Listening to the Word (James 1:19–21)

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Jesus once said to a group of His disciples, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). The truth, stated poignantly by Jesus in that verse, is simply that the gospel liberates us. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Galatians 5:1). Or, to state it in James’ words, believers have been called to live according to “the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25). We are indeed recipients of the glorious promise that Jesus would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

But let us note that the freedom we have experienced in Christ is freedom from the bondage of sin. It is not freedom to live as we please. We have been freed from one master (sin) and brought into the service of another (Christ). Thus, says Alec Motyer, “true freedom is the opportunity and the ability to give expression to what we truly are.” (And what we truly are is servants of Christ.) P. T. Forsyth has stated it this way: “The first duty of every soul is not to find its freedom but its master.” And we who are the “firstfruits of his creatures” (v. 18) have done precisely that: We have found and submitted ourselves to our Master.

The evidence of this gospel-liberation is a new life, one lived under the control of another. Those who have been set free by the gospel obey God’s Word. Their lifestyle is one of acting upon God’s Word because of a confidence in His character. And, according to James, one manifestation of this obedience is self-control: in the realm of the tongue (chapters 1, 3), the desires (chapter 4), the disposition (chapter 3) and endurance (chapter 5). The key to this self-control is a life lived under the control of God’s Word.

In the text before us, James writes plainly of the need for believers to submit to God’s Word. He urges his readers to be both hearers and doers of God’s Word. As we examine these verses together, may we listen intently to the Word and be changed by it.

We Are Regenerated by the Word

James has just told us in v. 17 that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” The best of these good and perfect gifts is surely “the word of truth,” to which the apostle draws our attention in v. 18. “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”

“The word of truth” is a phrase used in the New Testament to speak of the gospel. Paul used it in Ephesians 1:13 where he defined it as “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation,” and again in 1 Timothy 2:15 where the “word of truth” must be rightly divided. It is when the Holy Spirit implants the word of God into our lives that we are regenerated.

Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently: Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.

(1 Peter 1:22–25)

When we experience the new birth, it is by the Holy Spirit, through His Word.

We Are Reoriented by the Word

The result of the regeneration described above is set forth in vv. 19–27. Verse 18 establishes the context in which the reality of the following verses is lived out. The experience of the new birth leads to the expression of a new life. And, as with regeneration, the new life is Word-based. In short, we can conclude that the proof that you have been regenerated by the Word of God is that your life is reoriented according to the Word of God. As Jesus said, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8:31).

Verses 19–27 give several practical results of this reorientation. We do not have the space to consider all of them in this study, but we will at least begin now and take several studies in the future to detail the remaining issues.

The Restraining Power of God’s Word

In v. 19 we learn that, upon experiencing regeneration, we are brought under the restraining power of God’s Word. In other words, we are reoriented, by the power of God’s Word, to exercise self-control. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (v. 19).

The word “wherefore” at the beginning of this verse helps establish the context. It is as we experience v. 18 that we are empowered to do v. 19. “Every man” who has been regenerated by the power of God’s Word is brought under the restraining power of God’s Word. This restraining power has three results.

Ready to Listen

First, those who are regenerated are restrained so as to be ready to listen. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear.”

Let us note from the outset that this command goes out to “every man.” There are no exceptions. All who have been regenerated can change. The word “swift” means “to make haste” or “to be speedy.” Specifically, “every man” is to make haste to “hear.” And, in the context, he is to be swift to hear God’s Word (v. 18; cf. vv. 21–23).

The new life is expressed by silence. We approach life as learners, not teachers. When God speaks, we respond with Jacob, “Here am I” (Genesis 46:2). With Samuel, the believer says, “Speak, LORD; for thy servant heareth” (1 Samuel 3:9). A wonderful illustration of this attitude is presented in the story of Cornelius, who was told in a vision to send for Peter, who would preach the gospel to him and his household. When Peter arrived, Cornelius said, “Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God” (Acts 10:33).

Is it not true that, in times of trial (vv. 2–18), we are often tempted to talk too much? When we are suffering we are tempted to complain and to question God’s providence. Job was a godly man who suffered much. There is much to commend him in his story, but it is also evident that he spoke too much. When the Lord finally broke the silence and spoke to him, Job admitted his tendency to speak too soon: “Then Job answered the LORD, and said, Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. Once have I spoken; but I will not answer: yea, twice; but I will proceed no further” (Job 40:3–5).

