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James 1:22

22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. 25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. — KJV

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does. — NIV

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

Greek Transliteration of James 1:22 with [Strong #] and brief definitions:
ginomai [1096] to become… de [1161] and, but, now… (conjunction) poietes [4163] a performer, poet logos [3056] word, something said, communication, divine expression of Christ kai [2532] and, also, even, so then, too me [3361] not, no, none, never monon [3440] merely: alone, but, only akroates [0202] a hearer paralogizomai [3884] misreckon, delude, beguile, deceive heautou [1438] my-, our-, your-…self or selves (pronoun)

1.22.0 Introduction to James 1:22

This verse launches the next-to-last paragraph in the first chapter, but one could say it is the launching pad for the balance of the book. The book of James is generally considered the most practical book on Christian living in the New Testament and this verse is often cited as the reason why. It is interesting to note KJV and ESV use nearly identical language (KJV adds a “ye” that isn’t in the Greek) and NIV, though it structures the sentence a little differently, conveys a message which appears almost transparently the same. It says to do, not just hear. Hearing is good, but hearing without doing is empty and worse, it is self deception. Questions generated by this verse allow us to examine doers and hearers and finally, to look at why hearers only are deceiving themselves.

1.22.1 What does it mean to be a doer of the word?

Gal 5:18-21 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Like James, Paul also sometimes uses stark contrasts to make a point clear. In this passage Paul leads in to the answer to our question by first describing a doer not of the word. Even before this Paul talks about the law and how those lead by the Spirit are not under the law. Old Testament thinking was you either were obedient to the law or you were not. Paul artfully explains in this passage, however, the real issue isn’t obedience to law, but rather it is a matter of whether you are lead by the Spirit of God or your own mortal and sinful flesh and its desires.

Gal 5:22-24 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. This section of the passage, better known to many Christians, provides the positive side of Paul’s contrast. It lists for us the spiritual fruit borne by the Spirit in the life of one lead by the Spirit. Anyone born again will not be able to prevent these fruit, nor will anyone living in the flesh be able to produce these fruit in true purity.

1.22.2 What do doers do?

Mt 28:19-20 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. The Great Commission is important and not to be forgotten. It does not, however, exist in a vacuum.

Mt 22:37-40 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Whereas the reference above is called “The Great Commission,” I would call this passage “The Great Compassion.” Doers love God and other people. It is important to note this kind of love is an action verb. It means paying attention to and caring for others – in other words: demonstrating compassion. It involves personal humility and kindness, particularly toward children and those who have greater needs in this world.

Ro 2:1-5 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. Doers repent from the heart without regard to others’ outward acts and without passing judgment. Doers ensure their own house is in order before they take the position of correcting others.

Mt 12:37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. Doers do speak, but they speak as bid by the Spirit rather than their own unbridled tongue.

Jas 5:16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. [Note: alternate translation – the effective prayer of a righteous person has great power] Further on in the study we will examine this passage more carefully. For now the simple point is this: doers pray.

1.22.3 How can we be doers?

Lk 9:23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. Jesus commands us to lower ourselves and submit to His sovereign authority. The wonderful kingdom (1 Pe 2:9) is yet to come. For now, there is work to be done (Mt 9:37) and it isn’t glamorous. To be a doer, just listen to the prompting voice of the Spirit and obey (Jn 14:26).

1.22.4 What kind of people are doers?

Jn 3:21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God. The people in the light are the doers. They cannot hide (Lk 8:16-17). They do many things and can be described in many ways. I know of no better way to identify them collectively.

1.22.5 Are you a doer?

This is a question we all must answer – sooner or later.

1.22.6 How can someone be a hearer only?

Rev 3:1-3 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. The word “reputation” is key here. Some people appear to be Godly, doing good deeds, but for the wrong reasons. Such people therefore are dead inside, as Paul explains to Timothy (2 Tim 3:5)

1.22.7 What prevents a hearer from being a doer?

Mt 21:21-22 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” It all boils down to faith. Do you believe it, or not?

1.22.8 Is there anything wrong with being a hearer?

Mt 11:15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear. This is the first of 15 times this phrase (or a variation of this phrase) appears in the New Testament. In fact, it also appears in Eze 3:27. Clearly it is crucial we hear. By no means should one interpret from James it is wrong to listen. Hearing God is one of the most important things we can ever do and one of the greatest privileges of having the Spirit dwell within us. We fall short only when we fail to act obediently on what we hear.

1.22.9 Is it easier to be a hearer than a doer?

If it were easier to be a doer why are there so many instructions in scripture about what to do? That said, you could argue this either way. I believe it is up to the individual. Ultimately, for a non-believer or one who is jaded it becomes easier to hear than do. I’ve often heard it is easier to do it right the first time. Taking the lazy route just means more work later. For those under conviction it can be much harder to be idle. Ultimately whether it is harder or easier is irrelevant.

1.22.10 Why does a hearer only deceive himself?

Ro 2:13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. Being a hearer only just isn’t enough.

Mt 5:6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. One who fails to obey the Lord looses. Adam and Eve couldn’t hide from God. Neither can we. To believe otherwise is self-deception and spiritually sickening. The one who does what they hear is the person Jesus blesses in this reference from the beatitudes.

James 1:23

22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. 25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. — KJV

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does. — NIV

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

Greek Transliteration of James 1:23 with [Strong #] and brief definitions:
hoti [3754] that, which… (conjunction) ei [1487] if, whether, that (conditional participle) tis [5100] anyone, anything, someone, something, somewhat akroates [0202] a hearer logos [3056] word, something said, communication, divine expression of Christ esti [2076] he/she/it is, them/they are kai [2532] and, also, even, so then, too ou [3756] absolute negative (adverb) poietes [4163] a performer, poet houtos [3778] he, she, it, they, this, these, which, who eiko [1503] resemble, be like aner [0435] male individual katanoeo [2657] observe fully: behold, discover, consider, perceive ho [3588] the (article or indefinite pronoun) prosopon [4383] front view, countenance, appearance, face, person’s presence ho [3588] the (article or indefinite pronoun) genesis [1078] nativity, natural, generation autos [0846] her, his, it, them (possessive 3rd person pronoun) en [1722] preposition denoting place: such as in, at, of, through… esoptron [2072] a mirror, glass

1.23.0 Introduction to James 1:23

In verse 23 James sets up a scenario. It is a parable of sorts, or what some might call a “word-picture.” The analogy (vv23-24) relates the almost silly idea a person would look in a mirror and moment later forget what they look like to a person who hears the word but doesn’t do it (v 22). In verse 25 James goes on to contrast this natural phenomena with someone who learns and acts on the word and is rewarded what James implies is simply common sense. Questions drawn from this verse alone seek to better understand some of its finer details.

1.23.1 Why does James specify “natural face”?

James is painting a word-picture in verses 23 and 24. He provides a simple allegory the reader can relate to for the overall passage. The man looks at his own reflection then goes away and forgets what he looks like. It may sound foolish, but it describes a person who sits through a sermon, but forgets (neglects to absorb and act on) the message as soon as he walks out the church door.

1 Cor 2:14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The hearer James speaks of is a person with perhaps some semblance of godliness, but they live only by what their physical senses perceive as reality. The spiritual word reaching their ears doesn’t reach their heart. It is rejected because they aren’t open to it.

1 Cor 2:12-13 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. In contrast to the natural face seen by the eyes yet rejected by the mind, Paul explains how those who are open to the Spirit do receive it. The good news is we can be born again, regenerated of spirit, and set upon a course of righteous action leading to salvation – not because of the righteous action itself, but because it wells up from the soul born of spirit and of flesh living out the faith in the Savior, obedient to His Lordship, in love. After all, we do as we believe.

1.23.2 Why look into a mirror?

1 Cor 13:11-12 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. We can only see the flesh of our face in a reflective surface. A mirror is a reflective surface. A person is more than mere appearance. To see what we are truly like as individuals we must seek our reflection in others.

Mk 9:42 Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin [or to stumble], it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. We must look at others to see ourselves because all we do is based on what we believe. What we do impacts others. The impact is either good or evil. There are consequences to all actions. Even the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle agrees. It essentially says anything you interact with, even if only to observe, will by that action effect what you observe. You impact those around you. In answer to the study question – given what we learn from Jesus here – what effect do you want to have?

James 1:24

22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. 25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. — KJV

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does. — NIV

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

Greek Transliteration of James 1:24 with [Strong #] and brief definitions:
katanoeo [2657] observe fully: behold, discover, consider, perceive gar [1063] verily, therefore, yet, no doubt, as, because that heautou [1438] my-, our-, your-…self or selves (pronoun) kai [2532] and, also, even, so then, too aperchomai [0565] come, go, depart, pass away kai [2532] and, also, even, so then, too euthetos [2112] well placed, good fit epilanthanomai [1950] lose out of mind, forget, neglect hopoios [3697] what kind, what manner of en [2258] I was/were, have, hold, use

1.24.0 Introduction to James 1:24

In verse 22 James contrasted the hearer with the doer. In verse 23 James paints a mental picture of the hearer. Verse 24 explains the relationship between verse 22 and verse 23. Our questions are designed to help us learn more about the art of examination and the subject of forgetfulness.

1.24.1 How do you examine a physical object?

In science class you learn lots of observation methods. Visual appearance is an obvious method. Beyond that, one can examine an object for its physical dimensions, weight, density, chemical and electrical properties, melting or boiling points, flammability, hardness, color, smell, taste, texture and so forth. The list goes on and on.

Ben Franklin proved lightening was a form of electricity with a kite. Edison used electricity to produce light from a light bulb. It took Nikola Tesla to invent electric motors, radar, and high frequency radio transmission such as we use today in everything from remote control toy cars to cell phones. These people did a lot more than look at something, they utilized their skills and talents, built upon their knowledge, experimented, and accomplished things. Any of us can look at a telephone and see the wires and plastic and tiny circuitry. It takes more than observation to build a telephone. You have to take what you’ve observed and do something with it.

In context with our study verse, James is talking about the fellow who looks, but doesn’t do anything about what he sees. The observation is wasted and soon forgotten. James then goes on Verse 25 to contrast the casual observer with the one who acts on his observation. With the contrast James tells us the doer is the one blessed.

Mt 25:42-46 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Mt 24:45-51 and all of Mt 25 contain a series of examples (servants, virgins, talents, and shepherd) in Jesus’ own words contrasting the doers with the non-doers. In each of the examples given by Jesus, information was given yet ignored and they did as they pleased. In each case the non-doers are promised an ill fate (Mt 24:51, 25:12, 25:30, and 25:46). The doers are credited with righteousness and promised eternal blessings.

1.24.2 How do you examine a person?

Leviticus 13 is a chapter devoted to leprosy and physical medical examination. One point of this passage is the observation of the physical. Another point is the observation is carried out by the priest (representing holiness) on another (representing the “unclean”) and judgment results. The purpose of the judgment may appear to be condemnation, but actually it isn’t at all. The purpose of judging the unclean is to determine the nature of the problem so proper corrective action can be taken. The “clean” are kept from contamination and at the same time the “unclean” is given an opportunity for treatment.

Ezra 10:2 And Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, of the sons of Elam, addressed Ezra: “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. The 10th chapter of Ezra provides a beautiful example of self-examination. Better still, the people deal honestly with themselves and realize their sins, repenting and making drastic life changes to correct their relationship with God.

In context with James 1:24, we need to examine ourselves, admit our sin, do what we can to correct ourselves, and move forward in obedience. If we fail to do these things we fail to be the doer and are like the person who forgets their own reflection. The judgment will come from the Holy One, so wouldn’t it make more sense not only to see the reflection, but to look at the Truth and do what the Truth reveals we ought to do?

1.24.3 What can a face tell you?

Gen 4:5-6 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? A person’s expression says a great deal about what is going on in their mind. God alone knows the heart, but a man reveals his heart to other men (just as Cain does here) when his expression reacts from his heart.

Ro 16:18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. We have all heard the saying “appearances can be deceiving.” There are dozens of examples of deception in scripture. How could so many be deceived? For one thing, the expression on the face doesn’t always tell the truth any more than the words proceeding from the mouth. Secondly, many times the deceived don’t look closely enough at the deceptive information or the deceiver. In this particular passage Paul indicates the deceived person is naïve. Throughout scripture and particularly in New Testament letters we are warned about deceivers and given clear instructions about discernment. A face may betray a lie, but you have to be looking closely to have a chance of detecting it.

Ex 34:29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Just as a face can betray deceit, it can also be a beacon to illuminate joy. People with a good heart tend to radiate a spiritual light. Some folks see this in what is described as auras, but even without that degree of sight we can see the fruit of the Spirit and the joy inside the doer of those fruit is nearly always visible on their face.

