Dealing with Sin and Its Consequences
James 5. In the final chapter of James we have several things that pertain to dealing with sin and its consequences. The chapter can really be divided in two halves. First, there is the issue of injustices that the saints experience – sins against believers – and how that is to be handled. Then, there is the issue of governmental chastening, especially sickness – as a consequence of sin in the lives of believers – and how that sin can be dealt with through confession and prayer, and how the Lord may lift the governmental consequences of that sin.1
Handling Injustices: Sins Against Believers (5:1-12)
Rich and Poor. It is wonderful to see that God’s heart is toward the poor; “to the poor the gospel is preached” (Luke 7:22). Christ became poor (2 Cor. 8:9). God blesses those who care for the poor (Psalm 41:1). Riches are not evil in themselves, but the desire to be rich is condemned (1 Tim. 6:9). Riches tend make a person prone to be selfish, to stand aloof from the poor, and to treat them unfairly. The rich, unless grace has worked in their hearts, tend to go to great lengths to preserve their riches, including killing the just, impoverishing the poor, inciting violence, etc.
The Sins of the Rich Unbelieving Jews (vv.1-6)
1 Go to now, ye rich, weep, howling over your miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your wealth is become rotten, and your garments moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver is eaten away, and their canker shall be for a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as fire. Ye have heaped up treasure in the last days. vv.1-3 Judgment Warned on the Greedy Rich. It is very helpful to understand that James writes to “the twelve tribes“, or to Jewish people generally who had made a profession of faith in Christ. Peter writes to the elect, but James addresses those who had faith as well as unbelievers. One of the challenges that the true saints among the Jews were facing was mistreatment by the political and social elite. There were even some among those who had professed Christ who belonged to that upper social class, and whose true character was exposed by how they treated the poor. The true saints are called “brethren” in v.7. James opens the chapter with a prophetic warning of impending judgment on the rich unbelieving Jews. The rich were celebrating their status, but if they knew what was coming on them, they would howl and weep. James tells them to start weeping now, but says nothing about an opportunity for repentance. Very solemn! Poetically, their ill-gotten wealth was now rotten, their garments were moth-eaten, their silver and gold had corroded into a poisonous acid that was eating their flesh. They had made gain their object, piling up treasure “in the last days”, not because they were using the money, but because of sheer greed (Matt. 6:19). James says they were doing this in “the last days”, an expression which refers to the time that just preceded the appearing of Christ to judge the earth (vv.7-8), which is still future. Read more… There was a precursor to this future judgment, when the rich were cut down, that took place in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., but this prophetic warning really looks on to the day of the Lord. The rich should have known that piling wealth was meaningless in view of the time. We too are living in the last days.
4 Behold, the wages of your labourers, who have harvested your fields, wrongfully kept back by you, cry, and the cries of those that have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. v.4 Injustices Heard by the Lord of Sabaoth. The abusive, rich Jews are indicted on three specific counts, in addition to the general greed addressed in vv.1-3. First, the rich were cheating the laborers of their wages to the point of poverty and starvation (v.4). Poetically, the wages themselves are viewed as crying out to the Lord because they were “wrongfully kept back”. The defrauded reapers too were crying out to the Lord, and His ear was open to their cries. No doubt many of the true brethren were among these reapers that labored in the fields of the rich. Notice that the title “the Lord of Sabaoth” or the Lord of Hosts is used. That expansion of the name Jehovah is found 249 times in scripture, mostly in the prophets and usually when Israel was oppressed by cruel enemies such as the Philistines (1 Sam. 17:45). The first mention is in 1 Sam. 1:3 in connection with Hannah. That name invokes the Lord as the Captain of the hosts of heaven, with all power at His disposal to deliver His people and crush their enemies.
