James 4:5-10 Grace for the Humble

Repentance is the central theme in our passage, but to follow James’s message, we must locate it within his pattern of thought in 3:13-4:4. The topic of repentance develops James’s teaching on the two ways of life. Wisdom from heaven leads to a beautiful life, marked by peace and righteousness. Wisdom from the earth is marked by envy and selfish ambition and leads to a life marked by coveting, fights, quarrels, and infidelity toward God.

James teaches that envy is a common human trait. This indictment applies first to unbelievers, but James believes his entire audience needs to hear it. Anyone can fall prey to envy, even though it contradicts God’s original design. When God fashioned the human race, He gave us strong spirits, and active intellect, and a passion for significance. We hunger to do great things and will fight through obstacles to achieve great goals. But in our state of rebellion our passions and drives become unruly. Envy and selfish pursuits misdirect our energies. God made our spirits strong, but sin makes them wayward. We pursue selfish ambitions and covet our neighbors’ goods.

When God sees how we misuse the energy He grants us, He knows His grace is our one hope. His grace has a direction: “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.” In one sense, even humility is God’s gift. No one rejects his pride unless the Lord enables him. The Lord opens eyes so men and women can see the futility of living for themselves. Grace teaches us to trust in God, to rest in Christ, rather than the self. So, James commands us to humble ourselves before God.

James 4:6-10 begins and ends with a call to humility. To be precise, it starts with a warning that leads to a promise (v. 6). It ends with a command that leads to a promise (v. 10). Thus, the need for humility and the call to humility from bookends for our text. God gives grace to the humble, and we must humble ourselves before the Lord. The rest of the passage describes the life of humility.

James 4:7 with its call to submit to God, explains 4:6. Since God opposes the proud, we should submit to Him as an act of humility. The submissive can expect to receive grace. The rest of the passage describes key elements of Christian humility and of submission to God. Notice, as James writes, that humility has nothing to do with a shy or retiring personality. Powerful and exuberant people can be humble.

“Submit” sounds very passive in English, but the Greek concept is more active. To submit, in Scripture, is not to sit back and wait for God to issue orders. Submission certainly includes obedience to commands, but we also submit when we arrange our lives under God’s general direction. Obedience is certainly one element of submission. To submit is to recognize the lordship and authority of another.

Submission requires subordinates to bend their will to the will of their superior, even if that superior issues a directive that seems unpleasant or unwise and insists upon it. This does not mean we must do whatever a superior says. If an authority commands something that is contrary to the will of God, we must disobey man in order to obey God (see Acts 5:29). We obey God whenever we do His will. We submit when we obey a command that seems hard and strange. Such submission signifies that we have humbled ourselves before the Lord.

The next words, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (v. 7), begin to explain how we submit to God. James links submission to God with resistance of the devil. That is, to submit to God’s authority is to resist the devil’s authority. To submit to God is to order our lives under His authority. To resist the devil means we oppose, we fight back, we take a stand against the devil’s authority. To oppose Satan in this setting means to resist temptations especially to fight each other or covet (4:1-2). Curiously, Paul says one way to resist Satan is to flee from him, that is, to flee from his coaxing to sin.

So, we resist the devil by fleeing from temptations to sin. And when we flee from sin, the devil flees from us. Perhaps we should think of Jesus’ temptation here. After Jesus faced down three temptations, Satan left Him for a while, even though he would try again at a more opportune time (Luke 4:13).

When we hear “Come near to God” (v. 4:8), we might think of public worship or private prayers. “Come near” is sometimes the language of worship, but James has not been discussing worship. Therefore, “come near” could mean returning to God in covenant renewal after straying. We may “come near” to God after sinning (perhaps after succumbing to temptation). But “come near” and “draw near” means more than “repent.” We come near to God to worship Him, to serve Him, to meet Him, to seek help, and to gain assurance, as well as to repent. It is better to conclude that James is offering a far-reaching promise, a promise that other gods do not make. When we draw near to God, He also draws near to us (see Deut. 4:7).

If a sinner comes near to the holy God, he will naturally want to repent of his sins. James says, “Wash your hands” (v. 8). The hands represent actions or deeds. Next, he says, “Purify your hearts” (v. 8). The heart represents motives or intentions. James censures the “double-minded.” The double-minded lack integrity. They pursue two things at once – service of God and service of self. James has already warned about double-mindedness, saying that the double-minded man asks and gets nothing (1:8). He is unstable. But godly wisdom is pure; it has clarity of purpose. True believers are bent on one thing, to seek and find the Lord.

The desire for a pure heart leads logically to sorrow for sin. When sin is manifest, the righteous grieve. The Old Testament prophets said those who faced God’s judgment would grieve, mourn, and wail. More importantly, the prophets also invited the people to grieve, mourn, and wail before the judgment, as they returned to God (Joel 2:1, 12-14). Like Jesus, James says we can laugh now, at sin, and mourn later, over judgment. Or we can mourn now, over sin, and laugh later, at God’s grace (Luke 6:25). All too often, the world laughs about the wrong things. There is fleeting joy for those who indulge in sin and fleeting sorrow for those who break with it, but it is far better to mourn now for a season and rejoice forever.

The prophets often declare that the Lord humbles the proud. Yet James does not say “The Lord will humble you”; he says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord” (v. 4:10). Therefore, we do not wait for God or for circumstances to humble us. It is our duty to humble ourselves. James does not specify how we do this, but he does drop a hint in the phrase “before the Lord.” If we remember that all we do is “before the Lord,” if His holiness is our standard, it is easier to humble ourselves. But if we compare ourselves to others, it is far easier to avoid humility.

If we humble ourselves, if we admit that we sin, and that we are sinful, and that we cannot reform ourselves, then, James promises, the Lord will lift us up. This is the gospel according to James. James does not mention the atonement of Christ, the cross of Christ, or the resurrection of Christ. He states the gospel his own way, a way deeply influenced by the teachings of Jesus. James says there is a choice between two ways of life: a way of selfish ambition and a way of purity and peace. We can be a friend of God or a friend of the world. We can be proud or humble and repentant. When we grieve over our sins and turn to Him in faith, He will extend His redeeming grace. When we come to God in repentance and humility, He will forgive us and lift us up.

James 4:5-10 Study Questions:

What are some of the characteristics and actions associated with true humility, according to James 4:7-10? What does James seem to be teaching in these verses about the proper response to God?

What does it mean to “submit yourself” to God (v. 7)? How is resisting the devil related to submission to God?

What do verses 8-10 of this passage teach us about the way we approach God? What do we learn about the reality of human sinfulness?