We’ve been away from James for a month, so as we return let me remind you that, being a book of wisdom as James is, it is not as necessary to establish the context of the verses we are about to read as it would be, were we taking up where we left off in some other book of the New Testament. While James may very well have known why he put these statements here in his letter and not earlier or later, it is impossible for us to know that. We simply have a new section of the letter before us, introduced by another of James’ questions. In 3:13 he asked: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Now it is this: “what causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” It is true that the previous verse, the last of our chapter 3, speaks of peace as the result of true wisdom and so it makes sense then to consider the causes of conflict. But the following verses very clearly take on a life of their own with little connection to the previous paragraph. So, most commentators take 4:1 as the beginning of a new section.
v.2 As Paul says of the natural man, the unsaved man, he is a slave to “various lusts and pleasures.” [Titus 3:3] Peter says that such lusts, the passions of the flesh, war against the soul (1 Pet. 2:11). But here the idea is more that these unholy and selfish desires in us war against others. The word translated “passions” in v. 1 is literally “desires.” It is the word from which we get the word “hedonism.” In such a context as this the word refers to sinful, self-indulgent desires. The bottom line is that whatever may have been the issues about which these Christians were quarreling, James doesn’t think they were really the problem. That is why he doesn’t even identify them. The problem was their desire for pleasures or advantages for themselves without regard to or at the expense of others.
The mention of murder has always posed a problem. Is James suggesting that these Christians were actually killing one another? That was regarded as so unlikely that a number of translators and commentators through the centuries – including Calvin – have supposed that we have a textual corruption here and that the word James wrote was actually “envy,” not “murder,” as the two words in Greek are spelled quite similarly. However, on the one hand there is no manuscript evidence to suggest that the wrong word somehow made its way into the Greek text of James and, on the other, if Christians were really committing murder, it is highly likely that James would have had more to say about that than just this. Clearly v. 2 is concerned with the same issue introduced in v. 1 and there a word like “fight” is clearly used metaphorically. They were not actually exchanging blows, but they were at odds with one another. Since, as we have already noticed, no writer of the NT so artlessly depends upon and reproduces the teaching of Jesus himself, especially as that teaching is given in the Sermon on the Mount, it is surely likely that here too James is drawing on the Lord’s statement in that sermon that evil and hateful thoughts toward someone else are a sin of the same class as murder. They are likewise a violation of the sixth commandment. Hatred and murder lie on the same continuum of human behavior. [Matt. 5:21-26]
v.3 So long as their sinful passions govern their lives, they will not receive the satisfaction they are looking for. For that they must turn to God who will reward those who want for themselves what he wants for them. But he will not hear the prayers of those who seek only their own pleasure. Once again James incorporates the Lord’s teaching in making his own case. Consider, for example, his statement, also in the Sermon on the Mount, that the Father will not hear the prayers of those who do not forgive the sins of others (Matt. 6:14-15). As the Psalmist put the same point: “If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me.” [66:18] And quarreling and divisiveness is iniquity!
v.4 One commentator has written of the opening of v. 4: The abrupt and harsh you adulterous people marks the beginning of one of the most strongly worded calls to repentance that we find anywhere in the NT. After repeatedly referring to his audience as “brothers,” this change of tone catches our attention. [Moo, 186] The term “adulterous” in the feminine form, harks back to the OT prophets who frequently chastised Israel as Yahweh’s unfaithful spouse. The Lord Jesus, you remember, also referred to his contemporaries in similar language (Matt. 12:39). This adultery takes the form of dividing affections between God with the world. Remember how Jesus made this same point: “You cannot serve both God and money.” [Matt. 6:24]
v.5 Verse 5 has long been a notoriously difficult statement to interpret. Without confusing you with the details, let me simply say that the “For” with which the verse begins obviously indicates that what is being said in v. 5 confirms what was said in v. 4. In other words, God is a jealous God who will brook no rivals, certainly not a rival spirit such as the spirit of the world. [Moo, 188-190; Tasker, 91]
v.6 Now comes the solution. Where sin has abounded grace will much more abound for those who are humble enough to seek that grace from God in a spirit of true repentance.
