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Living A Bridled Life

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

James 1:26-27

In my last blog post, I discussed James’ teaching on how we must “be doers of the word, and not hearers only”. In this post, I will go over the next couple verses in which he gets a bit more practical, explaining what exactly a heart embedded with the implanted word looks like. But first, I’d like to go over some of the apparent issues among the recipients of the epistle, which can be gathered from its content. While it is broadly addressed to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (referring to general believers from different localities), particular issues are confronted that were widespread among Christians at the time. The dilemma that faced these believers was intense persecution for their faith, which resulted in greed, partiality, envy, adultery, and overall worldliness. If you believe, as many do, that the first century church was spotless, then think again. The picture painted here is messy. And the lesson that James teaches in order to tackle their messiness speaks greatly to the messy American church today. It is this: The fruit of the implanted word is a bridled life.

The Tongue and Directional Bridling

After speaking of being doers of the word, James makes a point to instruct his hearers to begin their doing with a bridled tongue. He says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). He explains this further in chapter 3, saying, “For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:2). In other words, obedience begins with the tongue. If you can practice righteousness and self-control with your words, then you will be able also to do so in deed. If you are unable to do so with your words, neither will you be be able to do so in deed, and you will not bear the fruit that is proof of discipleship. Christ said, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19). Therefore, proof of the word’s implantation in one’s heart begins with a bridled tongue, which is the first step toward its working to bridle the believer’s life.

I don’t wish to be redundant with my references, but I could not write on this passage without again quoting Douglas Wilson, who I quoted in my previous post. On this passage, he writes, “The Lord’s brother James draws a straight line between governance of the tongue and governance of everything else. He compares self-control here to a bit and bridle that enables a rider to direct a horse where it needs to go… But there are two reasons why we want to be able to direct a horse we are riding. The first is to prevent it from going where we don’t want to go. The first is to keep us on the trail, to keep us from arriving at a destination we do not want. The second is to direct us positively, to actually arrive where we need to be.”

In regards to the exercise of self-control, what comes to most people’s minds is the ability to abstain from what you do not desire to do. This is certainly a great deal of what self-control is, but it is not the whole of it. It also includes the ability to do that which you wish to do, or more in line with the illustration, to arrive at your intended destination. Bridling of the tongue then means not only refraining from saying what you ought not, but also engaging in the saying of what you ought. You can then see how James uses this to transition into the two defining fruits of pure religion: 1. “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction”, and 2. “to keep oneself unstained from the world.” He defines word-implanted faith as that which is manifested in the negative (being unlike the world) and the positive (performing acts of justice toward the needy). The purification of the stains of the world is the pulling of the horse out of the ditch, whereas the acts of justice are the destination. Both the negative and positive make up the whole of the bridled life, and the ability to do this comes ultimately from a bridled heart and tongue. And a bridled life is what James calls “religion that is pure and undefiled before God.”

The Church (Un)stained

To begin our self-examination according to these truths, let us begin by observing the call to keep ourselves unstained from the world. Would you say that “unstained” is a good defining term for the American church? “Pure”? “Holy”? If we are honest, these words are just about the last we would use to describe the state of much of the Christianity that surrounds us. R.C. Sproul successfully identified our condition when he said, “The greatest weakness in the church today is that the servants of God keep looking over their shoulder for the approval of men.” We are like 10 year old boys in a little league baseball game who look to the stands, after getting a base hit, to see if dad was watching. Should we not then be surprised that we can go only a few steps toward first base before tripping over our own feet? But it is even worse, as in our case, we are not looking to our Father for approval, but rather the very men who oppose our Father. Their father is the enemy who seeks our destruction. Should it be of any surprise to us then that the church lacks any power whatsoever? Step back and examine the average American church service for a moment. What is the focus? Is it an unashamed proclamation of the gospel? Is it solid doctrine? Is it heart-felt, Godward praise? Is it iron-sharpening and exhortation? Not quite… Rather, the focus is very much on entertainment or personalities or performances or vague “spiritual” abstracts that never touch reality enough to convict a single soul. We have let the world write our liturgy. We have let the world decide what we can or cannot preach. This is most prevalent in the seeker-sensitive movement, but I am not only speaking of them. Even churches with the most solid theology shy away from certain truths and actions in an effort to appease unbelievers. The American church is submitted not to the lordship of Christ, but rather to the opinions of men.