1.24.4 What should you be looking for in a mirror?

Mt 5:17-20 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. A mirror is a tool for self-examination. James uses it to illustrate a superficial self-examination in Verse 24. In this passage Jesus tells the believers to be doers, following the commandments and laws of God. Teachers use words, but people learn from examples. Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees as bad examples and lousy teachers, but those who obey and do what God instructs will teach others by good example and ultimately will be called great in heaven. In answer to the question, then, one should be reflecting in their heart about their life and setting themselves straight – not just superficially looking at a literal mirror with the vanity ascribed to religious leaders.

1.24.5 What is the impact of forgetfulness?

Eze 23:35 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you have forgotten me and cast me behind your back, you yourself must bear the consequences of your lewdness and whoring. Forgetfulness has consequences.

Hosea 4:6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. Forgetfulness is life threatening.

1.24.6 How can you improve your memory (retention)?

Jer 31:33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. As a forgetful person I’ve learned the necessity for crutches. The advent of the PDA has substantially improved my life. I now have a repository for remembering events, contact information, and lists of all kinds. I’m not a list maker, so learning about lists has been revolutionary for me. I write these things down in the PDA and it remembers them. In the eternal scheme of things, most of what I put in the PDA has no real significance. God is eternal, as is His word. For it to be eternal to me personally it must be written in my mind and heart. To accomplish this I open my heart to Jesus, trusting Him and letting the Spirit enter. I also read my bible with regularity and intensity. I humbly attempt to live a life directed by the Spirit, obeying as best I can with the flesh and using the knowledge provided by His Word. People learn by several methods and it is invariable most effective when multiple methods are used in concert. The simplest way I can explain is that first we must receive the information (hear/read/observe). The next step is to confirm we heard correctly by repeating it back (writing or telling). Finally, apply the tactile technique (do it – practice makes perfect).

1.24.7 Why would someone forget what they look like?

Job 14:1-4 Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not. And do you open your eyes on such a one and bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one. Sometimes you want to forget. Job asks who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean. In answer to his question, no man can cleanse him but Christ. Job said in this passage he realized his impurity by the perfect standard of God. Job’s friends sang from Satan’s handbook, telling him he was unworthy and sinful, therefore God had retracted from Job. If you look closely, though, you’ll see Job isn’t blaming God or turning from Him. On the contrary, Job is acknowledging his own position relative to God. How much easier is it in our minds today to be as Job’s friends and pick what appears on the surface to make more sense? Sometimes it certainly seems God has forgotten us when, especially when we feel unworthy. When we feel unclean before the Lord we often seek to hide ourselves as Adam tried to hide in the Garden (Gen 3:8). When we know we are sinful we want to forget the sin. If we appear sinful in our own eye, what better reason could there be to want to forget our appearance?

1.24.8 How does being a hearer only relate to forgetting your face?

Gen 2:16-17 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” In this passage Adam hears the instructions not to eat of the tree and the consequences if he does.

Gen 3:6-8 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Adam heard only. He wasn’t a “doer” of what he heard. His consequence: Spiritual death and a start to physical decay leading eventually to a physical death.

2 Jn 6-9 And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. John confirms the principle in this reminder to heed the commandments. He says be a doer and don’t forget the message – the true Word. John reminds us of the consequence of forgetting the message: loss of reward (eternal life, presumably) and not having the Son or the Father.

James 1:25

22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. 25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. — KJV

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does. — NIV

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

Greek Transliteration of James 1:25 with [Strong #] and brief definitions:
ho [3588] the (article or indefinite pronoun) de [1161] and, but, now… (conjunction) parakupto [3879] bend beside, lean over, stoop down eis [1519] to, into… (prep. expressing motion) nomos [3551] law (esp. of Moses) telieos [5046] complete, full age, perfect ho [3588] the (article or indefinite pronoun) ho [3588] the (article or indefinite pronoun) eleutheria [1657] freedom, liberty kai [2532] and, also, even, so then, too parameno [3887] stay near, remain, abide, continue ou [3756] absolute negative (adverb) akroates [0202] a hearer epilesmone [1953] negligence, forgetful ginomai [1096] to become… alla [0235] indeed, nevertheless, not withstanding poietes [4163] a performer, poet ergon [2041] toil, work, labor, doing, deed, act houtos [3778] he, she, it, they, this, these, which, who makarios [3107] supremely blessed, fortunate, well off en [1722] preposition denoting place: such as in, at, of, through… ho [3588] the (article or indefinite pronoun) poiesis [4162] action, performance, deed autos [0846] her, his, it, them (possessive 3rd person pronoun) esomai [2071] will be, come to pass, shall follow

1.25.0 Introduction to James 1:25

James 1:22 was a simple enough statement. Yet, James felt it was important enough to warrant more than a casual proverb. In his typical style he goes on to illustrate his point by providing contrasting images. Verses 23-24 describe the nature of a hearer whereas verse 25 describes the doer. Verse 25 differs in at least two keys ways. First, it describes the “word” in verse 22 as the perfect law of liberty. Second, it provides a promise of blessing to the doer. The moral of the story is simple: of everyone who hears, those who do what they hear get blessed while those who hear only get deceived. Questions about Verse 25 focus on the law, liberty, blessing, and other context.

1.25.1 What kinds of law are there?

Natural Law – This includes things like gravity, entropy, conservation of energy and so forth.

Civil Law – Judgments are established by a court to settle disagreements between two parties.

Criminal Law – These laws, when violated, can result in prosecution and judgment by the state (any level of government) where penalties may include fines, confinement (jail), loss of liberties, or even forfeiture of life.

Governmental Structure Law – The Constitution is an example of this type of law. It establishes and defines the structure of a governing body.

God’s Law for Man – The 10 commandments (Ex 20) are what most people today consider to be “the law” from scripture. These were definitely laws prescribed by the hand of God, but the entire writings of Moses are also known as The Law. Sin always condemns. The law of Moses does not condemn, rather it defines and exposes sin (Ro 7:12-13). These laws did not get replaced or done away with when Christ died at Calvary. Jesus is the only man ever to fulfill the law. This is why his sacrifice atones for sin.

God’s Law of Death – Gen 2:16-17 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” The first commandment was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The consequence of failing to carry out God’s command is one we all must live with.

God’s Law of Condemnation – Ro:2:25-27 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. A soul is condemned by his or her own choices. It isn’t the letter of the law written in a book that condemns. It is the choices we make.

God’s Law of Life – Ro 8:1-8 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. The law of Moses points out what condemns us. The New Testament shares with us the fulfillment of the giving the New Covenant. Jesus Christ carried out every bit of God’s law. He alone is worthy to overcome death. This is why his blood is sufficient. The gift, the greatest gift, is the opportunity to believe in him and find eternal salvation. A beautiful picture of this is found in Nu 21 where Moses puts a serpent on a pole when the people are dying of snake bites. When they choose to look upon the pole and trust in God’s healing power, their lives were spared. Now, we can look upon Jesus, trusting God’s word that his blood sacrifice is sufficient, and we are healed of the curse in the garden. The greatest gift, eternal life, must be a gift because none are worthy except our Lord Jesus Christ.

1.25.2 What is the “perfect law”?

In the answer to the last question we saw that death is the result of condemnation through sin. The “law of Moses” defines the perfect law. To fulfill the law is to be righteous in God’s eyes, to be found holy and just. To be without sin is to be free of the curse of death.

Is 61:1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; Who are the captives, the poor, and the broken hearted? Who are bound in prison? I tell you all have sinned and fall short of God’s standards (Eccl 7:20). We are all captive to sin. We are all wretched, poor, and broken hearted. Blessed are those who realize it and do something about it. The Spirit of God, expressed here through Isaiah, comes to heal us and proclaim his own goodness for his own sake.

Gal 6:1-2 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Paul expresses the law of Christ another way. As a practical matter, loving Christ means loving one another. We do this by caring for each other. Love is an action verb. When a brother falls, we ought not shoot him and kick him out of the way. When we see a brother or sister screw up we need to help them find healing and restoration. In so doing we demonstrate Jesus’ love. Love, after all, covers a multitude of sins.

Jn 13:34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Continuing the thought on the subject of love, Jesus gave us the model for love. He gives hope to all, exposes sin and offers an alternative. He cuts away the bad and in so doing heals the good. He always shows hospitality and humility, ever the consummate gentleman. Always he is generously extending gifts that cannot be repaid. Trusting him means trusting his instructions (commandments) so that we might have a better life and especially so we can assist others with improving their lives.

Jn 8:31-36 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. No one likes the idea of facing a judge when he knows he is guilty. We are all imperfect and deserving of the worst judgment. This law that condemns, while technically it defines the absolute requirements to live by, makes us slaves to death by virtue of our guilt – and we are all guilty because we are all imperfect. Jesus came to set us free. By fulfilling the requirements of the law on our behalf, Christ is in the unique position to overlook our imperfections and present us as perfected before the Father. By living lives abiding in Jesus we are covered by the blood, which is to say the life, which was guilt free and found worthy of life. This law, this covenant of Christ consummated with the only blood worthy of atonement at Calvary, is perfect because it liberates rather than condemns.

Jer 31:31-34 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” The new covenant perhaps best summarizes the perfect law. Men sin, but God forgives. Men die because of their sin, but Yeshua atoned for that sin, for those who would accept the sacrifice, believe it, and act on their faith. With the law written on the heart, the believer will live the law and be in harmony with YHWH, in His will, and under His grace. Salvation is by faith, but as James says, faith is demonstrated by action.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

1.25.3 How do the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) liberate?

Ex 20:3 You shall have no other gods before [note: or besides] me. YHWH is all we need. We are free of the strictures of created things or beings. We are free of the dictates of men (all false gods are creations of men or are created beings).

Ex 20:4-6 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands [Note: or to ‘the thousandth generation’] of those who love me and keep my commandments. We do not have to bow to stone, wood, or any other man made thing. We do not have to satisfy some dead object. We have only one God to satisfy and He is alive and sovereign.

Ex 20:7 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. Note that the word translated vain literally means empty, false, worthless, or lie. By not disregarding God’s word we are able to take it all in, learn from it, grow, find His peace, be filled with His Spirit, enjoy not only salvation from sin and death, but life in abundance.

Ex 20:8-11 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. God rested on the 7th day of the creation week. This was to set up for us a system whereby we can find rest from our labor each week as we toil. Sabbath not only proves God’s plan to deal with our fall was in place before the creation of the world, it provides us periodic relief from the curse we called upon ourselves through our sin. It gives us a bit of freedom from our toil and labor. It gives us a chance to be free from the urgent and mundane things in life that drain us, allowing us to assemble before the Lord to be refreshed in His word. Jesus proclaimed himself Lord of the Sabbath. He explained the Sabbath was created to benefit man, not God. It is a blessing which liberates. Some believe it symbolizes the coming time when we will be forever resting in the bosom of our Lord’s new Kingdom.

Ex 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. This commandment is the first and only to come with a specific blessing connected to its obedience. Be a person who lives a life that reflects honor on your family and you comply with this commandment. When we behave rightly, we bring honor to our parents. We are free to do the right thing, always. And more than free, we are blessed.

Ex 20:13 “You shall not murder [Note: the word translated murder also covers human death caused by negligence or carelessness]. We are free from an humanly imposed requirement to cause human death. Life is so precious, our Lord made it possible for us to have eternal life in His presence. To take a human life is tragic. The one who murders carries the blood of that person on their hands and with it guilt most of us can barely comprehend. Be free of that guilt by not taking human life. It should go without saying that by not killing people you avoid the penalties of imprisonment or death at the hands of a human judge.

Ex 20:14 “You shall not commit adultery. Like murder, adultery destroys the relationship between man and God, but it also destroys trust between man and wife. The real problem is the division it causes. God is One God. There is not division of character or purpose in our God, even if you see YHWH, Yeshua, and Holy Spirit as three separate persons. When a man commits adultery, he is faced with sharing his affections. Men, unlike God, are unable to spread themselves with equal and absolute equanimity through each of their relationships. Spiritually, adultery is also used many places in scripture to represent man’s distraction from the first three commandments into idolatry. If you avoid adultery, you remain free to give all your love and devotion to your spouse and remain free to require the same from them.

Ex 20:15 “You shall not steal. If you do not take what is not yours, you will be free from owing what you are unable to pay back, not to mention the guilt you feel or the time you might do for the crime.

Ex 20:16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. According to Deut 17:6-7 and 19:15-21 it takes two witnesses to convict someone of a crime. False witness is more than just lying, it means not saying something about someone that could get them convicted of a crime they may not have committed. Obedience to this commandment not only means you remain free of guilt for the consequences, but the neighbor does not loose his freedom as a consequence of your law. This commandment is designed to protect the liberty of others. Obedience means being free of payback from God (Lk 6:38)

Ex 20:17 “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.” If you are free from the lust of things, you are able to walk tall, justified by righteousness reckoned to you for the faith demonstrated to the Lord. Your heart will be free indeed to devote itself to what is good and noble.

