The Word Of God Blesses UsErwin W. Lutzer | January 25, 2015
Selected highlights from this sermon
Have you sat through a sermon or read a passage of Scripture without it stirring your soul? Why does that happen? It starts with a heart filled with uncleanliness. So when we approach the Bible, we come to it with pride, we merely listen, then we go away without any transformation.
Let me begin today with a question. Have you ever been deceived? I’m sure we’ve all experienced that, and the reason is because we believed a lie. So let me follow up with another question. Have you ever deceived yourself? Have you ever believed your own lie, a lie that you perhaps want to believe about yourself or about your situation? And you’ve talked yourself into it, or you may not even know that what you have come to believe is a lie? Deception!
Well, we’re going to plunge right into the Scriptures. Would you take your Bible and turn please to James 1? And as always it is so important that we see the text because I want you to understand the text and the sequence of the text.
James Chapter 1! And I’m going to pick it up directly in verse 22. It says this. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Well, there it is. Deceiving yourselves! Greek scholars tell us that the word that is used there, hearers, is a word that could be used for auditors. Don’t be an auditor. Now you know what an auditor is. An auditor is somebody who comes into class and doesn’t want to take any exams, doesn’t write the term papers, and if he audits all of his classes, he won’t graduate. But he’s there just in case there is something very interesting for him to learn, but there’s no follow through. I used to teach. I didn’t like auditors who were there and said, “As long as it’s interesting I’ll come and hear you, but I don’t have to come to class. I can skip because I’m just an auditor.”
The problem is auditors are the ones who confuse knowing and believing, and they are oftentimes deceived because they think to themselves, “I’ve heard the lecture and I’ve attended the class,” and somehow they think in their minds therefore they have done it.
If you want an unbelievably chilling story in the New Testament about deception it is the words of Jesus who said, “Many shall say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? Lord, have we not done many miracles?’ and I will say to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me you workers of iniquity.’” Keep in mind that these people actually thought that the door of heaven would swing open for them, but they discovered that it didn’t because at the end of the day they were ones who heard the Word but didn’t understand, didn’t really believe, and didn’t follow through. They were auditors.
Well, your Bibles are open to James 1 because what we’re going to do in the next few moments is to give you instruction on how to make sure that you benefit from the Word of God. And this message applies to listening to a sermon. It, of course, is very important to me to emphasize that. But it also applies to those of you who are listening to the Scriptures. Many of you who are here for the first time may not know that here at the church we are committed to listening to the New Testament in 40 days, or reading it. And if you are involved in that, what you want to do is to make sure that you won’t just be an auditor, deceiving yourself.
About 35 years ago I read a sermon by the great 19th century preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and whenever I think of that text I think of his outline, and I’m using his outline today. And I didn’t have to check his sermon to see what the outline was. I remembered it because it is so easy to remember, so logical to remember, that I believe that for those of you who will still be alive in 35 years’ time, if somebody should ask, “Now what was that outline that Pastor Lutzer used that he took from Spurgeon on this passage?” you’ll know it just like that. Can you believe that? Thirty-five years from now! I think so. I think that there may be some skeptics present, but God will overcome that skepticism.
Are you ready for it? It’s this simple, and easy to remember. Spurgeon says that this passage of Scripture teaches us:
What to do before a sermon (or a Bible reading),
What to do during a sermon, and
What to do after a sermon.
It’s easy to remember and it’s all in the text. Thanks for joining us on this journey.
First of all, Spurgeon says that the text helps us to understand what we should do before a sermon. Now I’m actually in verse 21. “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness.” Wow! That’s quite a statement. We don’t even like the word filthy. And yet James here is talking about issues in our lives, sinful issues of unconquered sin, that he refers to as filthy.
