Friendship with the World

Spiritual adultery

Although it may not be apparent to a casual reader, the flow of thought in this passage follows a logical train. Throughout an earlier passage spanning many verses, James dealt with sins of the tongue (chap. 3). Then he turned to the worst of these sins—the kind breeding wars and fightings in the church—and showed that they are rooted in selfish desires impossible to fulfill (vv. 1-3). Now he digs a little deeper (v. 4). What is the source of the lusts that can provoke conflict even among believers? The answer is worldliness.

In this answer, exposing what lies at the bottom of the lusts that produce combative speech, James agrees with John, who wrote that "all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world" (1 John 2:16). The world system teaches men that the purpose of life is to please self. It promotes lust by misrepresenting it as the proper driving force in human relationships. According to the world, a person works to become successful, accumulate money, and buy possessions. A person marries to acquire a mate who will satisfy his or her needs. A person goes to church to take advantage of its programs. Yet all this sort of thinking is a distortion of the true purpose of life. The Westminster Catechism framed its true purpose in the eloquent words, "The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." The proper center of life is God, not self.

In an attempt to rescue those who have adopted the world’s philosophy, James gives their sin a name unmasking how serious it is. He calls it adultery. Those who follow the way of the world he calls adulterers and adulteresses. He is reminding them that membership in the body of Christ brings them into a relationship with God so warm and intimate and all-consuming that the only suitable comparison is marriage. Hence, when they prove themselves false to God by drawing close to the world that hates Him, they are like a man unfaithful to his wife or a woman unfaithful to her husband. James warns them that they have a choice. They can either be friends with the world or friends with God. They cannot be both. If they choose friendship with the world, they make themselves enemies of God.

Next comes a verse that some expositors have described as the most difficult in the New Testament (v. 5). In many translations, the second part is a quotation introduced by the first part, but the words of the second part do not correspond to any text in Scripture. So, why does James imagine that Scripture is their source? Some expositors have come to the reasonable view that the two parts of the verse are separate thoughts, only the first expressing a question, which should be rendered: "Or think you that the Scripture speaks in vain?" In their view, the Scripture James intends is not the following statement but the previous statement, marking friendship with the world as enmity with God. Furthermore, he is referring not necessarily to a specific text, but to a general theme of Scripture as a whole.

In Scripture we do indeed find the pervasive teaching that man has a choice either to serve God or serve the world. But we need not dismiss the possibility that a specific text is in the forefront of James’s mind. Perhaps here as in many other verses he is alluding to the Sermon on the Mount. The relevant portion is where Jesus declares the impossibility of serving both God and Mammon, a term identifying the world system as a false god (Matt. 6:24).

The role of the Spirit

James's next statement has spawned a great variety of conflicting translations (v. 5b). Many expositors take the view that the spirit must be man’s, for the Holy Spirit appears nowhere else in the epistle. But His absence elsewhere does not forbid us to find Him here. James certainly had a mature knowledge of the Holy Spirit. A better approach to James's remark is to let Scripture explain Scripture. Since all of Scripture has one Author, we may even seek illumination of James’s words in the writings of Paul (Gal. 6:16-17). Paul sees the Holy Spirit as intensely desiring to subdue the sinful part of a man. A simple extension of this thought is that He is jealous to secure a man’s loyalty to God. Understood in this way, the statement by James could be translated, "The Spirit that dwells in us jealously desires us." In other words, with a possessiveness comparable to a human lover’s, He wants us to scorn any rival tempting us to commit spiritual adultery. One rival is the world.

Worldliness in the contemporary church

Just how dangerous is it to be worldly? This is an especially important question to consider in our day, when the church in America is not growing. The last growth spurt throughout the fundamental-evangelical wing of Christianity was back in the ’70s, in the years before the election of Ronald Reagan. In the ’80s and ’90s, further growth seemed confined mainly to megachurches. Since then, Bible-believing churches have been in decline, and the rate of decline is accelerating. The American church seems to be hurrying down the same slope taken by the church in England after World War I. If present trends continue, little vital Christianity will remain in America after a few more decades.

Why are we going downhill? Are we failing to reach out and witness to the lost? Certainly we need to work harder at bringing new people into our churches. But who in Jesus' day excelled at winning converts to their religion? It was the Pharisees (Matt. 23:15). The religion of the Pharisees was in some measure based on the Scriptures. Was Jesus therefore pleased with them because they were aggressive in spreading their doctrines? No. He disapproved of their success because they accomplished nothing except to turn converts into replicas of themselves, and Jesus in the same passage goes on to show that the Pharisees were hypocrites.

God intends our churches to be nurseries for spiritual babes, providing the nurturing they need to grow into the likeness of Christ. The reason God is not giving growth to the churches in America is that He cannot trust them to perform their function. Instead of turning converts into replicas of Christ, contemporary Christians are, like the Pharisees, turning converts into replicas of themselves.

What is God's complaint against Christians today? They are too worldly. That is why the churches in America are not growing. Worldliness takes many forms.

