Well, I don’t normally start sermons like this, but I do want to say that I’m really excited to be here in this moment with you, this morning, looking at this passage together— and I’ve been excited about this all last week. That’s partly because I figured early on last week that by today this head cold I was dealing with would be over. I was looking forward to actually being able to smell and taste again — and I’m almost there! It’s not as bad now as it was early last week at my house.
My whole family had this same cold and it was rough. Some of the kids missed school and the babies, especially, had a hard time. That’s because when a baby has a stuffy nose it’s a lot different than when a grown person has a stuffy nose. We know how to use tissues, and we can work around the breathing issues. But babies, when they can’t breathe, they just cry. And at night, if they sleep with a pacifier, it gets even more complicated. And Melissa and I ran into a few of those moments last week.
We share our room with the two babies, and so you have to use your imagination for a minute (it’s going to be really easy for some of you) — but imagine: it’s 3 in the morning, you start to hear some babies crying, and it doesn’t stop, and the issue is that the babies have stuffy noses. And so Melissa wakes up — and I wake up, too, but I’ve been drinking NyQuil, so I’m sorta there, sorta not — but Melissa takes the babies, and she has this device that basically syphons the snot out of their noses so they can breathe. So she does that so the babies can go back sleep, so that we can go back to sleep. And that happened more than once last week, so we might be a little tired, but we’re really happy to be here . . . looking at James 1:18–27.
Why This Passage Matters
The book of James, you’ve probably heard, is a book that majors on the practical. Pastor Joe mentioned last week that James has been classified as “New Testament wisdom literature.” And that’s partly because, 1) James draws a lot from the Old Testament’s wisdom literature, from place like the book of Proverbs, which has all kinds of practical knowledge; and then 2) it’s because over and over again James shows us real-life scenarios and then how Christians are to live truthfully in those scenarios — because that’s what wisdom is: wisdom is applying truth to real-life situations.
And James describes real-life situations that we could all find ourselves in, and then he tells us how we should think and act in those situations. So this book is loaded with wisdom, and it’s commonly considered to be practical because it is practical.
But there are two places in the book where James makes the case for why he cares so much about the practical. He doesn’t assume we know why it matters; he shows us why it matters — in two places. One of those places is in Chapter 2, and the other is our passage today, Chapter 1, verses 18–27. In these verses, James lays out why it matters how you live as a Christian.
We’re going to look closer at these verses, but I want to go ahead and give you three summary statements for what James is saying here. These are the three points of the sermon, high-level summary, James is saying:
- God created us by the gospel.
- Therefore, we must truly embrace the gospel.
- Truly embracing the gospel will change the way we live.
So let’s dig in.
1. God created us by the gospel (v. 18).
Now we see this in verse 18, but look at verse 17 first. James says, verse 17,
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. [In other words, James is saying that God is unchangeably good. God’s goodness is eternally reliable.]
[Then in verse 18 he says] Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
Now verse 18 is what we could call a “hinge verse.” That’s because it’s connected to what’s said before it, and to what’s said after it. James is continuing his thought on the goodness of God in verse 17 but then he introduces a new topic for verses 19–27 when he mentions “the word of truth” (there in verse 18).
Does everyone see that phrase in verse 18? — “the word of truth.” Now this is going to become the new topic in the passage, although James is going to say it a few different ways. He calls it “the word of truth” in verse 18, and then “the implanted word” in verse 21, and then “the word” in verses 22 and 23, and then “the perfect law” and “the law of liberty” in verse 25. He refers to it six times, and I’m saying he’s talking about the same thing, so what is it that he’s talking about?
Talking About the Gospel
Well, James is talking about the gospel. It’s not uncommon in the New Testament for the gospel to be referred to without actually using the word “gospel.” Sometimes it can just be called “the truth” (Gal 5:7; Eph 415). Other times it’s just “the word” (1 Cor. 15:2; Phil 1:14), or . . .
- “the word of God” (Col 1:25) or
- “the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17) or
- “the word of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:8) or
- “the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) or
- “the word of life” (Phil 2:16) or
- “the word of truth” (also Eph 1:13).
