How God’s Word Can Make You More Whole

by David Gibson, contributed by our Friends at Crossway
| Time: 11 Minutes

James 1:19–27 speaks to us directly and lovingly about the problem of our split personalities. We’ve been wrestling with our genuine love for God and the strong pull in totally different directions. The diagnosis on offer here is very deep because it reaches right into the core of our identities, but there is also a cure on offer that is beautifully simple. There is a way to be whole, one person, inside and outside. And it is all to do with our attitude toward the Bible.

How the Bible Defines Wholeness

The solution is this: do God’s Word. Do it. That book sitting there beside you on your desk or on your lap or on your phone: take note of what it says, do what it says, and you will be whole. You will find parts of your personality fusing together, parts of your divided heart coming together, your loves dissolving from two into one. A well-known sports clothing brand tells us to “just do it,” and that works as a strikingly simple incentive to get the life you always wanted. James puts it the same way. Just do the Bible.

If you’re like me, the word that stands out in the title of this book (Radically Whole) is “whole.” We intuitively sense the beauty of being complete. But because we are looking at James, the word “radically” serves a very important purpose too. It comes from the Latin word radicalis, which means “root.” Over time, root became a metaphor to describe the very origin of a thing, the most fundamental part of it.

We now talk about “root and branch” reform of an institution, and we would call such change “radical” because it is so very comprehensive. James is not interested in superficial wholeness, the kind that comes from a great night’s sleep or a relaxing holiday, as nice as these are. His kind of wholeness is root-and-branch radical. He wants to get to its very essence and to startle us with the surprise of how such wholeness comes about.

Life with God is not always easy. Even in some of our joys and triumphs it can be difficult to follow Christ. So, life on the narrow way to glory may not be easy, but neither is it complicated. In essence, it is radically simple: do this and you will live.

You want to get better? Stop smoking. Lose weight. Stop drinking. It might be agonizingly hard, of course, but the right thing to do is simple. And really, in some ways, it is the simplicity that needs to shock us as we look at this passage. As his portrait of a truly flourishing life continues to take shape, James is clear, to quote commentator Richard Bauckham, that “purity of heart is not inactive inwardness. It is the inwardness that is consistently expressed in every action.”[1]

How God’s Word Can Make You More Whole

In these verses there are three clear pictures: what the Bible is, how we should respond to it, and what it does. The Bible is an implanted word; it is a revealing mirror; it is a freeing law. I will sketch the outline of these pictures and then suggest a wide range of applications.

Receive God’s Implanted Word

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21 ESV)

Implanting things in the body can save it. The pacemaker to regulate the heart. The plate to fuse the bone. The stent into the artery to allow the blood to flow freely. But did you know that implanting the Bible can save you? The Word of God, implanted in your heart, in your bones, in your very being, can save you.

I don’t think James is making a general point here about being quick to hear each other’s words so that anger doesn’t rise up. That is true, of course, and we all know that with two ears and only one mouth, we’re meant to use the double set more than the single piece. But here I think James is talking about hearing God’s Word, because in James 1:20 the kind of anger we let overflow doesn’t lead to the righteousness of God. So, if we want to be like God, we should “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word” (James 1:21). Be quick to hear that word, God’s Word, “which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). You want to have a place in the new creation? You need an implant. You need something living grafted into you, poured into you, rooted in you, planted in you: the Word of God. Remember what Jesus said about himself in parable form: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow” (Mark 4:3). He went out to implant.

This means that James is asking us to do an input/output self-evaluation. The verbs required of the believer here are passive: receive, take, accept the Word; we depend on the input of God’s Word to us. But what do we love doing instead? Output. It’s how we roll: by the output of words, anger, and activity unguided by the necessary input.

Look in God’s Revealing Mirror

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. (James 1:22–23 ESV)

At this point we are meant to notice the deliberate shift from input to output, from hearing to doing.

Many years ago, I had coffee with a man who looked like he’d been dragged through a hedge backward. I didn’t know him, and it was the first time we had ever met, but I had to tell him that his sweater was on inside out and back to front. It was very embarrassing. He explained that he and his wife had just had a baby! (I smiled, but I remember still thinking to myself, “Who does that?” It took several years before I was in the same position, and then I knew exactly who does things like that!) Immediately, he turned his sweater the right way out and fixed his appearance. But imagine if my sleep-deprived acquaintance had simply thanked me for my observation and carried on into the rest of his day completely indifferent to how he looked.

Imagine looking in the mirror in the morning and seeing what you’re like, seeing what needs fixing: the stubble to be shaved off, the makeup to be applied, or the hair to be combed. Imagine going away and ignoring what the mirror reveals. Who does that? Who listens to the Bible, hears it, understands what God is saying, and goes away and doesn’t do what he says?

We would never do that, would we?

