Willingness to Receive the Word with Submission
This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (1:19–20)
This you know refers back to the truths just expressed: first, the general truth of the power of the Word in regenerating believers in the early church and making them entirely new creations; and, second, the subsidiary and marvelous truth that those believers became, in fact, “the first fruits among His creatures” (v. 18). From the apostle’s teaching as well as from their own experience, they knew what it was to be transformed by the incorruptible seed of the Word and given eternal life in the very family of God as His own child (cf. 1 Pet. 1:23–25).
At this point, James makes a clear transition in emphasis. Because we have experienced the transforming power of God and have been made new creatures, we are to continually submit to His Word, allowing it to continue its divine work in and through our lives. In James 1:18, Scripture is called “the word of truth”; in verse 21, “the word implanted”; in verse 22, simply “the word”; in verse 23, figuratively, as “a mirror”; and in verse 25, “the perfect law, the law of liberty.”
Scripture not only is given to bring men to salvation but also is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). By the continual, faithful hearing of the life-giving and life-sustaining Word, our divinely indwelt hearts are stimulated to obey the Word with willing submission to its teachings and truths. We exult with David that “the law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Ps. 19:7–8). “I have inherited Your testimonies forever,” another psalmist writes, “for they are the joy of my heart” (Ps. 119:111).
By addressing his readers as my beloved brethren James clearly indicates his deep compassion and concern for them. Like every wise Christian teacher, he is not simply trying to convince their minds in a purely intellectual way but also is trying to reach their hearts. His affection for them is equally as strong as his obligation to them. Few things can make a teacher’s work more effective than a genuine love for those being taught. Love can break down barriers—intellectual as well as spiritual ones—that no amount of fact and reason may do. And no matter how well the mind may understand and acknowledge a truth, it will be of little spiritual benefit to the believer or to the kingdom if the heart is not inclined to personally embrace and submit to it.
In the second half of verse 19, James gives three important commands for the believer who is willing to receive God’s Word with submissiveness. All three are deceptively simple. First, we must be quick to hear, that is, be a careful listener, making sure that we pay attention in order to get the message right. “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise,” the writer of Proverbs observes; “when he closes his lips, he is counted prudent” (Prov. 17:28). In another place he asks rhetorically, “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 29:20). In any field of knowledge we learn by listening, not by speaking (cf. Ps. 119:11; 2 Tim. 2:15).
James’s appeal is for believers to seize every opportunity to increase their exposure to Scripture, to take advantage of every privileged occasion to read God’s Word or to hear it faithfully preached or taught. The sincere, eager desire for such learning is one of the surest marks of a true child of God. When he is specially blessed, he turns to the Word to find passages of thanksgiving and praise. When he is troubled, he searches for words of comfort, encouragement, and strength. In times of confusion, he searches for words of wisdom and guidance. When he is tempted, he searches out God’s standards of purity and righteousness for power to resist. The Word is the source of deliverance from temptations and trials. It becomes the most welcome friend, not only because of what it delivers us from but also because of what it delivers us to—glorious, intimate, and loving communion with our heavenly Lord.
Periodically, every Christian should do a personal inventory regarding his hunger and thirst for God’s Word. He should ask himself with determined honesty, “Is my real delight, like the psalmist’s, truly in the law of the Lord; and do I meditate on it day and night?” (cf. Ps. 1:2); and, “If we miss reading Scripture before the day begins, do we notice a difference in the day and in ourselves?” Can we sing with Charles Wesley,
When quiet in my room I sit,
Thy book be my companion still;
My joy Thy sayings to repeat,
Talk o’er the records of Thy will,
And search the oracles divine
Till every heartfelt word is mine.
J. A. Motyer has perceptively written,
We might wonder why the ever-practical James does not proceed to outline schemes of daily Bible reading or the like, for surely these are the ways in which we offer a willing ear to the voice of God. But he does not help us in this way. Rather, he goes deeper, for there is little point in schemes and times if we have not got an attentive spirit. It is possible to be unfailingly regular in Bible reading, but to achieve no more than to have moved the book-mark forward: this is reading unrelated to an attentive spirit. The word is read but not heard. On the other hand, if we can develop an attentive spirit, this will spur us to create those conditions—a proper method in Bible-reading, a discipline of time, and so on—by which the spirit will find itself satisfied in hearing the Word of God. (J. A. Motyer, The Message of James [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1985], 64–65)
The true believer will be marked by such an attentive spirit, which will find a way to be in Scripture regularly, not for the purpose of filling an allotted devotional time but to grow in the knowledge, understanding, and love of the truth—and through and above that, to grow in the knowledge, understanding, and love of the Lord Himself. He will be eager to attend Bible preaching and study, so that his heart and mind can again be exposed to God’s truth. He will be eager on the Lord’s Day to fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ and to worship Him.
Second, the believer who willingly receives the Word with submission must be slow to speak. That characteristic is a companion of the first. You cannot listen carefully while you are talking, or even while you are thinking about what to say. Many discussions are fruitless for the simple reason that all parties are paying more attention to what they want to say than to what others are saying.
In this context, therefore, it seems that slow to speak includes the idea of being careful not to be thinking about one’s own thoughts and ideas while someone else is trying to express God’s. We cannot really hear God’s Word when our minds are on our own thoughts. We need to keep silent inside as well as outside.
The primary idea here, however, is that, when the appropriate time to speak does come, what is said should be carefully thought out. When we speak for the Lord, we should have the gravest concern that what we say not only is true but is spoken in a way that both edifies those who hear and honors the Lord in whose behalf we speak. We should pursue every opportunity to read the Word ourselves, to hear it preached and taught, and to discuss it with other believers who love, honor, and seek to obey it. At the same time, we should be cautious, patient, and careful when we have opportunity to preach, teach, or explain it to others. It is doubtless for that reason that James later warns, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).
After many years of preaching and teaching the Word, I must confess that, although the exercise of preaching is the manifestation of my spiritual gift and certainly brings rich satisfaction, I cannot honestly say that I relish preaching and teaching or bask in the light of it. I do not rush into the pulpit with any sort of personal exhilaration or joy. There is always a certain reluctance in my heart, not a reluctance to fulfill my calling but a reluctance based on the great weight of responsibility to handle accurately and proclaim the truth of God (2 Tim. 2:15).
According to one of his biographers, when the great Scottish Reformer and theologian John Knox was first called to preach, “He burst forth in most abundant tears, and withdrew himself to his chamber. His countenance and behavior from that day until the day he was compelled to present himself to the public place of preaching, did sufficiently declare the trouble of his heart” (William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], 50).
When a famous Roman orator was asked by a young man to teach him the art of public speaking, the young man continued an incessant flow of meaningless talk that allowed the great teacher no opportunity to interject a word. When they finally reached the point of discussing a fee, the orator said, “Young man, to instruct you in oratory, I will have to charge you a double fee.” When asked why, he explained, “Because I will have to teach you two skills: the first, how to hold your tongue; the second, how to use it.”
It is tragic when new converts, especially celebrities, are immediately encouraged to begin speaking publicly, not simply to give testimony to their salvation, but to begin giving advice and counsel about other aspects of Christian doctrine and practice for which they are not biblically or experientially prepared. Not only does it tend to foster pride and false confidence in the new convert but almost inevitably offers shallow, and often erroneous and spiritually dangerous, ideas to those who hear them. Well aware of that danger, Paul warned Timothy that an overseer, or elder, should not be “a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6). Later in that letter he adds, “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others” (5:22; cf. Ezek. 3:17–18; Acts 20:26–28; Heb. 13:17).
Judging from James 1:26 and 3:1, some believers in the churches to whom James wrote were accustomed to saying and teaching whatever happened to come into their minds, without giving it careful thought or checking it against Scripture. Many of the would-be teachers were perhaps sincere but poorly taught and unprepared. Some were proud and arrogant (see 4:6) and enjoyed hearing their own voices and being considered teachers and leaders. Some, being discontent, were given to criticizing and wrangling with each other (see 3:14; 4:1–2, 11; 5:9). And, although James does not mention the problem specifically, it would seem certain that there were also unbelieving false teachers who were deceptively undermining the doctrine and faith of church members, causing great confusion and damage.
The man of God whom God has anointed to preach and teach His Word is compelled to do that with both willingness and joy. But he also is to do it with a sense of awe, always making sure—by careful and patient study, preparation, and prayer—that he says nothing in God’s name that does not accurately reflect God’s Word.
Third, the believer who willingly receives the Word with submission must be slow to anger. Anger is a very natural emotion that is an all but automatic response—even for believers who are not spiritually prepared—to anything or anyone that harms or displeases them. Orgē (anger) does not refer to an explosive outburst of temper but to an inner, deep resentment that seethes and smolders, often unnoticed by others. It is therefore an anger that only the Lord and the believer know about. Therefore, it is a special danger, in that it can be privately harbored.
In this context, James seems to be speaking particularly about anger at a truth in the Word that displeases, that confronts sin or conflicts with a cherished personal belief or standard of behavior. It refers to a disposition hostile to scriptural truth when it does not correspond to one’s own convictions, manifested—even if only inwardly—against those who faithfully teach the Word.
As already noted, anger also was reflected in the general discontent and dissension within some of the congregations to whom James wrote. “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?” he asks. “Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (4:1–2). People desired to have their own opinions confirmed, their own ways approved, their own likes and dislikes accepted by others. Self-will was supreme, personal hostility was rampant, and the spiritual damage was enormous. Instead of working together in love in each other’s behalf, they fought each other to have their own ways, regardless of the consequences to Christ’s church or to their own spiritual well-being.
But James’s emphasis here seems to be on those who hear the truth and resent its exposing their personal false ideas or ungodly lifestyles. Paul asked believers in Galatia, “So have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal. 4:16). In the minds of some church members, the answer doubtless was “yes.” In reality, of course, Paul’s persistently telling them God’s truth, without compromise or omission, was the kindest and most helpful thing he could do for them. That is the kindest and most helpful thing anyone can do for someone else.
But throughout the history of the church—in fact, throughout the history of fallen mankind—even believers have resented God’s truth and the messenger who brought it. Sometimes a pastor must therefore be severe in challenging and rebuking that resentment. “Now some have become arrogant,” Paul told the church at Corinth, “as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power. What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:18–21).
In a similar but somewhat less specific way, James was trying to contain and defuse the personal resentment and hostility that plagued some, perhaps all, of the churches his letter would eventually reach. Many of the believers in those churches would have been under his pastoral care in Jerusalem before the church there was scattered after the martyrdom of Stephen (see Acts 8:1; 11:19).
There is, of course, a just anger, a holy indignation against sin, Satan, and anything that dishonors the Lord or assaults His glory. Jesus was intensely angry when He saw His Father’s house, the holy temple in Jerusalem, turned into “a place of business,” and He expressed His anger twice by driving out those responsible for the desecration (John 2:14–16; cf. Matt. 21:12–13).
But mere personal anger, bitterness, and resentment can never serve the cause of Christ, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God, that is, does not accomplish what is right in God’s eyes. That is especially true when the hostility is against the truth of God’s Word, for that in reality is against God Himself.
Letting the Word Do Its Work (1:19b–21)
James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (1:19b–20). At first glance, these verses read like simple wisdom proverbs. Believers need wisdom and knowledge, and we learn more by listening than by speaking. Big talkers are rarely good listeners, and angry talkers may not hear a thing. Therefore, we should be deliberate, not rash, in speech. It takes strength to hold the tongue, to wait and deliberate until thoughts grow ripe. This kind of care, with proper emotional self-control, leads to edifying speech.
It is elementary wisdom that anger does not lead to righteousness. There is such a thing as righteous indignation, but our anger is rarely righteous. On the one hand, we often become indignant about trivial things: a pokey driver making us late for an appointment; a string of poorly synchronized traffic lights, wasting our time; an unskilled referee wounding our favorite team with a bad call. Such things stir our wrath. On the other hand, we ignore true injustice, especially if it occurs far away and falls upon strangers. Sadly, our anger is often burdened with “self-importance, self assertion, intolerance, and stubbornness.”
Such anger makes it difficult to get along with other people. It also makes it difficult to go along with God, for anger makes us slow to listen and receive his word. Therefore, James says, “Get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (1:21).
At first glance, the order of this teaching is baffling, for it seems that James has reversed two elements. We readily understand the second command: to receive the word “with meekness.” It means to listen well. To be meek is to shun argument and to be gentle, docile, and teachable before the word. But it seems that this should be the first command, since no one can put away filth and wickedness on his own. One must first receive the implanted word “which can save you.”
When James first commands that we put away wickedness, and tells us to receive the word and its salvation second, he seems to imply that reform is a precondition to hearing the word with faith. But no one can put off wickedness before receiving the word. Rather, it is the word, implanted in our hearts and saving us, that enables us to put off wickedness.