There are many different ways to say it, but each time the biblical authors are talking about the gospel. They are talking about the message about how God saves sinners. That’s what the gospel is in a nutshell. The gospel is the message, the announcement, that Jesus died in our place and was raised from the dead to bring us into a right relationship with God.
And that could be looked at from a couple different perspectives — sometimes the Bible uses a wide-angle lens (it looks at all of God’s promises to us) and sometimes the Bible uses a zoomed-in lens (it focuses just on the cross) — but every time, when the gospel is talked about it’s talking about the message of God’s rescue through Jesus. And that’s what James is talking about here.
He is saying that: “out of God’s own will, he brought us forth by [the gospel].” God brought us forth by the message, the announcement, of what he has done to rescue us. We could spend all day on verse 18 because it’s so important, but I’m just going to point out a few things:
“Of his own will…”
First, notice the first words “Of his own will.” This is directly connected to verse 17. The God described in verse 17, the God who is unchangeably good — the Giver of every good and perfect gift who never changes — it is out of his own will that he has brought us forth by the gospel.
And the word for “will” in his own will — that carries the idea of desire and choice. So in terms of depth, James is giving us a glimpse into the heart of God here. He is saying that God brought us forth by the gospel because he wanted to. It’s not something that just happened. You believing the gospel was not just an event that occurs beneath the umbrella of God’s sovereignty. Not at all. Instead, God desired it. God wanted to save you. In the same way that he directly gives good gifts, in the same way that his goodness comes down straight from his hands, God directly, intentionally, wanted to save you.
Which means, and I want you to feel this, if you’re a Christian in here, you didn’t just barely make it in. You didn’t just barely pass. This is not like that D you got in high school Italian. You are saved because God desired it.
And if you’re here and you’ve not trusted in Jesus yet, I want you to know that God is at work in your life, and his work is out of his desire. It’s no accident. You should believe the gospel, because he wants you to.
“Of his own will he brought us forth…”
Now, what does James mean by “brought us forth”? “Of his own will he brought us forth…” It’s the same word used in verse 15 about sin. Sin, when it’s fully grown, brings forth death. And here, in verse 18, God brings us forth by the word of truth, the gospel. And so I’ve shortened that to say in summary: God created us by the gospel — because that’s the idea. For God to bring us forth is for God to create. God creates us new by the gospel. He created everything in the beginning; he’s the reason we exist — but then he creates us new by the gospel. This is what Jesus calls in John 3 being born again. Or it’s what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 5 when he says that in Christ we become new creatures. God is at work with his creative power in the gospel.
“a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
And James explains at the end verse 18: God created us by the gospel “so that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” Which is the biggest clue that James is talking about the new birth. When he says “creatures” here he’s not talking about old creation — he’s not talking about just humans. He’s talking about new creation — James talking about those created new by the gospel.
God’s plan in the new creation overall is the remake the whole world in righteousness and peace filled with his presence — that’s what heaven is. And God has made us, made Christians, to be the firstfruits of that on this earth right now.
Which means, before God creates a whole new world, he spiritually creates a new people, new creatures, and Christians are those creatures — which means, that Christians are supposed to be a taste of heaven on this earth. You, as a Christian, are created by the gospel to be a sample to those around you of what the kingdom of God is like. You are a preview of the new creation.
Again, we could spend all sermon on this verse because it’s so loaded. And it’s really important we get it because everything else in the passage flows from what James says here in verse 18. So we’ve got to nail down verse 18 before we see what’s next. We’ve got to get this: James says, in summary, verse 18:
God, because he wanted to, created us by the gospel to be a taste of heaven on this earth.
2. Therefore, we must truly embrace the gospel (vv. 19–21)
We’ll move a little quicker now. This second point comes straight from verse 21. James says:
Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
This is the second time James mentions the word. In verse 18 God “brought us forth by the word of truth” and here, in verse 21, he calls it “the implanted word.” So it’s same line of thought, but the question is why James snuck in verses 19–20. He’s been building a theological case here for why the practical matters, and then in verse 19 he just throws in a proverb. Why does he do that?
