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. —James 1:22-24
Many commentators have noted that the book of James is the “Proverbs of the New Testament.” The book is not narrative like the gospels and Acts, telling the story of Jesus during His sojourn among us as the Incarnate Son of God. It is not like Romans, a theological treatise highly structured to present a logical flow of thought that would both instruct and intrigue as it develops and substantiates faith. It is not corrective and instructive in the same way Paul’s letters to the various churches are, though it is instructive and it is directed to Christians scattered throughout the world. James is more a collection of wisdom sayings and understanding, a library of sanctified thinking, if you will. It is not, however, without logic and flows within the themes it presents.
James 1:22-24 begins with a comparison word, “but.” To understand what comes after this word we must consider what comes before it. We have to take a look at the first part of the comparison so we can understand the importance of the second component of the comparison.
First, James securely establishes our very existence as people of faith and followers of Jesus (disciples) in the will of and the outworking of His word. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures (1:18).
Christian, you are a product of God’s word. Remember when Jesus asked Peter, on the occasion of the departure of many people from following him, “Will you leave also?” Peter said, “To whom would we go? You alone have the words of life.” God’s word, taught and embodied by Christ, is the source of spiritual life for all who put their faith in Him.
We live by the word. We also are saved by the word. Therefore, put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls (1:21). Picture this, a man’s heart fails, its electrical mechanism that controls its ability to beat is worn out and dies. Doctors implant a pacemaker device that sends a regular electrical stimulus to his heart muscle causing it to beat and allowing him to live. God has planted His word in the dead heart of sinners giving them new spiritual life and life eternal. But, just as the man with the pacemaker must make lifestyle changes that cooperate and do not oppose the working of the pacemaker (in order for him to live) so also the believer must make lifestyle changes that cooperate with and do not oppose the word of God within him.
That leads us to the “but” of verse twenty-two. Instead of the old life, where we might have heard the word and ignored it, or heard the word and forgot it, or heard the word and disobeyed it, now that it is planted in us and is our source of life and salvation, we are under necessary obligation to move beyond merely believing God’s word to enacting God’s word in our lives. The beauty we see in the mirror of grace must become the beauty others see in our lives. In good times and bad, in joys and in sorrows, in temptations and trials, in adversity and freedom, those to whom the word gives life must persevere in the word, not just believing but doing what God says, and we will be “blessed in our doing.”