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The Epistle of James (5): Basic but Vital!

E Baijal, Wick

James Chapter 4


In this part of his letter, James writes about problems among the saints that are very much like those seen today. There were professing believers who were not living out eternal life. Perhaps that is true of the reader? Please, heed the exhortation of James! There is a better way. Go in for the heavenly, and experience the God of recovery for yourself. Having called upon the saints to exercise heavenly wisdom, and therefore a spiritual attitude to the way they lived, James now turns in chapter 4 to address four key problems that marked the saints. They may be summarised as follows:

Verses 1-5: The Problem of a Carnal Spirit.

Verses 6-10: The Problem of a Proud Spirit.

Verses 11-12: The Problem of a Critical Spirit.

Verses 13-17: The Problem of a Material Spirit.

Verses 1-5: The Problem of a Carnal Spirit

James begins by asking the believers why there is ongoing warfare between them, and explains that it is because separate desires compete to direct the soul and body. These are the conflicting desires of the flesh and the new man; the warfare that Paul describes in detail in Romans 7.14-25. James implies that the flesh was winning the battle, and the believers were being controlled by earthly thinking. Therefore, to use Paul's definition, they were carnal. They were consumed with sinful desires which, being unsatisfied, were causing them to sin more. Despite all their striving, they did not satisfy these desires because they were not things they could ask God for. Their carnality also had another aspect; they were asking God for things that would not be given to them, because they asked outside His will.

Every genuine believer has known this spiritual conflict and, if honest, most have also known the pain of sinning more as they became more and more consumed. In this chapter, James not only tackles the sinful symptoms, but also the root cause: love of the world and, in the wider context, the world's thinking. James teaches that, while believers will know internal conflict, they will be preserved from the pain, regret and shame of pursuing sin and disputes if they understand that to enter into friendship with the world, its systems, values and selfishness, is to be unfaithful to God, and to be His enemy! To desire a close and compatible relationship with the world (v 4) is to desire to be opposed to God.

Verse 5 is perhaps easier to understand by reference to the ESV¹ translation: "Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, 'He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us'?" That is to say, God is not neutral or apathetic as to whether those that belong to Him remain captivated by the flesh. He desires that, by the power of the Spirit of God, believers should live a life of liberty, displaying the new nature imparted at salvation.

Verses 6-10: The Problem of a Proud Spirit

Pride is a major issue in the lives of many believers. It acts to distort the reality of spiritual health or weakness, results in a condescending attitude toward others, and diminishes appreciation of the work of God in saving and keeping men. James turns in this section to deal with related issues. He begins by explaining that God has unlimited resources to give grace to deal with the pressures of the flesh and the world. However, quoting from Proverbs 3, he makes clear that grace is reserved for those who are humble before God. One consequence of humility ought to be a soft and repentant heart that mourns its weakness, and realises its strength finds all its hope in God. Sadly, pride often prevents such a spiritual attitude. Is it not true that there is a lack of honesty about spiritual weakness at times? In some places, assemblies that knew the Scriptures, and practised truth they appreciated, have become companies where disobedience to truth is a symptom of deep spiritual weakness. Yet pride maintains that all is well. In other places, there are believers who boast strength, but in reality are spiritually weak (cf 1 Cor 4.10).

Verse 7 teaches that this humbling is a dynamic thing: saints must bow before God and actively resist the devil. Just as a man cannot save himself, a man cannot practically sanctify himself; it requires the work of the Spirit of God. Similarly, while a man will not drift into salvation without exercising personal faith in Christ, a man will not suddenly lead a sanctified life. He must be earnest before God to obtain the power to stand firm against the wiles of the enemy. Yielding, instead of resisting, consistently leads to sadness and regrets for the believer; something that perhaps every saint has known experimentally.

The final part of this section (vv 8-10) includes an exhortation from James in relation to mourning about worldliness and sinful behaviour. The saints were required to feel seriously the weight of such a carnal attitude. It was time for them to realise again that they were nothing, and could only be lifted up to usefulness, and satisfying spiritual enjoyment, by the work of the Spirit of God. It was the divine view ("the sight of the Lord") that mattered. They might act proudly, as if they were strong, but the Lord knew their weakness. Is there not a need for confession, humility and repentance in each heart? Humble hearts will find adequate help from God!

Verses 11-12: The Problem of a Critical Spirit

Critical conversation and judgmental behaviour is a real difficulty that causes weakness among saints today. It was the same then. James sees such behaviour as an example of a carnal attitude. He cautions against 'speaking evil', and seems to have in mind slanderous comments, as well as the danger that certain motives were being implied, or unfair assessments being made. Such behaviour should not be entertained amongst believers. While the assembly is called to judge certain key moral and doctrinal issues, and every believer makes personal decisions about what they associate with, there are very few circumstances where it is ever permissible to speak negatively about saints. Sadly, there is still a carnal love of salacious gossip that spoils supper tables around the world.

James goes on to say that such evil speaking (note again the strength of the condemnation - that speaking in a slanderous way is evil) is contrary to the principle of God's law, and contravenes the command to love one another. To behave in such a way is to condemn God's law and to be opposed to Him. Furthermore, it is God's prerogative to sit in judgment, not ours (v 12). There are certain matters that assemblies have to judge, but there are many and varied matters of preference where one may differ from his brother. Although he may see things differently, it is not acceptable to sit in judgment on another. Let there be focus on personal devotion, and freedom from a critical attitude toward others.

Verses 13-17: The Problem of a Material Spirit

There were believers, of whom James was aware, whose whole pursuit in life was increasing material gain, without thought of the Lord's will. Their ambitions centred around long-term business plans which did not factor in that they might be in eternity tomorrow. In a self-centred world system that defines success as being materially rich, it is easy to be sucked into such thinking. The spiritual man will view things differently. He is not obsessed by the material because he lives with eternity in view, and sees all his plans as subject to the Lord's will. Is it any wonder there is weakness amongst us when the material is pursued at the expense of any serious investment in spiritual things (Mt 6.20)? James says that to glory in a materialistic lifestyle with all its trappings is sinful!

Finally, he concludes by teaching that to know truth and not to practise it is sinful (v 17). That, of course, is a vital principle in any walk of life, and one which should challenge us in relation to the four problems that James addresses in this chapter.

(To be continued …)

¹ English Standard Version.


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