A tract written by one of the most extreme defenders of no-lordship salvation seeks to explain redemption: “Even at your best, you can never earn or deserve a relationship with God. Only the object of your faith, Jesus Christ, has the merit.” I agree with that. It is the clear teaching of Scripture (Titus 3:5–7).
But the same tract also says, “Your personal sins are not an issue to God.” When the author attempts to explain faith in practical terms, he says this: “You respond to God the Father by simply forming the words privately in your mind, ‘I believe in Christ.’”  R.B. Thieme, Jr., “A Matter of Life [and] Death: The Gospel of Jesus Christ” (Houston: Thieme Bible Ministries, 1990), 10-12.
All of that adds up to a notion of faith that is little more than a mental gambit. The “faith” that tract describes is not much more than a cursory nod of the head. It is bare intellectual assent.
Zane Hodges puts similar emphasis on the intellect in his description of faith: “What faith really is, in biblical language, is receiving the testimony of God. It is the inward conviction that what God says to us in the gospel is true. That—and that alone—is saving faith.”  Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 31.
Is that an adequate characterization of what it means to believe? Is faith totally passive? Is it true that people know intuitively whether their faith is real? Do all genuinely saved people have full assurance? Cannot someone be deceived into thinking he is a believer when in fact he is not? Can a person think he believes yet not truly believe? Is there no such thing as spurious faith?
Scripture plainly and repeatedly answers those questions. The apostles saw counterfeit faith as a very real danger. Many of the epistles, though addressed to churches, contain warnings that reveal the apostles’ concern over church members they suspected were not genuine believers. Paul, for example, wrote to the Corinthian church, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Peter wrote, “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:10).
Evidently there were some in the very early church who flirted with the notion that faith could be some kind of static, inert, inanimate assent to facts. The book of James, probably the earliest New Testament epistle, specifically confronts this error. James sounds almost as if he were writing to twentieth-century no-lordship advocates. He says people can be deluded into thinking they believe when in fact they do not, and he says the single factor that distinguishes bogus faith from the real thing is the righteous behavior inevitably produced by authentic faith.
James wrote, “Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22). James uses a substantive (pōietai) “doers of the word,” or “Word-doers” instead of a straightforward imperative (“do the word”). He is describing characteristic behavior, not occasional activity. It is one thing to fight; it is something else to be a soldier. It is one thing to build a shed; it is something else to be a builder. James is not merely challenging his readers to do the Word; he is telling them real Christians are doers of the Word. That describes the basic disposition of those who believe unto salvation.
True believers cannot be hearers only. The Greek word for “hearer” (v. 22) is akroatēs, a term used to describe students who audited a class. An auditor usually listens to the lectures, but is permitted to treat assignments and exams as optional. Many people in the church today approach spiritual truth with an auditor’s mentality, receiving God’s Word only passively. But James’s point, shown by his illustrations in verses 23–27, is that merely hearing God’s Word results in worthless religion (v. 26). In other words, mere hearing is no better than unbelief or outright rejection. In fact, it’s worse! The hearer-only is enlightened but unregenerate. James is reiterating truth he undoubtedly heard firsthand from the Lord Himself. Jesus warned powerfully against the error of hearing without doing (Matthew 7:21–27), as did the apostle Paul (Romans 2:13–25).
James says hearing without obeying is self-deception (v. 22). The Greek term for “delude” (paralogizomai) means “to reason against.” It speaks of skewed logic. Those who believe it is enough to hear the Word without obeying make a gross miscalculation. They deceive themselves.
James gives two illustrations that contrast hearers-only with obedient hearers.
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does. (James 1:23–25)
“Not a doer” is literally “a not-doer,” or someone whose disposition is to hear without doing. Contrary to some commentators, “looks . . . in a mirror” does not describe a hasty or casual glance. The verb (katanoeō) means “to look carefully, cautiously, observantly.” James’s point is not that this man failed to look long enough, or intently enough, or sincerely enough—but that he turned away without taking any action. “He has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was” (v. 24). This passage is reminiscent of the unproductive soils in Matthew 13. The person who hears the Word and does not have the proper heart response. Therefore that which has been sown cannot bear fruit.
James is illustrating the utter uselessness of passively receiving the Word. James 1:21 spoke of how we are to receive the Word: “Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.” The conjunction but at the beginning of verse 22 is equivalent to moreover, or now, implying that what follows is not a contrast but an amplification of the command in verse 21. In other words, James is saying it is wonderful to be receptive to the Word—to hear with approval and agreement—but that is not enough. We must receive it as those who would be doers. Non-doers are not true believers.
James gives a contrasting example. This is the effectual doer: “one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25). The word translated “looks intently” is parakuptō, the same word used in John 20:5 to describe how John stooped to peer into Jesus’ empty tomb. The word is also used in 1 Peter 1:12 of the angels who long to look into things concerning the gospel. It speaks of a deep and absorbing look, as when someone stoops for a closer examination. Hiebert says the word “pictures the man as bending over the mirror on the table in order to examine more minutely what is revealed therein.”  D. Edmund Hiebert, The Epistle of James (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 135-136. Implied is a longing to understand for reasons that go beyond the academic.
This is a description of the true believer. In contrast to the hearer-only, “he bent over the mirror, and, gripped by what he saw, he continued looking and obeying its precepts. This feature marks his crucial difference to the first man.”  The Epistle of James, 135-136. In describing the man who looks at the Word, continues in it, and is blessed, he is portraying the effect of true conversion.
Does this mean all true believers are doers of the Word? Yes. Do they always put the Word into practice? No—or a pastor’s task would be relatively simple. Believers do fail, and they sometimes fail in appalling ways. But even when they fail, true believers will not altogether cease having the disposition and motivation of one who is a doer. James, then, offers these words as both a reminder to the true believer (the “effectual doer,” v. 25), and a challenge to unbelievers who have identified with the truth but are not obedient to it (the “forgetful hearer[s]”).
The Unbridled Tongue
James further illustrates the deceptive nature of hearing without obeying:
If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26–27)
All of us struggle to control our tongues. It was James who wrote, “For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well” (James 3:2). But this man’s tongue is like an unbridled horse. He lets it run wild while deceiving his own heart (James 1:26). He is not battling a transitory lapse in tongue control. He is dominated by a pattern that characterizes his very nature. Though he professes to be religious, his character is out of sync with his claim. While he undoubtedly thinks of himself as righteous, he is misled about the efficacy of his own religion.
Despite this man’s external religion, his constantly unbridled and out-of-control tongue demonstrates a deceived and unholy heart, for “the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart” (Matthew 15:18). “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45).
Simon Kistemaker notes the significance of the expression “deceiving his own heart”:
This is the third time that James tells his readers not to deceive themselves (1:16, 22, 26). As a pastor he is fully aware of counterfeit religion that is nothing more than external formalism. He knows that many people merely go through the motions of serving God, but their speech gives them away. Their religion has a hollow ring. And although they do not realize it, by their words and by their actions—or lack of them—they deceive themselves. Their heart is not right with God and their fellow man, and their attempt to hide this lack of love only heightens their self-deception. Their religion is worthless.  Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 64.
This worthless religion contrasts sharply with the true religion that is “pure and undefiled . . . in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (v. 27). James is not here attempting to define religion, but rather to set forth a concrete illustration of the principle he began with: that true religion involves more than mere hearing. True saving faith will inevitably bear the fruit of good works.
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