Scripture: James 1:17-27
Some of you saw this on Facebook, but Lisa and I moved my son Townshend into his dorm room at Georgia Tech last Saturday. Saying goodbye to him wasn’t quite as hard as our experience three years ago, dropping our daughter off at her college in central Florida for the first time. But she was going to be nine hours away!
But dropping Townshend off was still hard. I miss him! But we dropped him off last Saturday, and I’m happy to say that he had already made a reservation to visit a nearby church in Atlanta the next day—you have to make reservations to go to this church because of seating limitations due to Covid… Anyway, he liked the church a lot, and he made an appointment to have coffee with the associate pastor. So I’m excited for him. I’m eager for him to find a church home near Tech’s campus.
As most of you know, I’m a Georgia Tech alumnus and lifelong fan. Partly as a result of this—I’m sure—I feel extra anxious right now for Townshend to love the North Avenue Trade School as much as I love it. Of course, Townshend has always been the biggest Tech sports fan, but this is different. He’s a student now. I feel anxious for him put down roots, to find his place, to make friends, to find Christians with whom he can fellowship, to find extracurricular activities… to feel as if he belongs… to feel at home there.
I guess what I’m saying is, now that Townshend has gotten into Tech, I want Tech to get into him. Now that he’s become a part of Tech, I want Tech to become a part of him!
The apostle James, in today’s scripture, wants something similar to happen to the Christians to whom he’s writing: God has made them a part of his family through faith in Christ. God gave them new birth. God adopted them into his family. And God did this, according to verse 18, “by the word of truth”… which is God’s Word. And now that they’ve “gotten in” to God’s family through this word, James wants this word to get into them… and he wants God’s Word to grow within them.
And if that’s the apostle James’s hope for fellow Jewish Christians scattered around the Roman Empire in the first century, it ought to be my hope for the Methodist Christians living in Toccoa, Georgia, in the twenty-first century!
So that’s what this sermon is about: “How does God’s Word get into us? What happens when it doesn’t? And—most importantly—what happens when it does?”
To get us started, let’s notice the crucial relationship between verse 18 and verse 21. Verse 18 says, “Of his own will he”—God—“brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” James is writing, in other words, to people who are already Christians. And like I said, James says we become Christians by hearing and responding to the word, the word of God, the word of the gospel. He says that this word gets “implanted” in us Christians we are first born again.
But that’s something that has happened in the past… Why, therefore, does James tell us in verse 21 that, somehow, we still need to “receive [this word]” in the present?
It’s as if James were saying, “Receive this thing that has already been planted within you.” What does that mean?
I think it’s like this: When you’re a baby who’s just been born, you don’t take one deep breath and say, “I’m good… for the rest of my life. After all, I’ve got oxygen inside of me now! I don’t need anymore.” That’s silly. In fact, oxygen gives life to your body… And when your body has life, and everything is functioning properly, what does your body crave: more life… which means more oxygen.1
James is saying that, yes, God’s Word—like oxygen—gets inside of us, by the Holy Spirit, when we’re born again. We are able for the first time to breathe… that is, to receive the “oxygen” of God’s Word—to hear it, to believe it, to respond to it… and this Word gives us life, spiritually speaking… But that’s just the beginning… We crave more and more of this life, which we find in God’s Word. So we must receive God’s Word again and again.
So yes, by all means, we received the word when we were first born again, but we must continue to receive it so that we can continue to live and grow as Christians.
And what do you think happens if we stop receiving this “oxygen” of God’s Word?
That’s right: we die… spiritually speaking.
This represents what we Methodists call “backsliding.” I talked about the danger of backsliding two weeks ago when I preached on the last few verses of John chapter 6. I don’t want to repeat what I said then. You can find my sermon online. But for now, look again at verse 21: James says, “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Which is able to save our souls. Future tense. James implies that we will only be saved in the future if we continue to receive the “oxygen” of God’s Word in the present… or as he says in verse 21, to “receive with meekness the implanted word.”
So, for the sake of our souls, one important question each of us needs to answer is this: Are we continuing to listen to God speak to us through his Word? Does our life bear witness to our desire to hear God speak to us through his Word. The great 19th-century English preacher Charles Spurgeon warned his congregation with these memorable words: “There is dust enough on some of your Bibles to write ‘damnation’ with your fingers.”
