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May 5, 2024

How to be ‘Hearers’ and ‘Doers’

Passage: James 1:22-27

“Be doers of the word, not hearers only.” This is how James begins our section. That may sound like a simple, obvious directive. Yet, lest we take this charge for granted, in order to see the magnitude of being both a hearer and a doer of God’s Word, we turn to our Savior Jesus’ words to illustrate this point. With His Word preached at the end of His Sermon on the Mount, He says, “"Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: 25 "and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. 26 "But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: 27 "and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”

You a house crashing…that’s a chilling way to describe one who hears and does not do. Jesus, on another occasion, also said, “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” Now, with these three portions of Scripture in mind, without going to other sections of Scripture, this may discourage people. “Well, I haven’t done that.” Or, some may say with an even worse delusion, “I think I’ve done okay at that.” Many Christians attempt to show their understanding of this with a famous song refrain, “Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Yet I, along with Martin Luther and others, believe there to be a better way of expressing the Christian life. That way of expressing is “Learn and Repent.” As much as we desire to “trust and obey,” we often find that, whether we lack trust in a given situation or obedience in another, we are not very good at these commands. With our sinful flesh ever vexing us, how can we “hear the word of God and keep it,” be built on solid rock, be doers of the word also? We hear it and keep it, we become doers also by learning of our sinfulness, and, in repentance, leaning on God for forgiveness. From here, we can practice the “good religion” that God lays out for us in James.

With the true way to be hearers and doers in mind: Learn and Repent, we must know then that God’s threat of punishment will never cause us to yield good fruit, only will His promise of redeeming grace do such wonderful things. We are truly blessed to hear the Word of God, that He has forgiven us in Christ, and we are blessed further that we may keep it by the grace of the Holy Spirit who through the Word of God shows us our wrongs, forgives them, and leads a thankful heart down the road of doing the word as well as hearing it.

(we pray…)

Now, to learn more on from James on how to be a hearer and a doer, it would pay to review the context of James’s epistle. If you’ve ever read the book of James, it may, at first glance, seem like it doesn’t fit with other sections of Scripture. Martin Luther himself had this issue, for on the one hand he notices that Paul says in Ephesians, “for by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast,” and on the other hand, James says in 2:17, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” How can this reconcile?

It is true that one is saved only by grace alone through faith alone, and James does not disagree. The focus of his letter is rather something different. 2:18 says, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” James’s point is that saving faith naturally yields fruits of faith. Like with an apple tree, yelling at it isn’t going to get it to grow fruit, for it just naturally does that without you yelling at it. His point to those whom he wrote was that faith is living and active. It yields fruits, good deeds you could say.

And what kind of believer did he write this to originally? James wrote his letter to Jewish Christians who were scattered throughout the empire. These despondent people seemed to be simply going through the motions of “faith,” just like their ancestors did. And so, like the prophets who so zealously warned their ancestors, James does the same here. Throughout his letter James rebukes many concerns, but our text only focuses on two of them. In this text, James sharply rebukes two concerns, 1) coming to hear God’s word and not doing anything with it, and 2) making up your own religion rather than following God’s word while also running your mouth in wickedness. These two points address both the leaders and the followers. The leaders who, like the Pharisees of the New Testament and the false prophets of the old, were tempted to make their own religion rather than following what God wanted. They were hypocrites who waxed religious and poetic, and then went and ran their filthy tongues on the streets. And what of the followers? They, seeing the leaders, did the same, and, on top of that, went through the motions of going to hear God’s word, but they didn’t do anything with it. They simply heard it and maybe pondered it at the moment, like looking in a bathroom mirror and seeing your face; then they left and forgot all about it and how it applies to them, just like a person not remembering the features of their face which they saw in a mirror.

So then, as James charges his audience, he also has words for us. 1) Don’t be a forgetful hearer. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.” A person whom this description fits, with whom the hearing of the Word has become a mere dead habit, without meaning and life, is well compared to the average person who merely glances into the mirror to see whether his face is clean, whether his clothing is arranged properly. There are very few people that would be able to recall their own features even after using a mirror hundreds of times. Thus, the mere hearers of the Word go back to their every-day lives and neither retain the Gospel-message with a believing heart, nor do they bring forth fruit with patience.

