Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 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. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 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.
Religious hypocrisy is a problem. Many leave the church, saying, “I can’t trust an institution that is so hypocritical!” Of course, these people reveal that their problem was not particularly the church, but rather themselves, as they were seeking to trust the church rather than God Himself. And it is quite true that there is an extent to which this is pretty unfair, as no one cares about the fact that, for example, no atheist truly lives as if humans are just sacks of meaningless stardust, which is exactly what we all are if atheism is true. Nonetheless, it is rather problematic that the word “church” is thought of by many as synonymous with “hypocrisy”. Because of this perception, it is important for Christians to be diligent in practicing what we preach. I believe that the root issue of religious hypocrisy is primarily a widespread lack of theological understanding. This is not because there is not enough teaching, but rather because we have left our solid teaching in the abstract and not brought it into practical reality. The message of this passage of James, which is important for the American church today, is this: Theology not lived is theology not learned.
The Implanted Word
The foundational idea that must be understood in the passage is the idea of “the implanted word”. James commands the recipients of the epistle to “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness”, or in other words to repent of their sins. Along with repentance, they are to “receive with meekness the implanted word”. What exactly is “the implanted word”? He is speaking of reading scripture. But he is not talking about a casual read through a YouVersion bible plan, with no comprehension. “Implanted” bears implications of the word being deeply-rooted. This language recalls the passage in John in which Jesus speaks of himself as “the true vine” (John 15:1). He says in that chapter, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:7-8). Jesus elsewhere compares the word to seeds being scattered and our hearts as soil into which the word is planted (Matthew 13). This is what James is talking about here. The word that is properly understood is that which is firmly planted in a humble heart and bears fruit, which is obedience to the word. Such obedience, Christ says, is the proof of the genuineness of our faith. This is why James commands them to be “not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Just as one who bears fruit proves to be a genuine believer, so also one who does not bear fruit proves that he is a fake. He’s lying to himself, and to God. This is because theology not lived is theology not learned.
This has great implications about what it truly means to be a theologian. A theologian is an expert in theology. The word ‘theologian’ brings to our minds men with chins full of beard, mouths full of cigar smoke, and brains full of knowledge. But the way that scripture describes a true expert of theology is not simply one who knows theology, but one who also does theology. It is one in whom the word of God is alive and firmly planted, and whose fruits can be seen by those around him, being manifested in a practical way. James describes one that is not a doer as one who forgets what he looks like the moment he walks away from the mirror. No matter how many Spurgeon quotes he may have in his arsenal, a man who is not a doer knows absolutely nothing of theology. On the other hand, the man who commonly mistakes J.C. Ryle for Toronto Blue Jays’ starting pitcher J.A. Happ, yet is being conformed into the image of Christ through the word of God, can be rightly called a great theological scholar. As Paul writes, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). “And this is love,” John writes, “that we walk according to his commandments” (2 John 1:6). This is certainly not to say that theology is unimportant. On the contrary, one cannot live out his theology without first gaining knowledge of theology. But theology that does not reach the surface is not theology that has truly been learned or believed in the heart.
Douglas Wilson often says, “whatever it is that comes out your fingertips is your theology.” The knowledgeable man who does not live his theology is no theologian at all, and this is because a mere profession is not sufficient proof of belief. Rather, what he truly believes in his heart is what he proves to believe with his actions. Christ says in Matthew 15, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person… For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” That which you say and do is an overflow of what you believe in your heart. You may acknowledge that the Bible says, “You shall not murder,” and say you believe it to be true, but if you then turn and murder your neighbor, you prove your claim to have been a lie. This is an extreme example, but I hope you see the point. Your true beliefs are those which you live out, not necessarily what you claim to believe.
A dangerous trap many fall into is the trust that one’s profession of belief in solid doctrine can save oneself from being a heretic. Yet if the theology expressed in every Christian’s actions were to be translated into a systematic theology, many who cross every confessional ’t’ and dot every catechismal ‘i’ would surely find themselves to be very unorthodox, in the worst sense of the word. But because there has yet to be invented an iPhone app to execute such a translation, we find ourselves in danger of falling into this trap without any natural way of recognizing it. Therefore, it cannot be stressed enough just how important it is to look intently, consistently, and humbly into the mirror of the word of God. The author of Hebrews writes, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13). The only process by which we are able to discern our unconscious theology is, through our humble searching of the word, that the word also searches us and illuminates the parts of our hearts which formerly sat, covered in cobwebs, in complete darkness. By the grace of God, through the living word of God and the Holy Spirit who lives within us, the veil is lifted and we can see the holy truth of the Law of Liberty set in stark contrast with the counterfeit theology with which we have aligned our lives.
So, if we must bring our theology out of the mere abstract and into the practical, should I not myself then provide some practical application? Indeed. I will get to that in my next post on James 1:26-27.