For Mothers Day we got some things for Cheryl for the garden. She loves to garden outside — and I love to go out and walk through the garden with her for 5 minutes before I go inside to read! The other day we had just finished looking at her raised beds with the corn and squash and peppers, and we had gone over to the strawberry patch, where there are a thousand blooms, and some little green strawberries! But while we were looking, all of the sudden Cheryl saw something that wasn’t right, and she pulled up this one plant. I said, “Why’d you do that?” It had a little red berry on it. She said, “This isn’t a strawberry.” At first glance I thought it was — but when I looked at it more closely, I could see that the little red fruit on there was NOT actually a strawberry; it was something else that didn’t need to be in the strawberry patch. You could tell it wasn’t a strawberry by its fruit.
Which reminds us of an important spiritual principle. Jesus said: “You will know them (His true followers) by their fruits.” Many people want to claim to be Christians, but Jesus said that genuine Christians will bear certain fruit in their lives, and by that fruit you can tell them apart from those who just “say” they are following Jesus but are not really.
Our passage for this morning, James 1:21-27, spells out for us what some of that fruit is. Jesus said in :21 that “the word implanted … is able to save your souls.” That is, the word of the gospel can come and be “planted” into your life, and it can save you — IF it finds good soil to grow in (like Matthew 13 talks about). But how do you KNOW if the gospel has found good soil in your life? How do you know if you are really following Jesus, and not just making an empty claim to be a Christian (like so many people do)? This passage shows us at least three things that will be present in your life if you are really a Christian:
I. You will DO the word.
James says here, “the implanted word of God IS indeed able to save your soul.” But he says in :22, “Prove yourselves DOERS of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”
He goes on to say in :23+, “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.” This is one of the best pictures in the whole Bible of what too many people do with the word of God.
Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror, and just been shocked at what you saw? I do that all the time. See, I am getting close to 60 years old. This June I am going to be 59 — no matter how you slice it, that’s getting pretty close to 60! Cheryl & I were at a restaurant the other day, and I saw they had a “senior menu” for those 55 and older, and all of the sudden I said, “Oh my gosh —we qualify for that!” It had just never dawned on me that I am a “senior citizen.” Because the thing is, I don’t “feel” like I am 60; you know what I mean? Inside I still “feel” like I am that 35 or 40 year old guy.
EXCEPT: when I look in the mirror. Then I see who I really am there. I have this picture in my mind that I am 35 or 40, and lean, and running up to 13 miles a day, and that I look a certain way — but when I look in the mirror, I am like, “Whoa, who is THAT?!” — sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that that is who I really am. And unfortunately what usually happens is that I just walk away and forget what I looked like — and go back to thinking I’m 35 and thin again! I need to remember what I saw in that mirror, and eat, and exercise, and act, on what I really AM. It doesn’t do me any good to look in the mirror and walk away and not do anything about it.
James is saying here that this is exactly what a lot of us do with our walk with the Lord. Perhaps THE single most important thing you can do to benefit your Christian life is to spend time in God’s word every day. Someone once said if I had to choose between prayer and Bible reading, I’d choose Bible reading, because I need to hear what God is saying more than He needs to hear what I am saying! (Although we don’t have to choose; we can and should do both.) But reading the Bible is arguably THE single most important thing you can do for your Christian life — which is why we are emphasizing it so much this year.
But here’s the important thing: James says reading the Bible is like looking into a mirror. When we look into the word of God, we don’t just see words; we don’t just see “ancient history;” we don’t just see stories about other people there; if we are perceptive, we see OURSELVES. When we see Adam & Eve give in to temptation, we see our own temptation there. When we see Cain jealous of his brother, we see our own jealousy. When we see David lusting after Bathsheba, we see our own lusts. When we read about Jacob’s anxieties, we see our own fears. God wants us to see these things in His word; He wants to speak to us, and change us through His word.
