As parents and children alike know, there is a world of difference between hearing and doing, as much of a difference as a clean room is from a messy one. In some instances, the command falls on “deaf ears,” while in other instances the hearing leads to obedience. James doesn’t hesitate to write about this same kind of phenomenon present in the life of the church.
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. 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. (James 2:22-25)
Beware of Self-Deception
It’s not uncommon for someone to hold false beliefs about themselves. For example, you may work arduously to convince yourself and others that you don’t have a drinking problem even while you simultaneously begin sneaking drinks in throughout the workday. The word of God warns about the craftiness of sinful human nature when it says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9; Eccl. 7:29).
This duplicity can rear its ugly head when you consider your own relationship to God and his Word. Are you studying it only to be able to show others how learned you are? Are you reading it without considering that it is addressing you, the reader? Will your forgetful hearing be the same as those to whom the Lord will say on the last day, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). The word is speaking to you not so that you can forget about it the very next moment, like those who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth,” but so that you can understand how you are to strive and exercise yourself in obedience to the Lord (2 Tim. 3:7; Luke 13:24; 1 Cor. 9:25-27). You may be able to fool others, you may be able to fool yourself, but you cannot fool the God who knows the thoughts and secrets of your heart (1 Kings 8:39; Ps. 44:21; Jer. 20:12).
The Word Given to Hear and Keep
Instead of a passive kind of hearing, James calls believers to connect hearing with doing, with concrete action. Later in the letter James reminds his audience that “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). This is not to say that you merit your acceptance with God through works of righteousness, but that true and living faith, authentic faith, expresses itself through obedience and action (Gal 5:6; Eph. 2:8-10; Titus 3:5). This is because the gospel is not just food for your intellect, not just a seasoning or adornment for your life. By the power of God, the gospel brings life to your understanding, your will, your emotions, your imagination, in other words, to the totality of your being (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23-24; Col. 3:10). The Bible assumes that all of who you are, body and soul, will respond to his grace through thankfulness, what Soren Kierkegaard calls “a striving born of gratitude.” In his good pleasure, the unchangeable God has “brought us forth by the word of truth,” making us new creations (James 1:18). The Spirit progressively transforms our whole person to be more like Jesus, a transformation which evidences itself through conformity to the “perfect law, the law of liberty” (Jm. 1:25; Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; 5:17; Jm. 1:18; 2:25). Steadfastness under trial, slowness to anger, impartiality, love of neighbor, and confession of the truth are some of the results of this hearing connected with doing (James 1:12; 1:19-20; 2:8; 3:17).
According to James, it is no contradiction for believers to, on the one hand, rest upon Christ alone for salvation while, on the other hand, exerting themselves in self-denial, submission to God, and heartfelt obedience—these actually sweetly co-exist with each other (James 4:7). In a similar way, James wants to remind you that hearing and doing, far from being distant strangers who never meet, are in fact siblings of a common household, siblings who share their lives together without a second thought.