The Benefits of the Old Testament


I could probably camp in chapter 1 a lot longer than we are going to be able to, because this is an incredibly rich chapter. For example, there is a lot more that we could have said about the subjects of stewardship (vv. 10-11), rewards (v. 12), finding joy in all God's creation and all God's good gifts (James is definitely not an ascetic who feels guilty about enjoying life- I think verse 17 is clear on that); or the subject of our purpose on earth (which is summed up in v. 18 – and I may touch on that at a later time – what it means to be a firstfruits); or steps to conquering anger (vv. 19-20), and even some issues like mercy ministries in this morning's passage which we won't have time to develop. And the reason is that I've been having to evaluate what issues are critical to our congregation's needs, and which issues have we beat to death in previous series, and so there may be issues that we will skip over. But if any of those topics sound like they would be helpful, let me know. Otherwise, I am inclined to skip over them and to move on to chapter 2 next week.

But today I want to give James's brief introduction to the law of God in verses 21-27. What are the benefits of submitting to and persevering in the law of God. It is called the "perfect law of liberty" in verse 25 because there really can be no true liberty apart from God's law. The moment you remove God's law from society you end up with tyranny (and the multiplied increase of all kinds of bureaucratic laws) or you end up with anarchy. Neither one is a very happy place to be. People want freedom from the law, but freedom from God's law automatically puts us into bondage not only to sin, but to man's laws – to legalism. Carl Shoemaker gave me a framed cartoon of two lawyers talking together in front of acres of books representing the IRS code and other laws, and saying, "and to think, that it all started with ten commandments." I think an even more appropriate comment would have stated, "And to think that it all started with rejecting the ten commandments." Law is inescapable. And James will have a lot more to say about that later. But to the degree that we leave the perfect law of liberty, to that extent we leave liberty and embrace imperfect laws.

Before we start, let me make another observation. In case you have been conditioned to be nervous about the book of James like Martin Luther was, it is helpful to know that James is not only the brother of Jesus, and was not only entrusted by Jesus with the care of the church in Jerusalem, but he alludes to Jesus's sayings more than all of Paul's writings put together. He ought to know what the Gospel according to Jesus is. James is saturated in the teaching of Jesus. If you throw out James, you will have to throw out Jesus. Contrary to the thinking of many people, this is an epistle on grace, and grace cannot be understood apart from law. You see, James is doing exactly the same thing with the Old Testament that Jesus did with the Old Testament in the Sermon on the Mount. He was correcting misunderstandings of it and pointing out that no one can keep it apart from grace. It's popular nowadays for Christians to refer to themselves as New Testament Christians. But Paul and James and Peter and Jude know nothing of a Christian who rejects the Old Testament. That's unthinkable to James. It's unthinkable to Jesus. Jesus said in Matthew 5 that we must be people of the Bible, the whole Bible and nothing but the Bible. He even enforced the least of the Old Testament commandments – the commandment of not taking a mother bird with its young, and said that every jot and tittle of the Old Testament continues to be binding upon Christians until heaven and earth pass away. As far as I know, heaven and earth has not yet passed away. Jesus said that anyone who breaks even the least of the Old Testament moral commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus upheld the Old Testament just like James does.

When these verses refer to the word of God (or what chapter 2:8 speaks of as the Scripture), James is referring to something that these Jews already had in their hands. You need to remember from our first sermon that James was the first New Testament book to have been written. So what Word of God do these Jewish believers have in their own hands? It's the Old Testament. What Word of truth was James saved with in verse 18? It was the Old Testament, because no New Testament book had been written yet. The Old Testament needs to be received with meekness and implanted in our hearts (v. 21). The Old Testament is able to save our souls (v. 21b). It's not against salvation. It's able to save our souls. If we fail to follow the Old Testament we deceive ourselves (v. 22). We need to be hearers of the Old Testament and we need to be doers of it (vv. 22-23). We need to continue in the Old Testament laws (v. 25). Just as Old Testament saints are blessed in Deuteronomy 28 for following the law, James promises the same blessing to us in verse 25. And so, even though James is New Testament Scripture, he is indicating that we need to be whole Bible Christians. And there are benefits to us when we do so.