  • Put away “all filthiness and rampant wickedness” (James 1:21)— who would ignore that?
  • “Visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27)—don’t we all do that?
  • “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers” (James 4:11)—ever done that?

Do you see the point James is making? It is not easy, but it is so clear. When we listen but do not do, it is just like the woman who sees the greasy hair and the cereal on the cardigan and just carries on through the day regardless. To be spiritually whole, we must listen to God. And to be spiritually whole, we must not only listen. We must do.

We have seen already how profoundly influenced James is by the Jewish Shema. Luke Cheung notes that, “significantly, the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 begins with the call to hear, and then proceeds with the call to act in love.”[2] The way of wholeness incorporates hearing and doing, like two sides of a coin. To have hearing only and not doing—to hear who God is and not respond with appropriate action—is utterly nonsensical for James. And in Deuteronomy 6:6–8 the immediate action that follows hearing is the call to place God’s words in our hearts, then to teach them, then to talk about them, then to bind them to our bodies and to write them on the property we own. In other words, it is a call to the action of doing God’s Word.

We think that if we want to be whole, maybe God has to touch our hearts or change our hearts. Both are true, of course. But James is saying here in black and white that if you want to be whole, you also need to do what the Bible says. That is actually one of the ways God touches and changes our hearts.

Persevere with God’s Freeing Law

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)

Notice how James gives the Bible another name at this point: “the perfect law, the law of liberty.” When you look in the Bible and listen to it, you’re not just seeing who you are, as in a mirror, but you’re seeing who God is, coming face-to-face with his character, his loves, his standards, his law. That is what law does: it reveals the nature of the one who gives it.

“Don’t play in the traffic” is an excellent law. It values life above death for both pedestrians and commuters. It protects the life of individuals and the well-being of communities. Every law that God gives is like that: perfect. Do not murder; do not covet; do not commit adultery; honor your mother and father; remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. These are moral imperatives that reveal a perfect God, and a perfect life too, if only we could live it.

For this reason, James amplifies “perfect law” with this lovely phrase: “the law of liberty” (James 1:25). Of course, nearly always we think it’s the opposite. Surely laws restrict freedom, hamper my independence, stop me doing something? If a law is perfect, however, then the only way to be free is to live within it. That a fish belongs in water might be a law of nature, but it is also a law of liberty, for it sets the fish free to live in accordance with its nature. So, when the parent opens the door to three-year-old Jack at seven in the morning and says, “Off you go, run, be free: be all that you were meant to be! Maybe we’ll see you at dinner tonight,” well, it might look like freedom, but only of a perverse kind. No law is given to the child in that situation, but this gift of freedom is, in fact, abuse and neglect. Even the most radical libertarian would agree that this is freeing Jack to experience harm.

When God speaks to us in his law and tells us how to live, what to do and what not to do, these are commands given in accordance with both our nature and his nature, and they are only ever given for our flourishing. They are laws that set us free to be all that we were meant to be as creatures in his world in relationship with him. The Book of Common Prayer beautifully describes God as the one “whose service is perfect freedom.” It is why, in being the most obedient man who ever lived, the Lord Jesus was also the most free man who ever lived. In our human wisdom, however, we so often cut ourselves loose from the law of the Lord and ignore him. We love writing our own laws. Pretty quickly, we find that when we do this, we are not set free but in fact enslaved, held captive to whoever has the most power, the most money, the biggest army, or the most controlling government.

Now, it is one thing when the world cuts itself loose from God’s law, and of course we see this all the time. Not long ago, a Dutchman sued his government to be allowed to change his age from sixty-nine to forty-nine. His argument was that we can change our names and our gender, so why couldn’t he decide his own age? Well, it is one thing when people who don’t know God refuse to look into the law of liberty, but that is not the tragedy in James’s crosshairs here—it is when God’s people stop persevering in looking into his law of liberty. We have the Bible; we love his Word; we look in the mirror—and we ignore it. There are few greater tragedies in life than this, for acting on God’s Word by doing what it says is the only route to living in the power and blessing for which we have been created: “but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25 ESV). Doing the Word makes you flourish. It will make you content. Whole. Righteous. The posture of the believer is to delight in the law of the Lord, both day and night (Psalm 1:2).[3]

So, the Bible is like a seed implanted inside you which can grow and give life. It is like a mirror that can tell you the truth about yourself and show you what you need to do. The Bible can set you free and give you the kind of life that is blessed by God.

. . .


[1] Richard Bauckham, James (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 167.

[2] Luke Leuk Cheung, The Genre, Composition and Hermeneutics of the Epistle of James (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 190 (italics added).

[3] See the lovely treatment of this in Scott Redd, The Wholeness Imperative: How Christ Unifies Our Desires, Identity and Impact in the World (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2018), chap. 2.

Content taken from Radically Whole by David Gibson, ©2023. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
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