Acting With Love
Sunday School Lesson for August 3, 2003
Background Passage: James 1:19-2:13
Focal Teaching Passage: James 1:19-27; 2:1, 8-9, 12-13
The Behavior That God Approves (1:19-25)
All believers, having been brought to spiritual life by the powerful "word of truth" (v. 18), are instructed in the following sections to demonstrate the reality of their new lives in practical ways. In verses 19-20, James focused specifically on the use of the tongue, especially in contexts where one might be tempted to display unholy "anger." Note that James was primarily concerned with behavior within the community of faith. That is, the way believers are to relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. His counsel to his readers—to "everyone"—contained three specific commands:
In verse 20, James set forth a fundamental principle that should always be remembered by God’s people. The sin-stained, self-promoting "anger of man" can never accomplish "the righteousness of God." This apparently implies several key truths. First, men who are angry in the wrong way at the wrong time cannot do God’s righteous and holy will. Secondly, those who display ungodly wrath cannot be properly related to their brothers in Christ. Finally, those who are inappropriately angry cannot bear a winsome witness to those who are outside God’s saving grace. As R. V. G. Tasker observes,
it becomes more and more difficult for others to lay hold of the truth that the Judge of all the earth is essentially moral and Himself does what is right if His servants fail to show righteousness in their conduct .
In contrast to expressing impatience, the unwillingness to listen, and uncontrolled passions, James called upon his "beloved brethren" (v. 19) to put off their sinful ways of behaving and focus carefully upon the Word of God. Note his specific instructions:
James’ focus on the centrality of the Word of God, and its essential connection to Christian faith and discipleship, is continued here with a direct challenge to his readers. While faithfully following Christ involves the discipline of hearing the Word, more is required. James instructed his brethren to display their faith in Christ—"prove yourselves"—though disciplined obedience—"doers of the word." The implication of James’ command is clear. Simply hearing the Word does not guarantee anything about one’s salvation or relationship to Christ. This command, then, is a warning to those who believe that listening is an "end in itself, so that the message heard never becomes translated into deeds accomplished" [Tasker, 52].
In verses 23-25 James provided an interesting illustration of his point about hearing and doing the Word. The "man who looks at his natural face in the mirror" exemplifies the one who hears, but does not obey God’s Word (v. 23). A mere glance at the mirror makes no lasting change, and what is seen is quickly forgotten so that many return visits are required for satisfaction (v. 24). In addition, a cursory glance in the mirror, as suggested in 1:22, can actually lay the groundwork for self-deception. A person can easily be deceived by the image in the glass so that their true condition is unknown.
In contrast, the one who "looks intently at the perfect law," the Word of God, will be "blessed in what he does" (v. 25). This man or woman gives disciplined attention to what the Word says and requires, and then seeks to obey it as a demonstration of love for Christ. The result is the enjoyment of manifold blessings that touch every area of life.
The Religion That God Accepts (1:26-27)
In these verses and the sections that follow in chapter two, James once again addressed the application of one’s faith in Christ to everyday living. We might say that he provided his readers with practical suggestions on how they could become "doers of the word" (1:22). Here, he turns to the ones in the fellowship who considered themselves "to be religious." This seems to have been directed at those who were diligent to display the more observable features of religious devotion, such as meticulous attention various observances or ceremonies, and the performance of certain duties [Tasker, 54]. However, James made it very clear that without exercising control ("bridle") over the "tongue," such a person’s religious practices are utterly "worthless" before God and, even more tragically, they are self-deceived ("deceives his own heart"). As Richardson comments, James made the use of the tongue the "test case for true religion" and implied that such a "religion" is "merely external and a virtual idolatry involving self-deception" . True religious devotion, on the other hand, displays itself as one seeks to maintain God-honoring speech.
James’ definition of "true and undefiled religion" is expanded here to include two other practical expressions:
The Love That God Affirms (2: 1-13)
In chapter two, James continued his intense focus upon Christian conduct within the church and the way that real faith behaves with regard to fellow-believers. This verse established his basic principle or precept: Authentic faith in Christ is inconsistent with an "attitude of personal favoritism." In verses 2-7 James addressed the sinful tendency of men to pay more attention to certain types of persons (the rich and well-dressed) while neglecting others (the poor and needy). Again, the reason that such partiality and preferential treatment is forbidden is that it flies in the face of the kind of mercy sinners have received in Christ—a gracious bestowal of love and forgiveness with no regard for personal status. In short, therefore, James challenged his readers to look at each other the way God had looked at them. He made it clear that if believers "fail at this point, they cannot represent the faith of Jesus" [Richardson, 110].
In terms of the kind of conduct God demands among His people, James stressed the application of the "royal law" (v. 8). This precept—"You shall love you neighbor as yourself"—is expressed in the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 7:12, and is based upon Leviticus 19:18. The command is to be the governing principle at work among believers. However, the "royal law" is violated whenever there is evidence of "partiality"(v. 9). Such behavior is clearly a "sin" and represents a transgression of the entire "law" (vv. 9-11). The key concept here is that men do not have the luxury of picking and choosing which of God’s laws to obey, and they "must not try to excuse their failure to observe one part of it by pointing to their observance of other parts [Tasker, 61]. Another significant point is that the commands prohibiting favoritism, especially that which would lead to the neglect of the more needy members of the community, "so embodied the spirit of the law that to stumble on this point was to offend the law at its heart" [Richardson, 122].
In bringing this section to a close, James appealed to his brethren to both "speak" and "act" as people "who are to be judged by the law of liberty" (v. 13). This "law," referred to in 1:25, is one of merciful freedom in that the believer understands that Christ has perfectly paid for his transgressions on the cross. The one who has faith in Christ, and is submerged in God’s rich mercy, is now free to obey, love, and serve Him. Most importantly for the sake of James’ argument, the Christian has been set free to display mercy to others. It is the granting of such mercy that, for James, proves to be the distinguishing characteristic of the redeemed. That is, it is a work of faith that provides abundant testimony of one’s salvation. Consequently, if no mercy is on display in the life of the professing believer, there is sufficient reason to suspect that the claim to faith is spurious. In this case, when judgment comes, a merciless person will be subject to a "merciless" judgment before God. In other words, the failure
to show mercy to those in need calls into question whether there has been any true act of repentance in face of God’s mercy. Instead of liberation, the full force of the law’s condemnation falls against those who break the law [Richardson, 126].
Major Themes for Reflection and Application
One: A redeemed tongue—In our present-day culture, an unbridled tongue is actually seen as a mark of strength, individuality, and self-expression. Saying whatever is on one’s mind is considered to be the evidence of authenticity—no matter how vulgar, insensitive, self-serving, or perverse one’s speech may be. Is it not interesting, then, that James highlights the proper use of the tongue as a mark of saving faith? Think carefully about how you speak. Do your words (and the subjects you discuss) reflect your radical transformation by God’s grace, or do they betray the fact that you have been unduly influenced by the world?
Two: Hearing and doing—Reflect on the fundamental difference between information and transformation. The purpose for the study of Scripture is not simply the gaining of biblical information, but the transformation of the whole life before God. What does this require of you in practical terms? That is, what do you need to do in order to become an "effectual doer" of the Word?
Three: Religion and works—According to 1:27 there is a strategic connection between true religion and works of mercy. What is it? Does this imply that all works of mercy are authentic acts of worship? Why, or why not?
Four: Favoritism and a faulty faith—2:1-13 is a most convicting segment of James’ explication of biblical faith and authentic Christianity. Why do we practice favoritism? In what subtle ways do favoritism and partiality show themselvs in your life and church? What is the antidote to such ungodly behavior?