1.25.4 What is liberty?

The Greek word eleutheria appears 10 times in scripture and is rendered liberty each time. Its application in scripture is consistent with the modern English word liberty. Liberty is defined as being free from restriction or control; the right or power to act, believe or express oneself in a manner of one’s own choosing; free from confinement, servitude, or forced labor; freedom from unjust or undue government control; immunity to engage in certain acts without control or limitation; not employed or occupied.

Ro 6:1-2 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? In context with the study verse, liberty here would seem to most accurately mean freedom from confinement to the judgment of death. It certainly does not mean license to act without limitation as some would assume.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

1.25.5 How does the perfect law liberate?

Deut 6:5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Joshua quoted this (Josh 22:5) as the law to keep and Jesus said it was the greatest commandment (Mk 12:28-30). It is significant to note this line is not written on the tablets stored in the ark.

1 Jn 4:16-17 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. God is love. When we abide in our Lord and He in us, he perfects his love in us. We don’t do it, He does. This is not to say we don’t participate. Choosing not to participate is the same as choosing to deny God. Deny Him at the cost of your eternal soul (Jn 3:18).

Ro 13:8-10 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. By loving our fellow man we do the very thing God wants us to do most of all. In so doing our love, which is to say the love of Jesus manifested and perfected in us, fulfills the law. Only in fulfillment of the law is freedom given as the perfect judgment. Therefore loving liberates us from death.

1 Pe 4:8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Peter perhaps said it best and most succinctly. Love covers sin. Sin condemns, but the greatest commandment – to love one another – liberates.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

1.25.6 In context with this passage, what is meant by perseverance?

The subject of perseverance was covered at length in the questions for James 1:4. That said, in context with James 1:22, James is instructing us to continue in being doers. Don’t just sit and listen. If you do one good deed, don’t then sit back and expect the glory to come rolling in. Love is a lifestyle, not a singular event and certainly not an emotion. Some might argue the cross was a singular event, but I would say that Jesus loved us during his entire ministry and indeed, throughout time. His crucifixion was a critical event, never the less it was one of an infinite list of past, present and future events demonstrating His perfect love.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

1.25.7 What two kinds of people look into the law of liberty?

Jn 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. According to James, among those who look into the law of liberty are the doers and the hearers only. The only difference is the response. Jesus referred to them as those who believe and those who don’t. When you see or hear something you either believe it or you don’t. If you believe something, trusting it to be true, you will be compelled to act on your belief. If you see something but don’t believe it, you will not act on the information. James’ statement here is really no different than Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

1.25.8 How do you tell hearers from doers?

Jn 3:19-21 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God. They say actions speak louder than words. That’s because actions betray the heart. What you believe is what you will do. It is worth noting, however, that when Jesus spoke of coming into the light so that deeds are carried out, most importantly he was saying that the deeds would be seen by God. He isn’t saying people will necessarily see your deeds. In fact, other references indicate those who see your deeds will likely persecute you, not laud you. It is infinitely more important to please God than other people (Ps 118:8).

Jn 13:34-35 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. This passage is perhaps one of the best at illustrating how people will have outward indication of who is a doer. Loving one another wonderfully sums up obedience to Christ, the perfecting work of the indwelling Holy Spirit and all the other fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

1.25.9 Why does the doer receive blessing and the hearer only does not?

Jn 14:15 If you love me, you will keep my commandments. Love is an action verb. Jesus said as much himself in this brief verse. The one who loves is one who actively responds obediently in submission to Jesus.

Heb 1:9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions. When you do a good turn for someone, how does that make you feel inside? It should bring a sense of joy. When you are genuinely glad to help others your reward is close to the heart, whether it comes close to the skin or not.

Lev 25:10 And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. In the year of Jubilee everything was to be returned to its proper and original condition. This free the people of debts, bringing liberty.

Jer 34:15 You recently repented and did what was right in my eyes by proclaiming liberty, each to his neighbor, and you made a covenant before me in the house that is called by my name, When you give without expecting a return you are liberating the other person. To grant liberty is one of the most profoundly great things a person can do. When Jesus grants us liberty, I believe he is truly glad. He set this up as a ritual for Israel so the people would understand the joy of liberty and so his people would be able to feel a similar gladness.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

1.25.10 What kind of blessing does this passage promise?

1 Thess 5:24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. The passage says the doer will be blessed “in his doing” because when you do as you are called to do, God will make sure His Will is accomplished. In other words, when you do what God tells you to do, He will make sure you are successful. He does this for his own sake, but the doer still receives reward.

22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. 25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. — KJV

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does. — NIV

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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. — ESV

1.25.11 Summary of James 1:22-25

This passage starts with a direct command. Do. Sitting on the sidelines doesn’t cut it. If you think you don’t have to participate, you deceive yourself. James goes on to illustrate just how foolish such a person is, likening them to one who looks in a mirror and forgets their own appearance. The presumption is that the reader has heard the gospel. Once faced with the Truth, you must decide whether you accept it or not. When you accept it, by your new regenerated nature you will be a doer. Doing the Lord’s will, which ultimately is to love one another, brings its own reward of gladness in your heart and success in whatever mission God gives you.

A word of caution here: I am not suggesting all you do will be a success in your eyes or even the eyes of other people. Often we accept missions that aren’t assigned by God. We feel pride when we complete those missions. If a mission we complete was assigned by God, we couldn’t have completed it on our own and therefore the right response on our part is humility rather than pride. The gladness comes from having a heart aligned with and abiding in the love of Jesus, not the sating of our smug pride.

James 1:26

26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. 27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. — KJV

26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. — NIV

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

Greek Transliteration of James 1:26 with [Strong #] and brief definitions:
ei [1487] if, whether, that (conditional participle) tis [5100] anyone, anything, someone, something, somewhat dokeo [1380] to think, suppose, seem good threskos [2357] ceremonious in worship, religious, pious einai [1511] to exist (am, is, was, be…) me [3361] not, no, none, never chalinagogeo [5468] curb, bridle, lead by bit glossa [1100] tongue autos [0846] her, his, it, them (possessive 3rd person pronoun) alla [0235] indeed, nevertheless, not withstanding apatao [0538] to cheat, delude, deceive kardia [2588] the heart: thoughts, feelings, mind, middle autos [0846] her, his, it, them (possessive 3rd person pronoun) toutou [5127] of this, hereby, such manner of, thereabout, thus mataios [3152] empty, profitless, vain, vanity, an idol ho [3588] the (article or indefinite pronoun) threskeia [2356] ceremonial observance, worshipping

1.26.0 Introduction to James 1:26

The last major topic James tackles in Chapter 1 is religion. Verse 26 discusses bad religion. Once again talking about doing the wrong thing and falling into deception, James explains that an uncontrolled tongue results in false religion. This verse is a source of several questions about religion, one’s tongue, and the relationship between them.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.26.1 What is religion?

The Greek word threskeia, according to Strong’s, means a ceremonial observance related to worship. It implies an external display. As we have long since established, God looks at what lies within a man. What a man does, apart from God, has no value. When a man is united with God spiritually there will necessarily be good fruit brought about by the inner working of the Spirit through the outward flesh. Understanding these simple relationships are critical, I believe, to understanding what James is saying in this passage.

In context with James 1:26-27 religion appears to be more than just a ceremonial observance. Perhaps I would rephrase to something more like: a behavior pattern designed to exhibit one’s beliefs.

Another way of phrasing verse 26 then might be: If anyone thinks his outward behavior demonstrates worship of God and does not bridle his tongue but deceived his [own] heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.26.2 What makes a person religious?

Ac 17:16, 22-23a Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, The terms “religion” and “religious” actually appear only a hand full of times in all of scripture and then only in the New Testament (ESV). According to this passage what you worship defines your religion. The amount of your worship determines how religious you are. In this particular example Paul was remarking on the Greek idols in Athens.

Jn 4:23-24 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Our God seeks for us to worship not with idols, but in our spirit, with The Spirit and Truth (emphasis added). This is internal, from the heart.

In the context of James’ verses here we see James addressing those who claim to be worshiping Christ, but their worship is nullified by their actions of disobedience to His Will. The kind of worship accepted by God is to do His will through service and to avoid willing participation in sin.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.26.3 Is religion good or bad?

Lk 6:45 The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. You need only contrast James 1:26 and 1:27 to see religion can be good or bad. It depends on whether it is pure and undefiled in the eyes of God. To go outside obedience to God in your heart results naturally in running your mouth in defiance of God because the mouth follows the heart.

Ro 10:9-10 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. Just as the mouth can condemn by carrying out the sinful desires of the heart, the mouth can also redeem by carrying out acts of obedience to the Lord.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.26.4 What does bridle mean?

In this verse the term bridle is a verb. It means to control or restrain as with a bridle (n). The noun bridle refers to a device used on horses to restrain and guide the animal. James 1:26 uses the term to refer to controlling and restraining one’s tongue (or lack thereof, as the case may be).

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.26.5 What does it mean to bridle your tongue?

2 Sam 23:2 The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me; his word is on my tongue. In this passage, if you read 2 Samuel 23 in full context, you will see David is speaking. David is saying that he is actually only a vessel of the Lord who speaks through him. David was obedient in controlling his tongue so that it did not do as his own flesh willed, but willingly submitted it to the authority of God. I believe this is the ideal toward which we all should strive.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.26.6 What happens when you don’t bridle your tongue?

Is 32:6-7 For the fool speaks folly, and his heart is busy with iniquity, to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the Lord, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink. As for the scoundrel—his devices are evil; he plans wicked schemes to ruin the poor with lying words, even when the plea of the needy is right. If you do not control your tongue, then who does? The flesh, apart from God, is of the world and so it is the plaything of Satan. It destroys the very body it belongs to as well as all it encounters.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.26.7 How can this verse be used in a practical way for spiritual warfare?

Eph 6:16-17 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, This is a brief portion of one of the most well known passages of scripture and certainly most quoted with regard to spiritual warfare. As it relates to James 1:26, submission of the tongue to God means allowing the Word to be used by God through you. Stand in boldness for greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (1 Jn 4:4). The Word is not the book, but the Lord (Jn 1:1). When his Spirit dwells within (Jn 14:17), its purpose is to make you able to stand (Eph 6:10) so that in the end you will be justified before God because God was responsible for you (Gal 3:24) because you allowed Him to be (Jn 3:16).

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.26.8 How does an unbridled tongue make your religion worthless?

Mt 6:1-2 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. When you don’t control your tongue you are lying. The flesh on its own is without Christ and thus without Truth, therefore it lies. It has no Truth within it. It speaks, pretending to know Truth for its own benefit, but it is at best an act. If you do a good thing and you boast about your goodness, you lie. An uncontrolled tongue will cost you eternal reward by seeking and finding carnal favor.

1 Jn 4:2-5 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. The unbridled lying tongue is of the world and anti-Christ. Free yourself of condemnation by getting control of your tongue and giving that control to the Spirit of the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

James 1:27

26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. 27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. — KJV

26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. — NIV

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worth less. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

Greek Transliteration of James 1:27 with [Strong #] and brief definitions:
threskeia [2356] ceremonial observance, worshipping katharos [2513] clean, clear, pure kai [2532] and, also, even, so then, too [0283] para [3844] near ho [3588] the (article or indefinite pronoun) theos [2316] God kai [2532] and, also, even, so then, too pater [3962] father, parent houtos [3778] he, she, it, they, this, these, which, who esti [2076] he/she/it is, them/they are episkeptomai [1980] inspect, select, go see, visit orphanos [3737] orphan kai [2532] and, also, even, so then, too chera [5503] widow en [1722] preposition denoting place: such as in, at, of, through… ho [3588] the (article or indefinite pronoun) thlipsis [2347] pressure, anguish, burden, persecution, tribulation, trouble autos [0846] her, his, it, them (possessive 3rd person pronoun) aspilos [0784] unblemished, unspotted heautou [1438] my-, our-, your-…self or selves (pronoun) tereo [5083] guard, detain, withhold, watch apo [0575] off, away, separation ho [3588] the (article or indefinite pronoun) kosmos [2889] orderly arrangement, the world (any sense)

1.27.0 Introduction to James 1:27

The last verse in Chapter 1 contrasts the worthless religion of verse 26 with an example of religion acceptable to God. Numerous key words and concepts are sources of questions as we explore the pieces of the picture of an acceptable religion.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.27.1 What is pure and undefiled?

In context with James 1:27 the “what” is religion. Religion, as explained in question 1.26.1, is a behavior pattern designed to exhibit one’s beliefs. Pure is an adjective that basically means free of defilement or pollution, unmixed, or faultless. The phrase “religion that is pure” would then seem to imply a consistent behavior pattern based on a clear, concise, and specific belief system.

