This 25 part expository study of Hebrews was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2005. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.
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One of the popular TV shows when I grew up was “Dragnet,” starring Jack Webb as Joe Friday, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. Joe Friday was a no-nonsense cop. His famous line was, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” He didn’t want to hear anything irrelevant to solving the case. If somebody went off on a tangent, he cut to the quick with, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
James is the Joe Friday of the New Testament. He cuts to the bottom line without messing around. He’s not really interested in hearing your profession of faith. He wants to see your practice of the faith. Several writers refer to James as the least theological epistle in the New Testament, except for Philemon. It’s not that James discounts the importance of sound doctrine, but rather that he wants to see that doctrine affecting how we live. Talk is cheap; James wants to see results. Of the 108 verses in the book, 54 (half) contain imperative verbs. James is like a crusty sergeant barking orders at the troops. He wants to see some action!
Who was James? There are several men in the New Testament by that name. We know that this James was not the apostle James, brother of John, because he was martyred in A.D. 44, too early for this epistle. The vast majority of scholars agree that the author of James was the half-brother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55). Apparently he did not believe in Jesus as Lord until after the resurrection, when the risen Savior appeared to him (see John 7:5; 1 Cor. 15:7). He became the leader of the church in Jerusalem in the years following the Day of Pentecost (Gal. 2:9; Acts 15:13-29; 21:17-25). He became known as “James the Just” (or, “Righteous”) because of his well-known holiness.
James could have pulled rank by opening the letter, “James, the son of the virgin Mary, brother of none other than Jesus Christ. I grew up with Him! I knew Him long before He became famous!” But James (1:1) and his brother, Jude (Jude 1), both opened their letters by calling themselves bond-servants. The word means, “slaves,” and refers to those who are the property of their masters. They had no rights. They lived to do their masters’ will. James adds, “a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” By mentioning God and Jesus Christ on equal terms, and adding “Lord,” the Old Testament word for God, to Jesus, James affirms the deity of Jesus Christ.
James wrote this letter to “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” (1:1). This identifies his main readers as Jews who lived outside of Israel. The contents of the letter further identifies them as followers of Christ, although they were perhaps still worshiping in synagogues (“assembly” in 2:2 is literally, “synagogue”). It is likely that James was the first New Testament book written, perhaps around A.D. 47 (before the Jerusalem Council in 49). According to Josephus, James was martyred in 62.
Some of the readers had probably been members of the church in Jerusalem, but they had scattered into many locations because of the persecution that arose after the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1; 11:19-20). Because of anti-Semitism in the Roman Empire, these believers in Christ were often the brunt of hostility both from the pagan world, as well as from their own people.
Word got back to James of some of the difficulties that these brethren were encountering: affliction from without (5:1-6) and, as often happens at such times, conflicts within (2:1-13; 4:1-12). Some were lapsing into a superficial, formal religion that professed orthodox beliefs, but practiced selfish, ungodly lifestyles (1:22-27; 2:14-26; 3:9-12). As a pastor, James writes to these scattered Jewish believers to make the point: True faith shows itself in practical, godly living. He develops several themes: endurance through trials; the dangers of riches and encouragement to the poor; the law and love; faith and works; the coming of the Lord; and, humility. But his main point is that true biblical faith works.
Many writers claim that there is no unifying theme to James, but that it is just a series of unrelated, random exhortations. But, as difficult as it may be to outline the book, I think that the contents may be arranged under this theme of true faith. James is giving a series of tests by which one may determine whether his faith is genuine or false (D. Edmond Hiebert makes this point, “The Unifying Theme of the Epistle of James,” Bibliotheca Sacra [135:539, July-September, 1978], pp. 221-231). I offer this outline:
Introduction: Author and recipients (1:1).
1. True faith responds with practical godliness under testing (1:2-27).
A. True faith responds with joy when it faces testing (1:2-4).
B. True faith seeks God for wisdom in times of testing (1:5-8).
C. True faith adopts God’s eternal perspective in both poverty and riches (1:9-11).
D. True faith perseveres under testing, not blaming God for temptations (1:12-18).
E. True faith obeys God’s word, even when provoked (1:19-27).
2. True faith shows itself in practical obedience (2:1-26).
A. True faith does not show partiality (2:1-7).
B. True faith practices biblical love (2:8-13).
C. True faith proves itself by its works (2:14-26).
3. True faith controls the tongue and acts with gentle wisdom (3:1-18).
A. True faith controls the tongue (3:1-12).
B. True faith acts with gentle wisdom (3:13-18).
4. True faith resists arrogance by humbling oneself before God (4:1-5:18).
A. True faith practices humility in relationships (4:1-12).
B. True faith practices humility with regard to the future (4:13-17).
C. True faith practices humility by waiting for God to judge the wicked who have wronged us (5:1-11).
D. True faith practices humility by speaking the truth apart from self-serving oaths (5:12).
E. True faith practices humility by depending upon God through prayer (5:13-18).
Conclusion: True faith practices biblical love by seeking to restore those who have strayed from the truth (5:19-20).
With that as a brief introduction and overview of the whole book, let’s zero in on James’ radical approach to trials (1:2-4). Writing to refugees who have suffered the loss of their homes and homeland, plus many of their possessions, who are being persecuted in the places that they have sought refuge, James says,
When we encounter trials, we should count it as joy, submitting to God, knowing that He is using it for our maturity.
Kent Hughes (James: Faith that Works [Crossway], pp. 17-18, ellipsis marks his) imagines the original readers response: “How nice…a letter of encouragement from Pastor Whacko! Don’t worry …be happy!” We may hesitate to call James “Pastor Whacko,” but we might question whether his advice is practical and realistic when we’re going through terrible trials. It may work for the little irritations that we encounter every day, but is it realistic advice for facing the huge trials that hit us?
Before we write off James as a masochistic weirdo, we should recall that two other New Testament writers said similar things. Peter wrote to suffering believers whose faith was being tested by fire. He told them that “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing” (1 Pet. 4:13; see also, 1:8).
The apostle Paul wrote (Rom. 5:3), “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance….” He wrote Philippians from prison, and the theme of that letter is joy in Christ. He gave that impractical command, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4; see also, 1 Thess. 5:16). Not only that, but Paul practiced what he preached. As he sat in a Philippian jail cell, unjustly arrested and beaten, unable to sleep, he and Silas sang praises at midnight (Acts 16:25). And so if we write off James as being a bit out of touch with reality, we also have to write off Peter and Paul!
The alternative is to consider that perhaps these godly men were onto something. Consider three things:
“Consider” means to think, count, or regard something based on weighing and comparing of facts. It denotes deliberate and careful judgment stemming from external proof, not subjective judgment based on feelings (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [Harper & Brothers, 1887], p. 276; A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, G. Abbott-Smith [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 119). Although powerful emotions are inevitable when we encounter severe trials, once the emotions have subsided a bit, we need to think about the trial from a biblical perspective. Let’s consider several aspects of this radical attitude:
James does not say, “if you encounter various trials,” but when. It’s not an elective. It’s a required course in the school of faith. As Peter wrote (1 Pet. 4:12), “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; …” Many Christians naively think that if they obey the Lord, they will be spared from any trials. When trials hit them, they are confused and often angry at God: “I was following You! Why did You allow this to happen?” But the Bible gives abundant testimony that all of God’s saints encounter trials. And these trials are not necessarily the consequence of disobedience. Rather, God uses them to test our faith. They will be varied according to His sovereign purpose. We cannot understand why He sends the particular trials that He does, but whatever they are, we can know that they are from Him.
I base this observation on several Scriptures. Jesus did not condemn Mary for weeping at the death of her brother Lazarus. Rather, He wept, too (John 11:33-35). When the Savior faced the cross, He did so with “loud crying and tears” (Heb. 5:7). Paul instructs us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Hebrews 12:11 acknowledges, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, yet sorrowful….” So James does not mean, “Put on your happy face and deny that you’re hurting.”
While believers grieve, they do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Our response to trials should distinguish us from the world. Underneath the grief and tears, there should be the serene confidence that God is in control. He will cause “all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Ps. 126:5-6). Biblical joy in times of trials is not natural optimism. It is the joy of hope in God and His sure promises.
The choice is, “Will I trust in God and His promises, or not?” As James says, it is our faith that is being tested. We do not know if our faith is genuine until it stands up under the test. You can buy a jacket that claims to be waterproof. If you wear it on dry days, you have not put the jacket to the test. The test of that jacket is, if you get caught in a downpour, does it keep you dry? If it does, you say, “That’s a good jacket!”
It’s easy to proclaim, “I trust in God!” Anybody can say that. But, the test of your faith is when you really do choose to trust God in a severe trial. Afterwards, you know that your faith is genuine, because it brought you through the trial. But the point is, when you are faced with a trial, you have a choice: Will I trust God and the promises of His Word, as I have professed to do, or not? To trust God and experience His hope and joy in the midst of trials is a radical attitude that James commands us to adopt.
There are two aspects to this reassuring truth:
The verse implies that God is using the trials for His purpose. He is not sitting in heaven saying, “I didn’t want that to happen, but now that it has happened, let’s see how we can make the best of a bad situation!” Scripture is clear that God is sovereign over everything, from the rain and snow that fall (Job 37:6-13), to seemingly random events (the lot, Prov. 16:33), to the events of nations (Ps. 22:28; Acts 14:16; 17:26). On the personal level, He ordained all of the days of our lives before we were ever born (Ps. 139:16). He fashions our hearts (Ps. 33:14-15) and orders our steps (Ps. 37:23; Prov. 16:9; 20:24).
There are some radical Arminians (“Open Theism”) who try to get God off the hook when it comes to trials, saying, “This was not in His plan.” They argue that God does not control (or even know in advance!) the choices we make. But the Bible affirms that God is sovereign over birth defects (Exod. 4:11), natural disasters (Gen. 6:17; Jonah 1:4), and even over the evil things that people do, although He is not responsible for their sin (Gen. 50:20; Exod. 4:21; 1 Kings 22:23; Isa. 10:5; Acts 4:27-28). It robs people of comfort and creates a very scary world, where evil is out of control, to deny God’s sovereignty over trials, because it denies that He is purposefully working those trials for our ultimate good. The hymn writer had it right: “Every joy or trial falleth from above, traced upon our dial by the Sun of Love” (Frances Havergal, “Like a River Glorious”).
Testing is like the refining of a metal: it produces a better product through the process. “Endurance” is the better translation here. It means to stand fast or persevere. R. C. Trench (Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 198), says that the Greek word translated “patience” is used with respect to persons, whereas “endurance” refers to things. Thus the man is patient who is not easily provoked or angered by difficult people, whereas the man endures who does not lose heart under great trials. We might call it “spiritual toughness” (Hughes, p. 19).
Picture an athlete who pushes himself to build up strength and endurance for an upcoming race. If it’s a 10k run, he may start with 5k and gradually extend his distance and speed. If he’s serious about winning, he will be running farther than 10k before the race, so that the race will seem easier than what he is conditioned for. In the same way, when we endure trials by faith, our faith is stronger for the next trial. We know that we can endure, because we’ve already been through previous trials. And when we endure trials by faith, with joy, it brings glory to our Lord and Savior.
Thus when we encounter trials, we should adopt the radical attitude of counting it all joy. We should understand the reassuring truth, that our sovereign God is using it to develop enduring faith.
“Let” implies submission to God in the trial. Submitting to God does not necessarily mean passively enduring it without praying for relief. Paul prayed that God would remove his “thorn in the flesh.” He stopped praying when God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:8-9). Being submissive to God does not necessarily mean that we do not take steps to remedy the problem. If the trial is the loss of a job, it is right, in dependence on the Lord, to seek another job. If the trial is an illness, it is right not only to pray, but to seek medical help. If it is a difficult circumstance, it is not necessarily wrong to try to change the circumstance.
Submission is an attitude toward God, where we do not defiantly shake our fist in His face and tell Him that He has no right to do this to us. We are not submitting to Him if we ignore Him and take matters into our own hands, apart from prayer and faith. One of the best examples of submission was Job. After God afflicted him, he said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Briefly note two things:
“Let endurance have its perfect result….” This isn’t a quick fix. The word “perfect” does not imply that you reach a point in this life where you’ve arrived and need no further progress. I find myself failing in lessons that I thought that I had already learned. So, I have to take the course over again and again! We don’t graduate until we go to heaven.
God’s goal in the trials is “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Again, this does not mean that you can arrive at a state of sinless perfection or perfect maturity in this life. Rather, the idea is that you will be spiritually mature, well-equipped for the purpose that God created you. The fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) will be evident in your daily life. Peter Davids says that the word complete “stresses the incremental character of the process. That is, perfection is not just a maturing of character, but a rounding out as more and more ‘parts’ of the righteous character are added” (New International Greek Commentary, James Eerdmans], p. 70). William Barclay observes (The Daily Study Bible, the Letters of James and Peter [Westminster Press], p. 44), “By the way in which we meet every experience in life we are either fitting or unfitting ourselves for the task which God meant us to do.”
John Piper (Future Grace [Multnomah Press], pp. 171-172) relates the amazing story of Marie Durant (from Karl Olsson in Passion [Harper & Row]). In the late 17th century, in southern France, Marie was brought before the authorities and charged with the Huguenot heresy (being a Reformed Protestant). “She was fourteen years old, bright, attractive, marriageable.” She was asked to recant her Huguenot faith. “She was not asked to commit an immoral act, to become a criminal, or even to change the day-to-day quality of her behavior.” She was only asked to say, “I recant.” She refused.
Together with thirty other Huguenot women, she was put into a tower by the sea and left there for 38 years. She and her fellow martyrs scratched on the wall of their prison tower the single word, “Resist!” Tourists still see and gape at that word on that stone. Olsson reflects (ibid., p. 172),
We can understand a religion which enhances time… But we cannot understand a faith which is not nourished by the temporal hope that tomorrow things will be better. To sit in a prison room with thirty others and to see the day change into night and summer into autumn, to feel the slow systemic changes within one’s flesh: the drying and wrinkling of the skin, the loss of muscle tone, the stiffening of the joints, the slow stupefaction of the senses—to feel all this and still to persevere seems almost idiotic to a generation which has no capacity to wait and to endure.
Piper points out that a key adjective in that story points to the power of Marie Durant’s endurance. Olsson said, “We cannot understand a faith which is not nourished by the temporal hope that tomorrow things will be better.” Piper adds (ibid.), “Surely we cannot, if ‘temporal’ hope is the only kind we have. But if there is a hope beyond this temporal life—if future grace extends into eternity—then there may be a profound understanding of such patience in this life.”
James (5:7) later encourages us, “Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.” His radical approach to dealing with trials is: Adopt a radical attitude: “Consider it all joy.” Understand a reassuring truth: “Knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” And, submit to the refining process: “let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” That is one way that true faith responds with practical godliness under testing.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
When I was in the Coast Guard, sometimes the skipper would ask me to steer the boat. He would tell me the compass course. My job was to keep the boat on that course. The wind and currents would cause the boat to drift, but I had to keep steering it back to the designated course. Eventually, we would come in sight of Long Beach Light, and right into the harbor.
One day, we had to go out in a terrible storm to rescue a man and his daughter whose sailboat had become disabled. On that occasion, the skipper did not ask me to steer the boat, but gave the task to a more experienced man. It is relatively easy to steer the boat in calm seas, but it’s an altogether different matter to steer it in sixty mile-per-hour winds and thirty-foot waves.
As a veteran shepherd of souls, James knew that it’s relatively easy to live as a Christian when things are calm. But it’s a much more difficult prospect when the storms of life hit with full force. At such times, it’s easy to get off course or even to make shipwreck of your faith. His readers were facing various difficult trials. They were dispersed abroad (1:1), mostly due to persecution. They had suffered the loss of their homes and possessions. Many were not able to escape persecution even in the places to which they had fled. James wanted them to know how to navigate through these trials so that they could not only endure, but joyfully endure (1:2).
As we saw last time, James exhorts them (and us) to adopt a radical attitude when we encounter various trials: “Consider it all joy” (1:2). We can do this if we understand a reassuring truth, “that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (1:3). But it is necessary to submit to the refining process: “let endurance have its perfect result” (1:4). But there is a further ingredient that we need to endure trials joyfully so as to bring glory to God, namely, God’s wisdom. So James tells us how to obtain wisdom from God:
To obtain wisdom to endure trials joyfully, see your need, know your God, and then ask Him in faith to meet your need.
When James says, “If any of you lack wisdom,” he is not suggesting that some have it together so well that they have no need of wisdom. The Greek conditional sentence implies that we all lack wisdom when we face difficult trials. But, we don’t always see our need for God’s wisdom. Thus,
We need to be clear about the terms that James uses here:
When you study the Bible, it is crucial to study the text in its context, and also to understand how the words are used in Scripture. In the context of James 1, wisdom refers to the wisdom that we need to endure trials with God’s joy, so that we will be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:4). James realizes that in a time of trials, God’s people often do lack His wisdom on how to endure those trials with joy. Thus he adds verses 5-8. Of course, we can ask God for wisdom in any matter in life that we face, but in the context here, it is focused on asking God for the wisdom that we need to endure trials joyfully.
Enduring trials with joy goes against our natural inclination. When trials hit, we’re all prone to ask, “Why is this happening to me?” But that is usually the wrong question. Sometimes, God graciously reveals to us the reason for our suffering, but not always. Often the answer to why we suffer must wait until we’re in heaven. The important questions to ask when a trial hits are, “How can I understand this trial from God’s perspective? How can I navigate through this storm in such a way as to bring glory to God? How can this trial help me grow in maturity?”
Pastor Warren Wiersbe (Be Mature [Victor Books], p. 29) tells about a secretary of his who was going through difficult trials. She had had a stroke, her husband had gone blind, and then he had to be taken to the hospital where, as far as they knew, he would die. Wiersbe saw this woman in church one Sunday and assured her that he was praying for her.
She startled him by asking, “What are you asking God to do?” He replied, “I’m asking God to help you and strengthen you.”
“I appreciate that,” she said, “but pray about one more thing. Pray that I’ll have the wisdom not to waste all of this!” Wiersbe observed, “She knew the meaning of James 1:5.”
It also helps to understand the meaning of the Old Testament word for wisdom (my sources here include, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [Moody Press], ed. by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, 1:282-284; and New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [Zondervan], ed. by Colin Brown, 3:1026-1029). James is steeped in the Old Testament. The main idea of Old Testament wisdom is that of skill. It includes the skill of workers who made garments for the high priest and who were able to work with metal, stone and wood (Exod. 28:3; 31:3-5; 36:1-2). It also extends to those who are able to execute a battle plan (Isa. 10:13), lead in government (Deut. 34:9), and shrewdly assess a difficult situation and persuade others to take necessary action (2 Sam. 20:22). It refers to those who speak prudently (Ps. 37:30) and use their time carefully (Ps. 90:12).
Rather than just theoretical understanding, biblical wisdom focuses on practical living in obedience to God’s revealed will. The fool in Proverbs is not the man who is mentally deficient, but rather the man who is morally deficient. He ignores God’s commandments and lives according to human wisdom. The wise man lives in obedience to God. Thus he skillfully puts together a life that is beautiful from God’s perspective. Thus the Bible affirms (Job 28:28), “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” (see also, Ps. 111:10)
So, by wisdom, James is talking about the skill that enables us to live obediently before God in the midst of trials. The result will be a truly beautiful life that glorifies God.
By nature, all of us are self-sufficient know-it-alls: “Mother, please, I can do it by myself!” In America, it’s the spirit of rugged individualism, or the self-made man. But I’m sure that every culture idolizes the strong person who seems to have it all together by himself, because pride is endemic to the human heart.
To come to God, we must humble ourselves and admit that we do not know what we need to know in order to live joyfully in the face of trials. In fact, a main reason that God sends trials is to humble us from our pride, so that we look to Him. The proud Laodicean church thought that they were rich and had no needs, but God’s view was that they were “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). So a prerequisite to obtaining wisdom from God is to recognize our lack of wisdom.
Our text shows four ways in which we must know God in order to obtain His wisdom:
To ask God for wisdom implies that He can deliver. The Bible plainly states, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). It warns, “There is no wisdom and no understanding and no counsel against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30). In other words, if worldly “wisdom” contradicts or goes against God, it is false “wisdom.” Only God’s wisdom stands.
I was a philosophy major in college. “Philosophy” comes from two Greek words meaning, “the love of wisdom.” But I discovered that worldly philosophers are not so much in love with wisdom as they are with their own wisdom! They are not so much interested in how to live wisely before God, whose existence they question or deny, but rather in showing how wise they are in being able to win arguments.
Writing to those who took pride in the great Greek philosophers, Paul contrasted the so-called wisdom of this world with God’s wisdom as seen in the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:18-30). He sarcastically asks (1:20-21), “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”
The point is, if you have not come as a sinner to the cross of Christ to obtain God’s mercy through faith, you do not know God and thus you cannot obtain the wisdom that comes only from Him. But, how does God impart the wisdom that we need?
God’s wisdom does not come as a sudden revelation or impression that hits out of nowhere. You won’t find it in “Dear Abby” or Reader’s Digest, unless they accidentally say something that coincides with God’s Word. God’s wisdom comes directly from God and is revealed in His Word. It especially centers in the knowledge of Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3; see also, Col. 1:9; Eph. 1:16-17). God reveals His wisdom by the Holy Spirit to those who are spiritual (1 Cor. 2:6-16). That wisdom has to do with knowing how to apply biblical truth to particular situations in life. Thus if you are not spending consistent time learning God’s Word, you will not have the wisdom that you need when trials hit. The time to seek wisdom from God is before the calamity hits (Prov. 1:20-33).
James goes on to say that we must ask God for wisdom “in faith without any doubting” (1:6), and that the one who doubts is “a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (1:8). The Greek word, literally, is a “double-souled” man. It refers to a man whose heart is divided between allegiance to God and the allurements of the world. In other words, he’s not sure that he wants to know God’s wisdom, because he isn’t fully committed to submitting to it. It would be nice to know God’s wisdom for his situation, but before he commits to obeying it, he needs to find out if he likes it. In other words, he’s shopping for answers that fit what he wants to do. If God’s wisdom sounds good, he’ll follow it. But if worldly wisdom sounds better, he’ll follow that. James says that such a person will not receive anything from the Lord.
I have counseled with women who profess to be Christians, but they are engaged to be married to unbelievers. I always ask, “Do you want God’s blessing on your marriage?” They always say, “Yes.” I’ve never had one say no. I show them in God’s Word that He commands us not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. This creates a trial for the young woman! She wants to marry this nice (they’re all “nice”!) unbelieving man, but God’s Word says, “Don’t do it.” Not only would it be very difficult to break up with him, it would also mean being single with no prospect for marriage in sight. That’s a trial! The test is, “Will she obey God, or is she a double-minded woman, unstable in all her ways?”
One woman told me that she had prayed about marrying her unbelieving fiancé, and she “had a peace about it.” I told her that she had sinned by praying about this situation, because God has clearly revealed His will about marrying unbelievers. She didn’t want to know God’s will; she only wanted to do her will. So if we want God’s wisdom in any decision or in any trial, we must be fully committed to obey Him.
When verse 5 says that God “gives to all,” you need to define “all” by the context (as always). God does not give wisdom to everyone in the world, but rather to every believer in Christ who asks in faith. But James emphasizes that the manner in which God gives is “generously and without reproach.” “Generously” has the nuance of “simply,” or “without mental reservation” (Peter Davids, Commentary on James [Eerdmans], pp. 72-73). He gives because He delights to give to His children. “Without reproach” means that He does not say, “What? You again? I just gave you what you wanted and you’re back here bugging Me again?” God never makes you feel cheap or irresponsible for asking again and again. Rather, He invites you to ask for all the wisdom you need.
Some fathers are stingy and selfish. Their standard answer is, “No!” Or, if they grudgingly give you what you ask for, they never let you forget it. You have to budget your requests carefully, because if you get a yes on something, it will be a long, long time before you get another yes. I thank God that my Dad is not at all like that! He is a very generous, giving father, both with his money and his time. But if your dad was of the stingy type, you need to be careful not to view God in the same way. God is ready and willing to lavish His wisdom on His children who ask for it.
So to obtain wisdom from God to endure trials joyfully, the first thing is to recognize your need for it. Then know your God, who is the source of all wisdom. He reveals that wisdom chiefly in His Word through His Spirit to those whose hearts are ready to obey Him. He gives generously and without reproach to all that ask. That leads to the means of obtaining wisdom from God:
There are three parts to this:
The verb (1:5) is present tense, indicating that you probably will need to ask more than once to obtain what you need. But it’s a simple command, “Let him ask.” There is no magic formula or special incantation that you need to mutter while you sprinkle holy water on a consecrated altar. He does not say, “Let him work for or earn or buy wisdom.” It’s not for sale; it’s a gift. Just ask.
“Let him ask of God” (1:5). Every believer is a priest who can approach God directly. You do not need to go through a priest or a pastor. I am not saying that it is wrong to go to a spiritually mature counselor, who can help direct you to God’s Word for wisdom. But you don’t need to approach God through any human intermediary. If you know Christ, ask God directly.
The Bible never tells us to pray to the virgin Mary or to some other saint. It never tells us to look within ourselves and decide what to do based on subjective feelings. It certainly never tells us to consult with a worldly psychologist or with Dear Abby! I find it incredible at times to read in that column of pastors asking her for advice! Actually, I did write to her once with a question, but she didn’t respond. I asked her how she determines her moral standards, since she clearly rejects God’s Word as the standard. She dispenses all kinds of advice on moral issues, but it’s pure coincidence when her advice lines up with the Bible. But I digress!
Peter tells us that God’s “divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises…” (2 Pet. 1:3-4a). Paul assures us (Eph. 3:12) that in Christ “we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him.” So, when you need wisdom to endure a trial in a manner pleasing to God, go directly to God in prayer through the mediation of Jesus Christ. Ask Him to direct you to the wisdom in His Word that you need. He promises to give it generously!
Some Christians make the mistake of saying, “But I’m not worthy for God to grant my request. I’ve sinned too many times. I’ve failed Him so often. So I can’t go to Him and ask for wisdom.” But that’s an excuse for disobedience and unbelief. Every Christian has sinned. Every Christian has failed. Every Christian is unworthy. We do not come to God based on our worthiness. We come to God on the merit of Jesus Christ and His shed blood. Since God commands us to ask Him for wisdom, we are disobedient and unbelieving if we do not ask.
Faith is essential in approaching God, because as Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” It would be silly to ask something of a Being that you weren’t sure existed. Or, if He did exist, you weren’t sure if He cared about your request or if He had the power to grant it! So to ask from God, you must believe that He exists, that He personally cares for you, and He is able to give you the wisdom that you need to endure your trial with His joy.
If you doubt God’s existence or His ability to give you wisdom for your need, James says (1:6) that you’re “like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” The surf has no inner power or principle to direct itself. It is totally at the will of the wind. It is completely unstable and chaotic. And, it can be a destructive force as it batters a boat or drives it against the rocks. That’s a picture of the person who lacks faith in God.
As I said, at the root of this unbelief is being double-minded. The person who doubts God is not committed to obey God no matter what. His heart is not fully surrendered to do God’s will. He’s curious about God’s wisdom, to find out if it agrees with him, but he’s not committed to do it if it involves suffering or inconvenience. That person, James says, “ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord” (1:7). So the first thing in obtaining wisdom from God is to surrender your heart to Him.
Joni Eareckson Tada, as most of you know, was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident when she was 17. She wrote this about her suffering (Joni [Zondervan], p. 154):
God engineered the circumstances. He used them to prove Himself as well as my loyalty. Not everyone had this privilege. I felt there were only a few people God cared for in such a special way that He would trust them with this kind of experience. This understanding left me relaxed and comfortable as I relied on His love, exercising newly learned trust. I saw that my injury was not a tragedy but a gift God was using to help me conform to the image of Christ, something that would mean my ultimate satisfaction, happiness—even joy.
That is God’s wisdom on how to endure a major trial with joy! She did not get that wisdom from the world. She did not make it up herself. It came from God, through His Word. If you need God’s wisdom for how to endure any major or minor trial with joy, ask Him in faith and He will give it.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
A few weeks ago, Marla and I went down to the desert and hiked among the beautiful wildflowers that the abundant winter rains produced. They were not quite as spectacular as the Colorado wildflowers in the summer, but almost. But the thing about wildflowers in the desert is, you’ve got to catch them at their peak, because they don’t last very long. The intense heat soon wilts them and their glory fades.
That’s the picture that James (1:11) gives us of the rich man: “For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.” The climate of Israel is much like that of Southern California, where I grew up. Normally, the afternoon sea breezes cool things down. But sometimes the wind direction shifts, and it comes in from the desert. In Israel, these winds are called “Siroccos.” In California, they are called Santa Ana winds, and they can drive up the temperatures from the 80’s to 110 F. It doesn’t take long for such hot winds to wilt everything.
James is giving us some tests of true faith. True faith has joy even when it faces trials (1:2-4). It seeks God for wisdom in such times (1:5-8). Here (1:9-12), James shows us that true faith adopts God’s eternal perspective regarding poverty and riches.
To persevere in trials with joy, adopt God’s eternal perspective on poverty and riches.
There is a contrast here between the permanent and the perishable. Until we live in light of this distinctive, we will not handle trials or persecution very well. If we get caught up with the world’s pursuit of wealth as the key to happiness, we will miss God’s way of true blessedness, which centers on eternal riches that cannot be taken from us by any circumstance, including death. First, James speaks to the poor Christian (1:9); then, to the rich (1:10-11); and, finally, he offers hope to all who persevere under trials (1:12).
James gives us a paradox that levels the playing field between the rich and the poor in the church. He says that the poor are rich and the rich are poor. He does not advocate some form of forced or voluntary redistribution of wealth, but he does show that in the church, the world’s distinctions—status for the rich and insignificance for the poor—do not hold true (see 2:1-7). Also, note that contrary to a distinctively American heresy, which has spread to other countries, James does not say that the poor brother is to claim his Cadillac by faith. The “name it and claim it” or “health and wealth” heresy is a perversion of God’s Word that uses false promises to appeal to the greed of its victims.
The theme of the rich and the poor is woven throughout James (1:9-11; 2:1-7, 15-16; 5:1-6). He draws on the teaching both of the Old Testament and of Jesus. James brings together three elements (gleaned from Douglas Moo, The Letter of James [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 35-36; and Peter Davids, Commentary on James [Eerdmans], pp. 41-47). First, God has a particular concern for the poor (Ps. 68:5; Deut. 10:18). Thus James points out (2:5), “Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith…?”
Second, because God has this concern for the poor, His people should reflect the same concern (Deut. 10:19). Thus James (1:27) says that one aspect of pure religion is “to visit the orphans and widows in their distress, …” A profession of faith that ignores the physical needs of a brother is dead faith (2:15-16).
Third, the Old Testament sometimes associates the poor with the humble and righteous, and the rich with the wicked oppressor, thus merging the economic with the spiritual (Ps. 10; 37:8-17; 72:2, 4). Jesus did this in the beatitudes, when He said, “Blessed are you who are poor… But woe to you who are rich…” (Luke 6:20, 24). James does the same (2:5; 5:1-6). He condemns the rich that take advantage of the poor.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that the Bible automatically identifies the poor as being righteous and the rich as being wicked. The Bible tells of many wealthy men who followed God: Abraham, Job, David, Solomon, Zaccheus, and others. Wealth is a blessing that God often confers on the wise man, whereas poverty often results from sin or laziness (Prov. 3:16; 10:4; 14:23-24).
While the Bible shows that wealth may be a sign of God’s blessing, it also warns about its dangers. The man who desires to get rich falls into a spiritual trap (1 Tim. 6:9-10). The rich are often prone to arrogance and greed (Prov. 28:11; 15:27). They often do not see their need for God, because they trust in their money (Prov. 11:28). Life seems good, they have no needs, and they ignore the obvious fact that riches are of no value in the inevitable day of death (Prov. 11:4).
The Bible also shows that poverty can be a mixed bag. It may result from ignoring God’s ways (Prov. 13:8, 18). It can destroy the man (Prov. 10:15), his relationships (Prov. 19:4, 7), and his independence (Prov. 22:7). It can tempt him to steal (Prov. 30:7-9). But, poor people often have integrity and humility, which the rich often lack (Prov. 19:1; 28:6, 11).
Commenting on Jesus’ first beatitude, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 6:20), Leon Morris states (Luke [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 127):
[Jesus] is not blessing poverty in itself: that can as easily be a curse as a blessing. It is His disciples of whom Jesus is speaking. They are poor and they know that they are without resource. They rely on God and they must rely on Him, for they have nothing of their own on which to rely…. The rich of this world often are self-reliant. Not so the poor.
So poverty can be an advantage over wealth if it shows a person his need for God, who pours out spiritual blessings on all who call upon Him.
With that as an overview, James directs the poor man to glory in his high position, which refers to his spiritual wealth in Christ. When a poor man trusts in Christ as Savior and Lord, he instantly becomes the heir of a vast fortune. He is a child of the King of kings, with access to all of the King’s resources. Paul pictures the believer as seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). Paul repeatedly refers to the believer as being “in Christ,” which means that everything that is true of Christ is true of us. He tells the Corinthians, “all things belong to you, whether … the world or life or death or things present or things to come…” (1 Cor. 3:21, 22). He tells us (Rom. 8:17) that if we are children of God, then we are “heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ….”
James tells the poor believer to glory in these precious truths. Skeptics, who have no concept of the reality of spiritual truth, would no doubt mock James’ advice at this point. “What good is it to tell a poor man to glory in his spiritual riches in Christ? He’s still living in a shack. He still wears ragged clothes. He still eats meager meals. His children are still barefoot and lack good medical care. What good are these spiritual riches to this man?”
But that view stems from a materialistic mindset and ignores the fact that the basic need of every human heart is spiritual, not material. James will go on to say that true faith will supply a poor brother with the basic necessities of life (2:15-16). But Paul says, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim. 6:8). The Bible calls us to believe that our spiritual riches in Christ are reality. Material riches are illusory, a vapor that evaporates before our eyes.
What does it mean, to glory in our high position in Christ? The apostle Paul uses this word often, sometimes negatively, but sometimes positively. Negatively, we are not to boast in anything in ourselves. The Corinthians were boasting wrongfully in themselves, and Paul rebukes them, asking (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” If all that we have is because of God’s unmerited favor, then why do we exalt ourselves, as if our supposed superiority came from ourselves? The concept of “self-esteem” that has flooded the church in the past 35 years, comes from worldly psychology, not from God’s Word. Christ did not die for you or me because we were worthy! Quite the opposite, He died for us “while we were yet sinners” (Rom. 5:8).
But, positively, we may boast or glory in the Lord, to bring glory to Him. As Paul argues (1 Cor. 1:26-31), God has chosen us who are foolish, weak, and despised in the eyes of the world “so that no man may boast before God.” He goes on to say, “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus… so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:29-31). This is why the doctrine of election is so important: it removes any ground for boasting in ourselves. If we are saved because of our choice, we have grounds for boasting. “I chose God because I’m so intelligent!” But if salvation is totally from God, beginning with His sovereign choice of me out of the cesspool of sin, then all I can do is glory or boast in the Lord (see Gal. 6:14).
It is a thorny issue to decide whether the rich man here is a believer or an unbeliever. Commentators are pretty evenly divided. If it refers to a rich unbeliever, then verse 10 is using strong irony or sarcasm, saying, “Let the rich man glory in the fact that he’s going to be pushing daisies in a few short years!” He will be pursuing more wealth when, just like the spring wildflowers, he will fade away. In this view, the withering and fading of the flower is a reference to final judgment.
That view has much to commend it, but I lean toward the view that James is referring here to rich believers. He mentions rich men coming into their assembly (2:2) and those who travel in business and boast about their plans to make a profit (4:13-16). In this view, the exhortation in its context views both poverty and wealth as tests of faith (1:12). The poor man is tempted by his poverty to devote himself to the pursuit of wealth. Or, he may be tempted to feel neglected by God because of his poverty. James tells him, rather, to focus on his spiritual riches in Christ.
The rich man is tempted to glory in his wealth and the status and power that come from financial success. James tells him to glory, rather, in his humiliation as a believer. His wealth does not put him on a higher spiritual rung than the poor believer. His wealth pertains only to this fleeting life. He and his money will soon fade away. As someone has said, “When the game is over, the king and the pawn go back into the same box.” The rich man’s mansion, property holdings, and stock portfolio will mean nothing when he is in the grave. So the rich man must not follow the world by glorying in his riches. Rather, he must glory in his humiliation.
Most of us think, “This applies to Donald Trump, Bill Gates, and those type of guys.” But by the world’s standards, most of us qualify as “rich.” Many of us own our own homes. We have computers, TV’s, and dozens of other gadgets to make life more comfortable. Most families own more than one car. Our closets are bulging with so many clothes that it takes us a while to decide what we want to wear each day. Much of the rest of the world lives in crowded shacks with no indoor plumbing or electricity, and no clothes except those on their backs. So we need to apply verses 10-11 to ourselves! How can we glory in our humiliation?
First, we can glory in the fact that God has opened our eyes to see the vanity of worldly wealth and status. I state this as if it is true of you! I hope that you agree! To live to accumulate the world’s junk and to strive after the world’s acclaim is futile! Right after the evening news, a program about all of the rich and famous in Hollywood comes on. Sometimes I catch the first minute or two of this program before I grab the remote and click it off. It’s thoroughly disgusting. All of these celebrities are stuck on their own glamour and fame. Many viewers probably think, “Wow, that’s the kind of life I would like to have!” Christians ought to think, “How tragic! These people are living for vanity—emptiness!”
Second, we can glory in the fact that God has shown us the essence of true happiness and honor. True happiness is to know God. True honor is to be a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 9:23-24).
Third, we can glory in the fact that we now have an eternal inheritance that will never be taken away. Psalm 49 mocks the rich man, who congratulates himself, naming his lands after himself, and thinks that his fame will endure forever. It says, bluntly (Ps. 49:12), “But man in his pomp will not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.” But believers have “an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). As John Newton put it (“Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”), “Solid joys and lasting treasure, none but Zion’s children know.”
Thus James tells the poor that they are rich in Christ and the rich that they are poor in their humiliation in Christ. He continues,
Verse 12 goes back to the opening theme of 1:2-4. Trial occurs in 1:2 & 12. Joy (1:2) and blessing (1:12) are related. “Blessed” means happy, but it means more than happy. Happiness is a more momentary emotion, whereas blessedness refers to a lasting condition that undergirds momentary sorrow or sadness. Persevere (1:12) goes back to the same word in 1:3-4. And, been approved (1:12) is related to testing in 1:3. It has the idea of being tested and passing the test, so that God’s “Good Housekeeping” stamp of approval is on your life. Verse 12 brings out four truths:
Greed is not the exclusive temptation of the rich. The poor man can be just as greedy and materialistic as the wealthy man. The poor often covet what the rich already have. But if the focus of both groups is on getting more money or possessions as the way to true happiness, they do not have God’s perspective.
Both rich and poor are prone to pride. The poor Christian can become proud over how poor he is for the sake of the kingdom, and thus boast in being more spiritual than the rich. The rich can be proud over how God has blessed them and given them such influence. Both need to develop the humility that comes from bowing before God’s grace.
Some may say, like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “If riches are a test or trial, smite me with it!” But the apostle Paul warns that the desire for riches has plunged many into ruin and destruction, causing them to wander away from the faith (1 Tim. 6:9-10). The test of riches is that it feeds our greed and gets our focus on this world. To pass the test, we must glory in our humiliation.
James does not say, “Blessed is the man who never goes through trials.” Nor does he say, “Blessed is the rich man.” Rather, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial.” Testing has a way of leveling the rich and the poor. It helps all of us to get our focus on the right things, namely, eternal things. The wealthy Kennedy clan has had so much tragedy hit them that you would think that those that remain would repent and believe on Christ. They have gone through assassinations, cancer, divorces, serious scandals involving the law, sudden deaths through plane crashes, and more. You would think that they could see that worldly riches are worthless in light of eternity! It’s only when we believe in Christ and adopt God’s eternal perspective that we can persevere under trials with the joy of salvation.
The man who perseveres under trials is blessed in this life, but James’ emphasis is on the rewards of heaven. The English name, Steven (or, Stephen) comes from the Greek word for crown, which referred to the victor’s wreath in athletic contests. The picture here is of the believer struggling and striving in the contest, but the reward of the crown awaits him at the end if he perseveres. The “crown of life” refers to the eternal life that we will enjoy forever with God. It is not that we earn eternal life as a reward for our perseverance. Rather, eternal life is God’s gift of grace (John 5:24; Eph. 2:8-9), but we don’t enter into the full enjoyment of it until after we have persevered in the race that God has given us to run in this life. “If we endure, we will also reign with Him” (2 Tim. 2:12a).
You might expect James to say, “the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who persevere,” or “to those who obey,” or “to those who believe in Him.” But rather, he says, “to those who love Him.” Why does he say this?
I think it is because love for Christ keeps us from loving the world. Love for Christ motivates us to persevere under trials. Note that love for Christ does not exempt us from trials. Rather, it gives us the strength to persevere. Love for Christ is the inevitable result of belief in Him. If we don’t love Him, we don’t know Him (1 John 4:8). When Jesus restored Peter after his denials, He asked him three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” (See John 21:15, 16, 17.) Why? Because love for Jesus Christ is the necessary motivation to serve Him, especially when serving Him causes hardship and persecution. If you’re struggling with perseverance in trials, examine the quality of your love for Christ.
The famous evangelist, George Whitefield, once told of seeing some criminals riding in a cart on their way to the gallows. They were arguing about who should sit on the right hand of the cart, with no more concern than children arguing about who sits where in the car (in Elisabeth Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man [Westminster Press], p. 113). Here were men about to die that very day, arguing over who got the best seat!
James would have us see that life is a vapor (4:14). We’re all going to die soon. To focus on accumulating wealth if we lack it or to expend ourselves in amassing more wealth than we already have, would be rather shortsighted. Rather, we should focus on the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him. That eternal focus will enable us to persevere in trials with joy.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
A man was on a diet and struggling. He had to go downtown and as he started out, he remembered that his route would take him by the doughnut shop. As he got closer, he thought that a cup of coffee would hit the spot. Then he remembered his diet.
