Beware of the Hearing of the Word Only


Imagine, if you will, that you work for a company whose president found it necessary to travel out of the country and spend an extended period of time abroad. So he says to you and the other trusted employees, "Look, I'm going to leave. And while I'm gone, I want you to pay close attention to the business. You manage things while I'm away. I will write you regularly. When I do, I will instruct you in what you should do from now until I return from this trip." Everyone agrees. 

He leaves and stays gone for a couple of years. During that time he writes often, communicating his desires and concerns. He also sends a video of himself giving them direction and guidance every week. You and the other select employees gather in the conference room and view it, some listening carefully, others daydreaming, others falling asleep.


Finally he returns. He walks up to the front door of the company and immediately discovers everything is in a mess--weeds flourishing in the flower beds, windows broken across the front of the building, the gal at the front desk dozing, loud music roaring from several offices, two or three people engaged in horseplay in the back room. Instead of making a profit, the business has suffered a great loss. Without hesitation he calls everyone together and with a frown asks, "What happened? Didn't you get my letters?"

You say, "Oh, yeah, sure. We got all your letters. We've even bound them in a book. And some of us have memorized portions of them. In fact, we have 'letter study' every Sunday. You know, those were really great letters." I think the president would then ask, "But what did you do about my instructions?" And, no doubt the employees would respond, "Do? Well, nothing. But we read every one and we attended your videos."


This is a picture of church. Not the way the church is supposed to be, but the way it is.


Our Scripture reading this morning is James 1:19-25.


In verse 19 James writes, “Know this, my beloved brothers:” He is giving instruction, a command, to know something. And, he addresses the recipients of his letter as “beloved brothers.” They are “brothers” because they share a common father, God, and they have a common “elder brother,” the Lord Jesus. They are “beloved” because James loves them. They are lovely to him.


We ought to recognize that our fellow followers of Christ are brothers and sisters. Not merely in the sense of camaraderie, as members of a motorcycle club or a social club might call themselves brothers. We are brothers and sisters because we share a common life! The life we share is that of God Himself who has imparted something of Himself into us.


Like James, we must experience genuine love for one another – even with those who, in many ways, may be unlovely. We must love one another as Christ has loved us. That is quite a bit, isn’t it? But, it is not optional. It is commanded.


            A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

(John 13:34 ESV)


It will be the evidence that others see that illustrates the truth of what we say.


            By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

(v. 35)


Let us love one another as James did his readers.


According to James, what is it we are to know? “Be quick to hear.” Most of us are not quick to hear. We are quick to speak. We love to have our opinions made known. I am learning to listen more. It’s only taken me 61 years! And, I confess that I still do not listen enough!


What else? “Be slow to speak.” We all have the urge to speak, especially if we think we know more than the person to whom we are engaged in conversation, which is usually most of the time! James is telling us to resist this urge. Do not be so quick to say something.


“Be slow to anger.” When James commands his readers to be quick to hear, this implies that they are not. When he directs them to be slow to speak, it implies that they are not. The command to be slow to anger implies that they are not. And this is true of all of us, generally speaking: we are quick to get angry. Although some ethnic groups have a reputation for getting angry easily, it is really the condition of us all in our natural state. The natural man, the person not under the control of the spirit, gets easily offended and easily gets angered.


It may be our natural condition, but this does not mean that anger is not under our control. James tells us to be slow to anger. This means that it is something that we can control; otherwise his command would be useless. God is not in the habit of giving useless commands.


Verse 20: “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” When you get angry (unless it is a godly anger, which is rare) what is produced from that is unrighteousness. It results in thoughts and actions that are harmful to you and to others. Minimally, it diminishes the relationship with the person with whom you are angry.


Verse 21: “Therefore,” – in view of what I have just written – “put away all filthiness.” When you are angry with someone morally “dirty” thoughts may enter your mind. That is, thoughts to say something or do something that casts a bad light on that person. Those words or deeds may be directed at the person or to others about that person. Either way, in God’s eyes they are filthy. The old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone else, don’t say anything,” carries a great deal of wisdom.


If you let those thoughts or words run loose then they becomes rampant. They gather momentum and, like a truck going down a steep grade that loses its brakes, they can get out of control.


So, how can we put away this kind of filthiness? By receiving the word of God! We need the word of God! His word is available in more than one way. However, the two primary ways that we receive his word is either by hearing it from a faithful preacher or teacher, or by reading the Bible.