Undefiled is another adjective that carries a meaning almost identical to pure, but it reinforces the concept of purity with the idea of being untouched by an external pollutant. When one thinks of undefiled religion before God the Father, one would immediately think of a religion devoid of idols and immorality. The balance of James 1:27 bears this out and then some.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.27.2 What does “visit” mean?

The Greek episkeptomai literally means to look in on, look after, or otherwise examine; specifically to check on those who have needs to attend to them and see to their needs.

In context with James 1:27, it seems that the right behavior pattern in God’s eyes includes checking on and caring for the needs of others, especially those who have special needs such as widows and orphans. To me visiting represents a practical implementation of what Jesus meant when he said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 19:19 – quoting Lev 19:18; Gal 5:14).

Now it is my opinion and my opinion only, but it seems to me that this passage does not imply that we must all seek a vocation that involves full-time care giving. It does, however, mean to me that all believers, regardless of their Spirit given gifts, talents, and callings, should have a desire in their heart to check in on those they know who have needs, to volunteer, and to give whatever they can whenever they see a specific need. We are to look for opportunities to do these things. We can only give a dim reflection of the gift Jesus gave us by giving basic necessities to those in need around us. It isn’t the responsibility of a nameless institution to take care of the masses, it’s the responsibility of individuals to love other individuals by showing care, consideration, respect, and compassion one on one.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.27.3 What kinds of afflictions do orphans and widows have?

Eph 3:14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, Orphans and widows share a particular affliction. They’ve both lost the support system of their family and especially their main providers. I will not attempt to catalog all the problems orphans and widows could face because they are largely the same problems we all face, but are multiplied because they lack the support of a father and husband in the house. Without help, a child or orphan may loose every physical support, get turned out, starve, face ridicule, and suffer any number of cruelties beyond what self-sustaining adults face. These issues are no different today than when Paul or Moses walked the earth.

Ex 22:22-24 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. YHWH speaks specifically about widows and orphans in the law given to Moses as recorded in this passage. God recognizes man’s capacity for picking on those who cannot fend for themselves and provides a stern warning toward those who would.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.27.4 What do orphans and widows represent?

Lam 5:1-5 Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace! Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners. We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows. We must pay for the water we drink; the wood we get must be bought. Our pursuers are at our necks; we are weary; we are given no rest. Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations shortly after the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC). The Jews were defeated, uprooted, displaced, driven from their homes and property, and moved hundreds of miles away to Babylon. Any desperate soul is like a widow or orphan in the big scheme of things.

Luke 4:18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed God chooses the poor to exalt. Widows and orphans have no income. Without help they are destitute. The good news is that Jesus came to give them life, eternal and abundant.

Luke 7:6b When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. In this passage a hearty man, respected and high ranking in Caesar’s guard, demonstrated the kind of humility we all should have. We are all miserable wretches, orphans of the world, widows of the current system of things, if only we will see our rags for what they are. If only we will see our lowly state and know we need a benefactor, we can humble ourselves and receive God’s love, his mercy and forgiveness. Only when we reach our knees can we look up into that face have so much given to us we can’t help but give it to others.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.27.5 What makes visiting orphans and widows a religion pure and undefiled before God?

Gal 5:19-23 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. This passage provides an excellent list of things which are corrupt and things which are good. Looking after and caring for those who need help fall into the latter. To bring them a kind word, a loaf of bread, a warm hug, and some good news is just what the Great Physician ordered.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.27.6 What is the significance of being unstained?

1 Pe 1:14-16 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” We are commanded to be holy. Being holy means that we are not corrupt or in other words unstained. None are righteous (Ro 3:23), but we can be redeemed and deemed righteous (Heb 11:4) and therefore holy by our faith. Only that which is holy can come into the presence of God (Lev 22:3).

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.27.7 What stains us?

The study verse speaks for itself in answer to this question. The world stains. The world is fallen and will pass away. A stain is a sin of any kind for sin is what makes us unclean.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.27.8 If we become stained after once being clean, can we become clean again?

Jn 13:10a Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. In Jn 13 we see the event where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Peter probably thought Jesus was just talking about humility at first. When Peter protests, Jesus explains an even deeper meaning. The clean body represents the cleansing of sin by Jesus’ atoning blood sacrifice. That cleansing was once and for all. Even so, we must live in the world and we are constantly exposed to sin. The dirt on the feet represents sins committed after we are cleansed. Our feet represent our walk in the world. Dirty feet represent sins we pick up along the walk, but which don’t completely cover or consume us. By coming to Christ and only by coming to Christ we can wash our feet and restore our completely clean status. We don’t get born again and again and again, so we don’t need to be washed all over more than once. We do need clean feet, it seems, to walk in the streets of heaven.

Personally, I find this passage of scripture a great comfort. I am but a man who lives in the world and I “step in it” daily. I could never clean myself. It is only with supernatural living water that I can ever be cleansed.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. — ESV

1.27.9 Summary of James 1:26-27

In the many questions asked about these two verses we first learned what religion is, then the effect of an uncontrolled tongue on that person’s religion. Religion is the practice of worship. It is a behavior based on belief. While there’s a danger the tongue can be used to tear down, the other side of the coin is that when you shut up and get to work building the Kingdom, then you’re doing what God approves. When you focus on God and bring up and deal with your sins, He is faithful to forgive and will continue to abide with you.

1.27.10 Summary of James Chapter 1

It is generally accepted that the author of the book was James, a son of Mary and Joseph, half brother of our Lord Jesus. The letter was written more than a decade after the resurrection of Jesus, before the destruction of the temple, to support various believers already scattered or dispersed out from Jerusalem and Israel.

After the greetings, James begins with a word of encouragement about joy in the face of trials and the resulting benefits. He then compares faith and doubt, explaining how these impact our requests of God. Next James contrasts rich and lowly earthly and spiritual positions.

James pauses from conveying proverb like wisdom to talk about God’s nature. God is a constant and the source of everything good. He created us physically and regenerates us spiritually making redeemed souls the firstfruits of creation.

Returning to a series of illustrations using word-pictures and clear contrasts, James compares hearing to speaking and anger, hearing only without doing against true service, and false against acceptable religion. These last several comparisons build like a crescendo, one principle on the next.

James does not leave out salvation in this chapter, rather he inspires us to participate in the salvation process and follow the instructions we will hear from the Holy Spirit. James in no way says salvation is something earned or accomplished by men. He merely explains the nature of works that will necessarily accompany salvation and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit when we become born again and our own spirits are renewed. Salvation is not a one-time event, not a prayer, not merely a gift. It is a complete renewal of our spiritual being and results in a new way of life that includes continual growth, service to others, and above all obedience to our Lord and Master Jesus and God the Father.

Lesson 48: Adopted Heirs of God (Romans 8:17)

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Adoption is a beautiful thing to behold. I often look around at this congregation and see families that have adopted children from other countries and think about where those kids would be if they had not been adopted into a loving family. They had no family to love them or provide for their needs. They had no caring dad or mom to listen to their problems or put their arms around them and assure them that things would be all right. Many of them were malnourished and sick. They had no instruction even about basic matters in life such as hygiene, let alone spiritual instruction.

Then one day a couple with love and kindness in their eyes chose them and went through all of the legal and financial matters necessary to bring that needy child into their home. For the first time in their lives, those kids heard prayers and felt kisses before drifting off to sleep. When they awoke frightened or sick in the night, they had the comfort of loving parents to calm their fears or nurse them back to health. They had nutritious meals and nice clothing. They learned what it was like to be a part of a loving, caring family where God is worshiped, His Word is read, and needs are brought before His gracious throne in prayer.

The Bible uses adoption as a picture of what God has done for us. We were dirty, diseased, impoverished street urchins, with no one to care for us. We were not there as helpless victims, but rather because of our deliberate rebellion against God. But one day He showed up at the cardboard shack that we were sleeping in and in love chose us to be in His family. He cleaned us up, removed our rags, clothed us in the righteousness of Christ, fed us with the nourishing truth of His Word, and guided us in His paths of righteousness and wisdom. He brought us into His family, where we have brothers and sisters to share our burdens and our joys. And He made us His heirs, so that throughout eternity we will enjoy the unfathomable riches of Christ.

But these wonderful truths raise a question: If we are God’s beloved children, then why does He allow us to suffer? As an earthly parent, I did everything that I could to protect my children from suffering and to alleviate their pain, whether physical or emotional. If God is an all-powerful and all-loving Father, then why doesn’t He do the same with His children? While many books have been written to deal with that issue, Paul here and through the rest of the chapter shows that our suffering is not at odds with God’s love for us as His children. Just as our Savior had to suffer first and then enter His glory (Luke 24:26), so too, our path to glory goes through the valley of suffering.

Romans 8:17 is transitional: it sums up what Paul has been saying and it introduces what he will go on to say. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 51:541) describes Paul’s style here as building a sort of Jacob’s ladder that takes us up from one step to the next. First (8:14) he says that all who are being led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. We saw that in the context this does not refer to the Spirit’s leading us in matters of guidance about life’s choices, but rather to the Spirit’s leading us to kill our sin. If the Holy Spirit is prompting and enabling you to fight against and kill your sin, it’s an evidence that should assure you that you are a child of God.

The next step up the ladder is that if you are a child of God, then you are an heir. Then he goes higher—you are an heir of God Himself and a joint-heir with Christ. The uppermost rung of the ladder is that we will be glorified with Him. Spurgeon applies this by saying (51:542) that every grace we receive should lead us to seek after something higher still. We should never be complacent or think that we have arrived spiritually. We should seek to be filled more and more with all the fullness of God.

With that as an introduction, let’s explore some of the riches of our text. I’m convinced that Paul does not just want us to think about these things intellectually and walk away saying, “That’s interesting!” Rather, he wants us to feel emotionally the wonderful grace and love of being an adopted child of God and all of the glorious riches that God has stored up for us in eternity so that we can joyfully persevere in our present sufferings. He is saying,

As God’s adopted children, we are His heirs and fellow-heirs with Christ, which includes suffering now and future glory.

1. Through God’s gracious adoption, we have become His children.

As we saw (8:15), we “have received a Spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’” As I explained, “spirit” should be capitalized, referring to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the seal or pledge of our inheritance as adopted children of God (Eph. 1:13-14).

In a wonderful chapter in Knowing God (“Sons of God” [IVP], pp. 181-208), J. I. Packer says (p. 187) that adoption is the highest privilege that the gospel offers, even higher than the blessing of justification, because it brings us into a richer relationship with God as our loving Father. He goes on to say (p. 190, italics his) that “the entire Christian life has to be understood in terms of it” [adoption]. He illustrates from the Sermon on the Mount (pp. 190-193) how adoption is the basis of Christian conduct, as we imitate the Father. It’s at the root of glorifying the Father, as people see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. It’s at the heart of pleasing the Father, who sees our hearts, rather than being hypocrites who practice our righteousness before men. Adoption is the basis of Christian prayer, since Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven.” Adoption is also the basis of a life of faith, as we trust the Father to provide for our needs.

Then (pp. 194-207) Packer elaborates on how adoption gives us the deepest insights into five other matters: (1) It shows us the greatness of God’s grace and love; (2) the glory of the Christian hope; (3) the ministry of the Holy Spirit; (4) the meaning and motives of what the Puritans called “gospel holiness”; and, (5) the clue we need to see our way through the problem of assurance.

Does the doctrine of God’s gracious adoption of you as His child make your heart well up with thanksgiving and joy as you realize what the Father has done for you? He picked you out of the gutter of sin, cleaned you up, clothed you with the perfect righteousness of Christ, and lovingly brought you into His family as His child, where you enjoy the inexhaustible riches of His grace, both now and for all eternity! Meditate on that truth every day and it will give you strength to resist sin and grace to endure trials.

But, make sure that you are His child! The Bible is clear that by nature because of our sin we all are children of wrath, not children of God (Eph. 2:3). How do we become children of God? Paul explains (Gal. 3:26), “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” Instead of trusting in yourself or your good works to get into heaven, trust in Christ, who died to pay the penalty of sin for everyone who believes in Him. And lest you boast in your faith, keep in mind that salvation is totally from the Lord. As Paul writes (Eph. 1:5-6), “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

If by God’s grace through faith in Christ you are a child of God, then it follows:

2. As God’s children, we become His heirs.

Have you ever daydreamed about what it might be like to be an heir of a wealthy family, like the Rockefeller’s or the Kennedy’s or the Getty’s? From what I’ve read, many of those heirs are not happy people. They fight and take each other to court, trying to grab or protect their portion of the inheritance. But as children of God, the Creator and Lord of the entire universe, we never need to fear that someone else will get our portion. God is “abounding in riches for all who call upon Him” (Rom. 10:12). Note four things about our inheritance as God’s children:

A. We are heirs of God Himself.

“And if children, heirs also, heirs of God…” At the very least, this means that we will receive all that God has promised to us as His children. But it probably also means that God Himself is our inheritance. This truth was taught in the Old Testament. When Israel conquered the land of Canaan, it was divided up among the various tribes. But the priestly tribe of Levi got no land, because “the Lord is their inheritance, as He promised them” (Deut. 18:2; Josh. 13:33). Do you suppose that any of the Levites looked with envy at the other tribes and their fertile pastures and grumbled, “Where’s my inheritance?” And when they were told, “The Lord God of Israel is your inheritance,” they complained, “Bummer, I’d rather have some land!” I hope not!

