When it comes to obeying the Bible, a gap often exists between our imagination and our execution. To address this, James urged his readers to consider an important distinction and a crucial deception. If the Bible is to affect our lives, Alistair Begg explains, we must not merely listen to it but also receive and act upon it. If we think we can hear the Word and do nothing, we are self-deceived. It’s not enough to just listen to it; we must do what it says!
Sermon Transcript: Print
We’re going to read from the letter of James, which is in the New Testament. I’m going to read from verse 19. I’m actually only going to address one verse, but let me set it in context, since we won’t do a lot of that in a moment from now.
James 1:19, page 8-5-4:
“My dear brothers, take note of this: 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. Therefore, 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.
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.
“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Father, we pray that as we think on these things now, that you will give to us attentive minds, understanding, and believing faith. And we humbly ask this in the name of your Son, Jesus. Amen.
Well, we’re in a series in James at the moment, and we, this morning, made an attempt at verses 18 through 21, which brings us to verse 22, which I really want to tackle in the context of the whole paragraph next Sunday morning. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to dip into the paragraph, and particularly to verse 22, before we have these baptisms this evening.
So, our text is James 1:22, which reads as follows: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” “Don’t just listen to the Bible and deceive yourself. Do what it says.”
I’ve told some of you this before, but it bears repeating in this context that some years ago, I was invited to play at a golf club down in southern Ohio, somewhere in between Dayton and Indianapolis. I’m not sure really where I was. I was the guest of a gentleman, and he told me that he would meet me on the practice range. And so, having received my clubs, I went down onto the practice range to find myself in the company of just one other man, who was not my host. So I was there filling time, and swinging a bit, and waiting for my host to come.
My procedure was, as those who know me well, marked by my standard mediocrity, but in comparison to the person who was the stranger just a couple of slots away from me on the range, I was really pretty good—because this man was, by any standards, appalling. He was not good at all. He missed a number of the balls, despite the fact that they were set up on a tee. When he did make contact, he made wild slashing movements at the ball, sending it in all kinds of directions, but very, very seldom in the direction that, apparently, he was hoping to go. His drives were ineffectual and weak, and when he took out irons, he consistently dribbled the iron shots all the way along the ground in a fashion that was frankly quite embarrassing. Didn’t seem to embarrass him, but embarrassed me.
In the middle of this sorry display, he took a call on his cell phone. And his side of the conversation went something like this: “Ah, yes, uh, yes, on the driving range. Oh, pretty good. Actually, very good. Driving it to the far end of the range. My irons? Oh, straight. Straight as arrows, and incredibly long.” Took everything in me not to go over and grab the cell phone from the man and speak to his friend or his wife or whoever it was and say, “You’ve got to be kidding! Let me tell you the truth.” And to hand it back to the gentlemen and say, “Don’t kid yourself! Do not kid yourself!”
Now, I begin like that because that is essentially, in colloquial terms, what James says in James 1:22. That’s what he’s saying: “Do not kid yourselves! Don’t kid yourselves! When it comes to the issues of faith, when it comes to the Bible, when it comes to Jesus, when it comes to believing, when it comes to behaving, make sure,” he says, “that you don’t kid yourselves.” Because there was in the experience of those to whom he wrote a significant gap between their imagination and their execution, in much the same way that there was on the driving range in the gentleman beside me. And James clearly, helpfully, succinctly urges his readers to consider two things.
First of all, what is a very clear distinction. A clear distinction. And the distinction is there between listening and doing: “Do not merely listen to the word …. Do what it says.”
The Bible must be taught. That’s why we’ve been given the Bible. That’s why we preach from the Bible. It is a matter of necessity, as we’ve seen in the previous verses. Not only is the Bible a life-giving Word, but the Bible is also a life-transforming Word. And it is as the Bible is explained that faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of God. And when a man or a woman comes to believe in Jesus and to trust in him, then the Bible becomes the light on their pathway, the food for their journey, the map, and so on. They have in their hands, if you like, their own global positioning system, and they’re able to go into it and find their direction and discover where they ought to go. But if the process stops there, simply in the teaching of the Bible or in the listening to the Bible, then little, if anything, has been accomplished.
What James is pointing out is simply this: that if the Bible is going to be effective in our lives, it must not only be listened to but also received and acted upon. Not simply listened to but received and acted upon. James has urged everyone to make sure that they’re “quick to listen,” in verse 19, but he now says, “But make sure that you are not merely listening.”
