James 1:22-25 interpretation
One of the most contested aspects of salvation is the exact role of works. Mormonism,
Catholicism--and in certain aspects, Arminianism--all put an undue importance on works in
regards to salvation. Mormonism applies access to levels of heavens based on your 'good works'. Catholics will have you recite prayers, perform flagellation, or even have you provide monetary contributions to pay for transgressions. Arminians like to believe that it is in their power to 'choose' to be one of Christ's chosen elect. My thesis can be best described with a metaphor: An apple growing from the branches of an apple tree do not in and of itself make the tree an apple tree, but rather provide sufficient evidence that the apple tree is indeed an apple tree. So too, do your works provide adequate evidence of your salvation, as opposed to being the cause of your salvation.
Step 1: Discover the original meaning
When taken in context with the preceding and proceeding verses, James 1:22-25 provides a tool with which to test a person's true allegiance. As Jesus has spoken “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”(Matthew 6:24, ESV) while this specific verse was speaking about love of God or money, the same can be applied to any person, place or thing besides Jesus Christ. Humans have the desire to elevate self, often wanting to win an argument or be “right” about something over wanting to be at peace with each other. Therefore, James requests that we “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger...” This goes against our natural inclinations as humans. There is certainly a time and place for righteous anger, but as James explains, the only being worthy of having anger is our Just and Holy God, and we all are worthy of His judgment and wrath.
So going on into the text, we see that a “hearer of the word” is like one who “looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like”. This is meant to indicate that if we look to ourselves and deceive ourselves by believing we have what it takes within us to do any good, there will be no blessings in our actions, for they are coming from the wrong place in our hearts. One must instead “look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts..” In the perfect law--another term used for the Torah--we can see that there are none who are good. Time and time
again, God's chosen people forsake their God and turn to false idols.
This constant repeating of the same behavior is what is alluded to when James speaks of the person looking intently at his natural face in a mirror, then forgetting what he was like as soon as he walks away. A view of our past, and even a view of ourselves, will not spark the same feeling in ourselves as an honest look into God's word. God's word is called 'the perfect law, the law of liberty' because it sets us free from the captivity of sin. So in light of this truth, only actions stemming from an honest view of ourselves through God's eyes will be blessed.
Step 2: Build a bridge between contexts
James' main audience were the Jewish Christians living in the Diaspora, as can be seen by the markedly Jewish flavor and frequent references to the Old Testament. A major pitfall for many Jews was the assumption that they would be or were saved solely by their heritage; being descendants of Abraham. James instructs us that we are justified by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. This faith is a gift given to us, so that no man may boast (in 'works' of 'choosing' to believe or have faith). The book of James is reconciled by asserting that works are a result of true faith; true faith is demonstrated by good works. James uses the Greek word dikaioō , which translates into “vindicating” to demonstrate the effects our good works done in Christ will have on us.
The original audience, much like us today, was being targeted and deemed foolish or even enemies of the common good. In light of this, our good works would prove to be vindicating to us on the Last Day when our Just and Righteous God comes for the final judgment. Our good works will show that we are united to Christ by our faith, and therefore share in his Goodness and Wisdom.
This can be directly applied to our current culture in America and overseas. There have been more Christians martyred in the past 20 years than in the whole history of Christianity, and here in America there has been a steady decline of God in any public setting; such as schools and government buildings. More and more we see America falling deeper and deeper into humanism, and desensitizing horrific behaviors such as abortion. Sexual impurity and recreational drug use are rampant throughout the nation, and many people are viewing Christians as “unintelligent” for refusing to believe in theories such as Evolution.
Here we can clearly see that being encouraged to be doers of the Word instead of just hearers of the Word is needed and completely applicable to our day to day lives. The theological principle found in these verses is to hold fast to God's word over any other thing, for in God's word we can find our freedom, our instructions for living, and our hope for the future.
Step 3: Apply the theological principle
With the rise of technology, there are now countless ways to distract ourselves from and
dilute the Word of God. At the end of a long day, exhausted from work and the countless day to day responsibilities, we are all faced with the question “What causes should I pursue?” Is entertainment our end goal? Should comfort be our desire? It is very easy to sit on the couch, with the remote in one hand and a smart phone in the other, and just slip away into a self-indulgent coma. Raunchy comedies, shows that glorify sex and violence, crude humor, snarky comments on social media, instant access to millions of pornographic images in the palm of your hands. Any and everything in the world begs for your attention over the calling of the Word.
So, instead of relying on what I think about me, or what the world thinks about me, I must remember that my sole purpose is to bring glory to God. I must have faith and remember His promises which can be found in His word. And in remembering those promises, I will be less likely to be just a 'hearer' of the word, but also a 'doer of the word'. A hearer of the word will listen to sermons on Sundays and watch raunchy shows every other day of the week. A hearer AND a doer of the word will listen to sermons on Sunday, and refuse to watch any immoral shows on television. Hearers and doers of the word will thirst for more of the word, and will listen to more sermons, or open up God's word and read it for themselves. For who gets to know the love of their life through second-hand stories of them? Nobody. Each of us seek to know our loved ones through interaction and day to day communication with them. Likewise, we must look into the perfect law, find our liberty in said law, and be so motivated by the realization of our freedom that we seek to glorify the author of our salvation: Jesus Christ.
So this begs the question; what should I do? The answer to this question is linked to the answer to the first question. We should be active in doing things which show we are pursuing a holy and righteous goal. Is it my desire to know God's word? Then I should be daily in my Bible readings. Is it my desire to raise God-fearing children? Then I should take the time to read the Bible with them daily, pray with them at each meal and when we wake up and before bed. I should correct them consistently when they display (inevitably) our natural human tendencies of sin. I should love them as I love myself, and demonstrate a Godly union by loving my wife gently and in a self-sacrificing way.
It has been said that our children's first ideas of what God is like will be found in how they see their own earthly father. So it is no wonder that the Bible states that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church.
In three short verses, we have been instructed to be doers of the word, and have been
given an explanation as to why being a doer of the word is so important. A major reason is
sureness of salvation. Our good works, in and of themselves, are as filthy rags before the eyes of God. But when our excitement and appreciation for all that God has done for us causes us to do good unto others, these actions are not only sanctioned, but deemed 'blessed' in God's eyes. In holding fast to God's word, we can avoid the pitfalls of our natural human desires; glory of man-kind, and we can instead bring glory to the only being worthy of all praise: Jesus Christ.
So we must hear God's word, hold fast to its promises, do our best to follow the instructions found in God's word, and have hope for our future. Our good deeds, which are mocked and laughed at by the world, will be at the root of our vindication on the Lord's coming day of final judgment. A true hearer and doer of the word will strive to bring God glory here on earth, thereby receiving crowns during our judgment to place at the feet of Jesus for the cause of bringing him glory for all eternity.
Bengel, Johann Albrecht, et al. Bengels New Testament Commentary. Kregel Publications, 1981.
Lipscomb, David, and J. W. Shepherd. A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles. Gospel Advocate Co., 1987.
Mclaren, Brian. Commentary Bible: King James Version, Worlds Visual Reference System, Black Dual Grained .. World Pub, 2006.
Sproul, R. C., and Keith A. Mathison. The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version, Containing the Old and New Testaments. Ligonier Ministries, 2008.