And by our submission to men’s opinions we have neglected the orphan and widow. If you can’t see how this is the case, then you have probably never been outside an abortion clinic. At the Planned Parenthood nearest to where I live, at least 75-100 children are led to the slaughter by their own mothers on a weekly basis. To watch woman after woman walk in, knowing the atrocity they are about to commit, is absolutely heartbreaking. Seeing them hours later having to be carried out of the building by their boyfriend or husband or mom or dad while bawling their eyes, out is beyond heartbreaking. But the most heartbreaking sight of all is when I turn around from preaching to these women to see only a couple other Christians behind me. The churches in the city outnumber Planned Parenthood more than 100 to 1, and yet only a handful of Christians are ever there to plead with mothers, offer assistance, and preach the gospel. And why are Christians nowhere to be found? Like the first century believers to whom James wrote his epistle, our care of the world’s opinion of us has superseded our responsibility to love all of our neighbors impartially. We hold vague pro-life opinions. We reluctantly give sanctity of life sermons, ending with a call to put money in a baby bottle. We hold yearly marches. We vote for presidential candidates who make empty promises. And this is just about where our efforts end. It is not enough. In fact, we know it’s not enough. Yet we continue to do the bare minimum, and I am convinced that it is because we know that if we started to truly live as if children are being murdered, the world would not tolerate it. Just like the recipients of James’ epistle, we neglect our responsibility to care for the orphan and widow for the sake of a preserved reputation before the world. Our religion is far from pure and undefiled. Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 is also a rebuke of the American church; “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” We take time out of our week to listen to sermons, sing songs, and give our tithes, but how much of our time is given to establishing justice, extending mercy, and doing the faithful work of caring for the ‘least of these’?

Repentance and Hope

We have to repent of our apathy in regards to the unborn children being led to the slaughter and the many women in need of assistance. And this begins with a bridled tongue. How so? Well, it begins by using our bridle to direct our tongues positively toward the preaching of the gospel. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again from the dead, abolishing death and claiming authority over all things, according to His plan to reconcile all things to Himself. We are the ambassadors of a God who saves sinners. We are the messengers of a Creator who redeems murderers and gives them new life. Once we understand the heart of the gospel and successfully communicate it to ourselves and those around us, then we are also able to understand why it is the farthest thing from unloving to preach it to those who are so enslaved by this culture of death that they are willing to pay someone to tear their own child apart. They believe that whatever sin led to their situation can be covered by the blood of their child. But we know that the only blood able to atone for sins is the blood of the spotless lamb, Jesus Christ. Therefore, there is no greater message to be preached to women, no greater message to be offered in interposition for the unborn, than the gospel. But, as Paul writes, “how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). And who has the ability to preach the gospel with power, other than the Church, in whom the Spirit of the living God dwells? You, if you are in Christ, have the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation. There are children and souls waiting to be saved, and you have the power to do so. Don’t hide your light. Instead, let it shine and light up the darkest corners of this world.

Theology Not Lived Is Theology Not Learned.

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.

James 1:21-25

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.

Unconscious Theology

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.

