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Monday, March 9, 2009

The Word that Works (James 1.18-27)

March 8, 2009
Sermon by: Jeremiah Caughran
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Ex nihilo. Do you know what that means? It's a Latin phrase that describes how God created the universe. It means “out of nothing.” God created out of nothing. How did He do this? By the power of His word. He spoke and it came to be. He said, “Let there be light,” and the light was. He spoke for six days and created this whole universe and all that is in it. That is the power of God's word. He speaks and it is done. He calls into being that which is not. His very word upholds all that is as it continues to work today. His word does more work than just upholding the universe. His word also works recreation. He takes what is broken and renews it by the power of His word. This word is so powerful that it is able to save our very souls as it works. How does God do this? How does this word work such a wonderful thing as salvation? James tells us three things about God’s word and how it is able to save our souls:

James begins in verse 18: Of His own will he brought us forth by the word of truth. This word of truth is God's POWERFUL WORD. Just as with creation, God spoke and it was, so it is with our salvation. God speaks His word of redemption. And that redemption is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This powerful word is of God’s own will; it flows out the exercise of His will. James says that God brings us forth by the power of His word. This is a picture of birth occurring. And so, James is saying that it is by God's will that we have been regenerated and renewed. This is our being born again, our spiritual rebirth. How is this done, though? It is by God's powerful word, just as with creation. This word of truth has its origin in God. It comes from God Himself. Though God uses a preacher to proclaim the word of truth, the word itself comes from God. This is a beautiful picture of salvation for us to dwell upon. My will has nothing to do with my salvation. Is this not freeing for us? We don't have to earn God's favor, we don't have to position ourselves to gain something from God. It is God Who does the work, as John tells us in the first chapter of his Gospel: “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” We are renewed and regenerated, brought forth and born again by God’s gracious will! And this is all through a firm foundation, something that cannot be moved and that never changes. It is something that we can go back to, God's very POWERFUL WORD.

What is the purpose of God's POWERFUL WORD working regeneration in us? James tells us “that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” God brings us forth that we might be totally His. The firstfruits were always the beginning of the harvest, the first and best that were given to God. They were sanctified and set apart for Him. These firstfruits were a representation of the rest of the harvest. Likewise, the believers that James is writing to were early believers who in this way represented the rest of God's work. They were the first to be set aside and were a promise that the rest would be made holy. This language that James is using is one of encouragement for these believers. They were but the first to believe, there will be many more after them. But this is also a picture of what God is doing to the rest of creation. Those who believe in Christ are the first to receive the renewal that will come upon all of creation. This is the promise of the new heavens and the new earth. All of creation is going to be renewed for we are the firstfruits of his creatures.

We have been drawn to God by the Holy Spirit through His word, the Gospel. This is a deep reminder that we do nothing for our salvation. We must now trust that God has accomplished all that needed to be done for us. We offer nothing to improve this working of God. We can only receive God’s gracious will toward us and rest in it.

James tells us even more though. He has told us, first of this POWERFUL WORD of God. What else does he say? James tells us of God’s POWERFUL WORK through His word.

He says “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” James is applying the truth of the regeneration that the word brings about. He wants his readers to be hearers of the word and be empowered to act according to that word that they hear. You see, it would be easy to hear what the word says, that all people are sinners and Christ died for sinners, and only focus on the word sinners. We hear that word “sinners” and we think of everyone else. We think “those sinners out there.” We become angry that they reject the Gospel and continue in sin. We condemn them, all the while neglecting that the word “sinner” applies to us equally. It reminds me of Jesus teaching about judging your brother with the plank in his eye while ignoring the log in your own. We easily point out planks, but are blind because we don’t fully hear the word. “All are sinners.” All of us are sinners. No matter how much human anger we have toward people who insist on living out their sin, we never quit being sinners ourselves! We need to be quick to hear what the word says to us first before we apply it to others. We don’t want to gloss over what the word says to us! We need to see that log that is in our eye before we point out the plank in another’s!

This anger of man that James speaks of is that sinful anger toward others. It will not, I dare say, it cannot produce the righteousness of God, that righteousness that He requires of us. This is why we need to be quick to hear, to understand what the word says about us, about you and me, so that that kind of anger won't come. This is because the word does a POWERFUL WORK in us. That regeneration that it produces allows us to hear the word and avoid quick words and quick anger toward others. This POWERFUL WORK is also seen in James' words that follow in verse 21: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness...” Seeing the need to hear what the word says to us and actually hearing it, it POWERFULLY WORKS in us the ability to put away our filthiness and wickedness. James is saying, “Get rid of that unneeded anger. It will only produce hate of other people and more sin against them.” However, don't think that filthiness and wickedness is only our blatant sins, those times when we disobey God and do something like lying about or stealing from or hatred toward another. This filthiness and wickedness includes all of our self-righteousness, those times when we do tell the truth or don't steal for the wrong reasons. Maybe we think, “I am better than that,” or “This proves I am better than that other person.” Or we think deep down that our works are the real assurance of our salvation, that I am staying saved by doing these works.