Now some of those sins, of course, may be in the preceding verse. “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” The fact is that many of us are quick to speak because we want to hear the sound of our own voices. Furthermore, we are having a conversation with someone and we are not slow to hear because we don’t care what his or her story is. All that matters is our story. James said, “No, become interested in other people’s story. Be swift to hear, and be slow to speak because you know that what comes out of your mouth is representing the King of kings who redeemed you, so you don’t want to be flippant in the sense that you just say the first thing that comes into your head. But you are slow to speak, and you are very slow to anger. Now that, of course, would be included under the words filthy or excess of wickedness, the two terms that James uses here. But, of course, many other things are there as well. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you. Is there filthiness in your life? Or is there, as our translation says, rampant, out of control wickedness? James says, “Lay it aside.”
Weed the garden before we get to the Word of God, because if you and I come to the Scriptures and we have all of these issues and all of these sins that we’ve not confessed before God, and all of these issues in our relationship with other people, when we come to listen to a message or to hear the Word of God, we’ll discover it’ll be something like water on a marble slab. It will not affect us. That’s why you find that there are people who memorize Scripture and they go to Bible camp, and they learn all the verses, and then they turn away from God because what they are is auditors.
Now let’s talk very, very bluntly and clearly. I believe that in many families (and remember Rebecca and I used to have small children), the most unholy hour of the whole week is preparation to go to church Sunday morning. Isn’t that true? Does anybody identify with that? You know, the kids don’t eat breakfast. They want to sleep in because it’s Sunday morning. Father is out in the car honking the horn because he knows he is late. Mother is upset because she’s saying, “Well, Father didn’t help much.” And they say the kids can take their breakfast with them. And everybody comes and then it’s difficult to park. And then you come in. Listen; on a Richter scale of 1 to 10 in terms of unholiness, that hour might be a number 8 at least. (laughter)
How do you circumvent that? Well, first of all, you get started earlier in the morning, and I know all that too. Hopefully you get here early. Listen, those of you who are here early could I just say a word of encouragement to you? I believe that in heaven your crown is going to be so heavy that your head will be tilted (laughter), which also says something about the latecomers (more laughter), but we can slide over that.
The sanctuary is not a place where you can meet with your friends before the service. You can do that out in the hallway. When you come into this place what you should do is to say, “God, I’ve had a difficult morning. I’ve had a difficult week, and I know last week with all of its difficulties was much better than the one I’m going to have, so Lord, would you just quiet my soul? Help me to confess and deal with issues that are standing here as a barrier, because soon we’re going to be singing praises to God. Soon we’re going to be asked to listen to your holy Word. And I am here to meet You and I am preparing my heart.” James says, “You don’t want to be an auditor. Lay aside all filthiness, all excessive wickedness.” Some translations say excessive malice. Lay it aside.
So first of all you want to remember this outline. Before a sermon, cleansing! During a sermon, humility! Receive with meekness the engrafted Word that is able to save your souls. Meekness means humility. What you do is you come and you say, “Lord, speak to me. I want to learn. I’m not here to oppose You.” I tell you, it’s very dangerous business to oppose God. And the Bible says God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. I for one do not want to be in opposition with God because I know who’s going to win and who’s going to lose.
So James says, “Come and do it with submission.” Are you willing to listen to God’s Word, to really hear what He has to say to you today? You know, it’s so important to do this. Let me give you an example and an illustration as to how you and I should listen to the Word of God, whether preached, listened to or read.
Let us suppose that you had a very, very wealthy aunt. And once casually when you are over there she happens to say that she’s remembered you in her will. She hasn’t said anything beyond that. You know that rich relatives often make bad friends but they can make wonderful ancestors. (laughter) And so, you know, now the attorney has called a meeting and her will is going to be read, and you are present. You wouldn’t care whether or not he was well dressed. You wouldn’t care whether or not his outline was as clear as the one I am giving you today. You wouldn’t care about anything. What you are doing is you are listening for your name. That’s what you are listening for. Did she leave you some money, or did she leave you a debt? What did she do?
