As previously mentioned in part one, James is taking his readers toward pure and undefiled religion (1.27) in this section. To get there, he first deals with the word of God – Christians are to receive the word in their life. What does that look like? James’ concern for the body is once more manifested in his use of imperatives (“be doers”), the attachment of a blessing (v.25), and the exposition of what it means to receive “with meekness” the word of God.
Christians are to be hearers of the word, but our duty does not stop with hearing only – “be doers of the word.” This is tied directly to what Jesus taught during His ministry (cf. Matt 7.24-27; Luke 6.46-49). He taught his disciples to hear his word (Luke 8.8, 10-15, 18, 21) and also put it into practice (Luke 11.28). So here is James, half-brother of Jesus, continuing the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ as he exhorts his fellow countrymen and brothers in the faith toward not only hearing the word of God but also putting it into practice.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
23 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.
24 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.
The Injunction (v.22)
James saw it in his day. The Jewish Christians to whom he writes apparently had become lax in doing the word. Or worse yet, they had heard the word, believed it, but had put it to no practical use. They showed up at the synagogue to hear preachers reason with the Jews concerning Jesus as the Christ. They met Sundays with their brothers and sisters and heard bishops and evangelists proclaim the word. Their profession, though, had become an empty form. They were merely hearers only, adopting a downright antinomian worldview. By the end of the second chapter, James will have set this monstrous distortion aright.
So James puts pen to parchment and calls upon his brethren to remind them that the sum of Christian duty is more than hearing only. James is not against hearing; indeed, it is vital to a Christian. However, to be a hearer only is self-deceptive. These Christians have been convinced by false reasoning that hearing only is enough. They have reasoned falsely and been deceived. James sets this straight by explaining that action is necessary – “be doers.” This is an imperative command. Stop being self-deceived and believe the truth: hearing is good but it must be coupled with action. “Do what it says!” (NIV)
This is nearly identical to what Paul says in Romans 2.13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV). While Paul speaks to a different context concerning the Law of Moses, James makes a similar argument for the greater “law of liberty.” If this were true concerning the Law, much more is it true for those in Christ Jesus!
“Very many hearers of the gospel are not sufficiently upon their guard against the dreadful danger of being ‘hearers only’” (Pulpit Commentary 17). They sit in pews every Sunday. They hear sermons every week. Their talk may even be full of “church talk.” But ultimately their life is void of transformation from having put into practice the word. Thus, they dwell in a state of false, carnal security.
An Illustration (v.23-24)
James next uses a very simple yet profound metaphor to further make his point and wake up these slumbering saints. To illustrate someone who is a hearer only, he uses the image of a person looking into a mirror. While this person looks intently into the mirror at his face and sees its features. Perhaps there are some blemishes, flaws which need to be corrected. Perhaps there is dirt which needs to be cleaned off. Whatever the case may be, it is the careful investigation which is highlighted. Time was spent looking into the mirror to see what he looks like. But as soon as he goes away having looked at himself, he immediately forgets what he saw. Hence, any blemish goes uncorrected, any mar is not cleaned. In addition, the man forgets his entire appearance! What he is like is not remembered. The very face he was born with is forgotten. How absurd!
That’s what it is like when you hear the word only and do not do it. You look into the perfect law and see what you are to be like – you are to be like Christ. Any flaws or character defects are found out. Any moral filth is identified. Your overall character is derived from what you see when you look into the perfect law. But as soon as the hearing is over and the doing should begin, you turn away from the mirror and forget what you are to look like! You forget Christ! A Christian who forgets to look like Christ? How absurd!
The Incentive (v.25)
Here in verse 25 we find the beatitude of the persevering. We have been born of the perfect law of liberty (see v.18), the word of truth. This perfect law is a perfect gift from our perfect God. The one who looks into this law and continues in a state of activity (perseveres) with it; the one who is not a hearer characterized by forgetfulness, but rather is a doer characterized by putting this gospel into action; the one hearing the word and doing it will be blessed. Just as the one who is steadfast under temptations is congratulated, so too the one who is steadfast is doing and keeping the law of liberty is congratulated. In other words, God looks with favor upon those who are doers of the word. In the very doing of the word God there is blessing! Alford says, “The life of obedience is the element wherein the blessedness is found and consists.”
On persevering Matthew Henry puts it this way: “when we are not forgetful of it [God’s word], but practice it as our work and business, set it always before our eyes, and make it the constant rule of our conversation and behaviour (sic), and model the temper of our minds by it.” It should be noted that scholars are careful to distinguish between being blessed for the doing and being blessed in doing the word. As the Psalmist says, in keeping the Law of the Lord “there is great reward” (19.11). Adam Clarke on this passage cites the sayings of the Jewish Fathers: “There are four kinds of men who visit the synagogues, 1. He who enters but does not work; 2. He who works but does not enter. 3. He who enters and works. 4. He who neither enters nor works. The first two are indifferent characters; the third is the righteous man; the fourth is wholly evil.” Perhaps James has this Jewish saying in mind when he writes this passage calling his Christian brethren to the high calling of Christ.