James 4

Overcoming Evil in Various Forms
James 4
James 4. As in the previous chapters, James now draws on another thread that he touched on in chapter 1. The temptations to sin that we face are really a result of being drawn away by our own lusts. Particularly it centers around the exhortation to be “slow to wrath”, although it enters into the subject of sin generally, which all believers struggle with. The working of evil was evident among these professing Jews because of the strife and competition between them. He goes over various forms of evil, the sources of evil, and the remedy; i.e. repentance. For believers to carry on in sin is an awful thing. James seeks to bring the sin before the conscience of his brethren, and press the issue of their need for self-judgment. he brings a number of very practical exhortations before the believers that we should follow to overcome or be preserved from sin. At the end of the chapter, James takes up two specific kinds of sin that contributed to the strife between brethren.

The Root and Remedy for Sin (4:1-10)

The Flesh, the World, the Devil. The Christian’s three enemies are mentioned here: the flesh (vv.1-3) which is an internal enemy, the world (vv.4-6) which is an external enemy, and the devil (v.7) which is an infernal enemy!1

The Flesh and Its Results (vv.1-3)

1 Whence come wars and whence fightings among you? Is it not thence, — from your pleasures, which war in your members? v.1 The Internal Source of Sin. James begins by asking the question, what is the root of the sin that is evident among you? Specifically, he speaks of strife between brethren; wars and fighting. A war as a continuous, drawn out conflict. Fighting is short term conflict. The root of contention in any of its forms is really the flesh; the desires of the fallen human nature that we inherit from Adam. These desires, or “pleasures” are at work in our bodies, pictured as a “war among your members”. The flesh is viewed as a hostile force or energy waging war from within us! It is a very solemn thing when we realize that sin actually comes from within us. The root of our not getting along with others is really our desire to please ourselves. What a contrast this is to the perfect law of liberty! Ultimately, if we were selfless and seeking the pleasure of others, there would be no reason for strife.
Ye lust and have not: ye kill and are full of envy, and cannot obtain; ye fight and war; ye have not because ye ask not. 3 Ye ask and receive not, because ye ask evilly, that ye may consume it in your pleasures.
vv.2-3 How the Flesh Works. What we have in these verses is the various streams and rivers of sin that emanate from a single source, called lust. The desire to have what God has not given us; to pleasure ourselves (2 Tim. 3:4). This most basic form of sin is the root of all other kinds of evil. On the most fundamental level, this is what the flesh does; “the flesh lusts” (Gal. 5:17; see Rom. 7:7). But for all the lusts of the flesh, the flesh is never satisfied. The outcome of lust is emptiness and dissatisfaction. The desire itself does not satisfy (“ye lust”), and neither does the extreme violence to take from others; “ye kill and are full of envy… ye fight and war”. To feel our needs or natural desires is not wrong, but to pursue them in independence of God is the essence of sin; “ye have not because ye ask not”. We need dependence, and that is expressed by asking God in prayer (v.2). However, even asking God from the standpoint of lust is wrong because it is prayer with a wrong motive (v.3). Why do we ask for things? Is it for selfish motives, “that ye may consume it in your pleasures”? For example, I can pray for a new home in order to better serve the Lord’s people through hospitality, or I can pray for a new home in order to show off to others and enjoy it for myself. What is the real reason I want such and such a thing? These are searching questions that come before the believer when they pray, and should, if the attitude is right, produce self-judgment in the very act of asking God.

The World and Separation From It (vv.4-6)

