By Pastor Glenn Pease
Can a Christian be non-biblical? Can he defend teachings and practices that are contrary to Scripture? Can he reject those who are taught in God's Word? The Bible itself and history answer, yes. Yes it is possible to be a Christian who is more in love with his own opinions than with the revelation of God. It is just this possibility that has been the cause of so much poor Christianity. Why has the Christian world so often been split by bitter controversy that has hindered the progress of the kingdom of God? It is because Christians, and not just superficial Christians, but born again Christians, who can ignore God's Word in favor of their own ideas.
We thank God for Martin Luther, for he gave the Bible back to the people in their own language, and without the mixture of many foolish traditions. But we see even in the life of a great man like this the danger of becoming non-biblical. He preached justification by faith as the central theme of his theology, and in so doing he was thoroughly biblical, but the Catholic opponents who argued with him kept quoting the book of James against him. They kept quoting, "Faith without works is dead." Rather than examining closely the teachings of Paul and James to see that they did not contradict each other, he was ready to throw the book of James into the river. He called it a right strawy epistle. He was ready to reject this part of God's Word when it seemed to conflict with what he thought it should say. We usually associate this kind of practice with liberalism, but only the blind can fail to see that fundamentalists and evangelicals are also guilty. It was a problem in the early church as well.
James is writing to born again Jewish Christians who are apparently caught up in religious controversy in which there is more heat than light. James has to call their attention several times to the dangers of a hasty and uninformed tongue that can cause so much trouble. James stresses the place of God's Word in their lives, and he urges them to make it the basis of all their attitudes and actions. The dangers of being controlled by our own pride and opinions are still with us today, and so we can all profit from this lesson of James on how to be a biblical believer. It is a very simple lesson to learn, but not as simple to practice, and according to James, if it is not practiced it really is not learned either. There are two basic requirements to being biblical.
I. WE MUST BE RECEPTIVE TO THE WORD. vv. 19-21.
Since it is by the word of truth that God brought us into the kingdom, it is by the Word that we are to be guided. It is not only the source of our salvation, but the source of our sanctification. The most important qualification for effective Christian growth is an eagerness and willingness to hear the Word of truth. In our day we should add, "Be swift to read." When James wrote people did not have access to the Word of God like we do today. Most of what they learned came through the hearing of the Word as it was read. That is why the Bible says very little about reading, but a great deal about hearing. Jesus in concluding the Sermon On The Mount said, "He who hears my words and does them is like the wise man who built his house on the rock."
The idea is that we must be receptive to the Word if we expect our lives to be guided by it. There is no greater mistake than thinking all is well when we have gotten someone to make a decision for Christ. God's goal is that men might be conformed to the image of His Son, and this is not accomplished by a decision. It is accomplished by a life of receptivity to the Word of God. You would think Christians would recognize this, and realize they can never know enough of God's Word. The greatest of biblical scholars are always students who are constantly learning more. No one has ever exhausted the teachings of God's Word, even though some find it hard to admit they don't have all the answers.
This seems to have been the problem with the Christians James wrote to. They were authorities from birth. They had the answers, and they knew how things ought to go, and they were eager to get on with things according to their expert advice. They were swift to speak and slow to hear, and, of course, with this attitude you immediately run into trouble, for experts of this nature seldom agree, and so soon there is controversy. Since both sides of the issue are more eager to defend their opinion of the matter than they are in searching the Word of God, the result is not just a friendly discussion, but an angry argument in which tempers explode, and the fires of hell are kindled within the very church of God.
We see then that James is dealing with a serious matter which could have saved the Christian church much heartache if they would have given heed to his teaching. A biblical believer is one who is more concerned about extending the kingdom of God and His righteousness than of defending his own pride. He is characterized by an attitude of meekness, which is every ready to receive more light from God's Word. Few things have caused so many problems as the unwillingness to hear God's voice on matters of controversy. If we could only be like Augustine who said in his controversy with a false cult of his day. His opponent cried out, "Hear me, hear me!" Augustine responded, "Neither let me hear thee, nor do thou hear me, but let us both hear the Apostle." That is an example of being swift to hear and slow to speak.
It is never right, wise, nor Christian to judge a matter without hearing the other side, and that is what James means by being slow to speak. Prov. 18:13 says, "He who answers before listening-that is his folly and his shame." Some people form an opinion and start tongue lashing a fellow Christian before they even his defense. We had a psychology professor in college who tried an experiment. A crippled girl on campus came to class late, and he began to scold her. She raised her hand to tell why she was late, but he would not let her speak. He just warned her and went on teaching. The class was clearly disturbed, and so to avoid any outburst it was arranged that one of the most likely men in class to cause trouble was to raise his hand as if he wanted to say something about this unjust treatment of the girl. The professor said, "Any discussion on the matter would be taken up after class." Before the class ended he announced that we were to write about our feelings of anger toward him. It was all arranged as a test. It revealed how angry we all got because he was not willing to hear her side. He was swift to speak and slow to hear, and it made us all mad.
There is such a thing as legitimate anger, for we are exhorted to be angry and sin not. The sin of anger comes because of lack of self-control. It can be right to be angry, but not to fly off the handle and add another evil to what you think is evil. If a man could learn to be quiet when he is angry, he would soon cool off for lack of fuel. Words become fuel for anger. As someone has said, "Hitting the ceiling is the wrong way to get up in the world." James is not saying we should not speak at all, but that we should be slow to speak. Take time to think and make sure you represent the will of God when you do speak.