Solomon stated the matter quite plainly: “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin [i.e. sin is not absent]: but he that refraineth his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:18). Our new disposition—the disposition of hearing before speaking—goes a long way to indicating that we have new life. Believers have an attentive spirit to God’s Word.

Practically, this means that we will listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit of God who convicts us of sin and points us to Christ, and we must listen and obey as He does so. We must further hear the Word as it is counselled. When we are offered counsel from God’s Word we must hear and obey it rather than speaking against it. Furthermore, there is the need to hear the Word of God as it is preached. This, of course, requires our presence at the corporate worship services of the church, but more so, it requires obedience to the Word as it is expounded from the pulpit. Regardless of the particular forum, when the truth of God’s Word is proclaimed believers have the responsibility to hear and obey.

Reticent to Speak

As we are ready to listen to God’s Word, we must also be reticent to speak. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be … slow to speak” (v. 19). Centuries earlier, Solomon had said much the same thing: “He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit. Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27–28).

The word “slow” means “to be dull,” “to delay” or “to be hesitant.” Acts 27:7 uses the word to speak of a ship sailing slowly. The simple application here is that we ought not to interrupt God’s Word. This is why effective preaching has always been in the form of monologue. Until we have listened to God’s Word, we must be careful that we do not speak too much. We are not to argue against God, or debate with His Word. We must be quick to hear, but slow to speak.

The rabbis observed somewhat humorously that we have two ears and only one mouth, and that we should therefore listen twice as much as we speak. Someone else quipped that God has enclosed the tongue behind a double row of teeth and lips, and we ought therefore to be careful of letting the tongue out too loosely. James states it far simpler: “Let every man be … slow to speak.”

Reluctant to Be Angry

The third area of restraint that James mentions is anger: “Let every man be … slow to wrath.” It is a fair question to wonder why he brings in anger at this point. Undoubtedly an angry spirit is rarely an attentive one, but how does the concept of anger play into what he has just written? I can think of at least three ways in which anger might relate to James’ thinking.

First, anger is often our response in trials. You will remember that this opening chapter of James has much to say to the issue of trials, and the proper response of believers to their trials. Sadly, we do not always respond in our trials the way that we ought to, and James is well aware of the tendency of believers to be angered when they suffer. Sometimes we are tempted to be angry at those who are God’s instruments in the trial; at other times we may (God forbid) be tempted to be angry at God Himself. But James does not allow for an angry response: He tells us that we must be “slow to wrath.”

Second, the tendency to speak is often accompanied by the tendency to spew. That is, our anger often bursts forth from our mouths. Solomon warns us against anger: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Proverbs 16:32). Again, “He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls” (Proverbs 25:28).

James will return to the issue of anger in the opening verses of chapter 4, but let us realise a simple truth at this point: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). The temptation to verbal outbursts of anger cannot be underestimated.

Third, we should recognise that anger is a problem in the church. It is natural for an apostle writing to local churches to warn against a sin that is often found in churches. Paul instructed the Colossians to deal with their anger (3:8) and wrote to Timothy, “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” (1 Timothy 2:8). And in his instruction to the Ephesians he wrote, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26–27).

We must listen to God’s Word before we let loose. When we feel anger welling up inside us, let us be quiet and listen. God’s Word can deliver us from anger, and the new birth gives us the ability to overcome this most common of sins. The Holy Spirit produces self-control in our lives; therefore let us be “slow to wrath.”

Of course, we often object that our anger is in fact righteous indignation. We are quick to point out that anger is not always sinful, and this is quite true. (Jesus Christ, after all, got angry when he drove the merchants from the temple.) But if we are honest we will admit that our anger is very rarely like Christ’s. Far more often than not, our anger stems from wounded pride. We must be honest regarding the nature of our anger, stop to hear God’s Word, and then avoid engaging in sinful wrath.

