Brothers and sisters, I invite you to turn in your Bibles with me to James 1 where we will have Scriptural reflection and meditation today from James 1:19-25.
This is a passage we are familiar with, a book many of us are familiar with, and words that come with a great deal of timeliness and relevance. I have entitled this sermon, “Playing with Dangerous Things.”
Being a minister of the gospel, indeed, is to play with dangerous things. We are charged with a great and mighty responsibility to preach the Word, to shepherd the flock, to probe souls, and to lead churches. We are to engage in these things–each and every one of which are weighty–and press in on eternity.
I was reminded anew of this reality this summer while away from the seminary. My wife and I were able to take our two oldest daughters on a junket to Europe. We had looked forward to this once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe with our daughters for several years. We had planned the trip to last a little over two weeks. We first traveled to London, and after a few days, we then traveled to Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Munich, and then Paris on the last stop before we came back home. It was a memorable trip. It was not restful, but memorable in so many different ways. We saw all of the different international sights. We ate a lot of great international food, like 5 Guys, Chipotle, and other places like that. My goal was to see the foreign sights, but eat the American food along the way.
Our first stop was in London. I have been there a few times over the years, and I always look forward to going. Some of it is the practical feasibility of navigating as an English speaking individual. Some of it is that I love the history as a confessed Anglophile, and it is just particularly delightful for me to be in London. We left there and wound up flying overnight due to the time change. We arrived Monday morning, and the plan was to push through and not take a nap. That evening we would go to bed and hopefully reset our bodies then. We were able to meet up with our European Study group and connect with them for a couple of outings and a meal. We were pushing through and quickly taking in the sights of London. Through a series of remarkable, unforeseen, and kind providences, we were able to enter Westminster Palace. We were able to go in to spend a time in the viewing galleries of the House of Lords. This was no small feat, and it was a particular joy for me to enter the House of Commons while it was in session. We got to sit in the gallery and watch the debate taking place. Over the years, I have loved watching Prime Ministers’ questions. Some of you know what I am talking about. There are some geeks in the room who have done it and enjoy it. It is fascinating to watch these volleys to and fro, and as I do, my mind races back to what must have been a delightful scene to watch Churchill and Lady Astor spar back and forth. They would have these great exchanges in the House of Commons and other places. Lady Astor would say things to Churchill like, “If you were my husband, I would poison your tea.” Churchill retorted, “If you were my wife, I would drink it.” They would have these exchanges back and forth. I also imagined that room in the hours of World War II when Churchill would give his great speeches. “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” “If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, this was their finest hour.” These great speeches riled a nation in the Western World to stand up to Hitler.
There I am, entering the house of commons, again, unplanned, but through remarkable and unforeseen circumstances we are in the gallery of the House of Commons. While taking it in, they are debating nothing less than Brexit. It was scintillating. I was geeking out; I could not believe I was there. It was an out-of-body experience. I was even sneaking my phone, which was strictly forbidden, to get some footage, and I looked over to contextualize the moment for my wife and children to make sure they were tracking with me, and that they understood the importance of what was taking place, and the three of them, ladies and gentlemen, were conked out, sleeping beside me. I nudged them, and then I felt empathy for them given our flight pattern and the fact that they had been up for so long. But I realized in that moment and was chastened in that moment, of how we gather weekly, regularly, with a far more august body, at the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We engage in a far more powerful and sacred task -the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. We engage in a task that is far more consequential -the shepherding and care for souls. Are we in danger of, at times, snoozing through such a grand assignment? Are we in danger at times of losing sight of how weighty our responsibility is? How precious our stewardship is to teach the Word of God, to shepherd students in New Testament and Old, in Theology and Church History, in Ethics and Philosophy, and all of the disciplines we teach. Are we, conversely, as students, consumers of an academic product? Have we lost sight of the grandeur that we have? Are we in danger of becoming familiar, of playing with dangerous things? It seems to me, as we look at this text, we are reminded of this danger in sharp, sharp ways. As James is writing, he tells us of this grand danger of being a hearer of the Word, but not a doer; of being a receiver of the Word, but not an appropriator; of being one who listens without applying, who takes in without digesting, who imports without acting it out in faithful response. We are playing with dangerous things every time we ascend the pulpit, every time we stand behind a lectern, every time we open a book across a coffee table and begin to talk through the text of Scripture. We confess no less, do we not? We believe this book is indeed the divine, inerrant, inspired Word of God. We do not sheepishly state that. We do not state that with our fingers crossed or kind of sort of confidence. No. We believe it as a people with full conviction, and we hold ourselves as a group to that level of accountability. So, we take the book, we teach it, we preach it, we speak it, and every time we do, something dangerous is taking place. Why? Because inasmuch as there is discontinuity in what we teach and what we live, there is danger. Inasmuch as there is discontinuity between what we hear and how we obey, there is danger.