Joseph Parker, the great English preacher said, "Let us keep ourselves out of those little fuming controversies in which bigots almost fizzle themselves to death, thinking that if they get angry the universe will be kept from tilting over." If we really are seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness we will not be characterized by a puffed up pride that speaks out on all matters with dogmatic authority. The biblical believer will be one with a spirit of meekness, and a spirit of receptivity that is open to all that the Bible has to say. The fact is, almost all heresies and cults tend to stress some aspect of biblical truth that has been neglected by orthodox Christianity, and it is wise to even listen to them to try and discover something biblical that we have ignored. In order to be a biblical believer we see a second point that James stresses.
II. WE MUST BE RESPONSIVE TO THE WORD. vv. 22-25.
There is a balance that is to characterize our beliefs. The Bible never leaves us stranded on an island of half truth. James has just emphasized how important it is to be receptive to the Word, but now he goes on to show that hearing is not an end in itself. We hear in order to heed. We must receive the Word to even begin, but then we must respond to obedience if we are going to claim to be biblical believers.
I can just imagine some who heard the first part of the message of James, who were people who never get involved in controversy, and who never get angry over any difference in doctrine, and they are congratulating themselves on being so much superior to other Christians. They are swift to hear and slow to speak, but then James goes on in verse 22 with a but. But wait a minute, you who have learned the first requirement. Don't break your arm patting yourself on the back until you hear the conclusion of the matter. Ignorance of the Word certainly does not work the righteousness of God, but knowledge that does nothing is just as useless, and so do not be deceived. Even if you do listen to the Word, and learn its truths, if they do not change your character and your conduct, you are better informed, but still non-biblical. There are two ways to be non-biblical. One is to be unknowing, and the other is to know and not be obedient to it.
The receptive hearer must be a responsive doer. If he is not, he may not be causing all the trouble that the quick tempered Christians causes, but he is deceiving himself, for he will get to thinking that knowledge is life, and that the more he knows, the better he will be. Most of us need to beware of this deception. We almost unconsciously feel that if we can get people to memorize so many verses, and so many facts, like how many books of the Bible, and who killed Able, and who built the Ark, and how many times did the cock crow when Peter denied Christ, that then they will be better Christians, but this is not necessarily so. It is not what we know of the Word, but what we obey that makes us better Christians.
This is the very thing that makes a growing Christian vulnerable. He is learning much truth from the Word, and he begins to feel superior and self-sufficient. He feels he is strong in the Lord because he knows so much of the Word. Then Satan lets loose with his fiery darts, and he discovers that he does not have on the whole armor of God, and he falls wounded in the battle against sin. If you ever wonder why it is that people who know so much of the Word can fall, it is because of the very thing that James warns against. They are deceived into thinking that hearing without doing is sufficient.
Strangely enough, this is even a danger for the non-Christian. I mean by this the non-Christian who is a professing Christian. There are many who hear the Gospel over and over, and they know it so well that they are convinced they must be Christians. I remember talking to a man who was so proud of the fact that he heard the great evangelist Billy Sunday. He never indicated that he received Christ as Savior, he just seemed to think that hearing him gave some kind of advantage before God. I do not doubt that there are many who listen to Billy Graham with the same deception. They think that just hearing the Gospel is good in itself, even if they do not respond to the Christ who is proclaimed. Hearing the Gospel no more makes a Christian than hearing the rules of baseball makes you a professional player. Hearing a recipe does not make you a cook. Faith comes by hearing, but what James is trying to make clear is that a faith that does nothing but hear is not real faith. Someone put it this way:
"The Word of God by faith received-Imparts regeneration,
And he who hath in Christ believed-Lives out a new creation,
But if we hear and do it not, -We hear for condemnation,
For doers of the Word, we are taught-Are heirs of Christ's salvation."
We all need to recognize that the Bible is to be lived, and not just learned. It is to be a guide to our daily conduct, and not just a text book of facts to cram into our cranium. A mechanic is one who does mechanical work. A carpenter is one who does carpentry. And electrician is one who does electrical work. The Christian is one who does the works of Christ, and carries out the will of Christ as he is taught in the Word. If he only hears and does not do, he is like a mechanic who never uses a wrench, or a carpenter who never uses a hammer, and an electrician who never uses wiring. He is, says James, like a man who looks into the mirror, sees that his face is dirty, and then goes off to work without washing.
James is showing us how ridiculous it is to think that mere hearing of the Word is enough. Nobody is so ignorant that they think just knowing about their dirty face will make any difference. They know that when they see the mess they are in, they have to act on the message of the mirror if it is to be of any value. There is no point in even looking to see your face if you do not act on the information it gives you. Looking in the mirror is receiving the message, but if you do not respond to the message and clean off the dirt it is of no value to have received it. So it is when you look into the Word of God, or hear it. If you do not do anything about what it reveals to you, it is as worthless for your soul as the mirror is for your face when no action is taken. Only those who respond to what the Word reveals can claim to be biblical believers.
In verse 25 James sums up the two requirements for being a truly biblical believer. Be receptive and be responsive. You start with a positive attitude and follow through with practical action. Maud Frazer Jackson captures the essence of what James is saying in her poem.
What if I say-
"The Bible is God's holy Word,
Complete, inspired, without a flaw"-
But let its pages stay
Unread from day to day,
And fail to learn therefrom God's law;
What if I go not there to seek,
The truth of which I glibly speak,
For guidance on this earthly way,-
Does it matter what I say?
What if I say-
That Jesus Christ is Lord divine,
Yet fellow-pilgrims can behold
Naught of the Master's love in me,
No grace of kindly sympathy?
If I am of the Shepherd's fold,
Then shall I know the Shepherd's voice
And gladly make His way my choice.
We are saved by faith, yet faith is one
With life, like daylight and the sun.
Unless they flower in our deeds,
Dead, empty husks are all the creeds.
To call Christ Lord, but strive not to obey,
Belies the homage that with words I pay.