The Resulting Product of God’s Word

If we are obedient to the injunction of v. 19 (i.e. swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath) the result will be “the righteousness of God” produced in our lives (v. 20). The word “worketh” in v. 20 means “to accomplish” or “to bring about.” The phrase “the righteousness of God” can be interpreted in two possible ways: either as the righteousness which God requires, or as the righteous character of God. A good case can be made for a dual interpretation. That is, God’s Word produces in His people both the righteousness which God requires as well as the righteous characteristics of God. These are in fact two sides of the same coin.

Let us note, importantly, that “the righteousness of God” is produced in the lives of those who have been born again (“begat”) by the Spirit of God. This is the product of God’s Word in the lives of believers.

“The righteousness of God” as spoken of here can fairly be summarised by the word obedience. The simple fact of the matter is that hearing God’s Word (rather than speaking angrily against it) produces obedience in us; ungodly anger, on the other hand, works against obedience.

If we will grow in godliness, we must exercise self-control fuelled by God’s Word. Peter speaks in his second epistle of the “exceeding great and precious promises” given to us in Christ, and then adds this injunction:

And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(2 Peter 1:4–8)

The contrast drawn by the apostle Paul between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit is stark (Galatians 5:16–23), and one thing that stands out in this contrast is the fact that the works of the flesh are all unrestrained. Self-control is the overriding quality lacking in the works of the flesh, but it is specifically mentioned as one aspect of the fruit of the Spirit.

The gospel reorients us as to who is in control. At one time we were in control of our lives and we would not hand that control to anyone else. But believers are willing to submit to God and His Word, to be controlled by the Spirit. The new birth is expressed in a new life, and this is energised by a new desire: to submit to and please God, who has provided His righteousness.

The Receptive Planting of God’s Word

As James moves on he adds another injunction, which sounds somewhat strange in King James language: “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls” (v. 21). The Word of God was implanted in us at the new birth; if we truly listen to it then we will receive it, which will result in action on our part. James highlights three proper responses to God’s Word.

Heartfelt Repentance

First, we must “lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness.” The phrase “lay apart” means “to put off” or “to put away.” The same word is used in Acts 7:58 where, at the stoning of Stephen, his clothes were “laid down” at Saul’s feet, and Paul uses it to describe the put on / put off dynamic required of believers (Ephesians 4:22–24).

The word “filthiness” speaks most often in the New Testament of moral uncleanness. James will use it later to describe a “vile garment” (2:2), and Peter will use it to speak of “the filth of the flesh” in 1 Peter 3:21. The root word for “filthiness” was used to describe wax in the ear. Thus, James is exhorting us to not be deaf to God’s Word. “Lay aside deafness,” he says.

The phrase “superfluity of naughtiness” may bring to mind a disruptive school child, but the Greek is stronger than the “naughtiness” that we often think of. The term speaks of “abundant badness/wickedness.” In the immediate context, these terms (“filthiness” and “superfluity of naughtiness”) describe rash speaking, stopped ears and sinful anger. These things are morally abhorrent to God. We must put off that which deafens us to God’s Word. We must recognise it, regret it and remove it.

Humble Reception

As we “lay apart” certain things, so we must “receive with meekness the engrafted word.” “Meekness” speaks of “gentleness” or “agreeableness.” Contextually, it describes self-subduing gentleness. Such meekness is a Christlike quality (2 Corinthians 10:1).

The word “receive” means “to accept and approve.” Calvin exhorts us from this verse to “accept God’s voice with a mind disposed to learn.” In essence, this verse exhorts us to pray with the psalmist, “Show me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths. Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day” (Psalm 25:4–5).

Happy Result

The receptiveness required by this verse has a happy result: “which is able to save your souls.” Self-control, asserts James, leads to the salvation of your soul. God’s Word saves us wholly. Is this not the truth with which Paul encouraged Timothy?

But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

(2 Timothy 3:14–17)

Those who listen to “the word of truth” really live. They are blessed; happy holiness is the result in their lives. The author of Psalm 119 was a blessed man because he loved God’s Word, and those who love God’s Word and submit to it will experience the same blessedness today.

May we exercise the self-control to listen to God’s Word. And may God’s indwelling Word enable us to do so knowing that, indeed, Jesus will save us from our sins.