternity and there be perfected.
He shall also find the blessing of peace and harmony in his family and church.
What of the man who is only a hearer of the word? He is not so blessed. He is one who continues in the way of his sin. There is no blessing in the way of sin but only misery and destruction.
And we are warned.
Be not deceived.
Do not be deceived into thinking that you can be happy without God’s blessing, because the pleasure of sin will satisfy your soul.
And above all do not be deceived into thinking that somehow you can continue in the way of your sin and still receive the blessing of God.
The way of sin is the way of misery and destruction. This is also the end of all those that are only hearers of the word.
Let us in faith be doers of the word that we may receive the blessing of God.