Response to The Well’s “You Asked For It”

This past Easter Sunday, some local abolitionists stood outside the Well in Geneva, Illinois, passing out literature and holding signs, exhorting them to get involved in the fight to abolish abortion. The church’s mission statement is to “love people into deeper levels of relationship with Jesus Christ” and so when brothers and sisters in Christ show up, exhorting them to love their littlest neighbors, one would expect a loving response. But this was certainly not the case. Ignoring Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 6 not to take fellow believers to the unbelieving authorities, the lead pastor called the police, hoping to get them kicked off the public easement in front of their property. Another elder prevented congregants from taking literature and screamed to one abolitionist, “you are an ugly man!” In another interaction, he told him that what he does is “vile and disgusting!” Additionally, a volunteer entering the parking lot cried, “you are an embarrassment to Jesus Christ!” I guess there are conditions to those who they are willing to “love into deeper levels of relationship with Jesus Christ”…

But this is not where the story ends… The lead pastor told a light-hearted story from the pulpit about how his wife was taking birth control when two of his children were conceived, providing no caveat that taking pills designed to murder her children was wrong in any way. Because of this, a former member of the church made a Facebook comment about his story, claiming that he was not opposed to murdering children in the form of abortifacients. Since he had made the public statement that his wife took these drugs, it is not completely out of left field to assume that he condones doing so. Nonetheless, the pastor immediately called the woman who made the comment and began hurling insults and telling her that she needed to take the comment down immediately. When she was reluctant, he began digging up unrelated hurtful events from when she was a member of his church, attempting to make her out to be malicious and divisive. After also calling her a “compulsive liar”, he then claimed that he had never called her that, only to call her a “compulsive liar” again about 15 minutes further into the conversation, in addition to calling her husband a “wolf”. Because he had been caught promoting child-sacrifice, which is certainly a blemish to one’s reputation, he was willing to resort to manipulation and name-calling toward a woman who his own pastoral neglect had hurt in the past, in order to protect his beloved reputation. Is this how you “love people into deeper levels of relationship with Jesus Christ”?

After the abolitionists had recently returned a second time to hand out more literature, a blog post was published by an elder of the Well which contains false information about them. He shares a question asked by a member of the congregation, writing, “Does the pregnancy information center that The Well backs, offer abortions every Monday? I ask to clarify what protesters were saying on Easter Sunday outside of the church grounds.” He then answers the question without ever seeking to clarify the real message of the “protestors”. In reality, none of the abolitionists were there to protest the church, nor had any of them claimed that PIC performs abortions. This was simply misinformation. One of the abolitionists posted a comment, attempting to seek an edit for clarification, but the comment was immediately deleted and her Facebook page was blocked. This is rather hypocritical, considering the pastor was so butt-hurt about a single Facebook comment.

You can read the blog post here.

Because the Well is in the middle of a series entitled, “You Asked For It”, where they accept questions and answer them from the pulpit, I would like to join in and ask some questions:

  1. In what way is name-calling and manipulation “loving people into a deeper level of relationship with Jesus Christ”?
  2. In what way is it “vile and disgusting” to oppose child-sacrifice?
  3. In what way is it loving to slander fellow Christians and block them when they attempt to make a defense?
  4. Why are you more concerned about preserving your reputation than you are about your innocent unborn neighbors being slaughtered down the street from your church building or making right the great hurt your poor leadership has caused in people’s lives?

Berean Worldview: Judging All Things

Judge not, that you be not judged.

– Matthew 7:1

Tolerance is the key virtue of our age. You can murder, you can steal, you can engage in sexual immorality, but gosh darn, you’d better not judge someone else. This is the cry of many believers and unbelievers alike, with both often citing Matthew 7:1. “Judge not!” they shout angrily in the face of the man who utters the word ‘sin’, claiming that Jesus does not advocate any form of rebuke, but simply commands us to ‘love people into a deeper relationship with Christ,’ whatever that means. Because indeed these are actually the words of Christ, we should consider them in light of the passage itself to see if the argument of these advocates for tolerance holds any water.