5 Ye have lived luxuriously on the earth and indulged yourselves; ye have nourished your hearts as in a day of slaughter; v.5 Living Luxuriously and Indulgently. Next, the rich are condemned for living luxuriously and indulgently on the earth. Notice that it says “on the earth”. Their thoughts are here below. Heaven does not factor into their plans. The expression “as in a day of slaughter” is an allusion to the lusty rampage of a victorious army through an enemy camp or city. It implies grabbing as much as I can for myself, as fast as I can, without any concern or self-restraint.
6 ye have condemned, ye have killed the just; he does not resist you. v.6 Killing the Just One. Finally, the rich are indicted for killing the Just One. The words “ye have killed the just” is strikingly similar to the accusation of Stephen in Acts 7:52; “the Just One… of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers”. In fact, the word “just” is in the singular in Greek, which has led some to translate it “the Just One”.2 These rich Jews really belonged to the same generation (morally speaking, if not literally) as those who killed the Lord Jesus. No doubt the persecution and slaying of the faithful remnant is included with “the just” (John 15:20). The last clause, “he does not resist you”, refers to how the Lord Jesus did not defend Himself or retaliate when He was persecuted and put to death. “Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). Immediately following this is the fact of the Lord’s coming to set things right (vv.7-9). He did not resist the violent hands against Him at His first coming, and even now He waits at God’s right hand until His enemies are made His footstool, but when that unknown day comes He will certainly “resist” and far more at His second coming (2 Thess. 1:8)! But for now, God does not intervene publicly in this world. If He did, it must be in judgment. For now He allows evil to progress, and instead works by grace in spite of the evil! This principle should inform our relationship as Christians with politics. We are companions in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:9).
The Reaction of the Faithful to these Injustices: Patience (vv.7-12)
7 Have patience, therefore, brethren, till the coming of the Lord. Behold, the labourer awaits the precious fruit of the earth, having patience for it until it receive the early and the latter rain. 8 “Ye” also have patience: stablish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is drawn nigh. vv.7-8 Patience for the Lord’s Coming. The first and greatest thing we must remember when dealing with injustices against us by unbelievers is that the Lord is coming soon. The hope of the Lord’s coming has a very great moral effect on the conduct of believers. There are two aspects of the Lord’s coming, first for His saints (the rapture) and the second with His saints (the appearing), but sometimes it is all viewed as together as one second coming. That is what is put before the true saints, the “brethren” as James calls them: the return of Christ. However, we can see that what is especially in view here is the appearing of Christ to judge evil, and also to set things right. This shows that the Lord’s coming was a present hope for these first century Christians. The great point here is that we deal with injustices, not by retaliating against enemies, but by patiently waiting for the Lord to come. The example James gives is of a laborer on a farm, who sows a crop and then patiently waits for “the precious fruit of the earth”. He cannot rush the process. The timetable is God’s, who gives “the early and the latter rain”. Likewise, we must “also have patience”, not taking matters of injustice against us into our own hands, but settling our hearts on the imminent hope of the coming of the Lord. If the coming of the Lord had “drawn nigh” when James wrote, how much nearer is it to us today? The sufferings of this “little while” will be richly rewarded in glory when the Lord appears (Rom. 8:17; 2 Tim. 2:12). Clearly the “laborer” is a parallel to the believer, but perhaps there is an application to the Lord Himself, the Sower of the Word, who patiently waits to receive the precious fruit of His own labors.
9 Complain not one against another, brethren, that ye be not judged. Behold, the judge stands before the door. v.9 Guard Against Complaining. One danger for us while waiting for the Lord to come is complaining against our brethren. The pressures of injustices that we experience, the trials of wilderness pathway, coupled with the flesh in us and in our brethren, can lead to difficulties between us. We need to forgive our brethren’s faults, and be gracious to them in our thoughts and actions. To be critical and complaining of our brethren is not treating them as Christ would. The warning is similar to Matthew 7:1-2; “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” The result of wrongly criticizing others is that we incur God’s governmental judgment in our lives. We must deal with others – even those who have offended us – in love, for that is the basis of our relationship with God. The result of being overly critical it that God will judge us. This is part of His government in our lives, similar to governmental forgiveness. Read more… James adds, “Behold, the judge stands before the door.” Of course, the Judge is the Lord Jesus, who is about to come for us, and then we must appear before the judgment seat of Christ. There is the government of God in our lives today, and then there is the review that will take place when our race on earth us done. The Judge will set everything right: all misunderstandings, all differences, etc. will be made right at the judgment seat. Why should we pass judgment on our brethren when the Judge Himself is standing at the door? Again, the hope of the Lord’s coming has a practical effect on our conduct.