When you come to hear the Word of God, you are listening for your name. You are coming and you are saying, “Oh God, what do You have to say to me today? My soul is thirsty. My need is great and I need to hear Your voice. Vance Havner was a country preacher who had all kinds of witticisms that he used to roll off in his sermons. You know he’d say things like, “Most church services begin at 11 o’clock sharp and they end at 12 o’clock dull.” He’d say things like that.
But I also remember something else that he said. He said, “I’ve never yet had a sermon where I didn’t get anything but,” he said, “I’ve had some mighty close calls.” We’ve all had our close calls. I am sure I have preached my share of forgettable messages. We’ve all had close calls.
As God would have it, this morning I was in the church early as I always am on Sunday, and I was looking through some of the mail that had arrived, and there was a letter from somebody who said, “In our church the preaching (He’s talking about his church.) is about 2% milk – the 2% kind.” Now folks, no matter how bad the sermon may be, no matter how imperfect it may be, listen for your name. (applause)
I quoted Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I’m using his outline today. And you know he was once walking through the snow. He got to this little church and the preacher wasn’t there. The preacher couldn’t get to church that Sunday. So there was a layman who stood up and said, “Look unto Me all the ends of the earth and be saved.” Spurgeon, at the age of 17, sitting in the back of that little church, heard that and was converted. He was one of the greatest preachers this world has ever seen besides Jesus and Paul. You never know when you hear God’s Word.
Alright now, remember that 35 years from now I want you to remember this outline. Before a sermon, cleansing! During a sermon, humility! After a sermon, and obviously the word that you are expecting me to say is obedience, and I will say it. After a sermon, obedience!
But let’s look at the text. Okay? Verse 22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
James says it’s like a man looking in the mirror. Now I need to tell you that in Greek there are two different words for man. There’s one word for man, which means mankind. It could include women. That’s not the word that James is using here. He’s using a word that can only be translated male. He has a man in mind. Now whenever you approach the gender issue, you begin to get a little nervous. I mean after all we are living in a day and age where we can’t even build a snowman anymore. It has to be a snow person that has to be built. (laughter) But I’m going to skate across this really fast. (laughter) Now just tell me honestly one-on-one, who is it that spends more time in front of the mirror? The male species or the female species? I mean is there any debate about that? I don’t think so.
You see, James knows that it’s not like a woman to look in the mirror and then go her way and forget what she was like. Men will. They’ll look in the mirror. They’ll maybe use a little bit of mouthwash, throw on some cologne, and hey, they’re fine. And they forget about all the rest. James says that’s the way auditors do it. You see, what they do is they look at the law. They are there on Sunday. They listen to a sermon, and then they go their way and then they forget about it, and they don’t apply it and they forget the truth of it. The Word of God is a mirror and it tells you the truth about yourself. It is not bent.
You know, years ago when I was a little boy in Canada I was at what would be like a state fair, and I was in a house of mirrors. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in one of those, but you know you are in some rooms and you are just tall. You are like Jack and the Beanstalk. And then you are in some other rooms and you discover that you are short and very rotund. You know, there are some people who are running around trying to find a mirror that makes them look good. The Bible is a mirror that tells it the way it is. It reflects. It reveals who we are.
Years ago I remember a missionary telling this story and I believe it to be true. The missionary told us that they were in a primitive tribe that had never seen mirrors in their lives. So here they are. They bring a mirror to these people and a woman looked in the mirror. Obviously she had never seen her face before. And according to their translation in English, and I’ll give it to you just the way they gave it when they told us, she looked in the mirror and then she looked away and said, “Who is this hag who has come into our village?” She’d never seen herself before.
