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- James 4:1 - 12
Good old-fashioned repentance
This passage is largely about good old-fashioned repentance. Now the word “repentance” has fallen out of the current vernacular of the church. It is not popular. It is not a word that will be brought up at the dinner table. And it is not often talked about in the church. But repentance is a common theme in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets preached repentance. John the Baptist preached repentance. Jesus preached repentance. The early apostles of the church preached repentance. And here I think James is preaching repentance.
The bible celebrates it!
It may surprise you to hear that repentance is always for our good. It is always offered not as a punishment. It is not “You have to repent” but rather, “you get to repent.” It is a gift of God, “Repent of your sins and be cleansed.” Repentance is a profound privilege. It demonstrates God’s love for His people. The Bible doesn’t shy away from it. It celebrates it.
Jonah and the woman at the well
So when Jonah was sent to Ninevah to preach repentance this was a sign not of God’s judgment but of God’s mercy. If the Tsunami is coming, if the tornado is coming, it’s a gift to be warned. And that is what a call to repentance is. It is a benevolent warning and a gracious act. When the woman at the well had her sins exposed, she went to the village thrilled that she had met God. And that is what repentance does. It makes us celebrate God’s grace.
We need to identify sin
But in order to repent we need to identify sin. Sin is often times masqueraded as things like personality flaws, failures, imperfections and so on. We tend to blame sin on circumstances and surroundings. We are much less quick to blame sin on ourselves. That is why we often dance around the issue and hope it can be explained away. “It’s my wife that makes me so sinful. If I had a better job, I wouldn’t be so ornery” and so on.
We often find a lot of other names for sin: mistakes, failures, weaknesses. We use prettier names that cover up what sin really is. Do you ever wonder why we call hamburger, hamburger or doughnuts, doughnuts? Hamburger isn’t ham and doughnuts are nuts. And in the same way, we give sin nicer names to sin make it seem less serious.
God wants us to acknowledge our sin
But God wants more than that from us and he offers more than that. He wants His people to acknowledge our sin, truly repent of our sin, to feel sorry for our sin and to turn to the loving, gentle grace of God. He wants us to look in the mirror and then act. He wants fellowship to be restored where it has been broken. He does not hide His will from us.
So any command to repent is a gracious act of God. Sin is destructive and it will destroy you and your relationships. Fellowship with God is sweet and pure and will restore your relationships. So you take your pick which one you like.
Taking out garbage
There will be times in your spiritual life when it’s time to take the trash out. Days have gone by and some garbage has surfaced in your heart that needs to be disposed of. That’s how it is with your garbage at home. You throw your garbage in a small garbage can in your house and then you dump that garbage bag into your garbage can outside. And then every Monday or Tuesday the garbage man comes out and collects the garbage. (and if your house is like ours, every once in awhile the bears get into it). But the point is that life produces garbage. And it should. It’s an evidence that life is taking place. “Where there is no oxen, the stall is clean.” (Proverbs 14:4). So life should produce a level of garbage.
Don’t leave it in your house
Now it would be very awkward to leave your garbage in your house. If people came over to your house and there were banana peels laying around and old dirty coffee filters, that would be very strange if not gross. Garbage has a place and it’s not in the home. It’s in the garbage can. It’s in the dump. So we throw our garbage into the wastebasket and when that gets full, we throw it in the garbage can and then when that gets full it gets hauled away. Garbage needs to be disposed of.
Healthy spiritual lives produce trash
And our spiritual lives are the same way. A healthy Christian life will produce a level of garbage in us that needs to be disposed of. When I say produce, I mean “expose.” As we grow in holiness and as we become more like Christ, our sin will become more obvious. The contrast between the holiness of God and our own sinfulness will become greater and greater and that will produce repentance. So a healthy Christian life will consist of repentance.
2 kinds of repentance
What do I mean by repentance? There are two kinds of repentance. One is repentance that leads to salvation. Acts 2:38 says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” That is repentance that leads to salvation. That is admission of sin and guilt before a Holy God and the acceptance of grace and forgiveness. That is called salvation.