4 Adulteresses, know ye not that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore is minded to be the friend of the world is constituted enemy of God. v.4 Adulteresses and Enemies. We now come to the broader system that is associated with lust; i.e. the world. The world in the sense employed here is the system set up by men, energized by Satan, in which men may live in independence of God. Read more… The best manuscripts do not add the words “adulterers and…”. Those were added by copyists intending to show that the word “adulteresses” applies to men and women, which it certainly does. However, this has caused many to think that James is speaking of literal adultery, whereas he really means spiritual adultery. As believers we have an obligation to moral fidelity to God, compared to a marriage bond. The believer is always put in the subject place; e.g. espoused as a chaste virgin (2 Cor. 11:2). If our lusts carry our hearts out to the things of this world, we are committing the sin of spiritual adultery, because the world and God are mutually exclusive, and this something that the believer ought to know; “know ye not that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” You cannot be the friend of God and the friend of the world. If you try to do both, you are no better than an adulteress and an “enemy of God”. God is a jealous God (Ex. 34:14), and He will not tolerate our affections being shared with the wicked world that crucified His Son! 
5 Think ye that the scripture speaks in vain? Does the Spirit which has taken his abode in us desire enviously? v.5 The Scriptures and the Spirit. He goes on to reason that since the scripture forbids the lusts of the flesh God must be serious about it! Not only that, but He has given us His Spirit to live inside us, and surely there is no envy or lust in that Divine Guest! Those things are offensive to the Spirit.
6 But he gives more grace. Wherefore he says, “God sets himself against the proud, but gives grace to the lowly.” [Prov. 3:34] v.6 The Government and Grace of God. Finally, God makes His mind known for the believer’s practical separation from the world by resisting the proud (characteristic of the world), and giving grace to the humble. Humility is to think little of ones own importance, not seeking a place or position for self. Humility is the inevitable result of grace received in the heart.2 Whatever the temptation is that the world puts before us, He gives more grace. The grace of God is sufficient to meet every circumstance. James quotes from Proverbs 3:34, the same verse that Peter quotes in 1 Peter 5:5. This really brings in the government of God in the life of the believer. If I go on proudly in friendship with the world, God sets Himself against me. But if I go on in humility and in separation from the world, God will give me more grace.
Reasons to Separate From the World. Five reasons why we should be separate from the world:
  1. Worldliness is spiritual adultery (v.4a).
  2. Worldliness makes us enemies of God (v.4b).
  3. Worldliness is prohibited by the Word of God (v.5a).
  4. Worldliness offends the indwelling Spirit of God (v.5b).
  5. Worldliness brings us under the government of God (v.6).

The Remedy For Sin: Six Exhortations (vv.8-10)

