James speaks throughout his epistle about faith and works. In James 1:21-25 he says the person who considers him or herself a Christian, but does not show it through actions deceives him or herself. He uses the image of looking at one’s reflection in a mirror to explain this. Let’s examine this closer.
James begins this passage with a command. He said in the middle of verses twenty-one, “receive the word implanted.” Each person from the moment they accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior receives His Holy Spirit who empowers the person to live with His power to avoid and overcome Satan and His temptations to sin. James said the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection can save every person’s soul from eternal death - separation from God forever. He strongly encourages believers to put aside every wicked and filthy action, thought, and word, those things that defile and dishonor a person.
What can cause a person to defile or dishonor him or herself as a Christian? When a person does, speaks, or thinks anything that is impure and contrary to righteousness, a righteousness that is defined by the character of God. Being undefiled, being a Christian, requires action. Satan constantly combats the Christian and each of us must actively go against him with the power Jesus Christ implants in us when we trust in Him. Combating Satan is not just speaking against him, but acting and speaking for God and living like Jesus lived while on earth. James meant this in verse twenty-two when he said, “But prove yourselves doers of the word and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” If you do not turn away from the temptations Satan puts before you and intentionally do the things God would have you do, you may be reckoning wrongly that you received salvation through Jesus Christ. Alternatively, if you truly trust you are a Christian, you are not living out your faith. Of those people, God said He would spit them out of His mouth because they were neither hot nor cold (Revelation 3:16).
Being a Christian means actively and intentionally following God and becoming more Christlike. James compares a believer who just hears the Word of God, but does not act upon it to a person who looks in the mirror. That person sees his or her face and then forgets what he or she looks like upon leaving the mirror. It appears impossible to forget what one looks like and yet Christians do that, James said. What we find James says in verses twenty-four to be more than that though. Two words help us see he speaks of something deeper. The verb “gone away” comes from the Greek word aperchomai. This word means departing and following another one, someone not God. Did you hear that? When the person who looked in the mirror turned away from the mirror, he or she no longer followed God, but someone else – him or herself or someone else, but not God. The other word in this verse we should understand is “forgotten.” It comes from the Greek word hopoios and means to no longer care for or neglect. Putting these words together in this verse means that the person looks in the mirror (God’s Word) and recognizes him or herself as God’s child, but then turns away from the mirror and neglects or forgets God just to follow his or her own desires even by following another person. Following is active, not passive. It is more than mental assent.
James contrasts this forgetful person in verse twenty-five with the person who intently follows God. He said, “But the one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer, but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.” At the beginning of this verse, James says, “The one who looks at the perfect law.” This metaphor contrasts with the person who looks in the mirror in verse twenty-four. This metaphor means to look carefully and inspect curiously so to become acquainted. It means to examine closely to study and know the word of God intending to follow and obey Him. A person, by continuing to gaze in the mirror, the word of God, grows closer to God and becomes more Christlike. That person, by looking at the perfect law, the law of God that needs nothing to be complete and perfect, grows toward perfection in Jesus Christ. That one lives by the law of liberty and is free from the power of sin and death. Temptations become less compelling as the person gets closer to perfection, which only comes through Christ.
Besides continuing to stay and look in the mirror, the word of God, the believer who does not forget his or her face in the mirror abides by the word. The first action of a believer is to accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Savior. The second act is to stay in the word and not turn away from God. Keep growing in the image of Jesus Christ, not neglecting or forgetting God. Remain in Him. The third act is to abide in the perfect law. Abiding requires more than reading, meditating, and learning the word, but acting upon it, living it out in one’s life. These last two things are what James calls being an effectual doer of the word.
Do we have to do things to become Christians? No. Nothing we can ever do would be good enough to erase our sins from us and allow us to be in the presence of Holy God. Yet James says our faith, if genuine, will live out in visible ways our belief in Jesus Christ and the implantation of His Holy Spirit. Our lives will show in our actions and words we stay in the word - we do not turn away and forget God, but stay near to Him and reflect His glory in what we do and say. For that person, James says, “This man will be blessed in what he does.” God will bless the person who lives out his or her faith in Jesus Christ with righteous, just, and loving works. John affirms this teaching, too. John recorded in John 13:17 Jesus’ teaching His disciples about serving other people, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
Has your faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior gone beyond the mental assent stage? Remember, demons believe that God is one and shudder (James 2:19). Even they know Jesus Christ is God’s Son and is the Savior. Are you shallow like the demons and just believe God exists? Or has your faith gone deeper and does it affect your life? Do you stay focused on God and His word? Do you take the word deeply into your being so your actions and words show those of Jesus Christ? Do your actions and words show the righteousness and love of God?
We each must get to the point in our walk with Jesus Christ where we do and become more than a person who assents God and His Son, Jesus Christ, exist. Our belief must show we are effectual doers of the Word and not only hearers who turn away and immediately forget the person we are – a child of God bought with the price of His Son’s blood so we can be sin free and live with Him forever. Are you there yet? Are you a doer and not just a hearer? I urge you to take the time now to recommit your life to God and give more than mental assent. God waits for you.