2. Hearing and Practicing the Word (James 1:18-27)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (34:12)

James tells us, 'Get rid of all moral filth.'
James tells us, 'Get rid of all moral filth.'

The theme of this passage centers on God's living Word:

  • Being born through the Word (James 1:18)
  • Preferring the Word to moral filth (James 1:19-21)
  • Letting the Word save us (James 1:21)
  • Listening to and practicing the Word (James 1:22-25)
  • Experiencing the freedom of the Word (James 1:25)
  • Living out the Word's teaching in practical ways (James 1:26-27)

James' readers struggled with the same problem that all of us do. They equated listening to the Word taught in church with living out its implications in their everyday life. We can see this in self-righteous church-goers, but can we see it in ourselves? Probably not, unless God helps us to become very honest with ourselves. Perhaps through this passage he will do so.

Let's look at each section of this passage in turn.

Being Born through the Word (James 1:18)

"He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created." (James 1:18)

Though many Bible translations group verse 18 with the previous passage, the more I look at it, the more I see that it introduces and leads into James' teaching on the Word, and probably belongs more closely with 1:19-27.

The phrase "word of truth" appears five times in the English Bible:

"Do not snatch the word of truth from my mouth,
for I have put my hope in your laws." (Psalm 119:43)

"And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit...." (Ephesians 1:13)

"... the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel...." (Colossians 1:5)

"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15)

The fifth time it appears is in our passage:

"He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created." (James 1:18)

First, this passage tell us that we did not appear by chance, but he chose13 to beget us. Our spiritual birth was an act of his will first and foremost, and only after that, our will.

Second, we read that the means of our begetting was "the word of truth." How does a person become spiritually alive? Jesus had discussed this matter with Nicodemus, a well-educated, pious Jew, who later became his disciple. "You must be born again," Jesus insisted (John 3:7). In our era, the phrase "born again" is often used in an entirely secular sense to mean renewed or revived or reconstituted. The religious experience of the new birth is often made fun of. But Jesus is completely serious in this conversation. "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but Spirit gives birth to spirit." All of us were born physically, "of the flesh," but according to Jesus, not all have been born spiritually, since this is a requirement to even see or perceive the kingdom of God (John 3:3).

The Role of Faith in Spiritual Life

What is the mechanism? I don't claim any absolute insight here. But I believe that the Word begets faith which begets (or maybe is) spiritual life. Paul observed, "Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17, NIV). We see the element of faith, too, in the classic passage on salvation by grace:

"For it is by grace you have been saved, though faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Paul makes it very clear that the work is all God's, that we are "his workmanship," that this is "not from yourselves, it is the gift of God."

So do we even have a part in salvation, or is it all God's work? Theologians have debated this for centuries, the Calvinists versus the Arminians, and we won't solve the riddle here. I conclude that we have only God to thank for our salvation, but that our faith in the Word has an important part still. Paul says we are reconciled to God and presented holy "if you continue in your faith" (Colossians 1:23). Faith in what? Faith in the Word of truth. We "through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:5). The Word of truth guards and shields this spiritual life, as well.

Firstfruits (James 1:18)

Third, James touches on the purpose of this spiritual birth:

"... To be a kind of firstfruits of all he has created." (James 1:18)

The word translated "firstfruits" is a cultic technical term for "first fruits, first portion of any kind (incl. animals, both domesticated and wild), which were holy to the divinity and were consecrated before the rest could be put to secular use"14 Firstfruits were the first of the harvest, the first of the crop that was holy and was offered to God at the beginning of the harvest. I don't know the extent of James' meaning. Was he speaking chronologically, as if he and his generation were the firstfruits? Was the rest of the harvest, all Christians up until now? Or is there something beyond that? We can only speculate.

Why do we treasure the Bible? Not because we are superstitious, but because we treasure God's life-giving Word, and that Word is contained within the Bible. It is our anchor, our authority by which to test God's contemporary words, for God has not stopped speaking to his people. "The word of truth" begets new life today if we will but speak it unashamedly!

Q5. (James 1:18) In what sense are we given spiritual birth by the "word of truth"? What does spiritual life have to do with the Word?

Preferring the Word to Moral Filth (James 1:19-21)

"19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you." (James 1:19-21)

Now James turns to the counterfeits and substitutes for the Word:

  • Man's angry, self-righteous words, and
  • Moral filth and evil that would capture our minds and hearts.

Slow to Anger (James 1:19-20)

We all struggle with anger. Some have it under better outward control than others, to be sure. But anger can pollute us with bitterness, even if we do not lash out openly.

We're angry when we feel wronged. Sometimes it is our selfish pride that has been stepped on. Sometimes it is a violation of our human rights. Sometimes it is even a desecration of all we hold sacred. Nevertheless, James warns, "Man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires" (James 1:20). Lest we be quick to think of our anger as moral outrage and righteous indignation, we need to be careful that we do not operate in anger, since the anger does not bring about a righteous life. Yes, anger is to arouse us to action. That is the Creator's intent for giving us anger, I am sure. But once aroused, we must slow down and listen to God concerning what to do, since we cannot act in anger and do right.

As we'll see later, I think James had trouble with his own tongue (see James 3:2) and knew a lot about this first hand. In our passage he begins verse 19, "My dear brothers...." Affectionately. Then he gives the principle he has learned all too well: "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." We would do well to memorize this passage. I printed out this verse in large letters and posted it on my bulletin board to remind me not to interrupt my wife when I was angry. "Quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry." I've needed that word. You may need it, too.

Moral Filth (James 1:21)

"Get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent." (James 1:21)

The word translated "moral filth" (NIV) "filthiness" (ESV), "sordidness" (NRSV) refers first to "dirt, filth." Then, figuratively, in the ethical field, "a state of moral defilement or corruption, moral uncleanness, vulgarity," especially, "sordid avarice, greediness."15

The phrase translated "evil that is so prevalent" (NIV), "rampant wickedness" (ESV), "rank growth of wickedness" (NRSV), "superfluity of naughtiness" (KJV) is two words: a very common word for evil,16 modified be a word that talks about quantity: "that which is beyond the regular or expected amount, surplus, abundance."17 Have you ever marveled at the evil around you? There's evil everywhere! Of one type and another, some blatant, some subtle, all deadly. Recognize it, says James, and put it aside.

We are to replace this moral evil with the word "planted" (NIV), "implanted" (ESV, NRSV), "engrafted" (KJV) that is able to save your souls. The adjective "engrafted, implanted," in Classical Greek refers to 'implanted by natural process, inborn."18

It is wonderful to ponder. What does it mean that God has given you a "Word-implant"? He has put his thoughts and words deep within you. He has made them part of you. Not only has he put within you a hunger for his Word and his Words, he has given you the precious and tender plant to grow within.

My wife runs a small tree nursery. Every year she purchases hundreds of tree seedlings and plants them in pots. Then she tends and waters them, nurturing them until they become strong and can put down their roots in the soil. The plants are tender and very susceptible to heat and drought until they become established.

Letting the Word Save Us (James 1:21)

"Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you." (James 1:21)

Yes, God's words are whispered in our soul by the Holy Spirit and they are within. But we can block them. We can stop our ears by our moral compromise and pride. James says we are to put these all away, and "with humility" accept this word planted deep within us. Peter describes this as "imperishable seed:"

"For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God." (1 Peter 1:23)

We can so easily let the clamor and glamour of the world drown out the Word. For Elijah, God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in "a still, small voice" (KJV, 1 Kings 19:12; NIV "a gentle whisper"). Are you humble enough to hear it? Are you quiet enough to hear it? Man's words, even man's angry words, are not worth much with regard to spiritual things. It is God's Word that begets us (James 1:18), God's Word that indwells us (James 1:21). We would do well to humbly receive it and so save our souls from the destruction of the world.

How are we saved by the Word? Peter puts it this way:

"He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires." (2 Peter 1:4)

We must choose between the filth around us or God's Word. By choosing God's Word, we choose Life.

Listening to and Practicing the Word (James 1:22)

But now James introduces a serious concern for all Christians, especially those who are constantly in church:

"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (James 1:22).

One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is over-familiarity with God's Word (see James 3:1). I read and study and teach the Scriptures, and have for many decades. But familiarity with the Word, knowing what is right, can be deceiving. It can breed a kind of self-righteousness, a spiritual smugness within us. We know the truth. We know what is right. But it is quite possible to confuse knowing the truth with doing it.

Some of the Pharisees in Jesus' day were like that. They were experts in interpreting the Old Testament. And they made an outward show of their observance. But Jesus blasted them as hypocrites. On the outside they looked like clean cups, but inside they were filthy.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. " (Matthew 23:25-26)

But before you point your finger at your pastor or the Pharisees, look at yourself. You may have half a dozen Bibles in your home, and that very "Christian-ness" can lull you into an attitude of self-satisfaction. Unless you practice God's commands, you deceive yourself.

For example, God's Word teaches us,

"Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry." (James 1:19)

Do you practice this? Would your spouse or family say you are quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger? Knowing it is not enough. Knowing without practicing is self-deceptive.

Q6. (James 1:22) Why are we so easily fooled into thinking that listening to Bible teaching means that we are living out righteous lives? What is the nature of the self-deception?

Forgetting What the Mirror Shows (James 1:23-24)

Now James gives an example to illustrate his point. Listening without doing, he says, is like looking at yourself in the mirror and then immediately forgetting what you look like.

"23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does." (James 1:23-25)

Though he doesn't quite say it explicitly, James suggests that God's Word is a mirror for the soul that can show us what we really are.

Experiencing the Freedom of the Word (James 1:25)

He goes on in verse 25:

"But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it -- he will be blessed in what he does." (James 1:25)

Twice in James' Letter we find the phrase "the perfect law that gives freedom" (James 1:25) and "the law that gives freedom" (James 2:12). It is a strange phrase for a Jew who was called "James the Just" because he kept the Jewish Law. What did he mean by it? How does the Law bring liberty?

It is important to note that James led the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 to conclude that keeping the ceremonial law, such as circumcision, was not obligatory for Gentile believers (Acts 15:19-21). This decision was made in place of the position of some Christian Pharisees who contended that "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). So the "perfect law" is not the Mosaic Law, at least in its entirety.

Rather this perfect law is what James calls the "Royal Law" in James 2:8, that is, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (quoting Leviticus 19:18). It is perfect because it sums up, as Jesus had taught, "all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:40). It is one of the two great commandments proclaimed by King Jesus: "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you" (John 15:12).

How liberating this is! Now we no longer live in adherence to a written code, but from the love that God has placed within us, as a natural outflowing of our lives given for others. It is the perfect law and the liberating law. And it fulfills the prophecy of Jeremiah that says:

"The time is coming," declares the Lord,
"when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,"
declares the Lord.

"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time," declares the Lord.
"I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.

I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,'
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,"
declares the Lord.
"For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more." (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

James exhorts us to look intently into this perfect law of liberty (James 1:25) and so never forget who God is, and who we are, and how he wants us to love and live.

Q7. (James 1:25) What is this "perfect law" that James mentions? How would you define it? How does it relate to the "royal law" (James 2:8)? In what sense does it bring liberty?

Living Out the Word's Teaching in Practical Ways (James 1:26-27)

"26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (James 1:26-27)

This perfect, liberating law of love, then, governs what James considers pure religion. Sometimes Evangelical Christians are offended by the use of the word "religion"; they much prefer a more specific word, such as "Christianity" or "Christian faith."

But here in verses 26-27, James uses a general word for religion, both an adjective and a noun. The noun is Greek thrēskeia, "expression of devotion to transcendent beings, especially as it expresses itself in cultic rites, worship." The adjective is thrēskos, "religious."19 James isn't trying to put other religions on a par with Christianity. But he is asserting that if we would consider ourselves authentic worshippers of God, then we must live out this liberating law of love in our everyday lives.

James mentions three tests of pure religion:

  1. A tongue that is kept under control (verse 26)
  2. Looking after orphans and widows (verse 27a), and
  3. Keeping oneself from being polluted by the world (verse 27b).

Caring for Widows and Orphans (James 1:27a)

We'll look further at the tamed tongue, since James expounds on it at greater length in chapter 3. I find it curious, however, that he selects caring for orphans and widows as one of the tests of true religion. The reason, I am sure, is that orphans and widows have no power or money to benefit us. Jesus warned us:

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them." (Matthew 6:1a)

So often we want to be associated with great causes that make us look good in the eyes of others, and perhaps feel important and good about ourselves. James says the essence is not us, but to is to help those who can't help us or further our goals in any way whatsoever. Therefore, when we care for their needs it is a truly unselfish act, and one surely motivated by love.

Do you see caring for the poor and needy as too mundane? Too demeaning? Too dirty for your refined sensibilities? Then you may be in danger, James would say, of being selfish rather than loving. Instead of the Word changing your heart, other forces control you. Again and again in Scripture we see that God cares for the poor. Perhaps the classic verse is:

"Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.... [The LORD] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt." (Deuteronomy 10:16, 18-19)

If God defends the cause of the orphan and widow and gives them food and clothing, who are we to be too pure to aid those who are poor? We're so concerned that the person who holds up a sign saying "Will Work for Food" is trying to take advantage of us, that we end up closing our heart to him. Would you rather be "taken" by a beggar a few times and remain generous in your heart? Or protect yourself from ever being deceived and end up with a stingy and unloving heart?

The passage in Deuteronomy also indicates that God loves the alien. This might offend us, but I am sure he loves the illegal alien, too. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't control our borders. But what it does mean is that we are to love those who are sojourning in our country just as God loves them. Our first question should be not "Do they have a green card?" Our first question should be, "Do they have enough to eat?"

This is the sign of a person whose religion is "pure and faultless." How does my practice measure up to the Perfect Law? How does yours?

Q8. (James 1:26-27) Why does James make taming the tongue and caring for the poor the prime tests of pure religion? Why not the quality of our quiet time or worship?

Spiritual Pollution (James 1:27b)

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: ... to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (James 1:27b)

The final characteristic of pure religion is "keeping oneself from being polluted by the world." The Greek word translated "polluted" (NIV), "unstained" (ESV, NRSV), "unspotted" (KJV) means "spotless," then figuratively, "pertaining to being of untainted character, pure, without fault."20

I was eating a garden-fresh tomato the other day, and some of it fell on the shirt I was wearing. If I ignore the spill and let it dry, it can easily set in the cloth fibers and become a permanent stain. So I took off the shirt, put soap on the tomato spot, washed it thoroughly in the basin, and then rinsed it. I think I washed out the spot before it stained. I hope!

James says that keeping from being stained by the anti-God world's standards and pollutions and greed and sensuality -- this is part of true religion. Character, someone said, is what we do when no one is looking. If we let spots from the world set in our lives and hearts, they can and do become permanent stains on our character.

We must watch our hearts lest they become stained with cynicism and unbelief, bitterness and unforgiveness.

"Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life." (Proverbs 4:23, ESV)

There is a sense in Scripture where we are to cleanse ourselves. Later in this letter, James exhorts us,

"Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded." (James 4:8)

We see a similar theme in the Book of Revelation:

"These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." (Revelation 7:14)

Christians are to take sin seriously and approach it with repentance and sorrow, and all earnestness.

But in another sense, we are powerless to cleanse ourselves. So we must humbly confess our sins to the One who has promised to both "forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

Hearing the Living Word and Doing It

James: Practical Discipleship, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

The Letter of James is so challenging because James doesn't ask us primarily what we believe about Jesus. He asks us what we are doing because we have encountered him. He doesn't allow us to hide behind our church-going and Bible reading, our "hearing" of the Word. He calls us to be doers to the Word, as well.

There have been times when I have deceived myself in the midst of my Christianity. May God grant that I will do this no more. But that I will peer intently into the mirror of the Perfect Law of Liberty -- and remember -- and do it.


Lord, we ask you to help us to turn our hearts back to you. Strip away our self-deception. Convict us of our sins. Expel our excuses. And help us humble ourselves before you. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires." (James 1:19-20, NIV)

"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." (James 1:22, NIV)

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (James 1:27, NIV)


References and Abbreviations

[14] Aparchē, BDAG 98. For examples, see Exodus 22:29; Leviticus 2:12-16; Numbers 18:12; Deuteronomy 18:4; 2 Chronicles 31:5; Nehemiah 10:35-39

[15] Rhyparia, BDAG 908.

[16] Kakia, "the quality or state of wickedness, baseness, depravity, wickedness, vice" (BDAG 500, 1)

[17] Perisseia, BDAG 804.

[18] Emphutos, BDAG 326; from en, "in, into" and phyteuō, "to plant."

[19] Thrēskos, BDAG 459.

[20] Aspilos, BDAG 144, 2, from a, "not" + the verb spiloō, "stain, defile."

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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