Now, in this he is much like his brother Jesus, isn’t he? And in one particular instance this becomes very clear. When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, where we have the Beatitudes—all these wonderful statements concerning the poor in spirit and those who mourn and so on—after Jesus had concluded what we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount, he then tells a story of two builders. And Jesus was a masterful storyteller, and having given them all the material in his sermon, he then gives them a “therefore.” He deals in the realm of the “So what?” if you like: “I’ve told you all these things, and some of you may be saying to yourselves, ‘So what?’ So,” he says, “let me tell you so what.”
“Everyone who hears these words of mine”—now notice the next phrase—“and puts them into practice is like a [man, a] wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, … the [wind] blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine”—and notice this next phrase—“and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
James, the brother of Jesus, seems to be taking a leaf from Jesus’ book by making the same point and making it absolutely clear in this pithy statement. A clear distinction which all of us can understand.
Secondly, he also identifies a crucial deception. A crucial deception. And that is the danger of being self-deceived.
James is concerned about people being deceived, and you’ll notice in verse 16, if your Bible is open, he says, “I don’t want you to be deceived, dear brothers.” Here in verse 22, he is concerned about self-deception, and again, in the reading that we had as we read all the way to the end, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does[n’t] keep a tight rein on his tongue,” again you have the same verb: “he deceives himself.”
Accepting the Word of God means doing what it says. And James, as we’ll go on through this letter, works this out with great clarity and at some length beginning in 2:14, where he asks the question, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith [and] has no deeds?” And then, as he follows that line of thinking through, he’s driving home this point that he simply pays reference to in passing in this particular verse.
And he uses what is supposed to be, I think, a humorous analogy. It’s not one that gives you some great belly laugh, but it ought at least to make you smile at the thought of it. “Anyone,” he says, “who listens to the word but [who] does[n’t] do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror,” and then after he’s seen his face in the mirror, he “goes away” and “forgets” what his face looked like.
Now, every so often, in an early morning breakfast meeting, since I’ve been here in America, I have seen some funny stuff. I have been in the company of men wearing one brown loafer and one black loafer. To point it out to them, they are amazed, and they said, “Oh dear! I think I noticed that, but I forgot all about it. I got dressed in the darkness.” The first time I remember meeting Mickey Aquilino, he was wearing one suit jacket that went with another pair of suit pants. I don’t know what his problem was—whether he was trying to impress me with a humble attitude or what it might have been—but I have a sneaking suspicion that he got himself dressed, looked in the mirror, said, “Uh-oh,” something happened—the telephone rang, whatever it was—and he went on with his life. And then he found himself in the embarrassing position of being in this sort of incongruous state of dress.
Most of us have stories like this. When taking flowers from our church to people who were infirm back in Hamilton in Scotland, on one occasion I had gathered up these flowers—been given them by either my wife or someone—and instructed where they were to go, given the instructions. And somehow or another, I had got pollen on my fingers, and as a result of that, I had rubbed my nose or scratched my face, and I saw myself in the rearview mirror, and I made a mental note: “You better take care of that before you get out on your visits.” But then, in the course of traffic and everything else, I wasn’t paying attention to it, and I forgot about it—only to discover that people looked at me in a very strange way, and I remember thinking to myself, “What’s up with them?” you know. “What are you looking at? You got a problem or something? What’s your problem?” And then I got back in the car, looked in the rearview mirror; I looked like a Navajo Indian, and I realized what the problem was.
It was absolutely no good to me to look in the mirror unless I did something about it. The value of the mirror is not narcissism so that we can congratulate ourselves. The value in the mirror is in order that we can see our predicament and do what we can to fix it. And the Bible is like a mirror. And when we look into the mirror of God’s Word, we find things out that we wouldn’t know had we not looked there. But if we look in and discover them and do nothing about them, then we are self-deceived.
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
So let me make application of this in one simple aspect, and that is in relationship to baptism. Because what is about to take place here in this pool is the expression on the part of six individuals who are testifying to the fact that they’ve actually gone into the Bible; when they’ve looked into the mirror of God’s Word, they found out things about themselves, they found out things about Jesus, and they found out things about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And they have guarded themselves against being self-deceived and have decided to follow through on what they’ve seen in the mirror. What have they seen when they’ve gone into the Bible?
Incidentally, I think there is some legitimacy in making application of verse 22 to baptism, for this reason. This morning we noticed the phrase “get rid of.” “Get rid of.” The phrase “get rid of,” “put off,” is, of course, frequently in the New Testament. You’ll find it in Romans chapter . You’ll find it in Hebrews chapter 12, where he says that we set aside all the things that would hinder us. In Ephesians  and in Colossians chapter 3, the picture is very clearly of clothing and the idea of taking off clothes that marked a previous way of life and putting on clothes that mark a new way of life. And so, frequently the New Testament writers say, “Now, you should put this off and you should put that on.”
There is some evidence that in certain areas of the early church, that symbolism was worked out in the experience of baptism, so that when a person came to be baptized, they came wearing their outer clothing over their undergarments in the Eastern fashion, and when they came down into the river’s edge, they took off their outer clothing and left it on the one side; they went down into the river or into the lake or the stream to be baptized; and when they were baptized, they came out on the other side of the river, only to be met by some of their friends, who gave them a complete new outer garment that was a symbol of them having said goodbye to this and hello to this.
So I say again, I think there is some legitimacy in taking verse 22 and making application of it to baptism, even if we weren’t having a baptism service. The apostles were commanded by Jesus to baptize. “Go into all the world,” he said, “and baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach the people who are baptized to obey everything that I have commanded. Teach them not simply to hear it but to do it.”
Now, it is vitally important when we think in terms of baptism that we’re very clear about what is not happening. In this baptismal pool tonight, there is no washing away of sin. This is normal tap water in here, and I am a very normal—well, as normal as I can be—individual. I have no special means or mechanisms of conveying anything by my hand or in any way at all. It’s just, frankly, a pool of water. Although the washing away of sin is not being performed in here, the washing away of sin is pictured in here. So what we have here is a picture.
God has given us pictures. He’s given us the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper so that we might see in the broken bread and in the cup the picture of the blood of Jesus being shed and his body being broken. He has given to us this baptism so that we might see in this a picture of the fact that it is his blood which cleanses us from sin, it is his sacrifice which washes away our sins, and having come to an understanding of that, our going through this water is simply providing for ourselves and for those who observe a picture of what has already been performed. So no one is having their sins washed away in here tonight. No one is becoming a Christian in this water tonight. You will hear each of the people say that somewhere along the line, they understood the gospel, and they came to believe in Jesus and to trust in him.
What is really happening here is that the people who are coming through this baptismal pool, in doing what the Bible says, are in some ways like shopkeepers who put a new sign up outside their shop which reads “Under New Management.” Legal transactions have taken place behind the scenes and in private, unbeknown to anyone on the main street or on the high street. All that has become apparent is that the shop is no longer what it once was, and suddenly there is a change in the whole fascia of the shop and the content of the shop and what the shop has to sell. And it is no surprise when the sign goes up, “Under New Management.”
When these people come through this baptismal pool tonight, they’re not coming through the baptismal pool to say, “We just got a master’s degree in religion. We just moved up three rungs in the spiritual ladder towards acceptance with God.” No, what they’re coming through saying is “I’m under new management. I’m under the management of Jesus.”
So then, who should be baptized? Those who are under the management of Jesus. If we’re not under the management of Jesus, then the symbolism is completely lost, isn’t it? Those who are under the management of Jesus are those who have come to the Bible and have looked into the Bible, and they’ve seen a picture of themselves as described like a sheep that has gone astray, like a rebellious son, like someone who’s disinterested, and they said, “You know, that looks a lot like me.” And when they looked into the mirror and saw that, they also looked further, and they saw that Jesus by his death on the cross had come to make provision for all of our rottenness and our wandering and our waywardness and our sinfulness. And looking further into the mirror, they discovered that acceptance with God was not something that was earned or achieved by religious activity—baptism or anything else—but was something that was granted as a gift to all who would come in humble and believing faith.
