You have had a long day at work. The boss has been breathing down your neck. Merging on to the freeway, a semi-truck refuses to let you on, bringing you almost to a stop. Then when you get home, the first thing you walk into is the children fighting. You unload on them. They stare in wild disbelief as you dress them up and down, for fighting over a toy. This is not discipline—this anger unhinged. It wasn’t them per se; it was everything. Maybe it’s not a child, maybe its a spouse or a roommate. Whatever the case often when provoked, our response is driven by anger.
James, like proverbs or other wisdom literature, is concerned with our behavior—how we live in the world as Christians. In our text today from James 1:19–21, James is going to introduce three ethical topics and then take the next several verses to explain what he means. We are going to slow down and take three weeks to cover these. The first of James’ ethical topics is anger. James wants us to see that our communal behavior should conform to the righteousness of God. That is because God is righteous, we must be righteous as a community. To do this, James says We must be slow to anger, and we must instead be meek.
James 1:19–21 (ESV) — 19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
We must be slow to anger
So in v. 19, James gives us a proverb-like statement ending with the command to be slow to anger. Then in v. 20, he explains what he means by being slow to anger. In a very terse sentence that gets right to the point, James says man’s anger does not produce the righteousness of God. Now, as you may know, there is a lot of debate amongst scholars over the term righteousness of God. There are two main ways that we can read that. First, it could mean: “The righteousness produced by God” Or, Secondly, it could be mean: “The righteousness for, or towards, God.” Given the context, it is best to take this as the latter, mainly because the verb James uses means: “to bring about a result by doing something” (BDAG). James then means that it is not possible to bring about the righteousness that God requires by our anger.
Take the simple illustration that I used in the introduction. What kind of results does that kind of conflict produce? In the end, do we have a relationship that is sustainable, that is glorifying to God? Do we have a relationship that produces the righteousness of God? Obviously, the answer is no. We have a father at enmity with his children, and children, as we learned last week, imitate the behavior of their parents. So now these children have learned that when you are provoked, this is the way you respond.
When we use anger as a tool in our relationships, we cannot, we simply cannot produce the kind of community that is marked by the righteousness of God. But we often justify our anger—I mean, doesn’t the Bible say: Be angry…in Eph 4:26. Yes, it does, we love that verse, but we struggle to follow what Pauls says next, “Be angry and do not sin.” If you took many of the NT scriptures that speak about anger and compiled them into a list of do’s and don’ts, it would read something like this.
You can be angry if:
- You don’t sin;
- We don’t go to sleep with it;
- It is anger from God;
- It achieves righteousness;
- It comes slowly.
Does your anger fit that list, I know mine rarely does—but I’m quick to justify it. James says anger cannot produce the righteousness of God, not in any way contradicting other texts that maintain that there is such thing as righteous anger. Still, as wisdom literature often does, James speaks in very stark concrete, black and white terms—as in generally man’s anger does not produce the righteousness of God. In a sense, James is saying it is highly unlikely that your anger is producing the righteousness of God. In that way, he does not remove the possibility for us to burn with anger over the abortion of untold millions of unborn children; or at the ever-growing sex-trade industry fueled by our insatiable appetite for pornography; or the growing opioid overdose epidemic that is sweeping across America.
However, there is an anger at these issues that goes too far like the person angry over abortion who murders an abortion doctor. The point James is making is not that there is never a time for anger, but that when it comes to the ethical demeanor of the community, we should not be a community marked by anger.
The point is that when you lash out in anger at your child for misbehaving; or you yell in anger at your husband for not picking up his socks off the floor; or you yell expletives at the driver next to you who is refusing to let you merge onto the freeway—I know, I know, like me, your probably the best driver that has ever driven on God’s green earth—its everyone else that is to blame. But James warns us anger cannot produce the righteousness of God. Because God is Righteous, we, too, must be righteous as a community. We do that by being slow to anger. But how do we do that, how do we be slow to anger. We do that by being meek.
We must be meek
Look with me at v. 21 as we answer the question How? James gives two ways to be slow to speak, Putting away…and receiving with meekness… Let’s look first at what we should put off:
Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness… Similar to Paul’s injunction to put of the old man with its characteristic works of the flesh, James warns the saints that a part of your sanctification must be a constant putting away—a continual dying to sin. As the famous quote from John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin goes: “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.“
The Westminster shorter catechism #88 says
What is Repentance unto life?
Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after new obedience.
