The Context of Dead Faith: Be Swift to Hear
by HK Flynn
The key verse of James tells us to be, "swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath" but it also doubles as a sort of 1st century table of contents in James.
This post is about Jame's unpacking of what it means to be swift to hear. Generally, James is describing the first type of behavior (the careful hearing of God's Word) that responds well to trials, and leads to a perfect, or fully sufficient maturity.
Hodges argues that the swift to hear section includes (1) the observing of one’s face in a mirror passage, (2) the admonition not to prefer the rich to the poor in fellowship, and (3) the extended admonition on faith and works, which includes the dead faith passage.
The start points and the end points of this entire swift to hear section are very obvious, and I think it’s important for you to see Hodges isn’t just making up the outline to support his theology. The starting point (1:21) comes after the key verse (1:19, 20).
James has insisted at the end of that key verse that the wrath of man does not achieve the righteousness of God, and this is not just a passing comment. James is saying that the wrath of man cannot achieve what he is calling the congregations to achieve, the righteousness of God. This is what he’s earlier called being perfect and complete lacking nothing.
The end point of this swift to hear section(2:26) is the final summary of his faith/works teaching.
This is followed by an obvious change of subject. James clearly switches gears in order to address his “slow to speak” admonition. He begins:
“My brethren, let not many of your become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter punishment.”
This is pretty compelling evidence that Hodges is on track with his outline. In other words, Hodges notices what should have been obvious to everyone, a similarity between the “slow to speak” of v. 19 and the admonition not to quickly become teachers in 3:1. I hope the idea of a loose string-of-pearl organization of James, so popular for almost a century, is beginning to seem more far fetched.
2 Corinthians 3:18 sheds a lot of illumination on the observing one's face in a mirror passage. James is saying, don’t think that simply exposure to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word will produce in you the “righteousness of God” (1:20), i.e. the perfect state of Christian maturity. (I would add post-Pentecost maturity, based on our speculation about the dating.) Exposure to God's word will not produce that. You must meekly receive the implanted (or the planted-in-you) Word and become a doer of the Word. In other words, let the implanted word grow and thrive, nourishing that perfect gift from above.
James tells his listeners not to be like a man observing his “natural face” in a mirror. Hodges suggests that "natural face" is not as preferable a translation as observing the “face of his birth” in a mirror.
Because the context supports “face of his birth”. This is because James has just mentioned birth in the conclusion of the prologue. James speaks of being “brought.. forth” in the NKJV, other translations say “begat”. James says in 1:18, “[o]f His own will He brought us forth… [as a] kind of first fruits of His creatures”. Hodges is basically saying that an idea in 1:18 affects the context of 1:23 (five whole verses away), where James writes “he is like a man observing the face of his birth in a mirror.” In fact, James has also referred to the concept of birth in between those two verses(!), with his implanted-word remark in v.21! So the concept of birth is not foreign to James’ thinking here. What does it mean to say that we shouldn't be like a man looking at the face of his birth and then going away forgetfully?
James is saying gaze into the Word, which is like a mirror.
(It's good to remember that James woould have meant the OT, just like Paul meant the OT in 2 Corinthians 3:18, though Paul is thinking of the Law of Moses, James was zeroing in on the proverbial tradition.)
But don’t just gaze. When you gaze into the Word and see what you now are in Christ, (for James, proverbial wisdom was the mind of Christ, the implanted word) and then walk away from the mirror, live out that proverbial wisdom. (The implanted mind of Christ) Don’t go back to a human-centered mind set. Instead of supposedly teaching not to forget to change what you saw in the mirror (!), he is insisting his listeners remember the scriptural image—the implanted word—and aggressively apply it to their lives.
The sharp admonition not to prefer the rich to the poor in fellowship is not his first or last address of this issue of inter-class relations. In the introduction, James broached this by calling for a major attitude check on the part of the rich. While he is not advocating a return to having all things in common, he is not shying from saying the relations still need to be driven by the implanted word, the perfect gift from above, not our ambitions and worldly perspectives. Exposure to preaching and teaching will not save you from failure and the ultimate death to which sin leads, but becoming a doer of the Word will deliver you.
Concerning the lengthy faith/works passage, with its dead faith comments, I simply want to insist on what the subject matter is. Since this is a survey of Hodges’ outline, I’ve put some evidence of the two major distortions of James on my own blog instead of here.
(I.e., the famous demons passage, and the justification by faith passage.)
But concerning subject matter, James is telling people who have the implanted word to live it. Walking the walk is mandatory if you want to be like the amazing post-Pentecost Stephen. In fact, walking the walk is mandatory if you want to avoid being the post-Pentecost Ananias and Sapphiras! (I would argue that my speculation about the early dating is not necessary for this, all the alumni of the early Jerusalem church would carry those lessons with them throughout their lives.) Doing the work in the midst of trials is the only route to mature Christianity. Exposure to preaching and teaching won’t save your soul, doing the Word will. Hearing the word taught can be a game if it is not applied to one’s actions and treatment of the brethren, especially the poor.
That’s teh subject matter James is talking about. That’s what his hammer is. And since James has that hammer, every issue that comes up is a nail to be hammered. He is using the problem of rich poor relations to hammer away at the lesson he wants fully applied. Live the Christian life by aggressively applying the Word of God to one’s life with compassion and humility and successful wonder-working completeness will follow that application.
Let me state it clearly. James is not teaching a test to vindicate one’s eternal salvation. He is teaching something far and away more straightforward and easy to grasp. He is saying invigorate your Christian life by acting on your beliefs, so that the hungry brother is saved from death and so that you are saved from a vicious trend toward death. Faith alone does nothing. It is fully ineffective (dead) at the deliverance you need, salvation from the trend toward death and salvation unto full-fledged spiritual-living.
Near the end of Acts 9, Dr Luke regards the church as healthy. I would say that regardless of when James can be dated, that the church’s health in Acts 9 was due to exactly what James teaches: the aggressive application of the Word of God to individual lives, so as to fully unpack the miracle of new birth and fully experience the miracle of normal Christian maturity.
So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.