Pastor Craig Carter
It’s sometimes said, “You are what you eat” (so don’t become a cinnamon roll!). That’s true to a degree, but it’s more correct to say, “You are what you do.”
It’s not an oversimplification to suggest that if you help, you’re a helper or that if you encourage, you’re an encourager. On the other hand, if you complain, you’re a complainer and if you lie, you are a liar.
You are what you do so if you do good things, you’re a good person. But if you do bad things, well … you get the picture, right?
This idea certainly didn’t originate with me. It’s been around for centuries, at least from the time of Christ, because it was Jesus who made this claim: “A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit … Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.” (Matthew 7:17, 20 NLT)
In other words, you are what you do.
This statement came toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount. In that great message Jesus laid out what it means to live as one of God’s people. Time and time again the Lord pointed out it isn’t enough to know the right thing to do … a godly person actually does it.
It’s why Jesus ended His message by saying, “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock…But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand.” (Matthew 7:24, 26 NLT)
From Jesus’ words we can conclude that Christianity is not just a philosophy or religion, it is a lifestyle. That means our faith is not simply something we believe in, it is something we do.
If that’s the case, how do we live in a manner that is consistent with our Christian faith?
The Bible doesn’t leave that question unanswered or subject to conjecture. Instead, there is a small book neatly tucked away in the New Testament that serves as a practical “how to” guide for Christian living. It is the Letter of James.
In many ways, it is a companion document to the Sermon on the Mount. Some have even suggested it serves as a commentary that explains Jesus’ teaching as it touches on many of the themes addressed in Matthew chapters 5-7.
As I assess the state of the church today, it seems to me that we (speaking about preachers) are pretty good at telling folks what they should be doing (i.e. lots of “oughts” and “shoulds”). But we’re not nearly as proficient at telling folks how they should be doing it. We offer little practical advice that works in the world in which we live.
To correct that deficiency, we’re going to spend some time this Fall looking at James. It will help us learn “how to live” so we can put our beliefs into action.
But it will also help us become who we are meant to be. Last week I mentioned that God has a lofty ambition for each of us – to become like Christ. And if we want to be like Christ, we have to act like Christ because we are what we do.
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at some background information on the Letter of James. Let’s begin by identifying what we can about the author. In the opening verse he identifies himself by simply saying, “This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (James 1:1a NLT)
Who was this James fellow? There are several possibilities. He could have been one of the disciples named James – either James, son of Zebedee (John’s brother) or James, son of Alphaeus. But neither of these two persons played a very prominent role in the New Testament so most persons, including me, believe it was James, the half-brother of Jesus.
He emerged as a leader of the Jerusalem Church according to the Book of Acts. It’s interesting that he doesn’t make reference to that connection in his writing. I don’t know about you, but I’d probably remind folks that I grew up in the same household as Jesus. But instead, James simply calls himself “a slave of God and of Jesus.” In doing so, James displays his own sense of humility and foreshadows what we all need to know about following Christ – that we are to see ourselves as His servants. Serving God by serving others is a dominant theme in this book.
According to tradition, the Letter of James fits into the category of the New Testament “general epistles.” What is meant by that label is that it was not written to any specific person or congregation, like many of Paul’s letters. In contrast, James says his intended audience is the “twelve tribes” which he goes on to identify as “Jewish believers scattered abroad” (see James 1:1b NLT).
Because of persecution and oppression, the nation of Israel was fragmented. Many Jews were forced to live outside their homeland of Palestine. While some of this dispersion took place prior to Christ, it also occurred in the formative years of the Christian faith as well (see Acts 8:1; 11:19). So James wants to give folks everywhere some practical advice on “how to live” for Christ in the real world.
I think this information is pertinent for us today in 21st century America. In many ways, as Christians, we are living in a “foreign land.” It is certainly far away from our ultimate home in heaven. So this study will give us good insights about how we need to live and what we need to do until we get there.
Here’s a quick, sneak peak: James is concerned about “the world getting into the church.” But he is just as concerned about “the church getting into the world.”
Through the ages, the Letter of James has received a good deal of criticism, most notably from Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. Some say he didn’t even think it should be included in Scripture. Luther didn’t go that far, but he did not consider James as important or useful as other New Testament writings such as the Gospels or letters written by Paul, John, and Peter.
The reason Luther felt that way is that James does not emphasize the foundational Christian doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. But James doesn’t need to because his letter assumes that basic theological principle. James presumes his readers are “believers in … Jesus Christ” (see James 2:1 NIV).
His emphasis, and chief contribution to Christianity, is how followers of Christ should put their faith into practice. So James doesn’t contradict Paul, he complements his teaching.
Paul answers the question: How is salvation experienced? By faith. James answers the question: How is salvation demonstrated? By action.
That leads us to the primary message of James which forms the basis of his “how to’s.”
That message is two-fold and is communicated explicitly in James 1:22-25 NLT:
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.
1) Christian living requires us to KNOW what needs to be done.
