What Does “Doers of the Word” Mean in James?

“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.” (James 1:22-24)

What do you suppose James meant when he said “be doers of the word?” The most common answer seems to be that he meant obedience to the Bible. This common view states that what James meant was do what the Bible says to do. Obey Scripture. Ligonier Ministries suggests this is the proper interpretation by saying,

“We read in verse 22 that we are to ‘be doers of the word and not hearers only.’ When we look at the Word of God we must look at it with an eye to putting the Word into practice in our lives. Listening to the Word and knowing what it says is not enough if our lives are not changed as a result. For if we only hear the Word of God and never put it into practice, we have deceived ourselves (v. 22).”

This raises a couple of questions in my mind. First, James was probably one of the earliest New Testament letters written which means that the canon of Scripture that we often refer to as the Word of God didn’t exist yet. If James’ letter was among the earliest of the New Testament letters, his was one of the first of many more to follow. Did James mean “be doers of the Bible” before there was a Bible? I doubt it. Or because there was no Bible yet, maybe he meant “be doers of the Old Covenant Law.” I doubt that too. The recipients of his letter were Jewish and familiar with the Old Covenant law of Moses and its requirements for perfect obedience. They had lived under that obligation all their lives. They didn’t need to be told something they already knew so well. I doubt James would say “be doers of the Law” to a group of people who already knew that requirement.

Second, and closely related, James didn’t say “be doers of the Word of God.” He simply said “be doers of the word (λόγος).” λόγος in the New Testament is a diverse word with different meanings, depending on context. For example, λόγος is used to identify Jesus (John 1:1), something God said (2 Peter 3:5), and the message of the gospel, often used synonymously with the phrase “the word of God” by both Paul and Peter:

“For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. …. And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thess. 2:9, 13 emphasis mine)

“… since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God… And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” (1 Peter 1:23, 25 emphasis mine)

I think that is what James means here. He’s not making a sweeping reference to the Bible and our obedience to it. He’s referencing the gospel. We see this in the context one verse earlier when he said,

“Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” (James 1:21)

This begs the question, what is the “implanted word” James is referring to? Is it the Bible? Has the Bible been implanted in my soul, resulting in my salvation? Has the Bible saved my soul? Don’t get me wrong. I love the Bible but that’s not what James’ means. He’s talking about the gospel in the same way Paul and Peter did in the passages I cited above. In verse 18 James said,

“Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (James 1:18)

Verse 18 sets the context for us. The “word of truth” which “brought us forth” is the same “word” in verse 22. What brought us new life in Jesus? The Bible or the gospel? Not the Bible. When James says be doers of the word and not hearers only, he means act on the gospel – believe it and be saved, don’t just hear it and walk away. Believe the gospel. Act on it. Be a doer, not just a hearer. Believe. I think we’ve misunderstood this passage and used it to put false guilt and shame on others.

“Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.'” (John 6:28-29)

-Mike


Photo Credit:
jesse orrico

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