In the book of James, a very practical book, we have a very practical command: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22). Or, as the ESV puts it, “Be doers of the word.” James urges people who listen to God’s Word to demonstrate a sincere commitment to the Lord by reacting to what they hear with obedient action.
The original language gives the sense that we must “keep on becoming” doers of God’s Word. Genuine faith calls for obedience that endures. Doers of the Word are the opposite of Sunday morning Christians who go to church, sit and listen to a message, and then view it as merely an interesting spiritual discourse. Jesus said that only doers of the Word are truly blessed: “But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice” (Luke 11:28, NLT).
James stresses the need to act on what we hear. He says we are fooling ourselves if we think we can be hearers only and not doers of the Word as well. People who sincerely love God are those who keep His commands (John 14:15; 1 John 5:2–3). God desires those who hear His Word to become authentic followers of Jesus, disciples who obey the Lord’s teaching because they know and love their heavenly Father (John 14:23–24).
Jesus gave a stern warning to people who hear the words of God but don’t act on them: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’ Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. It collapsed with a great crash” (Matthew 7:21–27, CSB).
James underscores his command to be doers of the Word with two illustrations, one negative and one positive. In both cases, he uses the idea of a mirror: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (James 1:23–24, ESV). In this first example, James compares an apathetic listener of the Word to someone who looks carefully at himself, but then walks away and forgets. He disregards what he saw, letting it drop from his mind. This isn’t just lazy listening. It’s listening without any real faith. The Word may enter the person’s ear, but the power of it does not penetrate to the heart.
In James’ second example, he describes a listener who hears and absorbs God’s Word, taking it into his heart and letting it change his life: “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25, ESV). The active listener is one who hears with genuine faith. This listener is alert and eager to learn from God’s message. He or she wants to receive from God and do what He says.
Jesus affirmed that God’s Word is the perfect law that produces liberty: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32, ESV; see also verse 36). Obedience to the Word of God brings freedom from sin and death (Romans 5:19; 6:11–23; Galatians 3:23—4:7; 5:13–14).
The Word of God is not just a beautiful piece of literature to be savored and enjoyed. Its purpose goes beyond provoking thought and inviting meditation. It requires more than memorization and sharing with others. It demands a change of heart that prompts a change of behavior. The Word of God is to be obeyed.