It is the distinction between faith and works, and their relation to a sinner’s justification, which of course cornerstones Protestantism, by which we would mean biblical Christianity. And so the letter of James can feel a bit squirrel to us. Few preach it. Even fewer perhaps preach it well. Protestants wrestle with those stunningly direct words in James 2 about works making justification complete.
I have had an uneasy relationship with the way application is typically communicated in evangelical preaching ever since the days I was drowning in depression and suicidal thoughts in the midst of the wreckage of my life and I had a notebook full of helpful steps and action points from years of Sunday sermons that when they mattered most helped the least.
So there’s that.
And out of the angst of the attractional church model and its heavy emphasis on “making the Bible relevant” and its promotion of a pragmatic Christianity, some in the “gospel-centered movement” have sometimes veered too much the other way, forgetting that to be gospel-centered does not mean to be law-avoiding. We are a people of polarization – we are on the pendulum swing. To avoid the attractional church’s cool legalism we end up unwittingly embracing a soft antinomianism.
It’s a bit like Martin Luther’s little parable about the drunken man on the horse, who, in order to avoid falling off one side, falls off the other. So that’s American evangelicalism: a drunken horseman.
The Scriptures commend the better way. A person made in the image of God born again into the image of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, bought and maintained by the gospel of grace and set free from the law of obedience and yet at the same time to the law of obedience in order to work and will according to God’s good pleasure.
Our Lord’s brother James gives us portraits of the gospel-centered Christian in his epistle. Like this one, for instance, in James 1:
My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like someone looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of person he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer who works—this person will be blessed in what he does.
If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, his religion is useless and he deceives himself. Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
— James 1:19-27
It is the distinction between faith and works, and their relation to a sinner’s justification, which of course cornerstones Protestantism, by which we would mean biblical Christianity. And so the letter of James can feel a bit squirrel to us. Few preach it. Even fewer perhaps preach it well. Protestants wrestle with those stunningly direct words in James 2 about works making justification complete. Those of us who take gospel-centrality rather seriously, may feel keenly what Martin Luther meant when he called James’ letter “a right strawy epistle.” That was early in his ministry, and throughout his ministry he sometimes made negative remarks about the book, claiming that there was nothing of the gospel in it.
I don’t think that’s true, as I hope to show you shortly, but in any event, I think it may be helpful to read the book of James like it is the wisdom literature of the New Testament. Like Proverbs, for instance, James show us what the embodiment of gospel wisdom looks like, what a Spirit-driven followship of Jesus consists of.
In short, James’ appeal to works throughout the book is not a legalistic claim that justification is by works but that justification is authenticated by them – this is what I take him to mean by his use of the word “complete” in James 2.
And it’s a well-worn dictum now to understand the composite of the New Testament as teaching that we are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone. “Faith without works,” as James says, “is dead.” Indeed it’s not really faith.
And here in chapter 1 he lays the foundation for the working dynamic in the rest of his book. His primary contrast in this passage is between the one who merely hears the word of God and the one who “does” it – a contrast between the hearer only and the doer.
v.22 But be doers of the word and not hearers only
How does one move from hearer to doer?
This is the question of biblical application. How do we “do application” in a way that is faithful to the Scriptures and representative of the biblical picture of obedience?
In other words, if we’re going to apply the word of God – in our preaching and teaching, and in our lives – what must we understand? At least three things:
1. Faithful application begins on the inside.
Notice that James’ initial focus isn’t purely behavioral. He’s referencing the doer’s character.
(v.19) My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger
These are behavioral traits, of course, but they have much more to do with the manifestation of a disposition than they do with practical application. He does go there, but not yet. He starts with what is on the inside. “An unwillingness to listen, a rashness to speak, a quickness to anger” – these come from (v.20) an internal anger opposed to the righteousness of God.
These qualities of character are in direct opposition also to the fruit of the Spirit, which includes things like gentleness, kindness, peace, patience, and self-control. I find it amazing how increasingly common it is today to see online and in our churches people claiming to defend the gospel who routinely demonstrate no character in step with that same gospel. Their ministry is all externals.
Faithful application, however, begins on the inside. With what? With, v. 21, the implanted word (received humbly).
In fact, “the word” is referenced 4 times in these verses: v.21, v.22, v.23, and v.25. The external that makes the biggest difference is the external word of God. The word from on high. The special revelation of the Scriptures breathed out by God and able to make us wise.
And so Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13, the salvation that we are to work out with fear and trembling has been worked in us by God. We work out what God has put in.
James here refers to the word of God like a seed planted in us that germinates. It’s referential to Jesus’ words about good trees bearing good fruit.
Faithful application begins with the spiritual nourishment of the word from outside put into us, not with good ideas generated on the inside that we work outwards. The heart must be right, or the works will be worthless.
By the way, this means for those of you who preach, if your weekly time with the Scriptures is purely for utilitarian use in your sermon, and not at the same time for personal nourishment in the Spirit, you are not a faithful doer of the word. We have enough preachers who use the word. What we need are preachers who believe it – who feed on it, who dwell in it, who ingest it. As Charles Spurgeon said:
Oh, that you and I might get into the very heart of the Word of God, and get that Word into ourselves! As I have seen the silkworm eat into the leaf, and consume it, so ought we to do with the Word of the Lord—not crawl over its surface, but eat right into it till we have taken it into our inmost parts. It is idle merely to let the eye glance over the words, or to recollect the poetical expressions, or the historic facts; but it is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in Scriptural language, and your very style is fashioned upon Scripture models, and, what is better still, your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord.