When to be swift and when to be slow
In verse 17, James shows us God in His character as the author of every good gift. Then in verse 18 James describes God’s greatest gift of all. That gift is our salvation, which has so transformed us that we have lost our former identities and become wholly new creatures, the firstfruits of a perfect creation enduring forever. The instrument God used to produce the miraculous change was "the word of truth."
Now in verse 19 James brings out the crucial application. If the Word of Truth is so powerful in accomplishing good, we had better give it central place in our lives. He issues a strong appeal to heed the Word. He says, "Wherefore." In a nutshell he is saying, "The appeal I am now going to make rests upon what I have just shown you." Then he again addresses his readers as "my beloved brethren" just as he did three verses earlier. He wants them to know that the motive constraining his appeal is love and only love. Counsel proceeding from real love can be trusted to seek above all the welfare of the beloved. He is implying that because his words come from a loving heart, his readers should listen closely. He is going to state what he truly believes is the great need of their souls.
That need is to "be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath." "Swift" and "slow" in this context do not refer to speed. By "swift" he means "eager." He wants us to be ready and eager to hear. By "slow" he means that we should exercise restraint. He wants us to speak only after carefully weighing our words and to show anger only after determining that it is right and necessary for a good purpose.
There are many other warnings in Scripture against speaking rashly (Prov. 10:19; 13:3; 17:27; Eccles. 5:1-2) and many other warnings against anger (Prov. 14:29; 16:32; 17:27 again; 29:11; Eccles. 7:9). But the general principle that we must keep our speech and temper under control is not all that James is teaching here. He is teaching also how we should react to the Word of Truth. It will not be profitable to us unless we are swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath. We must hear it with minds poised to believe. Rather than permit quarrelsome outbursts that will negate its wholesome influence, we must bind our tongues to thoughtful questions and applications. And finally, we must not allow the Word to become an excuse for wrath and fighting.
The wrath he means is evidently the kind that arises when two brothers disagree over a point of doctrine or practice within the church. Confirmation that he is thinking of this kind of wrath appears in his next comment; "For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God" (v. 20). Human wrath of a fleshly kind never attains a result that a righteous God can approve. Yet when do men most easily fall into the trap of thinking that their wrath serves God’s interests? When they have embarked on a passionate crusade against what they define as sin or heresy. It is then that they easily get riled up with anger which they pretend is righteous anger. They fool themselves that unless they take a strong stand and defend their ground with fussing, fuming, and fighting, darkness will tighten its hold on the world. They fail to see that when they let themselves be possessed with carnal rage, darkness wins, for this kind of wrath is a vehicle of hatred, not love. It divides rather than unites. It hurts rather than helps. It destroys rather than builds.
There is a place for defending the Word of God. Later we will discuss when and how it is appropriate to defend it.
Sin as dirt
James next puts his finger on the root cause of all our wrong responses to the Word of Truth. Why are we not swift to hear but slow, not slow to speak but swift, and not slow to wrath but swift? Because of sin. Sin is the great wall that keeps truth from penetrating deep into our hearts (Acts 28:26-27). Therefore, James admonishes us to "lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness" (v. 21). Another translation is this: "Put off all dirt and all abundance of wickedness." He is comparing sin to the filth that readily accumulates on our bodies and clothing as we interact with the world around us. There is dirt everywhere, and we pick it up without trying. So also it takes no special effort to multiply our sins. By nature we are sinners and we are always sinning. Just as we must regularly cleanse ourselves of dirt, so we must regularly remove the sin clinging to us. Otherwise, we are unprepared to profit from the Word of Truth.
If we deal with sin by confessing and forsaking it, then we will be able to "receive the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls" (v. 21). "Engrafted" is literally "implanted." James is thinking of the Word as seed sown in the soil of our hearts. Here is one example of his close dependence on the teaching of Jesus. He is thinking of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, telling of the farmer who goes forth and scatters seed in his field (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23). The seed is the Word of God, and the sower is anyone who shares the Word with others. In some soil the seed cannot take root. In other soil it germinates but soon withers. In yet other soil it grows up among weeds and never produces fruit. But in the remaining soil it yields a great harvest. Thus, when James pleads with his readers to receive the implanted Word, he means that they should let it grow and be fruitful.
Exactly what must they do? As they hear the Word, they must respond with faith. By believing the gospel, they gain salvation if they have not been saved already. As James says, the Word "is able to save your souls." Yet salvation is only the first work that the Word performs in our hearts. It not only puts us in the position of sons who are legally entitled to inherit heaven, but it also does a continuous work of transformation that makes us fit for heaven. This ongoing work is the subject of the next verses.
The virtue of meekness
The virtue that makes our hearts tender to the Word is meekness. The opposite of meekness is, of course, pride. The main reason men resist the Word is that they feel no need for it. In their pride, they are satisfied with what they know already, or with what they think they know. As they hear the Word preached or taught, many professing Christians reject anything that they do not agree with. They may claim that the Bible is their ultimate authority, but in reality they accept the Bible only to the extent that they can fit it into the framework of their own thinking. They are not really open to new ideas, especially if these challenge sinful attitudes and practices. They are not teachable, and at the core of their resistance is pride. Thus, Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5).
First, consider whether you are swift to hear.
Next, consider whether you are slow to speak.
Also, consider whether you are slow to wrath.