Looking around at the seemingly fractured state of Christianity in the world today with all of its various camps and divisions, it's tempting to idealize the early church as a perfect time of relational harmony. Instead of multiple churches in a city, there was just one. Instead of separate denominations, seminaries, and theological societies there was just a small, despised group of disciples who clung to Christ and turned the world upside down with the message of grace and salvation.
Then the book of James drops a bomb on that rose-colored view of history and gives the real picture of the early churches. The Epistle of James was the first book of the New Testament written slightly more than a decade or so after Jesus ascended. Even a casual reading of this short letter shows that the author spilled a lot of ink addressing the ongoing problem of sinful human conflict among Christians. Why? Because Christians can, and do, still sin. And sin tends to bring about devastating effects.
But the Holy Spirit, through James's letter, instructed these believers how to become communities of peace in Christ's power. The seven implicit commands in James 4:1-12 are for us as well by extension. All seven commands hang together. Not one of them is optional.
1. Realize the true source of sinful conflict (vv. 1-2a). It's not your circumstances. It's not your brother or sister. It's your own heart.
1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have;
2. Fear the serious effects of sinful conflict (vv. 2-4). In other words, don't take sin lightly.
2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
In life, we recognize that having a healthy fear of danger is the mark of maturity, not weakness.
3. Humbly seek God's grace to overcome sin (vv. 6, 10). We Christians need to continually view ourselves as needy recipients of God's grace, not dispensers of self-made virtue.
6 He gives more grace. Therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." 10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
4. Pursue God and you will not pursue sin. (vv. 7-8) Such an obvious, self-evident truth needs little explanation.
7 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.
5. Keep your hearts tender to sin (v. 8-9)
8 Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.
To this originally Jewish audience who were the first recipients of James' letter, it would be common knowledge that the Hebrew counterpart for the Greek word for heart in verse 8 refers to the conscience. Rather than talking about the blood-pumping organ in our chest, James refers to the inner person, the soul, the conscience.
- Moses recorded that Pharaoh "hardened his heart" (Exod. 8:15), which meant that Pharaoh had seared his conscience from heeding God's will.
- When Scripture speaks of a tender heart as in 2 Chr. 34:27, it's talking about a sensitive conscience.
- Proverbs 4:23 says, "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life."
We may mentally know the source of sin and possess a genuine fear for the effects of sin, but without an alert and tender heart to the presence of sin, we fall into sin.
6. Don't judge each other in sinful ways (v. 11)
11 Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it.
We wrongly think that we can hide our sins by highlighting the sins of others. We sinfully judge through subtle forms of gossip and slander, both of which grieve the Spirit and divide the family of God. It's important to have discernment. And that means Christians can, and should, use sound judgment about whose professions of faith are credible. Jesus Himself said that we evaluate not by a person's words but by what fruit is shown in his or her life (Matthew 7:16, 20). But rather than judge in sinful ways, we follow Christ's way of restoration spelled out in Scriptures like Matthew 18 and Galatians 6:1.
7. Trust God to work in each other's lives (v. 12)
12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?
I recall hearing biblical counselor, David Powlison, once say that a wonderful trait about true Christians is that they love the light; and when given the truth, they'll embrace it.
While that may not always take place as immediately as we would like, if the other person is truly a believer, he has the Holy Spirit dwelling within him and will ultimately be drawn to the truth. James 4:12 reminds us that God is, indeed, able to save. The great promise of Philippians 1:6 comes to mind, "I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."
When living out these commands by God's grace, Christian individuals can become churches that are communities of peace. Imperfect? Yes. Nothing will be perfect until Christ returns and His glorious kingdom comes. But for now, Christ calls His followers to band together in local, imperfect communities that promote and maintain the responsible brand of peace that pleases God. James tells us that all-out war against sin is what it takes to realize it. Christians simply can't afford to be passive when facing the dangers of unchecked sin and sinful conflict.