We receive the word of truth in salvation, but we also receive it as the guide to a life that pleases God. It works toward our sanctification. Jesus, in fact, prayed for his disciples, saying “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth”. (John 17:17)
James seems to interject a topic here with an instruction on speech and anger. Those were evidently problems in the churches to whom James wrote. They are problems in many churches today, and among many believers in general. Our spiritual maturity, our sanctification, can be measured by these things James discussed. So, James seems to say that steadfastness in faith is expressed in obedience to God’s word no matter what is going on around you or what is being done to you.
We should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (19) Rashness or hasty speech and anger do not please God. The Old Testament teaches this also. Psalm 34:13, for example, says “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.”
Proverbs 18:27-28 says:
“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise.
When he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
James is very concerned with the tongue in this letter, making us think it was as much a problem for his audience as for us.
First of all, we should be quick to hear. Listening is a great talent. It is beneficial to your sanctification and to your relationships. We should be quick to listen to God’s word. Our first response should be to apply it to our lives, not argue with it or the one who presents it truthfully.
Second, we should be slow to speak. When you do not like what you hear, you can often benefit from thinking about it and praying about it before you respond. My family would say to “sleep on it”. Sometimes, what struck you unfavorably at first, may seem reasonable or good when thought out.
Finally, we are to be slow to anger. Anger usually impedes clear thinking and leads to speaking harshly.
The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. The NIV paraphrases this into “the righteousness life that God desires”. That captures the meaning here. I have heard horrible things said by church members “in the heat of the moment”. God is not pleased or honored by that.
I have worked to resist speaking about everything that comes up in church. I took a year moratorium from offering criticisms and suggestions. I extended it for another year. I offered a criticism that was not well received, and am now in another year of moratorium. I have found in the process that many things which initially aggravated me I did not have to bother with. Instead, I could focus on my own sanctification and ministry to others. I also resolved to not speak immediately upon every issue. I am not perfect in this, but it is what I seek to do.
I am not here speaking of confronting heresy or falsehood regarding the Bible. You are pretty much going to hear from me every time you offer that. Even then, I pray to answer with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15) But that is not the situation James addressed.
The next thing James admonishes us to do is to get rid of moral filth and wickedness. The Greek word refers to taking off these things as you would dirty clothes. If you want God’s word to have full effect in your life you have to put away your favorite sins. Those sins are rampant (ESV) or prevalent (NIV). James is saying, your reception of God’s word unto salvation is revealed in your obedience to God’s word. The saved person obeys God’s word out of love for him. The unsaved person rebels against God’s word. Jesus said we can know people by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-20) A tree that bears bad fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire. That is a metaphor for the judgment of the unsaved person.
The fruit of the Spirit, the traits of the saved person, are listed in Galatians 5:22-24. The fruit of the flesh is described in Galatians 5:19-21. We may discern from a person’s character and behavior what their relationship to God is. I am not saying we will be perfect, but that the life of the believer should predominately express the fruit of the Spirit not the fruit of the flesh.
Television adds invite us to sin. Commercials for Los Vegas tell us to come there and sin and it will stay there. That is not true, of course. You will carry the marks of it.
There are common sins all around you every day and I do not need to list them for you. It is fine for the people belonging to the world to cover themselves with those sins. But it is not ok for the man or woman of God. People tell you to “lighten up” or to “get over it”. Christians will tell you it is ok to do a little. But God says to put it away. Take off those dirty clothes and put on righteous clothes.
1 Peter 1:22-2:1 takes a similar approach to James in this passage.
God takes sin seriously and he hates it. That is why James uses these graphic words here: filthiness and wickedness. Confess, repent and remove these things from your life. God does not want to hear “that is just the way I am”. He knows how you are and he wants to change you to be like Jesus.
Finally, we need to receive the word with meekness. We are open and receptive to it. We put aside pride, anger, sin and all our resistance. We hear the word and apply it to ourselves. We conform ourselves to the word. We do not change the word to fit our sin.
I have sat in many Bible discussion groups where the response to every command of God begins with “well, I don't think God really wants us to do this” as opposed to “oh no, I have to repent of this and stop doing it”.
In Mark 4, Jesus told a parable. We often call it the parable of the sower, but it is really the parable of the soils. There are four kinds of soil. Only one is described as good soil The good soil received the seed and produced much fruit. You are good soil if you received the seed of God’s word. When you do you will produce much fruit.
When the preacher preaches God’s word to you, your reaction should be to listen and apply God’s word to yourself. But often we want to think or speak a rebuttal. Sometimes we get angry at the preacher or teacher. If the teacher is giving you the truth of God’s word, that is not the way God wants you to receive it. It will prevent you from receiving it. As verse 20 says, it does not produce the righteousness of God in us.
Your first reaction to a lesson or sermon should not always be “I wish old so and so was hearing this”. The first application should always be to ourselves. But, it is harder to confront our sin than someone else’s sin. Yet, when we receive the word with meekness, it will change us. God will change us through it. As we change, our behavior changes. James will address behavior frequently in this letter. He is saying for us to conform our behavior to God’s standards now that he has changed us so that we can behave in a way that pleases him and brings him glory.
Notice that James calls it the “implanted word” in verse 21. The NIV says the “word planted in you”. This is another reference by James to the Old Testament. This time the reference is to Jeremiah 31:33. In that verse God said he would put his law within his people and he would write it on their hearts. God had described, through Jeremiah, all the ways his people had failed to keep his covenant and live according to his standards. He told them that he would change that in the new covenant.
So James calls it the implanted word. God has written his word, or law, into the heart of believers so we can live according to his standards. It is implanted in us. It is part of us.
It empowers us to live for God and not the world.