It frees us from the tyranny of man defining sin by giving us a complete definition of righteousness and sin (v. 21a)

The first benefit is that it frees us from the tyranny of man by giving us a complete definition of righteousness and sin. He doesn't have the government define it. He doesn't have parents define it. The first way he defines sin is by using the word "Therefore" in verse 21. That word points back to verse 20 and indicates that sin is in contrast to the righteousness of God – the last phrase of verse 20. In otherwords, God Himself defines sin and righteousness, not man. Second, he defines sin by contrasting it with the word of God in verse 21. Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. If they had not had the Old Testament Scriptures, they would not have been able to define what filthiness and wickedness were. Romans 7:7 says, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." Where did Paul read that? In the Old Testament. 1 John 3:4 says, Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.

How is that a benefit? You might think, "I'd just as soon not know." We'll see in the next point that a knowledge of the law leads to salvation. But a knowledge of the law also keeps away legalism. This means that when your friend tries to make you feel guilty for doing something that God's law gives you freedom to do, your conscience can feel free from that person's condemnation. I spent several years of my youth in a church that was wonderful in many ways, but because it did not define sin by God's word, it became legalistic. You felt condemned if you had a TV, went to movies, grew a beard, played cards or had a glass of wine. If you were a woman, you felt condemned if you wore lipstick, had earrings, wore feminine pants. They said that they were under grace and not under law, but they had added all kinds of unspoken laws of man. And the reason for this is that men always sense the need for law. And so the moment you become antinomian and throw out Biblical law, others laws come sneaking in the back door. It's inevitable. All antinomians are legalists. The Pharisees did away with many Biblical laws in order to uphold their man-made traditions. And Christ cut through that legalism and bondage by raising high the standard of the law of God. That's why verse 25 calls it the perfect law of liberty – it frees us from the legalism of man. It frees us from feelings of shame that the political correct movement tries to impose upon us when we call homosexuality sin. The pc crowd even tries to impose thought control in business and in the university. The further from God's laws we stray, the more burdensome the laws of man will become. And so we need the Old Testament.

But some people think, "But can't we just submit to New Testament law? It's the Old Testament laws that I don't like." The first thing I would say is, "If you are really serious about submitting to New Testament law, you'll submit to the Old Testament too, because the New Testament commands us to do and to teach every jot and tittle of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:19). Matthew 4:4 commands us to live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. 1 John commands us to imitate Christ (1 John). Well, if we imitate Christ, and Christ kept the Old Testament, then we will too.

But I would also point out that you're in deep trouble if you reject the Old Testament moral laws because most issues of ethics would remain totally undefined if we didn't have the Old Testament. The New Testament says very little about moral guidelines for medicine, art, ecology or even who you can marry. On the last subject, the New Testament gives a little guidance. It says that you shouldn't marry your father's wife, and you shouldn't be homosexual, but other than that, it assumes that we know what the Old Testament says. You see, on a whole host of issues, the New Testament was not meant to replace the Old Testament. It was intended to supplement and give a Messianic context to it. And so it is the Word or the Scriptures that these Christians already had in their hands that defines "the righteousness of God" in verse 20 and defines "filthiness and overflow of wickedness" in verse 21. That's a tremendous benefit. It's a freeing benefit. It's one of the things that makes the Old Testament the perfect law of liberty.

It has the power to save our souls (v. 21b)

A second benefit that James ascribes to the Old Testament is that it has the power to save our souls. Now for people who think the Old Testament is legalistic, that is an interesting statement. And, that's exactly what Paul (the apostle of grace) told Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:15. He said, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures [when Timothy was a child, Christ hadn't even died yet, so this is clearly a reference to the Old Testament. "that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures"] which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. People frequently think that because the Old Testament has so much law that it needs to be avoided in our Gospel message. But nothing could be further from the truth. Until people know the bad news of how far off the course they are, they don't even know why they need to get saved. More and more evangelists today are recognizing that the older way of evangelizing by proclaiming the law produces far sounder conversions, greater joy and a far greater appreciation for what the Gospel is. In fact, Paul says that the law is our schoolmaster that leads us to Christ. J. Gresham Machen said:

A new and more powerful proclamation of law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law. As it is, they are turning aside from the Christian pathway; they are turning to the village of Morality, and to the house of Mr. Legality, who is reported to be very skillful in relieving men of their burdens... 'Making Christ Master' in the life, putting into practice 'the principles of Christ' by one's own efforts--these are merely new ways of earning salvation by one's obedience to God's commands. And they are undertaken because of a lax view of what those commands are. [In other words, if you lower the law's demands it becomes achievable and you might try. But you will become a Pharisee. And he goes on...] So it always is: a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace.

But, that obviously assumes a certain attitude on our part toward the Old Testament. If we are convinced that the Old Testament is an empty book, then we will have neither the faith nor the humility to be able to benefit from it. And so, verse 21, last clause, says, and receive [there is faith. Receive] with meekness [there is humility. "receive with meekness] the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. God's Word has a power to change us from the inside out when it is received with faith and humility. Now unfortunately, what happens according to Christ's parable in Luke 8 is that the Word doesn't get implanted. It is cast onto stony ground where it is snatched away by the birds, representing Satan. Jesus said, Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. (Luke 8:12). It wasn't implanted. And Jesus says that Satan does that lest they should believe and be saved. He does everything he can to keep the preached word out of your heart. But when it is received, it is able to save your souls from bondage and all kinds of grief. Never think of the Old Testament as a graceless document. It is rich in law and Gospel. In fact, you canot even understand the Gospel apart from the law.

It has the power to save when it is implanted. This is why you need to work hard at implanting the Word of God in your children. It has a power to change them. This is why you should memorize the Word systematically. It has a power to change you.

It spares us from self-deception (vv. 22-24) by defining reality (v. 23)

Let's go on to the third benefit. It spares us from self-deception by defining reality. Let's read verses 22-24. 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 observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. He likens the Word to a mirror. It shows you the wall, the window. It reflects and describes reality. Most of you would have no idea of how bad you look in the morning if it wasn't for your mirror. You might prefer not to look at your swollen eyes and disheveled hair, but you put up with the truth of the mirror so that you can prepare yourself to not look so scary to the world.

Well, in the same way, God's Word is sometimes uncomfortable. It shows the reality of what we are like and it calls for change. And to change we have to keep looking in it as we adjust our lives. But that image of a mirror I think is so beautiful. It shows the stark reality of what life is like. It defines reality. It keeps us from being deceived about reality. And it does this by giving every axiom we need to be able to provide a foundation for life. As Peter says, it gives us all things that pertain to life and godliness. As Paul says, it gives us sufficient to thoroughly equip us for every good work. And if you look at 2 Timothy 3:15, you will see that the Scriptures which are sufficient to thoroughly equip us are the Scriptures Timothy grew up on – the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

Without the bible, we are in the dark in so many areas. We go down blind alleys in our research, we waste money on humanistic counselors, we think we are better than we are, and when we realize that things are bad, we adopt wrong solutions. Self-deception can only be stopped by the revelation of God. Hebrews 4:12-13 says, For the word of God is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account. Why is it a discerner of the thoughts and intents of our heart – an exposer of our self-deception? Because the one who gives it continues to work through that Word. This is a huge benefit not only in your own sanctification, but in the sanctification of your children. Perhaps there is such lying that you don't know what is up and what is down. In Isaiah 28, in response to those who have said, "We have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood we have hidden ourselves, God responds by saying, I will make justice the measuring line, and righteousness the plummet; the hail will sweep away the refuge of lies… God knows how to uncover self-deception and how to help us to define reality.