The other type of repentance is what Christians do. I John 1:9 says “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Christians are not perfect. We still sin. And when we do sin, we need to confess our sin. This is often times done in a community of fellow believers. So repentance of sin brings restoration to the church and to our relationships. There is always a relational component to our sin, so sin needs to be dealt with often times relationally: Repentance to God and confession and admitting of wrong to people. That activity is a sign of spiritual health” Recognizing sin and turning from it.
This passage this morning is dealing with Christian repentance. James is calling for believers to repent.
Always chief of sinners
For the Christian, our spiritual journey with Christ will make us feel less and less adequate as we draw nearer to his holiness. Our title of “chief of sinners” will never go away. It will only be confirmed, not because we are becoming more sinful but because our knowledge of God’s infinite holiness is deepening. And that will produce repentance in us.
When Isaiah saw the Lord high and seated on his throne hearing the angels cry out “holy, holy, holy,” his own sinfulness was exposed. That vision of God did not make him sinful. It exposed how sinful he was in light of God’s immense and eternal holiness. And he cried out, “I am man of unclean lips. I am not holy.” A vision of God’s holiness brought repentance. So turning lights on in your basement doesn’t create the cobwebs, the lights expose the cobwebs in the basement. God’s holiness exposes our sinfulness.
And that is what leads us to repentance. We need a vision of God’s holiness that produces a stark contrast between God and us. And that is what James helps us do. He plummets us to depths of our own sinfulness so that we are humbled, repent and then are lifted up by God.
The specific sin of these churches
The specific sin being dealt with in these churches is that of jealousy and selfish ambition (which we looked at last week). Jealousy and selfish ambition largely stem from discontentment with what God has given us and the desire to have someone else’s life. I don’t like my job. I don’t like my house. I don’t like my personality, etc. So James is combating this again and again. He is reminding us, “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” “Count it all joy when you face various trials.” “Blessed is the man (or person) who endures under trial.” Hang on. God is with you. This is the life God has given you. Don’t look to escape. Don’t long after what someone else has.
Where it comes from?
So where does this jealousy and selfish ambition come from? Is this some kind of outside force that attacks us when we are not looking? Or is it more subtle than that?
Let’s look at it. Verse 1 “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you.”
Notice where James takes this discussion. What causes fights and quarrels? You do.
In the early 20th century, the Times Newspaper asked a number of famous authors to answer the question, “what’s wrong with the world.” The British theologian and philosopher G.K. Chesterton answered the question like this: “Dear sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.” What’s wrong with the world, “I am.”
Sin as “out there”
And that’s what James is saying here. What causes the sinfulness in my life? I do.
Sometimes we think of evil as something out there. We think of sin as certain activities that “those people do.” Sometimes we mistakingly believe that the Christian life consists of refraining from certain activities: not swearing, not drinking too much, not watching certain movies, not reading certain books, etc. And those may be well and good. But all of that is outward obedience. And those things may simply puff us up. Those are things that we can physically make ourselves not do. But obeying certain laws or rules like that will not necessarily give us pure and clean hearts. It takes more than that.
The biggest enemy is you
The biggest enemy of your sanctification or being made more holy is not the people or circumstances around you. The biggest enemy to your growth in Christ is yourself. The biblical term for this is called your “flesh.” I am not talking about your hands and legs and nose. I am talking about the sin nature that still grapples for a stake in your heart. So when you come to faith in Christ, you are given a new Spirit. You are literally given the Spirit of God. God Himself dwells in you. But the sin nature or the “old man” still exists inside of you. It has been ultimately defeated and crushed but there are still palpitations of the flesh. The flesh still has nerves and those nerves are still alive. The dog will nip at the horse’s heel. And sometimes this flesh will come alive again and assert its will.
Flesh, an enemy of your soul
And this flesh is an enemy of your soul. It is not your friend. It never wants to help you and increase your joy in life. It ultimately seeks your own destruction because your flesh itself is ultimately destroyed. So this is similar to Satan. Satan has been defeated. The heel of God has crushed the head of Satan. His power is limited and his destruction is guaranteed. But he still works to pull people down with him and accompany him in his own fate. That’s what the devil does. He is a roaring lion seeking who may destroy.
In the same way, the flesh has been defeated but still has a measure of power. It can’t make us sin. But it tempts us to sin and sometimes (often times) we give in to it. The flesh is subtle. It is not always an obvious temptation. Sometimes it is a temptation to forget God and live like we don’t know God. Sometimes it’s the temptation to pursue riches above the kingdom of God. That’s a mark or sign of the flesh. There are many ways the flesh tempts us to sin.