James is calling us to remove all filthiness and rampant wickedness. It conjures up images of removing filthy clothing after working or playing in the mud. How many have seen those anti-smoking commercials? There was one that showed a beautiful woman smoking, then as the camera pans around, she is blocked by a tree, then when she comes back into view, she looks like a blackened, crispy corpse that is smoking a cigarette. The caption says, “what if your outside looked like your inside.” The premise of much of the anti-smoking commercials is to get people to see the serious effects of what they are doing to their bodies. What if we could see how sinful we were, all the filthiness and rampant wickedness. Would you not work harder to put away—the trouble is we often don’t see the effects of sin.
James, along with the testimony of scripture is clear; it is not just a dying unto sin that is needed but a living unto Christ. You see apart from the sovereign work of the Spirit—in uniting us to Christ—we are like smokers who have no idea what smoking is doing to their body, and we remain willfully ignorant. But as we are effectually called, We are enabled to see our sin for what it is—to see the odiousness of it and see the filthiness and rampant wickedness of it in ourselves. While we get sense and sight of our sinfulness and our lost condition, at the same time—we see Christ. We see the glory and majesty of the incarnate Son of God, who for us became sin—so that we might become the righteousness of God. He draws near to you in your filthiness and says, come to me, I have washed you clean. He is not only the one who paid the penalty for your sin, but he also provides your righteousness—by his perfect life, and his atoning sacrificial death. And if by faith, you have trusted Christ for your salvation, then because of your union with Christ, you are right now seated with Christ in the heavens. You partake in all the benefits that are his—namely justification, adoption, and sanctification, along with all the several benefits which in this life to accompany and flow from these.
So James says put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your soul. Receiving with meekness the implanted word refers to our regeneration—our having been born again, it refers to our reception of the Holy Spirit, it refers to the Word of God who is active an present enabling us to grow in holiness. So even as James is writing within what we might call the wisdom genre, he is not saying anything different then what Paul would later write in Col 3:8–10:
Colossians 3:8–10 (ESV) — 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
Put off the old man with its characteristic works of anger, and put on the new man with its characteristics of meekness. The text literally says in meekness receive the implanted word, and that word meekness is in contrast to the anger of man. An attitude of meekness should characterize our reception of the Word. Calvin says this word means “the readiness of a mind disposed to learn.”
How do you approach scripture? Are you receiving it in meekness? Or are you to often left unchanged from your reading. Do you find that you stand in judgment over the word of God instead of standing under the word—do you allow scripture to convict you of sin. You know what I mean when you hastily come to read the word, or like so many Christians, they are content with “a verse a day.” Now I’m not saying that you have to read ten chapters a day—what I am asking is what’s your attitude like when you do come. Many of us spend lots of time preparing meals, we take all the time, and spend lots of money, to eat good food, but our souls are starved, and we are skipping meals—hoping that our meal on Sunday might get us through to next Sunday.
Or how about preaching? Do you come because its what you’ve always done, it’s your habit? But half the time you can’t remember the sermon after you get in your car. Are you receiving the word with meekness? Do you prepare your hearts for worship on the Lord’s day? We know well in advance what the sermon text will be, do you take the time to meditate on it before coming to worship. Do pray through the text and ask God to work through the preaching of the word to change you.
We often are characterized by anger more than by meekness simply because we refuse to allow the word to have its work on us. It is possible to be heavily involved in church, volunteer for every program, serve on every ministry, and not receive the word with meekness. There is no harder sin to root out, to put away than self-righteousness. The danger of being a Pharisee is that you don’t know your one—you don’t see it because you have carefully set yourself at a distance from the Word—you keep it at arm’s length you make sure it knows that your boss. No one is better at this than me. I can be working through a section in Paul in Greek and writing a sermon on the wonderful truths—but I can have no joy in it. It’s just another paper that needs to get done. I stand here over against the Word, and I judge it, instead of putting myself under the word and allowing it to judge me.
James is speaking to Christians here, and these things he has prescribed are able to save your souls. But they are not once and done. There is a continual putting away of filthiness and a continual receiving afresh the Word in meekness. These things must be characteristically true for you and me if we are to be the kind of community that is righteous.
Psychologists tell us that because our emotions belong to our personality, they are impossible to change. They say that we can only suppress or ignore them. But that is not at all consistent with what scripture teaches. Scripture calls us to be conformed to Christ; we are to be like him—because he is the perfect human being because he is the God-man, one person, two distinct natures. And he demonstrates for us what being truly human should look like because he embodies all the perfections of the godhead. He is righteous in all that he does, so too are we to be righteous. And our community is to be marked by those same qualities, for we are the body of Christ.
James has shown that because God is righteous, we must be righteous as a community. We must be slow to anger, and we must be meek. James has shown us what not to do and what to do.