Of course, this passage we read is preceded by verse 18. The great statement on the power of Scripture. “In the exercise of his will, He, God called us forth by the word of truth so that we would be a kind of first fruits among his creatures” -this is a reminder of the potency of Scripture. Indeed, all that experience the new birth, experience this. This happens by the working of the Spirit, by the preaching of the gospel, by the ministry of the Word of God in our lives, and by conviction working in our lives by the power of Scripture.
We see this presented to us here in verses 19-25, the need to receive, the need to obey, and the charge here relates in particular, of course, to those who hear. What about us? We have a lot of speakers in the room. We have preachers in the room, we have teachers in the room, we have those who are called and paid to open the book to speak it. There is an even more sobering warning is there not? There is a warning that ought to haunt us, and I suppose it does. It is found in chapter three, verse one: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such, we will incur an even stricter judgment.” Brothers and sisters, we are playing with dangerous things.
Now, we must confess, and even a token amount of self-awareness resonates with what I am about to say, to preach or to teach is to engage in a touch of hypocrisy every time we do it. Is it not? Have we ever preached a sermon on evangelism where we did not feel conviction of our lack thereof? Have we ever taught a lesson on prayer where we did not feel a touch of conviction of our lack thereof? Have we ever spoken about personal holiness where we did not feel a punch about our lack thereof? Yes, to preach and to teach faithfully is to engage in a touch of hypocrisy every time we do it. We are assuaged in that reality by understanding that ultimately the strength of our message is not in our personal accomplishment, but in the authority of Scripture itself. Yet, at the same time, we are called to be men and women of sanctification, of commitment, of faithfulness, of application. That the touch of hypocrisy must not become in full supply. We feel a touch of hypocrisy every time we preach or teach, and I suggest to you this morning, that first time we do not feel a touch of hypocrisy is our first step toward personal and ministerial ruin. If you feel a touch of hypocrisy every time you come to God’s Word, perhaps, that is a good sign. If you have grown accustomed to handling dangerous things without feeling the danger therein, that is a ruinous one.
Notice what we are presented with here. We are presented with a passage where we get this explanation on Scripture itself, on how we are to receive it and act upon it. So, my outline is simple this morning with two brief words of reflection and exhortation.
First is this: we must receive God’s Word with careful reflection. Now, when I say receive it, I am believing, assuming, and hoping for you and for me that when we teach and speak God’s word we are also in the discipline of hearing that which we are speaking. That we are also in the discipline of what comes out of our mouth does not come out without having first been washed through our hearts and lives. We must receive God’s Word with careful reflection.
Notice verse 19. Again, in the aftermath of verse 18, “in the exercise of his will he brought us forth by the Word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among his creatures. This you know, my beloved brethren, everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.” As our verses proceed here, this gets unpacked a touch more and there are these different words of instruction and exhortation about how to receive the Word of God. Any time we come to something like this where we get these innumerate, sequential set of exhortations of instructions about how to receive the Word of God, we must slow down and pay attention, “Quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God, therefore putting aside all filthiness, all the remains of wickedness, in humility, receive the Word implanted.” When we come to these different sequential exhortations, it is easy to cruise by and assume it is a pileup of words, but it is not. It is the Word of God. It is indeed true. Each one of these words is to be chewed on, they are to be held up and savored in full light with all of the dimensionality of it. We are taught here that we are to receive God’s Word with careful reflection.
Now, each one of these sub-exhortations here really merit a camping out on. To be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” To be quick to hear: eager to receive the Word of God. How I grow weary of hearing people say, “I wish I could hear from God.” Brothers and sisters, you have heard from God. How I grow weary of false teachers and false preachers on television, scandalizing the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ by promising direct revelation from them or to you based upon a generous contribution. Brothers and sister, God has spoken, and we are to be quick to receive it. This is not just a chapel plug, but that is one reason chapel is so important. For many of us, and many weeks I am in this list, the only time we will sit under the preaching of the Word of God is in chapel. Our ministry is one of speaking the Word of God in the classroom or speaking the Word of God on Sundays, but this is a time to be poured into. So, while we are normally the ones who are pressing it out and distributing the Word of God, chapel is a time for us to be poured into. Many of our students are pastoring and serving as student ministers. You are operating on the mission field locally, and you are in the ministry of pressing out, pressing out, pressing out. But, this is a time to be poured into. We are to be quick to hear.