That may be too strong… But suffice it to say, according to the apostle James, if we are healthy and growing disciples of Jesus Christ, God’s Word will be at center of our lives!
But how could it not be at the center of a Christian’s life when we consider what God’s Word, the Bible, represents for us…
Twenty-nine years ago next month, Lisa, my wife, was merely my girlfriend. She had only recently graduated from Auburn and gotten her first teaching job—as a high school chemistry teacher. She bought a car, moved out of her parents’ house—where she was living temporarily—and moved into an apartment, a place of her own. And her birthday was coming up in September… And so I thought of the perfect gift for her.
Not only that, it was also an expensive gift for me to purchase. I was still in college. I didn’t have a lot of money. So this was a big deal.
Are you ready to hear what I got her? I got Lisa… a brand new, state-of-the-art… vacuum cleaner. “Happy birthday, honey! Aren’t you glad that you’re going to marry me!”
I frankly can’t believe I did that now! How dumb! But in my defense, it really seemed like a generous, sensible, practical purchase at the time… I really thought she’d like it! And she pretended that she did, of course.
But my problem was, I didn’t know Lisa very well back then! I didn’t know at the time that, for her, birthday presents are not an opportunity to be “practical” and “sensible.” In fact, here’s a good rule of thumb: If you’re a young man who’s buying a gift for the young woman you love, and it’s a gift that you have to plug in… maybe that’s a sign that you shouldn’t buy this gift for your girlfriend, fiancée, or wife. No matter how expensive it may be!
Personally, I love gifts that you have to plug in, but I understand that women are different from me!
By the way, I don’t think Lisa has forgotten this gift that I gave her 29 years ago… Here’s why… We now have two Robo-Vacs that do all the vacuuming for us—you know, those vacuums that run automatically throughout the house and return to their base station when they’re done. We have one for upstairs and one for downstairs. The one downstairs is getting old and doesn’t work as well as it used to. And Lisa recently announced to the family—all five of us were there—“We probably need to replace Hazel”—we call the downstairs Robo-Vac “Hazel,” after the maid on that old TV show. And then, after telling us we needed to replace Hazel, Lisa immediately added, “But I don’t want to get a new one for my birthday! Tell Dad not to get me one for my birthday!”
Can you believe she thought I would get her a new vacuum for her birthday? Have I learned nothing over the past 30 years or so? She underestimates me!
So I immediately canceled my order from Amazon… And I promise I’m going to get her something else!
But my point is, I know better now what not to get Lisa because I know Lisa much, much better. I know what she wants, or at least the kinds of things she wants, and the kinds of things she doesn’t want… because I’ve had decades to get to know her better!
So what does it mean, therefore, that God has given us his Word, the Bible, as his primary means by which we get to know him? How do we know what God wants us to do for him apart from his word? How do we know what pleases God apart from his word? How do we discern God’s will from us apart from his word? Needless to say, we can’t do what James says to do in verse 22 and be “doers of the word” if we don’t first listen to what God is telling us to do in his Word!
And you may say, “Yes, but the world in which the biblical writers were writing was so different from our world. How do these ancient words apply to our lives today?” To which I say, “Read it for yourself and see!” As you do, you will see connections between what’s happening to God’s people in the ancient world and whatever is going on in your life right now. In 1 Corinthians chapter 10, Paul describes ancient Israel wandering in the wilderness, and how most of that first generation of Israelites who had left slavery in Egypt never arrived in the Promised Land. Then Paul writes, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.”2
In fact, elsewhere Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man [or woman] of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”3 When Paul said “all scripture,” he didn’t even have the New Testament as we have it today—he was still helping to write it! But “all scripture,” which meant the Old Testament—and for us now includes the New Testament—all scripture is profitable—useful… God uses it to equip us to do the work he wants us to do… And God uses it to change us.
Consider Jesus’ own words to his disciples in the Upper Room during the Last Supper:
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.4
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…5
So Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, takes these words of scripture, including Jesus’ words, and shows us how they relate to our everyday life. As a Christian, reading the Bible isn’t like reading any other book. Something supernatural is happening: God the Holy Spirit is speaking to you and me, personally, through these words.