The Aorist Tense. In the following section we have a number of exhortations containing verbs that are all found in what is called the aorist tense. The aorist tense means it is an action taken in the past, and does not anticipate repetition. For example, “Put on the whole armor of God” is in the aorist tense, meaning once we put it on, we are never to take it off. The same follows for these exhortations; “submit”, “resist”, “draw”, “cleanse”, “be afflicted”, “mourn”, “weep”, “humble yourselves” are all once-for-all actions.3 These are things a person does when they are converted, when they come to faith in Christ. Yet we can certainly see the need for repeated exercise of these actions in our lives, and the application to that is warranted.
7a Subject yourselves therefore to God. v.7a Subjection to God. The first step in overcoming sin in the believer’s life is subjection to God. Ultimately sin is independence or insubjection. The way we are able to overcome the desire or temptation to act independently of God is to be subject to Him. This is also the secret of the Christian’s strength. We are no match for the Devil (v.7b) in ourselves, but in subjection to the infinite and omnipotent God of the universe we can be victorious.
7b Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. v.7b Resisting the Devil. We now are introduced to the third enemy of the believer. Previously James talked about the flesh and the world, but here he speaks of the Devil, the great enemy of God. The Devil is called the Serpent, Satan, and the Dragon. He was defeated by the Lord Jesus in His death and resurrection (Heb. 2:14), yet the Devil is permitted to still act in order to accomplish the will of God. The believer must still contend with Satan today. Satan finds something “in us” on which he can act, unlike the blessed Lord (John 14:30). The flesh is within us, and therefore we are not immune to his attacks. Peter tells us to “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). But though we need to be sober and watchful, we do not need to be afraid. James tells us to “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you”. Satan meets Christ in the believer, and he flees from Christ, because Christ has already defeated him! How do we resist? By not giving in to the Devil’s temptations. By making no compromises with the Devil, or with his allies, the flesh and the world. This is why we have the armor of God (Eph. 6), to “stand”. We are told to “flee youthful lusts” and “flee fornication”. But we do not need to flee the Devil. If we resist him, it is he who must flee from us! However we should not take from this that we can be careless about our walk. We must remember that the Devil is stronger than we are, apart from Christ, and that putting ourselves in a compromising situation can lead to serious defeat. We do not resist in pride or self-confidence, but in faith and dependence.
8a Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. v.8a Nearness to God. The next great key to overcoming sin is nearness to God. When we draw near to God, He will then draw near to us, and the result will be communion. But walking in communion with Him, we will be preserved from spiritual harm (Psa. 91:1). When the the flesh urges us to sin, or the world allures us, or the Devil shoots his fiery darts of doubt, we will not be drawn away because we are in the enjoyment of Divine comfort and affection.
8b Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, ye double-minded. v.8b Sanctification. We can see by the language used in this verse that unbelievers are included in the scope; “sinners” and “double-minded”. The call is the unbeliever is to forsake his sin, and come to faith in Christ. But there is an application of this to believers, as with other instances in the epistle. A great key to being preserved in the pathway is practical sanctification; moral cleansing, or purification. To cleanse our hands isn’t literal cleaning the hands, but as a figure of speech meaning outward holiness in our life; i.e. abstaining from moral sin, like drunkenness and fornication, and association with the world. We do this once for all when we believe the gospel, but there is an ongoing application to us, not as “sinners”, but as saints who need continual practical sanctification. But it goes deeper than clean hands; “and purify your hearts, ye double-minded”. We can temporarily clean up our act, but God wants a deeper work in our hearts. He wants us to search our motives, and judge anything that is not according to Himself, and focus our affections on Himself and heavenly things. This will result in a lasting purity, because the heart is right with God.
9 Be wretched, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. v.9 Repentance. It is a common misconception that repentance is only a one-time action. It does begin in a moment, but then it continues. Repentance has to do with taking God’s side against ourselves because of our sin. Repentance is something that needs to come in every time we sin, and it is a process that continues for our whole life; “there shall be joy in heaven for one repenting sinner” (Luke 15:7). Repentance involves deep sorrow, and James describes the effect of repentance in the soul; wretchedness, weeping, mourning, and heaviness. Sorrow alone is not repentance; it must be sorrow “after a godly sort” (2 Cor. 7:9-10). Repentance is a moral change, not an intellectual change. It involves taking sin seriously, and getting into the presence of the Lord. Our lighthearted laughter in a moment of sinful pleasure is changed to weeping when that sin is brought before our conscience, and we realize what our sin has cost the Lord Jesus.
10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he shall exalt you. v.10 Humility. Finally, James gives an exhortation to humility. We are not to be seeking our own glory. Instead, we are to humble ourselves before the Lord, taking the low place. The proverb says “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Being puffed up with pride will lead to failure in our pathway, but having a humble attitude will preserve us from the attacks of our three enemies. If we do this, God will surely lift us up; not with self-esteem, nor as great men before the world, but as objects of His love and grace, conscious in our measure of how richly we’ve been blessed!
vv.11-16 Two Kinds of Sin. Having addressed “wars and fighting” between brethren at the beginning of the chapter, and then the root and remedy of sin, James returns to two other kinds of sin that contributed to the strife that they were experiencing. The first is criticizing and judging (vv.11-12), and the second is boastfulness (vv.13-17). James gives these two stern rebukes, then in ch.5 turns to how the saints should handle injustices; i.e. being sinned against.

The Sin of Criticizing and Judging (4:11-12)

11 Speak not against one another, brethren. He that speaks against his brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law. But if thou judgest the law, thou art not doer of the law, but judge. 12 One is the lawgiver and judge, who is able to save and to destroy: but who art “thou” who judgest thy neighbour? vv.11-12 Criticizing and Judging. James now addresses the problem of criticizing one another; “Speak not against one another, brethren”. This refers to saying anything that may hurt or injure another. It would include spreading lies about someone, or even saying what is true about them. It could be as simple as putting down others with our words, accusing them of something to others, annunciating their faults, or implying bad motives to their actions. Notice that James adds that little word “brethren”, implying an obligation to care for one another. We find that the root of speaking against our brother is judging: the habit or tendency to impute evil motives in that which we do not know and which does not meet the eye. Judging usually involves holding others to a higher standard than ourselves; i.e. hypocrisy. James shows that he that judges his brother actually sets himself up as a judge of the law. This is because the law is fulfilled by love, and judging our brother is antithetical to love. There is only One “lawgiver and judge, who is able to save and to destroy” (v.12). That is the Lord Himself. Who are we to measure our neighbor against a standard, when our motive in doing so violates God’s standard?4 When we judge others unrighteously we really are putting ourselves over the law, in the place of the Law-giver. Notice that James isn’t putting the saints under law, rather he is speaking to those under law by birth and showing them how contrary to the spirit of the law their critical attitude was.
Judging. There are things that we are to judge, and there are also things we are not to judge. The well known “Judge not” of Matthew 7:1, which is frequently misused and often bandied about as an excuse a sinful life, applies to judging what is concealed (1 Sam. 2:3). We have clear instructions to judge what is revealed. We are to judge doctrine (1 Cor. 10:15), open sin (1 Cor. 5:12), disputes among brethren (1 Cor. 6:2), and public ministry (1 Cor. 14:29). All these things are open. What do we not judge? We are not to judge the technicalities of a person’s actions merely by the appearance (John 7:24), someone’s personal convictions (Rom. 14:3), or someone’s service for the Lord (1 Cor. 4:3).