Oh but the next phrase: is this not a needed word for our generation? “Slow to speak.” We live in a loquacious age. Everyone talks. Everyone opines. To live in the year 2018 is to be constantly assaulted with a barrage of words. This comes through mass-media, television, and social media where many, evidently do not have a un-tweeted thought. All of this comes at you, and at you, and at you. We live in a world where everyone talks, everyone distributes words. James says that we should be, “Slow to speak.” That is not just a general sense of, “We need to not be that chatty.” It comes to us here in the broader context of the Word of God and receiving the word of God. And the simple fact is, if we are all talking, talking, talking, opining, opining, opining, and giving public commentary after public commentary after public commentary, we are not in a position to hear, to receive.
As I was thinking of this sermon over the past couple of weeks, my mind raced to President Calvin Coolidge, America’s 22ndpresident. I have had a hobby over the past couple of years of reading presidential biographies and working through the lives of several different presidents. Calvin Coolidge is one of the most forgettable presidents, but also one of the most unique and peculiar. He was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1918, Vice President in 1920, and on August 2nd, 1923, he became President after Warren Harding died. His moniker was, “Silent Cow,” because the man simply did not speak. He was not a man of few words, he was a man, evidently, of no words. His goal was to shrink the role of the federal government and the role of the presidency itself, and he quickly earned the label, “Silent Cow.” When he went to Washington as Vice President, his successor as governor of Massachusetts was a man named Channing Cox. Cox came to Washington to meet with Calvin Coolidge and he said, “Mr. President, how do you get done everything you have to do?” He said,” I work until 10 p.m. every night, and I cannot seem to get on top of my responsibilities, but as president, you seem to have sufficient leisure time.” Coolidge said to him, “Channing, the trouble is you talk back.” He said, “What you need to do when you have guests in your office, is simply let them talk and if you say nare a word after three minutes they will stop.” He said, “If you say, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ it will reboot them for 20 minutes. Say nothing.” He asked Coolidge if he had a secret button to call in staff of the Secret Service to remove guests. Coolidge said, “Such a device is not needed. There is no one who visits me who does not know when it is time to leave.”
Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth said of Coolidge, “He seemed to have been weaned on a pickle. In meetings, he pursed his lips, folded his arms, and said literally nothing.” With his wife, there evidently was a little discontinuity between her chattiness and his lack thereof. She would be exasperated with Coolidge. One Sunday, Coolidge went to church without her, he came home and she said, “What did the minister preach on?” And Coolidge, in his usual self, simply said, “Sin.” Exasperated, she said, “Well, can you elaborate, and Coolidge simply said, “He was against it.” Coolidge was so quiet that around Washington it was the talk of the town. At dinner parties bets would be made over how much or how little he would say. On one occasion, the Washington Socialite, Dorothy Parker made a wager that throughout the course of the evening, she could get President Coolidge to say three or more words. The evening was coming to an end and Coolidge had said nothing. Ms. Parker was aghast and frustrated. She stood up as the crowd was about to adjourn and she announced to the whole group the wager that she had made. She said, “Mr. President, I made a wager that throughout the course of the night, I could get you to say three or more words. The evening has ended and you have not said a single word.” Coolidge peered at her, smiled, and said, “You lose.” A few years later he died. Dorothy Parker, in the same wit, said, “How can they tell?”
Coolidge, at the end of his life, would reflect, “The words of a president have enormous weight, and they ought not be used indiscriminately.” The words of a minister have enormous weight, and they ought not be used indiscriminately. They ought not be used too promiscuously either, because the more we are given to idle chatter, the less we are positioned in accordance with verse 19 to receive the Word of God.
Why? Verse 20, “For the anger of a man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” Notice verse 21 -“Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility, receive the word implanted, which is able to save your soul.” Now, reading that feels like salvation is contingent, does it not? It can sound like our justification is contingent. We get whiffs of that in other places, right? Paul told Timothy, “Guard your life and your doctrine. In so doing you ensure salvation for yourself and those who hear you.” We understand justification is a permanent reality. We understand and believe that we cannot lose our salvation, but our doctrine of assurance must never be used to erode the Scriptural warnings. It must never be used to hollow out the Scriptural warnings about persistent faithfulness and growing in our personal sanctification. Indeed, to live the Christian life is to be involved in a collision of interests. This collision of interests is typified in verse 21 -the word, the spirit, the ministry, the forces of light come at us in one way, and in the other way would be the things of darkness, filthiness, and the vestiges of wickedness that unfortunately remain. There is a collision there. And James says, “You engage this collision by humbling yourselves, receiving, digesting the Word implanted.” The picture here we get it the fact that spiritual growth and preaching and teaching the Word of God is deep work. It is not to be taken lightly or to be engaged in a shallow way. The roots of sin grow deep, and in time they reveal themselves in the fruits of sin. Coals that burn down deep ultimately cause smoke to rise out of the chimney. Springs that flow low beneath the surface over time bubble up and reveal themselves on the land.
