But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 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. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 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 will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:22-27
Being a diligent student of God’s word is vital to our walk with Christ, and it is meant to lead us to action. James 1:22 says, “But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves“. In the original Greek, this translates to “make sure you are doers”. This expresses not just the occasional act, but a consistent desired obedience. There is going to be radically good fruit in the life of a true believer.
Psalm 1:1-3 says, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates, on His law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” When our roots run deep with delight into streams of living waters, when we are continually fed well, we produce fruit consistently. If not, then we are deceiving ourselves.
James 1:24 goes on to say, “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. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” Why? Why does he do this idle repetition? What is the point of the observance and deep reflection on the mirror of our inadequacies, our sin, and our need in Scripture, without action? How many people religiously come to sit in our sanctuaries, or community groups, or Bible studies to look into a mirror for 45 minutes, and walk away with no idea of their countenance? Why?
Matthew 7:21-23 says “Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” and then I will declare to them “I never knew you; Depart from me you who practice lawlessness.” The word for “many” in verse 22 here is “polloi.” In the Greek, it is actually synonymous with “most.” It’s sobering to think that one day, many or most will stand before God, that may seem impressive to us, touting service to Him and/or service in the church, and yet practice lawlessness and self-deception. They will have deceived themselves all the way to eternal damnation. Again, why?
James persists, “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 will be blessed in his doing.” James knows what damnable self-deception looks like. He is, in fact, the half-brother of Jesus and, by Jesus’s own account, an unbeliever before the resurrection (John 7:5). He had proximity to God, and he had a confession of belief, but he was deceived. But, like the joke about the answer to every other Sunday school question being JESUS, Jesus is the answer here.
His death on a cross took a law that was perfect and good, but brought condemnation, and created a law of liberty. I bring up the Sunday school answer not mockingly, but with all sincerity. We need a childlike faith (Matthew 18:2-5 ) that is in awe of our Father, wants to be like Jesus in every honorable way, loves what He loves and hates what He hates, and trusts Him to carry us through anything no matter what. We never get past the cross. We are never too mature for the doctrine of grace. Because He died and rose again, we now live under a law of liberty if we are His.
Believers can persevere. They can see the ugly bits of themselves next to a glorious Savior and a perfect law, and persevere into action because of what God has done and because of the Holy Spirit in them. The seed that has been planted by the stream of living waters cannot help but grow into a beautiful tree and produce good fruit, because of the One who planted it and sustains it.
How do you assess whether this is you or not? What about the religious man with no action?
Matthew 12:33-37 says, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words, you will be condemned.” Our words reveal the state of our hearts and where our roots are. Careless words are not an innocent slip-up, they expose us. The contrast of the religious unbelieving person with no action is one who is pure and undefiled, doubly holy, because of the heart-transplanting work of Jesus, and the convictions and leading of the Holy Spirit.
James 1:26 says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: To visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” The word “religion” here is used very intentionally to evoke thoughts of the ceremonial religious aspect that some might rest their salvation upon. You go to church, but do you bridle your tongue? Do you control what you say? James will talk more later about the tongue in chapter 3; how difficult it is to tame, and how it controls the whole body.
The true religious visit orphans and widows, and keep themselves unstained from the world. They are not serving for reciprocation or for anyone to see, but out of love and are set apart from the rest. They love because He first loved them (1 John 4:19 ). They set themselves apart out of reverence and love and trust that God is good and what He says is good, and what He withholds from them is for their benefit and for His glory (James 1:17, Psalm 84:11, Romans 12:2).
So ask yourself, are you, or a professing believer you know, making sacrifices at the alter of ritual, ceremony, pride, or family tradition? If you are a believer, how can you put reflection upon God’s word into loving action, and how can you delight in God as you do it?