v.7 Submission is the active part of both humility and true repentance. And Christian submission is always both to God and to others. One cannot be truly humble before God while remaining proud toward others. James detects behind a Christian’s disloyalty to God, the work of the Evil One whose aim is to weaken the kingdom of God by weakening the loyalty of Christians to that kingdom. After all, this was the nature of the temptation he posed to Jesus: he could have the world and the pleasure of the world, if only he would bow down to Satan. To resist the Devil is not some technology of the spiritual life, as the TV preachers have it, but, as it was with Jesus, simply to practice humility and obedience to the Word of God in the face of the Devil’s temptations.
The verses that remain of this section further elaborate the spirit and the action of true humility and true repentance. What we have here is a series of commands that elaborate the citation of Prov. 3:34 in v. 6: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” If that is true, then we must do these several things, all of which express the meaning of true humility.
v.8 If you resist the Devil he will flee from you; but if you draw near to God, God will draw near to you. And you do that by seeking purity of heart and life. The idea of cleansing one’s hands draws on the ritual practice of the priests in the ancient epoch, who readied themselves for their work in the sanctuary, drawing near to God as they did, by washing their hands. By the first century ritual hand washing had been extended to everyone. So the practice was commonplace and well-served as an image of moral purification. Drawing near to God requires getting serious about your sins and about repenting of them and putting them to death, including these sins – quarreling and fighting among ourselves. No more of this half-hearted allegiance to the Lord. Singleness of purpose is what is necessary!
v.9 The problem is that they have not been taking their sins seriously or facing the evil of them. We take our disobedience far too lightly and grow comfortable with it. People who are cheerful when their lives are an offense to God are fools. Remember the Lord’s remark: “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” The wise mourn now in order to laugh later and forever! If we grow comfortable with our sin, it becomes a feature of our lives that we make no real effort to remove. There is a reason why the Lord said that they are blessed who mourn and why Paul described the Christian as “sorrowful but always rejoicing.” As long as we remain sinners, as long as we continue to grieve the Holy Spirit, as long as our behavior has a doleful effect on others, real Christians will be, must be deeply disappointed with ourselves and sad that we are not more of a credit to the Lord. It is the paradox of the Christian life: the path to true joy is always through sorrow. One who won’t be genuinely sorrowful for his sins cannot make progress in the Christian life, and that progress by which we honor the Lord is, for the Christian, the one thing that brings true joy and deep and lasting satisfaction.
v.10 The final imperative in the series serves as a kind of inclusio with the citation of Prov. 3:34 in v. 6. The world imagines that real lowliness of heart is a sign of weakness, that mourning for sin is morbid. The Christian discovers that true humility is the pathway to both power and joy, because it is something the Lord always rewards. It was the tax-collector in the Lord’s parable, the man who beat his breast over his own sinfulness, who went home justified!
It is a depressing commentary on the state of the Christian church in the world that James could have written a circular letter to many congregations scattered over great distances (1:1) and assumed that the hard words he wrote about dissension, hostility, and pride leading to constant quarreling would hit the mark. This is not and has never been a problem the church faces only rarely. [Motyer, 141] Indeed, “fighting” and “war” seem altogether appropriate descriptions of what happens far too often within churches and between churches. James language strikes us as over-the-top, surely not “war” or “murder,” but only because we are so used to this state of affairs that we don’t see the ugliness of our behavior. We don’t see how our petty little disputes and how our thinly disguised ill-will toward others betrays a pride that leaves little room for God in our hearts. Our own desires have crowded him out.
