I have been thinking a lot about sermons. Every month, multiple hours of biblical teaching stream into my ears — at church on Sundays, at Bible study, in the car, etc. In one sense, I suppose that this is right, for faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). After all, the Word of God ought to have my highest attention.
But, I realize that there is also danger here. James 1:21-27 says that there is more to Christian life than merely hearing. The passage says that, after cleansing myself from wickedness, I am to receive the word implanted with humility. And what does that mean? James elaborates in verse 22 by speaking of two types of people: doers of the word and merely hearers of the word. Doers of the word hear and obey. Mere hearers hear and do not obey. Doers of the word have received the word as seeds to good soil, implanted with humility. Mere hearers have rejected it as chaff, rejecting in arrogance.
This is terrifying. How does a man turn into a mere hearer? After all, he listens to the same word as the doer. He sits in the same church building, sees the same preacher, hears the same preaching, and might even take the same notes. He hears the points, the applications, the exhortations, and yet, he is a mere hearer; he does not do what the Word of God says. Why? Or rather, how?
James says it is because he has deluded himself. He does not see reality. This mere hearer, this deluded man, is like one who looks at himself in the mirror and yet a moment later forgets what he looks like (James 1:23-24). He is a moral fool, one who had his flaws, sins, and transgressions exposed by the light of the Scriptures — and yet does not change his ways. There is no blessing for such a man, only delusion. There is no sanctification or ministry of the Holy Spirit in such a man, only self-deception. He has eyes but does not truly see, ears but does not truly hear.
What a hardened heart of unbelief! What a travesty to treat sermons as a lecture, the mere receiving of information and the gathering of data! What a scandal to think of preaching as just another class, just another podcast, just another sound bite! What sin, to scorn the word of God and cultivate ears of stone rather than a heart of flesh!
The right preaching of the living and active Word of God (Hebrews 4:12) is nothing less than God speaking. And when God speaks, He expects us to obey. His sheep hear His voice, and they follow Him (John 10:27). But not all are His sheep. Not all hear and obey. Oh, soul, fear! Fear becoming so calloused as to treat the Word of God lightly!
When my heart is in peril, heading down the path of obstinacy, I ought to think on Scripture. Oh soul, consider:
- Hebrews 12:25 says, "See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven."
- Many Jews heard the words of Jesus, and yet were like the "foolish man who built his house on the sand" for they did not heed them. "The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall" (Matthew 7:27). They were warned and yet did not heed.
- Those in the king's country were invited to the wedding feast, but "they were unwilling to come" (Matthew 22:3). They paid no attention to the king but instead went their own way, to their farms and businesses, their lives and agendas. They were utterly destroyed (Matthew 22:7) for their unbelief.
- The foolish fellow who said he had faith, and yet did not have any works, had heard many sermons and many exhortations, yet his faith was useless for it did not produce any fruit (James 2:14-20). If you say that you have faith, show it by your works!
- Indeed, the Hebrews brought out of Egypt had good news preached to them, "but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard" (Hebrews 4:2). Instead, they perished in the wilderness for their unbelief (Hebrews 3:17). They did not obey because they did not believe.
- The Israelites in the divided kingdom drew near with their words and honored God with their lips, and did not please God, because they had moved their hearts far from Him. Oh yes, they said the right words, but only with mere "tradition learned by rote" (Isaiah 29:13), not with love from the heart. God will judge such hypocritical liars.
- The second son told his father that he would obey, and yet did not, whereas the first son told his father he would go into the field as commanded, and yet later regretted it and so went. The first, not the second, did the will of his father (Matthew 21:29-31). What will the Father say on the last day to the mere hearer?
- On that last day, the day of judgment, many will claim that they did miracles in Christ's name, and yet the Lord Jesus will say to them, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness" (Matthew 7:23). They were rejected because they did not do His will.
- All who hear the Word of God faithfully preached, and yet did no heed the call to repentance, have their blood on their own heads (Acts 18:6). They heard and did not believe. They heard and did not fear. They heard and did not obey.
Such are the examples of Scripture. Synthesizing such characterizations, I come up with the following principles about mere hearers:
- Mere hearers are not passive victims. They actively refuse God. They actively reject His counsel, His ways, His commands.
- Mere hearers may seem to revere His Word, but truly they think that it is a mere suggestion, a good idea, a piece of advice. They do not consider the words for what they truly are: the words of the Almighty King thundering from heaven.
- Mere hearers may speak religious words and profess beautiful truths, but ultimately they live like devils. By their deeds they betray that their allegiance is not to God, but to the world, to their sin, and to themselves.
- Mere hearers do not love the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ Himself says, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
- Mere hearers are walking towards a terrible judgement. They are calloused and unbelieving. They must repent before it is too late!
So, we ought to take care how we listen (Luke 8:18). Good sermons are good. Good knowledge is good. But they only profit if it is united with obedience. As James says, “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty,” does not let us stop with mere contemplation. We must be like the one who “abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer.” This kind of man, and this kind of man only, “will be blessed in what he does” (James 2:25).
I want to be a doer of the Word, not a mere hearer. I want to have my orthodoxy — right doctrine — followed by orthopraxy— right living. I want to bring honor to my Lord Jesus Christ by loving Him with all my mind — thinking rightly — and all my life — doing rightly. I want to be an exemplary Christian, one who hears the Word, and then does it. I hope you do, too. Lord, help us.
Through the Word of God, we hear His voice. How then shall we live?