A sermon on James 1: 17-27
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
August 29, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our
Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. James 1: 22

Mark Twain…He is widely regarded as one of the greatest men of letters that America has ever
produced. His book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is almost always included in lists of great
American novels. I think that it would be safe to say that his influence as a writer and humorist has few
peers in the annals of American literature…
Over the last few years, I have discovered that Mark Twain had a complicated relationship to the
Christian faith and to the church. On the one hand, Twain could be scathing in exposing the hypocrisies
of the church’s attitudes and actions in his day. In a time when the 19th Century world was embracing
the theory of evolution and new scientific discoveries were rapidly changing the ways that people lived,
Twain often felt that the church was out of step with society—that it was a captive to an earlier time
and place. And yet…Mark Twain obviously knew the Bible. He admired it and it informed much of his
Twain’s religious background included growing up in a very strict Presbyterian church in his
boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri. He claimed to have read the entire Bible through by the time that
he was 15 years old. (How many of US could make that same claim? I know that I couldn’t…) And he
sometimes had astute—some might say irreverent—observations about the Christians of his day…
One of my favorite quotes from Twain about faith concerns the activity of preaching. Twain
wrote, “No sinner is ever saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon.” (What do you think? Was he
correct? With people’s shortened attention spans, my guess is that Twain’s observation is all the more
true in our day than it was in his…) Perhaps the most famous quote from Mark Twain about the
Christian faith is this one. I think it sums up his attitude toward the Bible rather succinctly. He wrote in
his unique, classic homespun manner, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother
me; it’s the parts that I do understand…”
I do not know if Mark Twain had today’s passage in mind when he wrote those words. But it
seems to me that he very well could have…James is a book that is easy to understand. Its words are
pretty straightforward. One might even say blunt…Yet it is full of truth that causes us to examine
ourselves and see how we are progressing in the life of the Spirit…
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James is a book that is classified as an epistle. That is, people refer to it as a letter. As you all
know, many of the New Testament books—books like Ephesians, Colossians, and Romans—are letters to
various churches. But James is a bit different than the other books considered to be letters. Unlike the
other letters, James is not addressed to a specific church or individual. In the first verse, it is simply
addressed to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” That salutation is as vague as it gets. He
could be referring to any Christian or any group of Christians. He is addressing it to Christians
everywhere. And unlike other letters, there are no mentions of specific people. Nor does it have a
conventional ending or benediction that one reads in the other epistles. It just kind of ends abruptly at
chapter 5, verse nineteen without even saying “Goodbye” to his readers.
This has led many scholars to the conclusion that James is not a letter at all. Instead, it seems
that the book of James is actually a sermon that was circulated among the 1st Century churches. The
traditional view is that it was written by James, the half-brother of Jesus. James was well-known as a
leader in the early years of the church of Jerusalem. And the fact that the book of James has certain
similarities to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” further strengthens this view. And in truth, the book does
read more like a sermon than it does a letter…
The main teaching in the book of James is contained in today’s passage. In fact, James states it
twice in very similar fashion each time. In verse 22, he writes, “Be doers of the word, and not merely
hearers who deceive themselves.” And then again a few verses later in verse 25: “Those who look into
the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they
will be blessed in their doing.”
What is he talking about here? In much of the New Testament—particularly in the writings of
the Apostle Paul—we read a lot about how obeying the Old Testament law will not bring us salvation—
that it is by grace that we are saved through faith. And by grace only. That it is the gift of God, and that
there is nothing that we can do on our own that can earn God’s favor. That’s kind of confusing, isn’t it?
So what does James mean? Why does he keep talking about the need for Christians to be doers—and
not just listeners?
In verse 25, James talks about “the perfect law, the law of liberty.” I think that is the key. What
is this law that James is concerned with here—this “perfect law” to which he refers?
In Mark 12, we are told a story of a man in the crowd who approached Jesus with a question. He
asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” What the man wanted to know was “Of
all the laws that are contained in the Old Testament, which is the one that we should concentrate the
most on? Which is the most important? Obeying which law will make us right with God?”