That’s when he prayed, “Lord, if You want me to stop for a doughnut and coffee, let there be a parking place in front of the shop.” He said, “Sure enough, I found a parking place right in front—on my seventh time around the block!” As Robert Orben said, “Most people want to be delivered from temptation but would like it to keep in touch” (Reader’s Digest [8/86], p. 35).
Allow me to state the obvious: You will not make it as a Christian if you do not learn to overcome temptation. In the parable of the sower, Jesus taught that some make a profession of faith and begin to show signs of growth, but the heat of trials or the more subtle thorns of worldly desires cause the plant to die (see Luke 8:11-15). As I understand that parable, it is only those plants that endure and produce fruit that represent true believers. Because the enemy is strong and the lusts of the flesh are so powerful, you must learn to recognize and overcome temptation. If you do not, James says, you are on the path that leads to death.
I think that as he wrote this, James probably had in mind the graphic story in Proverbs 7 of the young man lacking sense, who succumbs to the loose woman’s enticement. His first mistake was that he passed near the corner where she lived (Prov. 7:8). As “luck” would have it, at that very moment, she happens to come out of her door. As further “luck” would have it, her husband has gone on a long trip.
“With her many persuasions she entices him; with her flattering lips she seduces him. Suddenly he follows her as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as one in fetters to the discipline of a fool, until an arrow pierces through his liver; as a bird hastens to the snare, so he does not know that it will cost him his life” (7:21-23). Proverbs 7:26-27 concludes, “For many are the victims she has cast down, and numerous are all her slain. Her house is the way to Sheol, descending to the chambers of death.”
James gives us a strategy for overcoming the deadly lure of temptation:
To overcome temptation, recognize its source, its force, and its course.
Tempted (1:13) is the same Greek word that is translated trial (1:2, 12), but clearly it has two different senses. God tests or tries believers’ faith, but He does not tempt anyone into sin. God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19). God tested Job by allowing Satan to afflict him with all of his trials (Job 1:8-12; 2:3-6).
He tests both the righteous and the wicked, to reveal their respective characters (Ps. 11:4-7; see also, Exod. 16:4). With His people, the purpose of God’s tests is to refine our faith like gold or silver (Ps. 66:10-12; 1 Pet. 1:6-7; 4:12-14). But because of indwelling sin and the existence of Satan, every test may also become a temptation to sin. Thus, it is important to recognize that…
Ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin, fallen human nature has been prone to shift the blame for our own evil deeds. When God confronted Adam, he lamely replied (Gen. 3:12), “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” When God confronted Eve, she replied (Gen. 3:13), “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Both statements are technically true, but they dodge personal responsibility for sin. Adam’s answer really blamed God, who gave the woman to Adam. James wants us to see that if we go down that route, we will not overcome temptation, and we impugn the holy character of God.
Proverbs 19:3 insightfully observes, “The foolishness of man ruins his way, and his heart rages against the Lord.” The Bible has numerous examples of shifting the blame for sin. One that is humorous (if sin can be humorous) is when Aaron makes the golden calf. Exodus 32:2-4 reports that he told the people to bring their jewelry. He took it and fashioned it with a tool and made it into the golden calf. But when Moses confronts him, Aaron lamely says that he took the people’s gold, “threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (32:24)!
It’s easy to blame God for our own sin. We can even cite Bible verses or theology to back up our case! We rationalize, “God is sovereign over all things, so He has to be sovereign even over my sin. If He predestined everything before the foundation of the world, how could I escape from doing it? Besides, He promises to work all things together for good. He could have stopped me, but He didn’t! What could I do? It wasn’t my fault!”
Critics accuse John Calvin of making God the author of sin, since Calvin emphasizes God’s sovereignty over everything. But on this verse (as elsewhere), Calvin strongly denies that God is the author of sin. Even when the Scripture teaches that God blinds or hardens someone’s heart, Calvin asserts (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on James, pp. 288, 289), “it does not assign to [God] the beginning of this blindness, nor does it make him the author of sin, so as to ascribe to him the blame.” Rather, “in this manner he punishes sins, and renders a just reward to the ungodly, who have refused to be ruled by his Spirit.”
James nails that fallacious and sinful line of blame shifting. He says, “God cannot be tempted by evil.” It is impossible because of His holy nature. “God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You can not look on wickedness with favor” (Hab. 1:13a). Since God cannot be tempted by evil, it follows that “He Himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13b). If we want to overcome temptation, we must at the outset put out of our minds all shifting of blame, especially, blaming God. Then where does temptation come from?
James does not mention here the devil as a source of temptation, although he will do so later (3:15; 4:7). Here he wants us to see that to blame God or circumstances or the devil or others for my sin is to dodge the real source of it. To label it as a disease is to absolve myself from responsibility for it. There is no hope for overcoming it unless I acknowledge, “It comes from my own sinful desires.” But, conversely, there is hope for victory when I begin to recognize and be on guard against the monster that resides within.
Lust means desire. Sometimes it refers to legitimate desires (Luke 22:15; Phil. 1:23; 1 Thess. 2:17), but usually it means sinful desire. Sometimes the same basic desire may be either legitimate or sinful, depending on the situation and how we handle it. For example, hunger is a legitimate desire, but if it tempts us to steal to satisfy our hunger, we sin. God created us with the desire for sex, but if we seek to fulfill that desire outside of the commitment of heterosexual marriage, we sin.
Also, we need to distinguish between the manner in which Jesus was tempted and the way we are tempted. Jesus did not have an innate desire toward sin, as we do. Thus for Jesus, temptation had to come from outside, not from within. He did not have to battle sinful thoughts, such as lust or greed or being jealous of others, as we do. All of these wrong desires come from our sinful hearts, which we inherited because of Adam’s sin.
Some teach that salvation eradicates the old sinful nature. They base this on passages such as Romans 6:6, where Paul says, “our old self [lit., man] was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” Or, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, he says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Usually those who teach that the old nature is eradicated will admit that we still have to battle the flesh. But I find this to be confusing and misleading. Call it the flesh or call it the old nature, the fact is that all believers have within them powerful desires toward sin. To deny that these desires exist is not the way to overcome them.
I believe that Paul was drawing a distinction between our position in Christ and our practice. Our position is that we died to sin (death means separation, not cessation) and are now risen and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. In practice, we still experience and must battle against powerful desires toward sin. The way to overcome, according to Romans 6, is to “consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11).
This is not a “mind game,” where I tell myself over and over that I really do not feel the evil desires that I am feeling rather strongly. Rather, it is recognizing the truths that Paul develops there, that the power of those wrong thoughts to control me has been broken by virtue of my union with Christ. I must count that true and act on it. Acting on the truth of my new position, the power of sin is broken.
To overcome temptation, it is important to realize that although the initial thought to sin stems from my sinful flesh, it is not sin unless I pursue it. For example, if I’m flipping through a magazine and come to a picture of a seductive woman, the thought will probably pop into my mind, “Wow, she’s quite a woman!” Right there, I face a critical decision: Will I go farther, entertaining sinful thoughts of what it might be like to have sex with such a woman, or will I turn from the temptation and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Rom. 13:14)?
Sin always begins in the mind. No one ever falls into adultery without first entertaining it in his (or her) thought life. If we judge these sinful thoughts the instant they pop into our minds, we will not head down the path toward outwardly sinful behavior. If we do entertain such sinful thoughts, sooner or later Satan will present the outward opportunity to sin, and we will fall. But in such cases, the actual sin has been going on mentally for some time. If we make it our habit to take “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), we will not sin in thought or deed.
We differ from person to person with regard to the things that tempt us. Men differ from women, but also men differ among men, and women among women. Pride leads us to judge those who yield to sins that have little appeal for us: “How could they do such a thing?” But the same pride lets us excuse our “weakness.” “That’s just the way I am!” Humility says, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
Also, when we yield to a particular sin, it becomes a point of vulnerability for future temptation. For example, you could leave me in a room with a bag of cocaine, and it would not tempt me in the least. I’ve never yielded to that sin, and it just doesn’t have any appeal to me. On the other hand, in certain circumstances I am tempted to look at pornography, because as a young man I did yield to that sin. So I now have to be on guard against every form of that temptation.
So James’ first point is that to overcome temptation, we must recognize its source. It does not come from God. It comes from our own sinful desires.
Wise parents do not let their children play with dynamite, because they know that it has a powerful, destructive force. James shows three ways that temptation is powerfully destructive:
This is not an outside enemy, but one that lives within us. Indwelling sin lurks there until the day we die and go to be with Jesus. I read of a pastor who was chatting with a godly, 78-year-old friend. The older gentleman recounted a recent trip to the city, where he realized that he was going to have to park and walk through a red-light district. So he pulled the car to a stop and prayed that God would protect him from temptation as he walked past all of the pornography stores and massage parlors.
The pastor interrupted, “Wait a minute! I don’t mean to offend you, but you’re 78 years old. Are you telling me that you’re worried about sexual temptation at your age and after all these years of walking with the Lord?”
The older man replied, “Son, just because I’m old doesn’t mean the blood doesn’t flow through my veins. The difference between we old men and you young men is this: we know we’re sinners. We’ve had plenty of experience. You kids haven’t figured that out yet” (in Leadership [Fall, 1992], pp. 74-75).
He knew that this powerful enemy still lived within, even after years of fighting against it. Charles Simeon (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], XX:31) uses the analogy that we are carrying about within ourselves much inflammable material. If we are not careful, temptation can strike the spark that causes an explosion. John Calvin (ibid., p. 290) says that James’ object is “to teach us that there is in us the root of our own destruction.” If we ignore the danger within, or think that it has been eradicated, we are in a most precarious position!
James (1:14) says that each one “is carried away and enticed by his own lust.” The words he uses come from fishing. The fish sees the bait and it lures him toward it, thinking that he will get a meal. Instead, he gets hooked and carried away, where he becomes the meal. The temptation to sin is like that. We think that sin will satisfy us and get us something good that we’re missing. But instead, it hooks us and drags us to destruction.
There is always that deceptive element to temptation. It is strengthened by the powerful emotions involved. As believers, we are not to live by our feelings, but by faith and obedience, based on the knowledge of God’s word of truth. We need to follow it, no matter how strongly our feelings pull us in a different direction.
One time Marla and I were hiking off trail up on Mount Agassiz. It’s an area where we’ve hiked often, but we’ve often gotten turned around. On this occasion, we came out under some power lines, and I sensed that we needed to go uphill to get back to where we started. But when we had crossed the lines the first time, I had looked at my altimeter. When we crossed the lines again, my altimeter said that we were 500 feet higher. So, I trusted the altimeter, not my feelings, and we went downhill. Sure enough, we came to where we needed to be. God’s Word is like that altimeter. Temptation makes us feel like heading toward sin, but we need to follow God’s Word, no matter what we feel.
James pictures lust and sin as having the ability to conceive and give birth. While the Bible is strongly against aborting babies, when lust conceives, we need to abort as soon as we can! We’ve all seen a tree growing out of a concrete sidewalk, where it has split the concrete. It began as a tiny seed, falling into a crack. But that seed had life in it, and the power of that life produced a tree that broke up the sidewalk. Temptation has that kind of destructive life in it. Don’t let it take root in your life!
To overcome temptation, recognize its source—your own sinful desires. Recognize its force—it dwells in your own heart and is a powerfully deceptive emotion with a life of its own. Finally,
James shows that sin is never stationary. It moves steadily in its course toward its ultimate, hideous end—death. Sin is like a small crack in a dam. At first, it doesn’t seem threatening. But if it is not repaired quickly, it can lead to the collapse of the entire dam, causing terrible destruction. Death (1:15) stands in contrast to the crown of life (1:12). They are two totally separate destinies. At first, the two paths may seem like just a small fork in the road. But follow them out to the end and you’re in two very different places: life or death.
At the outset, temptation always promises excitement and fulfillment. It never comes along with the pitch, “Would you like to destroy yourself and your family? Would you like to disgrace the name of your God?” Rather, it comes on with the enticement, “This will be fun! This will meet your needs. This will get you what you have been looking for. What can it hurt to try it?”
If you take that bait, you’re on the course that leads to death. If you do not repent and get back on the path of righteousness, it may indicate that you never were truly saved (as with the seed on the rocky or thorny ground).
Someone has said, “Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
I close with four practical ways to overcome temptation:
(1) Study and know yourself. Know where you’re vulnerable and devise strategies to protect yourself. Others may be able to handle situations where you will fall. Don’t go with them if it is a source of temptation for you. Develop a deep distrust in yourself that drives you to a desperate clinging to the Lord.
(2) Avoid tempting situations. If you are vulnerable to lust, don’t rent videos that are rated R or even PG-13 because of sex. Don’t go into bookstores where there is pornography. Don’t have unaccountable access to the internet. If you do, you’re just pouring gasoline on the fire.
(3) Have a predetermined commitment to follow Christ and to flee temptation. You have to decide this before you get into a tempting situation, because when temptation hits, your emotions and the deception factor kick in. As we saw in our last study, those who receive the crown of life love the Lord. Keep your love for Christ fresh and the lure of the flesh and the world will not seem so attractive.
(4) Keep before you the gruesome end of temptation—death. The world glamorizes sin. Movies and magazines portray beautiful people enjoying illicit sex or living in selfish luxury as the ultimate in pleasure. Skeletons or rotting corpses would be a more accurate picture! I’ve counseled with many that have fallen into adultery, but I’ve yet to find one that is really happy. But even if they professed to be happy now, they won’t be when they stand before God!
This is really serious because, as I said, you won’t make it as a Christian if you do not learn to overcome temptation! Recognize its source. It does not come from God, but from your own lusts. Recognize its force. It dwells within and it is powerfully deceptive, with a life of its own. Recognize its course. If you do not abort it, it leads inevitably, not to life, but to death. The Puritan Thomas Manton (Exposition of the Epistle of James [Sovereign Grace Book Club], p. 86) put it this way, “Either sin must die or the sinner.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
I have read that the second largest industry in Nigeria is that of the con artists who email gullible Americans, promising to send them millions of dollars if they will send them their bank account numbers. I received several of those offers this week.
Con artists abound in this evil world, not just in the financial realm, but also in the spiritual realm. Satan is the master deceiver, “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). His false prophets disguise themselves as angels of light (2 Cor. 11:13-15). They promise people answers to their deepest problems, but they actually lure them to spiritual destruction.
Believers going through trials are especially vulnerable to spiritual con artists. Satan’s ministers of deception will say, “So, your God is good and powerful, huh? Then why did He allow you to go through this terrible tragedy? Either He is not very good, or He is not able to stop such trials.” Usually, along with that line of thinking, they direct your attention to people in the world, who do not follow God, but whose lives are going very well. If you take the bait, you will not persevere in your trials.
As I was writing the above words, I got an email asking prayer for a pastor and his family in Idaho. Their 23-year-old daughter, son-in-law, and 5-week old granddaughter were killed last Saturday night when a repeat-offender drunk driver slammed into their car. The pastor wrote,
Both my wife and I firmly believe and convey that God is loving and merciful, fully faithful to His purpose and children. We are not angry, but are sad.
The reason that I share this with you is that many doors are opening and I need prayer to keep on message. This is a big deal in our area, front page news for several days, with all the associated television and radio interviews. God has been gracious to allow me to proclaim the Gospel truth repeatedly.
How do you avoid Satan’s deception and endure such a trial with God’s joy through your tears? James shows us:
To avoid being deceived when you go through trials, affirm by faith God’s sovereign goodness.
In verse 12, James states, “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” He goes on to show (1:13-15) that God does not tempt us with evil. When we sin, it comes from our own lusts. But now he shows that when we’re under trials, we’re susceptible to deception. At such times, we must affirm by faith that God is good and only gives us good gifts (1:17). This is supremely illustrated in our salvation, which demonstrates His sovereign goodness (1:18).
We are constantly tempted to reverse the truths that James sets forth in verses 13-18. Rather than blaming evil on ourselves, we’re tempted to blame it on God or on others: “I was just the victim!” Rather than attributing everything good in our lives to our loving heavenly Father, we’re prone to take the credit ourselves: “The reason I’m so blessed is because I’m such a good person.” James wants us to avoid these common pitfalls so that we will persevere under trials and receive the crown of life.
James was not a cold-hearted theologian, dispensing a dose of doctrine and saying, “Call me if you’re not better in a week!” He addresses his readers as “beloved brethren.” James had a pastor’s heart for these believers who were going through terrible trials. As a pastor, he knew that sound doctrine about God and His salvation is the most compassionate way to help people who are struggling through trials. God’s truth gives us the rock we need to stand on in the flood.
“Do not be deceived” is literally, “Stop being deceived.” Apparently, some of James’ readers were already nibbling on Satan’s bait: “If your God is good and loving, why is He letting you suffer? If He is omnipotent, He could stop it.” James reminds them that God is both good and sovereign. He never sends anything evil into our lives. He only gives good gifts.
But, we need to define those “good gifts” from God’s eternal, all-wise perspective and plan, not from our own shortsighted, temporal point of view. God sends trials for His own sovereign, loving purposes. Amos (3:6b) the prophet, asks, “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?” Although it was Satan that directly attacked the godly Job, clearly he did it with God’s full permission. When Job’s wife told him to curse God and die, Job wisely answered (Job 2:10), “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” The apostle Paul came to see that his thorn in the flesh was a cause for rejoicing, because it kept him in humble dependence on God (2 Cor. 12:7-10). So the “good gifts” that God sends may include extremely difficult trials.
Whenever the Bible says, “Do not be deceived,” we need to perk up and pay attention. This is an area where the enemy easily could fake you out. When we’ve traveled overseas, we’ve been warned about pickpockets, so we’re especially on guard. I never put my wallet or passport in a pocket where it could be easily stolen. Being alert is the key to not getting ripped off. So when you face a difficult trial, be alert! The enemy will try to deceive you.
When Satan originally tempted and deceived Eve, he did it by getting her to doubt God’s goodness. He said (Gen. 3:1), “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” Of course, God had not said that, and Eve corrected Satan. But he persisted with his lie (3:4-5), “You shall not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The implication was, “God is holding back something good from you. Therefore, God Himself is not good.” She fell for this line of deception, and you know the terrible consequences.
So James affirms here (1:17), for people going through trials, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” James probably repeats himself as a matter of literary style, combining Hebrew parallelism with a Greek poetic form, the hexameter. There is no significant difference between the “good thing given” and the “perfect gift.” Perfect is one of James’ favorite words. It has the nuance of mature. He used it twice in 1:4, “And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” So verse 17 ties back to verses 2-4, with the idea that trials are one of God’s perfect gifts, because when we persevere in them, He uses them to produce spiritual maturity in us.
James’ point is that these good and perfect gifts, along with all of the many good things that God gives us to enjoy—the taste of good food, the love of our families, the beauty of His creation, and every wonderful experience in life—all of these good things come to us from a God whose very nature is good. As the Psalmist proclaims (Ps. 119:67-68), “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word. You are good and do good; teach me Your statutes.”
James states that all of the good things we experience come “down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” This is the only time that God is called, “the Father of lights.” It refers to the fact that He created light and the heavenly bodies that give off light. Light stands for that which is good, in contrast to Satan’s evil domain of darkness (Acts 26:18; Col. 1:12-13). “Father” points not only to God’s creative power, but also to His tender care for His creatures.
When James says that with the Father of lights, “there is no variation or shifting shadow,” he is drawing a comparison with the sun. Like the sun, God does not vary in His essential nature, which is light. He always steadily is light. He is always good. But, on earth we do not always experience the steady light of the sun. It varies on cloudy days, at night, and with the changing seasons. James means that when we experience what seem to be cloudy days or dark nights or wintry seasons, do not make the mistake of thinking that God has changed in His essential goodness towards us. His nature and His purpose towards His children are steady and unchanging. Therefore, we can trust Him at all times and in every difficult circumstance. This has two practical applications:
(1) Understanding God’s attributes as revealed in His Word is essential for your spiritual well being. You must know God, not as you may conceive Him to be or wish Him to be, but as He has revealed Himself in the Bible. I’ve heard professing Christians say, “My God is not a God of judgment; He’s a God of love.” That’s nice, but your God is not the God of the Bible! He is a figment of your own imagination! The God of the Bible is both a God of judgment and of love.
Or, there are Christians who dodge a difficult chapter like Romans 9, where Paul says of God (9:18), “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” They don’t want to conceive of God as having the sovereign right to save whom He chooses and to harden others in their sin. But to dodge what the Bible says about God is to make God in your own image, which is idolatry.
Two things will help you understand God’s attributes. First, read the Bible over and over, asking as you read, “What does this teach me about You, God?” Second, read some good books on the attributes of God. J. I. Packer’s classic, Knowing God [IVP] is a good place to start. A. W. Pink’s The Attributes of God [Baker] is brief, but good. A. W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy [Harper & Row] is a bit mystical, but worth reading. Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God [Baker] is wordy, but a gold mine. He spends 146 pages on the goodness of God (2:209-355). Any good systematic theology (Charles Hodge, Louis Berkof, Wayne Grudem, Robert Reymond, etc.) will have a section on God’s attributes. There are also some excellent easy-to-read books on various attributes of God, such as R. C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God [Tyndale], A. W. Pink’s The Sovereignty of God [Banner of Truth], or John MacArthur’s The Love of God [Word]. Understanding God’s attributes will give you a firm footing when you encounter trials.
(2) Interpreting your circumstances in light of God’s attributes is essential for your spiritual well being. You must know God, but then when trials hit, you have to process what you know in light of your difficult situation. By faith, you have to rehearse for yourself what you know to be true, maybe a hundred times a day.
The psalms are full of this type of thing. The psalmist is in a huge crisis. He rehearses for himself what he knows about God’s character and His covenant promises. By the end of the psalm his circumstances haven’t changed, but his attitude and emotions have changed dramatically, because he has interpreted his circumstances in light of who God is. For example, in Psalms 42 and 43, there is a refrain, where the psalmist talks to himself. Three times he asks (43:5; see also, 42:5, 11), “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why are you disturbed within me?” He answers himself (43:5), “Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.”
When you’re in the emotional throes of a major trial, you have to do this by faith in God’s Word, not by your feelings. Your feelings will be all over the chart, but your faith must rest on the facts about God as declared in His Word of truth: He is good!
When you go through trials, Satan hits you on these two attributes of God: Either He is not good, or He must not be sovereign. To stand firm, by faith you must cling to both His goodness and His absolute sovereignty. James affirms God’s sovereignty in salvation as the bedrock truth to get you through your trials. If God is the source of your salvation, then He isn’t going to abandon you later when you face trials. As Paul put it (Phil. 1:6), “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Paul argues the same in Romans 8:28-36.) James makes two points in verse 18:
“In the exercise of His will, He brought us forth by the word of truth…” (1:18a). Many believers would rewrite that verse to read, “In the exercise of our free will, He brought us forth….” They make our will the decisive factor in salvation. They say, “God has done everything that He can do for your salvation. The deciding vote is up to you. When you pull the lever of faith, all the goodies of salvation pour out the chute!”
But the emphasis throughout the Bible is not on human will in salvation, but rather on God’s will in our salvation. When God went to Adam and Eve after they sinned, He didn’t present them with the package and ask, “What do you think? Would you like for Me to clothe you with animal skins and to send a Savior by the seed of the woman, or not? You decide!” When God called Abram, He didn’t present His plan and then ask Abram for his decision. God called Abram and told him what He (God) would do and what Abram should do in response.
When the Lord knocked Saul (Paul) to the ground and blinded him, He didn’t say, “Would you like to decide for Jesus now?” He said, “Get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:6). God told Ananias, who was to go to Paul, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (9:15-16).
The Lord Jesus emphasized the same truth, that God’s will is the decisive factor in our salvation. He said (Matt. 11:27), “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” Sinners are spiritually blinded by Satan, “so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). It requires the sovereign will of God, who commanded light to shine out of darkness, “to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
Those who argue against God’s sovereignty in salvation say that God’s command that we believe the gospel implies our ability to keep the command. Otherwise, He would be mocking us to tell us to believe when we can’t believe. But immediately after Jesus said that no one could know the Father, except those to whom the Son wills to reveal Him, He said, “Come unto Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Would anyone dare to say that Jesus was mocking them?
With the command to believe, God imparts His life-giving, eye-opening power to all whom He has chosen. Jesus commanded a dead man named Lazarus to come forth from his tomb. Was He mocking him? No, because with the command, Jesus sent His life-giving power, so that Lazarus could hear the command and obey it. He didn’t sit in the tomb debating, “Should I decide for Jesus or not?” Jesus commanded the man with the withered hand in the synagogue to stretch forth his hand (Luke 6:10). Was He mocking this man, to ask him in front of everyone to do what he was not able to do? No, because with the command, Jesus imparted His healing power to enable the man to obey.
So, yes, God calls on sinners to repent and believe the gospel. You cannot be saved unless you repent and believe. But when you repent and believe, it is not at all due to your free will or ability. You were dead in your sins and loving it (Eph. 2:1-3; John 3:19-20). The only reason you responded in faith is that in the exercise of God’s will, He brought you from death to life (James 1:15, 18) by the power of His word of truth, the gospel. You weren’t the deciding factor in your salvation. God was! You were saved because “in the exercise of His will, [God] brought [you] forth by the word of truth.” Because of that, you can trust Him to take care of you in times of severe trials.
James 1:18b continues, “so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.” This goes back to the Old Testament requirement that Israel bring the first portion of their crop as a thank-offering to God. God also claimed the ownership of all firstborn males, who had to be redeemed (Exod. 22:29; 23:16, 19). This has two practical implications for us, who are God’s first fruits:
(1) As God’s first fruits, He owns you and He is free to use you as He chooses. Since He saved you by bringing you from death to life in the exercise of His will, you are not your own. You have been bought with the blood of Christ. Therefore, you must present yourself and everything that you have to God as a thank-offering, to use as He chooses. Have you done that? Do you live that way?
(2) As God’s first fruits, you are to bear fruit for Him. Offering the first fruits to God meant that there would be more to follow. Verse 18 reminds me of Jesus’ words to His disciples (John 15:16), “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.” God saved you so that you would bear fruit by bringing others to know Him. If you’re living for yourself, spending all of your time, money, and efforts to make life more comfortable for yourself, then you’re serving yourself, not the Lord. James wants you to realize that if God has imparted new life to you, then you are His first fruits. Especially in trials, your aim should be to bear fruit for Him and to bring glory to His name.
Joseph is one of the best illustrations of someone in severe trials affirming both God’s goodness and His sovereignty. His brothers were planning to murder him, but decided to sell him into slavery instead, so that they could make a profit by getting rid of him. As a slave in Egypt, he obeyed God by resisting the tempting advances of Potiphar’s wife. It would have been easy to rationalize yielding to her seduction. He was lonely, single, and in a foreign country. What prospects did he ever have for marriage? So how did God “reward” him for his obedience? He got thrown into an Egyptian dungeon, where he stayed for several years.
He could have become a very bitter man. Instead, years later when he was second to Pharaoh and could have taken revenge on his brothers, he said to them (Gen. 50:20), “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” In his many trials, Joseph avoided spiritual deception by affirming God’s sovereignty and His goodness. In whatever trials you go through, you can resist that spiritual con artist, Satan, by holding firmly to God’s goodness and His sovereignty, especially as seen in your salvation.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
A current popular myth in evangelical circles is that salvation is based on a personal decision for Christ and that such a decision may or may not result in a changed life. In this paradigm, a child from a Christian home may make a decision at summer camp “to invite Jesus into his heart.” He goes forward at the closing song after a meeting. He gets some follow-up, is given a Bible and told to read it every day. Perhaps when he gets back to his church, he is baptized. He attends church every Sunday, because that’s what his family does.
But as he gets older, he finds church to be boring and irrelevant. He prefers having fun with his worldly friends to hanging out with the church crowd. His friends introduce him to drinking, drugs, pornography, and sex. He drops out of church. He never reads his Bible. He has no desire to know Christ in a deeper way. And yet his parents will say, “But he’s saved, because he made a decision for Christ as a boy at church camp!”
But the important question in situations like this is, “Is there any evidence of a changed heart or new life in Christ?” As we saw in James 1:18, salvation is a matter of God imparting new life through His word of truth. Just as a newborn baby gives clear evidence that he is alive and well, so a new believer gives evidence of his new life in Christ. His desires change. He was a God-hater, alienated from God, hostile toward Him. Now he is a God-lover, reconciled to God, receptive to the truths of God’s word.
Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23; Mark 4:3-20; Luke 8:4-15) shows that genuine faith in Christ is not just a flash in the pan. Faith in Christ endures and produces fruit. In that parable, which is probably behind James’ thinking in our text, Jesus described the hard, unresponsive heart as the seed that fell by the roadside. The birds quickly ate it and it did not take root at all. Next He described the seed that fell on the thin, rocky soil. This represents the shallow, impulsive heart. This person receives the word with joy, but as soon as trials or persecution hit, the person falls away. The third place where the seed fell was on the thorny ground, representing the divided, worldly heart. The thorns eventually choke out the word. The common thing among these three types of soil is that none of them bear fruit. Some look promising for a while, but none produce fruit. I understand Jesus to be saying that none of these types were truly saved.
The fourth type of soil is the receptive heart that hears the word, holds it fast, and bears fruit with perseverance (Luke 8:15). This heart is the only one of the four that represents the new heart that God promises to give under the new covenant (Ezek. 36:26-27; Jer. 31:31-34).
The changes that stem from new life in Christ are congenital in the sense that they grow out of the new heart that God implants by His power. But, these changes are not automatic or effortless. If they were, the New Testament would not contain the many exhortations to spiritual growth that are there. If you have come to faith in Christ, it is crucial for you to cultivate a heart that is receptive to God’s word of truth.
Psalm 78 is a lengthy psalm about Israel’s unfaithfulness in the face of God’s repeated faithfulness. In verse 8, the psalmist exhorts his generation not to be like their fathers, whom he describes as, “a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation that did not prepare its heart and whose spirit was not faithful to God.” Don’t be like they were! Prepare your heart to be receptive to God’s word.
In our text, James tells us how to have a receptive heart. He mentions God’s word in 1:18, 21, 22, 23, and 25 (“law”). In 1:18, he says that God brings us forth by His word of truth. In 1:22-25, he emphasizes being doers of the word. In our text, 1:19-21, James is talking about receiving the word implanted in our hearts. While his words about being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger obviously apply to our personal relationships (James will address this in 4:1-2), the primary application in the context has regard to our response to God’s word. We should be quick to hear it, slow to speak out with our opinions on it (anticipating what James will say in 3:1), and slow to anger when it confronts our sins. Verse 21 adds that we must get rid of all the crud of sin if we want to grow in our salvation. So James is saying here,
If God has given us new life through His word, we must prepare our hearts to be receptive to His word.
He gives us five marks of the receptive heart:
“This you know” in Greek may either be an indicative or an imperative. Most scholars agree that the imperative is better: “Know this,” or, “understand this.” The NIV paraphrases, “Take note of this.” (The KJV and New KJV follow an inferior variant, “therefore.”) Verses 19-21 are parallel in structure to verses 16-18: James begins with an imperative, followed by the warm address, “my beloved brethren.” Both sections end with a reference to the word in the context of salvation. So James opens verse 19 by saying, “In light of your new life through the word (1:18), here is something that you need to know.”
What follows is probably a familiar proverb from Jewish oral or written tradition (Peter Davids, New International Greek Testament Commentary on James [Eerdmans], p. 91). The word but (Greek, de) “probably fitted in easily enough in the context from which the saying came, but now appears awkward in its new setting” (ibid.). It is interesting that James’ opening exhortation, to be quick to hear, follows the same sequence that Luke uses after presenting the parable of the sower. Jesus follows it with the exhortation, “Take care how you listen” (Luke 8:18a). In Matthew (13:9), Jesus immediately follows the parable with, “He who has ears, let him hear.”
James says that the first mark of a heart that is receptive to God’s word is that it is quick to hear the word. Jesus told the Jews who disputed with Him (John 8:47), “He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.” Obviously, these Jews heard the sound of the words that Jesus spoke. They were not deaf. But they did not (and could not, according to Jesus) understand them (see John 8:43), because they were not born of God. They lacked the ability to hear and understand spiritual truth. As Paul said (1 Cor. 2:14), “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
To be quick to hear God’s word implies an attitude of eagerness to take in the word from every angle. As a believer, you should desire to read the word, to listen to biblical preaching of the word, to memorize the word, and to understand all of its teaching with a view to obedience. The centerpiece of the Bible is Psalm 119, which goes on for 176 verses extolling God’s word and expressing the psalmist’s delight in it. We see his eagerness when he says (119:131), “I opened my mouth wide and panted, for I longed for Your commandments.” In Psalm 19:10, David said regarding God’s commandments, “They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.”
The apostle Peter says (1 Pet. 2:2), “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, ….” That verse became very vivid to me when as a new father, I made the mistake of holding my newborn daughter with my shirt off. To her, any nipple looked like the source of milk, so she latched onto me with a vengeance! I never made that mistake again!
Evaluate your heart for God’s word. Do you delight in it? Do you long for it and pour over it as a young woman longs for and pours over a love letter from her fiancé who is in another country? What is your attitude when you go to hear the word preached? The Welsh preacher Rowland Hill (1744-1833), as an old man, was visiting with a longtime friend who said, “It is now 65 years since I first heard you preach. I still remember your text and a part of your sermon.” Hill asked, “What part of the sermon do you remember?”
The friend answered, “You said that some people, when they went to hear a sermon, were very squeamish about the delivery of the preacher. Then you said, ‘Supposing you went to hear the will of one of your relatives read, and you were expecting a legacy from him. You would hardly think of criticizing the manner in which the lawyer read the will, but you would be all attention to hear whether anything was left to you, and if so, how much. And that is the way to hear the gospel.’” (Adapted from Spurgeon’s Lectures to his Students, condensed and edited by David Otis Fuller [Zondervan], p. 374.) A receptive heart opens the ears to God’s word of truth.
Again, in the context, James’ exhortation first applies to the need to be slow to speak as a teacher of God’s word (he develops this theme in 3:1-12). Often, out of pride, a new believer wants to spout off in public to show how much he knows about the Bible or the Christian life. James, following the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, says, “Slow down! Hold your tongue!” As Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.”
Someone long ago pointed out that we have two ears that we cannot close and one mouth that we can, which ought to teach us something! TV interviewer, Larry King, observed, “I never learned anything while I was talking” (in Reader’s Digest [12/02], p. 67). James is not forbidding us from interacting with God’s word and asking pertinent questions to gain understanding. Rather, he is confronting the person who is never silent before the Lord. When God’s word confronts his ways, he is quick to argue with the Lord or to find excuses of why this doesn’t apply to him. But in the words that Eli taught the young Samuel, we all must learn to say, “Speak, Lord for Your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9). You won’t hear from God if you’re doing all the talking! A receptive heart controls the tongue.
How do you respond when the Bible steps on your toes? Maybe you’re reading it, or hearing it preached. It says something that you don’t like, because it confronts the way you think or live. Do you get angry and defensive, thinking, “What right does that preacher have to say that? How dare he tell me how to live!” Kent Hughes says, “An angry spirit is never a listening, teachable spirit” (James [Crossway Books], p. 66). It’s interesting that the only time that John Calvin mentions his own conversion, he says, “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame …” (in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms [Baker reprint], p. xl). A teachable heart has stopped fighting angrily against God. Rather, it submits to God.
James (1:20) gives the reason that we should be slow to anger, “for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” If you want to grow in righteousness, stop fighting God’s word and submit to it.
As I’ve mentioned before, for me this was the key in coming to understand and accept the doctrine of election. As a college student, I used to fight Paul (so I thought—actually, I was fighting God!). I would wrestle with Romans 9, up to verse 19, where he says, “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’” I thought, “Yeah, Paul, answer that question for me!”
But then, I thought, he cops out. His answer (9:20-21) is, “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?” That answer made me angry.
Then one day as I was boxing with Paul, the Lord tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I gave you the answer very plainly. You just don’t like it!” I went, “Gulp!” With Job (42:2, 6), I said, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted…. Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” That is the only attitude if you want to have a receptive, teachable heart before God.
Before I leave James 1:19-20, I want to apply it also to our personal relationships. I have seen the sin of anger rip apart Christian families and churches. Unbridled anger is a devastating sin that always creates distance in relationships. It destroys your children. It never accomplishes anything good. You might as well throw a bomb into your living room while your family is sitting there!
Jesus labeled anger as the root sin behind murder (Matt. 5:21-22). Before Cain committed the first murder in history, God confronted him with the question (Gen. 4:6a), “Why are you angry?” It’s not a bad question to ask yourself when you’re angry. Paul warned that unchecked anger gives the devil a foothold in your life (Eph. 4:26-27). And yet it is tolerated in many homes and churches. I have known Christian husbands and fathers who abuse their families with angry words and behavior. I have known of pastors who bully others with anger in an attempt to control the church.
Sure, we excuse it as hereditary or justify it as “righteous anger.” But you can pretty much assume that it is not righteous! It almost always stems from selfishness or pride: I didn’t get my way, and I want my way, and I’m going to threaten everyone around me until I get my way! But we need to listen to what James says: “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” Paul clearly labels “enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, [and] factions” as deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:20). He warns (5:21), “that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” That’s a radical warning! Take it to heart!
If you can’t make it through a week without taking a drink, you need to face reality: You’re an alcoholic! You’re addicted to the stuff. If you can’t make it through a week without yelling, name-calling, throwing things, threats, or giving your mate the silent treatment, you’re an angry person. You need to face the problem and take drastic steps to root it out of your life if you want to inherit the kingdom of God! Begin by confronting it on the thought level. If you’re thinking angry thoughts against your mate or children or parents or… (fill in the blank), you’re already sinning against God and against them. Cut it off at the thought level by judging your sin and putting on a heart of compassion, forgiveness, and love (see Col. 3:12-14).
So James says that as those who have been given new life from God, we must prepare our hearts to be receptive to God’s word. The receptive heart opens the ears, controls the tongue, and controls the emotion of anger.
“Therefore” links verse 21 as the conclusion to verses 19 & 20. “Putting aside” is a term used for taking off filthy clothes. “All filthiness and all that remains of wickedness” expands from the sins of verse 19 to include all sorts of disobedience to God’s word. The word translated “all that remains” is literally, “abundance,” but it’s clear that James does not mean that you can keep some wickedness, as long as you get rid of any extra wickedness! Either it’s a figure of speech that means, “the whole dirty mass of wickedness,” or it means to get rid of every trace of it (Davids, p. 94).
James’ thought here is the same as Paul’s, when he tells us to put off the old self (or man) and to put on the new self (Eph. 4:22-24). We all bring baggage from our old way of life over into the Christian life. Usually, we’re blind to much of it. We don’t realize that we’re displeasing God by our thoughts, words, or actions. As we begin to read God’s word, it convicts us of areas that we didn’t even know were sin. When this happens, the receptive heart cleans out the crud of sin and puts on the clean clothes of new life in Christ. If you don’t do this, the crud will prevent you from growing as a Christian.
The picture here is that of the parable of the sower, scattering the seed of the word. Will your heart be good soil that receives the seed and bears fruit, or will it be one of the other kinds of soil that is unproductive? Once the seed falls into the good soil, it still needs to be nurtured in order to bear fruit. The seed must be watered and weeds must be pulled. It must be protected from the birds or from being trampled under foot.
The word translated humility is a difficult word to translate. Often the NASB translates it as gentleness (a fruit of the Spirit, Gal. 5:23). The King James uses meekness. The Greek word has the idea of strength in submission or strength under control. It was used of Alexander the Great’s horse, which was powerfully strong, but totally submissive and responsive to the master’s touch. The believer with this quality can be very strong, as Jesus and Paul were, and yet completely submissive and sensitive to the Lord’s command.
When James says that the word implanted “is able to save your souls,” he is viewing salvation as the entire process of the Christian life, culminating in our “ultimate deliverance from sin and death that takes place at the time of Christ’s return in glory (see, e.g., Rom. 5:9, 10; 13:11; 1 Thess. 5:9; Phil. 2:12; 1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 4:18; Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 1:5, 9; 2:2; 4:18). James’ other uses of the [word] share this future orientation (2:14; 4:12; 5:20; in 5:15, ‘save’ applies to physical, not spiritual, deliverance)” (Douglas Moo, The Letter of James [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 88).
“Save” is a radical word that means to be rescued or delivered. The opposite is to be lost. Picture a man in danger of his life, who fights against those who come to rescue him. That’s the wrong way to get rescued! The right way is to follow their orders, assuming that they know what they’re doing and that they are out for your best interests. God’s aim, through His implanted word, is to save your soul. But you need to submit to it with humility, putting aside all arrogance and pride. Welcome God’s word into your life as your deliverer. It will save you from destruction if you receive it and obey it.
Proverbs 4:23 says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” Have you done a heart check lately? If your heart is apathetic to God’s word, James says, “Be quick to hear.” If you’re prone to spout off arrogantly with how much you know, James says, “Be slow to speak.” If you’re fighting some aspect of the word that you don’t like, James says, “Be slow to anger.” If you’re tolerating the crud of sin, James says, “Put aside all filthiness.” If you’re resisting God’s commands that are designed to rescue you from sin, James says, “In humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Pastor Stuart Briscoe was teaching the principles of Bible study. He showed how to pick out the promises and the commands in Scripture, and what to do with them. Finally, he reviewed and asked, “Now, what do you do with the commands?” A little old lady raised her hand and said, “I underline them in blue.”
Underlining the Bible’s commands in blue might make for a colorful Bible, but the point of the commands is that we obey them. Unfortunately, there are many people in evangelical churches who have their heads filled with information from the Bible, but they don’t obey what the Bible commands. That may sound harsh, but surveys commonly show that there is substantially no difference between evangelical Christians and the population at large on most moral and social beliefs and behavior.
For example, pollster George Barna (in World [12/6/03], p. 33) found that one out of three “born-again Christians” (defined as “those who report having made a personal commitment to Christ and expect to get to heaven because they accepted Jesus”) accept same-sex unions. Thirty-nine percent believe it is morally acceptable for couples to live together before marriage. And, born-again Christians are more likely than non-Christians to have experienced divorce (27 to 24 %)!