To solve this problem, notice first that to put off filth is to put away the old, sinful way of life. In the Bible, physical filth often stands for spiritual filth. Scripture sometimes depicts sinners as people who are dressed in filthy clothes (Isa. 64:6; Zech. 3:3–4). To change those clothes is a metaphor for conversion and a new way of life (Zech. 3:4–9; Eph. 4:22–24; 5:26–27). True believers also keep themselves unstained by the world (James 1:27). So James commands us to put away spiritual evil in all its forms. How can we do this?
Ultimately, James says, the word of God must do this work. Through the word, God gives birth to his children (1:18). It discloses our true condition. It describes our need of God’s mercy and directs us to that mercy. It says no one can simply “put off all … wickedness.” The word of God, implanted in the heart, can change a heart. Why then does James say we should put away wickedness before he says we should “receive the word with meekness”?
I believe James is speaking pastorally. Pastorally speaking, so far as the human eye can see, a desire to break free from wickedness often precedes an interest in God’s word. New converts report that a desire to clean up their lives led them to go to church. A hunger for the truth led them to read the Scriptures and find life there.
We know that the Holy Spirit imparts this desire for reform. Nonetheless, unbelievers still ought to aspire to lay aside wickedness. Believers should yearn for a pure life all the more; that yearning will drive them to the word, where they will find strength and direction for holiness.
Still, we notice that James, unlike Paul, does not tell believers to put off sins and to put on certain virtues. He says “receive the implanted word,” not “work at removing sin.” This is how transformation occurs: The implanted word takes root deep within us and transforms us. It brings conviction of sin and assurance of mercy. It instills faith and creates new life, so that good fruit inevitably follows. Yet, James says, this will not be easy. Wickedness is “rampant” (1:21 esv); it abounds and grows prolifically.
After years of doing it myself, to little avail, I finally hired a lawn service to wage war against the clover, dandelions, crabgrass, sedge, and chickweed that were calling my yard home. The professionals applied their chemicals faithfully. Still, by late summer, I had to call in and complain as sweetly as I could: “Hello. I’m happy to report that, thanks to your work, my yard has never been so green in the late summer as it is this year. Besides the grass, which is doing reasonably well, the dandelions are particularly vibrant just now. The clover is blooming continually, and the crabgrass is evenly distributed throughout the yard.” The customer service representative did not argue. “Yes,” he said, “it’s been a bad year for weeds.”
As with weeds, so with sin: it’s been a bad year for sin. Indeed, every year is a bad year for sin. It grows and it abounds, so we must wage war against it.
Our weapon in this war is the word, “which is able to save [our] souls.” The saving work of the word extends far beyond the day of salvation. In the New Testament, salvation has three aspects:
- Salvation is a past event, for Christ accomplished our salvation in the past. We receive that salvation the day we believe (Luke 19:9; Acts 4:12; 2 Cor. 6:2; Titus 3:5).
- Salvation is a future event, because our deliverance is never complete until Christ returns, judges men and angels, sends evildoers away from his presence, and restores the heavens and the earth (Matt. 25:31ff.; Rom. 5:9–10; Heb. 9:28; 1 Peter 1:5).
- Salvation is a present reality, something we seize and work out day by day (Phil. 2:12).
James knows salvation is past, present, and future, but his concern in our text is the present. The word of God empowers daily growth as we travel the road of salvation. James 1:18–21 says that the word does three things. First, it gives us birth, so we become God’s firstfruits, uniquely dedicated to him (v. 18). Second, it promotes righteousness (v. 20). Third, it saves our souls, from the day of salvation through all eternity (v. 21).
We must pause to weigh the implications of James’s teaching for Christian ministry. In some circles, people occasionally say, “Real ministry takes place through relationships,” that is, through one-on-one and small-group discipleship. Ministry certainly takes place through relationships, but that is a false claim if it means ministry occurs only through relationships.
Christian leaders should not seek as their final goal the greatest number of relationships, but the greatest exposure to the word. Relationships provide special opportunities to model the truth and to guide young or struggling believers. But relationships are not intrinsically redemptive. It is entirely possible for two Christians to have a pleasant relationship that advances holiness not a whit. Non-Christians can also attend church, form all manner of happy relationships with believers, and remain utterly lost.
The word of God, blessed by the Holy Spirit, saves lives, changes hearts, and redirects behavior. Everyone who faithfully preaches or teaches the word to large groups, everyone who writes books or articles, everyone who speaks on radio or television, knows he can minister to total strangers. Total strangers write and say, “Your message changed my life,” or, “As you preached, it seemed that you were reading my mind. Your words were just what I needed to hear.”