Approaching the point of murder
So, James is dealing with the sin inside of us and it is deathly serious. “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.” These Christians had such a level of jealousy that it was approaching the point of murder. And that is where jealousy and envy ultimately lead a person: To murder. James is warning, “don’t go down that path. Resist that temptation, it will lead to disorder and every vile practice….” And maybe even murder.
Vs. 2-3 “You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passion.”
Wanting something God doesn’t want
Have you ever wanted something from God that God may not have wanted for you? And you feel the tension of praying for something that may not be God’s plan for your life?
Bands and prayers
When I was 16, I joined a band with my brother, cousin and two good friends. We played for about 3 years and we invested a lot of time into this band. Our dream was to make it big (of course). We were young and we were naïve and none of us were married. After living in the same house for 9 months and playing at small venues, we all felt like it was time to end the madness and offer up our dreams on the altar of reality. We could have pray a thousand prayers that we would have success in music but that really wasn’t God’s purpose.
He sanctified us
So looking back now, God knew what was best for us. He used those days to bring intense sanctification and growth. His plan was never that we make it in the music business but that we become more like Christ and grow in love for each other. He was chiseling out our flesh and making us more like His Son. (And he was probably preparing us for marriage).
So we don’t always know what God is doing. And we don’t always know what to pray for. Part of growing in faith is learning to pray biblically, not just pray for what want or think we need. But instead praying for God’s will to be done because God knows what we need. I may want success in the stock market but God may not want that for me. I may want to be a famous musician but that isn’t what God wants for me. Those aren’t really prayers. Those are wish lists. When we pray to God, we pray with knowledge of Who He is. He is a loving God and He is a wise God. So before we even pray, we think to ourselves, “God knows what’s best for me.” And then we pray according to His will. It’s a mercy of God to not always get what we pray for.
They were praying for what they wanted
These Christians here seemed to be praying to God for what they wanted. They seemed to be treating God more like a vending machine more than a Sovereign, loving Father. You may not want to give a kid $5 if he’s going to spend it on a huge bag of licorice. He is asking for what he wants but not what he needs.
God doesn’t look approvingly
And God does not look approvingly on the quest to have what other people have and to seek God out of selfishness and jealousy. God is meant to be worshipped, not summoned. We do not summon Him for what we want. We worship Him for Who He is.
A form of adultery
James calls this selfish quest for what other people have a form of adultery: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” This is a reference to Old Testament Israel being called the people of God. God was referred to as the husband of Israel, His people. And his people were sometimes called whores because they were unfaithful to God, their husband. He is saying that pursuing after what is not yours and summoning God for what you want from him is like committing adultery against God. It is a serious matter. Paul calls the church, the bride of Christ. We have been betrothed to Christ. We belong to Him. To pursue other gods is a form of adultery.
Friendship with the world
This is called “friendship with the world.” And this does not mean that you don’t have any non-believing friends. This kind of Friendship puts you at odds with God.
The ancient concept of friendship is very different then the modern day concept. Friendship in the New Testament meant much more than being friends within someone on Facebook or following people on Twitter. Friendship in this context meant sharing life with and sometimes even possessions and property. It was not casual. It was an intentional sharing of your life and belongings.
Getting cozy with your stuff
So this type of friendship means to cozy up to the world in such a way that you cannot distinguish yourself from your possessions. The things in your life are not just used by you for your enjoyment and for the glory of God but they have become a part of your identity in life. They have become idols in your heart.
Buying a used car
When I was 20, I needed to buy a new (used) car and I looked around a lot for a car. And I really became consumed with finding a car. After driving hundreds of miles and looking at scores of cars, I realized that this quest was overtaking my life. So I was with a buddy of mine and I told him, “you know what, I think I’m been a little over the top with this car thing” and I confessed that my ambition to get a new car was a little ahead of my love for and trust in God. It is not that I didn’t need a car. I did. (I didn’t want to ride the bus). It was that my heart had been turned from God to an object.
Losing our identity
Friendship with the world happens when our identity as children of God is crowded out by our desire for things we want or need. We can identify ourselves so strongly with an object or a person that our identity becomes entwined with that thing. We share our affections, time and energy with something so intensely that our loyalty to God is compromised. That is “Friendship with the world.” And James says that if we get off track to that degree, we have become “enemies of God.”