One of the most important things for Christians to realize (especially new Christians, but all of us need to remember this) is that we do not get totally changed all at once the moment we get saved. Yes, we are “born again” Jesus said in John 3, and we become “new creatures” II Corinthians 5 says, but it’s like we’re a house that has just been bought by a new owner. Our “title of ownership” has changed — but now we still need to get “remodeled.” There’s a lot of habits in our lives that need to be changed; our thought patterns that need to be reformed. Just like with transforming an old house, there’s a lot of work that has to be done. And that happens gradually as we open God’s word every day, and His Holy Spirit shows us the sin in our lives, and through His power, He changes us each day, and makes a little more like the person He wants us to be. Day by day, we “look in the mirror” of God’s word, and we are changed.
But James says, the worst thing that can happen to you, is for you to do with God’s word, what many of us do with the mirror: just look at it, and walk away and forget what you saw there. It doesn’t do me any good if I look in the mirror and see I need to lose some weight, and then walk away and forget about it, and eat like I was 25 years old! And likewise it doesn’t do me any good to open the “mirror” of God’s word and read it, and walk away and not DO anything about what I read there!
In fact, James says if this is what is happening to you, you are “deceiving yourself” (:22). If you are not being changed by God’s word, you are not right with God, and you are probably not even a Christian at all. Christians do not just “look” at the word of God like a person looks at a mirror, and walk away and do nothing. Christians DO something about what they see in God’s word — :25 says you “look intently” at God’s Law, and then you “abide by it” — that is, you live it out; you are not a “forgetful hearer, but an effectual doer.” He says THIS is the one who is blessed; THIS is the one who is really a Christian person.
See, this is where a lot of people really misunderstand Christianity, and put themselves in a very dangerous position spiritually. We have been taught (wrongly) over the years that “going to church” is the most important thing: Just “go to church” and you are a good Christian, we’ve thought. And so if we go to church every week, we congratulate ourselves and think, “I went to church, then I must be a pretty good person; I must be right with God” — when you may not be right with God at all! James says here that being a Christian is NOT just about “coming to church” and HEARING the word of God; if you are really a Christian you will be DOING the word of God! Listen, you can go to church every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, and every Wednesday night, all year long and never miss, and “hear the word” of God, but if you don’t DO it, you are “deceiving yourself”! You are not a Christian at all!
See Jesus said to His disciples in John 13:17, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you DO them.” There is no blessing for just knowing; you have to DO it! Jesus closed the Sermon on the Mount by saying “Therefore the one who hears these word of Mine and ACTS upon them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house upon the rock.” If you want your spiritual house to be built upon the rock of Jesus, He says you have to DO what He says. It is not enough to hear it; it is not enough to read it; you have to DO it! We need to get this through our heads, after all those years of wrong thinking: There is no blessing for just coming to church and sitting and listening and not doing anything about it. You have to DO what you hear to be blessed.
So are you really a Christian? Has the word of God really found a home in your heart? Ask yourself: not only am I just “going” to church, but am I DOING things differently because of what I hear in church? Ask yourself: not only “Am I reading the Bible?” But I am I DOING things differently because of what I am reading in the Bible? That’s a whole different thing, isn’t it? Test the fruit of your salvation: are you DOING the word? Or are you just looking at it, or listening to it, and walking away, doing nothing?
II. You will PURIFY your life.
:21 “Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness …”
:26 “thinks himself to be religious but does not bridle his tongue …
:27 “keep oneself unstained by the world.”
In these verses James is showing us a second “fruit” of real salvation: purifying your life, or HOLINESS. He says you are to “put aside filthiness”. He says you are to “bridle your tongue.” He says you will not be “stained by the world.” In other words, if you are really following Jesus, you will pursue holiness.
