Being Teachable

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.

1. Do I take every opportunity to hear good preaching and teaching?

The best test is your attendance record. If your church is properly organized, it surely notices when you stay away, but you need to understand that God keeps attendance too. He is not going to teach you much unless you meet the requirement He states in Jeremiah 29:13: "And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart." You can hardly claim that you are keen on finding God if you do not even go to the place He has appointed for meeting with Him, the church.

If you are content to wallow in spiritual ignorance, very likely you do not think that Bible teaching and preaching have much to offer. Maybe the reason is that you do not really believe the Bible, and you are a hypocrite.

Years ago I knew a well-educated man who attended church but showed little appetite for spiritual things. I discovered the reason when he confessed to me in private that he had put his own spin on Christianity. As he shared his thinking, I realized that he had come to views which he called Christian, but which were outrageously unchristian. His favorite book was, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of the most influential books in the early New Age Movement. He blithely informed me that he was a god.

Few of the marginal people in our churches who give little place to the Bible and Bible teaching have fallen into such weird beliefs as this man embraced. Yet they are just as guilty of making themselves into gods if they do not put God’s Word above their own ideas and God’s will above their own desires. The proof that you give priority to His Word and His will is that you take every opportunity to hear good preaching and teaching of the Bible. Not only do you attend church faithfully, but also you attend with a glad spirit, rather than with a grudging spirit as if you were performing an unpleasant duty.

2. As I listen, do I keep an attentive mind?

You must stay awake and alert, unlike poor Eutychus who fell out of a window while Paul was preaching,. You know the story (Acts 20:7-12). It should be obvious why God included it in the Bible. He was warning all you sleepyheads what might happen to you if you drowse off during the sermon. You might drop dead.

3. Do I shun a critical spirit, causing me to focus on minor faults in the teacher’s ideas and delivery, and instead do I dwell on the good things he is saying?

You should harvest all the helpful truth you can find rather than sift through the main substance for small reasons to quibble and complain. In other words, as my father often advised, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Your strategy as a student should always be to overlook the bad and discover the good.

I am speaking on my own behalf as a teacher. If I say something in this commentary that is not exactly right or that is poorly expressed, pay no attention. Concentrate on the better things I say, and if you look for them, perhaps you will find them.

4. Am I careful not to reject the Word of Truth just because it contradicts my own ideas? Am I swift to learn something new?

One reason that many Bible-believing churches are not growing is that although they can attract new people, they have trouble holding on to them. When people come into our churches and learn what the Bible says, many are offended because it sharply contradicts the humanistic worldview they have learned in the schools and the media. These shapers of public opinion have brainwashed them to think that people who instead hold a Christian worldview are crackpots of the first magnitude. Where do we fall so side of the mark? We reject the three cornerstones of modern thought: evolutionism, pragmatism, and relativism. But as we show in Appendix 1, all three are absurd.

I trust that none of you will reject what I am teaching here just because it does not agree with the philosophy imposed on you by today’s unbelieving world. Be swift to hear. If you are a new Christian, come to Bible teaching and preaching with a heart of faith and let the Holy Spirit instruct you in a whole new way of thinking that will give you a true picture of the world you dwell in, that will show you the true purpose of life, and that will lead you down the path to true happiness.

The secret to being teachable is to receive the Word with meekness. When you hear something new or contrary to your beliefs, you should consult the Holy Spirit and seek His mind. The meekness required of you is to admit that you might be wrong.

Next, consider whether you are slow to speak.

5. When I ask questions of a teacher, are they of a profitable kind?

Do you belabor the teacher with questions that proceed not from a real desire to know, but from a desire for attention, or from a desire to show yourself clever, or from a desire to make the teacher look foolish? Do you ask questions that you could easily resolve yourself if you sought instruction from the Holy Spirit? Do you ask questions that the teacher just answered but you were asleep?

There is no evil in questions, but you should confine yourself to good questions. Every teacher occasionally has a student who, when he raises his hand, everybody groans. Don’t be that kind of student.

6. More important, do I argue with the Word of Truth?

How often have I known people who cast aside good Bible teaching because it made no sense to their carnal minds, darkened by unbelief! You may encounter people like this when you go out witnessing. I sometimes receive letters to my Web site from people with a scornful and argumentative spirit. For example, I had one man write to me at great length to register furious objection to my stand against polygamy. Another took issue with my insistence that all men are sinners. He assured me that he is not. I responded by asking whether his wife agrees.

Also, consider whether you are slow to wrath.

7. Do I become embroiled in debates over the Bible and Christian living?

As you should not argue with the Word itself, so you should not argue with others because they disagree with your interpretations. Church history is a sad tale of bitter and divisive fights over doctrine, often leading to broken fellowship or even to violent conflict. We must defend the fundamentals of the faith, yet we must defend them charitably and gently (2 Tim. 2:24-26).

There are exceptions to this rule. When opposing a false teacher, someone with spiritual authority may resort to severe or harsh language if thereby he can save any of the flock from being devoured. We find many illustrations in Paul’s conduct (Gal. 1:8-9).

Nevertheless, when we honestly disagree with real brothers in Christ, we must altogether avoid rancor. When debate shifts from the ground of peaceful and pleasant dialogue to the ground of hot contention filled with suspicion, accusation, and denunciation, it becomes a fleshly work as bad as any other gross sin (Gal. 5:19-21). It becomes "hatred, variance [contention], emulations [jealousy], wrath, strife, seditions [dissensions], heresies [factions]." Paul says, "They which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:21).

8. Do I come to the Word with a clean heart, able to learn?

The first step in your daily devotions should be confession of sin, so that nothing will hinder the Holy Spirit as He seeks to instruct you through the Word and through His still small voice. It is the custom in our churches to close each preaching service with an invitation, but it would also make good sense to put an invitation at the beginning of a service, giving people a chance to clear away sin before hearing the Word. Because they recognize the need for self-examination before approaching God or God’s Word, most churches provide a quiet moment before the service and perhaps others during the service.

Study Questions

  1. How does James assure us that we can trust his counsel?
  2. What in his judgment is the great need of our souls?
  3. What does each of the three admonitions mean?
  4. How does each describe a right reaction to the Word of Truth?
  5. What is the great barrier that keeps the Word from being fruitful in our lives?
  6. What comparison shows how we should deal with our sin?
  7. What is involved in giving ourselves a good cleaning?
  8. What picture of the Word shows its place in our lives?
  9. What is the first benefit of hearing the Word, a prerequisite for all others?
  10. What is at the core of all resistance to the Word, and therefore what virtue enables us to profit by it?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.