Notice what we are told in verse 22: The tone here shifts from receiving the Word to acting on it, and our second charge here is to receive God’s Word with intentional obedience. Now, again, we have the flavor for the book, right? James is writing to Jewish believers who have been scattered. Chapter 2 verse 14 and following is this great section on faith and works and again, we understand James is combating, in particular, antinomianism. He is not fighting with Paul, as many Bible teachers have noted. Paul and James are, in a sense, standing back-to-back fighting two different enemies -James the Antinomians, those who would reject the Law and obedience, and Paul fighting the Judaizes and others who are corrupting the gospel by tacking on old Jewish expectations to it. So if this book is anything, it is a book of action, right? To read it is to go from topic to topic, from subject to subject, to act out the faith, to live out the faith, and to endure and persevere, to work to tame your tongue, etc. etc. etc. right?
So, we come to this next charge of how we are to receive the Word of obedience, understanding that Antinomianism was around then and it is still around now. Anyone who fundamentally compromises the message that we are to be busy about obeying the Word of God is engaging in Antinomianism. We obey understanding that it is not to earn our salvation, nor to keep our salvation, nor is it to gain or to keep a favorable standing in the sight of our Lord Jesus Christ. We pursue faithfulness as those who have been immersed in the goodness of God, those who have been lavished in the grace of God, those whose standing in Christ is certain and unshakable. What does James say? Verse 22: he says, “demonstrate, prove yourselves doers of the Word, not merely hearers,” now notice this phrase, “who delude themselves.”
Have you ever talked with someone and thought, “That guy is delusional.” He thinks he is accomplished in athletics or accomplished in some area, and it is like no one has had the courtesy to tell him actually he is not that good at all. You are thinking, “This guy really is delusional. He is self-deluded, he has a stunning lack of self-awareness.” And that is what we pick up here, but it is tragic because it touches on the spiritual realm. “Prove yourselves doers of the Word, not merely hearers who delude themselves.”
Self-awareness moment: What is a sign that you are living a life of spiritual self-delusion? The comfortability in hearing the Word of God with no intent or desire or conviction to live it. This comfortability is even more tragic James 3:1, there it is a comfortability of not only hearing the Word of God, but preaching it without an interest, desire, or pursuit of applying it.
Now, occasionally in pastoral ministry and a time or two as a seminary president, I’ll take to a church member, and they will say something like this, “Dr. Allen, Jason, Pastor, I am concerned I am not a Christian.” I will say, “Why?” And they will say, “Because I find myself wrestling with sin and wrestling with sin and struggling with sin, and I just cannot quite seem to get it together. I am afraid I am not a Christian because no matter how hard I fight, I just cannot quite get it together.” I will say, “God bless you, that is one of the surest signs I know of that reveals that you are actually a Christian.” The person who is not a Christian is not wrestling or convicted or frustrated because they are not living the Word of Christ. They are actually quite comfortable not living, not following, and not pursuing the Word of Christ. You see?
The one who is deluded can listen and cruise on, can hear and cruise on, can even preach and teach and cruise on. So what is it like? Verse 23: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.” The analogy is this: you can engage in accountability that is so temporary, so brief, and so momentary that it only lasts for a moment. You brush up against it and kind of sort of feel it and, like looking in a mirror and turning away, it is gone as quickly as it happened.
The faithful minister, the faithful Christian, the one who does not have to be alarmed and worried that he or she is the deluded one, is the one who is willing to reflect protractedly, thoroughly, and to seek intentionally to obey the Word.
Verse 25, “but the one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer, but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.”
The verses that follow here, 26 and 27, detail application about how we engage the poor and the orphan and so forth. The point for us brother and sisters, as we begin a new academic year and all the possibility it portends, is that we do not want to be, we are not to be, we must not be the type of people who would hear the Word without any intent to reflect and obey. Moreover, we dare not be, we must not be the type of people who can teach or preach without an intent to reflect and an intent to obey. Jesus says at the conclusion of the greatest sermon ever preached, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew and slammed against that house, and yet it did not fall for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the floods came, the winds blew and slammed against that house, and it fell and great was its fall.”
There is not a special caveat for those who are pursuing or who have obtained an M.Div degree. There is not a special caveat for those who are pursuing or who have obtained a Ph.D. There is not a special caveat for those who aspire or who are teachers of the Word. “When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one having authority and not as their scribes.” Brothers and sisters, we are playing with dangerous things. Let us be faithful and equal to the task.