See, the Bible tells us that God is a HOLY God. Isaiah 6 says that the angels around His throne continually call out “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts.” God is holy. He is perfect. I John 1:5 says He is “light and there is no darkness in Him.” That chapter goes on to say, if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we can have fellowship with Him. But if we walk in the darkness, we are LYING if we say that we have fellowship with Him. God is perfect and holy; He cannot have fellowship with people who walk in sin.
This is why we have to be saved in the first place: God is holy; but we have all sinned. If God hadn’t done something for us, we would all have been separated from Him in hell forever. But God DID do something for us: He sent Jesus to die on the cross and pay for our sins, so that our sins could be forgiven and that we could come back to God. But part of His invitation to come back to Him is to “repent,” which means to turn away from the sins we have been committing, and which have taken us away from Him, and come back to Him. Over and over in the New Testament, Jesus, and John the Baptist, and Peter, and Paul, all preached “repent”: turn away from your sins, and come back and follow Jesus.
LISTEN: THE MESSAGE OF THE BIBLE IS NOT, “Just pray a prayer and keep on doing whatever you’re doing, and God will forgive you and take you to heaven.” That is not anywhere in the Bible. The message of the Bible is “repent;” turn away from your sins. James says here: “Therefore, putting ASIDE filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, receive the word implanted which is able to save your souls.” But a key part of that “word implanted” really “saving your souls” is “putting aside filthiness … and wickedness.” If you are really receiving the word of God in your life, you will not just continue happily in your same sins. You will start “putting them aside” and begin purifying your life.
Now, this does not mean that if you are really a Christian you are perfect. As I said a bit ago, God changes us little by little every day as His Holy Spirit uses His word to change us as we apply it to our lives. I’ve said before, becoming holy is like getting a tan; you don’t get a tan in one day (unless you get it out of a can, and then it’s not really a tan!) — you get a tan little by little, day by day, as you are exposed to the sun. And that is exactly how we become holy: little by little, day by day, as we are exposed to the light of God’s word. You don’t become holy all at once; it is a process — but if the word of God has really found a place in your heart, you WILL see progress in holiness. You will not remain the same. And even in those areas of your life in which you do struggle —and we all struggle with sins — don’t think you’re not a Christian if you struggle with sins; we all do — but if you are really a Christian you aren’t content with those sins; you will struggle against them; you will pray about them; you will be working on them. You will be in the process of “putting them aside.”
So ask yourself: am I doing this? Am I in the process of working on the sins in my life? Am I struggling against it? Am I seeing some progress? Am I putting aside filthiness and wickedness in my life? Am I trying to avoid things that stain my life with sin, because I don’t want that sin to come between me and God? Purifying your life is one of the most important fruits of a heart in which the word of God has really been planted.
III. You will MINISTER to others.
In one of the strongest statements in this book, James says in :26-27, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his own tongue but deceives his own, heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
James says here, you can SAY you’re religious (and most people here in North Carolina do say they are) but if you really have faith, he says. you will “keep yourself unstained by the world” like we just talked about — you’ll be holy; AND your faith is also going to lead you to MINISTER to others.
He says here that genuine religion is “to visit orphans and widows in their distress.” Now these are two very important ministries:
— In New Testament times, as well as today, orphans are one of the most oppressed groups in our world. They have no parents to look after them, so they are neglected, or worse, taken advantage of, and become slaves or prostitutes. He says your faith should cause you to do something to minister to people like that. I read that if every church in America would have a family that took one child into foster care, there would be no orphans in our country. And what better picture of the gospel is there, than that of taking a helpless child into your care, out of selfless love? That is exactly what God did for us.
— And God wants us to minister to widows as well. Psalm 68:5 says God is the Father of the fatherless and a protector of widows. God cares about widows, and wants us to care for them. In fact, this was the origin of the original deacon ministry in Acts 6: it came about to care for widows, and make sure they had daily food.