I first learned this passage in the KJV: “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only…” (1:22a).
Before we can “do the word,” we have to “hear the word.” Stated another way, before we can do what God wants us to do, we have to know what God wants us to do.
It’s like asking a kid why he didn’t take out trash and hearing him reply, “I didn’t know I was supposed to.”
Many so-called believers are not acting in godly ways simply because they have no understanding or knowledge of “how to live” in godly ways.
Christian living presupposes a knowledge of Christian teaching. That understanding comes through hearing, reading and studying God’s Word. In that regard, many persons are completely ignorant.
If my car breaks down I’m going to raise the hood, not to fix it, but to signal I need help. Why? Because when it comes to automotive repairs, I don’t know what needs to be done.
There are a lot of believers with the “hood up” on their lives, spiritually speaking. They are at a loss at what they need to do and how they need to do it.
That’s why I’m excited about our current re-gathering of the Lynn Haven UMC. It all starts in worship as the Scriptures are read and explained. It continues with discipleship ministries for children, students and adults.
Before we can do what Christ wants us to do, we have to know what He wants us to do. That knowledge comes by acquainting (and even immersing) ourselves in His Word.
I trust our study of James will help us discover more about what we need to be doing.
2) Christian living requires us to DO what needs to be done.
Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. (James 1:22 NLT)
Needless to say, a lot of folks in our world today are only fooling themselves. That’s because they aren’t doing what God’s Word says to do.
I think we’d all agree there’s a big difference between knowing and doing. Again to use the example of a teenager; imagine telling one, “You need to clean your room,” or “You need to finish your homework” and hearing them say every time, “I know.”
“I know you know … but when are you going to do something?”
I don’t think it’s accidental that our primary wedding vow is “I do.” When asked, “Do you take this man or woman…?” it’s not, “I know … I think … I believe … I may …”, it’s “I do.”
In a similar way, our commitment to Christ is lived out primarily by doing.
The Greek term James uses when he cautions against just listening to God’s word or being “hearers only,” is our English word, “auditor.”
Have you ever audited a class?
My final year in seminary I audited several classes to save money. I still went to all of the lectures but I didn’t do all of the classwork. I didn’t complete reading assignments, take tests or write papers. So, while somewhat helpful, I didn’t advance in my proficiency in those subjects as much as other students who did the work.
It seems to me that we have a bunch of Christian “auditors” in the church today. They’re willing to sit and listen, but they’re not very prone to do the work.
One of the best things to happen in our denomination during my ministry was the Disciple Bible Study program. We covered 80% of the Bible in 34 weeks with weekly meetings.
But rather than live out the Biblical truth learned that intensive course, we decided we needed Disciple II, III, IV … followed by a host of Disciple fast track and short-term studies. Some folks are still in the classroom but haven’t done a thing about what they learned in Disciple I.
Jesus warned in His Sermon on the Mount that such behavior is downright “foolish.” James echoes that sentiment in his epistle by comparing not doing what God’s Word says to glancing in a mirror, then walking away, and forgetting what you look like (see James 1:23-24 NLT).
Imagine getting up, looking in the mirror and realizing your hair is a mess and your face is dirty. But then you go to grab breakfast and forget to take care of those items.
It would be obvious to everyone, wouldn’t it? You’d be a fool for ignoring what you saw in the mirror. In the same way, unless we apply what we learn in God’s Word, we quickly forget it.
How much of Sunday’s sermon do you remember on Monday? Don’t answer!
But what if you immediately acted on it and put it into practice?
Both Jesus and James agree, what we do with what we know determines how we live. Acting on Jesus’ teaching is like building our house on a “solid rock” foundation. And obedience to God’s Word is the key that unlocks the Lord’s blessings.
“But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.” (James 1:25 NLT)
As we prepare to study James’ letter in detail I’d like us to consider his mirror analogy. Do we approach God’s Word with the attitude that we want it to reveal what we’re really like? Are we then prepared to make the necessary changes to correct “blemishes” that are revealed to us?
If those are our attitudes, then it will show us “how to live” as Christ’s followers and we’ll certainly be blessed as we use it as such.
Some of you may be familiar with pastor and author John MacArthur who became fairly well known through his Grace to You radio ministry. He tells the story that early in his ministry, when he was a student pastor, he invited a Scottish evangelist named Billy Strachan to preach for his congregation.
John was touched by some of the things the evangelist had to say. So after the service, he went up to the guest preacher and said, “I want you to know that what you said blessed me and I’m very appreciative.”
The Scottish preacher looked him in the eye and said, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” He then turned and abruptly walked away.
MacArthur says that response troubled him for years, but he has since come to understand and appreciate it as a fellow preacher of the gospel.
In the coming weeks, we’ll discover that’s what James will say to us at every turn. Once we know what we need to do, what are we going to do about it?
If we’ll let it, the letter of James will show us “how to live” the Christian life. As we embark on this journey, let’s resolve at the outset that we’re not just going to listen to God’s Word, we’re going to do what it says.