This is a message delivered to group leaders based on James 1:19-27.
I’ve noticed something as I’ve talked to group leaders over the last 12 months or so that I didn’t expect. Many of you, many of us and many of the people in our groups, have this nagging sense that we’re not doing something right. That something’s off.
You meet every week with your group, but it seems like you just do study after study and talk about the same issues over and over again. You’re not sure why it bothers you now when it didn’t before, but you’re scared to bring it up because you think no one feels the same way.
As I’ve leaned in closer to understand more about what they’re feeling, I’ve come to think it’s actually something many of us are feeling as Christ followers, not just as group leaders. It’s more fundamental to our identity as Christians than our role as leaders.
But it’s not something most of us want to raise our hand and talk about, because we feel like admitting it means we’re somehow lower down the spirituality ladder. Since most of you who might feel that sense that something’s off, let me break the ice and just say it:
Many of us are not finding fulfillment in our walks with God.
We’re not sensing His Spirit, we’re not feeling His presence, we’re not more joyful than last year, we’re not loving our families better.
We’re not sure why; we just know that’s how we feel.
But like any good group leader, we think the answer’s just one more curriculum, one more book, one more Bible study away. We think that if we can just hear the right thing, listen to one more thing, that maybe it’ll get us over the hump and we’ll experience deeper spirituality.
I’ve thought a lot about this. I’ve experienced this.
Over a period of about 12 months, God revealed to me what the problem was in my life, and I believe it’s the same problem many of you might be wrestling with today.
My problem was that I wasn’t doing anything. I wasn’t doing anything with what I learned.
I was listening to a lot of sermons, but nothing changed in my heart.
I was reading a lot of books, but no one was better off for what I learned.
I was in seminary classes, but the people I pastor weren’t experiencing any of that knowledge.
Through a series of different things, God revealed to me that I was confusing listening to the truth with acting according to the truth. That I wasn’t being obedient.
And that’s what I want to talk about here tonight. Obedience.
One of the most taboo topics in the church today, because as soon as you say obedience, either the cries of legalism begin, or every fence we have goes up because we don’t like anyone telling us what to do.
What I want us to see is that we can’t approach the Bible that way. We can’t approach Jesus that way.
We have to leave our preconceived notions, our cultural bias, and our own desires behind when we open this book. Because if this is God’s Truth, and we believe that it is, either we’re going to obey what it says or we’re going to let something else get in the way.
We’re going to read James 1:19-27 and let it show us why many of us aren’t feeling fulfilled in our spiritual lives. Let’s read the whole thing and then we’ll walk through what we see.
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
James 1:19-27 ESV
These verses show us three truths:
- Obedience to the Word is possible
- Obedience to the Word is required
- Obedience to the Word is freedom
1. Obedience to the Word is possible
First, Obedience to the Word is possible. Look back at v. 21, it says, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
The phrase, “the implanted word,” tells us that somehow, the Word itself, the Law of God, is planted in those who believe in Christ. But how does that happen? How does God actually plant the word inside of us?
That phrase, “the implanted word,” refers back to Old Testament prophecies about the time coming when the Messiah has come and made possible salvation for all people, a time in which we now live, a time when God would etch His Law on the hearts of His people.
Listen to this from the prophet Jeremiah:
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Jeremiah 31:31-33 ESV
The day was coming when God’s Law, His Word, would be written on the hearts of His people. The urge to obey God would reside inside them.
Then another prophet, Ezekiel, gives us even more clarity. Listen to what God, speaking through Ezekiel, as He looked forward to a time when God would be joined in relationship to His people:
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
Ezekiel 36:26-27 ESV
That’s beautiful, isn’t it?
This picture that when we trust in Christ for our salvation that we receive a new heart and the very spirit of God.
The Word of God is implanted in us by God’s Spirit when we believe in Christ.
The Word being implanted in us is so important because it means that obedience to the Word is possible. Obedience to the Word is possible because we have a new heart and God’s Spirit, and those two things together work to urge us towards obedience, while making it possible at the same time.
At the end of tonight, you may be left wondering if you can truly obey God in some area of your life. You will be tempted to look the other way or suppress your feelings because you don’t think you have what it takes to truly follow Christ in that area, but I want to encourage you on the front end and tell you that yes, you can.