You see, the Word of God tells us who we are. It reveals us but it also reveals God, and it becomes redemptive. You see, in the Bible (and I want to be clearer than what I just simply said) we not only see ourselves. We also see God. “Beyond the sacred page I see Thee, Lord.” So the mirror not only reveals. The mirror also sanctifies. It brings us transformation. That’s the word I’m looking for. Remember in 2 Corinthians 3:18 the Bible says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
What the Word of God does is it reveals us to ourselves as to who we are, but then it also reveals Christ, and there in the Word we see His grace, and we see His power, and we see His love, and we see His redemption. The Bible contains in itself all that we really need from now to eternity. It’s all there. (applause) And then that’s why James says that what we have to do is we have to look intently into the law of liberty. We have to persevere in it. And then he says, “That person will be blessed in his deeds.” And then he gives us some deeds that we should be doing. For example, in verse 26 he talks about the tongue. He says, “If you can’t control your tongue I don’t care how many sermons you’ve listened to, and I don’t care how many songs you’ve sung. Your religion is basically vain.” James puts a tremendous amount of emphasis on the tongue.
And then he says, “He deceives his heart,” because he thinks once again, “Look, I’ve heard the Word; I’ve memorized the Scripture,” but it hasn’t gone down into his heart. And then it says in verse 27, “Take care of the orphans and the widows.” And today we may include in that preborn infants and their mothers. And in this way, James says, we live out our faith so that it becomes practical and it becomes real because we have been gripped by God’s holy Word.
And by the way, all of the statistics indicate that there is a tight connection between people who are in the Word consistently and people who serve in the Church, people who are committed to the Church, people who are loyal to God’s ministries, people who are generous. There is a direct connection between the Word of God and the way in which we live. And so James says that what you need to do is to look intently and persevere in the Word.
And by the way, in the next message in this series I’m going to be talking about meditation in the Scripture so that we understand how we can persevere in the Word.
How do we nail this down for ourselves so that we can leave here today not just merely as auditors? First of all, keep in mind the outline that I want you to remember.
Before a sermon, cleansing!
During a sermon, humility (teachability)!
After a sermon, obedience to what God has said!
First of all, let me put it to you this way. Glancing is not the same as gazing. I don’t know how to put that more clearly except to say being present doesn’t mean that you are experiencing transformation.
You know, years ago they had transistor radios. Now, of course, I am sure the technology has passed way beyond them, but they were quite big then because you could carry one in your pocket. And there was this man who went to a symphony concert with his wife. And she appreciated the fact because he didn’t really want to go. He didn’t enjoy those kinds of things, but he didn’t complain at all. He seemed to enjoy it and smiled and participated. And later on the way home she said, “I want to commend you. Attending a concert is not your big deal, but nonetheless you were such a good companion tonight.” He said, “Well, Honey, I have to confess to you that I had a little ear piece, and I was actually listening to a baseball game.”
That’s the way some people come to church. It may not be the transistor radio. It could be the phone. It could be other distractions. And even if it’s none of those, their minds are somewhere else. And what I’m saying to you is glancing is not the same as gazing. You look in the Scripture of those who encountered God. Now they encountered Him in ways that you and I don’t, but we encounter God through the Word. What did Peter say? “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, oh Lord.” Job, after he encountered God directly said, “I’ve heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye sees Thee. Therefore I abhor myself in dust and ashes.”
The Word of God will slay you. It is sharper than any two-edged sword. It takes us apart. It lays us on the table. The imagery there in the book of Hebrews, chapter 4, is a medical kind of imagery. It takes us apart and shows us our need. But glancing is not the same as gazing with a heart that is intending to obey. You see, the man who looks in the mirror and walks away is a man who does not look deeply into himself, or into God, or into redemption. So glancing is not the same as gazing.
And hearing is not the same as doing. Jesus repeatedly talked about those who heard, but they really didn’t hear. They listened to the words. They had those words coming into their hearts. But nothing really happened beyond that. There was no follow-up.
And then I have to emphasize something else, and that is that we should remember that knowing and hearing is not the same as believing. You know in the fourth chapter of the book of Hebrews we have an amazing passage of Scripture that I want to remind you of. It is a marvelous example of how a nation of Israel heard God’s Word and understood what He said. There was no doubt about the fact that they all heard the same thing. And yet they turned away from Him because they didn’t believe what they heard.