The other day Florence and I went to see the new movie, Race, the story of Jesse Owen’s triumph at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the same Olympics in which Louie Zamperini competed – Zamperini was at one point Jesse Owen’s roommate – and the same Olympics in which the University of Washington crew won Olympic gold. This movie portrays, of course, the races Jesse Owens won at the Berlin games – it is nothing short of remarkable how venues long since destroyed and events that happened long years ago can now be recreated so convincingly on film – but it is also a portrayal of the vicious racism of both American society and German society just two generations ago, racism that was as surely as great an obstacle for Owens to overcome as the other runners on the track. Remembering that history is, as it ought to be, depressing and humiliating for an American. There ought to be more depression and more humiliation, and there ought to be less use of that history for political gain in our public discourse. So is the exclusion of the only two Jewish members of the American team from the 400 meter relay for which they had qualified fair and square, both of whom were world class sprinters and absolutely deserved their chance. They were, in fact, the only members of the team, apart from one man who had had surgery for appendicitis, who were not allowed to compete in the event for which they had qualified. Of course, a lot of lies were told after the fact to cover up the reason for their exclusion, but it is a fact of history that they were denied a chance to run because they were Jews and Hitler did not want Jews winning a race in front of a Nazi crowd. Avery Brundage, the president of the American Olympic Committee, who would for decades be the president of the International Olympic Committee, was himself a despicable anti-Semite and had given the order to exclude the Jewish runners. We did that! The Americans! – the land of the free, the home of the brave. One cannot help but think: how could anyone have been so unbelievably stupid? How could people, our people, have been so small, so cruel, so dishonest about their real motivations and not realized to their shame what it was they were doing and why?
But then that isn’t really so hard to believe is it. Look around you, consider the world as it actually is. You see conflict, hatred, cruelty, selfish pride everywhere you look. It is characteristic of the behavior of nations and it is characteristic of the life of individual human beings. We know that. The issues are rarely what people say they are; nothing so high-minded or as important as all of that. It is almost always what James says it is here: people’s selfish desires, their grasping for more for themselves. Anyone who denies the biblical doctrine of original sin has a lot of explaining to do! From the behavior of children at play to the behavior of the world’s greatest nations, it is so much of the time selfishness, backbiting, hatred, envy, and indifference to others. We try to cover it up with high-sounding rhetoric, as children do when they cry “That’s not fair!” But no one willing to face facts can keep from seeing the pride and the envy and the selfishness that motivates people in their relationships with others. Peace may be the hope of the world and acknowledged by everyone to be a great good, but it is precisely this peace of which the world has always been in short supply. [Tasker, 84]
But the saddest fact about all of that is that a great many of the people who have behaved that way and behave that way still, would have claimed to be and, in many cases, would have been or are Christians! It is Christians too whose habit is and is to look down on other people, to consider themselves superior to them, and to fight and quarrel; Christians! We expect sinners to act like sinners. We expect them to be selfish. We are not surprised if they fail to surmount their problems. But Christians are supposed to be better than that. Alas, we know how often it is not so. It is one of the most humiliating aspects of church history, that there is so much of this utterly inexcusable infighting among Christians, so much passion at war within us, so much selfish desire, so much pride, and so little real humility.
My goodness, how appalling that the 17th century Jewish pantheist philosopher Benedict Spinoza observed:
‘I have often wondered that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion – namely love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men – should quarrel with such rancorous animosity and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues which they profess, is the readiest criteria of their faith.” [Cited from Tractatus Theologica-Politicus, chapter 6, in Moo, 181]
It is one of the truly demoralizing things about reading church history: how much of this quarreling there has always been among people who should have known better and done better.
To be sure, there are disputes that are necessary because the truth of God’s Word is at stake or some principle of righteousness. Paul acknowledges the fact that divisions are sometimes necessary to show who really belongs to the people of God, and church discipline, which whatever else it is, almost always is a dispute and often a quarrel, is required in the Word of God in order to maintain the church’s public commitment to a godly life. But so much more of the time the quarrels and fights are just what James here says they are, the eruption of selfish passions. Strip away the outer trappings and the self-justifying claims and one controversy after another is the result of someone wanting something more than what he has, or of someone envious of what another has, or the spirit of revenge, or of fear.