You have everything you need to be obedient to Jesus. If you are in Christ, you have a new heart, the Spirit of God, and we all have access to the Word of God.
The question isn’t can you obey him; the question is will you obey him?
From here, things get more difficult. James starts by telling us that obedience to the Word is possible, but then he moves on to tell us that it’s also required.
2. Obedience is required
Let’s start by looking back to v. 22, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” What exactly is James saying?
He’s saying that listening to the Word is not enough. Listening to the Word is not enough. It must be accompanied by doing something, otherwise we’re just deceiving ourselves.
I know many of you just got uncomfortable. I get uncomfortable. But as uncomfortable as this is, we’ve got to talk about it, because I’m convinced that Satan has many of us fooled in this area.
John 8:44 tells us that Satan is a deceiver, using all kinds of schemes to distract us from obeying God.
If we listen to the Word but never do anything with it then we are doing his job for him. We are deceiving ourselves.
We can be tempted to puff ourselves up because we learn a new piece of information or we go to church, as if collecting facts about God was the goal, instead of doing something based on those facts.
It’s easy to confuse the action of attending an event with the action of doing what we learned.
Psychologists actually have a name for this. They call it the narcotizing dysfunction—when the amount of effort and energy poured into something becomes self-soothing, blinding us to its effectiveness or reality.
In other words, we think that listening to something equals doing something.
Hear me, James is not saying that faith in Christ is not enough to save you. Ephesians 2:1-10 makes it clear, as does the rest of Scripture and even the book of James, that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone.
What James is saying is that you can spend all your time listening to the Word and be deceived into thinking that that is the same thing as doing something in light of the Word.
And here’s he’s getting at: We are never saved through our actions, but our actions are evidence that we have been saved.
The Bible often uses the word “fruit” or the concept of “bearing fruit” to talk about good works giving evidence of our faith. And over and over again, what the Bible makes clear in those references is that faith in our hearts is evidenced by the fruit in our lives.
James isn’t alone here. Jesus had plenty to say on this topic.
In Matthew 7, Jesus said this:
16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Matthew 7:16-20 ESV
Later in Matthew 7, Jesus goes on to say that:
24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Matthew 7:24-27 ESV
And in John 15:14, Jesus said,
“You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
Here’s what this all adds up to: We are deceiving ourselves if all we’re doing is sitting through a church service on Sunday and attending a group during the week, while not doing anything with what we’ve heard.
Listening is not obeying. It’s just listening.
The Pharisees listened to the Word a lot, way more than we do, but Jesus made it perfectly clear that most of them never knew him.
They listened to the Word, but missed the point. So what was the point of listening?
James said in verses 23-24 that listening to the Word and not doing what it says is like looking into the mirror and studying yourself intently and then walking away and completely forgetting what you look like.
It’s a waste of time.
This is particularly troubling today. We live in a time where we have access to more Christian resources than anytime in history. We have more books, more Bibles, more podcasts, than anyone in the history of the church.
Yet with all of those things, many of us still aren’t finding fulfillment.
The problem isn’t a lack of consumption, but a lack of exercise.
This is why the church in America is shrinking, the people in our churches often look no different from the rest of the world, and we’re thought to be above all homophobic, overly political, and judgmental (and frankly, a lot of the time that’s true).
When someone breaks their leg really badly and they’re on crutches or in a wheelchair for a long time, they have to do physical therapy when it’s time to walk on their own again. That’s because their muscles have atrophied; they’ve shrunken from not being used.
So the therapist has to strengthen those muscles by getting their patients to exercise. When you exercise, you’re actually tearing muscle tissue. Muscle is built up by continual tearing that is healed by scar tissue. As that happens more and more, muscles begin to grow.
We have to be careful that our faith is not atrophied. If we aren’t exercising our faith, it will shrink.
It’s only through the hard work of tearing that muscle and exercising that we begin to build strength.
Let’s make this real though. What exactly am I talking about being obedient to?
Let’s look at Luke 12, where Jesus is talking to his disciples about not being anxious about material things on earth and instead to be worrying about storing up treasures in heaven.
Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Luke 12:33-34 ESV
Question: What do you do with that sentence from Jesus, “Sell your possessions and give to the needy.”