Listen to this. The author of Hebrews is writing about those people and he says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” I want to pause there for a moment. It’s possible, even when it comes to sermons, that the sermons can harden your heart. Every time you hear about the need to receive Christ as Savior and to receive His grace, you can continue to harden your heart because you say, “No, no, no, no!” And the more often you do that, pretty soon you discover that it no longer bothers you, and it no longer brings any conviction because your heart is hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Sin is incredibly deceitful. It promises one thing and then gives us another, but we go bumbling through, thinking to ourselves that this has to be right because I want what I want when I want it. And the author said, “Beware lest you heard the Word of God and all that it did is harden you rather than soften you.”
And then you’ll notice what it says in chapter 4, and you don’t need to turn to it, but listen carefully. “For good news came to us just as it came to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them because they were not united by faith with those who listen.”
I memorized the book of Hebrews in the King James Version many, many years ago, and it just simply said this: “The word preached to them did not profit them because it was not mixed in faith.” And what happened? They died in the wilderness and did not experience God’s best.
You see, it’s a tragic story. Jesus said in the Old Testament, and of course, He says it explicitly in the New through His own words and through the writings of the Apostle Paul and other writers of the New Testament that “I am offering you grace. I am offering you forgiveness. I am offering you the promised land.” The words of James say, “Whoever is intent in the law of liberty and obeys will be blessed in his deeds.” That’s what I’m offering you, but it’s possible for our hearts to be so hard and so indifferent that we harden them against God, and the Word preached is not mixed with faith, and it profits none, and we are the losers.
So, as we think about our own commitment to listening to the New Testament in 40 days, or reading it, we’re all going to persevere. Why? It’s because James says that when we do that we will be blessed in our deeds. And if you are behind you can continue to go ahead. And some of you I know are behind. I have to believe you are behind because I’m a day behind. And if I’m a day behind I am sure I represent many within the congregation.
Here is my concluding plea to you: Don’t harden your heart. That’s what it says in the book of Hebrews. It says, “Harden not your heart if today you hear His voice.” Don’t bring so much anger to the situation. Don’t bring so much love of sin. Don’t bring so much unbelief to the situation that you cannot benefit from God’s Holy Word, and His most blessed promises of forgiveness and hope and help and fellowship. And all those things await those who look intently and continually in the law of God.
It’s a very sobering thing to realize that there are people who sing the same songs because they are singing in the same church, and people who listen to the same Scripture read, and people who listen to the very same sermons. And yet one group of people is on a trajectory to heaven and to blessing, and the other people are on their way to a place that the Bible refers to as damnation. And the problem is that we frequently can’t tell the difference because to us they look so much alike.
Could I ask you as a result of this message, however inadequately it might have been preached, to simply ask God to search your heart and ask where you are on the continuum? Are you a true believer or are you a believer but you have also hardened your heart? Don’t do that.
Remember that old story about the fake $50 bill – the counterfeit $50 bill that was used to buy some groceries. It helped a child to buy some shoes. It did a lot of good along the way, but when it got to the bank, it was totally disqualified because it was fake. Only you know your heart. You don’t know it as well as God knows it but where are we?
James says, “When you listen don’t be an auditor. Receive with meekness the Word which is able to save your souls (and it does), and it’s the implanted Word, it’s the Word that God has sown in our hearts.” And in response to that, what is the promise that James gives? “A man like this,” he says, “who obeys will be blessed in all that he does.” There’s nothing but blessing for those who pursue God and His Word.
Father, we ask today in the name of Jesus, that you might take these remarks and help all of us to understand that we have been brought to this moment with this great opportunity to be involved in Your Word. We pray, oh Lord, help us. Help us, Father, to come to it with the same reverence and openness with which we come into Your presence. Help us to listen, to learn, to respond.
For those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, no matter where they are, we pray that they might believe on Him right now and be saved. And for those of us who know You, make our hearts tender toward You and Your Word. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.