Well, it’s not by accident. I think James is up to something. On one hand, he mentions v. 19 because he’s setting up a larger discussion on speech that will come later in Chapter 3, but I think the main reason he throws this in is because he wants us to process a real-life example along with this deep theological truth.
He’s talking deep theological truth in verse 18, and then he says — timeout, get this: be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. Which is just straight advice about practical things, and then he explains, verse 20, the reason for this advice is because “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Some English translations might say: “the righteousness that God requires” (the NIV says that or an older ESV).
The phrase is literally “the righteousness of God” but the reason it can be translated the other way is because the kind of righteousness James is talking about here is our right living. He is not talking here about our standing with God based upon the righteousness of Jesus. James is talking, practically, about us living right before God . . .
And the implication, connected back to verse 18, is that if we have been created by the gospel, if we are the firstfruits of the new creation, then we are going to live right before God. And so James gives a little sneak peek example: The anger of man, and all the ways we might express it, that isn’t living right before God. That doesn’t add up with who God has created us to be as the firstfruits of the new creation.
“Therefore” — verse 21 — we need to repent and believe the gospel. If we find ourselves somewhere in verses 19–20 — and we all will from time to time. If we find ourselves in a place where our living doesn’t add up with our faith in the gospel — then, basically, we should repent and believe the gospel.
James says to put away sin — all filthiness and rampant wickedness — Put away sin and “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
That last phrase “able to save your souls” describes the “implanted word.” This word, the gospel, is able to save your souls.
It’s the same thing James is talking about in verse 18 when he says that God brought us forth by the word of truth. “Word of truth” and “implanted word” are both referring to the gospel.
So get what’s going on here:
- Verse 18: God created you by the gospel.
- Verse 21: In meekness receive the gospel.
And this is deep. James is saying to receive the very thing by which you have been created. And he says it strongly. The verb for receive is in the middle voice which means it’s like saying “receive for yourselves” the implanted word.
In meekness, receive for yourselves the implanted word. The same word by which God has created you. That word. That gospel. Receive the gospel for yourselves. Truly embrace the gospel yourselves.
That’s what James is saying.
He calls us to truly embrace the gospel as ones who God has created by the gospel. It’s the implanted word. God is the one who planted it. God is the author of the gospel and God is the one who created you by the gospel. Therefore we should truly embrace the gospel for ourselves.
And here’s the thing, this will only make sense to us if we understand the gospel.
Continually embracing the gospel will only make sense if we understand that the gospel isn’t just the thing that gets you into the Christian life, but the gospel is the never-ending heartbeat of the Christian life. We never get beyond the gospel. It’s the whole reason we’re here. It’s what we’re celebrating. It’s what we’re doing. It’s the point. And we can never forget that.
And I think this is so important for Cities Church to remember right now. . . . Because whatever our next steps are as a church, and however we’re thinking as we get closer to making a decision — the gospel has to be our center.
The message about what God has done to rescue sinners and remake the world must be the reality we’re working from. That’s got to be what we’re clinging to. So we need as a church, and us as individuals, we need a renewed, refreshed embrace of the gospel.
God created us by the gospel. Therefore, we must truly embrace the gospel. And . . .
3. Truly embracing the gospel will change the way we live (vv. 22–27).
Now here in verses 22–27 James is going to explain what truly embracing the gospel looks like. And the basic thing to know is that truly embracing the gospel will look like something. This is where James starts to make his case for why the practical matters: He says that the word by which we’ve been created, and the word that we should truly embrace, is also the word we do.
God creates us by the gospel. We truly embrace the gospel. And truly embracing the gospel means we are doers. It means we do something. And I know that sounds broad and generic, but that’s what James says. He says in verse 22,
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only…”
There’s no specific application. Just doer. Be a doer, not just a hearer. And I think James means for it to be broad here, almost like a category. So notice now what he says about deception: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
Or in other words, he’s saying that to think, categorically, that you can only be a hearer word and not a doer is to deceive yourself. To think that it could actually work that way is to be fooled. To imagine that we have the option to just hear the word, or check off the doctrine, without it really showing up in the way we live, to think like that, is to be deceived. Then he gives the analogy about the mirror, and his point is that it just doesn’t work that way. That’s the point James is making in verse 22.