It brings both liberty and blessing (v. 25)

The fourth benefit is that the Old Testament brings both liberty and blessing. It wasn't intended to take away our pleasure and make us miserable. It was intended to bless us and make us happy. Verse 25 says, But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. He calls it the perfect law of liberty, and he says that it is something that produces blessing. When God gave the law on Sinai, He had just rescued the children of Israel from the bondage of slavery. They had no liberty whatsoever in Egypt. They had merciless task masters who worked them to death, told them when to sleep, when to eat, what babies lived and what did not. They suffered under the arbitrary laws of men. But they also suffered under the bondage of sin. When God redeemed them, He did not give them lawlessness. Law is inescapable. Instead, he gave them better laws. Laws that produced liberty and that gave them blessings. He gave them ten commandments as boundary posts, and sufficient case laws to show the way that they were to walk in, and within those boundaries gave enormous freedom. It became to them a perfect law of liberty. When they transgressed those laws they became slaves to sin.

I like the illustration of railroad tracks. It is true in one sense that the two tracks that the train runs on are very restrictive, just like the law is very restrictive. But those tracks are for the trains good. And if the train grew restless and frustrated with these restrictions and wanted to jump the tracks so that it could have liberty, it would find the opposite, wouldn't it? It would be mired in the sand and unable to move at all. It would lose its power, its freedom; its speed. Those railroad tracks are the law of God. When we restrict ourselves to the laws for which God made us, and we persevere in following those laws, we find that our lives have liberty, speed, power and usefulness. But when we try to jump the tracks we end up with tragedy and bondage instead of liberty and blessings.

James is saying nothing different than Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 11:26-28 says, Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse; the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you today… Over and over again the Old Testament promised blessings to those who continue in God's laws and curses to those who jumped the railway tracks. Deuteronomy 28 promises blessings upon everything that is governed by the law – blessings on our homes and their relations, on our economics, on our plans, on our child-rearing – everything. But it's not just Deuteronomy.

Psalms 112:1 Praise the LORD!
Blessed is the man who fears the LORD,
Who delights greatly in His commandments.

Psalms 119:1 Blessed are the undefiled in the way,
Who walk in the law of the LORD!

That's a blessing. Revelation 22:14 says, Blessed are those who do His commandments, The whole Sermon on the Mount shows the blessings and joy and the happiness that comes upon those who are law keepers. So if you have been taught that the Old Testament is a bondage we have been rescued from, remember that it was the Bible of this Jewish church, and it was the perfect law of liberty that ushers us into untold blessings.

It exposes useless religion (vv. 26-27) and defines pure and undefiled religion (v. 27)

Lastly, the Old Testament helps to expose useless religion and helps to define pure and undefiled religion. If a person didn't have the Bible and was told to bridle his tongue, he might not know quite what to do. What's wrong with my tongue? I like it. It doesn't bother me. If a person is told to have a practical Christianity that affects culture, he might not quite know where to start. In fact, a lot of New Testament Christians who have gotten involved in politics have been socialistic and have been affecting culture in grossly unbiblical ways. And yet Christians vote for them because they are Christians. But the problem is, they are carnal or worldly in their wisdom. Without the Old Testament to define what our tongue should say, we are left without a standard. There are over 1000 Old Testament passages that give us helpful guidance on the tongue – over 1000. Proverbs says a ton about the tongue all by itself. There are tons of Scriptures which speak about the specific ways in which to visit the orphan and widow. This commandment to visit them is presuming you will do it in a biblical fashion, not a socialistic fashion. James doesn't have to reiterate thousands of Old Testament passages to define what it means in the last phrase to keep oneself unspotted from the world. That has to have definition to mean anything. And James throughout this book is directing their attention to the word that they have in their hands.

Much of evangelicalism has a useless religion because it defines the bridle for our tongue by humanism, and defines mercy ministries by socialism, and defines unspotted by the world by principles of avoidance rather than principles of adherence to Scripture. Old & New Testament Scriptures are bit and bridle on our mouth that verse 26 refers to. They guide and direct our speech.

And if the lips and social action and hearts of modern Christians would once again be guided by the whole Bible, we would have a church that would turn the world upside down. Part of our calling in Omaha is to encourage the church of Jesus Christ and all Christians to return to the use of James' Bible – the Old Testament. I urge you to embrace the Old Testament and encourage others to do so. Amen.

The Benefits of the Old Testament is part of the James series published on November 30, 2003

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