Sermon preached on James 4:1-10 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/18/2021 in Novato, CA.
Last week’s passage commended wisdom to us, but especially in how it could bring forth the fruit of peacemaking. Here we see why James had such peacemaking in mind. James confronts them for their quarreling and fighting that they have been doing. He helps them to understand what is underlying their conflicts. And in response he calls them to humble themselves in repentance. Let us walk through this strong word of rebuke by James and see how he points them and us back to the sweet gospel when he says in verse 6, “But God gives more grace”
We begin in our first point by dealing with the question he asks them in verse 1. He asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” Here we see that James knows whom he is writing to. He knows what they have been struggling. With a sternness yet love of a father, he confronts them on this. The church of Christ ought not to have quarrels and fights among them. But history has shown this is something the church too often has had to deal with. Just think of how many times you’ve heard of a “church split” occurring. How especially sad when a church would split over relatively mundane matters or personality differences versus say some weighty matter of doctrine.
But notice that James quickly moves past the fact of them fighting to get to them ask why they have been fighting. James wants them to see that their conflicts stem from hearts that are in the wrong place. He asserts this in verse 1 by saying that they have sinful passions at war within them. Verse 2 then gives some examples of this. James says they “desire”. Read that as sinful, covetous lusts, because we see what happens when they don’t get what they want. It says they murder! It’s hard for us to imagine that they were literally murdering people. Yes, this is a really stern rebuke by James but we might imagine that an even stronger rebuke would have been in order if they were literally murdering, but maybe they were. It is also possible James uses the language of murder the way that Jesus used it on the Sermon on the Mount. That’s when Jesus said that sinful hatred or sinful slander toward someone is a form of murder. And of course, murder is where conflict would end if allowed to go completely unchecked. But again, murder is just a form of the conflict. James says the heart of the matter is their sinful desire. Likewise, James goes on in verse 2 to say basically the same thing a different way. He says, “You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” James here sounds like a prophet speaking poetically with Hebrew poetry to emphatically make his point. Their fighting is coming from their sinful hearts that are wanting things that aren’t theirs to have and it ends them up in conflict.
But then notice how James contrasts this at the end of verse 2. After twice talking about their sinful passions and desires he then says, “You do not have, because you do not ask; you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions.” So, James spends a moment to remind that what is the opposite of such sinful passions and desires. There are such things as godly desires. Not all desire is wrong. Some in fact is quite good. If they would have godly desires, they could ask God for those things, and God may in fact give them those things. James gives some examples of such in this letter. For example, in the first chapter he had told them they could ask God for wisdom who freely gives it. In the last chapter James will speak of the healing we can find through prayer, especially healing from sin. Of course, James points out here that their desires have not been the godly desires. Apparently, they hadn’t prayed to God to give them their desires and even if they had, God wouldn’t have given them what they were asking because they were sinful desires. But I love how this presents a fitting contrast by James. There are sinful desires and there are godly desires.
I think of how the prophet Nathan rebuked King David when he sinfully desired and took Bathsheba, another man’s wife. Nathan rebuked David by pointing out all the good things that God had already given David and if he desired other good things he could but have asked God for it. But David instead sinfully craved that which was not his to have, and in his case it did lead to murder. In David’s case, he had the power to take it and get away with it – that is until God intervened. But too often in our lives we can want something but not have the power to just outright take it, and it can end us up in conflict with someone.
So much sinful lusts and desires are held out before us. Our culture seems to be always tempting us to such things. Financial greed where we just want more and more. Material greed as we are such a consumer society. Sexual lusts where we don’t want any boundaries on our sexuality. But when these lusts turn specifically to coveting, where we want to take such things from others, they take on a whole new aspect of breeding sharp conflict. How especially sad when this happens within the church.