Speaking of the 1936 Olympics in the Nazi era, if you can believe this, the evangelical, Bible-believing Reformed Church in the Netherlands was split apart in 1944, during the Nazi occupation of Holland, over the issue of the best way to state the ground of or reason for infant baptism. They were all advocates of the practice of infant baptism, they shared the same confessional Reformed theology, but the question was should the infant be baptized on the strength of the presumption that he was regenerate already or would soon be, or should he be baptized on the strength of the promise of God’s covenant. Can you believe that? The principle spokesman of the “promise of the covenant” side, a man who was deposed by the synod at that time, was unable to defend himself because he was hiding from the Nazis. Had he appeared he would have been arrested and sent to prison, as he had already been previously for his criticism of the Nazi government. So bizarre was this quarrel between Christian ministers that very soon thereafter no one in that church wanted to talk about it. So impossible to defend was this fighting and, in effect, this killing, that after the war a public apology had to be offered and many shame-faced men had to acknowledge how badly they had behaved. It wasn’t theology that provoked that dispute; it was pride. How dare men disagree with me! And these were ministers and elders! – supposedly the crème de la crème of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Choose your favorite hero of church history and I will show you a man whose life was dogged by controversy and quarrel and, in almost every case, someone who contributed to making those quarrels still worse. Augustine had his enemies in the church and spent years trying to resolve some stubborn rifts in the North African church, though some of the things he said in managing those controversies make our hair curl today. John Calvin and John Knox were controversialists all their professional lives and, it is admitted by everyone, that even if some of their quarrels with others were not of their own making, they managed to make them worse by putting the worst, not the best construction on what others had said and done. Samuel Rutherford, for all his undoubted love of Jesus, had a reputation as a hot-head. Jonathan Edwards was engaged in a long series of quarrels and even if we say that he was on the right side of most all of them, he didn’t always do what could have been done to lessen the heat and increase the light. And on and on. John Wesley had a penchant for making enemies among men with whom he was in almost complete agreement and when a quarrel broke out his conduct was often simply atrocious. Outright deceit intended to place his opponents in the worst possible light was not beyond him. J.I. Packer, as eminently likeable and worthy a Christian man as you are likely to find, is thought poorly of in some English Christian circles because of the quarrels of some years past.
Coming into our own time and our own circle, I was reminded by these verses from James 4 of an article by Professor John Frame, now of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, entitled “Machen’s Warrior Children,” an account of one controversy after another that has inflamed tempers and separated brothers in the conservative Presbyterian world in the years since the death of the last great unifying figure, J. Gresham Machen, on the first of January, 1937. Machen, you may remember was the leader of the conservatives in the Presbyterian Church in the 1920s and 30s. In that article Frame identifies 21 separate quarrels that occupied pastors and elders over the past generation and a half, and not just occupied them, but separated them, made them angry toward one another, suspicious, unforgiving. Remember these are all men who ascribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, hold to the inerrancy of Scripture, and are Presbyterians in their church affiliations. They argued over eschatology – over the millennium in particular – very heatedly, though nowadays hardly anyone thinks it wise to argue over that subject. Most people of the wiser sort admit that men in those earlier days grossly exaggerated the significance of choosing one view or the other and tended to infer implications of the other millennial positions that the advocates of those positions themselves repudiated.
They argued fiercely over what was called “Christian liberty,” which referred in fact not to such liberty as is discussed in the Bible, but the liberty to smoke cigars and drink alcoholic beverages. It divided men and churches from one another in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, but, as anyone knows who spends any time among the members of this church, such a controversy no longer exists.
They argued over, if you can believe this, the meaning of the incomprehensibility of God, an esoteric dispute between the philosophers Gordon Clark and Cornelius van Til and their respective camps that still today is very difficult to explain to any reasonably intelligent person. That too led to division and alienation between brothers.
They argued about and still today some argue about apologetics, about the proper way to defend the faith. Like many disputes over evangelism and apologetics, those doing most of the arguing were people who didn’t actually do much in the way of apologetics, but liked to argue about the way others were doing it. In a way typical of Christian arguments the tone has been shrill while the actual increase in understanding has usually been nil. And on and on it goes.