Now, you can check this for yourselves by reading all the way through the Acts of the Apostles. That’s homework; if you want to do it, go ahead. And you will discover that there is a distinct pattern which runs all the way through the Acts. For example, Acts chapter 2, Peter preaches on the day of Pentecost—fantastic sermon: clear, historical, forceful, demanding. And as a result of his preaching, people begin to say to him, “What are we supposed to do with this? What should we do now?” In fact, Luke tells us that “they were cut to the heart”—that they weren’t giving points out of ten for humor or for length or whatever it was. No, it was way beyond that. There was a listening with their ears. There was something that they’d never encountered before. Because they were hearing the very voice of God through the voice of a man. “What are we supposed to do? What should we do, Peter?” Then he said, “This is what to do: repent and be baptized, every one of you.” In other words, “Do an about-turn from the way you’re going, trust in Jesus and what he has done, and then get baptized so that everyone will know that you’re serious. Get baptized so that everyone will know you’re for real.”
You see, baptism is an outward sign of an inward spiritual change. It’s the sign going up that declares what has taken place in private. That’s why we often say that an unbaptized believer is like a soldier who’s unwilling to wear the uniform. I never saw anybody become a soldier and didn’t want to wear the uniform. That’s the reason you become a soldier, in part, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you like to have one of those uniforms? They always look so good! And the sailors, so smart! And the airmen, so fantastic! I can’t imagine joining the Air Force and a man says, “And now, your uniform, what size would you like?” And I say, “Well, you know…” And he said, “Okay, well I think we can find one like that.” And so he gave me the uniform, and then I said, “No, I just want to be in the Air Force. I don’t want the uniform. I just want to be a soldier, but I want to be incognito. I don’t want anyone to know that I’m in the Army. I don’t want any… Because there might be some people who hate me for being in the Army. It might be hard to be in the Army. There may be opposition. You might get killed in this army! So why don’t I just do without the uniform?” No can do!
There is no such thing as secret discipleship, because either our discipleship will destroy our secrecy, or our secrecy will destroy our discipleship. And an unbaptized believer is like a soldier that won’t wear the uniform or like a spouse who refuses to wear a wedding ring—who says, “I’m not going to wear a wedding ring.” Well, you’d better be very careful if you’ve got a husband who says, “I’m not going to wear a wedding ring.” You might want to get him a ring for his nose, then, if he doesn’t want to wear it on his finger. Because you want every girl to know that that is an expression of the reality of a relationship that is precious and unassailable. The distinction is between listening and doing.
There are some people who are very good at going through the menu for you, aren’t there, when you go into a restaurant? “Can I just go through the specials?” Increasingly, I want to say, “No. No. Because my life is going by, and frankly, no. No. Just… I’ll get something, you know?” Because I listen to all of the thing, and it’s “And we have the thing with the balsamic, and we have the herb-crusted with the basted on single beds of rice,” and… Yeah. And you can sit there and listen to all of that, and it doesn’t mean a thing. It doesn’t mean a thing until you order and you eat it.
You can memorize timetables for all the buses that go everywhere on the Greyhound system and never take a trip. You can have Lipitor prescribed for you to help with your cholesterol, as myself and as apparently seven hundred thousand million other people have. You can have that prescribed for you, and you can believe implicitly in it, and you can have the pills, and you can sit them right beside the water cup, and you may never, ever benefit from the impact of the drug in your bloodstream. You can listen at Cleveland Hopkins Airport to every announcement of every flight that is going to where you want to go without ever going to your destination. Because there is a vital distinction between listening and doing. In those cases, perhaps not earth-shattering. In this case, it is a matter of our eternal destiny.
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
Father, thank you for the Bible. Thank you that we can read it. Thank you that its truth prevails. Thank you that the Holy Spirit drives it home to the minds and hearts of those who will humbly accept it. And bless us now as we proceed with the balance of our time. Encourage those who are about to be baptized. Speak into the lives of those of us who have been listening to this story for a long time without ever doing anything about it. Help us not simply, again, to go through another Sunday where we look into the mirror and then go away and forget exactly how we appear. Save us from self-deception. And help us, Lord, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 See Romans 10:17.
 See Psalm 119:105.
 See Matthew 5:3–12.
 Matthew 7:24–27 (NIV 1984).
 See Romans 13:12.
 See Hebrews 12:1.
 See Ephesians 4:22–24; Colossians 3:9–10.
 Matthew 28:19–20 (paraphrased).
 See Isaiah 53:6; Luke 15:3–7.
 See Luke 15:11–32.
 See Ephesians 2:8–9.
 Acts 2:37 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 2:38 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.