“For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” (James 1:23-25)
Here James describes the condition of a man who has heard the word of God but has not put that word into active practice in his life. The “forgetful hearer” is depicted as a man who has beheld his natural face in a glass (a mirror) but has forgotten the reflection that he originally saw – what manner of man he was before the grace of God changed his life. We must never forget the condition that God has brought us from if we are to properly serve him in discipleship during our lives.
This glass, or mirror, is described in v.25 as “the perfect law of liberty”. Paul makes a similar reference to a glass in 2 Cor. 3:18 where we behold “in a glass the glory of God”. When we look into the “mirror” of the holy and righteous character and the glory of God, we need to not forget what the proper reflection is because we are beholding our “natural face”. In comparison to the holy nature of God, man’s natural face is utterly corrupted and in our natures, we are fallen and sinful. Our righteousnesses are still only filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6) and man in his best state is still altogether vanity (Ps. 39:5). Paul saw the proper reflection of his natural face in the mirror of God’s holiness, “For I know that in me (that is in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (Rom. 7:18). Paul understood that in his fallen nature (in his flesh), there was no good thing for him to hang his hat upon or to boast in; he couldn’t even find out how to “perform good” in his flesh. That’s because man in his nature, “there is none that doeth good, no not one” (Rom. 3:12). That led Paul to exclaim later in that chapter, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24) Paul saw the wretchedness of his natural face and his inability to measure up and stand before a holy God. However, in conclusion, Paul placed his hope of acceptance before God in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Rom. 7:25). This underscores the necessity of the gospel for the child of God who sees himself in such a wretched condition because just as Paul came to the end of himself in v.24, he is in despair because he sees no hope of his salvation or his deliverance. Then, the gospel gives that burdened child of God the message that Paul came to in v.25, that our only hope of salvation is not in me, but in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Isaiah also looked into this mirror of God’s holiness and glory when the Shekinah glory of God filled the temple (Isaiah 6:1-13). Isaiah also properly saw his natural face when he was in the presence of the manifest glory of God, which led him to say “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). That is the proper reaction anytime we look into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty of God’s glory. We can no longer stand; we fall down on our faces in the presence of the glory of God. Just as David said when confronted with his sin, “my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3). Our sinfulness and falling short of God’s standard of righteousness should always be the reflection we see of our natural face in contrast to the mirror of God’s holiness.
While that mirror may portray the proper reflection, our perception of our natural face can be skewed in our own eyes to where we think we look better than we do. Our vision of the reflection that we see in that mirror needs to be accurate as well. We are prone to look at our reflection with “rose-colored glasses” and in our own mind improve our perception of what we see in that mirror. The reflection that the church at Laodicea saw of themselves was that they were “rich, increased with goods, and have need of nothing”. In contrast, the actual reflection of their natural face was that they were “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). God corrected their overly glamourous view of themselves by his rebuke in that letter to the church. Also, we can have sinfulness in our own eyes that can distort our vision of ourselves as well. In Matt. 7:3-5, Jesus rebukes those who are judging others while still having a beam in their own eyes. If someone has a spiritual 2×4 in their eye, then their vision is certainly too distorted to see clearly to accurately assess a mote (a speck of sawdust) in the eyes of another. However, “first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5). If we get the beam out of our own eye, then certainly we can see more clearly to properly and accurately assess ourselves and others.
Our vision can certainly be distorted in our own view, but we can also be looking in the entirely wrong mirror. A mirror should reflect accurately what is in the mirror, so we have to be sure we are looking into the “right mirror” to get the “right reflection”. If we look into the perfect law of liberty, we should always see our sinfulness and failure to measure up to God’s holy standard in the reflection. If we don’t want to come to grips with our accurate reflection, we might seek out a mirror that distorts the reality a little bit. There are some mirrors that are known as “skinny mirrors” that make you look better than you actually are. If we judge our reflection, not against God’s holiness but against others around us, we can easily come to a faulty conclusion of our own righteousness. “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12). If we look out others for our comparison, we will inevitably find someone who’s acting worse than we are and compared to them, we don’t look too bad in that mirror. There are plenty of wicked people or disobedient children of God in this world that if we compare ourselves to them, we might look pretty good or at least not as poor as we really are. However, God says it is “not wise” to measure ourselves by the standard of other people but rather our standard is God’s holiness. “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:15-16).
Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10-14) gives the contrast of the distorted view of the Pharisee’s natural face, but the accurate reflection that the publican saw in the mirror of God. The Pharisee had a much higher view of himself than he should have; he certainly viewed himself through “rose-colored glasses”, naming off his own perceived spiritual resume in the parable. He also judged his own righteousness by comparing himself to “this publican” (the wrong mirror altogether). In the Pharisee’s view, he was much more righteous in comparison to this dishonest publican. Clearly, the Pharisee’s perception of his own righteousness was incorrect and highly overvalued; he seems to truly view himself as a righteous man. In stark contrast, the publican saw his reflection in the mirror of God’s holiness perfectly accurate – he knew he was a sinner. He was so convicted by his sin that he saw in this mirror, that he knew his only hope of salvation, the only hope for a sinner as wretched as me is the mercy of God. “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” He saw his wretchedness so clearly that he concluded his only hope of salvation had to be through God (which was the same reaction and conclusion that Paul had in Rom. 7:24-25). The reaction of the publican should be our response to the reflection of our natural face every time, otherwise we are in danger of going about our merry way and forgetting what manner of man we were.
It’s so important to not take the grace of God for granted, that we always remember the depths of depravity that we have been raised up from – “what manner of man we were”. As we read Eph. 2, it’s easy for seasoned Old Baptists to academically acknowledge that we were dead in trespasses and in sins and were quickened by Christ (v.1), and then to immediately skip to God’s rich mercy and great love (v.4), the gift of salvation by grace (v.5,8-9), and the blessing we have in heavenly places in Christ (v.6-7). However, we need to make sure we never forget the condition that we were actually in when we were saved (and the condition we would still be in were it not for the sovereign grace of God). “Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (v.2-3). That’s “what manner of man he was (we were)” that James exhorts those persecuted Jews to not forget what they had been brought from. Praise God that we have been raised up and placed on a rock in the Lord Jesus Christ, but may we never forget the horrible pit that we had to be brought up from (Ps. 40:1-3). God had to condescend so low to bring us out of that pit that God had to be manifest in the flesh to die for our sins. It’s our utter corruption and sin that is whole reason that salvation and grace were necessary. Praise God for who we are now in Jesus Christ, but may we never forget the condition that we were in before the grace of God intervened, with also an understanding that if God had not chosen to love and save us, we would still be in that same ruined condition with no hope of improvement.
Even though we now enjoy all the benefits of matrimony as the bride of Christ, we need to take a “snapshot” and look back on our condition in Ezekiel 16 when God saw fit to bestow his love upon us and covenant to wed the elect as his bride. It was when we were not washed nor swaddled, our navel not cut, none eye pitied us, cast out into the field on our own, and polluted in our own blood (v.4-6) that God set his love and affection upon us. Even in that wretched condition, God said “Live” and “I passed by thee, behold, thy time was a time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine” (v.7-8). I trust we never lose sight of the condition that we were in, and would still be in, were in not for the grace that God bestowed upon us.
Now while we need to remain cognizant of our corruption before God, we don’t need to overly dwell on our own sin to the point of despair. Instead, that proper perspective should compel us to press further and harder in service to God now. “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). Actually, an understanding of our sin and Jesus Christ’s sacrifice that paid for those sins, should compel us to turn from dead works to true authentic faith and discipleship in Christ. “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your dead conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:14) The context of this admonition in James 1 to not forget our former condition is actually associated with our works not backing up our faith (dead works). We see here, though, that if we properly understand what God has done for us, then we should desire to serve God with good works more fervently, not to coast along hearing God’s words but never putting them into action as a forgetful hearer.
The more clearly we see the reflection of our natural face and know what manner of man we were before the grace of God, that should cause us to have a greater sense of wonder that God would freely bestow any measure of favor upon us. John Newton was a former slave trader before his conversion after which he began to preach the gospel. It’s because John Newton saw the wretchedness of his sin, that he appreciated how truly “amazing” the grace of God was. The man who saw his former life and his former condition and he truly saw what manner of man he was and penned these words that we know so well – “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” I would present for your consideration that until you see yourselves in the wretched condition that we were actually in by nature (which John Newton certainly did, as well as Paul in Rom. 7:24), you will never see just truly how amazing God’s grace is that he could ever love someone like me. The magnitude of God’s love towards unworthy sinners is really more than words can accurately express, no superlative in our mortal language caccuratelyate convey the great chasm between what we deserve in our nature and what we have been given in Jesus Christ – that it’s “amazing” will have to suffice! When we fully understand what abjectly wretched people we really are in our nature, then the grace of God is utterly amazing that God would love any of this wretched deplorable lot of mankind. May we never be a forgetful hearer, to look into the perfect law of liberty and forget what manner of man we were. Rather, when we see our sinful natural face in the mirror of God’s holiness, may we praise and extol and glorify God for His free grace bestowed upon such an undeserving lot as the elect!