How are we to live out our faith in a way that carries significance and meaning? How can we not only hear the word of God, but obey it? How do we go from being mere hearers of the word, to doers of the word?
Many Christians keep something out of their lives that is detrimental to their faith and particularly their daily battle against sin: doctrine. Doctrine is often ignored in the daily life of the Christian and even some churches fail to teach biblical doctrine from the pulpit and in small group settings. What are favored are feel-good messages and ten-step lessons on how to be a better parent. Because of this, the word of God has slowly but surely become scarce in pulpits, Sunday School rooms, and homes.
It is tempting for us to search our own minds and philosophies for answers to how we should live in the world. We desire life change and we think it can be instilled through therapeutic messages and discussions outside of the Bible. In fact, some Christians believe they can know God and carry out his purposes without the Bible. However, James gives us a picture of the new birth, which directly affects the way we live. But he does so by showing the one thing we absolutely need—the reception of the word of God.
Essentially, James argues that a life that hears and obeys the word of God is the life that humbly and gladly receives the word of God, which was implanted at the new birth.
Regeneration is by the Gospel
James writes, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (v. 18). Let’s break this verse down to understand how God regenerates us. We know James is referring to the new birth because of the phrase “brought us forth.” This is creation language. This is language directly related to birth. We know that this is not an original creation or first birth, because of the reference to the redemption of all of creation (“firstfruits of his creatures”).
This is new creation language. Through the work of Christ, God is redeeming his creation beginning with man and including every aspect of creation. This begins with the redemption of man. By his own prerogative, God has “brought us forth”; he has regenerated our dead hearts. He has created in us a new heart of flesh, which replaced an old heart of stone. We also know that James has in mind the new birth because of the means by which it comes. The new birth comes “by the word of truth.” I believe James is referring to the gospel here (Col. 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:15). Hearing the gospel is seen as a necessary contingent for the new birth. “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth.”
James is not alone in the biblical corpus. Peter also sees the gospel as the means by which the new birth comes. “You have been born again…through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pt. 1:23). It is through and by the word of God (the gospel) that God regenerates us. This is the backdrop for a striking, yet somewhat hidden command in James 1:21.
The Word that is Implanted
James commands something radical in v. 21: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” This is a very loaded verse with a two-fold command. First, James commands that believers put away or strip away all filthiness (part one) and receive with meekness the implanted word (part two). He then writes that this implanted word, which we are to receive with meekness, is able to save our souls. What does James mean by this?
What is most notable is the fact that James commands something that is not natural to man. The word that we are commanded to receive must be implanted. That tells us that by nature we are dead in our sin. We oppose the word of God, which is by nature foreign to our sinful natures. James is reminding these believers that they once had no love for God’s word and they once had no desire for God’s word.
We were like those who once tried to kill Jesus: “You seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you” (John 8:37). Since the word of Christ found no place in them, it is clear that it had not been implanted. Does this mean that these Jewish leaders did not know the Scripture? Did they not know Moses, David, Solomon, and the prophets? Of course they did! They actually were students and even scholars of the Old Testaments, yet the word of God found no place in them.
So, implantation of the word of God must be more than mere knowledge of the Bible. Before the new birth, the word of God is like a splinter that our heart forces out once it is inside. Unregenerate people have no place for God’s word. They do not need it and they reject its significance, power, and meaning. The reason? It is not implanted in them.
The Gospel Takes Root
James has presented us with a God who is personally and intimately committed to our salvation, to the point that he shaves our hearts of stone into obliteration by the sword of the gospel. James tells us that God causes the new birth by the gospel. Through the gospel our eyes are opened to see the glory of Christ and we are given a taste for Christ that is insatiable. We have a place for the word of God in our hearts, because God sovereignly implants it in our hearts.
There is great assurance to be found here. When we heard the gospel—the account of Jesus’ perfect life, propitiatory death, and powerful resurrection—God actively caused this message (word) to take root in our hearts. This means when we desire, love, and believe this word of God (the gospel), it latches on permanently to our hearts. God implants his word in such a way that it is inseparable from our hearts.
Allow that truth to waft over you for a moment. We are born again by the word of God and the word of God that was implanted stays! It goes nowhere! You can be confident that the message that caused you to see and delight in the person and work of Christ is implanted by God, is going nowhere, and is “able to save your soul.” Oh, how great and powerful is the word of God!
The Power and Significance of the Gospel
Let’s pause for a moment to notice how connected the Spirit of God is with the word of God. There are those Christians who believe that expository preaching and careful study of the Bible is unnecessary for the Christian life. Instead, they argue that we need to “experience” the Spirit of God and rely on the Spirit of God instead of the word of God. This is an unhelpful and detrimental dichotomy. God desires worshipers who worship in Spirit and truth.
The Bible speaks of the Spirit granting the new birth (John 3:3-8; 6:63). When the Spirit is sent, he dwells within believers. When the word of God comes in the gospel, it is implanted in us. This relationship between the Spirit of God and the word of God greatly aids our understanding of the role of the word of God in our lives. The word of God is not mere text or lifeless revelation. It is a living and moving, breathing and working power that is a vehicle for life and a catalyst for faith.
In a world of increasing instability and approval of sin, there are many answers given to how Christians are to live and survive in a culture that is constantly trying to cut them off. Instead of taking in the salt water of moralism, self-helps, and personal philosophies, breathe in the life-giving word of God. Receive the implanted word of God for the sustenance of your faith in a world filled with temptation and sin.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.