The psalmist knew the joy of having God as his inheritance. For a while, he was envious of the wicked as he saw their prosperity. But then he got his bearings and realized that they would die and face God’s judgment. So he affirmed (Ps. 73:25-26), “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

The prophet Jeremiah also knew this wonderful truth. He had witnessed the awful destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, along with the slaughter of many of his people and the deportation into slavery of many others. It was far, far worse than the 9-11 tragedy in our country. In the midst of his grief, he affirmed (Lam. 3:22-24), “The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’”

If God Himself is our inheritance, then our salvation is secure because He is eternal and unchangeable and His promises never fail. The reason we have Him for our inheritance is because He first chose us and predestined us to adoption as His children.

B. We are fellow heirs with Christ, who is the heir of all things.

Hebrews 1:2 declares, “In these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” “All things” is fairly comprehensive! Paul puts it this way as he rebuked the bickering Corinthians (1 Cor. 3:21-23), “For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.”

Again, if we are co-heirs with Christ, our inheritance is secure because there is absolutely no doubt that Jesus will inherit all that the Father has ordained to give Him. In Psalm 2, the nations rage against God and seek to throw off the lordship of His anointed king. But God, who sits in the heavens, scoffs at these proud earthly kings. And then Messiah responds (Ps. 2:7-8), “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord; He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Your possession.’” It is certain that Jesus will inherit all that the Father has promised to Him. And since we are fellow heirs with Christ, our inheritance is secure. Our right to the riches of heaven is not because of anything in us, but because we are in Christ. But, what does our inheritance look like?

C. Our inheritance includes the unfathomable riches of Christ.

In Ephesians 3:8, Paul describes his ministry as “to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.” I preached an entire message on that verse when we worked through Ephesians, so I can only refer you to it now. But in Ephesians 2:7, Paul says, “So that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” It’s going to take the ages and ages of eternity to reveal to us all that God has prepared for us and given to us in Christ!

These riches include our being heirs of the world. In Romans 4:13, Paul said, “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants (lit., “seed”) that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” Abraham did not inherit the world in his lifetime. The only piece of real estate he owned was the burial cave of Machpelah. But God has promised a new city whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10). Abraham was looking for that heavenly city (Heb. 11:16), and since we are fellow heirs with Christ, who is the seed of Abraham, we will inherit the new heavens and earth with Him.

Also, we are heirs of the kingdom of God. James 2:5 declares, “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?”

And, included with these promises, we are heirs of eternal life, which is the joy of knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent (John 17:3). In Titus 3:4-7, Paul exults, “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Wow!

I’ve already mentioned the fourth truth about our inheritance:

D. The fact that we are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ makes our salvation absolutely certain.

In Galatians 3:29, Paul says, “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants [lit., “seed”], heirs according to promise.” Who made the promise? God, who cannot lie, did! Then in Hebrews 6:17-18 we read, “In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us.” The two unchangeable things were God’s word of promise and His oath when He swore by Himself to Abraham, “I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply you” (Heb. 6:14). God wants us who are His children to know that our inheritance is “imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). It’s absolutely certain.

But, then, why does God allow His children to suffer now?

3. If we have these promises and assurance from the Spirit, then we can endure present suffering as the path toward future glory with Christ.

Paul adds (Rom. 8:17b), “if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” After meditating on all of the glories of being children of God and heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, the mention of suffering hits us out of nowhere. Why does Paul throw that in here? Well, Paul was a realistic pastor who wanted his people to apply these glorious truths about our future inheritance to the present reality of life in a fallen and hurting world.

Paul himself suffered terribly (2 Cor. 11:23-29). He knew that many of his readers were suffering, some more than others. Some were being persecuted for the sake of the gospel. Some had lost loved ones to martyrdom. But all of God’s children go through trials from the world, the flesh, and the devil. We all go through trials in our families, trials with other people, trials at work (or with being out of work), trials because of our sins and the sins of others against us, health problems, disappointments, heartaches, and grief.

But, why does God allow His children to suffer? I can’t be comprehensive, because the Bible contains much on this subject. But, first, if Jesus, God’s beloved Son in whom He was well-pleased, had to suffer before entering His glory (Luke 24:26), then why would we expect to be exempt? The popular teaching that it is God’s will for His children all to be healthy and wealthy and that we need to claim it by faith is heresy! Have you ever noticed that none of the false teachers proclaiming this nonsense are over 100 and going strong? They’re deceiving people for the sake of their own sordid gain.

Also, if Jesus Himself, who was sinless, learned obedience through the things that He suffered (Heb. 5:8), then why would we think that there is an easier course for us? God disciplines all of His children so that we might share His holiness (Heb. 12:5-11). Furthermore, as Philip Melancthon put it, “Where there are no cares, there will generally be no prayers” (cited by J. C. Ryle, “Are You an Heir?” in A New Birth [Old Paths Gospel Press], p. 241). Or, as Paul put it (2 Cor. 1:9), “Indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.” Trials drive us to dependence on God. They purify the dross from our lives. They produce perseverance, proven character, and hope (Rom. 5:3). They keep us from loving this world more than we should. And, they fix our hope on eternity (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Paul here says that we will be glorified with Christ. Our adoption is a present reality, but there is still a future fulfillment of it, when we receive our new resurrection bodies (Rom. 8:23) and we will be in the presence of the Lord forever (1 Thess. 4:13-18).

J. C. Ryle (ibid., pp. 224-228) whets our appetite for this future glory by asking a series of questions and then expounding on the perfections of heaven. “Is knowledge pleasant to us now?” In heaven, we shall know all things and there will be no disagreements among believers. “Is holiness pleasant to us now?” Is sin causing us trouble now? In heaven there will be no sin! “Is rest pleasant to us now?” Are we often weary and faint? In heaven we will enjoy God’s perfect rest. “Is service pleasant to us now?” We will serve God perfectly in heaven, without any of our present limitations. “Is satisfaction pleasant to us now?” In heaven, our joy will be perfect and permanent. “Is communion with the saints pleasant now?” In heaven, we will enjoy perfect fellowship with God’s people. “Is communion with Christ pleasant to us now?” In heaven, we will see His face and our fellowship will never be broken by our sin.

Conclusion

How does this apply to us now? In many ways, but consider this illustration from John Newton, the converted slave-trader turned pastor and hymn-writer (cited by John Piper, “Children, Heirs, and Fellow Sufferers,” on DesiringGod.org):

Suppose a man was going to New York to take possession of a large estate, and his [carriage] should break down a mile before he got to the city, which obliged him to walk the rest of the way; what a fool we should think him, if we saw him ringing his hands, and blubbering out all the remaining mile, “My [carriage] is broken! My [carriage] is broken!” (Richard Cecil, Memoirs of the Rev. John Newton, in The Works of the Rev. John Newton, Vol. 1 [Banner of Truth], p. 108.)

Your carriage may be broken, but keep going—there’s a rich inheritance and eternal glory just ahead!

Application Questions

  1. Do you think often of your adoption as God’s child? How could this help your daily battle against depression or discouragement or sin?
  2. Do you often think of God as your loving, caring Father? Would doing this more often keep you from sinning? How?
  3. Why is the “health and wealth” teaching heretical? How does it damage people?
  4. How can we keep our eternal inheritance more in view in our daily lives?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Glory, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 49: Present Suffering, Future Glory (Romans 8:18-25)

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“Mom, why are there mosquitoes that give people malaria? Why are there germs that make us sick?”

“Mom, I saw on the news a bad flood that killed a lot of people. Why are there floods and earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes? Why are there famines where people starve to death?”

“Mom, why did my friend at school get cancer and die? Why did Grandma get sick and die?”

“Mom, why do people set off bombs to blow up other people? Why do people do bad things to hurt each other?”

Maybe your kids have asked you questions like these. Probably you’ve wrestled with them yourself. Some become agnostics or atheists because they cannot come up with satisfactory answers to the question of how a loving, all-powerful God can allow the terrible suffering that is in the world. Since none of us are exempt from suffering and death, it’s important that we understand what the Bible teaches on this difficult topic.

Philosophers, theologians, pastors, and others have written scores of books on the subject. Some of these books are helpful, while some are heretical. Job, the oldest book on the Bible, is devoted to this problem. And in our text, Paul gives part of the biblical perspective that we need to persevere through the suffering that we surely will encounter. It’s not comprehensive, but it is helpful and practical if we will struggle to understand and practice what the apostle teaches us here. He’s saying,

To persevere in present sufferings with hope, keep your eyes on the future glory that God has promised us.

Maybe right off you’re thinking, “That just sounds like ‘pie in the sky when you die.’” As I’ve often said, my response is, “Yes, you are going to die. Would you like pie with that or no pie?” The statistics are not fuzzy: We all are going to die (unless Jesus returns in our lifetimes). Materialists argue that when you die, that’s it—your body decomposes and your soul ceases to exist, just like an animal. Paul deals with that mistaken view in his defense of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15), where he says that if the dead are not raised, then eat and drink, because tomorrow you may die. But if Jesus was raised, then the dead will be raised. And if the dead are raised, then we should “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that [our] toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

In our text, Paul wants us to understand two certainties and a practical conclusion that flows from them: First, the present time is marked by sufferings because of man’s fall into sin. Second, the future will be marked by glory for believers as God fulfills all His promises to us. The practical conclusion is, if we keep our eyes on the future promised glory, then we can endure present sufferings with perseverance and hope.

1. The present time is marked by sufferings because of man’s fall into sin.

Paul mentions “the sufferings of this present time” (8:18). He was not referring to an especially difficult period in history, but to the entire present age. The whole history of creation since the fall is marked by suffering. The history of nations is marked by struggles and catastrophes—wars, natural disasters, internal conflicts, power struggles, and crimes. The history of individuals is also in large part a history of trials—the trials of growing up, figuring out what to do with your life, whom you will marry, rearing children, working through struggles in your marriage, providing for your needs, growing old and facing declining health and death.

But, why? Why do we suffer? How should we as Christians think about these difficult matters? Four observations:

A. The whole creation suffers because of man’s fall into sin.

Romans 8:19-22: “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.”

Paul personifies creation groaning as it anxiously awaits the culmination of salvation for God’s people, because that will trigger the release from corruption to which all creation has been subject since Adam and Eve fell into sin. At that time, God’s judgment on Adam included a judgment on creation (Gen. 3:17b-18a): “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you ….”

Not only the botanical world, but also the animal world, came under the curse. In either the millennial kingdom or in the new heavens and new earth (depending on your view of prophecy), Isaiah (11:6-9) gives us this vision:

And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah pictures in poetic language a vision of a restored creation, where there will not be any violence or death. We’ve watched the magnificent DVD series “Planet Earth,” which has a spectacular scene in slow motion of a great white shark leaping out of the ocean, grabbing a seal in its mouth, and plunging again beneath the water to consume its meal. In another stunning scene filmed at night, a group of lions bring down an elephant for their next meal. Such movies portray this as the natural order of the world, in which the fittest survive by preying on the weaker species.

But the Bible teaches that this is not natural. Violence and death, even in the animal kingdom, are the result of the curse on man’s sin. Death was not a part of the original creation, which God pronounced as good. And in the future, when believers receive the full redemption that has been promised in Christ, all of creation will be restored at least to its original state, if not to an even greater level of glory.

Two observations before we move on: First, this text assumes that God is the creator of all that is. It did not evolve by chance or random mutations over billions of years. Right out of the starting gate the Bible presents God as the creator (Gen. 1:1), “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It doesn’t put it up for debate or discussion. It hits you before you can duck with the fact that God miraculously created all that is by the word of His power. Psalm 33:6, 9 declares, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host…. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.” The psalmist sandwiches his practical application between these verses (33:8): “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.” God alone is the rightful Lord of creation and Lord of your life. The fact of creation should make you bow in wonder and worship before Him (see, also, John 1:1-3; Heb. 1:2; 11:3).

Second, even though the creation is fallen, it still bears witness to the majesty and glory of the Creator. David marveled (Ps. 19:1), “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” Here in Flagstaff at 7,000 feet elevation, with the city’s efforts at restricting light pollution, we often can see what David must have seen in those dark Judean skies. The Milky Way stretches across the sky. The constellations beam their light from trillions of miles away. Sometimes with binoculars, I have located Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away, with one trillion stars. It makes you feel properly small and God properly big!