Back to God
So he is pulling us back, back, back. Back to God. Verse 6, “But he gives more grace…. (and we thank God for that) Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”
Why stir up sin?
So what is the point of James drawing out the sin in our lives? Why he drawing our attention to the ways we are adulteress to God. Is it to depress us and to turn inward? No. He stirs up the sin in us so that we would repent of it for our good. He has shown us the garbage in us, the ways we covet and want and desire things that we shouldn’t. Now he is telling us to throw the garbage out. Don’t pack it down. Don’t throw it under the bed (that may be pertinent to some of you). Don’t ignore it. Get rid of it. Offering an opportunity to dispose of our sin is a gracious act of God.
And this garbage disposal is free
Every month you have to pay the garbage man to pick up your garbage. Every month, we’re cutting a check. But this is free! Repentance is a free gift of God. Salvation is the free gift of God.
Here’s the opportunity!
Verses 8-10 “Cleanse your hands you sinners and purify your hearts you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord your God and He will exalt you.”
What repentance looks like
This is what repentance looks like. It is not unlike tilling up weeds. It not unlike peeling off dead skin, so that new skin can emerge. And there is a level of good pain in it. Let me describe repentance like this. This is a quote from C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
Just as some background. In the world of Narnia, inward things often times show themselves outwardly. So in this case, The boy Eustace had found a lost treasure on an island and he was consumed by it. He fell asleep on top of a giant storehouse of gold and jewels and had woken up as a greedy, selfish dragon. His quest for greed had turned him into a dragon. Listen to what God (represented as Aslan) does to transform Eustace. Eustace (the dragon) says this,
The account of Eustace
“I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming slowly toward me…..So it came nearer and nearer. I was terribly afraid of it. You may think that, being a dragon, I could have knocked any lion out easily enough. But it wasn’t that kind of fear. I wasn’t afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it — if you can understand. Well, it came close up to me and looked straight into my eyes. And I shut my eyes tight. But that wasn’t any good because it told me to follow it.”
“And I knew I’d have to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me a long way into the mountains. And there was always this moonlight over and round the lion wherever we went. So at last when we came to the top of a mountain I’d never seen before and on the top of this mountain there was a garden – trees and fruit and everything. In the middle of it there was a well. . . .
“Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy — oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”
That is repentance
That is repentance and restoration. That is why Christianity is not a religion. It is not an outward work of man. It is an inward work of God. So this is not call to do better. It is a call to repent and receive the grace of God. It is call to have God undress your old flesh and renew you.
We have a dragon shell
We form a dragon shell that needs to be torn off us. And someone else has to tear that off us. So we humble ourselves before God and he lifts us up. In the Old Testament, believers would put on sackcloth and ashes to signify how filthy their hearts were. We don’t do that today. But our hearts are no less in need of cleansing. Repentance is primarily a work of God where he ushers us to the mirror and we see our own profound sinfulness. He then shows us His own holiness and it produces in us holy fear and reverence. We begin to see our sin against other people, our quarreling and grappling for our way as sin against a holy God.
What that means for relationships
So when I am selfish and jealous and self-seeking, when I fail to love my wife well, I am ultimately sinning against God. When I seek what other people have, I am sinning against God. When I fail to love God with all my heart and soul and strength, I am sinning against God. So repentance must be first vertical. We need to come to God with our dragon skin and have Him peel it off us. We need rescuing from ourselves and that can only come from God. While our sin has horizontal implications, it is first and foremost vertical. It is a failure to love and follow God.
Let’s take a few minutes and confess our sins to God. And then we’re going to stand and sing together.
So for the sake of being true to James, let’s do this. When you go home today think of ways that you have sinned against your spouse, a friend or family member. Think of ways you failed to love them as you love yourself. We all have now seen ourselves in the mirror. Let’s not walk away and forget what we look like. Let’s confess our sins to one another. Some of you haven’t done this in months or maybe years. That does not mean that you have no garbage in your life. That means that garbage is laying out all around the house! Here is the garbage can. Throw it in! Confess. Repent. Be cleansed and have your hearts purified! For your own joy! We get to repent!