James would be aghast! Although the readers to whom he wrote differ from the modern church, his message is just as relevant now as it was when he wrote it. He’s saying,
To hear the word and not do it leads to deception, but to hear the word and do it leads to blessing.
When I counsel couples who want to get married, I ask them to fill out a form that asks, among other questions, whether or not they are having sexual relations. The follow-up question asks how they feel about their physical relationship. They can check “good,” “concerned,” “guilty,” or “trapped.” I have often seen couples check that they have sex often and they feel good about it!
I ask such couples, “Do you want God’s blessing on your marriage?” I’ve never had one couple say, “Nah!” I follow that question by explaining that if you want God’s blessing, you’ve got to obey His word. To ask God to bless your life while you disobey His word is crazy. James lines up with all of Scripture when he says that it is the doer of the word that will be blessed in what he does.
In James 1:21, he talked about receiving “the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.” In 1:22-27, he goes on to emphasize doing the word. In 1:22-24, he shows that hearing the word without doing it leads to deception. He illustrates this in 1:26 with the man who claims to be religious, but who does not bridle his tongue. He deceives himself and his religion is worthless. In 1:25, he shows that hearing the word accompanied by doing it leads to blessing. He illustrates this with two examples in 1:27: caring for orphans and widows; and, keeping oneself unstained by the world.
It is important to realize that James is addressing church-going people. He is not writing to pagans, but to those who regularly hear the word of God. Probably, they took some comfort in the fact that they often heard the word. That put them a notch above those pagans who never attend church! Being Jewish Christians, some probably took pride in their observance of certain rituals and outward commands. They had been baptized. They took communion. They attended church. They didn’t steal or murder or commit adultery. But James cuts through the veneer to the heart!
Obedience should always be the bottom line of Bible study or biblical preaching. Correct application must always be built on correct interpretation. But to study the word just to fill your head with knowledge, without applying the word, short-circuits God’s purpose in giving it. Even seemingly irrelevant matters, such as biblical genealogies, are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). James gives us three warnings about those who hear the word without doing it:
James uses the illustration of a man (the Greek word stipulates a man, as distinguished from a woman) who looks at his natural face in the mirror, rushes out the door, and forgets what he saw. Maybe he had a couple of days of stubble on his face, or he slept wrong on his hair, and it stuck up in an unruly manner. But, he’s late for work, and he’s really not all that concerned about his appearance, so he quickly tries to smooth it out and rushes out the door, even though he looks like he just got out of bed. The mirror showed him the problems, but he didn’t do anything to fix them.
The word of God is like a mirror that reveals to us the very thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Heb. 4:12). It shows us our ugly, self-centered attitudes. It exposes our pride. It confronts our contempt for others and our lack of compassion. It hits our sinful anger and our rotten speech. It uncovers our deception, greed, and lust. But, if we just take a quick glance at the word once in a rare while and rush out the door, without doing anything to address the problems that it reveals, it won’t do us any good.
Hearing the word without doing it is the default mode of our fallen hearts. Like Adam and Eve when God confronted them, we’re quick to blame others and dodge our own responsibility for our sins. To be doers of the word, we’ve got to give it more than passing attention. It requires deliberate focus and hard work to apply it personally.
The main point of James’ illustration about the man and the mirror is that he quickly forgets what he saw in the mirror. The mirror is not at fault. It tells it like it is. It shows us what we really look like. But the man who takes this quick look quickly forgets what he saw (1:24). He is a “forgetful hearer” (1:25). And so he does nothing about the problems he saw in the mirror.
I think that James is not describing a man with a poor memory, but rather a man with poor priorities. He doesn’t remember what he saw in the mirror because he doesn’t regard it as very important. God, heaven, eternal life, and all of the other doctrines in the Bible are interesting and nice, but this guy has a career to pursue. He’s got money to make. He’s got his hobbies and toys that are his passion on his days off. He forgets what God’s word says about his sins because, really, it just isn’t all that important compared to these other priorities in his life.
The problem of forgetting God is a frequent theme in the Old Testament. Moses warned Israel (Deut. 6:12), after they got into the land, “then watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Just two chapters later (Deut. 8:2), he repeats, “You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you ….”
Psalm 103:2 warns God’s people to “forget none of His benefits.” It promises that the Lord’s lovingkindness is on those who “remember His precepts to do them” (103:18b). Psalm 106:7 warns of how “our fathers in Egypt … did not remember Your abundant kindnesses ….” In verse 13 he states, “They quickly forgot His works; …” He adds (106:21), “They forgot God their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, …” One of the last commands in the Old Testament is (Mal. 4:4), “Remember the law of Moses My servant, …” Israel didn’t have a memory problem. They had a priority problem. God’s commandments just weren’t all that important to them. They had other things that were more pressing.
All parents have experienced this with their children. You ask them to clean their room. You come back in an hour, and they’re playing, but their room hasn’t been touched. You say, “I told you to clean your room,” and they reply, “I forgot!” Right! It’s not that your child has a memory problem. Cleaning his room just isn’t very high on his priority list, until you impose a stiff enough penalty to push it up to the top!
So hearers-only take a quick glance in the mirror of the word, but they don’t do anything to fix the problems that they see. They forget what they see because other things are more important.
James mentions this twice, in 1:22 and again in his practical illustration in 1:26. There is an inherent danger in attending a church where God’s word is proclaimed week to week: If you hear the word often, but do not put it into practice, you delude yourself. The solution is not to avoid hearing the word, but rather to apply it to the problems in your life that the word uncovers.
I confess that sometimes it takes a lot of work to figure out why a particular text is in the Bible (sometimes repeated, such as Ezra 2 & Nehemiah 7; see my two sermons on these chapters). But I believe that every chapter in the Bible is designed in some way to apply to our daily lives. As you read the word, always be asking how it applies to your life. If you can’t figure out how a text applies, move on to those that plainly apply. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “It isn’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do understand!”
In verse 26, James gives an example of someone who hears the word, but does not do it and so deceives himself. This man thinks that he is religious. “Religious” (and “religion”) are infrequently used words in the New Testament. James uses them here because he is describing a man who prides himself in the outward trappings of the faith, but who is not applying it to his heart. He is a religious Jew who now professes faith in Christ, but like many of the Jews, his religion is a matter of pride and outward performance. He prays, he fasts, he tithes, he goes through all of the rituals, but in James’ example, he doesn’t bridle his tongue. James says that this man deceives his own heart and his religion is worthless.
James will deal more with the tongue in chapter 3, but it can encompass a multitude of sins: lying, half-truths, slander, gossip, angry words, hateful words, cursing, telling filthy jokes or stories, and much more. The Bible has very specific and practical commands on each of these areas. If you profess to follow Christ, but don’t apply the Bible to your speech, you’re fooling yourself if you think that you’re religious. Your religion is worthless and your profession is empty. The solution to this problem is…
The one who hears the word and becomes an effectual doer “will be blessed in what he does.” There are four things to note:
Rather than a quick glance, the doer of the word looks intently at it. The Greek word means to stoop and look carefully at something. It was used of John and Mary stooping to look carefully into the empty tomb after the resurrection (John 20:5, 11). This was not a casual, quick look! They peered in there carefully, trying to see if the body of Jesus was inside. It’s also used of the angels longing to look into the matters of our salvation (1 Pet. 1:12). This isn’t the quick glance of the guy who rushes out the door, but rather the careful look of one who notices a blemish or spot of dirt on his face and takes the time to correct the problem.
One of Yogi Berra’s quirky comments is, “You can see a lot just by looking.” That’s true of Bible study. I’ve often read a passage many times, but missed something that seems so obvious once I see it. That’s why I enjoy reading the sermons of men like J. C. Ryle and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. They make practical observations about verses that seem so obvious that I think, “Why didn’t I see that?” The answer probably is that I didn’t take the time waiting on the Lord and meditating on the text that these men did. As you look intently at the word, ask God first to help you understand what it meant to the original readers. You can’t apply a text that you do not properly understand. Then ask Him how it applies to your life, not just outwardly, but on the heart level.
Note that James changes terminology in verse 25. Up till now, he’s mentioned “the word” (1:18, 21, 22, 23), but now he refers to it as “the perfect law, the law of liberty.” Why does he do this?
James was writing to Jewish readers who would be thinking, “James, my dear fellow, you keep mentioning the word. Are you forgetting that you’re writing to Jews who are steeped in the Torah? We’ve studied the Law of God from our youth up! We take great pride in our obedience of the Law. Are you forgetting that we’re not Gentile dogs who are ignorant of the Law?”
But James knew that his fellow Jews were prone to keep the Law outwardly, while their hearts were far from God. Like the rich young ruler, they thought that they kept all of the commandments from their youth up, but he was violating the great commandment, because he loved his money more than he loved God (Matt. 19:16-22). As Jesus rebuked the Jews (Matt. 15:8, citing Isaiah 29:13), “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me.”
Douglas Moo (The Letter of James [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 94) argues that by “the perfect law,” James is not referring simply to the Law of Moses. Rather, he is pointing to the interpretation and fulfillment of that law in the teaching of Jesus, the new law-giver. When James calls it “the law of liberty, he is referring to “the new covenant promise of the law written on the heart …, accompanied by a work of the Spirit enabling obedience to that law for the first time.” Donald Burdick confirms (Expositors Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:176), “… it does not enslave. It is not enforced by external compulsion. Instead, it is freely accepted and fulfilled with glad devotion under the enablement [sic] of the Spirit of God (Gal. 5:22-23).”
God’s word applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit frees us from bondage to sin (John 8:31-36). As I’ve often emphasized, we must apply the word on the thought level if we want to overcome sin, because all sin stems from the heart (Mark 7:21-23).
James adds, “and abides by it.” In other words, this man is not coming to the word for a quick fix for his immediate problem. He gets his answer and says, “Thanks, see you next time I’m in trouble!” Rather, the Bible must be continually applied to our hearts over our entire lifetimes. It’s a long-term approach that requires discipline and diligence to reap the benefits. As Psalm 1:1-3 states,
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season. And its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.
The blessed hearer and doer looks intently at the word. He applies it, not just to his outward behavior, but also to his heart. He continues applying it over a lifetime. Finally,
In contrast to the worthless religion of the man in 1:26, in 1:27 James gives two practical examples of a person who applies God’s word. He is not being comprehensive, but is zeroing in on two areas of pastoral concern. But these two examples represent “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father.” James says that to contrast it with the outward religion of the man who is doing it to be noticed by other men. He calls God “Father” here because of the reference to orphans and widows. In Psalm 68:5, God is called “a father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows.” He has a special concern for the helpless who could not provide for themselves.
The word “visit” means more than dropping in for a social call, although it includes that. It comes from the same word that is translated “overseer,” describing the work of elders. It means to look out for, care for, and be concerned about. To show this concern for orphans and widows requires that a person take his focus off of himself and his needs and think about others and their needs. Usually, there is no payback when you care for orphans and widows. In that society, they were poor and not able to work.
What motivates you to care for them is, you know they have needs, you apply the golden rule (how you would want to be treated if you were in their situation), and you do it to please God, who sent His Son so that you could be adopted into His family. The point is that when God’s word takes root in our hearts, it shifts our focus from self to others.
One practical way that I’ve found to move from having good intentions to obey the word to actually doing it is, to put it in my schedule. It’s easy for me to think, “I need to go see so-and-so and encourage him in his faith.” Great thought, but if I don’t put it in my schedule, it won’t happen, because I don’t have a lot of spontaneous free time where I’m wondering what to do.
James says that pure and undefiled religion is “to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The world refers to the evil system under Satan’s domain that is opposed to God. It is dirty and defiling. As God’s people, we are to be in the world, but not of the world (John 17:15-19). We are not to join monasteries to keep ourselves from being tainted by this evil world. James later says (4:4), if we make friends with the world, we have made ourselves enemies of God. He means that we are not to embrace the world’s goals, priorities, and temporal values. We should not find pleasure in the world’s entertainment if it mocks God and His word. To be more specific, most TV shows and movies will defile you. Avoid them! But, we are to go into the world and befriend sinners, as the Savior did, and yet not be stained by their evil thinking and evil deeds.
A gray-haired old lady, long a member of her church, shook hands with the pastor after the service one Sunday morning. “That was a wonderful sermon,” she exclaimed, “just wonderful! Everything you said applies to someone I know.”
James doesn’t want us applying the word to others. He doesn’t want us underlining all the commands in the Bible in blue. He wants us to apply it to ourselves. I ask you what I ask young couples, “Do you want God’s blessing in your life?” If you say yes, then James’ answer is clear: Don’t be a forgetful hearer of the word. Become an effectual doer and you will be blessed by God.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
When he was a student, the famous Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, considered becoming a Christian. He read the Gospels and was moved by them. It seemed to him that Christianity offered a solution to the caste system that plagued the people of India.
One Sunday, he went to a local church. He had decided to see the pastor and ask for instruction on the way of salvation. But when he entered the church, which consisted of white people, the ushers refused to give him a seat. They told him to go and worship with his own people. He left and never went back “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu” (from “Our Daily Bread,” [Feb., 1979]).
That tragic story illustrates the sin that James writes against in our text. His focus is on the sin of showing favoritism to the rich and despising the poor, but his words apply to all types of prejudice, whether it is based on economic status, race, or anything else. To favor some people and to disregard others based on outward factors is a terrible sin that plagued the early church in James’ day. It has plagued the church in every generation, because it stems from pride, which is endemic to our fallen hearts.
I recently read The Bad Popes (by E. R. Chamberlin [Barnes & Noble]), a history of the worst of the Roman Catholic popes. The word corrupt is not strong enough to convey how evil these men were! They were into total power and they dispensed favors based on who could pay them the most or who would consolidate their power over their enemies. They epitomized the sin of partiality.
But we don’t need to turn to the Roman Catholic Church for examples of violations of James’ commands. The sin of partiality has persisted in often subtle, but sometimes blatant, ways in evangelical churches as well. For example, one tenet of the church growth movement is called, “the homogeneous unit principle.” It is based on the observation that people like to worship with “their own kind.” Thus, we need to target our outreach programs and build our churches with the aim of reaching similar segments of society. So these folks try to “market” the church to the Baby Boomers or to the Generation Xers, each with their own demographic preferences. I’ve even heard of churches aiming at the up-and-outers, the rich who seem to have everything but God!
Probably such specialized churches would not deliberately exclude anyone who didn’t fit their target audience, but neither would they go out of their way to make such folks feel comfortable. They define their niche and do everything to shape the “product” (the church) to appeal to that niche.
All such approaches violate what James is saying here and they ignore the glory of the New Testament church, “in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). The makeup of the local church should baffle the world. The world should not be able to explain how people of different races, economic and social levels, and age groups can come together in love and harmony. To divide up the church along such lines obliterates the glory of God and His salvation!
James’ argument runs from 2:1 through 2:13. He gives three reasons why partiality is wrong. For sake of time we can only deal this time with the first two (2:1-7).
Partiality is wrong because it usurps God’s sovereignty, it aligns you with God’s enemies, and it violates God’s law of love.
James again addresses his readers as “my brethren” (1:2, 16, 19; 2:5, 14; 3:1, 10, 12; 4:11; 5:7, 9-10, 12, 19). This shows that he is writing to professing Christians, not to the world. It reveals James’ pastoral concern for them and it reminds them (and us) that we are brothers and sisters in the family of God. This is further underscored by James’ mention of “your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” It is faith in Christ that brings us all, whatever our backgrounds, into God’s family as brethren. When James says, “do not,” the Greek construction has the nuance, “Stop doing it.” James had already observed this sinful practice taking place. He is writing to correct a problem before it grows worse. He shows two ways that partiality usurps God’s sovereignty:
James opens with the command, that we not hold our “faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” Then he illustrates it with a hypothetical scenario. Two men come into a church gathering (here called “synagogue,” a carryover from their recent Jewish roots). One is obviously wealthy, as seen by his gold ring and fine clothes. The other is obviously poor, as seen by his shabby clothes. Someone in the church directs the wealthy man to the best seat in the house, whereas the poor man is told to stand out of the way, or to sit down on the floor. The rich man is given privileges because of his wealth, but the poor man is despised because of his poverty. Such treatment, James says, is evil.
Scholars debate over exactly how to translate the word “glorious.” The New King James Bible, for example, translates it as “the Lord of glory.” But however it is translated, it refers to the Lord Jesus Christ, ascribing to Him an attribute of God. James was familiar with Isaiah 42:8, where God says, “I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images.” It would be idolatry to ascribe glory to a creature. Thus when James refers to the Lord Jesus Christ as “glorious,” he is ascribing deity to Him.
This is one of only two references to Jesus Christ by name in this entire epistle (see 1:1), and so it should capture our attention. By focusing our attention on Jesus Christ in His glory, James addresses the problem of favoritism in two ways.
First, he gets us to see how petty our distinctions between the rich and poor (or any other distinctions) really are. Even the most powerfully rich men on earth are nothing compared to the glory of Jesus Christ, the King of kings. King Nebuchadnezzar thought that he was great, but God humbled him so that he ate grass like a beast of the field. When he came to his senses, he acknowledged that God alone is great (see Daniel 4, esp. vv. 34-37).
When we exalt men on account of their wealth or power or status, we rob glory from Jesus Christ, who sovereignly gives us everything that we are and have (1 Cor. 4:7). Rather than exalting the rich, we should exalt the supreme glory of Christ alone. We all are just His unworthy servants. Focusing on the glory of Christ puts us all in our proper place before Him. Of course we should grant honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7), but honor toward Christ and honor toward men are on two different planes.
Second, when James ascribes glory to the Lord Jesus Christ, it probably points to His coming in power and glory to judge the earth (Matt. 26:64; Peter Davids, Commentary on James [Eerdmans], p. 107). James will mention judgment at the end of his argument (2:12-13). In 2:4, he says that when we make distinctions among people based on outward factors, we set ourselves up as judges with evil motives (or, thoughts). We don’t see the hearts of men, as God does (1 Sam. 16:7). To judge a man based on his outward appearance is to usurp the place of Jesus Christ in His glory as judge of all the earth.
We would be mistaken to conclude that James is saying that the rich are categorically bad and the poor are categorically good. Some rich men are very godly and some poor men are very evil. But James’ point is that any judgments based on outward factors alone are wrong judgments, because they do not discern the heart. Only God can judge the heart, and so we are wrong to usurp His place as judge.
James asks his readers to pay attention (“Listen”). He again addresses them as “my beloved brethren,” and then asks a question that expects an affirmative answer: “Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” Note the following:
First, the New Testament writers consistently assume that God chooses those who are saved apart from any merit or qualifications on the part of those chosen. Salvation is not offered to anyone on the basis of anything that God sees or foresees in that person. He does not choose the rich man to get his money for the kingdom. God does not choose the poor man because of his poverty. God does not choose those whom He foresees will one day trust in Him, because that would make salvation depend on something that originates in fallen man. God’s choice is completely based on His grace and purpose (Rom. 9:11-16).
James does not stop here to explain or defend the doctrine of God’s sovereign election. He assumes that his readers know and believe this, and so he uses it as a reason why they are wrong to favor the rich and despise the poor. When they do this, they align themselves opposite to God, who often chooses the poor to be rich in faith and leaves the rich to perish along with their wealth (James 5:1-6).
James is not teaching that God chooses all poor men for salvation and passes over all rich men. Rather, it was obvious in the early church that many more poor people had trusted in Christ for salvation, as compared to the rich. There were some rich people (Zaccheus, Nicodemus, Barnabas, Philemon, etc.), but the numbers were slanted toward the poor. That’s why Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:26-29),
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.
Although there is no merit inherent in poverty, poor people often realize how short life is and thus see their need for eternal life more readily than the rich do. As Jesus explained after the encounter with the rich young ruler, it is hard for the wealthy to get into God’s kingdom, because their riches usurp the place that belongs to God alone (Mark 10:17-27). It is those who are poor materially who are also often poor in spirit, recognizing their need for God’s grace (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20). When God sent His Son to this earth, He chose a poor Jewish maiden to be His mother. Mary exulted (Luke 1:52-53), “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent away the rich empty-handed.”
By choosing those whom the world rejects and despises, God magnifies the riches of His grace. When James says that God chooses the poor “to be rich in faith,” he means, rich in the sphere of faith. They have spiritual riches in Christ through God’s sovereign, gracious choice, which brought them to faith in Him (as Paul argues in Eph. 1:3-14). God’s choice makes them “heirs of the kingdom” (James 1:5). At the moment of salvation, they come under the reign of Christ in their hearts (Col. 1:13-14), but there remains in the future the fullness of that kingdom and its blessings, when Jesus returns in power and glory (Matt. 25:31-34).
When James says that God promised the kingdom “to those who love Him” (1:5), he is describing the result of salvation, not the means to it. Salvation is completely by God’s grace and is received by faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9). But when God lavishes His grace on us, we respond by loving Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:7-10, 19).
So James’ first argument is that partiality toward the rich and against the poor (or, partiality based on any external factors) is wrong because it puts us in the place of judge and it puts us in the place of God who chooses. By showing favoritism, we usurp the role that belongs to God alone, who makes sovereign choices.
James states that by making distinctions based on outward factors, the church has dishonored the poor man. Then he asks two rhetorical questions, based on their current circumstances, to show that by aligning themselves with the rich against the poor, they are siding with God’s enemies, who are also their own enemies. Again, we must keep in mind that James is speaking here in generalities. There were, no doubt, honest, considerate men of wealth, just as there were poor scoundrels.
James is not teaching that the church should ignore or despise the rich because of their riches. That would be reverse discrimination! The church should show God’s love and grace to all, whether rich or poor. Rather, he is saying that the rich should not be given preferential treatment, to the detriment of the poor, in an attempt to court their money or influence. James makes two points:
He asks a question that required an affirmative answer, “Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?” Because of greed and selfishness, in every culture and age, the wealthy tend to take advantage of those who are helplessly poor. Even though the rich man does not need the money, he forecloses on the poor person’s property to collect on a debt, or he charges exorbitant interest that the poor person could never hope to repay. Or, he pays pitiful wages that hardly allow a man to feed his family, while the rich man just gets richer.
Also, as William Barclay explains (Daily Study Bible: the Letters of James & Peter [Westminster Press], p. 67), “If a creditor met a debtor on the street, he could seize him by the neck of his robe, nearly throttling him, and literally drag him to the law-courts.” That’s what James is describing here. It is not wealth that James is condemning, but a lack of compassion and understanding on the part of the wealthy towards the poor.
The Old Testament repeatedly emphasizes that God is concerned for the rights of the poor. The wicked Queen Jezebel hired false witnesses to accuse Naboth and execute him. Then she seized his property, just because her pouting husband wanted it for a vegetable garden. Because of this, God pronounced severe judgment on Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 21:1-24). The law stipulated that Israel appoint those who judge the people righteously (Deut. 16:18, 20; Ps. 82:3-4). Merchants were commanded to have full, just weights and measures (Deut. 25:15). Bribery was condemned (1 Sam. 8:3; Ps. 15:5; 26:10; Amos 5:12).
The prophets often confront Israel for oppressing the poor, especially orphans and widows (Isa. 1:17; Jer. 22:15-16; Ezek. 22:7; Amos 4:1; 5:15, 24). Sodom was condemned because she “had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy” (Ezek. 16:49). In the New Testament, Paul exhorts (Col. 4:1), “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.”
So James’ point is that if you give preferential treatment to the rich man who oppresses the poor, you’re aligning yourself with God’s enemies. John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 303-304) compares it to honoring your executioners and injuring your own friends!
James’ second rhetorical question is, “Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?” The literal rendering, “which has been called upon you” (NASB, margin) refers to the practice of a wife taking her husband’s name, or a child taking on the name of his father. Christians take the name of their Savior, Jesus Christ. We don’t know the specific situation here. Douglas Moo (The Letter of James [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 109) suggests that it could have been the Gentiles mocking the Christians’ God, or the Jews criticizing the Christian claims about Jesus. It may refer to unbelievers making fun of Christian morality or worship.
William Barclay (ibid., pp. 67-68) suggests that the wealthy slave owners may have insulted their Christian slaves or the slaves’ new Lord and Master because of several reasons. The believing slave would have a new sense of independence, and thus no longer cringe at his master’s power. He would have a new sense of honesty, and thus not go along with his master’s dishonest practices. He would have a new sense of priorities, and thus insist on leaving work aside so that he could worship with his fellow believers. These and other reasons would cause these rich unbelievers to blaspheme the name of Christ and those who followed Him.
So, again, James’ point is that showing partiality to the rich is wrong, because you align yourself with those who despise God. He is not saying that all rich people do this, but is making generalizations. But, why court the favor of those who oppose God?
There are many ways that we can fall into the sin that James is warning us against here. I was once at a breakfast to raise funds for and to honor Billy Graham. He was not present, but his wife was there. They had on the platform a famous movie star, who supposedly had become a Christian. The guy told an off-color joke, and almost everyone present, not knowing what to do, laughed. I was shocked, but I thought, “That’s what you get when you court the influence of the world!”
When I was in seminary, Marla and I attended a church that was heavily slanted toward the wealthy. Our 1968 Mustang, which was only eight-years-old at the time, stood out like a sore thumb in the parking lot! In our couples class, there was one couple from Colorado that didn’t fit in culturally with the suit and tie crowd. I deliberately dressed down, not wearing a coat and tie, to try to make this couple feel more accepted. Once after I had taught the class without my uniform on, the elders called me in and reprimanded me for not dressing properly! I confronted them with violating James 2, and they were taken aback that I had a biblical reason for what I was doing. I still believe that by their attire, they were inadvertently catering to the rich and excluding the poor.
One other example: I heard about a church where a wealthy attorney, who was on the elder board, was having an affair. When the other elders confronted his sin and asked him to step off the board, he threatened to sue the church unless they all resigned, in order to save him from disgrace. Sadly, they capitulated. They were showing partiality to the rich and powerful.
Let’s apply this by showing love to every person and partiality to none. When our Lord returns, we will hear Him say (Matt. 25:34-40),
“Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”
Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?”
The King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
One Saturday morning when we lived in Southern California, we drove down from our mountain town to do some shopping in San Bernardino. When we got into town, to our horror we saw a large group of white-robed, pointed-hat Ku Klux Klan holding a rally at the park! It sent shivers down our spines! Sadly, racism is alive and well in America. Shamefully, it is often promoted by professing Bible-believing Christians. Most Klan chapters have chaplains, many of whom disgracefully are Baptist ministers!
How can those who claim to know Christ so flagrantly disregard the plain command of James 2:1: “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism”? The sad fact is that evangelical churches are often the most racially segregated place in America. As James says (3:10), “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.”
The New Testament church was radically counter-cultural. It consisted of Jews and Greeks, slaves and slave-owners, worshiping together. Some have criticized the New Testament for not strongly condemning slavery. But if it had put an emphasis there, the gospel would have become eclipsed by the anti-slavery message, and Christianity could have been stamped out as a revolutionary movement that threatened the cultural status quo. Rather, by proclaiming the gospel and by exhorting both slaves and slave-owners to regard each other as brothers in God’s family, the institution of slavery was eroded from within.
James was particularly addressing the problem of showing partiality to the rich and disregarding the poor, but his words apply to any sort of partiality based on external factors: “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin” (2:9). That seems pretty clear! And yet because we all tend to congratulate ourselves for not committing certain “big” sins, while we shrug off our “little” sins as no big deal, this problem of partiality still plagues the church. So James’ teaching here is relevant for our times.
Last week we looked at the first two reasons for why partiality is wrong: it usurps God’s sovereignty (2:1-5), and it aligns you with God’s enemies (2:6-7). Today we come to the third reason (2:8-13):
Partiality is wrong because it violates God’s law of love.
Here’s the flow of thought: To show partiality violates the second great commandment of God’s law, to love your neighbor as yourself. To break God’s law is sin and to break even one part of it is to break the whole. Since God’s law will be the standard by which everyone will be judged, we should live in light of that coming judgment, especially by showing mercy to the poor.
In verse 8, James seems to be anticipating his readers’ objections: “James, by showing the rich man to the best seat, we’re only following the biblical injunction to show proper honor where honor is due! After all, if we were rich, that’s how we would want to be treated. We’re just following the golden rule!”
With tongue in cheek, James says, “That’s fine! If you claim to be fulfilling God’s law of love, you’re doing well! Keep it up!” As his readers begin to congratulate themselves, James lands the knockout punch (2:9), “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
James calls the law “the royal law.” Primarily, this means that it comes from the King, the Lord Jesus Christ. It emphasizes the authority of the law. James has just mentioned (2:5) that believers are heirs of the kingdom. As such, we must live under the law of the king. So “the royal law” probably refers to “the whole law as interpreted and handed over to the church in the teaching of Jesus” (Peter Davids, New International Greek Testament Commentary on James [Eerdmans], p. 114). That law is contained in Scripture. The Bible is our authoritative rule of life. It reveals God’s will for how we should think and live. So we should always read and study it with a view to how it applies to our daily lives.
James singles out the command from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is cited six times in the synoptic gospels, and also in Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14. Jesus referred to it as the second great command, after, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). He added (22:40), “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Just prior to the command to love our neighbor, Moses wrote (Lev. 19:15), “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.” So part of biblical love for one’s neighbor includes treating each person fairly and impartially.
Modern “Christian” psychology has taken the command to love your neighbor as yourself to mean that we are commanded to love ourselves. In fact, they contend that if we do not love ourselves properly, we cannot love either God or our neighbor properly. So the first item of business is to focus on loving yourself!
However, there are only two great commandments, not three: (1) Love God; (2) love your neighbor. Love of self is assumed as the standard by which we must love our neighbor. John Calvin saw this centuries ago when he wrote (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], II:VII:54, pp. 417-418):
And obviously, since men were born in such a state that they are all too much inclined to self-love—and however much they deviate from truth, they still keep self-love—there was no need of a law that would increase or rather enkindle this already excessive love. Hence it is very clear that we keep the commandments not by loving ourselves but by loving God and neighbor; …
Indeed, to express how profoundly we must be inclined to love our neighbors [Lev. 19:18], the Lord measured it by the love of ourselves because he had at hand no more violent or stronger emotion than this.
So the point of the second great commandment is, you care about your own needs; show the same care for the needs of others. You care about your own feelings; show the same care for the feelings of others. You care about your own desires; show the same care for the desires of others. You care about how others treat you; treat them as you would want to be treated.
But, in case anyone doesn’t get it, James goes on (2:9) to apply the law of love specifically to partiality. To show partiality to the rich while you treat the poor with contempt, or to show partiality to a certain race, while treating those of another race as inferior, is to commit sin. In case we didn’t understand those plain words, James adds, you “are convicted by the law as transgressors.” Guilty!
Like a brilliant trial attorney, James knew that his readers would try to squirm out from under this guilty verdict by saying, “Well, okay, maybe we’ve not treated everyone fairly, but it’s not that big of a deal. After all, we haven’t been committing adultery. We haven’t been murdering people. We keep the important commandments of the law, even if we haven’t always treated the poor as we should have.” Anticipating this dodge, James continues,
“For” shows that James is buttressing his argument from 2:9. He argues that if anyone keeps the entire law (something that no one has ever done, but for sake of argument, he assumes that it is possible), but stumbles in one point, he is guilty of all. In other words, the law is a unity, like a chain. A single broken link breaks the chain. Or, the law is like a mirror or window. A single, small crack means that it is broken.
We would be wrong to conclude from this that all the commands in the law are of equal importance, or that all sins are equal. Jesus said that the weightier provisions of the law are justice, mercy, and faithfulness, thus implying that other matters, such as tithing table spices, are less important (Matt. 23:23). The apostle Paul implied that sexual sins are worse than some other sins when he said (1 Cor. 6:18), “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.” Mental lust is sin, but it is worse sin to commit immorality. Mental anger is sin, but it is worse sin to murder someone.
But James’ point is, whatever the sin, it renders you a lawbreaker. You can be a good person in every other way, but if you break the law, you are a lawbreaker. For example, if a man is guilty of murder, when he goes before the court it does not matter if he has been a faithful husband and father, has never had a traffic ticket, has never robbed a bank, or has never beat up his neighbor. All that matters is, did he commit murder? If so, he is guilty of breaking the law.
Why does James bring up (2:11) these two commandments, adultery and murder, and why does he mention them in the reverse order that they occur in the Ten Commandments? We can’t be certain. It may be that James again is anticipating the way his readers would respond to his argument thus far. They may have thought, “Well, I may be guilty of partiality towards the poor, but at least I’ve been faithful to my wife!” So James mentions that first.
He may go on to mention murder to imply that to commit partiality is to commit murder. Discrimination against the poor and failure to love one’s neighbor is sometimes associated with murder. For example, Jeremiah 22:3 states, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’” (See also, Jer. 7:6; Amos 8:4; 1 John 3:15.) So James is saying, “Don’t dismiss partiality as no big deal! It is a big deal, just as adultery and murder are big sins.”
There is one other aspect of James’ argument here, the phrase, “He who said,” which refers to God. Douglas Moo (The Letter of James [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 114-115) comments,
If we view the law as a series of individual commandments, we could assume that disobedience of a particular commandment incurred guilt for that commandment only. But, in fact, the individual commandments are part and parcel of one indivisible whole, because they reflect the will of the one Lawgiver. To violate a commandment is to disobey God himself and render a person guilty before him.
At this point, however, modern readers of James may raise the question, “If any violation of God’s law is serious, then does this mean that we must observe all of the ceremonial commandments about food and cleansing? As believers under grace, how do we know which commandments apply to us today?”
Moo (p. 115) raises this question and says that James’ citation of two of the Ten Commandments suggests that he was thinking only of some parts of the Old Testament law. He explains (p. 116),
It is not the OT law per se that he urges perfect compliance with, but “the royal law” (v. 8), “the law of liberty” (v. 12; cf. 1:25). This “law” takes up within it the OT law, but as understood through Jesus’ fulfillment of it. And so just as Jesus’ apparent unqualified endorsement of the law (Matt. 5:18-19…) is tempered in the context by his claim to be the fulfiller of the law (v. 17), so James applies this standard point about the law’s unity to the law as reinterpreted by Jesus ….
But, someone may ask, what about Sabbath-keeping, which was part of the Ten Commandments? Are Christians obligated to observe the Sabbath commandment today? Many evangelical Christians believe that if you go out to dinner or read the paper or watch TV or mow your lawn on Sunday, you have violated the Sabbath and are guilty of breaking God’s law.
I devoted an entire message to this subject (“God’s Day of Rest,” December 17, 1995, on the church web site). I can only answer briefly here. My view is that while we are not obligated to observe Sunday as a Christian Sabbath in a legalistic manner (with a list of prohibited activities), there is a principle that applies today, namely, that we should devote the Lord’s Day to Him as a day of worship and rest from our normal labors. I think that God designed that principle so that we would not neglect worshiping Him and also for our benefit, because we need to cease from our normal duties and spend time with the Lord and His people. When we view it as a day set aside to honor the Lord and spend extra time with Him, it won’t be a duty, but a delight.
But let’s return to the issue that James is dealing with specifically, to show partiality is to violate God’s law of love. That, James argues, is a serious matter, because it renders you guilty before God. He concludes,
James makes two points here:
Some may wonder, “I thought that believers would not be judged at all, since Christ bore our judgment on the cross. What does it mean, then, to be judged by the law of liberty?”
Jesus said (John 5:24), “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” The apostle Paul states clearly (Rom. 8:1), “Therefore there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” These and other similar verses show that Christ bore the punishment that we deserve for our sins. If we have trusted in Him, we will not face God’s eternal wrath at the final judgment (the “great white throne” judgment, Rev. 20:11-15).
But even though we do not need to fear that awful judgment if we are in Christ, Paul wrote (2 Cor. 5:10), “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (See also, Rom. 14:10-12.) The word bad literally means, worthless. Our sins have been judged and removed from us through the death of Christ. But our lives as believers will undergo the Lord’s heart-level evaluation. Those things that were done out of love for Christ and for His glory will be rewarded. Those things that were done out of selfish motives are worthless in God’s sight and will be burned as wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. 3:11-15).
Commenting on 2 Corinthians 5:10 and anticipating the next section in James, Philip Hughes writes (Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians [Eerdmans], p. 183),
It is worth remarking that a passage like this shows that, so far from there being discord, there is an essential agreement between the teaching of Paul and that of James on the subject of faith and works. The justification of the sinner, it is true, is by faith in Christ and not by works of his own; but the hidden root of faith must bring forth the visible fruit of good works.
James again refers to the law as “the law of liberty” (see 1:25). He may use this term to point to the fact of the new covenant that Jesus inaugurated. Rather than keeping the external rules of the old law, the new commandment of love is written on our hearts. Thus there is a new motivation, to do everything that we do out of love for God and for others.
When James says, “So speak and so act,” he is referring to our total conduct. Words alone are not enough, because it is easy to say to a poor brother, “Be warmed and be filled” (James 2:16). Our words need to be accompanied with godly actions. James is telling us to live in light of the fact that we will soon stand before Jesus Christ, who will reward us for our faithful obedience, but also save us through the fire as our worthless deeds go up in smoke.
As I understand it, the first part of 2:13 refers to unbelievers, whereas the last part refers to believers. Keep in mind, though, that the unbelievers described in the first part of the verse may profess to know Christ and be in the church. But their deeds show them to be those with dead faith, not genuine saving faith (as James will go on to explain). If you profess to know Christ, but do not show mercy to those who are needy, your profession is worthless. When you stand before God, we will not receive mercy (see Matt. 18:23-35). You don’t want to go there!
Showing mercy to others demonstrates that you have already received mercy from God. As Jesus said (Matt. 5:7), “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” He did not mean that we earn or merit mercy by showing it to others. Mercy, by definition, is unearned! Rather, mercy flows to others from those who have received it from God. They will receive mercy in its fullness at the final judgment.
The last half of 2:13 refers to believers. There is debate about whether “mercy” refers to God’s mercy or to the mercy we show to others. If it refers to God’s mercy, it means, “While setting forth a strict standard, conformity to his holy law, as the basis of judgment, God ultimately is a God of mercy, who also provides in his grace a means of escaping that judgment” (Moo, p. 118). If it refers to the mercy we show to others, it means that when we are merciful toward others, we demonstrate “a heart made right by the work of God’s grace” (ibid.). In a way, these two ideas blend together, in that our attempts to show mercy are always imperfect. Thus we must finally fall back on God’s mercy to us in Christ, which will triumph over judgment in our salvation.
After part one of this message on partiality last week, I received the following note from a teenager in the church. She said,
Dear Pastor Cole, I enjoyed and learned from your sermon. I can relate to what you were saying in my age group, because kids my age often are judgmental about clothes and not being “in.” The “dorky” kids can be left out. But as sisters and brothers in Christ, as you said, we should not be judgmental of outward factors and appearances to our fellow Christians. So I learned from that. Thank you for this thoughtful sermon.
She went on to thank me for writing an answer to another question that she had asked. That note made my day! She took God’s Word and applied it specifically to a very practical issue in her daily life.
That’s what we all should do with James’ admonition here. I don’t know exactly how you need to apply it, but the Holy Spirit does. If you think about it and ask Him to apply it to your heart, you will grow in practical deeds of love for those whom you might naturally despise or disregard. As you love your neighbor as yourself, you are fulfilling the royal law of the King!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
James 2:14-26 is famous for theological controversy. At first glance, it seems that James is contradicting Paul, or vice versa, if James wrote first. Paul taught that we are saved by grace through faith, apart from works. James seems to say that we must have faith plus works to be saved. The major issue that spawned the Reformation was, are we justified by faith alone, or by faith plus works? It still divides evangelical Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church. (We will look more at this issue in our next study.)
Within the evangelical camp, there is a battle over whether or not saving faith requires accepting Jesus as Lord of your life. Those who deny “lordship” salvation accuse those who teach it of adding works to faith alone. They say that submitting to Jesus as Lord of your life should happen after salvation, but it is not necessary for salvation. Salvation is simply by faith alone. Those who contend for “lordship” salvation accuse the non-lordship side of “easy-believism.” They argue (correctly, I think) that genuine saving faith necessarily trusts in Jesus both as Savior and Lord.
At the heart of this dispute is the question, “What is genuine saving faith?” This is not just an academic debate! The correct answer to that question concerns your eternal destiny! It relates to the eternal destiny of your family and friends. If my faith or the faith of my loved ones is not genuine, saving faith, I could be deceiving myself in the worst possible way. I might think that Jesus is my Lord and Savior, and even be active in serving Him, but be sadly mistaken. Jesus spoke some of the most frightening words in the Bible when He said (Matt. 7:21-23),
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”
So it is vital—both for our own salvation and for those with whom we share the gospel—to be clear on this crucial matter, “what is genuine saving faith?” And, “what is false faith that does not save?”
We must approach a controversial or difficult text, such as James 2:14-26, in the proper way. First, we must assume that the Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself in Scripture. If we believe that “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), then James and Paul are not at odds, even though it may be difficult to harmonize them. We must not pit one author or doctrine against another. For example, if Scripture plainly teaches that God is sovereign and that people are responsible, we must teach both.
Second, we must seek to understand the particular problem that each author was addressing. Paul wrote Galatians to deal with the error of adding some outward work, such as circumcision, to faith alone for salvation. James wrote this text to confront the problem of those who profess to believe in Christ, but do not have any fruit to show for it. If we lose sight of this, we will err.
Third, we must be careful not to read Paul’s use of words into James or vice versa. Each author may use the same word or term, but with different nuances or understanding of the meaning. We will especially deal with this next week when we look at the word justified. We must seek to understand James’ point in its context, and Paul’s point in its context before we seek to harmonize them.
Finally, we must seek to synthesize all that the Bible teaches on a particular topic into one harmonized, unified whole. This is the work of systematic theology, to seek to understand what the whole Bible teaches on a subject. And, we must put the same emphasis on a subject that the Bible puts on it. To take a minor doctrine and blow it up into the central teaching of the Christian life is to fall into error, even if the doctrine is true. To dodge or neglect a major doctrine because you do not like it is to go astray from the truth.
