Christians often struggle to distinguish Christian obedience from its legalistic counterparts. What makes godly obedience different from the moralistic efforts of non-Christians? The apostle James offers us an important window into the particular quality of Christian obedience. It comes in the first chapter of his letter:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 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. 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 1:22–25)
James contrasts doing the Word with being a mere hearer. Hearing without doing, he says, is like looking at your face in a mirror and then walking away and forgetting what you look like. In other words, “hearing” equals looking in the mirror, and “not doing” equals walking away and forgetting. Simply hearing the Word isn’t the same as obeying it. If all you do is hear, with no doing, you’re kidding yourself. You’re self-deceived. There must be something more.
Now the key question is: What’s the “something more”? Is it just our self-wrought efforts? Or is there something distinctive in Christian obedience? According to James, the “something more” is looking in the right mirror and doing what you see. The right mirror is the law of liberty, what James also calls the Word of truth by which we’re born again (1:18), the implanted Word that saves us (1:21), and the royal law of liberty (2:8–12). In other words, the mirror that we should look carefully into is the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, understood in light of the good news of King Jesus. That’s the Word that we’re to do—which means, Christian obedience is a kind of “gospel-doing.”
Now what does that mean?
Gospel-Doing as Good Pretending
The gospel-doer looks into the mirror of the royal law of liberty. He sees himself reflected in the living and abiding Word of God. Doing the Word, or “gospel-doing,” means that you look to Jesus and to yourself in Jesus for the strength and supply for all of your deeds. You have been raised with Christ. You’re seated with him in the heavenlies (Eph. 2:5–6). Your life is hidden with Christ in God. One day, when he appears, you also will appear with him in glory. Your true self, the fullness of who and what God made you to be, will be revealed and made manifest. But for now it’s hidden (Col. 3:1–3).
Gospel-doing means that you see yourself in the royal law and then you live into that vision. You look into that mirror, and you do what you see. This is more than just moral exemplarism. It’s not simply “What would Jesus do?” That’s often too abstract and distant to be of much use. It’s, “What would I do, if I were full of Jesus?”
It’s not simply ‘What would Jesus do?’ That’s often too abstract and distant to be of much use. It’s, ‘What would I do, if I were full of Jesus?’
C. S. Lewis called this “good pretending,” and it’s one of the ways we use our imagination to further our holiness. Bad pretending is simply hypocrisy. It’s when we pretend to be something we’re not. Good pretending is when we practice being who we already are in Christ legally and positionally, and who we one day will be in Christ morally and perfectly. Good pretending isn’t hypocrisy; it’s a Spirit-led attempt at consistency. Bad pretending is a substitute for reality. Good pretending is when the pretense leads up to the reality. It’s what children do when they pretend to be grown up so that they can grow up. And it’s what Christians do, in our pilgrim condition, when we’re told to do the Word.
Practically speaking, it works like this: Imagine what you’d be like if you really did experience deep, gospel renewal. If you really believed that the living God was for you and that he would meet all of your needs. That you didn’t need to use people to get what you want, because you know God accepts and approves and embraces you, and so you overflow with his kind of love. Imagine that version of yourself, the one who is free and happy and stable and full of love. Now take that imaginary you and put him in the situations of your life. What would that imaginary, gospel-you do? If you really did love God deeply from the heart, and if you really did love your neighbor sincerely, what would you do?
When you have the answer, ask for God’s help and then go and do it (even if you suspect your motives are mixed). In other words, do the deeds of love even when (some of) the substance is lacking. Don’t wait for your motives to be fully pure. Repent of your impure motives, sinful preferences, and spiritual apathy. Look at yourself in the mirror of the gospel, the liberating law of King Jesus. See what you are in light of the good news. Now don’t walk away and forget. Remember. Persevere in that vision of yourself in Christ. Walk away and do what you saw, even if you don’t fully feel what you saw. And, James says, you will be blessed in your doing.
That’s what it means to “do the Word.” For the rest of your life, be a doer—a gospel-doer—of the Word.
Two Case Studies in Gospel-Doing
The concept may still be somewhat abstract, and as any mason will tell you, concrete makes a sure foundation. To really understand “doing the Word,” we must see it in the concrete situations we’ll face throughout our lives. I’ve chosen two to lay the foundation.
How do we face success as a gospel-doer of the Word? When everything we touch turns to gold? The family flourishes, the ministry is fruitful, the job is fulfilling, and our hearth and home is happy. When that happens, we’re tempted to boast—to lord it over others, either by flaunting it outright, or finding subtle Christian ways to remind everyone of our success. Instead of looking into the mirror of the royal law, we collect mirrors. In fact, we turn other people into mirrors for our glory. We build kingdoms for ourselves built on the praise of others, or the envy of others, or the admiration of others. We derive a twisted sense of pleasure in provoking people to want the life we have (and a further sense of satisfaction that they can’t have it).
For the rest of your life, be a doer—a gospel-doer—of the Word.
So when God forces us to face fruitfulness and success, what should we do? We should do the Word. We should look into the royal law of liberty and ask ourselves, “What do we have that we did not receive? And if we received it, why would we boast as though we did it ourselves?” (1 Cor. 4:7). We must remember that life doesn’t consist in the abundance of our possessions, or the wealth of our accomplishments (Luke 12:15). That it’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom (and that there are more kinds of wealth than money) (Matt. 19:23; 1 Tim. 6:6). We must remember that Paul treats facing plenty and abundance as a challenge (Phil. 4:12).
In our success, it’s far too easy to say, “I can do all things through wealth which strengthens me.” It’s hard to be fruitful and successful in such a way that shows that our strength comes from Christ alone, and not our wealth. We must always remember what defines us: “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10). And in that understanding of ourselves, we do the Word.
Other People’s Success
On the other hand, sometimes we don’t succeed. Our dreams don’t come true. We watch other people move farther up and farther in to our hopes and dreams. The friend gets the job. The rival gets the promotion. Someone else has the golden opportunity. We watch our friends get married, and feel the ache of being left out. Or we get married and watch our friends have children, and feel the ache of being left out. Or we go into ministry, and watch a neighboring church flourish while ours languishes. Someone else’s platform is raised, and our neck hurts from looking up so often.
We see ourselves in light of God’s glad-hearted embrace of us in Christ, and we do the Word when others succeed.
And when that happens, what should we do? We should do the Word. We must not allow their success to be our stumbling block. We can’t receive their blessings as a personal wound. We must resist the poison of envy and rivalry (Matt. 20:15). We must put to death malice and bitterness. As we look into the law of liberty, we remember that God’s kindness knows no bounds. It will take him an eternity to pour out all of his blessings on us. And so we can bless God for the blessings of others.
The imaginary gospel-you in the mirror of God’s Word—that person rejoices in the fruitfulness, success, and blessing of others. The gospel-you revels in God’s grace on other people, especially those who succeed in things that you care about. The gospel-you overflows with gratitude for others’ gifts. And so we see ourselves in light of God’s glad-hearted embrace of us in Christ, and we do the Word when others succeed.
So in our successes and in our (temporary) failures, may we all have the grace to look deeply into the royal law of liberty, to see ourselves in Christ, and with his help, do the Word.