Too often we’ll read verses like that and say, “Okay, obviously God is not asking me to literally sell my possessions and give to the needy.”
Really? It sure seems that Jesus is saying that these disciples should literally sell their possessions and give to the needy.
Maybe context will help us out of this one, like with the rich young ruler where we see Jesus calling one man to leave behind a specific thing that keeps him from following Him.
Nope. Studying the context in the book of Luke and in the rest of Scripture only strengthens the argument that Jesus means for us to literally sell some of our possessions and give to the poor.
Listen to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about how we try and get out of this command and others like it by rationalizing with ourselves:
“If, as we read our Bibles, we heard Jesus speaking to us in this way today we should probably try to argue ourselves out of it like this: “It is true that the demand of Jesus is definite enough, but I have to remember that he never expects us to take his commands legalistically. What he really wants me to have is faith. But my faith is not necessarily tied up with riches or poverty or anything of the kind. We may be both poor and rich in the spirit. It is not important that I should have no possessions, but if I do I must keep them as though I had them not, in other words I must cultivate a spirit of inward detachment, so that my heart is not in my possessions.”
Jesus may have said: “Sell [your] goods,” but he meant: “Do not let it be a matter of consequence to you that you have outward prosperity; rather keep your goods quietly, having them as if you had them not. Let not your heart be in your goods.”
[But when we do that,] We are excusing ourselves from single-minded obedience to the word of Jesus on the pretext of legalism and a supposed preference for an obedience “in faith.”
When a Christ follower reads a command in the Bible, the only question is if we’re going to do it or not.
But what about you, and what about your groups? This book is full of commands to be a father to the fatherless, a protector of the widow, to care for the orphan. In fact that’s what James says to end the verses we’ve been looking at.
James 1:27 says,
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
James 1:27 ESV
Pure religion, true religion, is to care for the least and the lost out of an overflow of gratitude for the Savior who did the same for you. It is to do something based on the faith you have.
Does your group feel stagnant? Do you feel like it’s just not what you hoped?
I have a question: Have you served anyone as a group lately? Have you ever? Have you ever signed up for a serve day and just made it happen? Maybe you just sign up for one, go serve some people and and see how God uses you and your group.
And what about the lost? We’re commanded to go out after those around us who need to hear the message of Christ.
Instead of taking the summer off, or maybe every other meeting, you just all invite your unchurched neighbors over to a cookout and get to know them. Then maybe you spend time in focused prayer as a group, begging God to save them and to use your group to reach them.
There’s a lot of good studies out there, but none of them can facilitate what would happen if your group would start doing things like that.
Those of you that are here just exploring if leading a group is what God is calling you to, maybe you just say yes to whatever He has planned and you put yourself out there to lead in the fall. And even if it doesn’t work out right away, or maybe for a long time, you’re at least pursuing to care for one another the way we’re called to.
But it’s not always that easy is it? Because being obedient goes against our natural grain in a lot of ways.
The hardest part about obedience is that we think by doing something we’re told to do that we’re giving up our individual freedom. And that’s true on many levels.
But while obedience to the Word is required, it’s also how we find freedom.
3. Obedience to the Word is freedom
Go back to v. 25, as James is wrapping up his mirror illustration. He says,
But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
That last phrase, “he will be blessed in his doing,” points out something that’s easy to overlook: that our sanctification happens as we minister to others. Our sanctification, our being made holy, or being conformed into the image of Christ, happens as we put our faith into action.
Life that is truly life is only found in obedience to Christ. God made us to be His people. He made us for a purpose, for a reason.
And Ephesians 2:10 shows us what that reason is. Look at what it tells us, following the beautiful description of being rescued from sin and saved by grace in the verses before it:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Ephesians 2:10 ESV
We are God’s workmanship. Another translation is that we are his “masterpiece.”
And He created us as masterpieces for a reason – which is what? For good works.
We were saved by Christ that we might do good works in Christ. We won’t fulfill His purpose for our life outside of obedience to Jesus.
But in that obedience there is incredible freedom.
That’s why James uses that phrase, “the law of liberty.” He knows that if we’re obedient to Christ then we are free from other’s’ opinions, our own opinions, our standards, our possessions, and, ultimately, our sin.
If we are obedient to Christ, we are free.
“31 If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free…36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
John 8:31, 32, 36 ESV