So when we come to a difficult text, we must have teachable hearts that seek the Lord for understanding. And, our bottom line must always be to apply the truth personally. Our prayer should always be, “Lord, teach me Your truth and enable me to obey it.” To understand our text, we need to explore four propositions:
James is not disputing that we are saved by faith alone. Rather, he is dealing with the question, what is true saving faith? If you have a King James or New King James Bible, the translation in verse 14 is misleading. It reads (implying a negative answer), “Can faith save him?” For some reason, the translators omitted the Greek definite article before “faith.” It should read, “Can the faith save him?” in Greek grammar, this is called the “article of previous reference.” It should be translated, “Can that [or, such] faith save him?” It refers to the faith that James has just mentioned: a faith that someone professes to have, but it has no works.
James has already stated (1:17), “Every good thing given and every perfect gift” comes from God. This surely includes His gift of salvation! James continues (1:18), “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth ….” Those words show that the new birth (or, salvation), was not due to anything in us (thus it’s by grace). Rather, it comes to us by the exercise of God’s will. James also referred to (2:1), “your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” He would line up with other New Testament texts that show that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
For example, Ephesians 2:8-9 states plainly: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Many forget that Ephesians 2:10 follows 2:9: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” So James and Paul both teach that salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And both James and Paul teach that genuine faith results in good works. But,
C. E. B. Cranfield (cited by John MacArthur, Faith Works [Word], p. 148) correctly observes, “The burden of this section is not (as is often supposed) that we are saved through faith plus works, but that we are saved through genuine, as opposed to counterfeit, faith.” Satan is the master deceiver. Since salvation is through faith, it is not surprising that he works overtime to lead people astray on the matter of saving faith. If Satan can get someone to think that he will get into heaven because of his many good deeds, apart from faith in Christ, he is perfectly content to watch that person devote his entire life to good deeds. Or, if a person who was born and raised in the church thinks, “I’m going to heaven because I believe in Jesus as my Savior”—but, his faith is merely intellectual and it doesn’t affect his daily life—Satan is happy with such false “faith.”
A key word in James 2:14 is says. This person says that he has faith, but talk is cheap. James contends that such a claim must be tested. He uses the illustration of a brother or sister in Christ coming to church. It’s cold outside and this person does not have adequate clothing to stay warm. He (or she) is hungry and has no food. Someone in the church shakes their hand and says, “Have a nice day! Stay warm and eat a good dinner!” But, he sends the person out the door with no help for his needs. James asks, “What use is that?” He calls such “faith” dead faith (2:17). He drills this home by calling it useless and again referring to it as dead (2:20, 26).
Someone may argue that this really isn’t faith at all, and James would readily grant this. But, James does call it faith, because the one who professes it thinks that he has faith. But, James’ point is that it is counterfeit or false faith.
Paul spoke of false faith when he wrote (1 Cor. 15:1-2), “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” It is possible to believe in vain. He refers to the same thing with regard to certain false teachers (Titus 1:16): “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed.” Their profession of faith is false. Such false faith does not save.
A key word in James 2:14 is says. James does not refer to someone who has genuine faith, but no works, because genuine faith necessarily results in a life of good works. Just as a seed that you plant will necessarily, because of the life that is in it, grow into a tree that bears fruit according to its kind, so genuine saving faith will produce good works.
Necessarily does not mean automatically. Just as the seed must be watered and cultivated to bear fruit, so saving faith must be nurtured to bear the fruit of good deeds. But those good deeds are not tacked onto saving faith. Rather, they are inherent in such saving faith. They stem from its very nature.
When God imparts salvation to a sinner, He changes the heart. In Ezekiel (36:26-27), God promised, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” That promise came to fruition in the new covenant that Jesus inaugurated. Thus the apostle Paul wrote (2 Cor. 5:17), “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
Thus genuine faith necessarily results in a changed heart because of the new birth (John 3:1-8). When God imparts new life to us, we are changed from within. In John 5:24, Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” There is a fundamental change from death to life that is associated with genuine faith. Because of its very nature, this new life will result in good works.
Thus Jesus did not contradict Himself just a few verses later, when He said (John 5:28-29), “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” He meant that those who have passed out of death into life (John 5:24) will live in accordance with that new life. Their lives are marked by good deeds.
Those who merely say that they have saving faith, but who live for themselves, are deceived. Such false “faith” does not save anyone. The apostle John deals with this kind of false profession throughout First John. For example, 1 John 1:6 states, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” Or, (1 John 2:4), “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” Again (1 John 2:5b-6), “By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” The point is the same throughout Scripture: Saving faith results in a changed life of good deeds. False faith is empty profession, lacking good deeds.
This is, I think, the point of verse 18. James brings up a hypothetical comment that someone may make: “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” This is a difficult verse to interpret, because whatever view you take has problems that cannot be resolved! Part of the problem stems from the fact that the original Greek did not have punctuation, and so we do not know where the quotation ends. It may end after, “You have faith and I have works.” The remainder of the verse would then be James’ reply.
The hypothetical person would then be raising an objection that James answers. The problem is, the objection doesn’t fit the problem that James is addressing, that of the person who says, “I have faith,” but he has no works. In other words, the pronouns are not consistent with the context. So we have to assume that the objector is saying something else, namely, that it is possible to have faith without works or works without faith. James retorts that it is impossible to verify faith apart from works, since faith is a hidden attitude of the heart. The only way that we can see true faith is by the person’s works.
Because of the awkwardness of this view, others say that the hypothetical person is not objecting to James’ view, but rather agreeing with him. This makes the pronouns consistent, but it requires translating the strong adversative (“but”) as an emphatic, “yes, indeed.” While grammatically possible, that is linguistically improbable, because as Peter Davids explains, “no one has yet been able to find a case where this common stylistic introduction did not introduce an opposing or disagreeing voice” (New International Greek Testament Commentary on James [Eerdmans], p. 124).
If I lost you in this discussion, James’ point is probably that you cannot separate true faith from good deeds. If someone claims to have faith but has no good deeds, his claim proves nothing. Just as seeing fruit on a tree tells you that the tree is alive, so seeing good deeds is one sign that the person has new life in Christ.
James’ words in verse 19 would have shocked his readers. He states the core of the Jewish Shema (Deut. 6:4): “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” Every Jew and Christian believes that truth. The doctrine of the Trinity does not contradict it. God is one God, and yet He is three persons. James commends the professing believer for holding to this truth: “You do well.” Then he sticks in the knife: “The demons also believe, and shudder.” The demons are doctrinally orthodox!
Not only that, they even experience an emotional response to the truth: they shudder in fear! They’re more responsive than the one who has a mere intellectual faith! But the problem is, the demons cannot repent. They have no change of mind, where they turn from their rebellion to submission to God. They have no change of heart, where they turn from hating God to loving Him. They have no change of will or behavior, where they turn from disobedience to obedience. Faith that does not result in a change from self-centered rebellion to God-centered obedience is no better than the faith of demons!
James is not implying that sound doctrine is unimportant or irrelevant. There is a strong emphasis throughout the entire Bible on the truth, with many warnings against false teachers. Saving faith must rest on Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture. To believe in a Christ of your own imagination is to believe in an idol. To trust in someone or something for eternal life other than Jesus Christ and His death on the cross is to be deceived on the most important issue in life.
There are many people who have trusted in their good works to get them into heaven. From a human standpoint, they were good people who spent their lives serving others. But if they never turned from their sin and trusted in Christ and His shed blood, their good works did not get them into heaven. Mother Teresa, for example, was a very good person. But if she trusted in her good works, rather than in Christ, or if she trusted in the virgin Mary to get her into heaven, she went to hell! Albert Schweitzer spent his life as a medical missionary in Africa. He was a good man, but he denied the historical Jesus. His good deeds did not get him into heaven. Good deeds will not get anyone into heaven.
So, James’ point (in 2:19) is not that believing in sound doctrine is unimportant. Rather, his point is that believing sound doctrine alone is insufficient for salvation. Genuine saving faith is always connected with the new birth. New life in Christ necessarily results in a life of good deeds. To sum up, James is saying,
Genuine saving faith necessarily results in a life of good works, whereas false faith does not.
Those who hold to the non-lordship salvation view (they prefer to call it the “free grace” view) will raise an objection. If genuine saving faith is proved by good works, then how many good works does it take to prove it? Is one good deed enough? Does it take 100 or 1,000? If it takes even one, they argue, then salvation is not by faith alone, but rather by faith plus works.
But that is to miss James’ point. He is not saying that we must add works to our faith to make it genuine. He is saying that genuine faith, by its very nature, accompanies the new birth. When God changes a person’s heart, when He raises that dead sinner to new life, He imparts saving faith. That new life and genuine faith will result in a new direction in life. Just as a seed when planted grows into a fruit tree, so the seed of new life in Christ produces the fruit of godly character and good deeds.
Picture it this way: Suppose that I am in Phoenix, which for sake of illustration represents Satan’s kingdom (the temperature is comparable!). I decide to walk to beautiful, cool Flagstaff (representing heaven!), where it has never reached 100 degrees. So I begin walking north. A few miles into the journey, I am hot and there is a roadside lemonade stand. I stop for a glass of cold lemonade.
Just then, you come by and see me sipping lemonade in the shade. You might think, “He isn’t walking to Flagstaff, he’s just sitting there sipping lemonade!” At that precise moment, you’re correct. Or, if I were building a house by the lemonade stand, and settling in there, you’d be right. But, to get the true picture, you’d need to observe the overall direction of my life. If you saw me get up and continue toward Flagstaff, you could rightly conclude, by the direction of my life, that I was walking to Flagstaff.
A true Christian may fall into sin. He may temporarily be seduced by the world and its pleasures. But if he has genuine saving faith, the overall direction of his life will be toward holiness and good deeds. As 1 John 3:9 states, “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” He’s not living in Phoenix. He isn’t building a house by the lemonade stand. He will move on to grow in godliness and good deeds. Genuine saving faith necessarily results in a life of good works. False faith does not. As Paul told the Corinthians (2 Cor. 13:5a), “Test yourself to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
As a Roman Catholic priest and monk, Martin Luther fastidiously observed all of the rituals and disciplines of his order, but none of them seemed to bring him close to God. He feared God and His righteous judgment, but he also hated God because of His demand for perfect righteousness. Try as he might, Luther knew that he could never satisfy God’s standard.
Finally, after years of struggle, he was wrestling with Paul’s words in Romans 1:17, that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’” Here are Luther’s own words (cited in Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, Tim Dowley, ed. [Eerdmans], p. 366):
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the righteousness of God,’ because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and deals righteously in punishing the unrighteous…. Night and day I pondered until … I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.”
Stephen Nichols explains (Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought [P & R Publishing], p. 38),
Luther moved from viewing righteousness as active, as something he had to achieve, to viewing it as passive, something Christ achieved on his behalf, apprehended not by our merits but by faith alone. The Reformation plank of sola fide, faith alone, was born, and Luther was born again.
But coming out of his struggles with trying to work his way to right standing with God, Luther stumbled over the Epistle of James. In his preface to the New Testament of 1522, he called James “an epistle of straw.” Although he did not reject James from the canon of Scripture, he once remarked “that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could reconcile James and Paul” (Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther [Abingdon Press], p. 259). That is my task today, but I am privileged to stand on the shoulders of many wise men who have gone before me!
As I said last week, this is not simply an academic debate, because it deals with the most crucial question, “How can I be right before a holy God?” Nothing is more important than understanding the biblical answer to that question! We need to be clear: Are we justified by faith alone, or are we justified by faith plus our works? That issue divided the Reformers from the Roman Catholic Church and it is still the major issue between Roman Catholicism and the evangelical Protestant church today. There are many other issues, such as the role of the pope, the sacraments, the veneration of Mary, prayers to the saints, penance, purgatory, etc. But the most crucial issue is this matter of how a person gains right standing before God. Of course, this is a debate about the gospel itself.
Let me review what I said last week about how we need to approach a difficult text such as the one before us. First, we must assume that the Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself in Scripture. James and Paul are not at odds. Second, we must seek to understand the particular problem that each author was addressing. Third, we must be careful not to read Paul’s use of words into James, or vice versa. Finally, we must seek to synthesize all that the Bible teaches on a particular topic into one harmonized, unified whole. When we do that with regard to justification, we learn that both James and Paul teach that…
We are justified by faith alone, but good works prove that our faith is genuine.
We saw last week that James teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We see the same thing in Acts 15, at the Jerusalem Council. The debate there was over the matter of whether Gentiles were saved by faith in Christ alone, or whether they also had to keep the Jewish rite of circumcision. After much debate, Peter stated (Acts 15:9), “and He made no distinction between us [Jews] and them [Gentiles], cleansing their hearts by faith.” He continued (15:11), “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” James then got up and affirmed what Peter had stated. He went on to request that believing Gentiles abstain from certain matters so that they would not offend the Jews. But the important thing is, James agreed that God saves us and cleanses our hearts by grace through faith. Good works are not mentioned.
“But,” someone may object, “Paul says (Rom. 3:28), ‘For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.’ He also said (Rom. 4:5), ‘But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.’ But James states that Abraham and Rahab were justified by works (James 2:21, 25). He plainly says (2:24), ‘You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ How can you possibly reconcile these words with Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone?”
First, we must keep in mind the two different problems that each man was addressing. Paul was writing to those who taught that we must add our works to faith in Christ in order to be justified. He stated plainly that to do so was to preach a false gospel and to put oneself under condemnation (Gal. 1:6-9). James, however, was writing to those who claimed that they had saving faith, but their lives did not show it. Their profession of faith was mere words, with no evidence of a changed life.
Also, Paul and James were using the word “justified” in different senses. Paul was looking at God’s initial declaration that the believer is righteous through faith in the blood of Christ (Rom. 3:22). In Romans 4:3, Paul cites the same verse that James 2:23 cites, Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Paul uses it to argue that Abraham was not justified by his works, but by faith alone. He was looking at the beginning of a person’s right standing with God.
But James uses the verse and the word “justified” differently. James says (2:21) that Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar. He then explains (2:22), “You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled…” and then he cites Genesis 15:6. The event of Abraham’s faith (Gen. 15:6) took place at least 30 or 40 years before Abraham offered Isaac on the altar. James says that his obedience in offering Isaac perfected his faith and fulfilled the Scripture that refers to his initial faith. So James is not looking at the beginning of Abraham’s faith, but rather at its mature outcome many years later.
James may be using the word justify in one of two senses (Douglas Moo, The Letter of James [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 134-135). It may mean “to vindicate in the judgment.” Both the Old Testament and Jesus frequently use the word “righteousness” to refer to actual conduct. Moo explains (ibid.),
If James uses the verb with this sense, then he will be claiming that the ultimate vindication of the believer in the judgment is based on, or at least takes into account, the things that person has done. So “justify” in Paul refers to how a person gets into relationship with God, while in James it connotes what that relationship must ultimately look like to receive God’s final approval.
Or, sometimes justify has the sense of “demonstrate to be righteous or right.” In this sense, James would be claiming that the righteousness that Abraham had obtained from God by faith (Gen. 15:6) was demonstrated openly when he obeyed God by offering Isaac on the altar (Gen. 22). But whichever view is taken, Moo explains (ibid., p. 136),
James is intent on demonstrating that Abraham’s faith went much further than mere intellectual assent…. He therefore emphasizes that Abraham’s faith was not confined to a mental reorientation at the time of his “conversion” or to an occasional verbal profession but that it was an active force, constantly at work along with his deeds.
There is one other factor to consider in reconciling James and Paul. When James says (2:24) “that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” the addition of the word “alone” shows that he is referring to the false faith that he has been talking about in this section (Moo, p. 141). This “bare faith,” or faith that does not result in a life of good deeds, is not the kind of justifying faith that Paul talks about in Romans 3 & 4. Paul often spoke about “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26; cf. 15:18). He often emphasized the role of good deeds as a result of God’s grace in the lives of His people (Titus 2:14; 3:5-8). So both Paul and James would agree that genuine faith that justifies always results in a life of good deeds. False faith that is an empty profession does not justify.
Moo (p. 141) sums it up this way, “If a sinner can get into a relationship with God only by faith (Paul), the ultimate validation of that relationship takes into account the works that true faith must inevitably produce (James).” He then cites Calvin (Institutes, 3:17:12, Moo’s reference is incorrect), “And as Paul contends that we are justified apart from the help of works, so James does not allow those who lack good works to be reckoned righteous.” Thus both James and Paul teach that we are justified by faith alone.
James does not mince words! He calls the one who thinks that he can have saving faith that has no effect in his life a “foolish fellow” (2:20). He is using the word in the sense of the Book of Proverbs, that we are spiritually foolish. He asks, “Do you want evidence?” He proceeds to give that evidence from Abraham’s faith (2:21-23), after which he restates his thesis (2:24). Then he gives evidence from Rahab’s faith (2:25). He concludes with a brief illustration and restatement of his point (2:26).
Abraham was not saved by his obedience in sacrificing Isaac. Rather, that obedience proved the reality of his previous saving faith. Hebrews 11:8 states, “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed….” That verse refers to his obedience in leaving his homeland and going to the promised land. But Hebrews 11:17 adds, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac….” In fact, all through Hebrews 11, we read of what the heroes of faith did. By faith, Abel offered a better sacrifice. By faith, Noah built the ark. By faith, Moses chose to endure ill-treatment with God’s people and leave Egypt. All through the chapter we see how faith acted.
It is the same point that James is making, that faith is not mere words, without action. Genuine faith works. The proof that Abraham believed God is seen in his actions: He obediently offered up Isaac. Genuine faith and works are inseparable, because genuine faith always results in good works.
James here is reflecting the words of Jesus when He said (Luke 6:43-44),
“For there is no good tree which produces bad fruit, nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a briar bush.”
Note also that James adds (2:23) that Abraham “was called the friend of God.” That expression is used twice in the Old Testament to describe Abraham (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8). It would be pretty impressive for someone to say that the President is his friend. It would be even more impressive for the President to call that man his friend. How much more amazing it is that God calls us His friends! Jesus connected friendship with Him with obedience when He said (John 15:14), “You are My friends if you do what I command you.”
So the obedient faith that James is describing is not just outward obedience to a list of commandments. It is certainly not a grudging obedience to a cruel taskmaster. Rather, it is an obedience that involves personal friendship with the holy God of the universe! So when you believe in Christ as the one who died for your sins, God not only declares you righteous. He also calls you “into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9)!
James may have picked Rahab to contrast with Abraham. He was the revered patriarch; she was the redeemed prostitute. He was the father of the Hebrews; she was a pagan foreigner. He was a man; she was a woman. Or, there may be a subtle comparison, in that both Abraham and Rahab were models of faith and hospitality, in contrast to the dead faith of the man in 2:15-16 (Moo, p. 143).
Rahab’s story is told in Joshua 2 & 7. She ran an inn in Jericho that also was a house of ill repute. When the two Hebrew spies came to town, she hid them from the king’s men and then sent them out by a way so that they could escape. But before she sent them off, she testified of how she had heard of what the Lord had done for Israel in delivering them from Egypt and in the victories that they had won in the wilderness. She added (Josh. 2:11b), “for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.” That was her verbal confession of faith. Then she secured their pledge to save her and her family from the coming destruction and slaughter of Jericho.
James’ point is that Rahab didn’t just say, “I believe in your God,” and then allow the king’s men to arrest the spies. Rather, at the risk of her own life, she helped these men to escape and then she carefully obeyed their instructions about how she and her family could be spared when Israel invaded Jericho. Her faith was not just empty words. Her faith worked.
It is interesting that Rahab is usually referred to in the Bible as Rahab the harlot, even after her conversion. Matthew Henry (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell], 6:983) draws several lessons from James’ mention of Rahab. First, her life points to “the wonderful power of faith in transforming and changing sinners.” She left her evil life and although she was a Canaanite, she is later included in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:5). What amazing grace!
Second, her example shows how highly God regards an operative faith to obtain His mercy and favor. No matter how great your sins, the Bible promises, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13).
Third, her life shows that where great sins are pardoned, there must be great acts of self-denial. She had to prefer the honor of God and the good of His people ahead of the preservation of her own country. She had to abandon her former friends and turn completely from her former course of life in order to be saved. To follow Christ, we must count the cost and turn from our sins.
Finally, the fact that she is still called Rahab the harlot, even after salvation, shows that “her former character must be remembered; not so much to her dishonor as to glorify the rich grace and mercy of God.” It is good for all of us to remember, “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see” (John Newton, “Amazing Grace”).
So James, with Paul, believed that we are justified by faith alone. But also, with Paul, he believed that good works prove that faith is genuine. Both Abraham and Rahab demonstrate this. Their faith was not just empty profession, but it resulted in obedience in some very difficult situations. Finally, James concludes:
James (2:26) uses a brief analogy to cement his point: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” If you see a body that is not breathing, you can conclude, it’s a dead body. If you see “faith” that does not produce good works, you can conclude, it’s dead faith, not the genuine thing. Works are not added to faith, but rather they are inextricably a part of genuine faith. If you see someone breathing, you don’t think, “That guy added breathing into his repertoire!” Rather, breathing is part of being a living body. Matthew Henry (ibid.) uses a different analogy to explain: “Faith is the root, good works are the fruits, and we must see to it that we have both.”
Although we’ve had to wade through some detailed explanations to see how James and Paul fit together, as I said at the outset, this is not just an academic matter! The entire gospel is at stake! Charles Simeon (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 20:70) offers two wise bits of counsel: (1) Do not separate faith and works; (2) Do not confound them.
There are those in our day that separate faith and works. One of my former seminary professors and many men from that seminary have formed a group called the Grace Evangelical Society. They think that they are preserving salvation by faith alone in Christ alone by their teaching. But in reality they deny what Scripture teaches about the nature of genuine faith, that it is inseparable from a life of good works. For example, they teach that someone may believe in Christ for salvation, and yet live a completely sinful, worldly life. He may even deny Christ subsequent to his profession of faith, but he will be saved because he believed, and “once saved, always saved!”
But the Bible clearly teaches that if God imparts new life to a formerly dead sinner, that new life and the saving faith that God grants will inevitably show itself in a life of good deeds (John 5:28-29; 1 John 3:7-10). This does not mean that true believers never sin. It does not mean that anyone ever perfectly follows the Lord. But it does mean that the direction and motivation of life is decidedly different in the one whose heart has been changed by God’s grace. Don’t separate faith and works!
But, also, do not confound faith and works. Two factors make this a prevalent error. First, human nature since the fall is oriented towards works-righteousness. Pride makes us think that we can be good enough to earn God’s favor. We erroneously think that God will grade on the curve, and since we’re better than average, we’ll get into heaven because of our good works. That is a spiritually fatal mistake!
Second, the pervasive influence of the Roman Catholic Church has led many to confound faith and works. At the Councils of Trent, the Catholic Church specifically countered the teaching of the Reformers on justification by faith alone. I could quote many similar statements, but one must suffice: “If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified: let him be anathema” (Session 6, Canon 12, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:113.) To believe that is to confound faith and works and to deny the gospel of God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
The following quote sums up well what James is saying:
Oh, it is a living, busy, active, might thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.
That quote is from none other than Martin Luther (Commentary to the Romans [Kregel], p. xvii)! Luther and James agree after all! The biblical truth is, we are justified by faith alone, but good works prove that our faith in Christ alone is genuine, saving faith.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
On a windswept hill in an English country churchyard stands a drab, gray slate tombstone. The faint etchings read:
Beneath this stone, a lump of clay, lies Arabella Young,
Who, on the twenty-fourth of May, began to hold her tongue.
Let’s hope that we learn what that woman never did, to tame the tongue! As a wise sage observed, “As you go through life you are going to have many opportunities to keep your mouth shut. Take advantage of all of them” (quoted by James Dent, Reader’s Digest [12/82]).
As we move into chapter 3, James has gone from preaching to meddling! He has just made it clear that genuine faith works. If God has changed your heart through the new birth, the saving faith that He granted to you will inevitably show itself in a life of good deeds. But now he moves from the generality of good deeds to the specifics of the words that you speak. Genuine faith yields to Christ’s lordship over your tongue. With David (Ps. 141:3), all true believers will pray, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” While the monster may never be totally tamed, if you know Christ as Savior, you are engaged in the ongoing battle to tame the terrible tongue.
In building his case that all have sinned, the apostle Paul zeroes in on the sins of the tongue (Rom. 3:13-14):
“Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips”; “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness….”
It would be nice if conversion resulted in a total makeover of the mouth, but it is not so! Although we become new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), we also carry around with us the old nature or the flesh, which wars against the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). The tongue is one of the major battlegrounds in the war. To become godly people, we must wage war daily on this front.
James is a savvy pastor who knows that we won’t gear up for the battle and face our own sins of the tongue unless we recognize the magnitude of the problem. We all tend to justify ourselves by pointing to others who are notoriously bad. In comparison with how they talk, I’m doing okay. But James comes in with vivid illustrations to open our eyes to just how serious our problem is. It’s interesting that he never gives any advice on how to control the tongue. He just leaves you reeling from his portrait of how huge this problem is. He’s saying,
To tame the terrible tongue, we must recognize the tremendous magnitude of the battle that we face.
It’s difficult to outline this section, but we can organize it under four truths that we must recognize to tame our terrible tongues:
Apparently the churches to which James was writing had too many men who were self-appointed teachers. In the Jewish synagogues, rabbis were highly respected and the office was often one that parents coveted for their sons. It was proper to respect the rabbis because of the sacred Scriptures that they expounded, but it was wrong to give men the honor that God alone deserves. Jesus confronted the Jewish leaders on this account (Matt. 23:6-11):
“They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant.”
There’s a certain inherent prestige in becoming a teacher. Presumably, you know more than those that you teach, which means that in some way they should look up to you. Because of this, there is the built-in danger that some will take upon themselves the office of Bible teacher for the wrong reasons, or that those who took the position for the right reason later will fall into pride. If a man goes into teaching the Bible because of a secret desire for status or recognition, he is doing it for self and not for the Lord.
Because of the Matthew 23 passage, for many years I was uncomfortable with people addressing me as “Pastor.” Why not call me by my name, like everyone else? While I’ve grown accustomed enough to the title now that I don’t ask everyone to call me by my name, I hope that if they call me Pastor, they are respecting the office. But I’m also quite comfortable with being called Steve! I’m only a member of Christ’s body whom He called to shepherd His flock and teach His Word. Christ is the Leader!
James’ point is that a man should not take on the role of teacher unless God has called him to it, because teachers will incur a stricter judgment. We who teach God’s Word will be more accountable, because our words affect more people. Any time that we teach, we should keep in mind the serious fact that we will stand before the Lord to give an account!
Verse 2 further explains verse 1 (“For”). James includes himself when he says, “For we all stumble in many ways.” We’re all prone to sin! One popular author and Bible teacher emphasizes that we should not view ourselves as sinners, but as saints who occasionally sin. Well, by God’s grace I’m a saint, but I’m a saint who stumbles in many ways, not just occasionally!
James then zeroes in on the tongue, saying, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” Perfect does not mean sinlessly perfect, but rather, mature. We can never achieve sinless perfection in this life, but we can grow to spiritual maturity. One important gauge of that is our speech.
One way to tame the tongue is to recognize that we all will be held accountable for our speech. Jesus said (Matt. 12:36-37), “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Jesus was not teaching justification by works. But, like James, He was teaching that our works reveal whether our faith is genuine faith. Our words either validate that we are true believers or reveal that we do not know God. If we sin with our speech, we need to ask God’s forgiveness and also the forgiveness of the one we sinned against. Genuine believers have this sense of being accountable for their speech.
James uses two analogies here to make the point that the tongue is small, but mighty: the bit and the rudder. A bit is a relatively small instrument, but when you put it into a horse’s mouth, you can control the entire horse. The same thing is true of a ship’s rudder. It is relatively small compared to the size of the ship, but with his hand on the wheel or tiller, the pilot can steer a mammoth ship, even in a strong wind.
James’ point of comparison is not so much the matter of control (the tongue does not really control the body), but of the inordinate influence of such a small part (3:5a): “So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.” James is saying, “Don’t underestimate the power of the tongue, because if you do, you won’t be able to tame it.” There may be a comparison in the sense of influencing direction. If you control your tongue, it can direct your whole life into what is acceptable in God’s sight. If you don’t control your tongue, it will get you into great trouble!
Both the bit and the rudder must overcome contrary forces to direct the horse and the ship. A horse is a powerful animal that can do much useful work, but only if it can be directed. A ship is a useful means of transporting cargo or people, but if the rudder is broken, it will be at the mercy of the wind and waves, and could result in a shipwreck causing the loss of life and cargo. To work properly and accomplish good things, both bit and rudder must be under the control of a strong hand that knows how to use them properly. In the same way, the tongue must overcome the contrary force of the flesh and be under God’s wise control if it is to accomplish anything good.
James would vigorously disagree with the familiar children’s taunt, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” James is steeped in the Old Testament, and it (especially the Book of Proverbs) has much to say about the power of the tongue, either for good or for evil. Proverbs 12:18 states, “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Imagine that all of us here today were carrying into church an unsheathed, razor-sharp, two-edged sword. It would be a miracle if we got through the morning without anyone getting cut! The fact is, we all have a razor-sharp, two-edged sword—in our mouths! We should use them with the greatest care to bring healing, not injury.
Proverbs has many other references to the tongue. For example (16:24), “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” If we all would read Proverbs frequently and pay attention to its wisdom, we would be a source of sweetness and healing in our homes and our church!
So James wants us to recognize that we will be held accountable for how we use our tongues, especially those of us who teach God’s Word. He wants us to recognize the inordinate power of the tongue, either for good or for evil, so that we use it carefully.
James uses two more word pictures for comparison and contrast: a forest fire and tamed animals. Living here in Flagstaff in the midst of the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world, we are very much aware of the potential danger and damage of forest fires. All it takes is one tossed cigarette or one campfire that is not totally extinguished and thousands of acres of beautiful forest can be destroyed. Under control, fire is useful; out of control, it is frightening and devastating!
In November of 1980, after a very dry autumn, on an extremely windy day an arsonist lit a fire in the tinder-dry brush just above San Bernardino, California. The high winds quickly fanned the flames up the mountain toward the town of Crestline, where we then lived. While firefighters were trying to contain that blaze, the same arsonist drove to the east and then back to the west, lighting separate fires in each location. Many of us who lived on the mountain had only a few hours’ notice to evacuate our homes for several days, so that we would not be trapped if the flames came up that far. Several homes in San Bernardino were destroyed, killing at least four people. Forest fires are devastating!
In verse 6, James states directly, “And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.” Scholars debate as to how to translate and punctuate that verse, but however it is done, the point is clear: the tongue is a deadly, powerful source of evil that taints every part of our being. If we do not use our tongues with great caution, we are like spiritual arsonists, lighting careless fires that cause widespread destruction.
James says that the one who is careless with his tongue is the first to be defiled. An unchecked tongue is “the very world of iniquity,” that “defiles the entire body.” This goes back to James 1:26-27, where he said that true religion requires bridling the tongue and keeping oneself unstained by the world. “The sense is simply that since speech is the hardest faculty to control it is there that one first observes ‘the world’ in a person’s heart” (Peter Davids, New International Greek Testament Commentary on James [Eerdmans], p.142). Like a spark that lights a bigger fire, it not only defiles us, but also it “sets on fire the course of our life.” If you have a careless tongue it damages your entire life!
Then James goes one step further and identifies the ultimate source of the problem, “and is set on fire by hell.” Hell translates the Greek gehenna, which is a transliteration of two Hebrew words meaning, “Valley of Hinnom.” This valley, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, was where the Jewish worshipers of Molech burned their children as sacrifices to appease this pagan idol (Jer. 32:35). It later became a place to burn trash. The only other New Testament use is by Jesus (11 times) to refer to the place of eternal torment. James means that an evil tongue is set on fire by Satan himself.
Most Christians would shrink back from sins like homosexuality, molesting children, or murder as being satanically depraved. Yet we tolerate gossip, slander, deceit, half-truths, sarcastic put-downs, and other sins of the tongue as if they were no big deal. James says that all such sins have their origin in the pit of hell. They defile the one committing them. They destroy others. As a believer in Christ, you must confront these sins in yourself and you must be bold enough to confront them in others.
James goes on to use an analogy from the animal world. If you’ve been to Sea World, you’ve seen trained whales, dolphins, and seals. At the circus, you’ve seen trained elephants, lions, and tigers. But James says that there is one beast that cannot be tamed: the human tongue! He adds, “it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Being restless means there is never a time when it sleeps. You must always be on guard against it. Being full of deadly poison, you should handle it as cautiously as you would a vial of anthrax.
James does not say that the tongue is untamable. He says that no one can tame it. It is humanly untamable. Only God can tame it. James does not state that because he wants us to get a clear view of the horrible monster that we must do battle with. When the Holy Spirit controls your heart on a daily basis, over time the fruit of the Spirit will appear. These include love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, which all relate to the control of the tongue. To tame this terrible tongue, you must daily walk in the Spirit, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Ultimately, an evil tongue is the tool of an evil heart. That is James’ final point:
James points out a gross inconsistency that he no doubt had observed. Christians say, “Praise the Lord” in one breath, and in the next breath they say evil things about another person, made in the likeness of God. They sit in church singing hymns to God and no sooner get out the door than they whisper, “Did you see so-and-so? She makes me sick! She’s such a hypocrite. Why do you know what she did?” Etc., etc. James gets very direct (3:10b): “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.”
Then he points out that what often happens among Christians is contrary to all of nature. The same spring does not send out fresh water one minute and bitter water the next. He asks rhetorically (3:12), “Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Neither can salt water produce fresh.”
His point is the same as that of Jesus (Matt. 12:34), “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” Jesus also said (Matt. 15:18), “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.” The mouth is simply the opening that vents whatever is in the heart. If there’s raw sewage in the heart, there will be raw sewage gushing from the mouth! That’s why Proverbs 4:23 exhorts us, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”
Have you ever thought about how terribly embarrassing life would be if there were a direct open line between your thoughts and your mouth, so that you blurted out loud whatever you were thinking? Instead of your polite, “I’m pleased to meet you,” out comes, “I couldn’t care less about meeting you!” After listening to someone drone on about something, instead of, “Yes, that’s very interesting,” you blurt out, “How can I get away from this bore?”
I’m not suggesting that we should abandon politeness and become brutally blunt. I’m only pointing out that even if you control your tongue, you often have a heart problem. If you want to tame the terrible tongue, the place to start is with your heart. Work daily at taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Walk daily under the control of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:18). Renew your mind by memorizing Scripture (Rom. 12:1-2; Ps. 119:11). Memorize James 1:19-20: “This you know, my beloved brethren. But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” Memorize Ephesians 4:29: “Let no unwholesome [lit., rotten] word proceed from you mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has lectured around the country on the powerful and often negative impact of words. He has asked audiences if they can go for twenty-four hours without saying any unkind words about, or to, anybody. He says, “Invariably, a minority of listeners raise their hands signifying ‘yes,’ some laugh, and quite a large number call out, ‘no!’”
He responds, “Those who can’t answer ‘yes’ must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you cannot go for twenty-four hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you cannot go for twenty-four hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. Similarly, if you cannot go for twenty-four hours without saying unkind words about others, then you have lost control over your tongue” (Imprimus [1/96], p. 1). He goes on to say, “There is no area of life in which so many of us systematically violate the Golden Rule.”
He encourages his audiences to monitor their conversations for two days. “Note on a piece of paper every time you say something negative about someone who is not present. Also record when others do so, as well as your reactions when that happens. Do you try to silence the speaker, or do you ask for more details?” He adds, “To ensure the test’s accuracy, make no effort to change the content of your conversations throughout the two-day period, and do not try to be kinder than usual in assessing another’s character and actions.” He states, “Most of us who take this test are unpleasantly surprised” (p. 2).
Why doesn’t James give us a list of helpful tips on how to control our tongue? Maybe it’s because most of us, like the alcoholic, are in denial about the magnitude of the problem. The first step to dealing with the problem is to acknowledge, “I have a serious problem! I have a tool of Satan in my own mouth!”
Lehman Strauss (James Your Brother [Loizeaux Brothers], p. 120) considers James 3 “to be a key to the solution of most of the ills in church life today.” I would agree and add that it is a key to most of the problems in our homes today. It’s forest fire season. Things are tinder dry in your home and in this church. You have a fire set among your members! Ask God often to tame your terrible tongue!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
While I was on vacation, someone left a story on my desk that I have used before, but I’ll tell it again. A guy was marooned on a deserted island. When a ship came to his rescue, the captain learned that the man had lived alone on this island for five years. He noticed three huts, so he asked the man about them.
The man pointed to one and said that he lived there. He pointed to the second hut and said that he went to church there. “What about that third hut?” the captain asked. The man replied, “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.” The version that I heard added that the man was a Baptist!
We all desire harmonious relationships, and yet many Christian churches and homes are marked by frequent conflict. Being Christians, we put a spiritual face on our side of things to make it look as if we’re defending the truth or standing on principle. There is certainly a place for defending the truth, as you know. But there is a right and a wrong way to contend for the truth. The great defender of the faith, Paul, wrote to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:24-26), “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”
He did not say, as many today would have us believe, “Don’t get into disputes about the truth, because love is more important than doctrine.” He did say to correct those who are in opposition to the truth, but to do it with kindness, patience, and gentleness.
The churches that James wrote to were experiencing conflict (we will see more of this next week in 4:1-2). When James writes (3:14), “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart,” the Greek conditional clause indicates that it was true. James was not addressing a hypothetical situation that might arise in the future, but rather a real situation that already existed.
In the context, he began chapter 3 warning that not many should become teachers, because we will incur a stricter judgment. Then he broadened the exhortation to deal with a problem that we all wrestle with, the evil of a destructive tongue. In our text, James may still be focusing, at least in part, on those who would become teachers. Teachers are especially prone to boast in their knowledge and wisdom. They easily may fall into jealousy against those who have a bigger audience than they do. They may succumb to wrong motives, serving out of selfish ambition, trying to attract people to themselves, rather than to Christ. So our text especially applies to all of us who teach God’s Word.
But it also applies to every believer, in that James is showing us God’s wisdom that will lead to harmonious relationships. He contrasts it with worldly “wisdom” that inevitably leads to conflict. The things he writes here apply to harmonious relationships in the church, but also in our homes and in all of life. James is saying,
For harmonious relationships, behave with godly wisdom, not with worldly “wisdom.”
First, the positive:
In typical fashion, James sets his trap and then springs it! He asks (3:13a), “Who among you is wise and understanding?” Perhaps some of the self-appointed teachers were thinking, “I’m glad that you recognize my talents!” Then in his no-nonsense style, James springs the trap (3:13b): “Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.”
It’s easy to claim to have wisdom. James says, “Show me your wisdom by your life!” The old King James Bible uses the word “conversation” (NASB= “good behavior”), but in 1611 that word did not refer to speech, but to your way of life. Your deeds should display “the gentleness of wisdom.”
“Gentleness” is often translated “meekness.” It is one of the beatitudes (Matt. 5:5) and it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23). The Greek word did not connote a mild, weak person who is always nice, but rather had the idea of strength under control. It was used of a tamed horse, which is powerful, but submissive to its master. A meek person may be very strong, but is completely submissive to God’s Spirit. Moses is described as the meekest man on the earth (Num. 12:3, LXX), yet he was a very strong leader. Jesus described Himself as meek (Matt. 11:29), and yet He powerfully confronted the religious leaders and drove the moneychangers out of the temple. So neither “gentleness” nor “meekness” really communicate the true meaning of the Greek word.
James was steeped in the Old Testament, and the Hebrew word for “wisdom” has the nuance of skill. Specifically, the kind of wisdom that the Book of Proverbs exhorts us to seek is the skill to produce an attractive life in God’s sight. James may have had in mind Job 28:28, which in the LXX uses the same Greek words for wisdom and understanding. It reads, “And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” True wisdom is based on knowledge, but it is more than knowledge. It is the ability to live in a manner pleasing to God because you understand His truth and you live in constant submission to His Spirit, applying that truth to all of life.
In 3:17, James tells us that the source of this wisdom is “from above.” This in line with Proverbs 2:6, which declares, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” As we will see (3:15), there is a so-called worldly “wisdom,” but invariably it is at odds with God’s wisdom (see 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16). This is to say that if you want to be truly wise, you will only attain it by seeking God and the truth of His Word. In
James underscores the primacy of purity when he writes, “first pure.” Without purity, it is not wisdom from above! The Greek word means to be unmixed, unalloyed, or untainted by any impurity. It may point to moral purity, but in the context here, it especially has the sense of being free from any jealousy or selfish ambition. In other words, it is focusing on our motives. If we seek wisdom so that we can lord it over others, or use it for our own advantage or power, it is not pure, godly wisdom. Our motive for seeking wisdom or for using wisdom must always be to glorify God and to build up the person to whom we are speaking.
We especially need to keep this in mind when we get into a doctrinal dispute with anyone. It is easy to want to win the argument, but you can destroy the person you are arguing with. Or, you want to prove that you are right so that you look good, but you excuse your pride by telling yourself that you are contending for the faith. Before you jump into any doctrinal dispute, ask first, “How important is this issue in light of God’s glory and this person’s spiritual wellbeing?” Also, keep in mind how difficult it is for you to change your mind on an issue! It takes time, so be gracious in granting that to the other person. Keep in mind Paul’s words about not quarreling, being kind, patient, and gentle. And, ask God to open the person’s eyes and grant repentance. Your motives must be pure, or you are not acting with godly wisdom.
Purity is first, but then wisdom is peaceable. In other words, if you compromise purity for the sake of peace, you are not acting in godly wisdom. On the other hand, if you hold to purity in a contentious or cantankerous manner, you are not displaying godly wisdom, because it is peaceable.
Seeking peace in relationships is not a minor theme in the Bible! Just after his counsel to wives and husbands (1 Pet. 3:1-7), the apostle Peter cites from Psalm 34, “He must turn away from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet. 3:11). Those words apply to all relationships. We are to go after peace as we would pursue an animal in the hunt. Paul echoes this theme often. In Ephesians 4:3, he says that we are to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Seek peace and pursue it with diligence!
If you are always stirring up controversy over petty issues, you are not acting with godly wisdom. While we should never compromise doctrinal purity on essential truth, neither should we fight over minor matters where godly, Bible-believing people differ.