The way we are to receive it is with meekness. Once we recognize that it is, indeed, the word of God that we are hearing then we must receive it meekly, because God’s word is authoritative over our lives whether we hear it or whether we read it.


Now we come to the most important part of what James has to say. Everything up to this point no Christian has a problem with.


  • “Yes, pastor, we have to love one another.”
  • “Oh yes, we should be more willing to listen.”
  • “I admit I don’t need to talk as much as I do!”
  • “Uh-huh, anger is a problem in our house.”


But then James gives a warning that not only touches home, it not only will convict many of us, but it will be a challenge to put into practice. But we must!


And, it is a warning! He uses strong language in order to impress upon us the seriousness of it all.  In the very next verse after our reading, verse 26, he says that if we do not do what he prescribes then our faith is worthless! A very strong word!


He commands us. As an apostle of Christ he has that authority. He commands us: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only…”


We are like the employees of that company whose president had to leave. They heard his messages. They read his letters. But they did not act upon them. We hear messages every Sunday. If we attend Sunday School we get two. We read the letters of the prophets and apostles. But many are doing nothing but taking in information.


If that is us, then we are deceiving ourselves. How are we deceiving ourselves? We think that by just reading our Bibles and going to church we are OK. But, if we are not actually doing what the Lord has directed us to do through the spoken word and through the pages of the Bible, then we are self-deceived.


Let’s do a little test. I am not going to ask anyone to raise their hands. Just test yourself. Consider the spoken messages that have been given here in the last few weeks.


  • Giving. Have you given what God has directed you to give? That would be, at a minimum, ten percent of what you have received.
  • Resurrection. Have you experienced his resurrection power, personally, this past week?
  • The four circles. Have you shared the four circles with someone these past three weeks?
  • Solitude. Have you practiced it each week, at least once, for the past four weeks?


Are you a hearer of the word only? Or, are you a doer?


Now, it is one thing if what you hear is not in accordance with Holy Scripture. If that is the case, none of us are under any obligation to heed what is said. But, if what we hear is what is actually in the Bible, then we need to be doers and not merely hearers. I would go even further and say that if what you hear me preaching is not in accordance to what God has revealed, then lovingly bring this to my attention. I want to be corrected if I am wrong n what I am teaching. I would even say that if you cannot find what I am teaching in the Bible then meet at another church. You ought not to be attending a church where the Bible is not accurately taught and proclaimed.


But if what any preacher is preaching is found in God’s word then we must receive that word meekly and put it into practice. Not just let it go in one ear and out the other. Those are not my thoughts. Those are the words of the apostle!


Do you desire to be a doer of the word and not just a hearer? Then allow me to share some direction.


[I.] Perceive what the Lord is saying. This is the hearing part. We still must hear. Some Christians seldom read or study their Bibles and do not meet with the other saints every Sunday. They will be even worse off than the ones who James is describing because they are not even putting themselves in a position to hear. The first thing that we must do is hear what the Lord has to say. Sometimes the Lord will speak in unusual ways. He may give you a dream, for example. But those unusual ways are just that – not usual. The normative way the Lord speaks to you is through a man or woman of God who is intimately familiar with the Scriptures or through the Scriptures themselves. This is why it is important, even essential, to both be at church whenever the doors are open (and to participate in home fellowships) as well as to read and study our Bibles.


[II.] Believe what we have heard. It is not enough to merely hear. We must believe what we have heard. If we have perceived that what we have heard is truly from the Lord then we must receive it with meekness. We must trust it and embrace it.


An American scientist once visited the offices of the great Nobel-prize-winning physicist, Niels Bohr, in Copenhagen. He was amazed to find that over Bohr's desk was a horseshoe, securely mailed to the wall, with the open end up in the approved manner (so it would catch the good luck and not let it spill out). The American said with a nervous laugh, "Surely you don't believe the horseshoe will bring you good luck, do you, Professor Bohr?  After all, as a scientist -- " Bohr chuckled, "I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you good luck whether you believe in it or not." 


Niels Bohr just had the horseshoe on his wall as a precaution. He didn’t really believe it could bring him luck. He only had it because it just might. This is the way some Christians believe. They don’t really believe the Bible is true cover to cover.  But they will come to church and read it now and then because, they think, it just may be true. It’s their insurance policy. That kind of faith will not be effective to change your life.


You must know that what is Scripture is God-breathed. It contains the thoughts of God Himself and it reveals his life and will. Believe and live!


