In our pastoral exhortation some time ago, we focused on the importance of hearing God’s Word with a receptive heart. In his epistle, the apostle James highlighted a real danger that was prevalent in the church – the tendency of believers to be mere hearers of God’s Word: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (Jas 1: 22).
This verse teaches us that not everyone gives serious heed to the ministry of God’s Word. Those who hear may appear to be attentive during a sermon but not all receive the lessons with an obedient heart. Some of these hearers may even “receive the word with joy” but “when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word”, they are “offended” – that is, they fall away (Matt 13: 20-21).
o True religion
In Chapter 1: 21, James emphasises the importance of receiving “with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls”. God’s Word has the power to save and change lives. The “doers of the word” humbly receive the Word, and bring forth fruit to the glory of God. Instead of applying the sermon to others, these faithful hearers are vigilant in examining their own lives. They are open to godly instruction and correction. Their lives are transformed as they yield to the authority of God’s Word and submit to its teachings.
In verse 25, James shows that he who hears and obeys God’s Word will be richly blessed: “But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.”
Receptive hearers will respond by being “doers of the word”. The apostle gives three examples. One who practises what he hears from God’s Word will guard his speech. An unrestrained tongue reflects the emptiness of our profession: “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain” (v 26). Despite the claim of piety, our religion is vain or worthless if we fail to restrain our lips. The other two examples are found in verse 27:
“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” “Pure religion and undefiled” is the kind that changes our heart to bring forth fruit as it responds humbly to God’s Word. Our obedience will be manifested in our daily actions, which are illustrated here by our care for the needy and our separation from the world.
The other group of church-goers are the superficial hearers. These people hear the sermons but respond with indifference. Disregarding the warnings, they fail to apply God’s Word to their own lives. They continue to live carelessly with no change to their daily conduct.
In verses 23-24, James describes the indifferent hearer in a graphic way: “For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.” Such a one looks at his face in a mirror, but as soon as he walks away, he forgets what he looks like. He sees nothing in his appearance that needs correction. He chooses to forget the warnings to deal with his sins; he continues to live as though he has heard nothing.
To hear God’s Word without obeying leads to self-deception. James warns that such superficial hearers are “deceiving your own selves” because they are lulled into a false sense of security. They are deluded into thinking that as long as they are present to hear the sermons, all is well. But failure to act on God’s Word is tantamount to unbelief. We are no better than the non-believers if we fail to put Biblical truths into practice.
Of such hearers, Matthew Henry aptly observes: “If we were to hear a sermon every day of the week, and an angel from heaven were the preacher, yet, if we rested in bare hearing, it would never bring us to heaven.”
Brethren, let us be thankful for the preaching that we hear each week. But we need to ask ourselves: “What kind of hearer am I?” If we are “hearers only”, we are deluding ourselves and our faith is vain. Rather than applying the Word to others, let us resolve to apply God’s Word to our own lives.
The hearing of God’s Word must result in a transformed life. We must resolve to put into practice every sermon we hear. Let us strive to be faithful “doers of the word, and not hearers only” – lest we deceive ourselves. Amen.