Years ago, I received in the mail a number of papers from a man who had graduated from the same seminary that I graduated from. I assume he got my name from an alumni directory, since I did not know him personally. I threw the papers away in disgust, although I should have saved them for sermon illustrations! But the guy was going on at length about how someone at the seminary took some Hebrew word from Chronicles in a way that this guy insisted was not correct! He thought that he was wise and that he was defending the truth, but he was not displaying godly wisdom because he was not peaceable.
This is a different Greek word than the one translated “gentleness” in 3:13. William Barclay, who was an expert on the meaning of various Greek words, states, “Of all Greek words in the New Testament this is the most untranslatable” (The Daily Study Bible: The Letters of James and Peter [Westminster Press], Revised Edition, p. 95). He goes on to say (pp. 95-96) that the man with this quality “knows how to forgive when strict justice gives him a perfect right to condemn. He knows how to make allowances, when not to stand upon his rights, [and] how to temper justice with mercy….” Douglas Moo (The Letter of James, Pillar New Testament Commentary Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 176) says that the word “indicates a willingness to yield to others and a corresponding unwillingness ‘to exact strict claims’.” It is a quality that Jesus possessed (2 Cor. 10:1), and it is a requirement for elders in the local church (1 Tim. 3:3).
The word means, literally, “easily persuaded.” But it does not mean being gullible or credulous, but rather being willing to defer to others, as long as a core doctrine or moral principle is not at stake (Moo, p. 176). In other words, it is “quick to hear” (James 1:19), and knows when to yield for the sake of peace.
Early in my ministry, veteran pastor Ray Ortlund was kind enough to go out to breakfast with me and spend a couple of hours answering my many questions about pastoral ministry. One thing he said that stuck in my mind is, “You’ve got to decide where you want to give blood as a pastor.” Some issues are not worth giving blood over, but others are. Godly wisdom is able to discern the difference and willing to yield on minor matters. The wise man is willing to listen to others’ views and to change if he is proved wrong.
Many of these qualities echo the beatitudes (gentleness, purity, peace), and that is also true of mercy: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). Jesus often underscored the importance of mercy (Matt. 18:21-35; 23:23; Luke 10:37). He said (Luke 6:36), “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Being merciful means not only having compassion for the person who is suffering apart from anything that he did, but also showing compassion to the one who is suffering because of his own fault (Barclay, p. 96). God is merciful to us in spite of the fact that our problems usually stem from our own sin and rebellion. But while we were yet sinners, He sent Christ to die for our sins (Rom. 5:8). We are to extend the mercy that we have received to other undeserving sinners.
By adding “good fruits,” James is harking back to what he said in 2:14-17, that our faith must show itself in practical good deeds. If we see someone in need and do nothing to help, “what good is that?” (See 2:16.) In other words, godly wisdom is not theoretical, but practical. It rolls up its sleeves and takes action.
The word is used only here in the New Testament. It may mean “impartial” (NIV, ESV, KJV), in the sense of not taking sides based on a party spirit or personal cronyism. But it also may mean “undivided,” in the sense of unwavering loyalty to God. James will hit this in 4:4, where he makes the point that you cannot be a friend of the world and of God at the same time. Godly wisdom does not play politics with the truth, shading it according to personal advantage. Rather, it holds unswervingly to the truth in love.
It is sincere. What you see is not a mask or cover-up. The word was used originally of Greek actors who played a part on stage that was not like what they were in person. Douglas Moo comments (p. 177), “The person characterized by wisdom from heaven will be stable, trustworthy, transparent—the kind of person consistently displaying the virtues of wisdom and on whom one can rely for advice and counsel.”
If we all would seek to live by these seven qualities of godly wisdom, personal conflicts would be greatly minimized and harmonious relationships would blossom and grow. But, unfortunately, we all battle the world, the flesh, and the devil. These forces combine to draw us astray into worldly “wisdom,” which causes disharmony in our relationships.
James lists five marks of worldly “wisdom”:
He mentions these two negative traits twice (3:14, 16). They both deal with hidden motives of the heart (“in your heart,” 3:14). As I said, they are traits that those who teach the Word may easily yield to. If someone challenges our teaching or another preacher across town has a bigger congregation, we can become jealous. Godly wisdom, as we’ve seen, would listen to the one who raises an objection and consider whether he may have a valid point. If we hear that the preacher across town has a bigger church, as long as he’s preaching the truth, we should think, “Praise God that His truth is going forth!” But worldly “wisdom” doesn’t seek God’s glory. It is rooted in selfishness and pride.
The Greek means, “Stop being arrogant.” Again, it is easy for those who teach to fall into pride, thinking, “I’m right and those who disagree with me are either stupid or sinning!” As Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1, ESV). Everyone ought to study the Word and become knowledgeable in the things of God. We all should know what we believe and be able to support it from Scripture. But, we should always be on guard against the pride that so easily creeps in. If we start parading our knowledge or using it to “put others in their place,” we are not displaying godly wisdom.
Coupled with the previous trait, the sense here seems to be: “If a man who is motivated by jealousy and personal ambition gets up and arrogantly berates others and proclaims how much he knows, his actions are giving lie to the truth he professes to be teaching.”
During my college years, many of my friends became enamored with a Bible teacher who professed to know Bible doctrine, but who reeked of arrogance. He would write Greek and Hebrew words on the overhead as he taught, parsing the verbs and telling everyone that the Greek language was exact in its meaning, and thus his view was the only correct view. (No language is exact; they all have many ambiguities!) He would put down those who disagreed with him. His followers would pounce on anyone who didn’t use the exact phraseology of this teacher. If you dared to ask, “Where’s the love?” they were quick to quote the teacher, that biblical love is a mental attitude that has nothing to do with kindness, compassion, or tenderness. I believe that that man in his arrogance was lying against the very truth that he sought to teach.
James doesn’t mince words! The source of this worldly “wisdom” is not God, but rather at best the natural man, but ultimately, Satan himself! These terms move from least to worst. “Earthly” suggests a “perspective that fails to consider God’s realm and will” (Moo, p. 173). “Natural” is always used negatively in the New Testament, as opposed to “spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:14; 15:44, 46; Jude 19). “It has to do with that part of man ‘where human feeling and human reason reign supreme’” (ibid.). “Demonic,” of course, points to the ultimate source of all that is opposed to God.
When Paul exhorted the Corinthians about the problems in their assembly, he said (1 Cor. 14:33), “God is not a God of confusion but of peace….” The word “confusion” is the same Greek word that is here translated “disorder.” Moo comments (p. 174), “The same ‘disorder’ is bound to break out in churches where people are pursuing their own selfish concerns and partisan causes rather than the good of the body as a whole.”
James sums up his point in this paragraph in 3:18:
The English Standard Version translates the verse: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” His point is simple: You reap what you sow. If a farmer sows corn, he reaps corn, not beans. If you sow peace, you will reap peace. If you sow selfishness and strife, you will reap conflict.
But also implicit in the verse is the fact that a harvest is not accidental or serendipitous. No farmer sits around doing nothing all year, then goes out into the field and says, “Whoa, look at that bountiful harvest!” If there is a harvest, it’s in part because he has worked hard to cultivate that harvest. If you see a church or a home where there is peace, it is because the members have worked to cultivate peace. They have listened to one another, respected one another, judged their own selfishness and pride, and sought to live in accordance with godly wisdom, not worldly “wisdom.”
Settling arguments peacefully in English pubs has often been a difficult task. So, in 1955, the Guinness brewing company decided that an official record was needed to pacify its customers. The Guinness Book of World Records was created. It has been a best seller ever since. By 1987, it had sold more than any other copyrighted book in publishing history! (From “Fedco Reporter,” April, 1987.)
We have a far better best seller to help us to live harmoniously: the wisdom of God’s Word. But because of selfishness, pride, and jealousy, many Christians have used the Bible to attack others and to justify themselves. James wants us to apply godly wisdom to our personal lives and relationships.
Is there peace in your home? Are you at peace with those in this church? If not, check out what kind of seed you’re sowing. If you’re sowing worldly “wisdom,” you’ll reap disorder and every evil thing. If you sow God’s wisdom, you’ll reap peace.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
A Canadian pastor told a true story of how a new denomination got started in that country. It all started the night that a Mr. Horner was enthusiastically preaching when his tie became wrapped around his hand. He concluded that the devil was trying to bind him in his preaching. So he tore off his tie, threw it on the ground, stomped on it, and said that ties were from the devil.
From then on he taught that Christians ought never to wear ties, because they bound them in their Christian lives. Others disagreed, which led to quarrels, which led to division. Today in Canada, there is a tie-less group called the “Hornerites.”
While I would sign a petition to ban neckties—I call them “strangulation devices”—I find it tragic that Christians would quarrel over such a trivial matter. Sometimes, when serious doctrinal issues are at stake, division among professing Christians is demanded. If we compromise the gospel, we are no longer Christian in any meaningful sense of the word. But, sadly, all too often our divisions and quarrels are over petty matters, not essentials.
What is true among churches is also true in our homes. Many Christian homes are wracked by conflict rather than permeated with the sweet aroma of the peace of Christ. I just read of a man who is serving the Lord in Africa. He grew up in a legalistic pastor’s home that majored on minor issues and overlooked major issues, such as love, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. When he called his parents to wish them a happy thirtieth anniversary, he learned that they were getting a divorce. He had to overcome a lot of bitterness in his own life to be able to follow and serve Christ.
Sometimes we idealize the early church. We think, “It must have been great to be a part of the first century church! It was so dynamic and powerful. They had such sweet fellowship!” But the reality is, the early church was made up of people, and people haven’t changed over the centuries! Many (if not all!) first century churches wrestled with conflicts between the members. The Corinthian church had divided into factions. The Philippian church had two women who couldn’t get along, and the conflict was severe enough that Paul singled them out by name in his letter. The Galatian believers were biting and devouring one another (Gal. 5:15). Paul began the practical section of Ephesians with an appeal to unity, tolerance, and love between the members (Eph. 4:1-16). On a personal level, even Paul and Barnabas had a serious disagreement that led to a parting of ways (Acts 15:36-40).
So it was not a unique situation when James addressed the problem of quarrels and conflicts among the believers to whom he wrote. The section here runs through 4:12, and it applies to all of our relational conflicts, whether in the church or at home. For sake of time, we can only deal with verses 1-3 today, but here is the flow of the entire section. The overall idea may be summed up: To resolve conflicts, repent of your sinful selfishness and humble yourself before God. There are four sections:
Today, we can only look at the first section, where James says,
To resolve conflicts, judge your selfish motives.
If it seems that I am stomping on your toes, it is only because James stomps on all of our toes! He is not a nice, polite man who beats around the bush in a mealy-mouthed manner! He is a doctor of the soul who speaks the truth plainly, even when it hurts. But you should prefer a doctor who speaks the truth over one who is nice, but never tells you what is wrong. If you will heed James’ straightforward analysis, your relationships will improve dramatically! We can track his thinking with four points:
James asks (4:1), “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?” The Greek reads literally, “From where wars and from where fights among you?” “Wars” may sound a bit extreme to describe the squabbles in your relationships, but James’ point is that if you do not deal with minor squabbles, they can easily escalate into all-out wars.
This has proved true in world history. In 1249, a soldier serving in the army of the city of Bologna, Italy, deserted to Modena and took with him an old oaken bucket used as a water trough for army horses. Bologna waived her rights to the fugitive, but demanded the return of the bucket. Proud Modena refused and a twenty-two-year conflict ensued (Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations, Paul Lee Tan [Assurance Publishers], #7166). Although the underlying causes of World War I were much more complex, the immediate cause was the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Eventually 32 nations joined that war and about 30 million lives were lost.
James answers his own question as to the source of wars and fights (4:1, 2): “Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel.” James’ point is, don’t look elsewhere for the source of your conflicts. Look within! The source is selfishness! Two selfish people dig in their heels and accuse each other as being the cause of the problems. Often, others take sides, until an all-out war results. But James takes it back to the root cause: selfishness!
Many of you that are currently engaged in conflict are thinking, “That’s a bit simplistic! If you knew the circumstances of the conflict that I’m in, you’d see that it’s much more complex than that. Let me explain what my wife [husband, etc.] does and you will see that this conflict is not my fault.”
When a couple comes to see me because of conflict in their marriage, the most difficult thing for me to do is to get each partner to stop blaming the other partner and to take responsibility for his or her side of the conflict. I’ve listened to couples attack each other. I stop them and say, “I don’t want to hear any more accusations against each other. Okay?” They grudgingly agree, but I kid you not, within minutes, if not seconds, they are blaming each other again!
James is saying that you will not resolve conflict until you correctly identify the source of it. If you blame the other person, you have not yet correctly identified the source. You must look within and see that your own selfishness is at fault. As a pastoral counselor, I have never seen a conflict that is 100 percent one-sided. Never! Even if one party is only 10 percent responsible and the other side 90 percent, the 10 percent side needs to face his or her responsibility and stop blaming the other side. Let God convict and deal with your partner. You deal with your own selfish sin.
The story is told of two monks who had lived in harmony for years. One day one of the monks grew bored with the monotony of their routine, so he said, “Let’s do something different. Let’s do as the world does.”
His fellow monk had been out of the world so long that he had forgotten, so he asked, “What does the world do?”
“Well, for one thing, the world quarrels.”
His brother monk asked, “How does the world quarrel?”
The other replied, “See that stone? Place it between us and say, ‘The stone is mine!’” Wanting to accommodate his friend, he put the stone between them and said, “The stone is mine!”
The monk who suggested the quarrel paused for reflection and felt the compulsion of their years of friendship. So he said, “Very well, brother. If the stone is thine, keep it.” And so ended the quarrel (ibid., # 4867).
So James’ first point is that self versus self is at the heart of all relational conflicts. The first step toward resolving conflict is to acknowledge your own selfishness.
The main enemy isn’t the other person! The main enemy is your own sinful, selfish flesh. If you do not defeat it, it will destroy you! James says (4:1), “Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members” These words imply three things:
There are some who teach that because we are new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and because we died with Him (Rom. 6), we do not have an old sin nature. They usually admit that we still must do battle with “the flesh,” but they deny that we have two natures. I find this confusing at best; at worst, they end up minimizing the power of the enemy within. Minimizing or underestimating the power of an enemy is a sure path toward defeat!
When James says that these pleasures are “in your members,” he means, “in your body.” The body itself is not sinful, but as long as we live in these bodies, we must do battle with sin. We will not be completely free from indwelling sin until we receive our new resurrection bodies at the return of Jesus Christ. Of course, at death our spirits are freed from the power of sin (there could not be any sin in heaven!), but our redemption is not complete until we get our resurrection bodies. Until that time, there is within each of us a powerful inclination toward sin.
R. V. G. Tasker (The General Epistle of James, Tyndale NT Commentaries [Eerdmans], p. 85) writes,
What he asserts is that the human personality has, as it were, been invaded by an alien army which is always campaigning within it. The verb [“wage war”] implies that these pleasures are permanently on active service; and the expression in your members means that there is no part of the human frame which does not afford them a battleground. Human nature is indeed in the grip of an overwhelming army of occupation.
The point is, unless you recognize the magnitude of this battle and the frightening fact that the enemy is not overseas and not on the other side of the country, but living within your body, you don’t understand how serious your problem is! You will never defeat such a powerful enemy if you shrug it off as no big deal.
James calls this enemy “your pleasures” (4:1, 3). We get the word hedonism from this Greek word. It implies that the enemy poses as a friendly ally, someone who will help you enjoy life better. He whispers, “Follow me, and I’ll give you the pleasure you’ve been missing.” And, if you follow the path of “your pleasures,” at first life will seem very good! They deliver on their promise. But it’s like using drugs. At first, you feel high and your problems seem to be gone. But then you get hooked, the highs don’t feel so high any more, and you end up being destroyed. This week I heard a report on NPR about the increasing cases of “meth mouth.” Methamphetamines literally rot the teeth out of users’ mouths. But even though they are destroying themselves, they keep using it because of the immediate high it gives them. All sin is like that—it gives immediate pleasure, but long term pain.
James emphasizes four times in these three verses that yielding to your sinful pleasures does not get you what you thought it would. He says (4:2, 3a, italics added), “You lust and do not have; … You are envious and cannot obtain; … You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive ….” Sin always makes enticing promises, and in the short run, it seems to deliver. But over the long haul, you come up empty and frustrated, if not totally destroyed. The bottom line of seeking your own way is always, “you do not have.”
The objective in war is either to destroy or to totally dominate your enemy. Scholars differ over what James means when he accuses his readers of committing murder. Did he mean this literally? Probably not. It is more likely that James has in mind what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-22), that if you are angry with your brother, you have murdered him in God’s sight.
But we should not miss the implication that murder usually begins with unchecked anger. Even though we may think, “I would never murder anyone,” if you don’t deal with your sinful anger, it could lead there! You may think, “I would never physically abuse my wife or my children.” Nice thought, and I hope you’re right. But if you continually erupt in anger toward them, it may happen! You must confront the enemy within, because he does not want to stop short of destroying you and others through you. And, you cannot grow in your Christian life and you will not bear fruit for God if you engage in unchecked anger and conflict at home or in the church. “The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
So James says that self versus self is at the heart of all relational conflicts. Also, there is an enemy within each of us, engaged in mortal combat. He poses as a friend promising pleasure, but his end is death.
James (4:2b-3) says, “You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” There are three implications here:
The focus of the person who does not pray is toward self, not toward God. So often when we’re in a relational conflict, we scheme, we tell our friends our side of the story, we go for counseling, we read self-help books on how to deal with difficult people—but we don’t make the problem a matter of faithful prayer. Maybe one reason that we fail to pray is that it’s hard to pray for someone and be angry at them at the same time. Since we justify our anger (“I have a right to be angry”) and we want to use our anger to make the other person pay, we don’t want to let it go. So we don’t pray for him (or her). I’m not referring to praying the imprecatory psalms against him, but really praying for his wellbeing!
Maybe you’re thinking, “But I do pray for him. I pray that he will deal with his wrong attitude or just get out of my life so that I don’t have these constant hassles!” James continues,
James says (4:3), “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” That’s selfish praying! That’s trying to use God as Aladdin’s Genie, to pull Him off the shelf when you need Him, rub Him the right way, and then put Him back until the next time. But Jesus clearly taught that prayer is not to get our will done on earth, but to get God’s will done: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Prayer is not so that we can use God; it is so that God can use us.
Most of you have seen the Four Spiritual Laws booklet, with the diagram of the throne with either Christ or self on the throne. The point of the diagram, of course, is that you are not to be the lord of your life. Jesus alone deserves that place. And yet I find so many who profess to be Christians, but they are trying to use God to make self happy. That is to be firmly on the throne of your life!
So James is saying that if you do not pray, it shows that your focus is not properly God-ward. If you pray selfishly, it shows that you are trying to use God for your purposes, rather than seeking to fulfill His purposes. There’s a third implication:
Jesus plainly taught (Matt. 7:7), “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” He did not say, “Ask and it will be given to you instantly.” He may have good reasons to delay the answer. Often the delays strengthen and test our faith. He knows the right timing as to when to answer. But our responsibility is to ask, but to ask with the right motives.
Your main reason for asking God to bring peace into your home or into some difficult relationship should not be so that you are free from the hassle. I know, you’re weary of the hassle. Peace would feel so good! But, if you pray for peace so that you can be relieved of the stress, you’re missing the big picture. The main reason you should pray for peace is so that God might be glorified. He is not glorified by strife and quarreling. Christ is not magnified by constant conflict. He is glorified in His people when they crucify self and allow His love to flow through them, even toward those who treat them wrongly. Ask God to be glorified in your relationships, and He will answer! So,
Whether in the church or in your home, if you do not judge and put to death your sinful, selfish desires, you will have war. Or, to reverse it, if a church or home is filled with conflict, it is because some (if not all) of the members are living in the flesh. William Barclay put it this way (The Letters of James and Peter, Daily Study Bible [Westminster Press], p. 99), “The ultimate choice in life lies between pleasing oneself and pleasing God; and a world in which men’s first aim is to please themselves is a battleground of savagery and division.”
The decision to judge your own selfish focus is not optional for believers. It is the sine qua non of following Jesus Christ. He said (Luke 9:23), “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” It is a daily requirement to put self to death! Why would you want to do that? Jesus continues (9:24), “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” So it really isn’t a choice between pleasing oneself or pleasing God. When you live to please God by denying self, you gain your life—truly abundant life!
A boy once asked, “Dad, how do wars begin?” “Well, take the First World War,” said his father. “That got started when Germany invaded Belgium.” Immediately his wife interrupted, “Tell the boy the truth. It began because somebody was murdered.”
The husband drew himself up in an air of superiority and snapped back, “Are you answering the question, or am I?” Turning her back on him in a huff, the wife walked out of the room and slammed the door as hard as she could. When the dishes stopped rattling in the cupboard, an uneasy silence followed, broken at length by the son. “Daddy, you don’t have to tell me any more; I know now!”
“What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” (James 4:1). The way to resolve conflict with others is not to win the war with others. Rather, it is to wage war against those powerful forces that are waging war in your soul! Judge your selfish motives, daily put self on the cross, and you will move in the direction of peace in your relationships.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
It’s obvious that James never had the opportunity to attend the Robert Schuller Institute for Church Growth. If he had gone there, he never would have written the shocking words of our text. He would have learned that the church needs to be seeker-sensitive. If you want to attract seekers, you never should say anything from the pulpit that might offend or confront the seeker about his sin! If you want to attract customers—excuse me—seekers, you’ve got to give them what they want. When a seeker comes to church, he wants to hear upbeat stories that encourage him and build his self-esteem. The last thing he wants is to be called a spiritual adulteress! Clearly, James could have used a seminar on how to build a seeker church!
In the context, James is confronting the problem of conflicts in the church. Rather than the idyllic picture of the early church that we often have, the churches to which James wrote were at war. There was jealousy and selfish ambition (3:14, 16). Members were angrily quarreling with each other. As James points out (4:1-3), the source of their conflicts was selfishness. So he devotes 4:1-12 to the theme of resolving conflicts by repenting of selfishness and humbling yourself before God. There are four sections:
Today, we come to 4:4-6, which may be summarized:
To resolve conflicts, turn from all spiritual adultery and humbly entreat God’s grace.
What is the connection between spiritual adultery and resolving conflicts? If you go to a Christian psychologist and complain about a relational conflict, he will give you some techniques to help resolve the problems: Use a win-win approach. Negotiate an acceptable compromise. Listen without judging the other person. Use “I feel” statements rather than accusations.
All of these relational principles (which you could find, by the way, in Reader’s Digest or “Dear Abby”) may put a Band-Aid on interpersonal conflicts, but they represent the best of man’s wisdom. They overlook the root problem in relational conflicts, which is the entrenched selfishness of the combatants. And you can’t deal with selfishness unless you truly enthrone Christ as Lord. In other words, all relational conflicts are rooted in a spiritual problem: the combatants are not in a right relationship with the living God.
In 4:1-3, James confronted selfishness as the source of conflict. Now he ties in selfishness with worldliness and shows that at the root of it all is spiritual adultery—unfaithfulness to God:
First James shows that…
After repeatedly addressing his readers as “my brethren,” “you adulteresses” is a bit of a shock! (The KJV reading, “You adulterers and adulteresses” is based on weak manuscript evidence.) He is referring to spiritual adultery, not to marital unfaithfulness. Verse 4 brings out four truths:
James is picking up a familiar theme from the Old Testament, that God is the husband and His people are His wife. For example, Isaiah 54:5 states, “For your husband is your Maker, whose name is the Lord of hosts; …” In many passages, God accuses Israel, sometimes in graphic language, of spiritual adultery because of their unfaithfulness to His covenant love (see Isa. 1:21; 50:1; 57:3; Jer. 3:1-20; 13:27; Ezek. 16:35-39; 23:1-49).
Perhaps the most moving text of all is when God commanded the prophet Hosea to marry the prostitute Gomer (Hosea 1-3). After bearing him children, she was unfaithful to him. In spite of her adultery, Hosea continued to support her, but she thought that it came from her lovers (Hos. 2:5, 8)! Eventually, Gomer ended up on the slave market, totally degraded. God commanded Hosea to go and buy back his errant wife out of slavery and restore her as his wife! What a picture of God’s love for His wayward people!
The New Testament picks up the theme of God as our husband when Paul says that the marriage relationship is an earthly picture of Christ and the church (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22-33; Rev. 19, 21). He is our Bridegroom and we are His bride. This means that when we turn away from Christ and embrace the world, we are sinning against His great love that bought us out of the slave market of sin.
That’s why the apostle John contrasts the love of the world with the love of God: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). If you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, you belong to His covenant people. We are His bride. You must turn from this evil world and be faithful to Him.
Shockingly, James calls his readers “adulteresses”! He means to jar them from their spiritual complacency. He wants them to drop their excuses and squarely face the magnitude of their sin. They were playing politics in the church, attacking one another and rallying others to their cause. They were squabbling in their homes, but shrugging it off as just normal behavior. James says, “Yes, it’s normal in the world, but you’re not of the world! You’re the bride of Christ, and to engage in selfish conflict is to commit spiritual adultery. Face the seriousness of your sin!”
Sometimes we’re like the proverbial mule that needs to get hit with a two-by-four to get its attention. We mistakenly think that love is always nice and mild-mannered. Jesus was not nice, but He was speaking in love, when He said to Peter (Matt. 16:23), “Get behind Me, Satan!” He was speaking in love when He said repeatedly to the Jewish religious leaders, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (Matt. 23:13, 15, 16, 23, 25). He spoke lovingly when He said to them, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?” (Matt. 23:33). And, James speaks with love for these believers when he says, “You adulteresses!” Love is not always nice!
I’m not suggesting that we go around lashing out at others with prophetic vehemence! We need to balance this with Paul’s admonition to be kind, gentle, and patient, even when people oppose us (2 Tim. 2:24-26). But even Paul (and the verse before specifically says that he was filled with the Holy Spirit!) said to Elymas the magician (Acts 13:10), “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord?” Then he struck him with blindness!
Sometimes love must speak boldly to confront the person who is destroying himself and others by his sin. Before you speak, check your motives, to make sure that you’re seeking God’s glory and kingdom alone. Make sure that your flesh does not delight in blasting the other person. But if your heart is right and Christ, not self, is on the throne, there are times that love may need to shock the other person out of his sinful ways. We need the boldness to show those we love that spiritual adultery is a serious sin.
On several occasions, God has used someone’s boldness to get me out of a spiritual rut. When I was in college, I had just begun to grow in my commitment to Christ when I was challenged to attend a ten-day Campus Crusade Leadership Training Institute. Since I was working my way through college and this would mean giving up two weeks of summer employment, I began to make excuses for why I couldn’t go. The man who was urging me to go looked me in the eye and said, “If you’re committed to Christ, you need to quit making excuses! Go to the conference and trust God for the money!” Pow! Right between the eyes! I went to the conference and God used it greatly in my life.
So James is saying that if you know Christ, you are married to Him. Just as marital adultery is serious sin, even more so spiritual adultery is serious sin.
James draws the line in the sand (4:4): “Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Take your pick: Are you married to God or to the world? Can you imagine a couple that gets married, and a month later the husband tells his wife, “I’m going out tonight with my old girlfriend”? “I love you, but I want to keep in touch with her, too!” Needless to say, that marriage is in big trouble! When you get married, you vow to forsake all others and be devoted exclusively to your spouse.
In the same way, when you come to Christ as Savior and Lord, you say goodbye to the world. It used to be your companion and friend. You spent many hours running with it. But you can’t bring it into your marriage to Jesus Christ. He brooks no rivals. You are either friends with the world and an enemy of God, or friends with God and an enemy of the world. And how frightening to make yourself the enemy of the living God!
But, you may wonder, what does it mean to be a friend of the world?
When I think of “worldliness,” I think of a place like Las Vegas. It epitomizes the world and all that it has to offer. It has big-name entertainers who croon to you or tell raunchy jokes while you drink yourself drunk. It has raw sex shows, or if that is too bold for you, it offers more socially acceptable sexy dancers and stage shows. On the street, vacationing women dress in seductive clothes that they would never dare to wear back home. There is gambling in every hotel and restaurant. Walk through any casino at any hour of the night and you find grandmas from Kansas playing the slot machines. The few times I’ve been there, I’ve thought, “This is the essence of the world!”
But all that you see in Las Vegas is only the outward trappings of the world. At the heart of all of the glitz is the fact that all of these people are seeking pleasure apart from God. To get drunk is to seek good feelings or escape from problems apart from God. To engage in sex outside of marriage is to seek pleasure apart from God. To gamble is not only to be a bad steward of the money that God has entrusted to you. It also is to think that having more money and more things would satisfy your soul. It is to be greedy and the Bible equates greed with idolatry (Col. 3:5). It is to seek fulfillment in material possessions, rather than in God.
As John Piper has aptly pointed out, the Bible is not against us having pleasure. Rather, it is against us finding pleasure in the wrong things or in wrong ways. Knowing God is the ultimate pleasure. The Psalms often proclaim this truth:
Psalm 16:11: “You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”
Psalm 36:7-9: “How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings. They drink their fill of the abundance of Your house; and You give them to drink of the river of Your delights. For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.”
Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.”
There are many more such verses. But the point is that the world is the evil system that competes with God. It offers you pleasure apart from God. But true, lasting, eternal pleasure is to be had only in God Himself! As God says (Jer. 2:13), “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Friendship with the world means trying to satisfy your thirst in man-made, broken cisterns that leak. Every time you go for a drink, they’re dry. Only God is the fountain of living water that satisfies the soul!
This is a main reason that I oppose so-called Christian psychology. It has imported into the church supposed “solutions” to your problems that leave God out. I’ve been asked, “If psychology can help people with their problems, why not use it?” The answer is, “It doesn’t help them crucify self and seek God alone as the soul’s satisfaction.” I’ve talked to numerous people who have gone to Christian psychologists. They’ve learned that they’re angry because their parents didn’t love them. I heard one such counselor say that he told a client to go pound a pillow as he thought of his father, to get his rage out! They’ve learned that they’re depressed because they have been too focused on others and they need to draw boundaries and start loving themselves. They’ve been told that they need to build their self-esteem.
Do any of these ideas come from the Bible? None! I’ve asked people who have gone to these counselors, “Did they direct you to Scripture?” No! “Did they pray with you?” No! “Did they talk to you about your walk with God and the need to love Him with all your heart and turn from your sin?” No! Did they explain how the Holy Spirit can give you love in place of anger, joy in place of depression, and peace in place of conflict and anxiety? No!
It’s worldly counsel because it directs people to meet their needs apart from knowing, trusting, and loving God. It focuses them on loving self, not on loving God and others. At the heart of worldliness in whatever form it takes is, living to please yourself apart from God. That is spiritual adultery!
James 4:5 is the most difficult verse in James. Some scholars call it one of the most difficult verses in the entire New Testament. So we must not be dogmatic in our interpretation of it. There are two basic options, with several variations within each option. These stem from several ambiguities in the Greek text.
Some (KJV, NIV) translate the verse, “The spirit which He has made to dwell in us lusts with envy.” In this sense, the verse is warning against the propensity of the fallen human spirit towards the sin of envy. In favor of this view is that the word translated “envy” is never used elsewhere of God.
Others (NASB, ESV) translate, “He [God] jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us.” A variation of this translation takes “spirit” to refer to the human spirit, not to the Holy Spirit (James has no other references to the Holy Spirit). In this translation, James is referring to God’s holy jealousy for His people. The Greek grammar and the context argue in favor of this view (Douglas Moo, The Letter of James, Pillar New Testament Commentary [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 188-190). In verse 4, James has warned against spiritual adultery. Verse 5 would naturally, then, refer to God’s holy jealousy as our Husband, which yearns for our faithfulness in our spirits to Him.
But there is a further problem in verse 5: James seems to be quoting Scripture, but the Old Testament has no such verse. The best solution is probably that James is referring generally to the many the Old Testament references to God’s jealousy for the undivided devotion of His people. For example, in the second commandment forbidding idolatry, God says, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God …” (Exod. 20:5; also, Exod. 34:14; Zech. 8:2).
In a godly marriage, there is a healthy form of jealousy which a husband should have for his wife. If he found out that she was seeing an old boyfriend on the sly, he would rightly be jealous of her affection. If he shrugged it off and said, “She’s entitled to have her old boyfriend and me, too,” we would rightly question whether he loved her.
Of course there is also a sinful form of jealousy in marriage. I knew a couple where the husband would check the odometer on the car and grill his wife every night about where she had been. He didn’t want her to talk to any men at church, even in plain sight. He didn’t trust her, even though he had no reason for such behavior. That was not godly jealousy, but rather a selfish attempt to control her. Sadly, that marriage ended in divorce.
So as I understand verse 5, James is saying that we must give total allegiance to God. He is a righteously jealous Husband who tolerates no rivals. We cannot dally with sin and follow Christ, too. We cannot live for self and yet make claim of being Christians. We cannot claim to be the bride of Christ and then run to the worldly “man next door” for comfort in our trials and counsel with our problems. James is saying that if we are having conflicts in our relationships, the place to begin is to turn from all spiritual adultery and be exclusively devoted to God. Living for self and seeking pleasure apart from God is to commit spiritual adultery.
The flow of thought between verses 5 and 6 is, “If God’s demand of absolute fidelity seems impossible, know that with the demand He gives the grace to obey it.” In fact, He gives “greater grace” than we need. But, we need to understand (here James cites Proverbs 3:34) that God does not give grace to the proud, self-reliant, self-righteous person. He opposes the proud. Rather, He gives grace to the humble, who admit that they are empty and ask God to fill them. As Psalm 107:9 puts it, “For He has satisfied the thirsty soul, and the hungry soul He has filled with what is good.”
If you have drifted from God into any form of spiritual adultery, don’t miss James’ words, “He gives a greater grace.” You may be thinking, “But you don’t know what I’ve done!” True, but God does, and His Word plainly states, “He gives a greater grace.” As we often sing, it is “grace greater than all our sins.” And, it is grace greater than all of our trials and burdens. It draws us to the Lord Jesus Himself as our all in all. Annie Johnson Flint wrote,
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater;
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase.
To added affliction He addeth His mercy;
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources,
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
His love has no limit; His grace has no measure;
His power has no boundary known unto men.
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus,
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again!
If you’re in conflict in any relationship, consider the shocking possibility that you’re living for self, which is the essence of worldliness. Turn from such spiritual adultery, humble yourself and entreat God’s grace. As Paul said when addressing the conflicts between Jews and Gentiles, “For He Himself is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). Let Christ be your peace in conflict!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
A dour Englishman was seated on a train between two ladies arguing about the window. One claimed that she would die of heatstroke if it stayed closed. The other said she would expire of pneumonia if it was opened. The ladies called the conductor, who didn’t know how to resolve the conflict. Finally, the gentleman spoke up. “First, open the window. That will kill the one. Then close it. That will kill the other. Then we will have peace.”
As I said last week, the world has many ways to resolve conflict, but invariably, they leave God out. God tells us that His ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). His ways are much higher than our ways, and often run counter to our ways. If we want true and lasting peace in our relationships, then we need to resolve conflicts God’s way. His way for resolving conflicts is not to give us surface techniques that achieve outward peace. Rather, God goes for the heart—primarily our heart relationship with Him. When our ways please Him, then we have a foundation for resolving conflicts with others (Prov. 16:7).
In James 4:1, he asks, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?” He goes on to show that the source is selfishness. In a section running through verse 12, he shows,
To resolve conflicts, repent of your sinful selfishness and humble yourself before God.
Today we come to the third section, where James says…
To resolve conflicts, submit to God, resist the devil, and repent of all sin.
Our text is sandwiched between the quote from Proverbs 3:34, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (in 4:6) and the concluding command, “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (4:10). Keep in mind that the overall context is about resolving conflicts in the church (or home). Here James zeroes in on God’s way of conflict resolution, which deals with our hearts before Him. Conflict with God is often behind conflicts with others. First and foremost in any conflict, we must get right with God.
We can sum up three of James’ commands under this one head: Submit to God unconditionally (4:7); draw near to God (4:8); and, humble yourself before God (4:10).
You can go to seminars on how to be more assertive, but I’ve yet to see a seminar on how to learn to submit! It’s not a popular concept, but it is a biblical one. The word means “to put yourself in rank under” someone, implying a hierarchy of authority. It is used of the obligation to submit to government authorities (Rom. 13:1, 5; 1 Pet. 2:13); to elders in the church (1 Pet. 5:5); of mutual submission of husbands and wives to one another, and of wives to husbands, in marriage (Eph. 5:21, 22; 1 Pet. 3:1, 5); and of slaves to masters (1 Pet. 2:18).
Of course, God is the ultimate and only sovereign authority in the universe, and it should be obvious to everyone that it is most unwise to rebel against His authority. Since He is “opposed to the proud” (James 4:6), verse 7 infers, “Submit therefore to God.” It is the only sensible thing to do!
But because of the fall, as Paul explains (Rom. 8:7), the mind set on the flesh “is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” (Subject is the same Greek word as submit in James 4:7.) Unbelievers are unable to submit to God’s law, because they are unwilling to do so. Using the same word in Romans 10:3, Paul asserts, “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” In pride, fallen man wants to set up his own righteousness as good enough, but it falls far short of God’s absolute righteousness. So the essence of human rebellion against God is that we do not submit to His holy law or to His perfect righteousness. You cannot separate submitting to God from trusting Him for salvation.
While much more could be said, here are four ways that we tend to resist God and thus need to focus on submitting to Him:
All of the world’s religions, except for biblical Christianity, teach that salvation is a matter of human endeavor and goodness. The world’s way is, “Work hard, be the best person you can be, and you’ll go to heaven.” Such teaching feeds human pride. It gives the good person reason to boast.
God’s way of salvation is totally opposed to man’s way. God’s way allows no one to boast before Him. He declares that we all have sinned and deserve His judgment. Further, because of our sin and pride, we aren’t willing to come to Him for salvation. All of our good works would never qualify us for heaven, because they cannot pay the debt of sin that we owe.
But what we could never do, God in His mercy did. He sent His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He satisfied God’s justice by dying in the place of sinners. God offers His salvation as a free gift, received by faith alone, apart from any human works or goodness (see Eph. 2:1-9). To be saved, we must submit unconditionally to God’s way of salvation.
We all tend to submit to the part of God’s person that we naturally like, but we either ignore or deliberately dodge the part of His person that we don’t care for. Nobody has a problem with God’s great love, but many have a problem with His hatred of all sin and His absolute justice that demands that all unrepentant sinners be punished for eternity in hell. But if God’s Word reveals that sinners will be punished eternally in hell, and if Jesus Himself taught it (and, He did, Matt. 25:46), then we dare not fight it or reject it, even if it is not to our liking! We must submit to all of who God is as revealed in His Word.
Let’s be honest: There are some difficult things in the Bible that, if we had the choice, we would cut out of it. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, who was not a believer, literally took scissors and cut out the parts of the Bible that he did not like! While none of us would be so brazen, in effect we often do just as Jefferson did. We don’t literally cut out the difficult parts, but we just ignore them or don’t work at understanding and submitting to those parts!
I know Christians who don’t like the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty in choosing some, but not all, for salvation. So they just skip passages like Romans 9, which God inspired Paul to write for our spiritual edification. Of course, they must also skip many other texts, since the doctrine of God’s sovereign election is all through the Bible. Or, they explain it away by saying that God foreknew who would choose Him, so He chose them. They never pause to reflect that such a view turns the Bible on its head and makes sinful men sovereign, rather than God!
I once talked with a Jehovah’s Witness woman who came to my door. I found out that she formerly had been a Lutheran. When I asked her why she left the Lutheran faith, she said that she couldn’t understand the trinity. But the issue with the trinity is not whether you understand it, but rather, is it clearly taught in Scripture? If it is, you must submit to it.
In Spurgeon’s day, there were many liberal critics attacking the truthfulness and authority of the Bible. He saw that behind such attacks was the hostility of the unregenerate mind. He said, “The only real argument against the Bible is an unholy life. When a man argues against the Word of God, follow him home and see if you can discover the reason of his enmity to the Word of the Lord. It lies in some form of sin” (in Iain Murray, Spurgeon and Hyper-Calvinism [Banner of Truth], p. 8).
God does many things in our lives that are not especially pleasant or to our liking. There are many such trials that we will never in this life fully understand God’s reason for them. It may be the untimely death of a loved one. It could be unfair treatment at work or at school. Perhaps you had abusive parents or were the object of racial discrimination. You may suffer from some terrible disease or deformity. In the context of James 4, it may be a difficult person in your life who is always trying to stir up conflict. The potential list is endless, but you can’t read the daily news without realizing that life is terribly unfair, from the human point of view.
Yet the Bible is clear that nothing happens to us apart from God’s providential permission or care. If Satan attacks the godly Job, killing all of his children and taking away his possessions and health, it is only because God permitted Satan to do it. God has all of our days pre-numbered (Ps. 139:16) and He even has all the hairs on our heads numbered (Matt. 10:30). If He allows James to be beheaded, but Peter to escape, that’s God’s prerogative (Acts 12). If Peter later dies a martyr’s death, but John lives to a ripe old age, that’s God’s business (John 21:21-23).
You can fight against God for the difficult things that happen, or you can humble yourself under His mighty hand, casting all your anxiety upon Him (1 Pet. 5:6-7). “Submit therefore to God” in His way of salvation, in His person, in His Word, and in His providential dealings with you. There’s a second aspect of submission:
James gives a command and a promise: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” Before I comment on what this means, let me clarify what it does not mean. It does not mean that God is waiting for sinners to make the first move toward Him, and then He will respond. Not only does that run counter to all of Scripture, it also runs counter to this verse, which is God commanding us to draw near to Him!
Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). In case we missed it, He repeated, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65). God always makes the first move toward us. If He did not, we all would perish in our sins (see also, John 8:34, 43-44; Rom. 3:10-12). So if you have drawn near to God for salvation, it was because God chose you and drew you to Himself. As Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me” (John 6:37).
But these words in James are written primarily to believers. It is easy even for believers to drift away from the Lord. James’ point is, “Guess who moved?” It wasn’t God! If you’re engaging in continuing quarrels and conflicts, you are not close to God. You’ve drifted. He is calling you to draw near to Him, with the promise that He is ready and waiting to draw near to you. The thought of not enjoying sweet fellowship with our loving Lord should move you to clear up whatever stands between you and Him.
