helpinghandwith Tony W. Cartledge
James 1:17-27

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” — James 1:22

Teachers: Scroll down to find teaching resources and Tony’s video.

Real Religion

The book of James almost didn’t make it into the New Testament. It was one of the last to be regarded as canonical – so is it really worth studying? Martin Luther, famed pioneer of the Protestant Reformation, called it “a right strawy epistle,” largely because James emphasizes the importance of work so much that he seems to minimize the role of grace.

Others might join Luther in wishing that James wasn’t in the Bible, but for less theological reasons. James pulls no punches, but tells us to take our faith seriously and get to work. Many of us would rather not hear that.

The book of James bears a strong similarity to the Old Testament wisdom literature such as Proverbs: the author moves from topic to topic with no clear outline but with a few important ideas that are expressed over and over in different ways. For James, the most important idea is this: faith works.

True faith is faith that works. Faith that counts for something is faith that works. An over-emphasis on some other New Testament texts might lead one to think that faith is everything. James is here to remind us that our works count for something, too.

What is work worth? We often hear of workers or their advocates who seek higher pay or better benefits because their work is worth more than they are being compensated. James would have us to understand that the value of work is not just found in the financial compensation it brings us. Some values and benefits cannot be measured with dollar signs, even in the millions.

Accepting God’s grace(vv. 17-21)

James is not unaware that works of faith must still begin with grace. Our first work, in a sense, is to accept God’s good gifts. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above,” James says, “coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (v. 17).

Here is something we can count on: God is real, God is good, and God bestows good gifts. Every act of generosity is a glimmer of God’s compassion. Every good gift is a reminder of God’s love. We can count on God’s goodness and generosity and grace.

It was by grace that God granted us “birth by the word of truth” (v. 18) – that is, new birth through the life and love of Jesus Christ. Looking back to v. 15 is key to understanding this verse. There James spoke of how one’s own desire conceives and gives birth to sin. Here, he speaks of God’s desire to grant us birth to a new life in Christ.

James’ readers were first-generation Christians. They were the “first fruits” resulting from Christ’s work. Today, we are the fruit, not only of Christ, but also of what the church has done through the years. When others believe after us, they will be the fruit of our work, as well.

That work begins with our acceptance of the good and gracious gifts that come to us from God. But James insists that there is work involved in fully accepting God’s gifts: we have some cleaning up to do. Other things that come between God and us have to be moved out of the way.

What kind of things? Things like the attitude that we already know everything or should always get our way. It is that attitude that leads us to speak without listening and to be angry when others disagree with us. So, James tells us it is essential that we “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (vv. 19-20).

Graceful living cannot coexist with a selfish lifestyle any more than a tomato vine and poison ivy can occupy the same bit of soil. “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (v. 21).
Those are strong and unpleasant words. None of us like to think of our lives as being sordid or rank – but James considers anything that could screen us from God’s presence to be forms of wickedness.

Some think of James’ language as reflecting the baptismal image of stripping off what is old and putting on what is new, but it can also be read as a garden metaphor. We can’t plant the word of life in a spot that is already choked with weeds and briars and brush. We have to clean out the wild growth to make room for new plantings. It is only common sense to understand that God will not fill our lives with grace if our hearts are choked with self-interest.

Only when we’ve cleaned the weeds from our lives can we “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” The term logos in “the implanted word” can carry a double sense here. John’s gospel speaks of Jesus as “the Word” of God. Those who experience the power of God’s salvation are those who open their hearts to the Master Gardener, who plants in their hearts the Word of life.
But logos can also refer to a message, and that is its more common sense in this section. Those who receive Christ the Word are also called to live out Christ’s message. The day we become Christians is our first day of work in the kingdom of God.

Doing God’s work(vv. 22-27)

So, James says, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (v. 22). We are not to be just hearers of the word, or watchers of the word, or commentators upon the word. We are to be doers of the word.

In this context, “word” refers to the content of Christ’s teaching, which calls us to love God with all our being and to love others in the same unselfish way that Jesus loves us. “To be doers of the word” is to be followers of the message that calls us to love.

An old saying sadly observes: “When all is said and done, more is said than done.” James knew it is not what we say or claim to believe that demonstrates our faith, but what we do.

The kind of learning that changes our lives comes only through practice: we learn best by doing. James illustrated the emptiness of some people’s faith by saying they were like a person who looked intently into a mirror, and then immediately forgot what he or she was like (v. 24).

How are we to understand this? One way is to recognize that the very act of examining oneself in a mirror implies the intent to do something about what one sees. But if a man sees a dirty face that needs washing, then quickly forgets and does nothing about it, his face will remain unwashed.

A closer look at the Greek text provides a different angle. James did not just speak of looking at one’s face, but of one “who looks at the face of his origin.” Looking in a mirror does not only reveal the appearance of one’s face in the moment, but also reminds us of our origins, of our family – of who we are by birth. When we forget who we are, we are in trouble.

Recall that James had just spoken of believers having experienced a new birth in Christ. If we claim to believe but do not practice, we have forgotten who we are. In contrast, when we look at ourselves as children born of God and called to follow Jesus’ teaching, we remember who we are and begin to look like authentic Christians, because others can see Christ at work in us.

So, James went on to add, “those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing” (v. 25). In contrast, those who think they are being religious but who live without restraint have deceived themselves (v. 26).

It is not enough for us to come to church like cars stopping periodically at the gas pump, passively waiting to get our tanks filled. We may catch a glimpse of God in the worship service, and it may uplift us for a while, but if we do not put our faith to work day in and day out, it soon becomes meaningless.

Religion that matters is not just passive Sunday mornings of inspiration, but a daily dedication to the teaching of Jesus. If you want to see real religion, James said – religion that is “pure and undefiled” – it is this: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (v. 27).

In the ancient world there was no life insurance, no welfare, no social security beyond money saved and children raised. Widows were often left with no means of support and few legitimate opportunities to make a living wage. In desperation, orphaned children were sometimes sold into indentured service just to assure that they would have a place to stay and food to eat.

Of course, James never intended to suggest that our concern should be limited to literal widows and orphans, but all who are in need and subject to exploitation. It’s possible to be “widowed” from jobs or means of support, or “orphaned” from sustaining relationships. Give some thought to who might be the “widows and orphans” who need our care.

James insists that real religion involves both interpersonal charity and personal purity. Would others consider our religion to be genuine, or a formality?

James is not the only one who wants to know. BT

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Adult Teaching Resources

Download the PDF for August 30, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.

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Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: James 1:17-27



Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session

It is easy for our students to claim that they are Christian. It is a label that they can wear without much persecution or being questioned about. When you start to dig deeper and ask your students what it means to be a Christian and what Christians are supposed to do, their answers become a little more wishy-washy. Many times our students want the label of being a Christian but find it difficult to live up to what it means to be a Christian. We need to help our students realize that their faith is more than just words they say and things that they do on Sunday and Wednesday.

Teaching Resources | Download

Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.

Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.

“Harry Sees His Parents” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: James 1:17-27