10 Take as an example, brethren, of suffering and having patience, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we call them blessed who have endured. Ye have heard of the endurance of Job, and seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is full of tender compassion and pitiful. vv.10-11 Remember Examples of Patience. Something that can help us to have patience while enduring injustices is the example of Old Testament saints who likewise suffered in patience. James refers to “the prophets”, which would include especially those who were raised up by God to speak in His Name when His people were in a bad state. These prophets often suffered at the hands of those who professed the Name of the Lord; e.g. Micaiah, Isaiah and Jeremiah. This is similar to the saints that James was addressing who faced cruel treatment from the rich professing Jews. When we look back on the lives of those dear Old Testament saints, we see how their path was vindicated by God, no matter how the world viewed them; “we call them blessed who have endured”. We know their happy portion now, and at the resurrection to come. One famous example that James gives us is Job; “Ye have heard of the endurance of Job”. Think of all Job endured – the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain – at the hand of the Devil, then from his friends, and even from his wife! An entire book of the Bible is dedicated to the story of Job and his amazing endurance. If you only saw the beginning of his trial, you would not really see the Lord’s heart. But we have “seen the end of the Lord”, and we can see that the Lord did not allow Job to suffer in vain. It is “the end of the Lord” that shows us why He allowed the suffering. At the end of the book, Job knows the Lord in a far deeper way than at the beginning! The Lord is not cruel and hatful, but “full of tender compassion and pitiful”. We see this in that the Lord did not allow the trial to go on for one moment longer than was absolutely necessary for Job’s blessing.
12 But before all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath; but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay, that ye do not fall under judgment. v.12 Oaths Prohibited: Don’t Resort to the Flesh. A final warning is given by James for believers when they are faced with injustices. The danger is to react in the flesh, especially by swearing or using oaths. This is very important, because reacting in the flesh completely spoils our testimony as believers; “But before all things, my brethren, swear not”. From Matthew 5:33-37 we can see that Jews especially had a habit of swearing, although the Gentile world was characterized by it too. When a man’s word is questioned by his fellow-man, he has a habit of using oaths; such as we hear today, “I swear to God.” This practice is predicated on the fact that a man’s ordinary word cannot be trusted. The New Testament expressly forbids common oaths. Some have taken these verses to mean that we should never take an oath administered by a magistrate such as “swearing on a bible” for court testimony. These verses do not absolve our obligation to take a judicial oath. The matter in context relates to communication man-to-man. Swearing “by heaven” or invoking the throne of God (the greatest authority) isn’t going to make your word any better than it is. It can only bring down the government of God on you when you renege on your vow (c.p. Heb. 5:15-16). Swearing “by earth”, even though the earth is less stable and solid than heaven, it is still far more consistent than your word! See also Matt. 23:16; 18 where the Pharisees swore by the temple and the altar. We are to “let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay”. A man’s word should be unequivocal and binding (“Yea, yea; Nay, nay”), such that taking strong oaths, by this or that, is not needed. The man who backs nearly every statement with an oath is a man whose word cannot be trusted. James says, “before all things”, because it is very important that we learn not to resort to the flesh when irritated.3
Chastening and Restoration: Sins of Believers (5:13-20)
13 Does any one among you suffer evil [‘trouble’]? let him pray. Is any happy? let him sing psalms. v.13 Turning to God In All Circumstances. This verse is a transition, and connects with both the preceding and succeeding subjects. The first thing James takes up before getting to chastening is how the believer can turn to God in all circumstances. This is in contrast to resorting to the flesh with oaths (v.12). Whenever we face trouble, whether it be chastening, persecution, or other difficulty, we should pray. It is the proper and automatic response of faith to pray when trials arise. What about in joyful circumstances? He is the God of the valleys, but also the God of the mountains too (1 Kings 20:28). If we are happy, our happiness is to the Lord; “let him sing psalms”. Singing is a practice that keeps God in our minds, and therefore helps us remain in communion,4 The “psalms” here do not refer the book of Psalms specifically, although these Jewish believers may have sang them too, but rather to psalms of praise that Christian’s would sing generally. Psalms are songs of praise and that have to do with the Christian experience, and remind us of the Lord’s goodness and care for us along the pathway.