How did we know? We didn’t. God knew. He put his gospel truth into his word. As we re-declare that word, it saves souls. It saves from the soul’s past sinfulness, it saves in the soul’s present battle with sin, and it saves for the soul’s future life with God. The power lies in the word, not in the relationship, not in the preacher.
Teachers and preachers of the word must continue to seek the solution to their own struggles in the word of God. This seems obvious, but pastors and seminarians are prone to professionalize their use of Scripture, to read it to help every soul but their own. Let me offer a typology of the ways pastors can read Scripture.
When he is a new Christian, the future pastor’s reading is naïve and devotional. He devours Scripture, underlining virtually every word in his new Bible, feeling that God speaks directly to him with every word.
After a few years, the budding leader’s reading becomes sophisticated and devotional. He still feels that God is speaking to him in the text, but he has learned to read texts in their contexts. He reads Bible dictionaries and commentaries. He knows the translation strategies of various Bible versions and begins to use that knowledge to get at the original text.
The future pastor decides to go to seminary, where he becomes a technical reader. He reads Greek and Hebrew; he consults scholarly sources. He respects the distance between his world and that of biblical thought. His zeal to describe biblical history, culture, and language grows. He pursues what the word originally meant and perhaps neglects what it means today.
As ordination comes, our friend remembers that his study has, as its goal, the edification of the church. He continues to read technically, but now he shares his findings with the church. He becomes a technical-functional reader. His reading may be detached, personally speaking, but he stores and organizes his discoveries so he can offer them to others. While this phase may mark a partial improvement, he does not directly profit from his reading of Scripture.
He needs therefore to become a technical, devotional reader. Every technical skill remains, but he reads like a child, letting the word speak directly to his heart again. He gains what Paul Ricoeur calls a “second naiveté.” He is both technically astute and meek. He both receives God’s word and expounds it. In this way, he finds strength to endure trials and to check the growth of sin.
1:19 / Deliberately paralleling the style of 1:16, James warns, My dear brothers, take note of this. James 1:16–18 discussed wisdom as a gift of life descending from God (cf. 1:5–8); now comes the related topic—the wise person controls his or her speech (cf. 3:1–18), for speech-ethics were a very important topic in both Jewish literature and the world in which James lived. James continues with a proverb: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. As shocking as this saying is to this modern age of express-your-feelings, it was accepted wisdom in the biblical period: “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Prov. 13:3). “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 29:20). “Do not get upset quickly, for anger resides in the lap of fools” (Eccles. 7:9). The truly wise and godly person in scripture is not the one who always has something to say but the person who listens to others, prayerfully considers, and only then speaks in measured tones.
James thinks of this proverb not just as a personal truth for each Christian but also as part of his concern for communal harmony. In 3:1 he points to conflicts among teachers that in 3:13–18 can lead to party spirit and jealousy. These were well known in the early church, encouraged by those drunk with the heady wine of the newly outpoured Spirit and preoccupied with their gift or ministry rather than the good of the church. James counsels caution and listening rather than quick speech and sharp denunciation.
1:20 / But what of righteous indignation? Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. James never states his reason for this statement, but several appear in the New Testament. First, once the angry feeling begins to be expressed, it is by nature immoderate and uncontrollable, which made even Hellenistic pagan writers condemn anger. Second, anger is incompatible with the teaching of Jesus, particularly his command to love one’s enemy (Matt. 5:38–48) and his direct condemnation of hating one’s brother (Matt. 5:21–26). Third, human anger usurps the role of God as the only judge and vindicator. In 5:7–9 James will indicate that the Christian is to wait for God’s vindication, not vindicate himself. A similar note is sounded in Hebrews 10:30–39, Romans 12:19, and repeatedly in 1 Peter. The proper response to suffering is meekness and endurance, for God is the only true judge. Thus human anger cannot bring about the righteous life that God desires, either in the sense of bringing about the righteousness God will establish in the final day (which may be in mind here; cf. 5:7–11) or in the sense of meeting God’s present standard of righteousness. One need only to reflect on Moses’ impulsive murder of the Egyptian taskmaster (Exod. 2:11–16) to discover a fine illustration of this principle.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 68–73). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Doriani, D. M. (2007). James. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 46–51). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Davids, P. H. (2011). James (pp. 39–40). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.