Last weekend, Marla and I went to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Standing on the rim and gazing at the vastness of that great geologic wonder always takes your breath away. Every evening a large group of visitors gathers on the patio of the North Rim Lodge to watch the spectacle in the sky. The sunsets are gorgeous and we watched lightning from the thunderstorms across the canyon. But, sadly, I would guess that very few of those watching this spectacular show even gave a passing thought toward the greatness and glory of the Creator! But those of us who know Him should revel in His creation. If the fallen creation is this beautiful, just think how spectacular the new heavens and earth will be!

So the first observation from these verses is that all creation suffers because of man’s fall into sin. It is presently enslaved to corruption and death. But, also,

B. All believers suffer because of man’s fall into sin.

This needs to be stated because, as I mentioned in our last study, there is a pervasive false teaching that God wants every Christian to be healthy and wealthy. They say, “If you’re sick or poor, then you need to claim your healing or your wealth by faith.” Those who teach these lies are preying on people’s greed and their natural longing to be in good health. But as I also said, I’ve never seen one of these false teachers live to be 120. They all succumb to disease and death at about the same age as the rest of us. Do not follow their teaching!

Paul himself suffered terribly. When he got saved, the Lord told Ananias the prophet whom He sent to open Paul’s eyes (Acts 9:16), “for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” Paul often mentions the trials that he endured, which would have driven most of us to despair (see 2 Cor. 11:23-28).

Our Lord Himself was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). He came to this world of suffering to bear our sins through His own suffering and death. So why should we think that somehow we will be exempt from suffering? In the sovereign purposes of God, some suffer more and some suffer less. But none are exempt. It’s a part of living in this fallen world. This leads to a third observation:

C. We need to think biblically about suffering so that we will grow through it rather than be destroyed by it.

Note Paul’s opening phrase (8:18), “For I consider ….” The word means to reckon, think about, consider, or ponder. In other words, this paragraph is the result of Paul’s careful, biblical thinking about suffering. It’s important to think biblically about suffering because when it clobbers you or those you love, you will be engulfed by a wave of powerful emotions. I’m not suggesting that you should suppress or deny your emotions, but I am saying that you need to process them through the grid of biblical truth, so that you are not devastated by your trials.

Peter indicates that it is especially in a time of trials that the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us. But we must resist him by being firm in our faith and by understanding the biblical perspective on trials (1 Pet. 5:8-10). In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul does not deny that believers grieve when they lose loved ones, but he does say that in light of the promise of the Lord’s coming and the resurrection of our bodies, we should not grieve as those who have no hope.

The Bible gives us far more perspective on suffering than I can comment on briefly here. As you read it, ask God to instill His wisdom in your heart for how to handle suffering. But here in our text, Paul wants us to think about four things: First, our present sufferings are relatively short compared to our eternal sharing in the glory of God. Second, the weight of our present trials is like a feather on the scale, which can’t compare with the tons of gold of the glory that will be revealed to us. He expresses the same thought in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18,

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

A third thing to think about to endure present, temporary suffering for future glory is that our future glory with God is absolutely certain. God has promised it and He cannot lie. Christ promised to return in power and glory to bring final redemption to His people and to judge His enemies. Either He was mistaken or it is our certain future. And in the rest of the chapter Paul unfolds a fourth reason that we need to think biblically about suffering, namely, that God is using it to conform us to the image of Christ. Not even torture or martyrdom can separate us from His great love (8:35-39). There is a fourth observation from our text:

D. The fact of suffering does not undermine the fact that God has a plan and that He will accomplish His plan.

Often people observe the terrible suffering in the world and doubt God’s love or His power. The argument is especially emotional when we consider little children suffering physical or sexual abuse or the horrible effects of war or natural disasters. We think, “It’s one thing if wicked people suffer such things, but how could a God of love and power allow these precious little children to suffer such things?”

But Paul shows that such things stem directly from man’s fall into sin. As we saw in chapter 5, when Adam sinned, the whole human race sinned in him. If you say, “That’s not fair,” you’re on dangerous ground, to accuse the Sovereign God of being unfair! And you’re arrogantly implying that you would have done better than Adam did, so you don’t deserve to be penalized for his sin. So you’d best not accuse God of being unfair for imposing suffering on the human race because of sin.

Pastor John Piper (“Subjected to Futility in Hope,” part 1, on DesiringGod.org) points out that if you think that somehow the suffering in this world is out of proportion to what is deserved, then you do not grasp the infinite holiness of God or the unspeakable outrage of sin against this holy God. God’s judgment on the entire creation as seen in all of history’s horrible tragedies reveals how horrific our sin is to Him. Piper adds, “But in fact the point of our miseries, our futility, our corruption, our groaning is to teach us the horror of sin. And the preciousness of redemption and hope.” Thank God, He sent the Savior!

But the fact of terrible suffering does not undermine the fact that God has a plan and that He will accomplish His plan. Paul says that the creation was subjected to futility “in hope” (8:20). He also uses the analogy of birth pains (8:22). The outcome of birth pains is the hope of new life. And even so, God is moving history toward a goal that includes our future glory:

2. The future will be marked by glory for believers as God fulfills all that He has promised us.

I can’t elaborate due to time constraints, but I want to include this in this message to convey Paul’s flow of thought. God’s final purpose both for fallen creation and for His adopted children is the glory of complete salvation. Note four things about this glory:

A. The future glory is not totally revealed to us yet, but it includes the revealing of all that God has promised for us.

J. B. Phillips (The New Testament in Modern English [Geoffrey Bles], p. 324) paraphrases 8:19, “The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own.” In Colossians 3:4, Paul says, “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” In 2 Thessalonians 2:14, he says, “It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (See, also, Heb. 2:10; 1 John 3:2.)

“Glory” is a hard concept to get your brain around, but it includes all of God’s promises to bestow on us the “unfathomable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Streets of gold and gates of pearl and mansions prepared for us are limited analogies that say, “You can’t imagine how wonderful it will be!”

B. The future glory includes the full renewal of creation to its original perfection and purpose.

The new heavens and earth will probably be even more glorious than the Garden of Eden was. With new, glorified bodies we will live on a new earth and enjoy God’s creation as it was before sin entered this world.

C. The future glory includes our freedom from sin and its corruption, including the full redemption of our bodies.

“Freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21) means at the very least, freedom from sin. We now enjoy the privileges of being God’s adopted children (8:15-16), but we haven’t yet come into our full inheritance, which includes the redemption of our body (8:23). Now, by God’s Spirit, we are able not to sin; but in glory we will not be able to sin. Hallelujah!

D. The future glory is guaranteed by our present possession of the Holy Spirit, the first fruits of our redemption.

The indwelling Holy Spirit gives us a taste of what it will be like to be holy, as Jesus is holy. But we’re still living in these fallen bodies that are prone to temptation and sin, with all of its terrible consequences. But the Holy Spirit is the promise that God will not abandon us to our sin. He’s the down payment that signals that God will complete the purchase. The practical conclusion follows:

3. Keep your eyes on the future promised glory and you will persevere in present sufferings with hope.

Paul anticipates us thinking, “But, I can’t see this future glory.” His reply is, “Yes, that’s the very nature of hope.” If you can see it all, then it’s not hope. Our salvation includes hope because we don’t receive it all in this life. The hope of our salvation is not uncertain, as when we say, “I hope it doesn’t rain on my picnic tomorrow.” Rather, it is absolutely certain because of the many promises of God, who cannot lie. But we hope for it because we have not yet received all that has been promised. So Paul concludes (8:25), “But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” The key to persevering in suffering with hope is to keep your eyes on the promised future glory.

Conclusion

If you’ve ever watched your favorite team play in the Super Bowl, you were anxious as the game progressed, especially if it was close. If your team fumbled or threw an interception, you groaned because you didn’t know the outcome. You hoped they would win, but your hope was uncertain. Maybe you even got depressed when they were far behind.

But if your team came from behind and won in the last seconds of the game and later you watched a replay of the game, your whole attitude was different. You didn’t despair when they fumbled or fell behind, because you knew how it all would turn out. Knowing the certainty of the future glory gave you hope to persevere through the setbacks.

If we become anxious or depressed in trials and lose hope, it’s because we’ve forgotten the absolutely certain outcome: Future glory forever with Christ! Yes, there is present suffering because we live in a fallen world. But God has promised future glory. Keeping that in view will enable you to persevere any suffering with hope.

Application Questions

  1. Think about someone who has lost hope and perhaps his faith in Christ because of trials. How would you use the truth of this text to help such a person?
  2. Why is the “health and wealth” teaching heresy? How does it damage people? How can you refute it biblically?
  3. What are some practical ways to gain a clearer vision of the future glory promised to us so that it affects your daily walk?
  4. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Final Perseverance of the Saints [Zondervan], p. 14) argues that believers should not be shaken or cast down by suffering. Is this realistic? Where is the balance between acknowledging despair and yet trusting in God? See 2 Cor. 1:8-10.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Glory, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 50: The Spirit Helps Us Pray (Romans 8:26-27)

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In a message at the 2011 Desiring God Pastor’s Conference, Francis Chan told of many answers to prayer that he has received. He said that for those who know the living God, this should be the norm. We should have such frequent answers to our prayers that we’re surprised when an occasional one goes unanswered.

If you can relate to what Chan was saying, perhaps you should be the one giving this message on prayer, because to be honest, my experience is almost the opposite of Francis Chan’s. I don’t keep detailed records, but I seem to strike out in prayer so often that it’s a big deal when I connect for a hit. My batting average wouldn’t get me into the minor leagues, much less the majors! So maybe before you ask me to pray for you, you should shop around!

Seriously, I need all the help I can get to learn how to pray rightly. And so our text, while it has some puzzling details, overall is a great encouragement. Paul is saying,

Knowing that the Holy Spirit tenderly prays for us in our weakness should encourage us to pray.

Paul Miller, who also spoke at the same Desiring God conference, estimates from surveys that he has taken at his prayer seminars that about 90 percent of evangelicals do not have a meaningful daily prayer life. (I would encourage you to listen to his message and read his helpful book, A Praying Life [NavPress].) If you find prayer to be difficult, then Romans 8:26-27 should encourage you.

Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 526) summarizes Paul’s thought in these verses:

Paul is saying … that our failure to know God’s will and consequent inability to petition God specifically and assuredly is met by God’s Spirit, who himself expresses to God those intercessory petitions that perfectly match the will of God. When we do not know what to pray for—yes, even when we pray for things that are not best for us—we need not despair, for we can depend on the Spirit’s ministry of perfect intercession “on our behalf.”

As I said, Paul’s overall intent is clear: He wants to encourage us, especially when we feel our own weakness, because the Holy Spirit is praying for us. Even though we do not know how to pray as we should, we should be encouraged to keep praying. But there are a number of details in these verses that are difficult to understand. I’ll try to explain them as best as I can as we work through the text and hope that the explanatory detours do not distract from the overall encouragement for your prayer life.

The first difficulty is to determine what “In the same way” refers to. Some authors connect it to the theme of “groaning.” In 8:22, the whole creation groans; in 8:23, we ourselves groan as we wait for the completion of our adoption as God’s children. So, “in the same way,” the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

Others say that “in the same way” links 8:26-27 with the other references to the Holy Spirit in chapter 8 (2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, & 16). “In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weakness” (8:26).

Still others argue that the connection is with hope. We can be encouraged in our trials because of the hope of future glory (8:18-25); in the same way, we can be encouraged in our weakness by the Spirit’s intercession for us (8:26-27). I am inclined to either the second or third view. Either Paul is connecting 8:26-27 with all the other references to the Spirit in this chapter, or he is linking it with the encouragement and hope of 8:18-25. But either way, he wants us to feel encouraged by the fact that the Spirit is praying for us, so that we will be encouraged to keep praying. Note two things:

1. All of us are weak, which is why we need to pray.

A. A sense of our weakness will drive us to pray.

Sometimes a small pronoun in the Bible can make a lot of difference. Paul did not write, “… the Spirit also helps your weakness,” but rather, “the Spirit also helps our weakness.” Paul did not set himself on a pedestal as an example of spiritual strength. Rather, he included himself with us as one who was weak. A main reason that we do not pray as frequently or as fervently as we should is that we do not recognize how weak we really are. If we knew ourselves to be weak, we would constantly be coming to the Lord and crying out for His strength. Jesus did not say, “Without Me, you can get along with all of the everyday stuff. But when you get hit with something really big, call on Me.” Rather, He said (John 15:5), “… apart from Me, you can do nothing.”