And… through these words, the Holy Spirit is changing us, transforming us. We call this kind of change “sanctification.”
James himself talks about this sanctification in verses 23 to 25. James compares God’s Word to a mirror. And the Bible says there are two kinds of people: hearers of the word and doers of the of the word. The hearer of the word is like a man who glances at his face in a mirror and immediately forgets what he saw there—and James’s point is, he likely saw something about his face that he needed to fix or clean up but didn’t…
I’m thinking of this great New Orleans-style restaurant in Atlanta that I used to eat at in college and that Lisa and I enjoyed. It was called “Huey’s.” They served café-au-lait and beignets. Beignets are fried French doughnuts that come covered in powdered sugar. And you’d dip these beignets in chocolate sauce. And they are to this day nearly the best-tasting thing I’ve ever eaten. But there was a game that I used to play with my friends… after we ate all the beignets, somebody would inevitably take the empty tray and blow the powdered sugar on the person sitting on the other side of the table.
My point is, there’s no way you escaped from Huey’s without having powdered sugar on your face—I’m talking on your forehead, on your nose, in your hair, on your clothes. It could be embarrassing.
And in verses 23 and 24, James is asking us to imagine that that this “hearer of the word” is looking in the mirror—after having eaten, for example, beignets at Huey’s. He sees the powdered sugar all over his face and shirt and in his hair, and maybe he thinks, “I need to take care of that before I go out in public!” But when he turns away from the mirror he forgets immediately that he has a problem. He does nothing.
But by contrast, the doer of the word, in verse 25, is like the man who looks deeply into this mirror of God’s Word, sees those parts of himself that are a mess and need to be fixed or healed or cleaned up… and he submits to this word… He lets the Holy Spirit, working through the words of scripture, do the Spirit’s good work of sanctifying us!
See, if God’s Word is like a mirror, we don’t merely learn who God is—and I’ve already talked in this sermon about how necessary and important as that is—we also learn who we are…
And once we learn that, something really good happens as a result…
Look at verse 27. James writes, “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.” Do you see what James is describing here? On the one hand, he’s describing loving, Christ-like actions that we now do for others because we’re Christians… In his day that meant, among other things, taking care of orphans and widows—who were defenseless, and poor, and without any other means of survival. Today, we might even say that James is advocating for social justice ministry, right?
But don’t stop there… because, please notice, he also describes what happens inside of us: we are “doers of the word” also “keep ourselves unstained from the world”… That is, we become personally holy.
And it’s funny: In our divisive world today, we often split this verse apart… Some Christians emphasize the first part, other Christians emphasize the second. So-called “conservative” religion, for example, tends to emphasize personal holiness, personal conduct, personal righteousness… avoiding sin… avoiding being corrupted by this sinful world. Conservative religion places an emphasis on what’s in here, in the heart, while placing less emphasis on going out there and doing work for the poor and for victims of injustice.
I’ve told you before about neighbors down the street growing up who—although I love them as brothers and sisters in Christ—they went way too far in the direction of separating themselves from this world, keeping themselves “unstained” by this world. They couldn’t go to movies. They couldn’t listen to any music that had a drum beat—because drums were of the devil. They didn’t even own a TV.
In fact, the only thing that these two brothers wanted to do when they came to my house was park in front of the TV and watch The Dukes of Hazzard… which was, after all, a great show!
But my neighbors sort of represented one extreme that I’m talking about.
Meanwhile, so-called “liberal” or “progressive” religion says, “No, no, no… The emphasis of conservative religion is all wrong! What matters is not personal sin and repentance and personal holiness and keeping yourself “unpolluted” by this wicked world; what matters is, how we live on the outside… what we do in the world… what we do for others. “True religion” is about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work!
But notice in verse 27 James avoids tilting toward either pole: rather, he holds both personal holiness and Christ-like action in the world in perfect harmony. Through the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification, our outsides match our insides. As we submit to the mirror of God’s Word—and as we see who we truly are and allow the Holy Spirit to change us from within—it will inevitably affect how we live and what we do in the world.