Singing in the New Testament. From Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 it is evident that early Christians sang psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. From 1 Corinthians 14 it is evident that these were sung regularly in the assembly meetings, as well as in private (James 5:13). Singing has a way of reaching the soul in a deeper way than mere words. We can edify ourselves and others by the truths contained in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. You can learn songs even without knowing how to read. Perhaps for the majority of church history, singing was the greatest method for communicating truth. These psalms, etc. are quite distinct from the inspired poetry in the Old Testament, written by David, Asaph, and others for the Jewish people. We have no indication that Old Testament inspired psalms were sung in the assembly of God. Nor do we have an indication that there is such a thing as inspired New Testament hymns, etc. Perhaps the closest thing is the likely short "spiritual song" in 1 Cor. 15:3-4. That may have been a song common to early Christians, but recorded by inspiration in Paul's epistle. As a side note, there is no mention of musical accompaniment with New Testament singing. While musical accompaniment can be helpful - and not wrong if kept in its proper sphere - it forms no part of Christian worship which is "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23-24). The use of musical instruments as a part of worship is something the Church has borrowed from "the camp" of Judaism (Heb. 13:13). Instead, as Christians we are called to sing "with your heart to the Lord". Collective singing is a wonderful thing, because it brings all the hearts of the saints together in unison.
- Psalms are about the wilderness experience (e.g. "What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, "Though dark be our way", "Though in a foreign land").
- Hymns are addressed to a divine person (e.g. "Father, Thy name our souls would bless", "Thou Art the Everlasting Word", "O Lord, We Adore Thee").
- Spiritual songs are songs about the truth of God (e.g. "Amazing Grace", "On Christ salvation rests secure", "The Lord Himself shall come").
14 Is any sick among you? let him call to him the elders of the assembly, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer of faith shall heal the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he be one who has committed sins, it shall be forgiven him. vv.14-15 Sickness and Prayer of the Elders. Now we come to a circumstance that is positive chastening, although not necessarily punitive. When the Lord allows a believer to fall sick, there is always a purpose behind the circumstance for our blessing. It is part of the chastening or discipline of the Lord, but is may not always be punitive, as a consequence of sin. It may be allowed of the Lord to hinder us from sinning, sometimes called preventative chastening. The believer who is ill should ask for prayer, and expect to be healed as a result! The sick person could call for “the elders of the assembly”, for there were such men officially appointed in that day, and the elders would “pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord”. Not the oil, which was only a sign of God’s blessing (Hos. 2:22; Rom. 11:17), but “the prayer of faith shall heal the sick”. There were ones that had the gift of healing (1 Cor. 12:9), and those with special power as apostles (Mark 6:13), but here it is the faith of those in responsibility in the assembly that would, by the Lord’s power and according to His will, raise up the sick person. Notice that the sick person is to take the initiative. Earlier in James (Jam. 2:2) he referred to the synagogue which these Jewish brethren still attended in the early days, but now it is “the assembly” where they met separately. Believers today can still carry forward with this practice, even though we do not have ordained elders. There are those in a place of responsibility in the assemblies today, and we still have the resource of “the prayer of faith”. Notice that there was a possibility that the sickness was a result of sin allowed in the believer’s life, or that sin had coming in which had hindered his healing; “and if he be one who has committed sins, it shall be forgiven him”. It isn’t exactly a miracle, because those were done for signs to unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22). Rather it was God removing the governmental consequence of sin as an answer to prayer. It doesn’t say he should confess his sin to the elders. Confession is first to God, then to one another as brethren. There is nothing in scripture to support “official” confession, which is a dangerous practice leading to a class-priesthood.