2) Don’t be a proud hypocrite, for that is not hearing and keeping God’s word either. “If anyone among you thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless.” If any person thinks he is, imagines himself to be, such a one as always has the reverence of God in mind, probably making a boast of his religion and of his zeal for God’s Word, and at the same time is guilty of the threefold misuse of the tongue, slander, swearing, and impure speaking, he thereby deludes himself. His own words and actions give the lie to his protestations; he denies by his life during the week what he proudly boasts of on Sundays, and therefore his so-called religion is a futile, useless thing.

If you’re like me, you probably can apply one of these two if not both warnings to yourself. And whether you are an idle hearer or hypocritical boaster, it is time to Learn and Repent. It is time to learn what it means to hear the word of God and keep it, to hear and do it, to be built on the rock and not on sinking sand.

We return to James’s words for this, “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.”  It is God's will that the believers, having been born again through His almighty power in the Word of God which creates faith, should grow in holiness, in perfection, according to His holy will. The “perfect law of liberty” that James speaks of is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for it has been perfected by Jesus for us, gives us freedom as children of God, and teaches us wherein true liberty consists, namely, in serving our heavenly Father through Christ.

So, hearing and doing the word, where do we begin? First, we learn and repent. When we come to hear God’s Word, we hear from it that we have done wrong. We hear it accuse us of our sinfulness. We learn what it is that we haven’t done. This strikes us with sorrow, and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we repent looking into that “perfect law of liberty,” by looking into the Gospel, to see that God forgives my sins for Jesus’ sake. Remember, we pray in Jesus’ name for by Jesus’ name we are forgiven. We come to church to investigate that perfect law of liberty. That perfect law of liberty, as stated earlier, is where we stand in Christ Jesus. Though, hearing God’s Word, we see that we are sinners and are stricken with sorrow; we also hear that we have been forgiven! We hear that Jesus Christ has born our griefs and carried our sorrows. We hear that Jesus Christ has taken away the bondage of sins and the fear of slavery. He takes us from fear to faith. He shows us this change in the Resurrection. He shows us in the resurrection and through His mediatorship in heaven that we can now look at our lives in the perfect law of liberty, the Gospel. Jesus kept the Law of God perfectly for us, and He has paid for all our transgressions. He now lives on High, showing us to be children of God who can then freely serve Him in thankfulness—the perfect law of liberty. Coming to hear the word and applying it in this way, learning and repenting and receiving forgiveness, is how one “continues in it.” Through the Gospel of Jesus, thankfulness flows, work is done, and forgetfulness flees. And God blesses those who continue in this.

So, if your sin is idle hearing, know that you have been forgiven and that you will no longer be punished for that. Know that you have been given freedom by your Savior. Know that, by the grace of Jesus, you no longer need to be fearfully hearing but thankfully hearing the Word of God to apply to your lives. And if your sin is hypocritical bragging, know then that that has been forgiven too. Jesus has freed you from the darkness that that entails as well. He has saved you, forgiven you of your sins here as well. And, in faith rather than fear, we can now by God’s grace come to the word to see what true religion looks like. The power and effect of the Word, as James points out, in all believers, give evidence of its presence in a far different way than vain boasting. James gives a few of many examples that what is pure, real, unsoiled, selfless religion, a real fruit of faith as it is active and effective in love, is if Christians make the care of the fatherless, of widows, of all such as are deprived of their natural protectors, their special purpose, thus alleviating their affliction as much as lies in their power. This goes in line with Christ’s command, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”  And another way in which true religion will become evident is in this, that believers preserve themselves unspotted from the world, that they have no communion with the unfruitful works of darkness which soil the hearts and minds and drive faith out of the heart. Thus, shall their Christian lives go forward all along the line and their faith and love be exercised in accordance with the will of their heavenly Father. And remember, if you do succumb to sinful choices, Learn and Repent. Now that you have been forgiven in Jesus. This will keep you unspotted from the world.

Learn and repent and receive Christ’s forgiveness. This is how a Christian maintains an active faith that bears fruits. This is how you and I stay on the solid rock amidst life’s storms. This is how one hears and does God’s Word, hearing it to convict sin, forgive sin, and teach us God’s ways. This is how one is blessed, for they hear the word of God and keep it. Learn and repent, receive the everlasting comfort that Jesus’ has given you in His life, death, and resurrection, and with a thankful heart let the Spirit through Word and Sacrament guide you into all truth towards how to thank your God. This is Solid Ground. This is what is meant by, “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” This is what is meant by, “Be hearers and doers.” We are made so by God’s grace alone in Jesus Christ our Lord. His love will guide you to hear and do according to His workmanship created in you. Amen.