We tend to look at the spiritual giants in the Bible and think, “Wow, they were strong!” Look at Elijah! What a guy! He called down fire on his sacrifice and then slaughtered 400 prophets of Baal. Twice he called down fire to consume a commander and fifty armed men who were sent to arrest him. Don’t mess with Elijah! And yet James (5:17) tells us, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed ….” Elijah was weak, just like we are. But he prayed to the God who is strong.

Or, consider Moses. He stood up to the most powerful monarch in the world by calling down miraculous plagues on him and his kingdom. He parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass through on dry ground and then he brought the sea back over the heads of the pursuing Egyptian army. He brought water from a rock in the barren desert. At his word, the ground opened up and swallowed alive those who challenged his leadership. He seemed to be a rock of spiritual strength! And yet in the mournful Psalm 90, he laments the frailty and shortness of life. The psalm ends with his pathetic plea (Ps. 90:17), “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; and confirm for us the work of our hands; yes, confirm the work of our hands.” I’ve often thought, “If Moses needed to beg God to confirm his labors, how much more do I!” Moses was aware of his own weakness, which is why he prayed.

Or, look at the Lord Jesus Himself. He alone lived a sinless life on this wicked earth. He boldly confronted the religious leaders without fearing their threats. He overturned their money tables and pronounced woes on their hypocrisy. If anyone seemed to be strong, it was Jesus. And yet He said (John 5:19), “The Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing.” He often slipped away to the wilderness for prayer (Luke 5:16). In His humanity, Jesus knew that He must depend on the Father for all things. He is a model for us of praying at all times and for all things (Luke 18:1). Our weakness should cause us to cry out to God in prayer.

Hudson Taylor said (source unknown), “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on God being with them.” We fail to pray because we think that we’re strong enough to handle life without God. It’s encouraging here in Romans 8:26 that God doesn’t confront us or condemn us for being weak. Rather, He sends His Spirit to help us in our weakness.

So, if you say, “I don’t have the strength to resist the temptation to look at porn,” then flee to Jesus in your weakness. Cry out to Him for deliverance. “But, I don’t have the strength to overcome my angry temper.” The next time you’re about to explode, run to Jesus. Every time you feel your weakness and inability, call out to Jesus. But, maybe you’re thinking, “But that’s the problem—I’m not strong in prayer.” Paul says that…

B. Our weakness extends to our prayer lives.

Part of the weakness that Paul refers to is weakness in prayer: “for we do not know how to pray as we should.” Again, I’m glad he said we, not you. Paul himself didn’t know how to pray as he should. He gives us a glimpse into this in 2 Corinthians 12. He tells about his own experience of being caught up into Paradise where he heard inexpressible words, which he was not permitted to speak. Because of that great revelation, to keep Paul from exalting himself, God gave him what he calls “a thorn in the flesh.” We can speculate on what this was, but the bottom line is, no one knows for sure because the Bible doesn’t tell us.

But Paul says that three times he implored the Lord to take away this affliction. But the Lord replied (2 Cor. 12:9), “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Paul concluded (2 Cor. 12:9b-10), “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul didn’t know what he should pray for in that trial. And that’s the sense of Romans 8:26. He is not talking about the method or technique of praying, but rather the content. Paul wrestled with the same thing in Philippians 1:22-24, where he couldn’t decide whether to pray that the Lord would take him home, which was Paul’s desire, or preserve his life for further ministry. Moses entreated the Lord to let him enter the Promised Land, but that was not God’s will (Deut. 3:25-26). Elijah, man of prayer that he was, asked the Lord to take his life (1 Kings 19:4). Even Jesus, in His humanity, prayed that if possible, the Father might allow Him to escape from the cross, if it would be God’s will (Matt. 26:36-46). The point is, we’re all weak in many areas, including prayer. We often don’t know how to pray as we should. But, thankfully, God doesn’t leave us to ourselves:

2. God graciously gives the Holy Spirit to help us by interceding for us in our weakness.

Romans 8:26b-27: “The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Again, while many of the details are difficult to understand, Paul’s overall intent is to encourage us with the fact that God has not left us alone in our weakness. Rather, His Spirit helps us by praying for us. I’ll try to explain this with five observations:

A. The Holy Spirit is a person, the third member of the Godhead.

The Holy Spirit is a person, not an impersonal force. He helps us in our weakness by praying for us, which an impersonal force cannot do. God is one God who exists eternally as three distinct persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Deut. 6:4; James 2:19; Matt. 28:19). The fact that the Spirit prays for us shows that He is distinct from the Father, to whom He prays. Also, the Father knows perfectly the mind of the Spirit and the Spirit prays perfectly in accord with the will of the Father. The Holy Spirit indwells everyone who belongs to Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:9). And so His ministry of prayer comes from within us, while Jesus’ ministry of intercession (8:34) takes place at the right hand of the Father.

B. The Holy Spirit helps us.

The word “helps” occurs only here and in one other place in the New Testament. The meaning is, someone is carrying a heavy load and another person comes alongside to take the other end and bear the burden with him. The other use of “help” is in Luke 10:40, where Jesus is in the home of Mary and Martha. Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, but Martha was distracted with all her preparations. Finally, she burst out, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” She wanted her sister to help bear the burden of preparing and serving the meal.

The word implies that the Holy Spirit doesn’t do everything, while we sit back and do nothing. Rather, we are to keep praying and, if appropriate, keep working or obeying or whatever the Bible may tell us to do about our situation. But as we pray, the Spirit says, “Let Me grab the other end. Let me help you by picking up your burden and taking it before the Father’s throne. I know what to pray for when you don’t.” So the Spirit helps us by praying for us in our weakness. What an encouragement!

C. The Holy Spirit helps us by interceding for us on an emotional level.

“The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” What does this mean? We don’t have anything to compare it with, since this is the only reference to such a thing in Scripture. But, first, we can say with certainty that it does not refer to speaking in tongues, as some argue. That subject is totally foreign to the context here. Also, if speaking in tongues is a valid gift today, it is only for some, whereas the ministry of the Spirit in verse 26 is for all believers.

As you can predict, there are differing views of what this phrase means. Some argue that since it is inconceivable that God would groan, this must refer to our groans, which the Spirit translates into specific requests before the Father (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The Final Perseverance of the Saints [Zondervan], pp. 135-136). In line with this, Thomas Schreiner (Romans [Baker], pp. 445-446) understands it to refer to groanings that originate from the Spirit, but are experienced by believers. The Spirit burdens us with inexpressible longings to know and do the will of God. He then takes those burdens to the Father in an articulate form on our behalf.

Others argue that the wording of the sentence implies that these are the groans of the Spirit Himself, of which we are not aware. John MacArthur puts it (The MacArthur Study Bible [Thomas Nelson], p. 1676), these groans refer to, “Divine articulations within the Trinity that cannot be expressed in words, but carry profound appeals for the welfare of every believer.”

While I’m not dogmatic (and I did not find any commentators who suggested this), my understanding is that the Spirit’s groaning on our behalf is an anthropomorphism, or more correctly, an anthropopathism, which is to attribute human emotions to God. For example, when the Bible says that God repents or changes His mind, it is speaking from a human point of view. To us, it seems as if God changed His mind, although His counsel is fixed from all eternity (1 Sam. 15:11, 29). In one of the most outrageous anthropomorphisms in the Bible, the psalmist compares God to a warrior who awakes from being drunk (Ps. 78:65)! Obviously, God is not sleeping off a hangover when He does not answer our prayers, but that’s how the psalmist portrays Him.

So here, I suggest that Paul pictures the Holy Spirit groaning on our behalf to convey that He takes up our needs at the deepest emotional level and conveys our hurts and cares to the Father’s throne, all in line with the will of God. This should encourage us to pour out our hearts before Him (Ps. 62:8).

D. The Holy Spirit helps us by interceding for us according to the will of God.

Romans 8:27: “And He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” “He who searches the hearts” most likely refers to the Father. Paul’s point is, if the Father understands all human hearts, then He must know the unspoken groans of the Holy Spirit on our behalf. In other words, the Spirit takes our deepest feelings and unexpressed needs to the Father, who understands everything perfectly. Nothing leaves God scratching His head, wondering what our real needs are.

Since God searches and knows every heart, our prayers should come from the heart. You can impress others with spiritual-sounding prayers, but those prayers don’t impress God. Pour out your heart honestly to Him. But maybe you’re thinking, “But what if my prayers are not in line with God’s will?”

E. The Holy Spirit’s prayers for us are always according to God’s will and thus are always answered.

The last phrase of 8:27 seems to say that the Holy Spirit makes corrections for any misdirected prayers that we make by praying for us according to the will of God. Part of our weakness in prayer is that we’re not able to know God’s sovereign will, in the sense of His decree, until after it has happened. We can know His moral will, as revealed in Scripture. We should never pray for anything contrary to Scripture. You don’t need to pray about whether you should marry an unbeliever or have sexual relations outside of marriage or whether you should steal to meet your financial needs. Those things are always wrong.

But there is a mystery here that we cannot fully understand. Samson’s parents rightly exhorted him not to marry a Philistine woman. But they did not know that God wanted to use Samson’s wrong desires to bring judgment on the Philistines (Judges 14:1-4). Jeremiah was right to pray that God would spare His people from the Babylonians for His name’s sake. But God’s sovereign will in that situation was to judge them (Jer. 14:19-15:2). Or, Satan demanded permission to sift Peter like wheat by tempting him to deny Christ. If I had heard that demand, I would have prayed that God would keep Peter from sinning. But Jesus, who knew the will of God perfectly, did not pray that Peter would not sin, but rather that his faith would not totally fail and that after he was restored, he would strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:31-32).

So I understand Paul’s point to be that we should pray according to God’s will as best as we can, but if God’s decreed will differs from our prayers, the Spirit will correct our requests to line up with God’s sovereign will. And so even if to us it seems that our requests are denied, in God’s sovereign plan, they will be answered.

One well-known example of this is that Augustine’s godly mother, Monica, prayed for years for the salvation of her wayward son. He told her that he was going to move to Italy. She prayed that he would not go, because she thought that he would be led into further sin there. But he went and got saved there. The Spirit took her deepest desire, re-directed it before God’s throne, and her son got saved and became the most influential theologian for the next one thousand years.

Conclusion

So while there are difficult details in these verses, the bottom line is pretty clear: We should be encouraged to pray. We won’t fully understand the mystery of prayer in this life, but we know that the Lord commands us to pray. He has ordained prayer as the means through which we cooperate with Him in bringing about His sovereign will. He encourages us with the truth that the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us, tenderly takes our prayers and directs them according to God’s will before His throne. Here are three final applications:

*Don’t let the fact that you don’t know how to pray as you should discourage you from praying. Paul didn’t know how to pray as he should, but he told us to “pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18). So keep at it even when you don’t understand it.

*Don’t let the fact that prayer isn’t easy discourage you from praying. Paul told the Colossians (4:12) that Epaphras was “always laboring earnestly for [them] in his prayers.” Prayer is often hard work. It isn’t easy. But keep working at it. Finally,

*Don’t let the fact that your prayers don’t seem to be answered keep you from praying. Make sure that to the best of your understanding you are praying in accord with God’s will. But if you are praying unknowingly for something that is not His will, you can trust that the Spirit will take your prayers and line them up with God’s perfect will. This gracious truth, that the Holy Spirit tenderly prays for us in our weakness, should cause us to persevere in prayer, especially in times of trial.

Application Questions

  1. Discuss: Paul Miller suggests that our lack of prayer is not due to a lack of discipline, but rather a lack of feeling our need.
  2. What is your main hindrance to prayer? How can you overcome it?
  3. If God knows our needs and the Spirit is praying for us, why do we need to pray? (See Matt. 6:8ff.)
  4. If God has determined His sovereign will, does prayer really change things? If so, how? If not, why pray?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Prayer, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 51: All Things for Good for Us (Romans 8:28)

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One of the most helpful things that you can learn with regard to your Christian life is how to handle the trials that inevitably will come your way. Jesus explained that there are some who receive the word with joy, but their faith is only temporary. When affliction or persecution because of the word hits them, immediately they fall away (Matt. 13:20-21). They didn’t expect affliction or understand how to handle it. They signed up for success, not suffering. They wanted prosperity, not persecution. So they fell away when the trials hit. It is especially in times of suffering that Satan, whom Peter describes as a roaring lion, seeks to devour you (1 Pet. 5:8-10). So it is essential for your spiritual survival that you know and apply what the Bible teaches about trials.

Romans 8:28 is one of the most familiar verses on this subject. The NASB reads, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Due to a textual variant, the ESV translates it slightly differently and, I think, more accurately: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” But either way the sense is the same. All things don’t just happen to work out for good on their own. Rather, God providentially works all things together for good for His people according to His purpose.