Jesus didn’t hesitate when he replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all
your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than
these.” The man responded by saying that loving God and neighbor were indeed more important than
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offering worship and sacrifices. Then Jesus commended the man’s answer by telling him some
wonderfully good news. He said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God…”
So that is the perfect law to which James is referring. That is the law of liberty that all Christians
should heed and obey…that we are to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as
ourselves. But James want s us to know something else as well. He wants us to know that good
intentions and Godly attitudes—as important as those are in the life of the Spirit—are not enough for us
to be all that God wants us to become. There is more to the life of the Spirit than simply belief…
Actions count as well. Elsewhere in his book, James does not mince his words when he states
that “faith without works is dead.” He writes, “A person is justified by what he does and not by faith
alone…” James’ words serve as a corrective to those whose faith does not result in any significant
change of behavior or values. He says that, yes, faith is vital. But he also says that faith gives evidence of
itself in Godly actions…James says that you really cannot have one without the other…
Here is what James is getting at. The Christian life is not just agreeing to a list of statements
about who God is…or who Jesus is…or about what you believe about the Bible…or about what you
believe about anything else. First and foremost, the life of the Spirit is experiential. That is, the kingdom
of God is not just simply something to intellectually believe in. It is something that has to be
experienced in our lives…
As you all know, I am a guitar player. And it seems to me that growing as a Christian and
deepening one’s spiritual life has certain similarities to how one becomes proficient on a musical
instrument. Let me explain what I mean…
There are lots of ways that one can learn about the guitar. One can watch and listen to great
guitar players on video. You can listen to recordings of your favorite players. You can buy instructional
books that can teach you how to play. You can YouTube your favorite players and songs and gain
valuable knowledge through instructional videos to learn many of the songs that you want to learn how
to play. You can study chord charts and tablatures of your favorite songs that feature guitars. You can go
to live concerts—at least you can when we are not in the middle of a pandemic. You can talk to people
that you know are really good guitar players and they can give you tips and suggestions on how to
improve your technique. You can buy and read books on the history of the development of the guitar as
a musical instrument. You can visit music stores and see all the different kinds of guitars that are
hanging from the walls and are available for purchase. You can shell out hundreds or even thousands of
dollars to buy yourself a good quality instrument. You can read biographies of your favorite guitar
players and read interviews with them in lots of books and magazines and online.
You can do all of these things. They are all worthwhile things to do. I know because I have done
all of them. But it must be said that none of those things have made me a competent guitar player. NO.
In order to become a competent guitar player, you have to pick up a guitar, you have to tune it, and you
have to work on the fingerings for chords and notes. All the head knowledge in the world will not make
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you a decent guitar player. You will never become a guitar player until you pick it up, practice and
continue to practice over and over until you acquire the necessary muscle memory so that guitar playing
becomes second nature to you. Only then can you start becoming the guitar player that you desire to
I think that much of the Christian life is like that. The kingdom of God is not just head
knowledge. It is the experience of living in the Spirit…of connecting with God…of being reconciled to
God and to one another through Christ. Being a Christian is being able to experience a deeper sense of
God in our lives when we work on and do the things that God wants us to do. And as a result, we will
grow into more of who God wants us to be.
Think with me on the disciplines of the spiritual life. I am sure that everyone here would agree
that prayer is an important facet of the life of faith. That truth is self-evident. But here’s the thing: You
can read the Bible every day. You can be faithful in your worship attendance every week. You can go to
conferences and seminars—both in-person and online—that talk about prayer. You can read any
number of really good books—both classic and contemporary—that have been written about prayer.
You can read biographies of devout Christians through the centuries who have had dynamic and fruitful
prayer lives. One can do all of these things. But no one will become an effective “Pray-er” until they
dedicate themselves to learning the ways of prayer by actually doing it on a regular, continual,
determined basis. Haphazard, hit-and-miss, occasional prayer (mostly when we are in a jam) is not going
to develop an effective habit of prayer. It is just not going to happen…And we are only fooling ourselves
if we think otherwise…
Or again…No one will effectively serve as well as they could…until they actively seek out the
ways that God wants them to serve. And having discovered that, then to follow his direction. No one
can be all that God wants them to be until the decision is made to truly experience life in the Spirit…
And what would that look like? The Apostle Paul gives us a list of the characteristics of what the
life of the Spirit looks like in Galatians 5. There he tells us that the life of the Spirit is characterized by the
qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This
is how God wants our lives to look. And so those are the things that we have to work on. And let’s not
kid ourselves—they do involve work and effort. We have to work on them because they are not
naturally inherent in us. We are not born with those qualities. And we will not develop them by simply
just reading about them. Or by just listening to other people talk about them. Nor by watching other
people acting them out. But instead, they will become characteristic of us as we put forth the effort to
incorporate them into our lives. That is when they become a part of who we are…
No one can become a competent guitar player simply by desiring to or by only learning about it.
In the same way, we are not able to be the kinds of people that God wants us to be without intentionally
doing the things that bring us closer toward that goal. We need to work to make these characteristics of
the life of faith evident—nay, to make them glaringly obvious to others—in our lives. But it does not
happen by accident. These things must be cultivated…they must be grown…and they must be nurtured.
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And it will not happen overnight in your life. It takes time. You cannot become a mature Christian in a
short amount of time, any more than someone can play guitar like Eric Clapton after only one week of
practice. Perseverance is the necessary ingredient. Hard work is the key. Only when we can see the
results in our lives can we know that we are growing in our relationship to God and deepening our
experience with Jesus…And that is what God desires for each and every one of us.
So what about you this morning? Are you putting in the necessary work to develop and progress
in the life of the Spirit? Are you further in your spiritual journey today than you were, say, five years
ago? If not, then why not? Hear the words of the Apostle James once more: “Be doers of the word and
not merely hearers…”
To God alone be the glory! Amen