Chapter 1:19-21, Receiving, the Word With Meekness . . .
There are two possible readings of verse 19. It is possible to read the text as, it appears in the King James, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren . . .” And it is also possible to read, “Know this, my beloved brethren” While in either case it makes no difference . . . concerning the sense of the passage, we prefer to read, “Know this.” The inspired writer means to catch the undivided attention of his readers and stir them up. “Know this!” “My brothers, this you must know.” What must we know? We must know that we are to receive the engrafted Word with meekness, being swift to hear and slow to wrath, because the wrath of man works not the righteousness of God. We are to receive that Word in the way of laying aside all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness; and this is all the more urgent because this engrafted Word is able to save our souls.
All of this follows very naturally from the astounding truth of verse 18, where James teaches that we are born again with the Word of truth in order that we should be a kind of first-fruits of God’s creatures. Of God’s own sovereign will1 He determined to make us, by nature dead in sin, alive in Christ for the purpose that we should be the ones in whom the whole creation is consecrated to the praise of God’s glory. This means something for us; it means that we must receive the engrafted Word which alone is able to save us. This is an absolute imperative.
That engrafted Word is the Word which God spoke. It is the Word of truth of which verse 18 speaks. It is the eternal Word by whom and for whom all things were made; it is the Word which became flesh and dwelt among us, revealing the glory of God (cf. John 1). The engrafted Word is the Word which God spoke in His Son Jesus Christ. By the miracle of infallible inspiration that Word of God in Jesus Christ isinscripturated, so that we may say it is the Bible.
That Word is “engrafted.” A better translation of the term is “implanted.” The term really means “to sow or to plant.” The idea, therefore, is that the Word of God is rooted in us. God implants His Word first by the wonder of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Christ, the Word of God, by the Spirit enters our hearts and gives us new, heavenly, resurrection life which never dies. Christ nourishes and sustains that life and brings it to its fruition by means of the pure preaching of the Word. By that means the implanted Word sinks its roots ever more deeply into the “good ground” of the elect hearers (cf. Parable of the Sower, Matthew 13); and the seed of the new life sprouts and grows and develops and brings forth fruit “some an hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty.” This is what James speaks of. The Word of God in Christ, implanted in us by regeneration, must be received by us through the means of the preaching and the sacraments which signify and seal the grace of salvation preached.
Receive that implanted Word! This is a powerful concept and rich in meaning. To receive the Word is more than a simple acceptance of the gospel. It’s more than saying to our preacher, “That was a nice sermon, I enjoyed that.” Receiving the engrafted Word is more than merely agreeing with what was preached. The receiving which the Scriptures speak of in this passage is to appropriate the Word preached. The idea is that we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd; and hearing His voice, we know Him and follow Him (John 10). Putting it another way, to receive the implanted Word is to embrace the Christ Who is preached. It means that we take that Word of Christ to heart and with joy and thanksgiving; in faith believing, we embrace the implanted Word.
This is an imperative. James is not saying, “I wish you would please accept the implanted Word, my beloved brothers.” This is no offer for the hearers to accept or reject at will. This is the exhortation of God Himself to His servants through the Lord Jesus Christ who have been begotten again with the Word of truth. And as always with the Word of God, it is an “either or” matter. Either one embraces the implanted Word, or one rejects the Word; either he embraces Christ by a true and living faith, or he rejects in unbelief. But God presents no offer to men, He comes with no choice. God simply says to the regenerated servants of Jesus Christ, “Embrace the implanted Word.”
The idea is further emphasized by more imperatives in the text: “Let every man be swift to the hearing, slow to the speaking, slow to wrath.” While as a general rule it is always true that we should do more listening than talking and be slow to wrath, the text does not come with generalities or “helpful hints for good living.” James speaks of more than our everyday talking and conversation. “Be swift to the hearing”: that means to be quick, ready to hear the implanted Word. Those begotten again with the Word of truth are to be full of eager longing and eagerness to hear Christ preached, so that they may more and more embrace Him in faith. For that reason they are to be slow to speak, i.e. slow to begin speaking. How true! One cannot embrace Christ through the preaching of the Word without hearing His voice; and one certainly cannot hear His voice when one is speaking. But again, James is not merely speaking of talking when the Word is preached. That being slow to the speaking is further defined by “be slow to wrath.” Wrath refers to a deep-seated anger, a settled indignation, which always carries with it the desire of revenge. It is wrath against God, the expression of hatred against and opposition to God. Be slow, James writes, to that kind of wrath. Be dull or inactive to speak out of wrath against the implanted Word of God. In plain words, what the text says is that we are never to let that wrath be in us, so that we speak out in opposition to the implanted Word of truth. Rather are we to be eager to hear Christ so that we may embrace Him by faith.