Let us turn now in our second point to see how James assesses their sinful lusts that have led to such conflicts in the church. Verse 4, James says, “you adulterous people.” Now given what he said about coveting, we might wonder if James had in mind literal adultery – like the example we said of King David that resulted in both adultery and murder. Well, I might be inclined to think that’s what he meant, if he didn’t then go on to say what he says in verse 4. He goes on to say “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” This seems to define what James meant when he called them adulterous. In other words, James says they have committed spiritual adultery against God. God is to be the husband of his people. But James says they’ve forsaken God by going after the world and its ways. This is a problem the prophets of the Old Testament repeatedly had to speak against God’s people for. Ezekiel 16 is one vivid example that speaks of Israel as an unfaithful bride to God, going after all the nations. So too, this is why God called Hosea to take a faithless prostitute to be his wife, as an illustration of the spiritual adultery Israel had committed against God. Many other verses also speak against Israel in such terms. This most often was in the context of how Israel began to worship the other false gods of the nations, going after their idols. But James reminds us here that friendship with the world in general can be a form of spiritual adultery.
What does such friendship with the world mean here? It must not mean that you can’t associate with the people of this world or do business with the world or otherwise engage with this world. It can’t mean that, first, because we are supposed to be evangelizing to this world. If we try to take ourselves out of this world, we can’t be a witness to the world. We see the Apostle Paul speak to that in 1 Corinthians 5. There he speaks about how he told them not to associate with sexually immoral people, but he clarifies that he was talking about people who claim to be Christian but are sexually immoral. Paul says he didn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t associate with sexual immoral people in general. Paul then gives the reason. He says because, “Then you would need to go out of the world.” But Paul’s point is we aren’t to go out of the world. We are to be in the world as Christians. But we are not to be of the world. That’s why Paul says that it is not okay for a Christian to live like the world in their sexual immorality, for example.
So then, here in James, we see there is a way that one could become a friend with the world that puts you an enmity with God, verse 4. In context, we understand that the different sinful lusts of the heart that James had talked about are worldly things. When you set your heart on sinful cravings and passions, things that the world says are good but God says are evil, then you have committed spiritual adultery. This is especially the case when you not only desire those worldly evils, but actually act to try to satisfy those sinful passions.
Verse 5 seems to be further describing this concern of spiritual adultery, though translators have really struggled to translate it. Some translators think it is expressing how our spirits yearn in envy for the things of the world that we shouldn’t have. Other translators think it is speaking of how God yearns in a righteous jealousy for our spirits when they are engaging in this spiritual adultery. Still others think the spirit reference in verse 5 refers to the Holy Spirit within us is yearning jealously for us to be faithful to God amidst this spiritual adultery. While this may have to be something lost a bit in translation, all of these translations would understand James to still be addressing this concern of being spiritually adulterous.
I will point out one more word in this passage that gets at this spiritual adultery. It is down in verse 8. It speaks of being double-minded. This is the typical situation when it comes to a Christian who is sadly engaging in such spiritual adultery. They don’t usually just come out and recant God and go fully after the world and its sinful ways. No, they typically acknowledge God as Lord of their lives, but then “cheat” on the Lord, so to speak. They flirt with the world, engage with the world, satisfy their sinful lusts and passions with the world, and then go back to God. They keep a foot in each, maybe even feeling guilty about it all, but it doesn’t change the fact that such double-mindedness is spiritual adultery.
Part of the problem when this spiritual adultery is happening is that a Christian can become calloused against it. Maybe the first few times it happens they feel some guilt and remorse. But it is too easy to become hardened against our spiritual infidelity to the Lord and begin to ignore our sin and think we are doing just fine with God, when in reality there is a major issue in our relationship with God. I hope James’ stern words here remind us that spiritual adultery of this sort is a serious matter. If you are such an adulterous person, James strongly confronts you here today. He urges you to see how evil you have been. He wants you really to abhor that old man within you and to hate everything about it. He wants you to see the great sinfulness of your sin. As a Christian, he wants you to recognize how your behavior has been grossly opposed to your profession of faith. He wants you to really loathe your spiritual infidelity. He wants you to really hear his rebuke to you today. And then he wants you hear the words of verse 6. But God gives more grace.