Governmental Forgiveness. The forgiveness here spoken of is a governmental forgiveness, which is an aspect of forgiveness that pertains to the government of God (Matthew 6:14-15; Luke 6:37). A believer has the forgiveness of sins in the eternal or judicial sense because the soul has faith in Christ (Eph. 1:7). But there are other aspects of forgiveness. The principle of God’s government is summarized nicely in Gal. 6:7; “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (see also 1 Peter 3:12). Sickness can sometimes be allowed as governmental judgment on the believer for sin. In response to confession and prayer (James 5:14-16), a believer is restored to communion (called restorative forgiveness; 1 John 1:9), and then God may choose to grant governmental forgiveness and therefore the eventual healing of the sick person. In certain cases, a person may never be forgiven in their lifetime, such as when someone refuses to forgive their brother (Matt. 18:35). God will wait as long as it takes. He will be glorified in judgment, even if it means never lifting His mighty hand until we are taken home. Some sins have consequences beyond the reach of governmental forgiveness, even if a person has repented and confessed the sin; “There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it” (1 John 5:16). Yet there is no sin beyond the reach of eternal forgiveness, and we can always enjoy the sunshine of God’s presence if we have confessed our sin and been restored to communion with Him!
16 Confess therefore your offences to one another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed. The fervent supplication of the righteous man has much power. 17 Elias was a man of like passions to us, and he prayed with prayer that it should not rain; and it did not rain upon the earth three years and six months; 18 and again he prayed, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth caused its fruit to spring forth. vv.16-18 Confession and Intercession. James proceeds now to the more general resource of confession and intercessory prayer, and which is especially applicable when there were no elders officially appointed. The “therefore” connects with what he has just said, that God is predisposed to grant forgiveness when confession and prayer is made. Knowing God’s heart towards us encourages us to be open with Him and with our brethren. The saints are to confess their offenses mutually to one another that they might “pray for one another” to the end that they “may be healed”. When it comes to confessing sins, it is because the heart is open to our brethren. We don’t want to hide our sin to preserve a false reputation.5 It isn’t a forced “official confession” of a trembling soul to the elders, but the willing confession to brothers and sisters with whom our hearts are united in a bond of love. We should confess in order to solicit prayers, not merely to spew defiling information. Supplication is an intense request; to supplicate the Lord is to beg Him for something. We are to do this in confidence that God hears prayers and answers them; “the fervent supplication of the righteous man has much power”. Notice that fervency and personal righteousness are two keys to the efficacy of prayer. An example is given that demonstrates the efficacy of prayer. We are encouraged that we do not need to achieve moral perfection in order to pray. Elijah was “a man of like passions to us”, meaning he was a failing believer with ups and downs. Yet twice, Elijah prayed and God altered the forces of nature to answer that prayer (1 Ki. 17-18). It is amazing to see the power that Elijah had with God; no rain or dew for a full three years and six months! It is an example of governmental judgment because of Israel’s sin. Notice that in order to stop the rain Elijah had to “pray prayerfully”, but in order call down the rain again he simply “prayed”. This might show that God is more easily persuaded (if we can use the expression) to bless than to punish. We do not follow the example of praying for judgment on the Lord’s people, but we can follow the example of earnest prayer.