You cannot be close to God at the same time that you’re angry or bitter toward someone else. That’s why immediately after teaching how serious the sin of anger is, Jesus said (Matt. 5:23-24), “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” You can’t draw near to God until you first clear up, as much as it is in your power, any relational difficulties. If you think that you’re close to God, but you’re angry and bitter, you’re deceiving yourself! Submit to God; draw near to God.
Pride is at the heart of all disobedience to God and of almost all relational conflicts. If God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6), then you want to make sure you’re not making yourself God’s opponent! The theme of God humbling the proud, but exalting the humble, runs throughout Scripture (1 Sam. 2:4-8; Job 42:6, 10-17; Ps. 34:18; 51:17; Prov. 3:34; 29:25; Isa. 57:15; 66:2; Ezek. 17:24; Matt. 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14; 1 Pet. 5:6). In the context of dealing with relational conflicts, the apostle Paul tells us to imitate the Lord Jesus, the supreme example of one who humbled Himself and was exalted by God (Phil. 2:8-9).
The key to developing biblical humility is in the phrase, “in the presence of the Lord” (James 4:10). Only those with hardened hearts could be proud in the presence of the Lord! The holy angels in His presence cover their faces (Isa. 6:2). When Isaiah had his vision of the Lord, he was undone—personally shattered—and immediately aware of his own sinfulness (Isa. 6:5). When God portrayed the wonders of creation before Job, he had no further arguments against God. Instead, he said (Job 42:6), “I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” When the apostle John, who formerly had rested his head on Jesus’ chest, saw Him in His glory on the Isle of Patmos, he fell at His feet as a dead man (Rev. 1:17).
This is one reason Calvin’s Institutes are so spiritually rich—he is always lifting up God’s majesty and showing how man’s only proper place before Him is to lie prostrate in awe. The Puritan Thomas Manton paraphrases Calvin’s opening line from The Institutes: “The soul becomes humble by the true knowledge of God and ourselves” (Exposition of the Epistle of James [Sovereign Grace Book Club], p. 348; I updated his English). He continues (ibid.), “The stars vanish when the sun arises; and our poor candle is slighted into a disappearance, when the glory of God arises in our thoughts…. And we see our vileness in God’s majesty…. Get as large and comprehensive thoughts of him as you can; see his glory, if you would know your own baseness.” The first step in resolving relational conflicts is to submit to God, which includes drawing near to Him and humbling yourself before Him.
The liberal German scholar, Rudolph Bultmann, wrote, “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless, and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits” (in Kerygma and Myth, pp. 4-5, cited by John Stott, The Cross of Christ [IVP], p. 231). Take your pick: either Bultmann is right, or Jesus and the New Testament writers are right!
While often Satan does not need to involve himself or his demonic forces in our conflicts (our flesh incites them without any extra help!), there are times when demons are directly involved in disrupting our relationships. While it would be out of line to see a demon behind every quarrel, it is also out of line and naïve to think that demons are never involved.
One author has gained a lot of popularity writing several books outlining numerous steps to overcome Satan’s power in your life (Neil Anderson, The Bondage Breaker [Harvest House], Victory Over the Darkness [Regal Books]). The Bible is a bit more simple—one step: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” We get our word antihistamine from the Greek word translated resist. It means to stand against or oppose. Paul uses it with reference to spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:13, “Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”
The Greek word for devil is diabolos, which means, literally, to throw against. It is the word for slanderer. It translates the Hebrew word for Satan, which means “adversary.” The devil is an evil fallen angel who stands against God and His people, always ready to accuse or slander them (Zech. 3:1, 2; Rev. 12:10). While we are no match for him in our own strength, in the name of the Lord and protected by the armor He provides, we may simply stand against Satan and he will flee. To resolve conflicts, first submit to God. Then, stop and pray in Jesus’ name against the prince of darkness.
James sounds like an Old Testament prophet as he proclaims, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.” He is talking about thorough, heartfelt repentance.
Those whom James confronted had laughter and at least superficial joy. If you had seen them, they would have seemed quite happy. But, as we saw last week, they had become friends with the world. At the heart of worldliness is finding joy and pleasure in things other than God, or while disregarding and disobeying God.
There are people in evangelical churches who are outwardly happy in their positions of power in the church; happy with their abundant material possessions, and happy with their self-centered lifestyles. Yet at the same time, they hate others in the church, ignore the needy, and never give sacrificially to the Lord’s work. It is to these types that James shouts, “Be miserable and mourn and weep!”
James’ words show that there is an emotional element to genuine repentance. It is not just a glib, “I’m sorry that I offended you.” Or, “I’m sorry that you’re upset” (implying, “it’s your fault!”). When you are truly repentant, you accept full responsibility for your sin. You don’t excuse it as a shortcoming or oversight. You mourn over how you have offended God, disgraced His name, and hurt your brother or sister in Christ (2 Cor. 2:1-7; 7:7-11).
Psalm 34:18 promises, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” In Psalm 51:17, where David laments his sin with Bathsheba, he writes, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” John Bunyan wrote a beautiful short book on that verse, The Acceptable Sacrifice [Banner of Truth], in which he explains how to know if your heart is broken before God, and how to keep it tender. (I have put a few quotes from it in today’s bulletin and on the church web site under “Helpful Resources.”)
The mourning of biblical repentance is not opposed to the biblical joy that we are commanded to have at all times (Phil. 4:4; 1 Thess. 5:16). In fact, true joy comes only through true repentance, because it is then that we experience God’s forgiveness and mercy. The woman who wet Jesus’ feet with her tears knew the joy of sins forgiven. The proud Pharisee, who did not see his own need for forgiveness, had neither her tears nor her joy (Luke 7:36-50).
Kent Hughes (James: Faith that Works [Crossway Books], p. 189) tells of an old preacher who was told that in one of his services a certain woman had gotten “joy in the Lord” (conversion). His penetrating question was, “Did she ever get any sorrow?” He knew that to truly experience the joy of sins forgiven, you first have to feel the grief of the sins. He knew Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
Don’t sit passively and wait for resolution in a conflict to happen spontaneously. James gives ten active commands in machine-gun fashion in these four verses: Submit to God! Resist the devil! Draw near to God! Cleanse your hands! Purify your heart! Be miserable! Mourn! Weep! Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into gloom! Humble yourself! God’s way to resolve conflicts is to submit to Him, resist the devil, and repent of all sin.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
I once served on a jury for a drunk driving case. The defendant had a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit. The judge carefully instructed us that our job was to determine if this woman had, in fact, broken the law. I naively thought that the case was a slam-dunk. We shouldn’t have to deliberate longer than a few minutes.
We got into the jury room and one guy piped up, “I can drink that much and drive without any problem!” Someone else chimed in with similar comments. Some ladies said how nice the young woman seemed to be. I couldn’t believe it! They were totally ignoring the judge’s instructions! After three hours of wrangling, another juror and I finally had persuaded everyone of the woman’s guilt, except for one woman. She said, “I could never vote to convict her, because the Bible says, ‘Judge not, lest you be judged.’”
It was late in the day, and I knew that if we didn’t convict her, we’d all have to come back the next day. So I said, “None of us wants to come back tomorrow. We’re going to convict her, so you just keep quiet!” That’s how justice was done!
There is hardly any verse of the Bible that is more misunderstood than Jesus’ words, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matt. 7:1). And there is hardly any verse that is more frequently disobeyed among Christians than that verse! For years I have had it on my prayer list for myself, yet I have disobeyed it many times. I’m sure that I’m not an exception. Also, keep in mind that it is a sin to judge another person in your heart, even if you keep your thoughts to yourself. Judgmental words eventually will flow out of a judgmental heart, but the sin begins in the heart. It is a manifestation of pride; we think that we’re better than others are.
In concluding this section on resolving conflicts (James 4:1), James elaborates on Jesus’ command against judging one another. His message is:
To resolve conflicts, stop judging others and submit to God’s authoritative Word.
That command is easy to state, but it’s a bit more complex to understand. So we need to carefully define this sin.
Many people cite Matthew 7:1 about not judging others, but they never bother to read down to verse 6, where Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine….” He was talking about people who are dogs and swine! To obey verse 6, you must make some judgmental decisions about the person’s character! “That guy is a dog! That guy is a swine!”
Also, if you keep reading (Matt. 7:15), Jesus says, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” It takes a discerning sheep to recognize, “That’s not a true sheep! That’s a wolf dressed like a sheep!” It requires judging the man’s teaching as false.
We live in times when tolerance, unity, and “love” (which usually means, being nice) are dominant themes in the evangelical church. If you dare to confront or expose sin, or if you label someone’s teaching as unbiblical, or the person as a false teacher, you get accused of being judgmental and unloving. But the Bible is clear that a pastor is being extremely unloving to allow wolves to prey on the flock or to allow sinning believers to infect the flock without confronting and exposing them.
Note Romans 16:17-18: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.”
Some would say that it’s okay to expose the false doctrine in general terms, but that you should never specifically name a false teacher. I’ve been criticized and have had people leave the church because I have named men like Norman Vincent Peale or Robert Schuller as false teachers. But in 1 Timothy 1:19, Paul mentions that some have rejected faith and a good conscience, “and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith.” He doesn’t leave it there, but goes on (1:20), “Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme.” In 2 Timothy 2:17, he names Hymenaeus and Philetus, adding (2:18), “men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some.”
In 2 Timothy 4:10, Paul tells Timothy, “Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me….” In verse 14, he warns Timothy about “Alexander the coppersmith,” who did Paul much harm. In 3 John 9-10, the apostle of love warns the flock about “Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them,” but “does not accept what we say.” Paul names two quarreling ladies, Euodia and Syntyche, urging them “to live in harmony in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2). He pointedly tells the church in Colossae, “Say to Archippus, ‘Take heed to your ministry’” (Col. 4:17). He named names!
The apostles were not, in any of these instances, wrongly judging others. So we must conclude that it is not judging someone to exercise discernment about ungodly behavior or false teaching.
I’ve heard people say, “I could never confront anyone about their sin, because we’re not supposed to judge others. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!” But this is to dodge a difficult, but loving, responsibility. If you see your child about to run in front of a speeding car, you would do everything in your power to warn him. If you see a brother in Christ about to ruin his life by sin or by believing false, damnable doctrine, love should motivate you to do everything possible to warn him.
In our text, James was not being judgmental by confronting this sin in the church. In James 5:19-20, he states, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
On a personal level, such confrontation is the responsibility of every spiritual believer (Gal. 6:1). It should begin in private, unless the sin is public to start with (Gal. 2:11-14; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). If the sinning person does not listen to you, then take another mature believer with you, or involve someone else who can try to minister to the sinning person. If he still refuses to listen, it may be necessary to tell it to the entire church and to remove the person from the fellowship (Matt. 18:15-18).
As a general rule, the circle of those who are informed of the situation should be limited to those who can help or to those who need to be protected. The aim should always be to restore the sinning believer, to protect the church from sin, and to honor God. But it is not being judgmental and it is acting in love to confront sin and false teaching in the church.
To make wise ministry decisions and to shepherd the flock, you must make judgments about a person’s character and doctrinal views. Sometimes you must communicate your evaluations to others that may be affected by the person’s immaturity or unbiblical views. Sometimes I have to tell people that, in my judgment, they should not attend another church in town, based on my knowledge of the ministry there. This is not being judgmental if my motive is to help the person I’m talking with to grow in Christ by avoiding a church where holiness and sound doctrine are not priorities.
In other words, your motive is crucial! When James says (4:11), “Do not speak against one another,” some versions translate it, “Do not slander one another.” Slander, which means maligning someone or damaging his reputation by sharing false or deliberately misleading information, is always sin. But the word that James uses has a broader meaning that includes any form of criticism or running someone down from selfish motives. In other words, what you are saying may be true, but the reason you’re sharing it is to make yourself look good and to put the other person in a bad light. If your motive in criticizing someone is jealousy, selfish ambition, rivalry, pride, or hatred, you are judging wrongly.
In Philippians 1:15, 17, Paul impugns the motives of those who were preaching out of envy, strife, and selfish ambition, trying to cause him distress in his imprisonment. I do not know how Paul knew their motives. He must have had solid evidence. If you don’t, you’re on shaky ground to judge another person’s motives. We seldom know all of the pertinent facts to make such pronouncements.
Years ago in another church I had a secretary who was often abrasive in the way she dealt with people. She needed to grow in that area, but many of us would criticize her behind her back rather than help her. One day I asked her to type a story about a little girl whose father suddenly told her that he was leaving her mother. He promised his daughter that she could visit him often. But he walked out of that room and she never saw him again. My secretary told me, “That’s exactly what happened to me.” I sat down and listened to her story, and after that I was much more patient with her shortcomings. I wasn’t as judgmental toward her because I now knew more of the facts about her past.
Paul devotes two chapters to this problem. In Romans 14, vegetarian believers were judging those that ate meat. Others observed certain days as holy and judged those that did not. In 1 Corinthians 8, the problem was that of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. But these are areas where the Bible does not give definitive commands. It is wrong to take your personal convictions in such areas and set them up as standards to judge those who do not share your convictions.
That was a major sin of the Pharisees. They had added dozens of manmade rules to God’s law, and then judged everyone that did not keep these rules. They were majoring on minors and neglecting the more weighty provisions of the law, “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). They were focused on outward appearances, but their hearts were far from God. They neglected God’s commandments and held instead to the traditions of men (Mark 7:6-9).
Christians often fall into this error. For example, the Bible never says, “Thou shalt not smoke!” Before modern medical science proved that smoking damages your health, many godly saints, such as Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, and G. Campbell Morgan, smoked. If you smoke, I would advise you to quit. It’s poor stewardship of your body and it wastes the money God has entrusted to you.
I’ve been to pastors’ conferences, and I would guess that if one of the pastors lit up a cigar or pipe during the break, the others would think he denied the faith! At the very least, they would say, “Doesn’t he know that his body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?” Yet many of these pastors have seriously overweight temples, which also is poor stewardship of the body and wastes God’s money! I’ve watched these men violate self-control, a fruit of the Spirit, by piling their plates high and going back for seconds and then for dessert. So if we judge smoking to be wrong, why don’t we judge gluttony to be wrong? It’s easy to fall into judging by manmade standards, rather than by God’s Word.
That is Jesus’ point in Matthew 7:1-5. He does not say that it is wrong to help your brother get the speck out of his eye, but rather, before you try to do so, deal with the log in your own eye. If you went to an eye doctor to remove a speck from your eye and he had a log protruding from his eye, you wouldn’t want him to touch your eye! And, from the other point of view, if you haven’t removed the log from your own eye, you will come across as arrogant and lacking in compassion if you try to help a brother with his speck. Removing our own logs has a way of humbling us!
One of the most common examples of this is when someone says, “I wanted you to know about this situation so that you could pray.” But you really have no need to know this information and you aren’t part of the solution. The person sharing it just wanted to feel important because he knows what’s going on. Or, another common way that this happens is to share damaging information about another person in order to make yourself look good or to win people to your side in a grudge you have against the other person. Often this information is either false or misleading. But the one sharing it wants to slant the truth against the person for some reason, often to hide his own sin.
Perhaps you have insight on a matter that the other person lacks. Or, you have never struggled with a problem that the other person struggles with. In a conversation with a third party, you refer in a derogatory manner about this person’s lack of insight or his struggle with this sin, and your motive is to show how “together” you are by way of comparison. That is judging your brother!
The Bible gives many tests that we can apply to ourselves to determine if our faith is genuine (e.g., 1 John). These tests are also valid to apply to others. Jesus said, with regard to false teachers (Matt. 7:16), “You will know them by their fruits.” If a man’s conduct or teaching is not in conformity with Scripture, you may rightly conclude that at best, he is an immature believer. At worst, he may not be saved.
But in the final analysis, only God knows the heart. We can say, “Based on the fruit, I question that person’s salvation.” In talking with a professing Christian whose life or doctrine does not line up with Scripture, we can say, “If I were in your shoes, I’d question my salvation.” But we cannot authoritatively say to someone, “You’re going to hell.” Only God knows that for sure.
So James says that to resolve conflicts, we need to stop judging others. But he also reveals the reason we should not judge others: when we do so, we make ourselves judges of God’s law, rather than doers of it. We usurp God’s place as Lawgiver and Judge.
James calls God’s Word “the law” to show its authoritative nature. God doesn’t give suggestions for happy living. He commands us with His sovereign authority! Specifically, James’ use of the word “neighbor” (4:12) probably shows that he has in mind the second greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. Judging your neighbor (in the sense that I have explained) is not to love him. It is rather to set yourself up in a position that belongs to God alone. There are two aspects of James’ words here:
Love does not tear down others; it builds them in Christ. If you speak against others and criticize them to make yourself look good, you are loving yourself, not others. You are not obeying God’s law; you are setting yourself above it. Of course we must love others with our deeds, not in words only. But here James is focusing on how we speak to one another and about others who are not present. Our words need to demonstrate God’s love.
James says (4:12), “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy.” As Jesus said (Matt. 10:28), “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” If another person has wronged you, you do not need to judge that person, because God will! Instead, you should pray for his salvation, and remember that your judging the other person is a sin against God, who rightly could have sent you to hell! Submit to God by obeying His Word, which commands us not to judge others.
James ends these two convicting verses with a pointed question: “But who are you who judge your neighbor?” He is implying, “Do you think you are God? If not, why do you set yourself up in God’s role?” Clearly, judging others stems from incredible arrogance! When you find yourself thinking judgmentally about others, judge your pride! God rightly could have judged you, but He didn’t. He will righteously judge the one that you are condemning, but it is not your place to do so. Humble yourself before God!
What should you do if someone shares damaging or critical information about another person with you? Bill Gothard offers some helpful questions to ask. He points out that often the person with the evil report will test your spirit to detect if you’re open to hearing it. He may ask for your opinion of the person, or he may drop a negative comment about the person and watch your response. He may try to get your curiosity up by asking, “Have you heard about so-and-so?” He may pose as asking you for counsel on how to help this person, but you discover that he has no intention of helping the person. You may discover that he’s already shared the situation with many others that had no need to know.
I find that sometimes I cannot stop the person before they share the judgmental information, but I try to ask at least the first question as soon as I can. The questions are: (1) What is your reason for telling me? If the only reason I need to know is so that I can pray, I probably don’t need to know. (2) Where did you get your information? If the person will not reveal his sources, he is probably spreading rumors or unreliable information. (3) Have you gone to those directly involved to seek to restore them? (4) Have you personally checked out all the facts? If he has not gone directly to those involved and has not checked out the facts, he isn’t interested in helping. If he really needs counsel on how to do it, he will not be asking for such help from several sources. I often say, “After you’ve gone to him, let me know how it went.” This holds him accountable. (5) Can I quote you if I check this out? If someone is spreading judgmental falsehoods or half-truths, he won’t want to be quoted!
Setting yourself up as judge leads to conflict and broken relationships. Humbly submitting to God and His Word and obediently seeking to love and build up others leads to harmony and restored relationships. The next time you’re tempted to run down someone, remember James’ pointed question, “But who are you who judge your neighbor?” Judge yourself instead!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
When we lived in California, our clock radio was set to a Los Angeles news station that gave frequent traffic and weather updates. Sometimes I would lie in bed at 6 a.m. and listen as the announcer would say, “You want to avoid the 605 northbound. They are clearing a fatal accident at Slauson.” And he would go on with the conditions on the other freeways. I would think, “Some guy left his house early this morning to head to work, probably didn’t even say goodbye to his still sleeping family, and he didn’t realize that he only had minutes left on this earth. They only mentioned him on the radio to say that his death created a traffic jam!”
As you know, four years ago on this date, thousands of New Yorkers headed for work on what seemed to be a normal day. But the evil plans of a few suicidal men ended the lives of thousands and forever changed the history of our nation. Marla and I will never forget standing in line at the Eiffel Tower that afternoon when another American in line told us what had just happened.
James is right: Life is a vapor! Like a morning mist that soon vanishes, so life is short and uncertain. There are no guarantees about tomorrow, let alone next year or ten years from now. You may be young and healthy this morning, but you easily could be a corpse by sundown tonight. You may be thinking, “That’s morbid! I don’t want to think about such things!” But if you ignore these things, you will not live your life properly in light of eternity. James wants us to know that…
Because life is a vapor we should humble ourselves before God and obey His will.
James is beginning a new section, but the connecting theme through chapters 4 and 5 is humility. True faith judges pride by humbling oneself before God. In 4:1-12, James hit the need for humility to resolve conflicts and have harmonious relationships. Now he turns to the subject of humility with regard to the future. He is confronting an arrogant spirit that he had observed among the churches. Although these people professed to know Christ, they were living with a worldly attitude that the apostle John calls “the boastful pride of life” (1 John 2:15). They were making plans without taking into account their own mortality and God’s sovereignty. Like the prosperous man in Jesus’ parable, they were saying, “I’ll build bigger barns to store my goods,” and “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’” “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’” (Luke 12:19-20).
James makes four points:
This means three things:
James writes (4:13-14a), “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.” Or, the text may read, “You do not know what will happen tomorrow.” We don’t even know what will happen ten minutes from now, let alone tomorrow or next year! These businessmen were arrogantly assuming that they would wake up tomorrow, that they would safely get to the city, that their business venture would be successful within a year, and that no one would rob them of their income. They were presuming all of these things about an unknown future that they had no control of and no guarantees about!
As I said, the most healthy young person among us could easily be dead by nightfall. There are so many easy and unexpected ways to die! I once did a funeral for an 11 year-old girl who complained to her mother about a headache. Her mother told her to go lie down. She lay down and died of a brain aneurysm. We knew of a young couple who was serving with Campus Crusade. They went on a weekend getaway. As he got out of the hot tub at their motel, he was dizzy and fell, hitting his head on the edge of the pool. He never came out of the coma. One Sunday afternoon a few years ago, a man in his early thirties who attended here was shoveling snow. His wife looked out the window and saw him lying on the ground, dead from a heart attack.
Again, you may protest that to think about such things is morbid and depressing. I’m not suggesting that you obsess on these things. But if you don’t ever think about them, you will not live in proper dependence upon God. You will proudly make plans and go on about life as if you will be forever young and healthy. James says (4:16) that “all such boasting is evil.”
A vapor is short-lived. You see the mist at one moment and a few minutes later it’s gone. You see the steam coming out of your coffee cup and in just a second, it disappears into the air. Life is like that.
In Psalm 90, Moses laments the brevity of life. He compares life to the grass of the field that sprouts in the morning and by evening, it has faded under the hot sun. He writes (90:10), “As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, or if due to strength, eighty years, yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; for soon it is gone and we fly away.” Even if you live to be a hundred, how quickly life flies by! A friend of mine wisecracks that life is like the roll of toilet paper—the closer you get to the end, the quicker it goes!” You may not care for the analogy, but it’s true!
That’s why Moses prays (90:12), “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” On October 1st, I’ll be 58 and a half. I have about 4,220 days until I’m at my allotted seventy, if I even make that. That only adds up to about 603 weeks or 138 months! Yikes! Only God can give me the wisdom I need to spend those days profitably in light of eternity.
George Bernard Shaw astutely observed, “The statistics on death are quite impressive. One out of one people die.” You would think that because death is not just probable, but absolutely certain, and that it can happen at any minute, and that each person must stand before God for judgment, every person would be desperate to know how to get right with God. But, strangely, people put it out of mind and go on about life as if they will live forever. They can watch the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina on TV, shake their heads in disbelief at the bodies floating in the water, and go out the door to their daily routines without getting on their faces before God and repenting of their sins! It’s amazing!
Jesus taught us how to think when we hear about such disasters. Some people reported to Him about some Galileans whom Pilate had slaughtered. Jesus responded (Luke 13:2-5), “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
When you hear about disasters, whether human-caused, such as 9/11, or due to natural causes, such as hurricanes, make sure that you have repented of your sins, because if you do not, you will die in your sins and you will perish. Not to be ready for something that is 100 percent certain would be really foolish! James’ first point is, life is a vapor.
This means, we are not sovereign! The problem was not that these businessmen were making plans for the future. Nor was it a problem that they were capitalists engaging in business to make a profit. Planning is commended to us in Scripture (Luke 14:28-32; Rom. 15:20-28). Financial planning is good stewardship if it is done in dependence on God and with regard for biblical priorities. It is wise to have a will or living trust. It is wise to have some savings to cover possible future expenses or the potential loss of a job. The Bible commends hard work and being rewarded financially for it.
The problem that James hits was, they were planning as if they were sovereign and they were not bowing before the only Sovereign God. They were arrogantly making plans for their future financial security, but their plans did not include God. Their trust was not in God, but in their business ventures and in all of the money that they supposed they would make. They were assuming that they were in control of their future and that everything would go according to their plans. Instead, they needed to acknowledge (4:15), “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”
James is not giving a trite formula that we need to tack onto every sentence. Sometimes Paul used the phrase, “if the Lord wills,” when speaking about the future (Acts 18:21; 1 Cor. 4:19; see also, Rom. 1:10; 1 Cor. 16:7; Phil. 2:19, 24), but sometimes he did not (Acts 19:21; Rom. 15:28; 1 Cor. 16:5, 8). But he always depended on the Lord and bowed before His sovereignty with regard to the future. So, James is giving us a mindset that needs to permeate all of life. We need continually to be aware of our finiteness and dependence on God and His sovereign purpose in every aspect of life. Sometimes we should say, “if the Lord wills,” but even if we don’t say it, we should think it.
As I’ve often said, one of the most basic and helpful lessons in life to learn is, “God is God; I am not God!” He is sovereign; I am not sovereign. He controls the future; I do not in any way control the future. While I believe in carrying a modest life insurance policy to protect my wife if I should die (1 Tim. 5:8 supports this), no amount of life insurance will give her financial security. I believe in saving and investing as I’m able towards the day when I may be too feeble to work (Prov. 6:6-8), but there is simply no such thing in this world as financial security. It is impossible to cover all possible contingencies. Our economy may crash. Our country may be overrun by terrorists. My retirement investments may fail. Trusting in God is the only true source of security for the future.
Note also that James assumes that you should acknowledge God as the sovereign over your business life. The idea that church is one sphere, but business is an altogether different sphere is not biblical. Jesus is Lord of all of life, from the boardroom to the bedroom. Your business ethics should reflect that you are not in charge of your business; Christ is in charge. You must conduct your business dealings in a manner that pleases and glorifies Him.
So James states that life is a vapor and that God is sovereign over every aspect of life. His words imply a third truth:
Verse 13 reeks with arrogance: “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” There is a lot of mention of what we will do, but there isn’t any mention of God! In 4:16, James directly confronts the sinful attitude behind the comments of 4:13: “But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” “Arrogance” (4:16) was originally used of wandering hucksters who were full of empty and boastful claims about their cures and other feats that they could accomplish (R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 98). It came to apply to any braggart. It is used in 1 John 2:15, “the boastful pride of life.” It refers to the arrogant self-sufficiency of the world apart from God.
You see this attitude in the powerful Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. While walking on the roof of his royal palace, he said (probably to himself, Dan. 4:30), “Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?” Daniel 4:31-32 continues,
While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven saying, “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.”
Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius, but his pride led to his downfall. He was about to invade Russia, but a friend tried to dissuade him. When it became apparent that Napoleon would not be budged, the friend shared the familiar proverb, “Man proposes, God disposes.” Napoleon angrily snapped back, “I dispose as well as propose.” A Christian upon hearing this remark said, “I set that down as the turning point of Bonaparte’s fortunes. God will not suffer a creature with impunity to usurp His prerogative.” Sure enough, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was the beginning of his downfall (from Harold Fickett, Faith that Works [G/L Regal Books], p. 134).
Probably James’ readers, who were professing Christians, were not as crass as Nebuchadnezzar or Napoleon in proclaiming their own greatness. But it is possible for a Christian to fall into practical atheism, where he proudly thinks, “I have decided to do this and nothing is going to stop me. I’m a man of strong will! I will succeed!” He chuckles at his own resolve and strength of character.
James says that all such boasting is evil. Or, it’s easy for us as Christians to think, “I have succeeded because of my own hard work and smart business sense.” We disdain the poor, thinking, “If they would only work hard as I’ve done, they could succeed, too.” But we’re forgetting Paul’s pointed question to the proud Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” Everything we have comes from God by His grace. We fall into pride when we do not keep that in mind.
How then should we live in view of the fact that life is a vapor, that God is sovereign, and that we’re so prone to pride?
At first glance, verse 17 seems somewhat disjointed from the preceding context. It may refer to all that James has said up to this point. But, “therefore,” seems to connect it to what James has just said: “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” Douglas Moo (The Letter of James [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 208) explains the connection: “He has urged us to take the Lord into consideration in all our planning. We therefore have no excuse in this matter; we know what we are to do. To fail now to do it, James wants to make clear, is sin.”
Of course, this verse applies to all areas of the Christian life pertaining to what are called “sins of omission.” We all tend to focus on sins where we have violated some direct command of God. Perhaps we stole something in violation of God’s command not to steal. Or, we lied in violation of God’s command to tell the truth. Or we got angry in violation of God’s commands against anger.
But, we also sin when we fail to do something positive that God has commanded us to do. He commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. We violate that command when we hate our neighbor, of course. But we also violate it when we ignore our neighbor and live selfishly. In the final judgment, Jesus condemns those who did not help the poor and the needy (Matt. 25:41-44). Their sin was not that they actively abused these people. Rather, they just ignored them while they pursued their own pleasure or personal goals (see also, Luke 10:25-37; 16:19-31).
Obviously, we can’t all do everything or there simply wouldn’t be enough hours in the day. But it does seem that in most local churches, about 20 percent of the people do about 80 percent of the work, while the 80 percent of the people sit around doing nothing. If you are a Christian, it is not enough just to avoid sinning. God has given you a spiritual gift and He calls you to serve Him in some capacity. To know this and to neglect to get involved in serving is sin.
Ministry is first a mindset and only secondarily an activity. If you come to church just to sit and take in whatever seems to grab you, or to meet with your friends, you do not have a ministry mindset. You are just using the church to meet your needs, with no regard of how God wants to use you. You’re a religious consumer, but you’re not doing what God calls every believer to do.
A ministry mindset means that every day you pray, “Lord, here I am, ready to do your will. Give me eyes to see people as Jesus sees them, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36-38). Give me a heart of compassion as Jesus has, to love those who are distressed or downcast. Use me today as a worker in Your harvest, for Your sovereign purposes.” By the way, you begin to serve God in your home! Now you know that God wants you to serve Him (Matt. 6:33). Not to live that way is sin.
In view of the fact that life is a vapor, that God is sovereign, that pride is a constant battle, and that humble obedience to God’s will is the only sane course, I would counsel you to do this: Think about what God wants your life to look like on your deathbed. What will you have accomplished that matters in light of eternity? In view of God’s purpose for your life, write out a single-sentence personal mission statement. Here is mine: To glorify God by being a godly husband and father, and by using my gift of pastor-teacher for the building up of the body of Christ and the furtherance of the gospel. Yours will vary depending on how God has gifted you.
Then write out some personal lifetime goals that will help you fulfill your mission statement. These may include things like your daily walk with Christ; personal holiness in thought, word, and deed; your responsibilities as a godly spouse or parent, etc.
Think through some short-term personal goals in various areas where you need to grow. Perhaps spiritually, the goal would be to spend at least 20 minutes each morning in the Word and prayer, and to work on memorizing at least one verse each week. In your marriage, the goal may be to schedule a half-hour daily to sit down and talk as a couple, or two evenings each month to go out for a date. Financially, perhaps you need to set goals to get out of debt, to live within your budget, and to give faithfully to the Lord’s work. Personally, maybe the goal is to eat nutritional food and to exercise vigorously for a half-hour at least five days per week. These are just examples; your personal goals will vary. But write them down. Then, review them periodically and adjust as the Lord leads.
The aim is to number your days so as to present to the Lord a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12). You know that you ought to do these things. James says that if you don’t do them, to you it is sin.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Would you like to be rich? Very few would say, “Nah, it doesn’t interest me!” One wise guy said, “They say it’s better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable. But couldn’t something be worked out, such as being moderately wealthy and just a little moody?” (In Reader’s Digest, 9/82.)
As Christians, we know that the Bible has many warnings against the dangers of pursuing wealth. In 1 Timothy 6:9-10, for example, the apostle Paul warns,
But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
But most of us read that and think, “I could handle it, or at least I’d like to try!” It seems as if more money would solve a whole lot of our problems. But, we often forget that wealth can create a lot of problems as well.
The best sermon I’ve read on the problems of wealth was not a sermon, but a novel. It was not written by a Christian author, but by the famous writer, John Steinbeck. It is called The Pearl [Bantam Books]. It’s the story of a poor pearl diver who dreams of finding the perfect pearl. One day he actually finds it. The rest of the story unfolds how his once tranquil life turns into a growing nightmare as everyone else desperately tries to take his treasure from him. Every Christian would benefit from reading this powerful story!
In our text, James again assumes the role of Old Testament prophet, thundering against the ungodly rich who oppress the poor. The words of our text are not an appeal to repentance, but rather a scathing denunciation of wrath to come. While there may have been some professing Christians in the churches to which James wrote who were guilty of the sins he confronts here, his main target was the ungodly rich outside of the church. This is evident both by his prediction of judgment to come and also by his shift in 5:7 when he addresses those in the church as “brethren.”
Why would James spend six verses denouncing those who are outside of the church, who would never read this warning anyway? It’s similar to when the Old Testament prophets pronounced woes on Israel’s pagan enemies (see Isaiah 13-19).
The warnings serve two main purposes. First, they should encourage us who know God to be faithful and endure, knowing that in due time He will judge the wicked. Second, it should warn us not to fall into any of the sins that will bring judgment on the wicked. In the case James is addressing, it is easy when you’re poor and oppressed to think, “If I can just get rich, I will no longer have to deal with these problems!” So we can be tempted to pursue wealth, mistakenly thinking that happiness lies in getting rich. So to the church, James is saying,
Because wealth can be a dangerous trap, we should be careful not to use it in an ungodly manner, but rather to be faithful.
He makes three points:
The Bible does not teach that money itself is evil, but rather that it is extremely dangerous when it falls into the hands of those who are prone to sin. Jesus calls it “unrighteous Mammon” (Luke 16:9, 11), because those who get their hands on it often use it sinfully. Money is like a loaded gun: it can be extremely useful in certain situations, but you’ve got to use it carefully, or you may hurt others and yourself. Or, to use another analogy, money is like fire. Used properly and under control, fire is a helpful tool. But if it is used carelessly or with evil intent, it can become a powerful force that destroys both property and life.
When combined with the fallen, greedy, selfish human heart, money can quickly corrupt. That’s why Jesus said (Matt. 19:23-24), after the rich young ruler walked away from salvation, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were astonished and said (19:25), “Then who can be saved?” Jesus replied (19:26), “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In other words, it takes nothing less than the power of God to save us from the dangers of greed and selfishness that are bound up with wealth.
James shows three ways that wealth can become a trap that leads to spiritual destruction:
James’ readers who were mostly poor and oppressed may have been thinking, “Why be righteous if all it gets you is oppression? Why not pursue wealth if it gains you some comfort?” James’ answer is, because judgment is ahead!
He begins (5:1-3), “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!”
James is forcefully making the point that wealth is temporary and that judgment and eternity are ahead. So to pursue wealth to the neglect of pursuing God or to trust in wealth as the solution to your deepest needs is sheer folly! As Jesus pointedly said, the Mammon of unrighteousness will fail (Luke 16:9). Therefore, we must use it wisely in light of the reality of eternity.
In James’ times, there were three main indicators of wealth. James uses three terms to point to the temporary nature of each. First, there was grain. You could store it in large bins or silos. But James says of it (5:2), “Your riches have rotted.”
Second, there was clothing. In a world where most of the poor only had the clothes on their backs, it was a sign of wealth to have more than one change of clothes (see Gen. 45:22; Josh. 7:21; Judges 14:12; 2 Kings 5:5, 22). The apostle Paul could claim that he had coveted no one’s money or clothes (Acts 20:33). James echoes Jesus, who warned that clothes are subject to the ruin of moths (Matt. 6:19).
Third, there were gold and silver. James knew, of course, that these metals are not subject to literal rust. But he is using irony to make a point. When God brings judgment, even these precious metals will be doomed to corruption. What good were all the gold and silver in the world in A.D. 70 when Titus destroyed Jerusalem and slaughtered a million Jews?
When James (5:3) says, “It is in the last days you have stored up your treasure,” he is referring to the entire period between Christ’s ascension and second coming, which is viewed as “the last days” (Acts 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:1 Heb. 1:2). But death is “the last day” for all of us! As the rich fool in Jesus’ parable found out, he had plenty stored up for this life, but when he died, he was poor where it mattered most—he was not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21). To be rich without God is to be short-sighted in light of eternity.
The ungodly rich mistakenly think that they are relieving themselves and their families from hardships through their wealth and possessions. But James says that they are storing up misery and hardship for the final judgment! The very thing that they trust in for comfort now will result in their final ruin.
The Bible commands us to provide the necessities of life for our families and ourselves (1 Tim. 5:8). There is nothing wrong with living comfortably. We can do much more to serve the Lord when life is not a constant struggle just to survive. Modern labor-saving conveniences such as washing machines, dishwashers, lawnmowers, and even automobiles (curse that they sometimes are!) help free up time for family and ministry that would otherwise be spent working.
These things become a problem when they begin to control us, instead of us controlling them. A computer is a useful tool, but it can also become a controlling master. Many Christians waste many hours with their computers, neglecting time with God, time with their families, and time serving God. James is warning that it is possible to enjoy the comforts of life without God, but if we fall into that, those comforts become a snare.
With wealth comes power, but as someone said, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Throughout history corrupt dictators have amassed amazing power and wealth for themselves and their families. Some, such as Saddam Hussein and his sons, are brought down and face judgment in this life. Others, such as Mao Tse-tung and Joseph Stalin, seemed to get away with their many atrocities in this life. But nobody escapes from God’s judgment! Like barn animals, they are only fattening their hearts for the day of slaughter!
Although James does not direct any exhortations to his readers, his denunciation of the ungodly rich provides an obvious application for us who follow the Lord:
Since misuse of wealth will bring a person into horrible judgment that will make him weep and howl in misery (5:1), we should make sure that we do not profess to know God, but by our ungodly use of wealth deny Him (Titus 1:16). Although there are far more dangers than James lists here, he hits four ungodly uses of wealth: hoarding (5:2-3); cheating people out of money (5:4); living in luxury while disregarding the needs of others (5:5); and, hurting innocent people for the sake of gain (5:6). These seem to move in a progression from least to worst. Yielding to what may seem like a small sin always exposes us to worse sins. In the early stages, some sins seem horrific and impossible for us to commit. But if we yield to the seemingly harmless sins, pretty soon we find ourselves excusing or justifying what formerly seemed impossible.
These rich people had so much stuff that it was rotting in storage. What good are silos full of grain if, when you go to get a bag full, it’s spoiled or full of mold? What good are ten changes of clothes if, when you go to get something out of the closet, it’s moth-eaten? What good is a bank vault full of jewels if you’re afraid to wear them for fear of being robbed?
Years ago, Newsweek (6/21/82) reported a new service that was being offered to the rich. Since bank safe deposit boxes were hard to get and were only available during banking hours, many stores had sprung up to meet the demand. It mentioned one in New Orleans that was housed in the former Federal Reserve Bank building. (I wonder how it fared in Hurricane Katrina?) These stores were often open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so that clients could access their jewels and treasures at any time. One company offered mirrored privacy booths where customers could inspect their precious possessions, all for $2,700 annual rent for a one by three-foot box (that was a lot more in 1982!).
As I said, the Bible commands us to provide for our families’ and our own needs, but it condemns hoarding our money and possessions when it can be put to use to further the Lord’s work or to help others. Where that balance point is, I cannot tell you. But I will say that not many of us here in America live on the lean side! Often behind our hoarding is either the sin of greed or a lack of trust in God to provide for our future needs. Don’t spend your life collecting junk that you never need or use. Give it away!
James was denouncing wealthy landowners that were cheating their laborers out of their hard-earned wages. Whether they were not paying them the full amount promised or cheating them on the pretext that they had not fulfilled their quotas or whatever, we don’t know. But it was a common enough problem to be mentioned several times in the Bible. Leviticus 19:13 states, “You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning.” (See also, Deut. 24:14-15; Jer. 22:13; Mal. 3:5.) Often in that economy, day laborers got by on that day’s pay. To withhold it on some false pretenses would literally rob the worker and his family of their daily bread.
Most of us are not in the position of paying wages to workers. If we are, we should be generous and fair. But if we’re not, the principle still applies, that it is always wrong to cheat others for our own financial gain.
Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) may be behind James’ words here. The rich man lived in splendor, while Lazarus, covered with sores, longed to be fed with the crumbs from the rich man’s table. But after death, their roles were reversed. The rich man was in agony in the flames of hell, whereas Lazarus was comfortably in Abraham’s bosom. The point of that story was not that all rich people go to hell and that all poor people go to heaven. The Bible is clear that there are godly rich people and there are ungodly poor people. Salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9).
But the rich man’s selfish indulgence and lack of compassion for the poor reflected his godless, selfish focus in life. James’ indictment of fattening their hearts in a day of slaughter (5:5) points to the imminence of the day of judgment. Like unreasoning cattle, they just go on fattening themselves every day with no thought of others. But their selfish lifestyles only incur greater guilt.
After Imelda Marcos and her husband Ferdinand were deposed, Newsweek (3/24/86) ran an article on her pathetic life. When they fled the country, she left behind a closet with 3,000 pairs of shoes and five shelves of unused Gucci handbags, still stuffed with paper and the price tags attached. She had 500 bras, a trunk full of girdles, huge bottles of perfume, and vats of Christian Dior wrinkle cream. She was known to spend $12 million on jewelry in a single day in Switzerland! One U. S. Representative gawked at the stuff and said, “It was the worst case of conspicuous consumerism I have ever seen.” She once told an interviewer, “I am my little people’s star and slave. When I go out into the barrios, I get dressed up because I know the little people want to see a star.” How tragic! Of course, Imelda Marcos did not claim to follow Christ.