He gives more grace. What joyous words. It would be easy to think that after all the grace a Christian receives from Christ that if we then committed spiritual adultery that he could just say that he is done with us. But James says that yet Jesus holds out more grace to us. This leads us then to our third point to see how it is we receive such grace. James here says that God gives such grace to the humble. As James says in verse 6 quoting Psalm 3:34, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
That is of course what the gospel is always about. Initially we receive God’s grace when we come in faith to Christ Jesus. But realize that such faith is an expression of humility. It’s saying to God, “I acknowledge I am a guilty sinner, and that I need the grace and mercy held out to me in the name of Jesus Christ. Please forgive me on my sin and receive me into your kingdom.” Pride won’t come in such a faith. Pride is like the Pharisee of Jesus’ parable in Luke 18 that says, “God, I thank you I am not a sinner like other people.” Such pride of man’s heart does not find the grace of God. No, it is when we cry out from a humbled heart, “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” that we find grace from above.
That is precisely what we see James calling for here in this passage. After giving the good news that God gives more grace as we come before him in humble repentance, he then describes what this looks like in different ways. In verse 7, he says we need to submit ourselves to God. That’s to say God is right, and he’s in charge, and so I will bow before him and his law and recommit to look to obey him. Verse 7 then speaks of the complement to this by saying to resist the devil. Friendship with the world is ultimately what the devil wants you to do. It’s how the devil is trying to be in charge of your life by tempting you to satisfy these carnal desires. He did that in the very beginning with Eve. But James says that humble repentance means you turn from the devil, seek to resist Satan, and James encourages us that the enemy will in turn flee from you. So then, instead of being near to Satan, James says in verse 8 to draw near to God. While fleeing Satan makes him flee from you, drawing near to God will mean God draws near to you. That’s what James tells us here. This is God’s grace, even for Christians who have backslid into serious sin. God yet gives more grace as we come to him in humility.
James then further describes what the tone of such humility looks like. Look at verse 9. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Here we see that humble repentance includes sorrow for sin. It’s an interesting trajectory when he says turn your joy to gloom because we know that the gospel of Jesus Christ is to turn our gloom into joy. Jesus said the beatitude, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” But then again that’s the whole point, because Jesus also gave the woe, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:21, 25). The point is simply that if we don’t humble ourselves to weep over our sin in repentance, but rather rejoice in sin, we will ultimately find weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell. But if now we will weep over our sin in humble repentance, then God will forgive us of our sins and give to us an inexpressible joy of the heart knowing that we’ve not only been forgiven but have in our future the blessing of heaven and an eternal paradise in the age to come. So then, James reminds us that if a Christian has slid back into such serious spiritual adultery, it is right to truly grieve over what you have done and come in humility before God with confession of your sin.
And so while this passage on the one hand strikes such a serious and sobering tone in confronting wayward Christians, it is also one full of such gospel. For as it summarizes again at the end in verse 10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” This is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As verse 8 implies, in such humble turning to Jesus, us sinners find cleansing of our hands and hearts. Turning in faith to Jesus brings a purification for our sins. This is what we first found when we came to Jesus. And should we stumble and struggle and turn aside, we ought to return afresh to Jesus and be renewed in that forgiveness and grace.
I hope this a reminder that while our Christian life is one that must begin in repentance, it is also a life of regular repentance. This is true if you are someone who has fallen into the spiritual adultery described here by James. But it is also true for all Christians. If James’ strong words of rebuke today spoke to what you have been doing, then I urge you to humble yourself in sorrow over your sin and heed this call to return to our God who will yet give you more grace. But even if you have not struggled with sin in the precise way James describes here today, let us be renewed nonetheless in our humility and repentance. For even if you have not struggled in such heights of spiritual adultery, it is surely but for the grace of God. Each of us will struggle with sin before we die and go to be with the Lord. Each of us will continue to have desires come up in our hearts for things we ought not to desire. We all will need to continually look to fight against those desires, to flee the devil, and look to draw near to God and looking to obey him. As we see that old man still trying to rise up within in us, we should lament afresh over that remaining corruption within us. We should be renewed in our humility before a holy God. We should be refreshed in our repentance and turn anew to Jesus. And as we do, we are reminded, he gives more grace.
May that truth in general, also bear fruit in the specific area that James addressed here when it comes to quarreling in the church. May the peace and purity that we’ve found in Christ be the foundation of the unity we have in Christ together. Let us all look to be believing afresh each day, repenting afresh each day, and seeing how God turns our sorrows into joy, now, and unto eternity. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.