Now skip down to verse 26 because I think he says the same thing there but in a different way, and he’s more specific this time when it comes to doing. He says, verse 26,
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.
Again, notice he mentions this idea of deceiving yourself. It’s “deceiving yourself” in verse 22 and “deceiving your heart” in verse 26.
- In verse 22, you deceive yourself if you think you can be a hearer only — if you think that hearing-only is an option.
- Then in verse 26, you deceive your heart if you think you’re religious but you have no self-control with your speech.
And the connection between both verses is that if you think that what you believe doesn’t manifest itself in action, then you’re deceived — and whatever it is you believe, whatever that religion is, if it doesn’t manifest in action, it’s worthless.
The word for “religion” here has the same kind of basic meaning it does today. It’s a basic way to talk about worship or devotion.
So James is trying to demolish the idea that what you embrace doesn’t change the way you live. OR the positive way of saying that is that truly embracing the gospel will change the way you live.
James gets more positive in verse 27. He says, on the contrary to verse 26,
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 mentions these two things here as examples of action. True religion means you do things like caring for orphans and widows. It means 1) you love the helpless; and it means, 2) the way you live isn’t dominated by the world’s value system. James’s basic point is that there’s action. There’s an effect. Your faith is manifested in real ways.
And that’s basically the theme of this whole book. Truly embracing the gospel will change the way we live. Faith in the gospel will show up in our actions.
And that’s so important for us to understand because it’s so easy for us to get this wrong.
And we can get it wrong a couple different ways:
One way is what James is going after in this letter. It’s the mistake that thinks we can truly believe the gospel and it not really have an impact on how we live. It’s the mistake of thinking that we can embrace the gospel but still live nominal, normal, non-sacrificial lives: We never share the gospel. We rarely risk our comfort. Basically we think we need to just get our doctrine in order and then just go through the motions. And if that’s you, then James wants to talk.
But then the other mistake we make. The other way we get it wrong . . . is to know that the gospel leads to action, and so we get active, but then some where along the way in our activity we forget all about verse 18. Remember verse 18 says “Of his own will be brought us forth by the word of truth so that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” But we forget that and instead we start operating like: “Out of our own ideas we bring our own selves forth by our hard work.”
We tend toward getting this wrong. We tend toward taking the gospel and then building out “the tyranny of oughts.” We ought to do this, and we ought to do that. And some of us live there. We just live there. Now we do. We might be great doers. But we’re doers of the oughts, not doers of the gospel. We’ve made the oughts a law that is not the gospel.
But James does call the gospel a kind of law. Look back at verse 25 for a minute. Again, he’s talking about the gospel here, and he calls it “the perfect law, the law of liberty.” That is, he says the law of freedom.
What’s it mean to do the laws of freedom? That’s an amazing phrase. What’s that like?
Well, I think it’s something like when we do verse 27 while never forgetting verse 18. Do you get that?
We are doers of the gospel when we take sacrificial steps of love but we do it not because we’re trying to earn something, but because Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth. This is actually one of those things that might be easier to see than to explain.
Like at 3 in the morning when I hear crying that wakes me up just enough to see my wife syphon snot out of an orphan’s nose. . . .
Gospel doing is when we see the firstfruits of God’s new creation do things that only the gospel could make sense of. And that’s the thing that’s clear. It’s that God has done this. This is his work. This is his grace, and that’s what we remember. We remember the grace of God.
Which is why we come to this Table.
Every week we come to this Table to receive the bread and cup as symbols of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. And we really do receive it. We didn’t work for his broken body. We didn’t earn his shed blood. This bread and cup are freely given to us just as Jesus freely gave his himself for us. We’re not working for something here, we are receiving what he has accomplished for us. And so as you take the bread and cup this morning, dwell on that. Jesus died for you. God has created you by the gospel. . . .