19 My brethren, if any one among you err from the truth, and one bring him back, 20 let him know that he that brings back a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death and shall cover a multitude of sins. vv.19-20 Restoring a Wayward Brother. God’s desire is to see restoration. It is certainly vital that sin be confessed, judged, and forsaken for the Lord’s glory and for our preservation. But it is also important that grace be active in the work of restoration of those who have erred from the truth.6 The wording here is consistent with other parts of James, where it directly is connected with converting a sinner, but also applies to restoring a backslidden believer. Conversion means to have a complete turnaround. A believer may need to be converted, such as Peter after he denied the Lord (Luke 22:32). Paul tells us the same thing in Gal. 6:1; that if one is overtaken in some fault, “ye who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of meekness, considering thyself lest thou also be tempted”. Grace is disposed to restore. Restoration is first to the Lord. In fact, restoration is the Lord’s work (Psa. 23:3; Luke 24:15). Those who are spiritual can be used by God in the restoration process. This can involve bringing the fault before the person, bringing out scripture to them, and praying for them. It is a very difficult work, and it requires patience and love. James gives a tremendous encouragement for those who do the work of restoration: “let him know that he that brings back a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death and shall cover a multitude of sins” (see 1 Peter 4:8). The restorer should know that (1) they have done something for the person7, sparing the “sinner” from the ultimate consequence of that sin, and (2) they have done something for God, covering a multitude of sins that would have otherwise spread out before Him in their nauseous insults to His holy nature.8 Notice that the effect of restoration is to “brings back a sinner from the error of his way”, not make the sinner comfortable in their sin, which is really what many do who operate carelessly under the banner of grace. True grace results in practical holiness (Tit. 2:12).
- The rest of the chapter takes up another subject—the case of God’s discipline. It is governmental. – Kelly, W. The Epistle of James.
- “Ye condemned, ye slew the just one: he doth not resist you.” – W. Kelly Translation.
- Therefore James says, “Above all things.” He would have us, in calmness and quietness, affirm what we have to say with a yes or a no, in the fear of God. It is of all importance, that we should hold in check the movements of nature. – Darby, J.N. Brief Exposition of the Epistle of James.
- Singing is not only due to Him Who gives happiness, but a safety-valve for His feeble ones, who easily at such a time slip from dependence. His praise recalls us to Himself. – Kelly, W. The Epistle of James.
- Not hiding the evil, but opening his heart, he frees his troubled conscience; perhaps also his body. Truth is wrought in the heart; the guilty one does not seek a good reputation – which after all, can only be a false one – but an upright conscience, upright before God. God takes pleasure in setting the conscience at liberty; He also frees the body from the sickness if necessary; then the heart grows happy in the sense of His favour. A pure and upright conscience is a source of joy in God’s presence. – Darby, J.N. Brief Exposition of the Epistle of James.
- One of the saddest results of spiritual weakness among Christians is the rarity of restoration. Discipline even in extreme degree is no less due to our Lord, to our sacrificed Lord (1 Cor. 5:7-8), than requisite in the best interests of the saints. For true love of our brethren is inseparable from loving God and keeping His commandments (1 John 5:1-2). But our God attests often and clearly and strongly His deep concern in the recovery of the straying and fallen; where self-righteousness displays its bitterness and indifference. Zeal for the credit of a sect or party and anxiety to stand well morally are as far as possible from the love we owe to Christ’s body and every member of it. – Kelly, W. The Epistle of James.
- Really, it is God who grants repentance, yet credit is given to the restorer for their little part.
- Charity in the assembly suppresses, so to speak, the sins which otherwise would destroy union and overcome that charity in the assembly, and appear in all their deformity and all their malignancy before God. Whereas, being met by love in the assembly, they go no farther, are, as it were (as regards the state of things before God in this world), dissolved and put away by the charity which they could not vanquish. The sin is vanquished by the love which dealt with it, disappears, is swallowed up by it. Thus love covers a multitude of sins. – Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.