This self-righteousness is the kind of thing that James wants his readers to put away, because in that putting away, they can receive and take hold of the implanted word, which is able to save their souls. That is the fullness of the POWERFUL WORK of God's word in us. It is what saves our souls. When we cast down our unrighteous works, our self righteous actions and anger, we can receive the word more fully. It is already implanted in us by the Holy Spirit, but we need to always hear and take hold of it because it is what saves us! It is what the Spirit uses to work salvation in us continually. Not our works or deeds or our actions, but the word is what works salvation in us. We need it. We need to hear it. Receiving the implanted word lets us live that new life that God has given to us. The more we live with that implanted word, the more our faith and trust in Christ will grow and the more that faith will show up in our daily lives. This brings us back to James' point about the POWERFUL WORD. It is what saves our souls, so we must receive it with humility and meekness, for it is not our word, it is God's gracious word to us and it is able to save us.

James has told us about the POWERFUL WORD and its POWERFUL WORK in us. What does this lead to? It leads to a POWERFUL PROMISE.

James says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” James knows our hearts well. He knows the heart is deceitful and that it will convince us that all we need to do is hear. There is more to understand about God's word of truth. There is the doing of that word. Consider the illustration that James gives. He says: “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.” He compares this word he has been speaking about to a mirror in which a man looks at his face. James opens our eyes to how this word operates. It shows us what we really are. It reveals that we are really sinners. The man, the one who hears it and simply walks away from it, has rejected that he is a true sinner. Though he may agree briefly with what the word says and consider what it means, he ultimately doesn't dwell upon it or persevere in it, he has not truly listened to it! In his natural self, he refuses to really see what he is because he simply walks away and forgets it!

“But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets, but a does who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” Here James reveals to us just what this mirror is. It is the perfect law, that is, the Law of God, that law that Paul speaks of as “holy, righteous, and good.” Yet, Paul also speaks of it as a law that condemns and reveals sin, a law that actually drives our flesh to want to sin! But James calls it “the law of liberty.” How though, can this law that reflects all that a man is and all that he fails to do be also a law of liberty?? It can do this because this mirror also points us to something. It points us to the POWERFUL PROMISE. That POWERFUL PROMISE is that though I am a sinner, though I am helpless in my sin, Christ died to take that sin away. This mirror is a law of liberty because it tells me that I can't earn my way to God, it tells me that I cannot please Him. This mirror is a law of liberty because it drives me to repentance, by driving me to see how I utterly fail to live up to what God demands! It drives me to Christ because it shows me that Christ has done all that needed to be done. This mirror when dwelt upon becomes my way to liberty. Persevering and receiving what this mirror reveals to me will drive me to repentance and to faith in Christ. And in that perseverance, the POWERFUL PROMISE that God's word works is the being blessed in one's doing, being blessed in salvation.

So what does James want us to do? First, he wants us to be driven to repentance and faith in Christ. And then he wants us to act out this true religion of repentance and faith. He tells us that pure and undefiled religion, a religion that that sees God's POWERFUL WORD doing a POWERFUL WORK and producing a POWERFUL PROMISE, will be responsive. When we find that we are helpless before the power of sin save only God's intervention in our lives, creating faith and repentance through regeneration, we respond by helping the helpless, by coming to the aid of widows and orphans, by having compassion on those that are not shown compassion! It also means keeping oneself unstained by the world. One does this by not believing the world’s lie that we are not really sinners. How do we do this? We must receive with meekness the implanted word. When we hear God's word, we let it convict us and let that ugly image that we see in the mirror drive us to Christ. We must stand firm and trust Christ's death in our place. In doing this, we will be blessed in our doing, both of responding in faith and repentance and in helping the helpless.

God's word is powerful and it works powerfully in us and it gives us a powerful promise. This word that drives us to repentance and trust in Christ is more powerful than the word that God spoke at creation! Consider the word spoken by Moses in Deuteronomy 30:14. He tells the Israelites a word that sums up what James has given to us today. He says, “The word is very near to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” Trust now this word that works and gives us the promise of blessing be not only a hearer of it, but a doer who perseveres. Amen.

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