Several years ago, I recall reading about a pastor who had served his whole life in the ministry. During those years he had to deal with all kinds of situations, some good, some not. As he lay on his bed close to death, he reflected on what had transpired over the years. Worn out, tired of dealing with the squabbles and conflicts that never seemed to end in his congregation, he had but one request. His death bed appeal was that the members of his church would stop fighting and learn to love one another. He spoke as if he knew the congregation believed in God, love and trusted in their Savior, but did not let that faith and love reflect itself in their lives.
As one reads through the book of James, you come away with the feeling that James was dealing with a similar situation. His letter is not about Jesus and his work as our Savior. He doesn’t deal with doctrinal controversies. He doesn’t talk about reaching out to the loss with the Gospel, the work of the Holy Spirit, about being ready for Judgment Day, or the glories and bliss of heaven. His focus, pretty much so, is on how we are to live as children of God. It is about the doctrine of sanctification or living a holy and sanctified life.
From reading his epistle it seems as if his readers, while being Christians, were not living that way. They were showing favoritism to the rich. They were saying things that were unkind, untrue, and hurtful to others. They were spreading gossip and ruining people’s reputations. Their hearts were filled with sinful pride. They were boastful of what they had done and planned to do never once incorporating God and his will come into their plans or asking for his blessing.
James’ letter is an appeal for these Christians to live, not like the unbelieving world, but in a way that was pleasing to God. His letter is filled with one exhortation after another on how this was to be done. The reading before us, taken from chapter four, is key to understanding how this how this can be done.
The opening words of this section set the tone for this entire portion of Scripture. James says, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” James had just finished talking to them about wisdom. He had asked, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom (v13)’. That wisdom comes from God. Worldly wisdom comes from the devil and leads to sinful pride. James summed it up by saying, “God opposes the proud but give grace to the humble.” (v 6).
In contrast James says, “Submit yourselves to God.” Our attention cannot help but be drawn to the first word, ‘submit.’ It is a word used often in Scripture. The Lord, through the Apostle Paul, tells us to ‘submit’ to the government for they have been placed over us by God (Rom 13:5). Maybe the most notable use is found in Ephesian 5 where the Lord says to wives, “Submit yourselves unto your own husbands as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22). What is often overlooked is the verse before where it says “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Eph 5:21).
The word ‘submit’, as it is used here and in several other passages, is an interesting one. The original Greek makes it clear that this is not a forced submission like what happens when one nation defeats another and makes them submit or surrender. The submission referred to here is a willing submission. It is one that comes from within. I think its meaning comes through most clearly when we talk about a Christian’s submission to the Lord. When we submit to God, we place ourselves under God and his direction. We give ourselves over to him willingly and completely. It implies trust. It also means looking to the Lord for direction for our lives. We pray, “Let your will, O Lord, be mine.” It means making God and his will the focus of our life instead of focusing on me.
The world with its sinful pride says, ‘I am the master of my fate; the captain of my soul.’ The world chimes in with Frank Sanatra and says, “I did it my way.” This is how sinful man has thought since the fall into sin. Adam and Eve, instead of submitting to the Lord’s will, did it ‘their way’ or should I say the devil’s way. When Adam and Eve sinned, sinful pride replaced humble submission. That’s the way it works every time we sin. When we sin, we are saying no to God and yes to the devil. James makes it clear that submitting to God means saying no to Satan.
James goes on to say, “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.”
What James is talking about here is sincere confession of our sins. It means making no excuses. It means approaching God in sincere humility for we know we deserve nothing from God but his wrath. We should not be “double-minded” thinking we can have it both ways, doing what we want when we want and doing the will of the Lord when it’s convenient.
Over 50 times in this short letter, seven times in the verses before us James calls his readers to repentance, to leave behind their life of sin and to walk in the ways of the Lord, to do his will. Stop living in sin! Forsake the ways of the world! Resist the devil and his temptations! Submit yourselves to the Lord! “Grieve, mourn, and wail” because of your sins.
Then ask God to forgive you. Don’t be afraid. “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” “Submit to God!” Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Here James brings us the encouragement of the Gospel, the message of God’s love and grace.
While James does not spend time on it, Scripture makes it clear that faith in God, humbly submitting to him, confessing our sins, changing our lives, resisting Satan, are not things we can do on our own. They are not only difficult but impossible. It is God, through the work of his Holy Spirit, who took us from sin and unbelief and made us his child. Faith is not something we muster up from within. Faith, as Paul says in Eph (2:10) is a “gift from God, not of works.” A sincere confession of our sins, is not something we do on our own. “It is God who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure” (Ph 2:13).
The people to whom James was writing forgot this. They were leaving God out of the picture, doing it on their own, listening to the devil, walking in the ways of the world, thinking it didn’t matter. James wanted them to know that it did. He was calling them to repentance, to come back to God, live their faith, and be blessed by God.
Whenever I read the book of James, I think that he is speaking right to me, that he sees how I would live, hears what I say, and what goes on in my heart and mind. So many of the sins James mentions I have committed not once but over and over again. All too often I let the temptations of the devil get the best of me. I go my way, make my plans and leave God out of the picture. I get proud, thinking I am leading a good life only to have my sinful nature pop up and get the best of me. And it happens over and over again.
I can’t help but think that you’ve experienced the same thing. It really doesn’t matter if you are a preacher or the person in the pew; we are all sinners who need the Savior. We need to confess our sins; see the need for God’s forgiveness. We need to be chastised for walking in the ways of the world instead of on the path of righteousness, for leaving the Lord out of our plans, for our sinful pride, our rebellious nature, our love of the world, and so much more. We need these reminders every day for every day we sin and fall short. We need to humbly submit ourselves to the Lord.
Every day we need to thank God for his forgiveness which is ours through faith in Jesus Christ. Every day we need to hear from God’s Word that he loves us even though we don’t deserve that love. We need to hear over and over the promises he gives us, to take care of us, protect us, and in the end deliver us from sin, death, and the devil and take us to glory to live with him forever.
“Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will life you up.”
To God be the glory. Amen.