But while Romans 8:28 is a source of great comfort when it is properly understood, it is often misunderstood and misapplied. Some think that it teaches a Pollyanna positive outlook on life, that everything will turn out for our happiness in this life. But this denies or greatly minimizes the reality of suffering and evil. It insensitively says to those who are suffering: “Don’t worry, be happy, your loss isn’t really so bad.” But the verse isn’t saying that.

Sometimes well-meaning Christians recite Romans 8:28 to a person in the throes of grief, trying to help or comfort. But at the moment of loss, the grieving person mostly needs your presence and your help with practical matters. Later, if need be, you may be able to help him understand and apply this verse. But it will help us all to weather suffering better if we understand this verse before the storm hits.

In the context, Paul has given us encouragement and hope with the truth that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us (8:18-25). He has also encouraged us with the truth that the Holy Spirit is helping us in our weakness by praying for us according to the will of God (8:26-27). But that raises the question, “If the Spirit is praying for the saints according to the will of God, then why do we suffer? Why are we persecuted, sometimes to death? Can such suffering be according to God’s will?” In response, Paul affirms,

God works all things together for good for those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.

Note the contrast between (8:26), “for we do not know how to pray as we should,” and (8:28), “we know that God causes all things to work together for good….” In our weakness, we often do not know what to pray for, but we can know, even in such times, that our sovereign God is working all things together for our ultimate good. Paul goes on to explain how this is so in 8:29-30. Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 530) paraphrases the flow of thought in 8:28-30 as follows:

“We know that all things are working for good for those of us who love God; and we know this is so because we who love God are also those who have been summoned by God to enter into relationship with him, a summons that is in accordance with God’s purpose to mold us into the image of Christ and to glorify us.”

To understand and apply this verse, we need to think through four truths:

1. God has an eternal purpose and He is able to accomplish His purpose.

This truth is foundational to the truth of Romans 8:28. If God doesn’t have a purpose, then He couldn’t work all things according to that purpose. Or, if He has a purpose, but He’s not able to pull it off, then your trials might be sabotaging His purpose. A heretical view held by some professing evangelicals called Open Theism argues that God is not sovereign over the terrible things that happen in the world. They’re trying to get God off the hook for suffering, but they rob Romans 8:28 of its comfort for us in times of suffering. We must affirm three things about God’s purpose:

A. God has an eternal purpose that cannot be thwarted.

If a man is going to do anything of significance—build a house, found a company, or take a trip—he has a purpose and a plan to accomplish that purpose. It’s unthinkable that the Sovereign God created the universe with no purpose or no plan to achieve that purpose. But we don’t need to infer this by logic; the Bible often affirms that God has a purpose that can’t be thwarted.

In the oldest book of the Bible, after all his suffering, Job replies to the Lord (42:2), “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” In Isaiah 14:24, with regard to the eventual downfall of Israel’s enemy, Assyria, the prophet states, “The Lord of hosts has sworn saying, ‘Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand.”

Later, regarding God’s purpose to raise up Cyrus to free Israel from captivity, Isaiah (46:10-11) cites the Lord as saying, “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.”

Or, in Ephesians, after stating how God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world and predestined us to adoption as sons (1:4, 5), Paul adds (1:11), “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” (See, also, Eph. 3:11.)

Thus God has an eternal purpose to glorify Himself by saving a people through His grace, so that Christ would be preeminent in all things. And nothing can thwart His purpose. This means that…

B. Sinful people are not able to thwart or frustrate God’s purpose.

After speaking of God as the almighty Creator, who spoke the universe into existence, the psalmist adds (Ps. 33:10-11), “The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation.” So, rather than sinful people frustrating God’s purpose, God frustrates their purpose!

This truth is all through the Bible, but let me give you two examples. Genesis 37-50 unfolds the moving story of Joseph and his brothers. Their father Jacob favored Joseph, which caused his brothers to hate him. They sold him into slavery in Egypt and lied to their father that a wild beast had killed him. In the providence of God, Joseph rose from prison to the position of second in command to Pharaoh. In that role, he was able to save his extended family during a long famine. He later explained to them (Gen. 50:20), “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” Joseph’s brothers’ sin could not thwart God’s greater purpose for His people.

The New Testament tells of the greatest evil that has ever been committed, when sinful men crucified the sinless Son of God. But did these evil men, acting under Satan’s influence, thwart God’s plan? In Acts 4:27-28 we read the prayer of the early church when they faced persecution: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” The wicked men were responsible for their sin, but their sin fulfilled rather than thwarted God’s plan.

This means that no sinful person can thwart God’s purpose or plan for your life. The sinful mate who left you for another woman didn’t ruin God’s plan for your life. The drunk driver who killed your loved ones can’t frustrate God’s purpose for their lives or your life. The evil person at work who lied about you and got you wrongfully fired didn’t divert God’s purpose for your life. But maybe you’re thinking, “But, what about free will? God gave everyone free will, didn’t He? Couldn’t these people mess up God’s plan by their free will?”

C. “Free will” does not thwart or frustrate God’s purpose.

I don’t like the term “free will,” because it’s misleading. No one has perfectly free will. You were not free to choose when or in what country you were born, to whom you were born, what gender you were born, or what genetic traits you were born with. All of those factors, which greatly influence your choices, were determined apart from your will. If you had been born to a Muslim family in Afghanistan 500 years ago, you would not have been “free” to choose Christ because you never would have heard of Him. And even if a missionary had come to your village and preached the gospel (and survived!), there would have been tremendous social pressure to keep you from turning against your family by believing in Christ. The will is not totally “free.”

In addition, as we’ve seen all through Romans, you were born “in Adam,” with a fallen sin nature. You did not seek for God because you hated Him. You were not able to submit to God’s holy law, but rather suppressed the truth in unrighteousness. Sin has blinded all of us toward the things of God. As Charles Wesley put it, our will is “fast bound in sin and nature’s night.”

But this invokes the question, “If God is absolutely sovereign and our will is not totally free, then are we puppets or robots? Aren’t we free to make choices for which we are responsible?” The Bible is clear that God is sovereign and people make choices for which they are responsible. We must affirm both. But the point is, no choice of the worst sinner, even of a man like Hitler, can thwart God’s purpose to save and glorify His people. Romans 8:28 only works if God has an eternal purpose that He is able to accomplish in spite of sinful people and their so-called “free will.”

2. God’s eternal purpose includes calling to salvation a people for Himself.

In 2 Timothy 1:9, Paul says that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” In our text, Paul describes those for whom God works all things together for good as “those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”

Note that Romans 8:28 does not promise that all things work together for good for all people. It is not a verse for universal optimism. For those who hate God and are not called according to His purpose, the future holds condemnation and eternal punishment, if they do not repent. So the promise that God will work all things together for good is only for His elect, whom He purposes to save. Paul describes them in two ways:

A. Those for whom all things work together for good love God.

This is the human side of things, although God is behind it. None of us would love God if He had not first loved us (1 John 4:19; Eph. 2:3-7). But when we heard the gospel, that in love God gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him has eternal life (John 3:16), we responded in faith so that now we love Him. He changed our hearts from being hostile toward God to wanting to please Him because we love Him.

Also, loving God (in Rom. 8:28) is not a condition, but a description. In other words, Paul is not saying that as long as you really love God, He will work everything together for good for you, but if your love for God grows cold, He won’t work everything for good. That wouldn’t be much comfort! Although at times our love for God may need reviving (Rev. 2:4-5), it can still be said of every true Christian that we do love God. It’s the bent of our lives.

Paul only refers to our love for God in three other places (1 Cor. 2:9; 8:3; Eph. 6:24). So you have to ask, why did he mention it here? Perhaps he mentions it here in the context of trials because at such times we need to affirm our love for God. During trials the devil tempts us to doubt God’s love for us. We need to be reminded not only that God loves us, but also that because He gave His Son for us, we now love Him. He is our chief treasure.

Also, in a time of persecution, love for God (and His love for us) is the one thing that can’t be taken from us. This evil world can deprive us of our possessions. It can torture us and kill our bodies. But it can’t take our chief treasure. As Psalm 73:25-26 puts it, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” So those who have tasted God’s love through the gospel love Him. They are the ones for whom God is working all things together for good.

B. Those for whom all things work together for good are called according to God’s purpose.

This is the same group that loves God, but described from God’s point of view. Paul adds this description so that no one will mistakenly think that his own love for God is the primary thing. Rather, our love for God stems from His sovereign calling us. As Bishop Moule put it (Romans [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 237), “Not one link in the chain of actual Redemption is of our forging—or the whole would indeed be fragile.”

In the New Testament epistles, call (or, calling) always refers to God’s effectual call, which accomplishes His purpose. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Answer 31) states, “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” When God effectually calls us to salvation, He does not drag us kicking and screaming, against our will. Rather, when we come to Christ, we come freely because He has made us willing by His grace (John 6:37).

How can you know whether God has called you? When you heard the gospel, that Christ died for sinners and that God offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who believe in Christ, did you believe? Did you come to Jesus? Did God change your heart? Before, you didn’t love God, but now you do. Before you didn’t care about the Bible, but now you treasure it as God’s very word. Before, you loved your sin and made excuses for it, but now you hate it and fight against it. If so, then be assured that God is working all things together for good for you. But, what does that mean? Are we supposed to view tragedies in our lives as good?

3. God’s purpose for those whom He calls to salvation is their ultimate, eternal good.

“All things” includes the good things that God gives us, but it also includes “the sufferings of this present time” (8:18), as well as tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword (8:35). It includes big catastrophes—tornadoes, tsunamis, wars, plane crashes, and terrible accidents. But it also includes the relatively minor frustrations of life—daily hassles, problems at work, car trouble, traffic jams, relational problems, and discouraging situations.

Does it include our sins? Hear me carefully: “Yes, in the sense that our sins cannot thwart God’s ultimate purpose of being glorified in our salvation and sanctification.” But, we should never sin with the thought, “God will work it together for good for me.” As David’s sin with Bathsheba shows, sin always results in terrible consequences for us and for others. But if we have sinned and we repent and submit to God’s loving discipline, He can use our sin to teach us not to trust in ourselves, as He did with Peter after his denials of Christ.

We need to be clear that the bad things that happen to us are not good in and of themselves. We shouldn’t call them good or pretend that they’re good. They’re difficult. If someone sinned against us, he did us evil (Gen. 50:20). The death of a loved one is hard. But in His gracious providence, God will work these terrible things together for our good as we submit to Him and trust in Him. He uses them to show us His grace and love in ways that we otherwise would not have known. He deepens our faith in ways that we never would have learned, except for the trial. In all of it, He is working for our ultimate good, to conform us to the image of His Son, who learned obedience through the things that He suffered (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 5:8). Though we may carry heartaches to our graves, we know that an incomparable glory awaits us for all eternity. The bottom line is:

4. Knowing that God is working all things together for our good brings great comfort in the midst of difficult trials.

Paul doesn’t say, “and we feel,” or, “and we hope,” in the sense of uncertainty, but rather, “and we know.” Why can we know that God is working all things together for our good? Because He has an eternal purpose that includes our salvation and He will accomplish that purpose. He has predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son, and nothing can thwart His sovereign will.

Some say that the doctrine of God’s sovereign election is just divisive, impractical theology that we should avoid, because it upsets people. But God didn’t inspire Paul to write this to upset us! This truth is intensely practical, especially when you face trials. Whether it’s a minor irritation at work or a major, life-changing catastrophe, you can trust God to use it in His sovereign purpose to conform you to the image of Christ. There is no comfort in the view that God is not sovereign over the terrible things that happen to us. But there is great comfort in knowing that the sovereign God is working all things together for good for His people.

Conclusion

In a message on Romans 8:28 that he gave at the 2010 Desiring God National Conference, Randy Alcorn mentioned Scott and Janet Willis, who were driving behind a truck when a piece of metal flew off the truck and punctured their gas tank, causing their minivan to explode. They escaped, but six of their children burned to death in the inferno. Alcorn interviewed them 14 years later and they both affirmed that in spite of their great loss, God’s goodness and sovereignty are now more precious to them than before.

He also mentioned Joni Eareckson Tada, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident at age 17. Because of that accident, she has had a powerful ministry with disabled people. But now, in her sixties, she has breast cancer. She told Randy, “I’ve had a ministry to disabled people for many years. But now I have a ministry to people with cancer!” Do you believe that God is working all your trials together for your ultimate good and for the good of those to whom He has called you to serve?

Application Questions

  1. What are the most difficult trials that you have been through? How might God be working them for your ultimate good?
  2. Why does Romans 8:28 only work if God is sovereign over all the evil that happens? Why does denying that truth not help?
  3. Someone taunts, “If God predestined everything, then we’re just robots.” How would you respond biblically?
  4. What does it mean to love God? Is it primarily a feeling? If it includes feelings, how can we keep our feelings passionate?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Love, Predestination

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