There is a lot that can be said about these ministries, but I think there is a sense in which we can interpret James almost “too literally” here. I don’t think his main point is just that we need to minister to these two groups, although we do. I think his main point here is, if your faith is real, you will not just sit there and think yourself to be “religious” because you go to church and read your Bible; he says you will DO something to minister to people: orphans, widows, or whoever needs ministering. The point is, real faith is not going to just sit there. It is going to lead you to DO something in Jesus’ name in the world in which you live.
William Wilberforce was an English politician who lived in the 1800’s, and when he was saved, he told William Carey that he was thinking about resigning his position in the English Parliament, to become a minister. Carey told him, why don’t you consider instead, just staying where you are? He said, you are in a prominent place of influence (Parliament is the English Congress), and let your faith in God do some good there for His Kingdom? And Wilberforce did. He made it his life’s goal to eliminate the evil of slavery from England, which took him a lifetime, but 3 days before his death, slavery was finally abolished in England! But the thing was, because he was a Christian, Wilberforce knew he had to serve God by ministering to people in some way. His faith drove him to DO something for God in this world.
This is James’ point here: real faith doesn’t just claim to be “religious;” real faith works. I saw where someone gave the title, “Faith Works” for their study on the Book of James, and I think that’s a good title for this book. James is a very practical book; he talks about how faith ACTS if it is real. “Faith works!”
Faith can express itself in all kinds of avenues of service:
— You can preach like I do, or lead worship like Jim
— teach a class of adults, or youth, or children, or help someone do that.
— interpret for the deaf
— care for sweet babies and little ones in the nursery
— visit the homebound and those in our nursing homes. (Carolyn story? We hardly have enough to visit once a week; we need to do more; we need to do better; but it’s not those who are doing it need to do more; many of them are taking huge amounts of time every week visiting; we need more of us doing it! We need to let our faith take us out to “visit orphans and widows in their distress” just like James says here.
— You can volunteer and serve at Burke United Christian Ministries
— Steve Woody is leading our local mission team in local project – they will be getting a local Christian camp ready next week and they need helpers.
— You can go on mission trips and tell people about Jesus – and tell people about Jesus right where you are!
There are a thousand ways you can serve; a thousand different ministries you can be involved in — and I don’t have any preference as to what you do. People are often very passionate about their ministry, and they just think that everyone should be doing what they are — and I get that:
— if you’re in the choir, you tell people: “there is no thrill like worshiping God with this amazing music! You need to be up here!”
— or if you’re in the deaf ministry you are passionate because 98% of deaf people don’t know Christ
— My sister is a missionary, and she doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t go to the mission field!
But the truth is, we all need to understand that God has not called us all to be involved in the same ministries. He has given us a variety of gifts and abilities — and He designed it that way, so that His people might touch a number of different people in a number of different ways as their faith calls them to action.
Faith will call us to action in a number of different ways. But the one thing that real faith will NOT lead you to do, is NOTHING! Real faith works. Real faith acts. Real faith serves. It WILL DO something. It will not do nothing. James goes on in Chapter 2:20 here to say: “faith without works is useless”; “faith without works is dead.” (:26) The one thing that genuine faith will NOT do, is NOTHING. If your faith is real, it will act. It will minister. If that’s so, then what does that say about your faith? Is your faith real? If it is, then what is it doing? Real faith ministers to others.
Now let me make it clear again as we close this morning: You are NOT saved by what you do. Salvation is “not of works” Ephesians 2 says. You are saved by faith in what Jesus did on the cross for you. If someone asks you: “Why should God let you into heaven?”, DO NOT say, “Because I am trying to do all these things.” “Doing religious stuff” won’t get you into heaven; only faith in what Jesus did will save you. But how do you know if you really have saving faith? A lot of people wrestle with that. James shows us here that what you do, doesn’t save you — but what you do does SHOW whether you are really saved. Jesus said “You will know them by their fruit.” And James says here that fruit includes DOING what you read in the word; PURIFYING your life from sin; and MINISTERING in some way to others.
If that’s so, then what does YOUR fruit say about whether your faith is real?