In my yearly Bible reading, I am using the NIV (New International Version) Bible, and today I read the Epistle of James. Most translations present this as slightly different, but the NIV got me thinking about James 1:20-21:
“because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
I have not included verse 19 because it distracts from the thought that I got out of this (you can read the full chapter for context). The NIV also puts verse 21 at the end of a paragraph with verses 19 and 20, while other translations have verse 21 begin a new paragraph. That can also influence how the two verses I’m quoting impact the meaning.
Notice that the last phrase of verse 19 reads, “the righteousness that God desires.” And there’s my first thought. Sometimes we focus so much on grace that we neglect righteousness. Yet this verse clearly states (in the NIV) that God desires righteousness. (Other versions also speak to righteousness, but we must meditate more on the passage to see that this is what God desires from us.)
It is our character that produces or does not produce the kind of righteousness that God desires. In this specific case, James was writing about anger; and we’re more familiar with verse 19 – being quick to listen and slow to anger. But James seems to be working from the specific to the general – from anger to righteousness.
Then comes the “therefore.” Many of us know that when we see “therefore” we should look back to see “what’s it’s there for.” When the NIV puts verses 19, 20, and 21 together in one paragraph, it’s easier to see the connection between the righteousness God desires and the direction that James gives us in verse 21.
In this case, it’s a two-fold direction. To “get rid of moral filth and the [prevalent] evil and humbly accept the word.” God wants more than a believer who listens well and doesn’t get angry. God wants us to be righteous. We spend so much time making a point about righteousness by itself does not save us, that we tend to ignore that God does want us to be righteous.
But one of my major thoughts about this passage is whether we can do one part of the directive (or command) with doing the other. Can we “accept the word” without getting rid of filth and evil? Some of us come dangerously close to the idea that we don’t have to make any changes, because God loves us and all we have to do is accept what the Bible says about His love for us.
Here’s why that is important. Verse 21 ends with the statement, “which can save you” (the NASB reads, “which can save your soul.”) We tend to want to exclude the getting rid of evil portion and focus solely on accepting the word. But they go together.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the idea of “cheap grace,” a grace that accepts the good news without any life change. I would expound on his thinking that this life change is not feeling better about myself because God loves me. This life change is a continual change in my character that is becoming more and more like Jesus Christ.
I choose the picture above that help me understand what following James’ two-fold directive looks like. With an open hand, I want to reach toward the word that has been planted in me – to accept it. Yet to accept the word, I must let go of other things; in this case, moral filth and evil. When I do both, I can be confident that this action is able to save me.