Finally, let me encourage you with an experience I had last week—an experience of looking at myself in this mirror of God’s Word… I was reading pastor Dane Ortlund’s book Gentle and Lowly. In one chapter he was explaining the meaning of Jesus’ words from Matthew 11:28-30, the scripture from which the book takes its name:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Ortlund says that we Christians often project onto Jesus “our skewed instincts about how the world works.”6
He writes, “Human nature dictates that the wealthier a person, the more they tend to look down on the poor. The more beautiful a person, the more they are put off by the ugly. And without realizing what [we’re] doing, we quietly assume that [some]one so high and exalted”—as Jesus is—“has corresponding difficultly drawing near to the despicable and unclean.”
“Sure,” we think, “Jesus comes close to us, we agree—but he holds his nose.”
He goes on to write:
We naturally think of Jesus touching us the way a little boy reaches out to touch a slug for the first time—face screwed up, cautiously extending an arm, giving a yelp of disgust upon contact, and instantly withdrawing. 7
But if Jesus is telling the truth about his being “gentle and lowly in heart,” this cannot be the way Jesus touches us! Jesus doesn’t cringe at “reaching out and touching dirty sinners and numbed sufferers” like us, Ortlund writes. “Such embrace is precisely what he loves to do. He cannot bear to hold back.”8
Jesus cannot bear to hold back from reaching out and touching sinners like us. He loves to do that.
And while I was reading these Ortlund’s words last week, and reflecting on Jesus’ own words, I got a message from a dear friend and mentor, whose name is Paul, on social media—just a normal, everyday kind of message that he sends me occasionally… filled with nothing but encouragement and grace and love. So sweet! I wish I could put that these kinds of words in a bottle and open that bottle up whenever I’m feeling discouraged or depressed or lonely.
I was so touched by Paul’s love for me.
And as I was feeling these warm feelings from this man I consider a mentor, the following question flashed in my head—not in an audible voice but as a thought. But I knew where this question came from; I knew who was asking me the question… And the question was this… “Why do you think I love you less than that?”… Why do you think I love you less than our friend and brother Paul does?
“The same affection that Paul feels for you—which warms your heart and cheers you up and encourages you so much—don’t you know that I feel those same feelings for you, only infinitely more?”
“Haven’t I told you this before? Haven’t I shown you this before? When I reach for you, I’m not like that boy reaching to touch a slug for the first time… I want to be with you… I love you, and you won’t do anything to turn me away from you… Stop doubting and believe it.”
So how does this change my life? I told you that when we look in the mirror of God’s Word, the Holy Spirit changes us from within and leads us to loving, Christ-like actions. How does change things for me?
Well, suppose I haven’t gotten my act together, spiritually speaking, and I feel burdened with sin and doubt… and I’m a mess. I don’t go to Jesus immediately because I feel as if I have to fix my mess. And then I say, “Lord, by all means, I’ve messed up, but look what I’ve done to fix it?” But if Jesus is telling the truth when he invites those who “labor” and are “heavy laden” to come to him, why should I recoil from him? Why should I avoid him? Why should I feel afraid to approach him… in prayer? Indeed, when I mess up, I can go to him, knowing that he’s not going to reject me, he’s not going to judge me, he’s not going to knock me over the head with a 2×4… he’s going to embrace me and forgive me.
So this will have a positive impact on my prayer life…
What else? If Jesus embraces me without requiring me to clean up my act, why do I often feel morally superior to people who approach me? Why do I often feel angry and disappointed with people when they’ve messed up? Why do I often lose patience with fellow sinners like myself when Jesus doesn’t lose patience with me?
So looking in the mirror of God’s Word will help me love others more—especially those who are poor and suffering and in the midst of a deep crisis. I can find deeper wells of compassion for these people within me as I consider how compassionate Jesus is for me.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when we examine ourselves in the mirror of God’s Word. And you all have an opportunity to do that when Wednesday night Bible studies, for all ages, start back on September 8. In fact we’re going to have a Bible study based on this book, Gentle and Lowly. Please join us!
- I heard this analogy about breathing in John Piper’s sermon, “Receive with Meekness the Implanted Word,” desiringgod.org, 6 January 2008. Accessed 26 August 2021.
- 1 Corinthians 10:6 ESV
- 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV
- John 14:26 ESV
- John 16:12-13a ESV
- Dane C. Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 23.
- Ibid., 24.