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

Notice, after saying “judge not,” Jesus doesn’t pack up and go home. He instead explains why he says this. And what reason does he give for not judging? “Because it is bad all the time”? Nope. He instead says it is because with the judgement or measure that we use, we will also be judged or measured. In other words, he is saying, “Don’t judge someone if you would not be able to stand against the same judgement,” or more simply, “Don’t judge hypocritically.” But he doesn’t stop there. He compares hypocritical judgement to having a log in your eye, while being nit-picky about the specks in other people’s eyes. It’s obviously absurd. But what he says next is crucial to understanding the passage. “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” In other words, first preach to yourself and repent of your own sins, and then you will be able to make right judgements about the other person. So what he is saying is not, “Be tolerant of the sins of those around you because you’re also a sinner!” Instead, he is saying that when we judge, we should make sure we have preached to ourselves first. And if we are free of guilt in that area, we have the ability to help that person get out of the sin they are stuck in.

So if we are to judge, how are we to do so? Well Jesus speaks of judgement also in John 7:24. He says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.” It seems as if when MLK uttered the famous words, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” his dream was not just some unfounded fancy of his. It was rooted in the words of Christ. When we judge others, we are not to do so based on outward appearance. This means that we are not to attribute sins or sinful motives to others simply based on the way that they appear to us. For example, one man commented on a Facebook post of mine saying something along the lines of, “I’ve seen pictures of you on the street, and all you do is judge. No grace at all.” Of course, the things I said during the pictured evangelism could have been lacking grace, and if he were there, I would be open to his judgement. But the fact is that nothing I said could possibly have shown up in the picture. He simply had a presupposition about what I must have been saying and attributed motives to me without proper evidence. Rather than engaging in this arbitrary form of judgement, biblical judgement involves an honest attempt at knowing the facts. And when no evidence can be found to convict the person of sin, the only guilty party is most likely your presumptuous self.

Being Bereans

The natural man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. For they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is not subject to anyone’s judgment. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

– 1 Corinthians 2:15

Paul contrasts the knowledge of the unbeliever and the believer. An unconverted person can know plenty, even plenty more than the converted person, in regards to natural things. Yet because they are spiritually dead, they cannot see things that pertain to the God to whose glory all those natural things point. In contrast, the believer has the Spirit of God within him, and through the Spirit has the very mind of Christ Himself. He has authority to judge all things, whereas the unbeliever’s judgements bear no weight. Of course, as we have discussed, a believer can judge falsely. So how do we know that our judgements are right judgements and not superficial? We can have assurance that our judgements are of the Spirit as far as they have a basis in the word of God. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Scripture is the word of the God, who is himself truth, and therefore it is the only objective truth we can know. It is the ultimate standard by which all things must be measured. And so, as Christians this must be our standard for judging all things.

An example we have of this sort of utter dependence on the word of God is in Acts 17:11. It says, “Now the Bereans were more noble-minded than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if these teachings were true.” The fact that these men received the message with great eagerness shows that the message sounded right. And it was exciting to them. Yet they were not going to trust Paul, nor would they trust their own intuition. Their authority was the word of God, and that alone. They are an example of the complete submission our hearts and minds are to surrender to Scripture. Even if something sounds or looks or feels or tastes right, we must first judge it by the word of God as our ultimate authority. This means that we cannot let the world define things for us. This means we cannot let pastors define things for us. This means we cannot even define things for ourselves. We must allow God to shape our view of the world, by his grace, through his word.

A Berean Worldview

If we are to truly be bereans then we must judge all things against Scripture. This means that everything from how we eat to how we vote must be done to the glory of God. Right before Christ ascended into heaven, He left His disciples with this epic proclamation: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Therefore, Scripture is applicable to all areas of life, as Christ is Lord over it all. So, if we are to truly live as if this is true, then we must not leave anything unquestioned. “Should I send my kids to public school?” Look to Scripture. “Should I recycle?” Look to Scripture. “Should I trust that gravity will still work tomorrow?” Look to Scripture. “Should I overthrow this foreign government and install my own democratic leader?” Look to Scripture. If we begin judging all things by the word of God, we will see with a greater clarity, enabling us to truly be the light of the world that we are called to be. So quit making arbitrary assertions and relying on your flimsy emotions to guide your life. Search the Scriptures. Be a berean.