It belongs to our sinful nature to be quick to speak out of wrath against the Word. In the context of this first chapter of James when the Word of God says, “Count it all joy in divers temptations, ask for the wisdom of God to be in harmony with His will, rejoice in your low degree, put away your doublemindedness, endure the temptations, and when you fall do not say you are tempted of God”; in brief, when the Word of Truth—Christ through the preaching—points us to our sin and sinful natures, we do not want to hear it! That flesh is so very strong in us, and our inclination is exactly to speak out against the Word rather than receive it. We have many ways of doing that, too. Some subtle and others not so subtle. “That word applies to brother so and so,” or “That word applies to those other apostatizing churches,” or “That’s the preacher’s opinion, he’s welcome to it, but I have mine”; these are just some of the ways we oppose God’s Word. And that “wrath of man” is the very antithesis of the righteousness of God. It does not work, produce the righteousness of God. We fail to measure up to God’s standard. The tragedy of this is that we cannot grow in the faith in the knowledge of God. Receive the Word, the implanted Word, my brothers, be slow to speak out in wrath against God’s Word.
There is only one way. Negatively, the Scripture teaches that we must lay aside “all filthiness.” This is what our indifference to the Word is. Our speaking out in wrath against the Word implanted is not merely a shortcoming, a failure, a weakness, but vile, rotten, filthy sin. Lay it apart, get rid of it; all of it.
And “lay apart all superfluity of naughtiness.” This is a catchy phrase, but a poor translation. Superfluity is superabundance; and the point is that we are not to get rid of the excesses of sin but the superabundance of sin. There remains in us an overflowing of sin. “Superabundance” emphasizes that sin is an unbelievable monster in us. “Naughtiness” is only one of many words used in the Bible for sin. We should always remember that the Holy Spirit never uses words indiscriminately. “Naughtiness” denotes a very specific sin. More often than not the term is translated “malice.” And malice is that evil disposition which desires to injure one’s fellow believer. This is Scripture. Scripture is its own interpreter. Romans 1:29lists maliciousness as one of the characteristics of the reprobate. I Peter 2:1, 2 teaches that we are to lay aside all malice, guile, hypocrisies, envies, evil speakings, and as newborn babes desire the pure milk of the Word so that we may grow. Eph. 4:31 calls us to put away from us all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, evil speakings, and malice, and to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving to one another. All of these passages indicate the same truth. Malice has to do with our relationships together as members of the Body of Christ. The point is simply this: we cannot receive the implanted Word as it comes through preaching and sacrament when filled with that evil disposition to hurt our fellow saints. This is the filthy root which bears the bitter fruit of evil speaking, bitterness, envies, hypocrisies—terrible sins all—which rip and tear the church apart, wound and kill members of Christ’s sacred Body. Ultimately this malice is the root out of which springs that wrath of man which worketh not the righteousness of God, but which speaks out against the Word. Lay that apart. Hearts full of malice cannot receive the implanted Word.
That Word must be received positively with “meekness.” This is humility. It’s that mild, gentle disposition that confesses when the Word is preached, “Yes, Lord, that’s I.” Meekness is godly sorrow for our sins and confession of them all before the Father. And meekness is reflected in our relationships one with another. Recognizing ourselves as sinners saved only by grace, we edify one another rather than destroying one another. Each esteems other better than self. Bearing one another’s burdens, we fulfill the law of Christ. That is the righteousness of God.
Know this, my beloved brethren! Receive with meekness the implanted Word. It’s the Word which is able to save your souls. Literally the text reads: “powerful to save your souls.” The implanted Word, Christ crucified and raised again, as that Word comes through the preaching and as it is signified and sealed in the holy sacraments, is God’s almighty power to lift our souls out of deepest misery into the enjoyment of God’s blessed friendship and favor.
There is the urgency of this Word of God. Yes, we are saved, our sins are forgiven, we are born again by the Word of truth, and that Word has been implanted in our hearts. Still we must continue to embrace that Word with meekness. God does not implant it, and then we have it and somehow go to heaven. As the beloved brethren, the saints in the dispersion who encounter divers temptations, we are called to embrace the implanted Word. That is God’s means and God’s power to comfort in our sorrows, instruct and build us up, encourage us when downcast, correct when we wander, preserve us in the temptations, and strengthen us in the battle of faith. Know this, my beloved brothers. Be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, receive with meekness the implanted Word, which alone is powerful to save your souls.