But I’ve read of a well-known Christian entertainer who collects Rolls Royces as his hobby! He owns a dozen or more! I realize that luxury is a relative term and it’s easy to judge the extravagant examples and justify ourselves. We need to examine ourselves prayerfully and often, so that we don’t fall into what James is condemning. I believe that the Lord wants us to live simply and manage our resources in light of His eternal purposes.
Some think that James is speaking of literal murder. Others say that he is speaking figuratively, or looking at the practical outcome of the rich cheating the poor out of their wages and thus their daily bread. The word “condemned” points to the use of the legal system to take advantage of the poor. Perhaps by bribing judges or by hiring powerful lawyers, the rich were wrongfully taking land or houses from the poor, or forcing them into a lifetime of indentured slavery. If you had confronted them, the rich would have protested, “It was all legal! We didn’t break the law!” But what is technically legal is not always moral or right. While we may never kill someone for the sake of our own financial gain, we should be careful never to hurt others for our own financial gain.
Note, too, that the righteous man did not resist the wicked rich. It is not wrong to take legal means to protect yourself or your assets from a greedy, unprincipled person. But in this case, the poor were no match for the rich. In this life, it often seems that the wicked are winning. But James’ point is that judgment day is near, when wrongs will be made right (5:7-8).
So wealth can be a trap. We must be careful not to use it in an ungodly manner.
This life is not final. The wicked may live luxuriously on earth and oppress the righteous with no consequences. The test will be the final judgment and eternity. It requires faith to accept this. You either trust in money that you now see or in the Lord that you will see one day. If you trust in the Lord, then you will be a good steward of the money and possessions that He entrusts to you. He owns it all; we must give an account to Him of how we used it.
In Luke 16, Jesus tells the unusual parable of the unrighteous steward. He is about to be fired because of mismanagement, but he shrewdly calls in his master’s debtors and reduces the amount that they owe. Jesus’ point was not that we should be corrupt in order to get ahead! Rather, His point was that we should imitate this godless man who thought in advance about his future and used what he had to make provision for himself. We should use the “unrighteous Mammon” that we now have to make friends, “so that when it fails, they will receive [us] into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). In other words, while you can use your money that will be taken away to bring people to Christ, which can never be taken away.
Jesus goes on to say (Luke 16:10), “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.” In the context, the “very little thing” is money! It’s a big thing to us, but to God, it’s a little thing that He uses as the litmus test to prove whether you’ll be faithful with more important things. In the context, the “much” refers to eternal souls. If you want God to entrust true spiritual riches to you, prove yourself by being faithful in managing the finances He has entrusted to you. That’s the lesson!
A businessman once had an angel visit him, promising to grant one request. The man asked for a copy of the stock market page one year in the future. As he was studying the numbers on the future exchange and gloating over how much he would make because of his knowledge of the future, his eye glanced across the page. His picture was in the obituary column. Suddenly his new wealth faded into insignificance in light of his own death.
Wealth is a good tool, if we are careful to use it as stewards for the Lord. But it is a dangerous trap if we adopt a worldly perspective towards it. I encourage you to examine often your stewardship of the resources that God has entrusted to you. Remember Paul’s words, “It is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy” (1 Cor. 4:2).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
One of the most important lessons to learn as a Christian is how to respond rightly when you are wronged. Count on it—you will be wronged! For some strange reason, newer Christians often have the notion that God will protect them from all wrongs. Everything seems to be going so well since they trusted in Christ. They’re experiencing newfound joy and peace. Solutions to difficult problems seem to be coming together. It’s great to be a Christian!
Then, wham! Some difficult trial hits them broadside. They’re falsely accused at work and even get fired. The person who lied about them gets promoted. It’s just not fair! Or, a family member betrays them and spreads vicious gossip to other family members. Or, someone at church that they looked up to as an example disappoints them. They’re shocked, angered, and confused. They wonder, “If someone like that failed, can I trust anyone?”
In our text, James is showing us how to respond rightly when we’re wronged. The section runs from 5:7-11, but we will break it into two sections for sake of time. It’s linked to James’ blast against the godless rich (5:1-6) by “therefore.” The connection is, “If you as a Christian have been badly wronged, be patient! The Lord will return soon, and when He comes, He will righteously judge every person. He will vindicate you. But, be careful, because He will judge you, too!” He’s saying,
When you are wronged, wait patiently on the Lord, who is coming soon righteously to judge every person.
James’ theme in this section is easy to discern, because he repeats certain words or concepts. He commands (5:7), “Be patient” and then illustrates it with the patient farmer (5:7). Again, he commands (5:8), “You too be patient.” In 5:10, he mentions again the patience of the prophets, who suffered for speaking in the name of the Lord. Coupled with patience is “endurance,” which he mentions twice in connection with Job’s sufferings (5:11).
Another theme is the near coming of the Lord. He mentions it in verses 7, 8, and 9. The overall context has to do with the righteous who are suffering, not due to any fault of their own (5:6, 10, 11). They must keep doing the will of God, waiting for Him to come and judge the wicked and reward the righteous. While they wait, they must cultivate this godly virtue of patience.
These verses teach us four things about patience:
My college physics professor often told us his theory of teaching. He would say, “I’m going to tell you what I’m going to tell you. Then I’ll tell you. Then I’ll tell you what I told you. Then, I’ll review!” James does that here. He commands, “Be patient!” Then he gives you an illustration of the patient farmer. Then he repeats the command, “Be patient.” Then he goes on to give two more illustrations of patient endurance: the prophets and Job (5:10-11).
We can all identify with the guy who prayed, “Lord, give me patience—right now!” I don’t need patience when things are going smoothly, but when things go wrong, I need it all at once. So I can’t practice patience when things are going well, because it’s easy to be patient then. But when things start bugging me, I can’t practice patience, because I’m already frustrated and impatient!
There is no crash course to cultivating this virtue. The Greek word is a compound of two words literally meaning, “long-tempered.” If you have a short fuse, you’re not patient. To step on everyone’s toes (including my own!), if you’re easily frustrated with other “stupid” drivers, you’re not patient. If you’re quick to find fault with others’ imperfections, you’re not patient. If you snap at your kids over minor, childish things, you’re not patient.
J. B. Lightfoot wrote (Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon [Zondervan], p. 140), “… makrothumia [“patience”] is the self-restraint which does not hastily retaliate a wrong.” The word does not occur in classical Greek and only rarely in later Greek. It describes a distinctively Christian virtue, which was not a virtue at all to the Greeks. For them, it was a virtue not to tolerate any insult or injury without taking vengeance. For Christians, the virtue was to be able to take revenge, but to refuse to do so (William Barclay, New Testament Words [Westminster Press], pp. 196, 197).
Biblical patience is tolerant of the imperfections, faults, and differences in others. It gives the other person time to change and room to make some mistakes in the process. Paul lists patience as the first quality that describes love (1 Cor. 13:4). If you’re not patient, you’re not loving! It’s a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Like all fruit, it takes time and effort to cultivate.
Significantly, patience is a quality of God Himself. Peter, when writing about the delay in the Lord’s return to judge the wicked, explained (2 Pet. 3:9), “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (See also, Rom. 2:4; 1 Pet. 3:20.) If God were not patient, He would have wiped every sinner off the face of the earth centuries ago! William Barclay applies this (ibid., p. 198), “The great obligation which rests on the Christian is just this—he must be as patient with his fellow-men as God has been with him.” So put it on your prayer list (for yourself, not for your mate!), and work at developing patience.
James’ readers were being wronged by the rich (5:6). Whether he means that some were literally being murdered, or is just speaking figuratively, they were the object of serious injustices. James tells them to be patient “until the coming of the Lord,” which was near (5:7, 8).
A critic may retort, “What kind of comfort is that? That’s just ‘pie in the sky when you die’!” I grant this. You’re going to die. Would you like pie with that, or no pie? The Christian faith makes absolutely no sense unless what God says about eternity is true. That’s why Paul wrote (1 Cor. 15:19), “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”
“The New Testament contains over 300 references to Christ’s return—one of every thirteen verses” (Kent Hughes, James, Faith that Works [Crossway Books], p. 222)! If He isn’t coming back to judge the living and the dead, then Paul says (1 Cor. 15:32b), “… let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Live for the most pleasure you can squeeze out of every fleeting day. But, if He is coming as the righteous Judge, then, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
But still, some critics insist, the New Testament writers and even Jesus Himself were wrong with regard to the timing of His return. When Jesus said that that generation would not pass away until He returned (Mark 13:30), or when James (5:8) said, “the coming of the Lord is near,” they meant well. But, as William Barclay flatly states (The Letters of James and Peter [Westminster Press], p. 122), “It so happened that the early church was mistaken. Jesus did not return within a generation.” Whew!
How should we respond to this? Douglas Moo explains that we must understand the word “near” in the appropriate temporal framework, namely, salvation history. As we saw last week, the “last days” refers to the entire period between Christ’s ascension and His second coming. Moo writes (The Letter of James [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 224),
But—and here is the crucial point—the length of this age is unknown. Not even Jesus knew how long the “last days” would last (cf. Mark 13:32). What this means is that the return of Christ, as the next event in the salvation-historical timetable, is, from the time of the early church to our own day, “near,” or “imminent.”
So we should live every day with the realization that Jesus could come at any time. Trusting in the Lord’s promise of His coming will give you patience to endure wrong treatment, knowing that He will right every wrong.
In addition to repeating, “be patient,” James (5:8) adds, “Strengthen your hearts.” Patience is a matter of our heart attitude before God. The verb, strengthen is used elsewhere in the sense of being spiritually firm or established (Luke 22:32; Rom. 1:11; 16:25; 1 Thess. 3:3, 13; 2 Thess. 2:17; 3:3; 1 Pet. 5:10 [“confirm”]; 2 Pet. 1:12; Rev. 3:2). Moo explains (p. 223), “What is commanded, then, is firm adherence to the faith in the midst of temptations and trials. As they wait patiently for their Lord to return, believers need to fortify themselves for the struggle against sin and with difficult circumstances.”
James’ teaching here raises an important practical matter: Is it wrong to defend yourself or your property when unscrupulous people try to take advantage of you? Is he saying that you are just to be passively patient and let them run over you? Or, is it permissible to take action and to stand up for your rights?
First, Scripture clearly teaches that it is wrong to take personal vengeance. As Paul says (Rom. 12:19), “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
Second, it is important to confront any selfishness or greed in your heart before you take any action. Any action motivated by greed, vengeance, or other selfish reasons is wrong.
Third, if it is a professing Christian that is trying to take advantage of you, the first attempts to deal with the problem should be through the church. Paul chastises the Corinthians because brother was taking brother to court, when they should have resolved matters within the church (1 Cor. 6:1-8). If the professing Christian refuses to submit to the church leaders, then I think that a believer is free to use the legal system for protection. God has ordained civil government to bring punishment on the one who does wrong and to protect the innocent (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 3:14).
In our text, James (5:10) tells us to imitate the prophets. They often spoke out boldly against evil and social injustice (such as James has just done in 5:1-6), sometimes when that evil was directed at themselves (2 Kings 1:9-12; 2:23-24; Jer. 28:10-17). So we are not required to be passive doormats to unscrupulous, evil people. But we are required to deal with our hearts, to make sure that our focus is properly on the coming of the Lord and eternity.
In typical fashion, James (5:7) uses an illustration from nature, that of the farmer waiting patiently for his crop. In Israel, the farmers would plow and sow their seed in autumn. The early rains came in the fall. The late rains came in the spring, and both were necessary for a fruitful harvest. Interestingly, every Old Testament reference to the early and late rains “occurs in a context affirming the faithfulness of the Lord” (Moo, p. 223, lists Deut. 11:14; Jer. 5:24; Hos. 6:3; Joel 2:23; Zech. 10:1). James’ readers would have made this connection, which fits in with the theme here of patiently waiting on the Lord, who is always faithful to those who trust in Him. James’ analogy of the farmer has three implications with regard to patiently waiting on the Lord:
No farmer sows his seed and goes out a week later expecting to see the mature crop. He knows that it takes time. If he flew into a rage because the crop wasn’t ready that soon, or if he grew discouraged and said, “I’m giving up farming because it takes too long,” we would say, “He’s a foolish farmer.” Farming is a slow process, but if the farmer works at it and if God sends the proper rain, eventually it yields a harvest.
I meet so many Christians who have the short view of things. They expect instant results. Pastors see “successful” churches that are growing by phenomenal rates, and they think that they’re not successful if their churches aren’t seeing similar results. But genuine spiritual fruit is not a quick process.
On a personal level, Paul tells us to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). Just as the athlete disciplines himself for his event, so we are to discipline ourselves for godliness. But we don’t like that analogy, because it implies hard work and a long-range approach. No athlete works out for a week or even a month and gets in the Olympics! It requires many years of daily training, often when the athlete would rather be doing something else. Spiritually, we’d rather have a quick fix. Isn’t there a seminar I can go to or an experience that I can have that will give me victory over sin and develop godly character qualities in my life? No, it requires daily discipline for the rest of your life!
James’ readers were engaged in the struggle to be holy people. They were seeking to grow in their understanding of the Scriptures and to be obedient. But they saw the ungodly prospering. In fact, these prosperous evil people were taking advantage of the poor Christians. So, many of them were losing sight of the harvest at the end of the age. They were wondering, is it worth it to follow the Lord if it means hardship, self-denial, and suffering? James is saying, “Yes, it’s definitely worth it, because at the return of Christ, He will reward you and punish the wicked. Wait for the harvest!”
The farmer illustration implies several things. For one, the farmer plowed the ground, prepared it, and planted the seed, which always takes faith. The farmer has to take some of the grain that he has stored up for food, cast it into the ground where it dies, and wait, hope, and pray for it to sprout and produce a crop the next year. While he’s waiting on that crop, the farmer does not sit around doing nothing. He’s fertilizing it, irrigating it, preparing his barns for the harvest, and many other duties. If a farmer did not plow and sow the seed, he would be crazy to anticipate a bountiful crop the next year. He has to work with a view to the harvest.
At the same time, the farmer depends on God to send the proper rains at the proper time, and in the right amounts. Not enough rain and the seed won’t sprout. Too much rain and floods will ruin the crop. If God doesn’t give the increase, there will not be a fruitful harvest.
Spiritually, it is the same. If godliness is the fruit of the Spirit, then we must sow to the Spirit (Gal. 5:22; 6:7-8). If you do not use the means that God has ordained—reading and meditating on His Word, prayer, obedience, worship, gathering with God’s people regularly, etc.—you would be foolish to expect a crop of godliness in your life. Charles Simeon has a helpful sermon on this text (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], XX:105), in which he comments with regard to the Christian that he “has heaven in view, and that he is preparing for a future harvest.”
Can you say that about your own life? Do you live with heaven in view? Are you preparing for a future spiritual harvest? Maybe you’re thinking, “Heaven seems so far away. Why should I work hard and discipline myself and deny myself now for something that far away?”
James (5:7) calls the harvest “the precious produce of the soil.” The crop is precious because the farmer has labored long and hard for it and his family and he depend on it for life itself.
In the same way, our final salvation, when God will right all wrongs and reward those who have suffered and labored for His harvest, will be a precious thing. But, we have to wait until the coming of the Lord to reap the full benefits of His salvation. Matthew Henry (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell], VI:996) says, “Consider him that waits for a crop of corn; and will not you wait for a crown of glory?” As Paul put it, when considering all of his trials for the sake of the gospel (2 Cor. ison.”
So James’ main point is, when unbelievers wrongly take advantage of you, keep working for the Lord while you patiently wait on Him to come as the righteous Judge. But, in verse 9 he adds,
At first glance, verse 9 doesn’t seem to fit into the context. It seems that James should have put it in back in 4:11, when he talked about not judging one another. But a moment’s reflection reveals why he put it here. When you’re under pressure from the outside (5:1-8), it’s easy to take out your frustrations on those who are closest to you, even though they’re not the source of your problems. If you have a difficult, ungodly boss who harasses you, it’s easy to snap at your wife or kids over minor issues, even though they’re not the cause of your irritation.
The Greek word translated “complain” means, literally, to groan. Donald Burdick explains (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:202) “It speaks of inner distress more than open complaint. What is forbidden is not the loud and bitter denunciation of others but the unexpressed feeling of bitterness or the smothered resentment that may express itself in a groan or a sigh.” So maybe you restrain yourself from saying something caustic or exploding in anger, but you roll your eyes and shake your head in derision. Your body language communicates your disapproval of the other person. James says, “Don’t do that!” As Warren Wiersbe says (Be Mature [Victor Books], p. 156), “If we start using the sickles on each other, we will miss the harvest!”
James says, “Before you groan against your brother, remember that the same Lord who will judge him will judge you, too!” Christians will not come into judgment for salvation (John 5:24), but we will be judged for rewards (2 Cor. 5:10). That fact should cause us to fear God and strive against our sin (1 Cor. 3:12-17). Also, remember that in grumbling against someone else, you’re ultimately grumbling against the Lord, who sovereignly put that person into your life at that point in time. Thus the Bible prohibits all grumbling, because it ultimately is grumbling against the Lord Himself (Phil. 2:15; 1 Cor. 10:10).
If you think that you’re patient, consider this story. During the late 1500’s, Dr. Thomas Cooper edited a learned dictionary with the addition of 33,000 words, and many other improvements. He had already been eight years in collecting materials for his edition when his wife, who was a rather difficult woman to live with, went into his study one day while he was gone and burned all of his notes. She said that she feared he would kill himself with study!
The doctor returned home, saw the destruction, and asked who had done it. His wife boldly asserted that it was the work of her hands. The patient man heaved a deep sigh and said, “Oh, Dinah, Dinah, thou hast given a world of trouble!” Then he quietly sat down to another eight years of hard labor, to replace the notes that she had destroyed (Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations, by Paul Tan [Assurance Publishers], #2350). Okay, maybe he shouldn’t have sighed! But I’ve got a long ways to go to be as patient as he was!
When you’re wronged, whether by a believer or an unbeliever, wait patiently on the Lord, who will soon return and judge every person. As the 19th century preacher, A. B. Simpson observed, in heaven you won’t have anything or anyone to try you, so you won’t need patience there. It is a fruit of the Spirit for here and now. To respond rightly when you’re wronged, patiently wait for the Lord.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
The late Dr. Albert Schweitzer, famous medical missionary, was once asked what is the best way to raise children. He replied, “There are three ways: by example, by example, and by example.”
What he said about child rearing is also true about growing as a believer. We all need examples to follow, especially when we face trials. If the aim of the Christian life is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever, then we especially need to glorify and enjoy Him when we encounter trials. That’s when the world is watching to see if our faith is genuine. That’s when our witness can be the most effective.
John Piper emphasizes that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” But when serious trials hit, we are susceptible to Satan’s temptation to doubt God’s love and goodness towards us. When we see the ungodly prospering and we’re suffering, we’re tempted, like the psalmist (Ps. 73) to say in our confusion, “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure” (Ps. 73:13a). But after he gets his proper bearings, he rightly concludes (73:25-26), “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Jonathan Edwards has a wonderful sermon on that text, “God the Best Portion of the Christian.” He exclaims (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 2:106), “But how great is the happiness of those who have chosen the Fountain of all good, who prefer him before all things in heaven or on earth, and who can never be deprived of him to all eternity!”
When a believer endures severe trials and even faces death with that attitude, God is glorified. In The Roots of Endurance ([Crossway Books], p. 28), where he highlights perseverance in the lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce, Piper says, “The aim of all our endurance is that Christ be seen and savored in the world as our glorious God.”
The theme of patiently enduring trials runs throughout the Bible. We saw it in our recent study of Hebrews. The author states (10:36), “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.” He repeatedly exhorts us to hold fast our confession of faith (3:6, 14; 10:23). He wants us to be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:12). Of Abraham, he stated (6:15), “And so, having patiently waited, he inherited the promise.” Hebrews 11 is filled with examples of those who by faith endured hardship and suffering.
This is James’ theme here. His readers were suffering, while the ungodly rich were prospering at their expense. As a good teacher, James repeats his earlier theme (1:12), “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” In our text, he says,
When you encounter trials, look to the prophets and to Job as examples of patient endurance.
James points us to the Old Testament prophets (5:10), “As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” There are three lessons:
Once in my church in California, I was referring to the Old Testament story of how the godly King Hezekiah took the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s threatening letter and spread it out before the Lord in prayer. As I spoke, it was obvious to me that many were clueless about this story that occurs not just once, but three times in the Old Testament. I stopped and asked for a show of hands to find out how many were not familiar with this story. I was shocked when about a third of the hands went up! I’m still amazed at how many Christians have never read the Old Testament.
In Romans 15:4, Paul states, “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” He repeats the same theme with reference to Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:10), “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”
This means that knowing history—especially biblical history—is important for your growth in godliness. Jesus assumed that we know biblical history when He said (Matt. 5:11-12), “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” If you are not familiar with the history of the prophets, you will not do well when you suffer any kind of slander or persecution for Jesus’ sake.
I recently read through Jeremiah, who is certainly an example of suffering and patience. I can’t imagine preaching all of your life, as Jeremiah did, with only negative responses to your ministry. It’s hard enough to take occasional negative comments about a sermon, or to see people walk away from your ministry from time to time. When that happens, you tend to question yourself, to make sure that your heart is right before God and that your message is faithful to His Word. But if you only had negative responses, year in and year out, it would be tough to keep going. But Jeremiah kept proclaiming God’s truth.
In addition to the negative responses, Jeremiah also suffered physical persecution. He was beaten, put in the stocks, imprisoned, and thrown into a muddy cistern. He had to contend with false prophets who told the people what they wanted to hear, which was directly opposite to Jeremiah’s message that they needed to hear. To the very end, Jeremiah’s audience brazenly rejected his message, calling him a liar (see Jer. 42-43)!
Yet in spite of all of these setbacks, as he saw Jerusalem in smoldering ruins, Jeremiah could write the amazing words (Lam. 3:22-24), “The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’” Like the psalmist, Jeremiah knew that if God is your portion, you have it all, though you have nothing else. Read the Old Testament and learn patient endurance from the prophets.
Someone has said that if you are ignorant of history, you are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Knowing the history of the church and the lives of the great men and women in church history will help you immensely! Overall, I’ve grown more spiritually through reading Christian biographies than from any other source. I have an article on the church web site, “Mining for Gold,” that goes into more detail than I can here, but here are four lessons that I have learned from reading the giants of the past.
*First, Christian biographies have given me a sense of my spiritual heritage. It helps me to put our times and my own circumstances in perspective. It reminds me of the price that others have paid (often with their blood) to hand the torch of the gospel to me, and that I must hand it off faithfully to the next generation.
*Second, Christian biographies give me great examples to follow. When I see how faithful men in the past stood firm in the midst of controversy or persecution, how they held firmly to God’s Word when under fire, it encourages me to do the same.
*Third, Christian biographies give me theological perspective and balance. We all tend to be more influenced by our time and culture than we are aware. This was also true of the men from the past, but they were in a different time and culture. So they often help you to see blind spots that you would otherwise miss. Also, when generation after generation of godly men proclaim the same truths, such as the doctrines of God’s grace in salvation, you realize that they were all reading the same Book! These truths have strengthened and sustained the saints in every age. Reading their biographies helps me to stand firm when these truths are under fire in our day.
*Fourth, Christian biographies give me an understanding of people and of myself. I see that even great men of God had their shortcomings and faults, and yet God used them mightily. This is not to excuse my own faults, but it helps me realize that God can and will use me in spite of my imperfections. By reading of some of the mistakes that these great men made, hopefully I can avoid the same. By seeing how they trusted God against overwhelming trials, I’m encouraged to follow their examples. So read the godly examples of the prophets and read Christian biographies!
Somewhere, we’ve gotten the naïve idea that if we follow the Lord and serve Him, He will protect us from all trials. Read the prophets! They were persecuted precisely because they “spoke in the name of the Lord.” Often, if they had stopped delivering their unpopular message, they would not have been persecuted. Jeremiah lamented that when he spoke the Lord’s words, it resulted in his being mocked and held in derision. Then he added (Jer. 20:9), “But if I say, ‘I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.” So he spoke and suffered for it.
John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, spent twelve years in jail because he preached without the required license from the religious authorities. If he had promised to stop preaching, they would have let him out of jail. He had a wife and children, including a blind daughter. He said that when they would leave after visiting him in jail, it was like tearing his flesh from his bones to see them go. But, he refused to promise to stop preaching in order to secure his release.
As with Bunyan and the prophets, if you are faithfully serving the Lord, most of the flak that you catch will come from the religious crowd, not from the world. Jeremiah’s main critics and persecutors were the false prophets, who healed the wounds of the people superficially, saying, “peace, peace” when there was no peace (see Jer. 6:14; 8:11). Certainly, the world does oppose the gospel, and you may suffer from the ungodly at work or school. But often the enemy attacks by getting those in the church to attack your motives or to spread false rumors behind your back.
Whenever that happens, check your heart to make sure that there is no truth in their accusations. If you have acted in good conscience before God, then realize that their problem is not really with you, but with God Himself. You just happen to be the messenger, and it’s easier to attack you than to admit that they have a controversy with God. So when you suffer in serving the Lord, follow the example of the prophets who patiently endured.
Verse 11 should read, “Behold, we count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.” (The updated NASB omits “behold,” which calls attention to what follows.) Think about Job’s story often!
Job was a blameless and upright man, who feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:1). To be blameless did not imply perfection, but that he was a man of integrity. Job was also very rich, with large herds of sheep, camels, oxen, and donkeys, along with many servants. He had seven sons and three daughters.
Satan appeared before God and God brought up Job as an example of an upright man. Satan responded that Job only trusted God because He had blessed and protected him. So to prove that Job was not upright just for the benefits, God gave Satan permission to do whatever he chose, as long as he didn’t lay a hand on Job himself. Satan went out and deprived Job of all his possessions. Worst of all, he sent a powerful wind that knocked down the house where Job’s children were gathered, killing all ten of them.
Job’s remarkable response was to fall before God in worship, saying (Job 1:21b), “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” The author adds (Job 1:22), “Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.”
Satan returned to God and gained permission to go farther, as long as he spared Job’s life. So he smote him with painful boils from head to toe. At this point, Job’s poor wife had had enough. She advised him to curse God and die. But Job responded (2:10), “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” Again the author adds, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”
Then Job’s three “friends” show up, supposedly to comfort him. The rest of the book chronicles their misguided arguments that the reason for his suffering was some hidden sin in his life. Job defended himself, demanding an audience with God, who seemed to be hiding Himself. After a fourth friend appears and corrects the first three, as well as confronts Job, God does appear. He calls Job to account by running through a description of His mighty power in creation. After Job properly repents, God graciously restores Job’s health and his fortune, and He gives him ten more children. God blessed Job’s latter days more than the early days, allowing him to live to see his grandchildren to the fourth generation.
There are five lessons here that I can only touch on:
The Bible puts a huge emphasis on the need for endurance through trials. Paul assured the Colossians that although they were formerly God’s enemies, now they were reconciled to Him. Then he added (Col. 1:23), “if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel….” The author of Hebrews said (3:14), “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.” There are many other such texts.
You may wonder, “Why would we count those blessed who endured, if all that they experienced was suffering, persecution, and a martyr’s death?” As we saw last week, the biblical answer is, “Because they are enjoying eternal rewards in heaven that are beyond human description!” If God’s promises for heavenly reward are not true, then we would be fools to suffer for Christ (1 Cor. 15:19).
James does not mention Job’s patience (as in the KJV), but rather, his endurance. Many have pointed out that Job was not always patient in his trials, but he did endure. God graciously brought him through and rewarded him in the end in spite of his struggles and shortcomings. If Job had handled it all perfectly, none of us could have related to him. His very human struggles encourage us to submit to God’s dealings and to trust Him, even when our emotions are all over the chart.
James refers to “the Lord’s dealings” with Job. Although it was Satan who worked behind the scenes to take Job’s property and to kill his children, Job affirmed that it was God: “the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21); “Shall we accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10). John Bunyan, commenting on 1 Peter 4:19 (“Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right”) said, “God has appointed who shall suffer. Suffering comes not by chance or by the will of man, but by the will and appointment of God” (cited in John Piper, The Hidden Smile of God [Crossway Books], p. 30). If you deny or ignore this truth, as many do, you destroy the foundation for endurance in trials.
This is why James says, “you … have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings….” We can read the end of the story and see that God had a purpose in Job’s sufferings. If Job had never suffered, his ministry in our lives and in the lives of countless generations would not exist. But because of what Job went through, millions of saints have gained strength through their sufferings. I have heard modern Christian counselors, who must be wiser than the Bible, say that it is insensitive to mention Romans 8:28 to those who are going through suffering. But why was that verse written, if not to give hope to those who suffer? It affirms that God will accomplish His sovereign purpose for good through our suffering: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
Charles Spurgeon, who suffered greatly, begins a sermon on this verse by saying, “We are far too apt to entertain hard thoughts of God” (“The Pitifulness of the Lord and the Comfort of the Afflicted” [Ages Software]). James says, “the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.” If that is the lesson from Job’s sufferings, then it certainly applies to our lesser sufferings. Against our feelings and against the temptations of the devil, we must affirm by faith, as the psalmist did (Ps. 119:68), “You are good and do good.” And (Ps. 119:71), “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.” The Puritan Stephen Charnock, who spends 150 pages expounding on God’s goodness in his classic, The Existence and Attributes of God [Baker], says (2:224), “He can no more act contrary to this goodness in any of his actions, than he can un-God himself.”
One of Satan’s earliest ploys was to get Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness toward them (Gen. 3:1, 5). He still uses that bait when we go through trials. One reason that we fall prey to doubting God’s goodness is that we think too highly of ourselves and too lowly of God. We mistakenly think that God owes us something good because we deserve it. But even Job, whom God described as the most godly man on earth, did not suffer unjustly in all that he went through. As Charnock wrote (2:212), “God owes nothing to the holiest creature; what he gives is a present from his bounty, not the reward of the creature’s merit.” Or, as Paul asks rhetorically (Rom. 11:35), “Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again?” God does not owe us anything but judgment. Any blessings that we enjoy are sheer grace!
If I had time I would tell you of some of the men who have suffered greatly, but have patiently endured by looking to the Lord. William Carey endured hardship and many setbacks, but he endured in the overwhelming task of taking the gospel to India’s lost millions. Adoniram Judson lost wives and children, was imprisoned on false charges and tortured, and saw very little response to the gospel in Burma, yet he persevered. I could add David Livingstone, Charles Simeon, John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin, and many others who suffered greatly, yet patiently endured.
My main aim in this message is to get you to read your Old Testament over and over and contemplate the lives of the prophets and Job. Read the biographies of the faithful saints in church history. (I have a bibliography of Christian biographies on the church web site under “Helpful Resources.”) If you’re currently suffering, look to the prophets and look to Job as examples of patient endurance. Trust in the compassionate and merciful Lord.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
If you are ever called on to testify in court, you will be asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Are you violating Scripture to put yourself under such an oath? Our President and other elected officials must place their hand on a Bible and take the oath of office. Are they disobeying the very Bible that they swear upon?
Some Christians would answer, “yes.” I would be among those who say, “no” (I will explain why later). But however you answer, you need to be clear on the meaning of James’ command in our text, which succinctly repeats Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:33-37. These words go beyond the taking of oaths or vows and deal with the issue of truthful speech.
No matter what your views on taking oaths, everyone would agree that there is a crisis of truth in our culture. Many do not even believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth. Whatever is true for you is true, even if it contradicts the facts. Politicians, contractors, and car salesmen are notorious for promising things that they know they can never deliver. With every broken promise, distrust increases and the fabric of our society unravels a bit more.
The fact that the Promise Keepers men’s movement has attracted thousands of men to its rallies says something about the need to restore integrity among men who actually do what they say they will do. If we promise to love our wives, to be faithful unto them until death parts us, then we should keep those promises. If we make a promise to a customer in our business, we should keep our word, even if it costs us. If we promise our children something, we should do what we promised. In our everyday communication, we should speak the truth and not shade it with nuances to hide the truth. All of these things are implicit in James 5:12, which is saying:
As believers we must be truthful in our communication so that we do not fall under judgment.
To understand James’ words here, we must understand how the Jews of that day were using oaths. Oaths ought to foster truthful communication, but in reality they had become a façade for lying. The Jews said that if you swore using God’s name in your oath, you had to keep your word, but if you swore by some lesser thing—Jerusalem, the temple, or whatever—you were not bound. Jesus confronts this in Matthew 23:16-22:
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.”
This was the situation behind Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount, not to make any oaths at all, but to “let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’” (Matt. 5:37). In other words, the real issue was speaking the truth at all times. In a moment, we will see why neither Jesus nor James were prohibiting all oaths. We will consider James’ teaching under four headings:
Immediately we wonder, why does James say, “But above all…”? Is refraining from swearing or taking an oath really more important than anything else James has said thus far? Probably not. Commentators differ on why James says “above all.” Some relate it to the preceding context, especially to what James has said throughout the letter about the control of the tongue (1:19, 26; 3:1-12; 4:11, 13). They would view it as summing up his line of thought on that subject, emphasizing that truthful speech undergirds everything else. Others say that it is a literary phrase that just means, “finally,” or “in conclusion.” Perhaps Douglas Moo is correct when he says (The Letter of James [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 232), “James wants to highlight this prohibition—probably because he sees it as getting at the ultimate issue of personal integrity.”
Some see no logical or thematic connection between this verse and the context. They view this section as a random jumble of exhortations with no flow of thought. But James has been dealing with both worldliness and a spirit of pride, which result in relational conflicts. From 4:1-5:18, he makes the point that true faith resists arrogance by humbling oneself before God. This includes humility in relationships stemming from humility before God (ogether.
Oaths are necessary because bending the truth for personal advantage comes naturally to us as sinners. In speaking of the depravity that is common to the human race, Paul says (Rom. 3:13), “… with their tongues they keep deceiving….” You don’t have to teach a little child to lie. Rather, you have to teach him to tell the truth, especially when it is seemingly not to his advantage to do so.
James is not speaking here to those outside of the church, but rather to believers (“my brethren”). Becoming a Christian does not automatically produce truthful communication. The Bible is filled with exhortations to God’s people to be truthful in word and deed. For example, Paul says that we should be “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). A few verses later (4:25), he writes, “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” The apostle Peter (1 Pet. 3:10) cites from Psalm 34:12, “The one who desires life, to love and see good days, must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.”
So don’t assume that because you’re a Christian, you won’t struggle with the sin of being deceptive. We all need to work at truthful communication. But, what does the Bible say about taking oaths or making vows?
When James says, “Do not swear,” he is not referring to taking the Lord’s name in vain, although Scripture clearly forbids that. The third commandment states (Exod. 20:7), “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” Our Lord affirms that commandment when He teaches us to pray, “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name” (Matt. 6:9). God’s name refers both to His spoken name and to His entire person. We are to reverence God. It is always wrong to use the name of God or of our Lord Jesus Christ as swear words or exclamatory words. We need to be careful, too, not to use words like “Gee” or “Geez,” which are just shortened forms of “Jesus.”
But James is not dealing with that subject here. Rather, he is talking about not invoking God’s name in everyday speech to assure the truthfulness of what you say. If someone often says, “I swear to God that’s true,” you begin to wonder whether anything he says is true. Your word should be true without needing to make a big deal about it.
But the Bible does teach that there are certain occasions when it is proper to take an oath or make a vow before God. Because of this, I disagree with those who prohibit taking an oath in a court of law. For example, Deuteronomy 10:20 commands God’s people to swear by His name. In Jeremiah 12:16, God says of even the pagan nations, “Then if they will really learn the ways of My people, to swear by My name, ‘As the Lord lives,’ even as they taught My people to swear by Baal, they will be built up in the midst of My people.”
In the New Testament, the only time that Jesus spoke in His trial before the Council was when the high priest said to Him (Matt. 26:63), “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” So Jesus answered under oath. The apostle Paul often swore by the Lord when he said, “God is my witness” (Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23; Phil. 1:8; 1 Thess. 2:5, 10; see also Gal. 1:20).
Even more significantly, God sometimes swears by Himself, either by His words or by enacting His covenant. He swore to David with an oath that one of his descendants would always sit on his throne (Acts 2:30). God swore to Abraham that He would bless him and multiply him (Heb. 6:13-14). The author of Hebrews goes on to say (6:17-18) regarding our salvation, “In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us.”
So the Bible does not prohibit all oaths. Rather, it forbids both frivolous oaths and false oaths. Frivolous oaths are those that are so commonplace that they lose all significance or meaning. This would include taking an oath when it is not necessary or proper. When the drunken King Herod swore to the daughter of Herodias that he would give her up to half his kingdom because of her dancing (Mark 6:23), it was a frivolous oath. When she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, Herod felt bad, but because of his oath, he was unwilling to refuse her (Mark 6:26). Or, Jephthah foolishly vowed to sacrifice the first thing that walked out of his door when he returned from battle. When it happened to be his only daughter, he foolishly kept the foolish vow. He never should have made it in the first place and he should have broken it when it meant killing his daughter.
Often such frivolous oaths stem from pride. Herod wanted to look good in front of his dinner guests, so he couldn’t go back on his oath, even though he felt bad about killing John. Sometimes we want to impress others with our spiritual commitment, and so we make a boastful vow. But vows should be reserved for the most solemn and important occasions, so that they really mean something when we make them. To take an oath in court, or to vow to be faithful to your mate at your wedding, or to vow to be faithful to the Lord at your baptism are examples of godly vows.
Let me comment on the practice of a popular seminar teacher, who encourages his audiences to make a vow to read their Bibles at least five minutes per day. After explaining the importance of daily Bible reading, he warns them that it is better not to make a vow than to make it and not keep it (Eccl. 5:5). Then he asks everyone who wants to make this vow before God to raise their hands. Is this a healthy spiritual practice? In my opinion, no! I think it fosters a legalistic approach to the Lord, and it heaps guilt on the person who fails. Such guilt isn’t helpful in promoting a close relationship with the Lord. You should read your Bible as often as you can because you want to get to know the Lord better. But if you miss a day, just come back to it the next day and move on. I think that such spiritual vows tend to prop up the flesh, rather than promote love for God from the heart.
The other kind of oath that the Bible forbids is the false oath. A false oath is one that the person making it does not intend to keep, but he makes it either to impress or deceive others. Jesus and James were directing these commands toward these kinds of oaths. The Jews had elaborate rules, that if you swore by the temple, you weren’t bound by your oath, but if you swore by the gold of the temple, you were bound. It was kind of like, “I had my fingers crossed, so I really didn’t mean what I said.”
If people said what they meant and meant what they said, there wouldn’t be a need for any such oaths at all! The Jews of that day were just playing games with each other, but more importantly, they were not living with integrity on the heart level before God. You may be able to fool someone with a deceptive or misleading contract, where they don’t understand the fine print. But you didn’t fool God. He knows the thoughts and intents of your heart, and if you were practicing deception, the fact that you did it “legally” doesn’t matter to God!
To sum up, the Bible does not prohibit all taking of oaths or vows, but it does restrict them to important occasions. When we do take an oath, we need to consider it carefully and prayerfully, and then we need to be conscientious to follow through. If we are unable to keep our word, we should confess it to God and to the person we have wronged. And, we should seek to make restitution in ways that reflect genuine repentance.
In commenting on Matthew 5:33-37, Haddon Robinson (The Christian Salt & Light Company [Discovery House Publishing], p. 156) says with regard to the Sermon on the Mount, “If anger was the real issue of murder, lust the real issue of adultery, selfishness the real issue of divorce, then deceit is the real issue of oaths.” He adds (p. 158), “Jesus wasn’t addressing whether or not we should take an oath. He was talking about whether or not we are truthful…. We don’t tell the truth because we have taken an oath; we tell the truth because we are truthful.”
Truthful communication is essential for good relationships because truth is essential for trust. If you don’t trust someone, you’re not going to allow that person to get close to you. We lie or deceive others because we mistakenly think that it will hold the relationship together. So we rationalize bending the truth, thinking, “If she really knew the truth, she would never speak to me again.” But that’s like trying to fix a broken pipe with masking tape. You may slow the leak temporarily, but you’re only delaying disaster. The pipe will burst and cause far more damage than if you had just fixed it properly when the leak was first detected.
If we practice deception in our marriages, we may preserve superficial peace on the surface, but beneath the surface, a volcano is building. When the truth is revealed, the volcano will erupt and cause far more damage than if we had honestly dealt with the root issues when they first came up. The same thing is true in rearing our children. If you deceive them, telling them one thing while you’re living a lie, at some point they will see through your deception and they will reject the God you purport to follow. It’s far better to live with integrity, confessing your sins and asking forgiveness of your family when you’re wrong. If they see reality in your walk with God, they will be far more inclined to follow Him than if they see hypocrisy and deception in your life. So the root of truthful communication is walking truthfully before God, who sees your heart.
Here are a few ways that we can easily fall into deception and falsehood: (1) The half-truth: you tell the truth, but not all the truth. Abraham did this when he claimed that Sarah was his sister. She was his half-sister, but he didn’t mention that she also happened to be his wife! (2) The “white” lie: these are the “innocent” lies that “don’t hurt anyone.” You call in sick to work when you’re really well. (3) The lie to cover for someone else: “He’s not in.” (4) Exaggeration: stretching the truth to make yourself look better or to evoke sympathy for your cause. (5) The silent lie: the other person assumes something flattering about you that is clearly false, but you don’t speak up to correct it. (6) The cover-up lie: You hide your own wrongdoing with the rationalization that it would hurt the other person too much to find out the real truth. (7) The evasive lie: you change the subject or conveniently dodge the truth by not answering directly.
A boy was on the witness stand in an important lawsuit. The prosecuting attorney cross-examined him, then delivered, he thought, a crushing blow to the boy’s testimony.
“Your father has been telling you how to testify, hasn’t he?”
“Yes.” The boy didn’t hesitate with the answer.
“Now, said the lawyer triumphantly, “just tell us how your father told you to testify.”
“Well,” the boy said modestly, “Father told me that the lawyers would try to tangle me in my testimony, but if I would just be careful to tell the truth, I could repeat the same thing every time.”
If Abraham lied about Sarah and David lied about Bathsheba and Peter lied about knowing Jesus Christ, then none of us are exempt from temptation to this sin. Work at becoming a person of truthful communication! James ends with a warning:
Judgment is a significant issue for James. He just said (5:9), “Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.” He’s talking to Christians (“brethren”), not to unbelievers.
