The epistle of James has often been referred to as the “Proverbs of the New Testament”. It’s a fair description because this epistle contains a wealth of wisdom and thought about godly living. It is easy to misinterpret the book of James because, on the surface, he seems to be advocating justification by works.
If this book is approached from the perspective of law keeping, then it is simply a list of “do’s and don’ts”. If, however, it is approached from the perspective of grace, then you can see that James is giving us a picture of what the life that has been reborn begins to look like through the process of sanctification. Our reading today in James 4 gives some stark contrasts between the carnal nature and the reborn nature that is being transformed by the Holy Spirit.
In the first 3 verses, James shows us it is the carnal nature with its evil desires that causes fights and quarrels. It’s because we selfishly want something we cannot have. Even verse 3 says we go as far as to ask God for things and don’t receive them because we ask with selfish motives: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3).
In the model prayer Jesus taught his disciples, he said the first priority for the believer is the Lordship of the Father and that his will would be done (Matt. 6:10). Here’s the question: Is any motive other than the advancement of the cause of Jesus Christ ever an appropriate motive to ask for something? If we really are about keeping the greatest commandment to love the Lord with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, then it would seem any request without that as the priority would have to be called into question.
Beginning with verse 4, James presents a stark contrast between the carnal nature and the new nature following rebirth. Friendship with the world and what it has to offer is hatred towards God. James describes polar opposites. If you love one, you hate the other. The sanctified life must make a complete change to the opposite. Verses 7-10 give exhortations to the believer to make these drastic changes as they are being sanctified; Verses 9-10, “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
Back in chapter 2:18, James makes it clear that he is not advocating the idea of justification by works. “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” As a pastor once said, “Works are the evidence that a life has been reborn.” We are not saved by our works but the same Lord that saved us also gives us the new nature that seeks to serve and follow him. And it produces good works.
2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you — unless, of course, you fail the test?” The book of James provides a mirror for the believer to look at him(her)self and see if the carnal traits are becoming less and less, and the Godly traits are growing. Chapter 4 gives us an opportunity to see what motivates us or “makes us tick”.
Am I motivated by selfish desires to please myself or am I being motivated by my love for God? Am I grieved by the things that used to bring laughter? Do I mourn what used to bring me joy? Is my heart beginning to take on the attributes of God’s heart?
As we read the book of James, let’s not make the mistake of reading it as a list of do’s and don’ts and fall into legalistic rule keeping. Rather, look at it as God showing us a picture of what the redeemed life looks like and allow his word to transform us by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2).