The Sin of Independence or Boastfulness (4:13-16) 

13 Go to now, ye who say, To-day or to-morrow will we go into such a city and spend a year there, and traffic and make gain, 14 ye who do not know what will be on the morrow, (for what is your life? It is even a vapour, appearing for a little while, and then disappearing,) 15 instead of your saying, If the Lord should so will and we should live, we will also do this or that. 16 But now ye glory in your vauntings: all such glorying is evil. vv.13-16 Independence and Boasting. James next addresses another kind of sin; i.e. boasting. It is wonderful to see how the reality of faith enters into the very practical matters of everyday life, including our business activities! The believer is to have an attitude of dependence, waiting on the Lord to provide direction. A dependent man acknowledges that the Lord’s will is what matters, not his own plans. Boasting about what we are going to do today or tomorrow betrays an independent attitude. When a person talks like we have in v.13, it shows they have left God out of their life (Luke 12:18). Some people allow God in their thoughts only in certain areas of life, like going to church, but then in business they adopt a totally independent mindset! Sin, really, is independence of God. Boasting is a manifestation of an insubject will. The truth is that we don’t know what will happen today or tomorrow. We don’t even know if we will wake up tomorrow morning. In a parenthesis, James remarks on the brevity of life, how it is like a vapor that is there for just a little while and then disappears. How foolish for mortal man, who doesn’t even know whether he will draw his next breath, to boast about what he will do a year from now! It isn’t that we are never to make plans, but that we should say, “If the Lord should so will and we should live, we will also do this or that”. The common expression among believers of “if the Lord will” or “Lord willing, etc.” is a scriptural expression (1 Cor. 4:19; 16:7). The Jews that James was addressing were in the habit of boasting or bragging, and they actually celebrated their own boastfulness; “ye glory in your vauntings”. The rebuke is for the sin of boasting, but also for not recognizing how wrong that attitude is, and actually glorying in it. This is really what “the world” is characterized by; the celebration of human independence from God. The humility set before us in the pattern of Christ Jesus is a total contrast to the pride of the first man, and that humility is what we should imitate (Phil. 2:5-9).

A General Conclusion (4:17)

17 To him therefore who knows how to do good, and does it not, to him it is sin. v.17 Knowledge and Responsibility. The last verse seems to be a strong follow up to the preceding exhortation. Once the issue of boasting had been brought before these ones, they knew was good. But v.17 also serves as a general conclusion to the whole epistle up to this point.5To know something pleasing to the Lord and to not do it is sin. Sin is not just doing bad things; it is also not doing the good when you know it. Sin has to do with a will that is inclined to do evil, but also to refuse the good. This is the sad condition of the fallen human nature. It says “to him it is sin”, showing that responsibility is a very personal issue. This brings out a general principle, that the more knowledge or light a person has, the more responsible they are. Consistent with the message in James, knowledge without practice only incriminates us. Faith must be carried out in practice!
  1. Anstey, Bruce. The Epistle of James.
  2. There is no humility so deep and real as that which the knowledge of grace produces. – A. Miller
  3. The verbs are all in what is called the aorist, and therefore imply that God calls for each and all of these calls to be done once for all as a settled thing for the soul. This grace alone could effect. – Kelly, W. The Epistle of James.
  4. For the law, on the part of God, presents our brother to us as an object of love and affection, not to be persecuted, ill-treated, and disparaged in the eyes of others. By so doing, we forget the place in which the law has set our brother, and our duty according to the law, and our position as brethren. If we set ourselves as judges and law-givers over the law, we transgress it, we do not obey it, nor follow its precepts; but we assume to be above it. – Darby, J.N. Brief Exposition of the Epistle of James.
  5. Verse 17 is a general conclusion, founded on the principle already suggested (James 3:1), and on that which is said with regard to faith. – Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.