How will Christians fall under judgment? Jesus said (John 5:24), “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” Paul wrote (Rom. 8:1), “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” So with regard to eternal judgment, those who have truly trusted in Christ do not need to fear.
But Paul warns the Corinthians (1 Cor. 3:15) that we will be judged for our works: “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” He later (1 Cor. 11:32) explains to the same church that they needed to judge themselves before partaking of the Lord’s Supper so that they would not be judged: “But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.” That discipline can be very severe, including physical illness and even death (1 Cor. 11:30)!
William Barclay (The Daily Study Bible, Matthew [Westminster Press], 1:160) sums up Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:33-37:
Here is a great eternal truth. Life cannot be divided into compartments in some of which God is involved and in others of which he is not involved; there cannot be one kind of language in the Church and another kind of language in the shipyard or factory or the office; there cannot be one kind of standard of conduct in the Church and another kind of standard in the business world. The fact is that God does not need to be invited into certain departments of life, and kept out of others. He is everywhere, all through life and every activity of life. He hears not only the words which are spoken in his name; he hears all words; and there cannot be any such thing as a form of words which evades bringing God into a transaction. We will regard all promises as sacred, if we remember that all promises are made in the presence of God.
Or, as Gordon Clark put it (A Christian Philosophy of Education [Trinity Foundation], p. 158), “Since God is truth, a contempt for truth is equally a contempt for God.” Don’t be in contempt of God! Work at being a person whose yes means yes and whose no means no.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
I begin this message with a disclaimer that applies to the next message as well, namely, that I do not claim to be an expert in the practice of prayer. It is a constant struggle for me and I do not want to convey that I have arrived. But I want us all, wherever we’re at, to join together in the pilgrimage of becoming a God-focused, God-dependent community of praying believers.
Prayer is the obvious theme of verses 13-18, with the noun or verb occurring in every verse. With the mention of suffering (5:13), James brings us full circle back to 1:2-3, where he opened the book with the radical command to consider it all joy when we encounter various trials. The only way that we can do that is to view every difficulty through a God-ward perspective and to depend on God through prayer.
We have to do this first on an individual level, of course. We must mentally process everything that happens to us, from the trivial to the significant, through the grid of God’s sovereign love toward us in Christ. That is James’ point in verse 13. But then verses 14-16a take on a strong community focus. We are not on individual, isolated spiritual journeys, where we only cross paths with one another here and there. Rather, we are pilgrims together with other saints. Thus James is saying here that…
All of life should be lived with a God-ward, God-dependent focus, shared together with God’s people.
James fires off two short questions (a third follows in 5:14), with crisp, short answers. These two questions run the gamut of life’s experiences: “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises” (5:13). All suffering and all blessings come from God for His glory and our ultimate good. So in every situation, we must learn to live with a God-ward, God-dependent focus.
The Greek word for “suffering” refers to any difficulty. James used the noun in 5:10 to describe the suffering of the prophets (see also, 2 Tim. 2:9; 4:5). James’ readers were suffering because of their Christian testimony. But the word may refer to all types of problems that we encounter in life, whether spiritual, physical, emotional, financial, or relational. As we’ve seen, becoming a Christian does not provide you an exemption from trials!
If you’re going through trials of any sort, James’ answer (a single word in the Greek text) is like a rifle shot to the bull’s eye: “Pray.” It’s easy to sit here and nod in agreement, but the question is, “When you encounter difficulties, is prayer your first response?” It’s certainly not the automatic response. If left to the flesh, the automatic response to suffering is to grumble or complain or to throw a pity party. Or, we question God: “Why is this happening to me?” But James counters all this with the single word: “Pray!”
When you get into a conflict with your wife or children, do you shoot up a prayer for wisdom and a calm spirit? Do you pray that you will be an example of godliness to your family? Do you ask God to check your anger? Do you pray that each family member would grow in Christ through the difficulty?
When you face a problem at work, do you silently send up a “Nehemiah prayer”? Remember, when he talked with the unbelieving king about his request to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, in between the king’s asking him what he wanted and his response, Nehemiah states, “So I prayed to the God of heaven” (Neh. 2:4). It couldn’t have been more than a quick, “Help, Lord” kind of prayer! But it shows that his knee-jerk response was to pray.
I could go on an on. When your car needs repair, do you pray for the mechanic to do good work? When you need medical care, do you pray for the doctor to have wisdom? When you need to make a major purchase or you face financial problems, do you pray for wisdom to be a good steward of the resources that He has entrusted to you? When you gather with lost family members for the holidays, do you pray for opportunities for witness? In every situation of life, God sends problems so that we will learn to depend on Him in prayer.
We often pray as the last resort, after we’ve done everything that we can do to try to fix the problem. We scheme, we plan, we work hard, and then maybe we remember to pray, “God, bless my efforts.” You can do more than pray after you’ve prayed, but you shouldn’t do anything until you’ve prayed. Prayer acknowledges that you are totally dependent on God. Prayer admits, “Lord, I can’t even draw my next breath without You. If You don’t work for Your purpose and glory, my most competent efforts will fail!”
When you encounter suffering, what should you pray? Don’t answer too quickly! We often assume that we should pray, “Lord, get me out of here now!” Sometimes when I’m asked to visit someone in the hospital, the one asking will say to me, “Please pray for him!” When I respond, “What should I pray?” they look at me as if I’m not all there. “Pray for healing, of course!” But, maybe God has other purposes for this trial. Is the person living under the lordship of Christ? Maybe this illness is to bring him into submission. Maybe there is some other purpose.
So, when you or someone you love encounters a trial, pray for wisdom (James 1:5 in context). Pray for the ability to endure with joy. Pray for a godly attitude through the pain. Pray that the works of God may be displayed in this trial (John 9:3). Pray that God would use this crisis for His purpose and glory (John 11:4). Pray that the fruit of the Spirit would grow in the lives of everyone involved (Gal. 5:22-23). Suffering should drive us to prayer. Then James goes to the other extreme:
“Is anyone cheerful?” Again, James shoots a one-word (in Greek) answer: “Sing!” I have not verified this, but I have heard that the most frequent command in the Bible is, “Sing!”
You may think that singing when things are going well is easier than the command to pray when you encounter suffering, but it’s not. The response of the flesh is to forget God when things go well. That’s why Moses warned the Jews as they were about to enter the land (Deut. 6:10-12):
Then it shall come about when the Lord your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you eat and are satisfied, then watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
For the same reason, David talks to himself in Psalm 103:2, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits.” And for the same reason, the church is exhorted to remember the Lord’s death through frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper. The natural response to sufficiency is to forget the Lord and all His benefits. So James says, “When things are going well, when your soul is satisfied with God’s sufficiency, sing praises to Him!” John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 354) puts it, “There is no time in which God does not invite us to himself.”
While I enjoy many of the praise choruses, especially when they reflect sound doctrine, I would also encourage you to learn the great hymns of the faith. The words of those hymns have sustained God’s people through suffering and sufficiency for many generations. One of my favorites, “How Firm a Foundation,” concludes with these words that poetically capture Hebrews 13:5:
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!”
The two extremes of James 5:13 show that God does not expect us always to be bouncy, cheerful, and upbeat. James allows that sometimes you will be down because of suffering. His directive: Pray! But when you’re cheerful, sing! I would echo John Piper, though, in saying that when you’re down, you’ve got to fight for joy. One way that you do that is through prayer. Sometimes when you’re down, the way out of it is to sing. If you can’t express it yourself, put on a CD of some great hymns or uplifting praise music. James’ first point is that all of life, whether suffering or sufficiency, should be lived with a God-ward, God-dependent focus.
A God-ward focus does not mean that we are to suffer in isolation. Verse 13 shows that we must walk with God on the private, individual level. The battle with trials must start there. But beyond that, God has made us members of Christ’s body. If we do not share our needs and struggles with others, they cannot help bear our burdens and they will not rejoice when God answers.
Verses 14 & 15 are difficult to interpret and apply correctly. They are the basis for the Roman Catholic sacrament of extreme unction. For sake of time, I can’t comment except to say that I am baffled at how the idea of a priest anointing a dying person so that his soul will be ready for heaven ever came out of a text about healing, not dying.
A few commentators (Ron Blue, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John Walvoord & Roy Zuck [Victor Books], 2:834-835; John MacArthur, Moody Founder’s Week Conference Messages, 1988, pp. 103-113; Douglas Moo mentions a few more, The Letter of James [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 236, note 45) argue that these verses are not talking about physical healing at all. Rather, they argue that “sick” (5:14) should be translated “weak,” referring to spiritual weakness. They observe that James uses a word here for “anoint” that refers, not to ceremonial anointing, but to more everyday anointing. Thus they interpret the anointing with oil to refer to the Jewish practice of using oil as a means of bestowing honor or refreshment, especially on guests. They point out that the word “sick” in verse 15 is literally, “weary.”
So the idea is that a person who is spiritually weak and weary would call for the elders. They would anoint him with oil (modern application: encourage and refresh him), pray with him, and the Lord will restore the one who is weary and raise him up. If he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. So they interpret this as spiritual restoration, not physical healing. I admit that this interpretation is attractive in that it gets us off the hook with a difficult interpretive problem, namely, that the common interpretation of verse 15 seems to guarantee physical healing.
But almost all commentators and Bible translators understand this text to refer to physical healing, not to spiritual restoration. When the verb “weak” is used to refer to spiritual weakness, it is made clear by some qualifier, such as, “weak in conscience” (1 Cor. 8:7) or, “weak in faith” (Rom. 14:1, 2). Also, in the Gospels, where James draws most of his vocabulary and theology, the word always denotes bodily illness (Moo, p. 237). While the verb, “anoint,” is used of common anointing, it is also used of the disciples’ ceremonial anointing of the sick in their healing ministry (Mark 6:13). So, while I would agree that through prayer elders should encourage and refresh those who are spiritually weak, I’m not convinced that that is what this text means.
But, that leaves us with a difficult problem, namely, that this text seems to guarantee healing for those who follow the procedure. Before I address that (I’ll warn you now that I don’t have an easy answer), let me make several observations.
First, note that it is the sick person who is to call for the elders, not vice versa. The elders are not omniscient! Don’t expect that we should know when you need prayer! Tell us! Second, these verses intertwine physical illness with sin. James does not assume that the person is sick because of sin, but he indicates that it may be a cause (“if he has committed sins”). So before the sick person calls for the elders, he needs to search his heart and confess all known sins to the Lord. He should be prepared that the elders may ask, “Are you aware of any unconfessed sins in your life?”
Also, because the sick person is calling for the time of busy men (there is no such thing as a non-busy elder!), this should be reserved for serious matters, not for routine illness. Galatians 6:2 says that we are to “bear one another’s burdens.” The word used there refers to excessive burdens. But Galatians 6:5 says, “For each one will bear his own load.” The word “load” refers to normal burdens or responsibilities. If your illness or injury is something that affects your entire life (life-threatening, or chronic pain or weakness, or it prevents you from working or fulfilling other duties, or one that is overwhelming you spiritually), then you should probably call for the elders.
James (5:14) directs the elders to “pray over him” (“over” may imply laying on of hands), “anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” There are several interpretations suggested. Some say that it refers to the ancient medicinal application of oil to wounds, such as the Good Samaritan did with the wounded traveler (Luke 10:34). Thus, they think the verse means, “Pray and use medical means.” While I agree that we should use medical means, I am not convinced that James is saying that.
Others say that the oil was a physical expression of concern that was used to stimulate the faith of the sick person, much as Jesus used mud to anoint the eyes of the blind man in healing him (John 9:6-11). That is possible, but I prefer the view that the oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who is the divine agent in healing. James says that it is the prayer of faith that heals, not the oil, but obviously, it is not prayer, but God, to whom we pray, who heals.
But now we must deal with the questions, “What is the prayer of faith?” And, “Is James guaranteeing healing in every case?” Some resolve this by saying that the gift of miraculous healing was limited to the apostolic age, and so this doesn’t apply anymore. While the gift of healing may have been only for that period, that gift is not in view here. Obviously, God can and does heal miraculously in every age when it is His will to do so.
Others go to the other extreme and say that it is always God’s will to heal. If you aren’t healed, you must not have prayed in faith. This view is not only false, but cruel! If this were true, no faithful believer should ever get sick or die. But that doesn’t square with either reality or the New Testament. Paul was not healed of his thorn in the flesh and he did not heal Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-30) or Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20). He urged Timothy to drink a little wine for his frequent stomach ailments (1 Tim. 5:23), not to claim his healing by faith. And, we all eventually get sick and die.
Some argue that the prayer of faith is a special subjective assurance that is given to the elders that God will heal in this situation. My problem with that view is that it’s very easy to be mistaken, and if you give someone false hope that God will heal, but He does not heal, you have just added to the person’s misery.
Every prayer should be a prayer of faith, because we should not ask anything of God unless we believe that He is able to grant it (James 1:6-8; Heb. 11:6; Mark 11:22-24). But—and here, for me, is the difficult thing about applying this—we do not know God’s sovereign will in advance. If I had been one of John the Baptist’s followers, praying for his release from prison, I would not have thought it to be God’s will for the drunken King Herod to lop off John’s head. But it was His will. With Peter, I would not have thought it to be God’s will for Jesus to get crucified. But, thank God, it was His will! I would not have thought it to be God’s will for five young, dedicated missionaries to get murdered in the jungles of Ecuador. But it was God’s will.
So my understanding of this verse is, if you are seriously sick or have an injury that is debilitating, call the elders for prayer. We will come and talk to you about your situation. We may ask if you are aware of any sins that you need to confess. We will anoint you with oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who is mighty to heal. We will pray with you, believing that God can and does heal. But, we must submit to His sovereign will, which we seldom can know in advance. If He chooses to heal you, give Him the glory, because it wasn’t the oil, it wasn’t our prayers or faith that healed you. It was God! James has a concluding thought here:
“Therefore” shows that this is a conclusion. The idea is (Moo, p. 245), “Since the prayer for healing offered in faith accomplishes so much (v. 15a) and since God is anxious to forgive the sins of his people (v. 15b), the whole community should be encouraged to confess their sins to one another and to pray for one another. By so doing, the health (in the broadest sense) of the community will be insured.”
Confession, like prayer for healing, has also been taken to unwarranted extremes. Some never do it at all, but others may indiscreetly share things in public that should never be shared. I once had a man in a Sunday School class share in front of the entire class (with his wife present) that he had lusted over another woman in the class! James is not encouraging such a thing!
Generally, the confession should be as public as the sin. If it is a private sin, confess it privately, or find a godly, trustworthy saint who will keep your confidence and confess it to him or her (men with men, women with women). If your sin hurt specific individuals, confess it to those people and ask their forgiveness. If it affected the entire church, then ask the elders for an appropriate time and place to confess it to the church.
The Roman Catholic Church uses this verse to justify the practice of confessing your sins to a priest. But they seem to ignore that the practice is to be mutual (“to one another”). I doubt that the priest would appreciate it if the one doing the confessing said, “Okay, it’s your turn”! James wasn’t thinking of confession to a priest, except in the sense that every believer is a priest. Rather, he is acknowledging that we are all struggling against sin, and we need one another in the battle. We need to help one another as we fight to establish and maintain a God-ward, God-dependent focus.
There is plenty of application here for us all! None of us would say, “My prayer life is all that it should be.” So God is asking us all to work at prayer in all things.
Not many of us could say that we are up to par in the praise category. It may sound contradictory, but it’s not: Work at singing praises to God every day.
Perhaps someone needs to call the elders for prayer about a debilitating illness. Before you do, examine your heart before God and ask Him to search you to see if there may be some wicked way in you (Ps. 139:23-24). Some of you may need to find a godly brother or sister to confess your sins to and to pray with, so that you may be healed. As God puts it on your heart, respond in obedience and you will be blessed.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
I want to repeat the disclaimer that I gave last week, namely, that I feel woefully inadequate in the area of prayer. I do not want this message to convey that I’ve got it all together. I am a fellow struggler with you!
But having said that, I also can say that God changed my spiritual life in the summer of 1970, when I read for the first time, George Muller of Bristol [Revell], by A. T. Pierson. As most of you know, Muller (1805-1897) was a rebellious Prussian young man whom God saved in his twenties. Muller later founded an orphanage in Bristol, England. He was concerned about the needs of the many orphans whom he saw on the streets, of course. But his primary reason for founding the orphanage was to demonstrate that God is still a prayer-hearing God and that it is not in vain to trust in Him.
Muller and his new bride literally sold or gave away everything that they owned and gave the money to the Lord’s work. Then they set about praying for God to provide for their own needs and the needs of the orphans. Muller’s theme verse was Psalm 81:10, “Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.” For over 60 years, he saw God faithfully provide for as many as 2,000 orphans at a time, all in response to secret prayer.
Muller never disclosed any needs to potential donors, even if they asked. He and his staff would pray and often see God provide the exact amount that they needed on the day they needed it. Muller gave God the glory by writing an annual narrative of how the Lord had provided, once the needs had already been met.
Reading that book showed me that I could look to the same Lord in prayer and that He faithfully would meet my needs. Although I am nowhere near Muller in faith or prayer (even to mention myself in the same sentence is presumptuous!), God has used Muller’s example over the years to encourage me to pray.
James’ aim here is to motivate us, wherever we’re at with the Lord, to pray more. This assumes that you have trusted in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. You must be reconciled to God through faith in Christ before you can rightly pray. Jesus must be your personal High Priest, whose blood has covered all your sin. Then the invitation of Hebrews 4:16 applies to you: “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
If you have trusted in Christ as Savior, then you need to pray more. (We all do!) As with everything in life, motivation is the key. To motivate you to pray, James asserts the power of prayer and then illustrates it with the life of Elijah:
Since the prayer of the righteous is powerfully effective, we should be motivated to pray.
The sentence has been variously translated, but I think that the best translation is as I just stated: “The prayer of the righteous is very powerful in its working (or, operation).” James has just exhorted us to “pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” This may refer to healing from illness, especially illness that may be the result of unconfessed sin. Or, it may refer also to spiritual healing, since James has instructed us to confess our sins to one another. But his point is that whether your need is physical or spiritual, prayer is very powerful. But, he qualifies it:
Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, so much for me becoming a prayer warrior!” While the word righteous sounds daunting, it should not threaten us if we think about it properly.
In the first place, if we have been justified by faith, we stand before God with a righteousness that is not our own. If you think that you can approach God through your righteousness, you do not understand the gospel. The gospel shuts us all up under sin, showing that our own righteousness will never satisfy God’s holy justice. As Paul states (Rom. 3:23-24), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” To be justified is to be declared righteous. God does not do that on the basis of any merit in us, but only by grace (undeserved favor). It is His gift to forgive all your sins and clothe you with Christ’s perfect righteousness. That is the standing of everyone who has trusted in Christ. So righteous refers to our standing in Christ.
But it also refers to our walk. But it does not imply perfection, or no one could qualify. Elijah was not a perfect man. He feared the wicked Jezebel and fled from her. He was despondent in thinking that he was the only godly person left in Israel. Rather, to be righteous means to walk uprightly before God, judging and confessing all known sin, and seeking to obey God in every area of life. Our prayers are not heard because of our own worthiness or sinless track record. But if we are aware of unconfessed sin in our hearts, we will not feel confident in drawing near to the holy God. The psalmist says (Ps. 66:18), “If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear.”
Thus we should always draw near to God in prayer on the basis of the worthiness and merit of Jesus Christ. Yet at the same time, we should examine our hearts to make sure that we are not harboring any known sin. We do not need to be perfect, but we do need to walk in the light, turning from all known sin.
There is no inherent power in prayer itself, but rather that prayer links us to God who is all-powerful. James begins the sentence (in Greek) with “much” to emphasize how much prayer can accomplish. The point is that prayer is not just wishful thinking. When we pray, we communicate with the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth, who loves us and invites us into His presence to receive grace. And so, as E. M. Bounds puts it, “Prayer can do anything that God can do” (Purpose in Prayer [Moody Press], p. 96, plus the title of Chapter 11, pp. 97-114).
That is a wonderfully true statement! But, to be honest, I struggle at this point because I have experienced so many unanswered prayers. I have prayed for healing for many sick people that have died. I have prayed for repentance for many sinning Christians, and yet they have gone on in their sin. I have prayed for salvation for some for many years, and yet they have not come to faith in Christ. I am not aware of any unconfessed sin in my heart or lack of faith in God.
There seem to be two answers to this problem of unanswered prayer, which I’m sure is not unique to me. First, sometimes God delays the answers we seek to keep us in humble dependence on Him. That was the situation with Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-10). When Elijah prayed for God to send rain, even though God had promised to send rain, He did not answer instantly. It took seven attempts on Elijah’s part before the first cloud was seen in the sky. So sometimes, God waits to answer to keep us seeking Him or for other reasons that we may not understand.
Second, sometimes God answers “no” for His own inscrutable reasons. This is where we have to trust Him and His omniscient ways. He knows all the factors, which I never know. As I said last week, I would have prayed for a long and fruitful ministry for John the Baptist, but that was not God’s plan. I would have prayed for Jesus to avoid the cross, but that wasn’t God’s plan, either. I pray many things that seem to me to be for God’s glory and in accordance with His will, but He overrules my prayers with His own sovereign purpose.
But the danger is that when we encounter God’s delays or denials of our requests, we will lose heart and give up praying. We need to remember that prayer links us with the omnipotent God, who spoke the universe into existence. He can interrupt the normal laws of His creation if He chooses, to accomplish His will. And, He has chosen that normally He accomplishes His will through the prayers of His people. And so we should pray big prayers and expect God to accomplish much through them, according to His purpose and glory.
The power of prayer is not limited to prayers offered in church buildings on Sunday mornings, or to prayers offered by ordained ministers, or to prayers given in eloquent language. If you know Christ, then wherever you are, in whatever need you find yourself, call out to God and He will hear and answer according to His will. You may only have time for a quick, silent prayer.
But God doesn’t weigh the value of the prayers by their length or by how many people get together to pray the same thing or by how much you agonize in your prayers. Although Jesus sometimes spent the entire night in prayer, most of the prayers recorded in the Bible are short. The Lord’s prayer is really short! Even if you’ve only got a few minutes, you can still devote the time to prayer.
Sometimes we think, “If we can just get a lot of people praying, it will be more effective.” But our text says, “a righteous man,” not “a really big group of righteous men.” The more who pray, the more get blessed when God answers. So it is good to enlist as many in prayer as possible. But if it’s just you and God, the prayer may be as powerfully effective as if a whole group prays.
Also, it doesn’t say that the righteous man has to agonize for it to be effective. Yes, Elijah’s prayer was earnest, and ours should be in earnest, too. We should pour out our hearts before God (Ps. 62:8). The more serious the situation and the more we are burdened by it, the more intensely we will pray (Heb. 5:7). But God answers our prayers on the basis of His grace through Jesus Christ, not on the basis of our working up certain feelings.
So James’ theme is: the prayer of the righteous is very powerful in its working. Then he illustrates the theme:
Elijah had taken on almost legendary status among the Jews in James’ day. By all accounts, he was an impressive man! He marched in before the wicked, powerful King Ahab and announced that it would only rain by his word, and his word came true! He was miraculously fed by the ravens during the drought. He miraculously enabled the widow of Zarephath’s flour to be replenished throughout the drought. He raised her son from the dead. He called down fire from heaven to consume his waterlogged sacrifice in front of the 400 prophets of Baal. Then he ordered the execution of them all. Later, he called down fire to consume two groups of soldiers sent to arrest him. He parted the Jordan river to walk across. His final act was to be taken to heaven without dying in a chariot of fire. That’s the stuff legends are made of!
A man like Elijah could be more of a hindrance to my prayer life than an encouragement, because I could think that he’s in a totally different league than I am. That’s why James says…
As you read the story of Elijah, you find that in spite of seeing God work in miraculous ways, he became fearful and depressed. James’ point is that while Elijah was a great man, he was after all just a man. He did not have some privileged status before God that we lack. He had his ups and downs, but he prayed and God answered. So even though you have your ups and downs, pray! The power of prayer is not with the man, but with our God.
King Ahab set a new spiritual low in Israel! He married the wicked Jezebel, who established Baal worship as the religion of the land. She exterminated the prophets of the Lord, except for 100 who were in hiding. Baal was regarded as the god who controlled the rain and fertility. The worship of Baal was not only idolatrous, but immoral, with temple prostitutes. Even though there were some bad kings before Ahab, 1 Kings 16:33 states, “Thus Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him.”
Thus Elijah’s prayer for drought and his later prayer for rain were a direct challenge to the worshipers of Baal. Everyone in the nation felt the effects of three years of drought. It pushed them to ask, “Why isn’t Baal answering our prayers?” Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal pointedly drew the line (1 Kings 18:21): “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” When God answered Elijah’s prayer to bring down fire on the sacrifice, the people “fell on their faces; and they said, ‘The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God’” (1 Kings 18:39). One righteous man’s prayer affected the entire nation. It can be the same today.
The account in 1 Kings 17:1 does not state directly that Elijah prayed that it would not rain. Rather, he appeared before Ahab and announced, “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”
But we can easily infer that James was correct in stating that Elijah “prayed earnestly that it would not rain.” For one thing, when he later prays for God to bring down fire on the sacrifice, he states (1 Kings 18:36), “O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant and I have done all these things at Your word.” The “all these things” included praying for drought.
Also, the Old Testament repeatedly states that if Israel fell into idolatry, God would withhold rain from the land (Deut. 11:16-17; 28:23-24; 2 Chron. 7:13-14). It’s reasonable to assume that Elijah knew these Scriptures and that he had prayed for God to keep His word. But the point is, Elijah knew the living God, and he knew that he stood before Him. That’s why he could boldly declare to the godless Ahab that there would be no rain. In the same way, the effectiveness of our prayer lives will be in direct proportion to how well we know the living God and consciously stand in His holy presence.
James’ words, “prayed earnestly,” are literally, “prayed with prayer.” It is a Hebraism that signifies intensity. Elijah’s intensity in prayer was because he was one man up against a powerful godless king and queen, 400 of her idolatrous prophets, and an entire nation that had turned its back on the Lord. So Elijah, being a man with a nature like ours, recognized his own inadequacy in the face of these powerful enemies. That led him to pray earnestly.
The reason we often do not pray earnestly is that we do not properly see how weak and inadequate we are and how powerful the enemy of our souls really is. If we see that salvation is not a matter of a person “deciding for Christ,” but rather of God opening his eyes, convicting him of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and raising him from spiritual death to life, we would pray more earnestly for lost souls. If we see that apart from Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5), we would pray more earnestly about every aspect of our lives. Earnest prayer stems from a sense of personal inadequacy, but also from the knowledge of God’s total adequacy.
I want to ask three questions that should motivate us to pray:
Do we live in overwhelmingly ungodly times? Pray!
Often the daily news is enough to get you depressed! You hear about the atrocities of the Islamic terrorists, you read about the degradation of morals in our country, you hear about the horrible decisions of our courts that legitimize all manner of corruption, and you despair. What should we do? Pray!
With Elijah, sometimes we may need to pray for drought, recognizing that the drought we pray for will dry up the brook that we drink from! Sometimes although we think that our nation has hit bottom, it hasn’t. If people do not sense their need for God, there will not be genuine repentance. But when God hits our nation with overwhelming catastrophes, or withholds His blessings, people eventually begin to see their need and become open to turning back to God.
Also with Elijah, at the appropriate time, we need to pray for rain. It’s instructive that God told Elijah that He would send rain (1 Kings 18:1), but Elijah had to pray that promise into reality. When our nation or when an individual you know is parched from a spiritual drought, we should pray that God would graciously send the rain of His Spirit to bring genuine repentance and revival.
Do we face circumstances that are far beyond our ability to change? Pray!
A loved one’s heart is hardened against the Lord. Only God can break that hard heart. Pray! You or someone you know has a degenerative disease. The doctors have done everything they can do. Pray! God may heal or He may give extra grace to endure. But He has shut you up from every human source of help to drive you to Himself. I could go on naming overwhelming problems. Whatever yours is, let it drive you to the Lord in prayer.
Do we sense personal inadequacy? Pray!
Prayer acknowledges that our need is not for just a little boost from God, and then we can handle it on our own. Prayer admits, my need is total! In seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks used to challenge us with the question, “What is there in your life that you cannot explain apart from God?” Our problem is not that we are inadequate to live the Christian life, but rather that we think we are at least partially adequate in ourselves. So God sends some overwhelming circumstances into our lives to teach us what Paul learned (2 Cor. 1:9), “Indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”
Pastors today are under a lot of pressure to build their churches through “proven” church growth methods. Thousands of pastors flock to seminars to learn how to attract seekers and build a “successful” church. I met a woman in town who introduced herself to me as the minister of marketing at a certain church. Imagine that—a minister of marketing! Why didn’t I think of that?
A model for my ministry has been the words of the apostles when they asked that the early church find other men to help the needy widows. Then they added (Acts 6:4), “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” In that regard, a century ago E. M. Bounds wrote,
What the Church needs today is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men—men of prayer. (Power Through Prayer [Zondervan], p. 12.)
Pray for your pastors. Pray for this church. Pray for your own needs. Since the prayer of the righteous is powerfully effective, pray!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
It’s always an anxious moment, especially for families and friends, when someone is reported missing in the wilderness. Search and rescue teams spring into action. We wait expectantly for any word of locating the missing person. It’s a moment of great joy if they find the person alive and well, but a time of great sorrow when they’re too late.
If you are a Christian, then you’re a member of God’s search and rescue team. But even though every believer is on the team, I find that many never respond to the call to go out into the storm and look for the lost. Can you imagine being lost in the woods, but no one came looking for you? When you finally stagger out to civilization, you ask why no one came looking.
One member of the search and rescue team says, “It was really cold and stormy, and there was a good show on TV. So I just prayed for you to be okay.” Another says, “I wanted to be sensitive to your feelings. I thought you might be embarrassed if we came looking.” Another says, “I wasn’t sure you were really lost. It would be judgmental to imply that you actually were lost. Besides, it would be arrogant of me to say that I’m not lost. After all, we all have our own paths on the journey.” That’s not the kind of search and rescue team that I would want if I were lost!
I admit that what James tells us to do here is one of the most difficult things God asks us to do as Christians, namely,
Believers are responsible to help restore straying sinners to the truth.
That task is often about as pleasant as trying to help a wounded dog—you’re probably going to get bit no matter how gently you try to help. When you’re successful, it’s a moment of great joy, as when a search and rescue team announces, “We have found him and he is alive and well.” Yes! But even the hope of success doesn’t make the task any easier. But since you’re on God’s search and rescue team, you need to learn how to do the job. Note three things:
The first question to answer is, “Is James talking about backsliding believers, or is he talking about evangelizing those who do not know Christ?” The first part of verse 19 would indicate that James is talking about believers (“My brethren, if any among you strays…”). But when verse 20 talks about saving his soul from death, it sounds like saving a soul from hell.
Some assume that James is talking only about believers. Since believers cannot lose their salvation, they interpret verse 20 as saving the person from physical death as God’s discipline for sin. The other approach, which I believe to be correct, is to say that James is writing to the church, but he knows that there are some in the church that have made professions of faith, but they are not genuinely saved. This fits with the overall theme of James, which is to emphasize that true saving faith is not just to make a decision or to say, “I believe in Jesus.” True saving faith always, necessarily results in a life of good works.
In James 1:22, he exhorted, “But prove yourselves to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” In 2:14, he asks rhetorically, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” He states (2:17), “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” (See also, 2:26.)
The correct biblical doctrine of “eternal security” is not that a person prays to accept Jesus into his heart and he will never lose his salvation. It is not that a person makes a decision to receive Christ and he can instantly be assured that he is going to heaven, no matter how he lives after that.
The true biblical doctrine is that genuine salvation is not primarily a human decision, but rather it is God changing the sinner’s heart, raising him from spiritual death to spiritual life. This new life that God imparts necessarily results in a new way of living. Rather than hating God, the newborn Christian will love God and desire to please Him. Rather than living for his own selfish pleasure, the believer will yield to Jesus as Lord and seek to live for His glory. I’m not talking about sinless perfection, but rather about the overall direction that necessarily results from a new heart and new life. We see this clearly in 1 John 3:7-9:
Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
When John says, “he cannot sin,” he does not mean that it is impossible for a believer to commit sin. He is not contradicting himself in 1 John 1:8, where he said, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Believers do sin, sometimes in horrible ways. But the difference is, when a believer sins he is grieved and deeply troubled. He cannot go on in sin. God’s Spirit convicts him and he knows that he has displeased his Lord. So the believer who sins repents and turns back to the Lord. He strives daily against sin and he sets up safeguards to prevent falling into sin again. The overall direction of his life is to grow in holiness and to bear fruit for God.
We see this in Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23; Mark 4:3-9, 13-20; Luke 8:5-8, 10-15). Some of the seed fell on the hard ground of the road and the birds snatched it away. This represents unbelievers who hear the word, but Satan snatches it away.
Other seed fell on the shallow soil that had a hard, rocky layer beneath it. This seed immediately sprang up, but when the sun came out, it withered because it did not have deep roots. Jesus said that this seed represents those who “receive the word with joy,” they “believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away” (Luke 8:13). Their “faith” did not produce any fruit.
The third seed fell among thorns. It sprouted up for a while, but then the thorns choked it out and it did not bear any fruit. Jesus explained that this refers to those who “are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity” (Luke 8:14).
The fourth seed fell on the good soil. “These are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Luke 8:15). These alone represent true believers, who persevere and bear fruit.
So, to go back to our text, James is referring to one of the last three groups. The straying one may be a temporary, rocky soil “believer” or a thorny soil “believer.” Neither type is truly saved because they do not bring forth the fruit of saving faith. In James’ terms, their faith is a dead faith. Or, he may be a true believer who has fallen into sin.
How do we know which group the person is in? Answer: by his response to our efforts to restore him to the truth. If he walks away from the Lord and goes on in sin, most likely he is not truly saved. If he repents and comes back to the Lord, his faith is genuine. By helping him to turn back and persevere in faith and obedience, you have saved his soul from death and covered a multitude of sins (more on that in a moment).
Note one other thing here: In verse 19, James says that this person has strayed “from the truth.” In verse 20, he mentions turning him from “the error of his way.” To stray from the truth implies departing from the truth of the gospel, or some core Christian doctrine. It may also include moral deviation, but that is more in focus in the phrase, “the error of his way.” The point is that doctrinal error and sin are usually intertwined. Sometimes a person embraces false doctrine because he has fallen into serious sin, and he needs to deny sound doctrine to justify his sin. At other times, the person embraces some serious doctrinal error, and before long his false doctrine opens the door for him to embrace sin. If you’re seeking to help restore a person who is espousing some doctrinal error, you probably need to probe for some underlying sin.
So, James is acknowledging that professing Christians will stray from the truth, both doctrinally and morally. We do not know their true heart condition before God until we seek to restore them and see how they respond.
Note two things here:
James addresses the church (“My brethren”) and is general when he says, “and one turns him back.” He does not say, “One of the elders or pastors turns him back.” This ministry is the responsibility of every Christian who is walking with the Lord. In Galatians 6:1, Paul puts it this way, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” To be “spiritual” means to be spiritually mature, to be walking in the Spirit and developing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 22-23).
This means that, unless you’re a relatively new Christian, if you know of someone who is straying from the truth, you must go to him (or her) to help turn him back to the Lord. (I’ll give specific instructions at the end of this message.) If you feel inadequate to do this, you should inform an elder who can guide you. But to ignore someone who is straying is like a member of the search and rescue team sitting at home watching TV while someone is lost in the woods. It’s not the loving thing to do!
Searching is required because professing believers who fall into sin seldom stay with the flock. We must go after them. If you know of someone who made a profession of faith, but who has dropped out of the church, you need to go looking for him to find out what’s wrong.
Rescue is required because it is seldom that such straying persons find their way back on their own, without someone to guide them. The enemy confuses their sense of direction. Or, they are ashamed at what they’ve done, so they need to be assured of God’s forgiveness if they will repent and confess their sins. They also need instruction on how not to stray again, so that they don’t repeat the process. They need someone who knows God and the way back, to teach them God’s ways to avoid and resist sin.
The work of search and rescue is difficult and sometimes disheartening. It doesn’t always turn out the way you would hope. But when you do find a straying sinner and get him back from the path of destruction, it brings great joy. James mentions three aims:
The sinner has strayed from the truth, and so our aim is to restore him to the truth. James’ words imply what many in our culture deny, that there is such a thing as absolute spiritual truth. When a person strays from it, you can know it. The truth is not a subjective feeling, but an objective reality. James is referring especially to the truth of the gospel. He uses the word “truth” that way in 1:18: “In the exercise of His will, He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.” He uses truth one other time, in 3:14: “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.” This shows that for James, truth is not just doctrinal knowledge, but also godly living.
Our postmodern culture rejects the idea of absolute truth, especially in the spiritual realm. What is true for you is fine for you, but it’s not true for me unless I happen to like it. It would be judgmental and arrogant for me to say that you’re wrong and I’m right. Rather, you can be right and I can be right, even though we hold to opposite beliefs, because spiritual truth is redefined as subjective experience or preference, not as objective reality.
But the Bible asserts that there is absolute spiritual truth that saves the soul, and absolute error that damns. Paul told the Galatians that if they believed in a different gospel than the one that he had preached to them, they were damned (Gal. 1:6-9; see also 2 Cor. 11:3-4). In 2 Thessalonians 2:10, Paul mentions “those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.” So the truth is not a subjective opinion or preference. It is something objective that must be believed if you are to be saved! The essential truth is the gospel, that we are saved solely by God’s grace through faith in Christ, apart from our good works, but that genuine saving faith results in good works (Eph. 2:8-10).
As I said, some think that this refers to a believer whose sin leads to physical death. It is true that God may take the life of a sinning believer (1 Cor. 11:30; 1 John 5:16). But that is not the meaning here, in that God does not take the physical life of every sinning believer. James is talking about saving a soul from spiritual death. The only other time James uses “death” (1:15), he says, “when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” The natural course of unchecked sin ends in spiritual separation from God. Elsewhere, James uses the word “save” three times (1:21; 2:14; 4:12) to refer to spiritual salvation. Only once (5:15) does it refer to physical healing.
So if a person who claims to know Christ turns toward sin and continues on that path, he may not be a true believer. In the terms of 1 John 3, he is revealing by his practice that he is not born of God. If God uses you to help him repent and turn back to the Lord, then you have saved his soul from a path that would have led to spiritual death—eternal separation from God in the lake of fire. To rescue someone from a burning building is a great thing. To rescue someone from eternal burning is far greater!
This alludes to Proverbs 10:12, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions.” Peter also cites that verse, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Both of those texts refer to not broadcasting the sins of others and to forgiving one another.
But James seems primarily to be pointing in the direction of Psalm 32:1, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” When a sinner turns to the Lord, He forgives all of his sins. If a professing believer persists in sin, he should not be assured that he is eternally secure. The Bible never gives that comfort to an unrepentant person. The warning passages in Hebrews are designed to make such persons examine whether their profession of faith is genuine or not.
James may intend a secondary sense, namely, that by leading a sinner to repentance, you help cover his past or potential future sins from public view. James also implies that when you help restore a sinner to God, you must be careful not to reveal his sins any farther than is necessary for restoration. Your aim is to restore the sinner before God and man.
You’re on God’s search and rescue team. Here are your specific instructions:
(1) Who should go? If you have knowledge of the sin and you have a relationship with the person, you’re it! Truth is most often received through loving relationships.
(2) Get the facts. Do not go on hearsay or gossip. If someone tells you of someone else in sin, you should ask, “Have you personally checked out the facts?” Then, direct the one telling you not to talk to anyone else, but to go to the sinning person. If you are the one to go, don’t begin with accusations. First, ask questions to determine the truth. Does the issue involve a major doctrine or opinion on a minor issue? Is it a matter of immaturity or spiritual weakness, where you need to help him grow, or of defiantly walking away from God (1 Thess. 5:14)?
(3) Check your own heart. There is no room for being judgmental. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Your motive should be to restore the straying one, not to put him in his place or to prove that you’re right and he’s wrong. Make sure that you are under the control of the Holy Spirit and displaying the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 22-23; 6:1). The word “restore” (Gal. 6:1) was used of mending torn nets and of setting broken bones so that they would heal. Think of how gently you would want a doctor to do that with you, and be that gentle in dealing with a person caught in some sin.
(4) Pray. Do not attempt to restore a straying person before you pray for him (James 5:16-18). Prayer puts you in the right place before God, dependent on His grace. Only then are you able to minister to the straying. You can’t properly talk to men about God until you’ve talked to God about men. Especially, pray for the right time and opening.
(5) Make sure that love for God and love for your brother are your motives for going. You should desire to please God and you should show genuine concern for your erring brother. Generally, if a man is in sin, another man should go to him. If a woman is in sin, another woman should go. It is not wise for a man to go alone to a woman (other than his wife or a family member), or for a woman to go alone to talk to a man.
(6) Go directly to the person. Do not go behind his back and try to campaign for your point of view or to try to convince others to do what God is calling you to do. Go alone at first. If he listens, you’ve won your brother. If he refuses to listen, take two or three others. Eventually, it may need to be told to the church (Matt. 18:15-17).
(7) Think through in advance the proper approach and wording. Study how Nathan confronted David for starters (2 Sam. 12:1-14). Dr. Howard Hendricks tells of how the wife of a workaholic pastor, who was neglecting his family, asked him to speak with her husband. Hendricks waited until they were alone and casually asked, “Do you smoke?” The pastor was shocked by the question and replied, “Of course not!” Hendricks persisted, “Why not?” He got what he expected: “Because my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Then Hendricks sprang the trap: “Then why are you abusing the temple and neglecting your family by overworking?” Pow! Be prepared for the one in sin to accuse you of some shortcoming, and do not get into a verbal war. Just stick to the issue.
If you’re sitting in your easy chair by the fire and you know of a brother or sister who is lost in the storm, God asks you to inconvenience yourself. Get up, put on your coat, and go out into the storm to try to rescue your brother. It may not be fun, but it is an expression of genuine love and faith in action. That’s what James is all about!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.