We’ve argued about the charismatic gifts, about the authority of the OT law, about how to do counseling, about the relationship between the covenant of grace and the law of God, about the length of the days of creation, about the role of women in the church, about the relationship between the covenant and justification, and so on. We’re only half way through Frame’s list of 21. In almost all of these quarrels there was more heat than light, there was a good bit of unfair criticism of others, a readiness to believe the worst rather than a determination to believe the best, far too much anger and too little humility and peaceableness, and no genuinely satisfactory resolution at the end of the day. The proof that these arguments were, by and large, the sort the Bible condemns is that we always moved on to something else and the original dispute was largely forgotten. We wanted to argue and when we tired of one subject we moved on to another.
Of course within a single congregation the same sort of quarrels can occur, over the color of the carpet, the assignment of responsibilities in the church, the election of officers, the gifts of the pastor or lack of same, the allotment of money, and on and on. And we still haven’t mentioned the personal rifts that separate individual believers from one another, such as the tiff, whatever it was about, between Euodia and Syntyche, two women in the church in Philippi. We have had that kind of argument here as well.
So the one thing we are not free to do is to imagine that this is someone else’s problem and not ours, that to whomever James was speaking, he was certainly not speaking to us. James is wisdom literature and so is for everyone all the time. As you remember, Proverbs also has a lot to say about quarreling and controversy and, as always, addresses us in our ordinary lives.
“A dishonest man spreads strife and a whisperer separates close friends.” [16:28]
“The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out.” [17:14] I like the NIV better, “The starting of a quarrel is like breaching a dam, so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.”
“Whoever loves transgression loves strife…” [17:19]
“A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle.” [18:19] If you want to get two people to refuse any longer to speak to one another, just get them quarreling about something.
“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling.” [20:3]
“Drive out a scoffer, and strife will go out, and quarreling and abuse will cease.” [22:10]
“For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.” [26:20]
So take James to heart. The fact that there has been and is so much quarreling in the church should put us on our guard and should embarrass and grieve us. We have reason to mourn and weep, as we are told to do in v. 8. And there are certainly ways to practice humility, to purify our hearts and to resist the devil.
The best way is simply to keep our mouths shut, the way recommended to us in Proverbs particularly, as our Savior did on so many occasions. Alexander Whyte once put the challenge this way:
“If we cannot do it [he’s speaking of managing a quarrel] with clean and all-men loving hearts, let us leave all debate and contention to stronger and better men than we are.” [BC vol. 1, 141-142]
That sounds right to me, but if so it means that I should usually simply keep my mouth shut and leave the argument to others. It is not as if my opinion is so important, or as if wisdom will die with me. I’m almost always glad that I remained silent when I manage to do so.
And let us all take our theology seriously, whether we are tempted to quarrel with people we know or with nameless folk far away involved in some usually unnecessary dispute. Here is John Newton.
“There is a principle of self which disposes us to despise those who differ from us. [Calvinists, of all men, are] bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation.” [Letters, paperback BOT edition, 102-104]
He means that we are the ones who make the most of the fact that we were helpless sinners, utterly dependent upon God’s sheer undeserved mercy toward us. We of all people can’t look down on others, cannot despise others, cannot think ourselves better or wiser than others. He means we are the ones who have always been the most willing to admit that even as justified sinners we remain to a terrible degree sinners and that we must, therefore, always be on high alert to the fact that our motivations are tainted by sin and self and our actions less pure than we imagine them to be. Further, we are the ones who make most of the majesty of God. Before him we ought to be humble; and any Christian who for a moment imagines himself or herself better than another Christian, or thinks that some other person has not given proper deference to us, or acts as if he or she imagines such a thing, has betrayed both the majesty and the grace of God. That is not humility!
There can be no quarrel in the church unless at least two Christians are willing to make one. However willing some Christian might be to quarrel, if the rest of us are simply unwilling to quarrel there can be no quarrel. And without quarrels our prayers are more likely to be heard; a very great thing! God is more likely to give us more of his grace and we are more likely to be exalted by the Lord. A pretty good deal, if you ask me.