Receive it with meekness.


[III.] Achieve what you believe. This is the doing part. Yes, this is where we sometimes stumble. We can perceive that what we hear or read is the Lord’s word. We can truly believe it. We can even rejoice in what we are hearing (remember the parable of the sower?). But then we may fail to act upon what we have heard.


What makes the difference? Why do some do and some only hear?


[A.] The key is found in verse 21: Receive with meekness the word implanted. Why does James add the word “implanted” to his command? He could have only said, “Receive with meekness the word.” It almost seems as if that would be enough. Your heart is meek and you believe the word. Yet, he adds the word “implanted!”


“Implanted” signifies that there is a supernatural seed placed within our heart. God Himself writes his word in us! “As long as the law is preached by the external voice of man, and not inscribed by the finger and Spirit of God on the heart, it is but a dead letter, and as it were a lifeless thing.”[1]


When the word is implanted it is written by the Spirit upon our hearts. This is in accordance with the promise given in the OT concerning us – the recipients of the New Covenant.


            For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

(Jeremiah 31:33 ESV)


To receive the word implanted is to have it written on our hearts by God.  We ought to ask the Lord to do this with every Bible passage that we read and with every message that we hear. Ask, and you shall receive!


This is why, in verse 25, James can describe the law of God as “the law of liberty” whereas Paul can describe the same law as a prison (Galatians 3:23) and Peter describe it as something which is unbearable (Acts 15:10). The difference is whether God writes it on our heart. When God implants it, it brings freedom. When we merely hear it and try to adhere to it in our own power, it is a burden.


It must be implanted. I will say again: we ought to ask the Lord to do this with every Bible passage that we read and with every message that we hear. Ask, and you shall receive!


[B.] There remains one thing left for us to know. Verse 25 reads: “The one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres…”


When the word is implanted, the divine motivation is there to live it out. But it still has to be lived out! There will be bumps in the road. There will be detours. We find that we are not always in the spirit as we walk through this life.


Other things call to us: our jobs, our families, the culture. We live in an entertainment-saturated culture and most of us have grown up being exposed to entertainment frequently. These things call us away from our God-given duties.


We must persevere. We must make decisions that cohere with God’s calling on our life and we must deny our flesh.


The persevering, however, does not come by exercising our willpower. The apostle Paul addresses this problem in Romans chapters 7 and 8. In these chapters he describes two laws: the law of sin and death and “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” Let’s calls those the law of sin and the law of life for short. The unbeliever only has one law working for him: the law of sin. The believer has both laws working.


What is a law? A law is something that is observed to happen over and over again. It is a principle.


If I let go of this ball it will fall. If I let it go, it will fall every time. It will fall whether I’m in Winfield, St. Louis, New York, or London. It will fall anywhere on earth. It will fall because of the law of gravity.


The law of sin is like the law of gravity. It affects us no matter where we are on this earth. When we become a Christian the law of sin does not go away. But we have access to another law: the law of life.


If I let go of this ball it will begin to fall (catch it with the other hand), but something prevents it from hitting the floor – my hand. I can even cause the ball to raise up away from the floor. It is not that the law of gravity has been taken away, but that a greater power has taken precedence – the law of life.


So it is with perseverance. We do not persevere in our natural strength, by our human will. We persevere by the supernatural law of life.


This is simply the principle of implanting extended. It is the Spirit of life planting the word in our hearts and then also causing the growth – the doing, the achieving, that the word calls for.


We need only to rely upon the life that is within us and not upon ourselves.


What does James say? Verse 25:     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 we do, instead of merely hear, we will be blessed!


This, then, is the final step.  We:


  • Perceive God’s word
  • Believe it
  • Achieve it


[IV.] Receive the blessing! This is the easiest of the four steps because it has absolutely nothing to do with us. Once we do (by the law of the Spirit of life) what the Lord has spoken, then the blessings just come. There is nothing for us to do but receive them!


[V. Conclusion] How much like those employees of the company are we? Is all that we are accomplishing nothing more than hearing messages and reading letters? The apostle tells us that self-deception is a real danger. It is even moreso when we like what we hear, because liking something gives us a good feeling and that good feeling may make us think we’ve done right…just by listening.


“Lord, I’ve listened much but done little. May your mercy be extended to me. May you implant the word into my heart and may you bring about the doing of it by your life within me. Amen.”


[1] Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (p. 297). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.