  1. One that we see in today's churches, both in the people who attend and in their leaders, is materialism.
  2. Another is addiction to forms of entertainment that corrupt the soul.
  3. Yet another, perhaps less obvious but pervasive in its destructive effects, is erosion of good character. Under the influence of today's culture, which teaches that self-interest should be the bedrock of moral judgment, many contemporary Christians are living by the dictates of pragmatism rather than principle. Some years ago the famous preacher Warren Wiersbe warned of this trend in his book The Integrity Crisis. Prophecy warns that in the Last Days, people who profess true religion will be as morally twisted as godless people (2 Tim. 3:1–5). In today's world, dominated by a popular culture that is discarding not only the forms of duty but even the word itself, we see the fulfillment.
  4. The world shapes our behavior in even more subtle ways. The figures we see in the media, in all the sitcoms and dramas and talk shows, model ways of treating each other that are an offense to God. Their speech tends to swing between the extremes of sarcasm and flattery. If it is not rude or abusive, it is wheedling or flirtatious. At either extreme it is calculated to gain some selfish purpose. The social behavior of these people on the screen is just playacting designed to manipulate. Its purpose is not to help or teach or edify others, but to make others tools of personal ambition.

Victory through grace

Next, after James alerts us to the great danger of loving the world, come words of great assurance (v. 6a). He wishes us to understand that it is possible to make the right choice. We can indeed renounce the world and cling to God. How? God furnishes the necessary grace, and not just grace, but "more grace"; literally, "greater grace." Greater than what? Perhaps the meaning is that when a believer is imperiled by greater enticements to worldliness, God furnishes him greater grace to resist. Grace is the force always sufficient to counteract the world, however compelling its influence may be.

Humility as the key

But how can we obtain this grace? How can we be victors in our battle against the world? How can we escape being casualties of worldly lust and instead survive spiritually with an acceptable love of God? James answers by reminding us that we can unlock divine grace with the key of humility (v. 6b). He is merely recalling a familiar proverb (Prov. 3:34) remembered also by Peter (1 Pet. 5:5). It is a wonderfully brief statement of a truth that ranks very high in significance, a truth so important that we might call it the secret to understanding much of human experience. We might reword it as follows: humility is the way up, whereas pride is the way down. A proud man, despite abilities that make him proud, always finishes in the depths, because God, who determines his fate, resists him. A humble man, despite inabilities that keep him humble, always finishes in the heights, because divine grace carries him upward.

The path to humility

To renounce pride and embrace humility should therefore be our chief priority, for what man in his right mind would suffer God’s disfavor when it is possible to enjoy His favor? What sane man would remain mired in the swamp of this world when he can rise to the beauty of Paradise? James gives a series of ten commands for those who wish to prove themselves humble. These commands take the form of imperative verbs.

  1. "Submit yourselves therefore to God" (v. 7). Our only real choice is whether we will submit now or later (Phil. 2:10). It only makes sense to submit now, while we can still gain blessings in return, the greatest being life forever.
  2. "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (v. 7). The devil is not omnipotent. He has limited resources to invest in his war against God. Therefore, he will not waste them in what seems to be a losing battle. If he senses that he cannot overcome you, he will go away and engage a more promising target of attack.
  3. "Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you" (v. 8). Drawing nigh to God is an overture of love. To receive our love was precisely the reason that God created us. He wanted our love so that He might love us in return. As a God of love (1 John 4:8), He did not choose to exist alone, but made creatures with whom He could be united in love. Indeed, His love comes first (1 John 4:19). If we draw nigh to Him, it is because He has already drawn nigh to us.
  4. "Cleanse your hands, ye sinners" (v. 8). The great barrier between God and man is man’s sin. Before we can draw nigh to God, we must therefore remove the barrier. We do so through repentance. James devotes several commands to explaining what repentance means. First of all, it means to stop the performance of sin. Since the hands are the chief tool we use in carrying out our will, James chooses them to represent all of our conduct. We must, he says, clean up our conduct in the world.
  5. "Purify your hearts, ye double minded" (v. 8). Behind sinful conduct lie the sinful motives residing in the heart. True repentance involves a change not only in what we do, but also in what we want to do. "Double minded" here is the same word used in James 1:8 to describe a man torn by conflicting motives. To please God, we must sift through the motives in our hearts and discard all those tending to sin. That is, we must purify our hearts.
  6. "Be afflicted" (v. 9). Another translation is, "Be wretched." Some people erroneously imagine that repentance can be a purely intellectual decision. "O.K., I will stop sinning," and that’s it. But in true repentance we take God’s view of our sin, and there is more to His view than just an intellectual labeling of our sin as wrong. He hates it with a fierce wrath. Therefore, we should also see it with a strong emotional aversion. We should see it as not only wrong, but as hateful, and the fact that it lodges in our hearts should bring us to great sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10), even to a state of wretchedness. To put it plainly, we should feel terrible about our sin.
  7. "Mourn" (v. 9). James alludes to the proper mindset of a sinner, as described by Jesus (Matt. 5:4).
  8. "Weep" (v. 9). The outward sign of mourning is tears. By combining the commands to mourn and weep, James emphasizes that a real sorrow will appear on both the inside and the outside.
  9. "Let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness" (v. 9). Here we have a clear allusion to the Beatitudes as they are recorded in Luke (Luke 6:21, 25). Often Scripture speaks of the saints weeping. Seldom does it speak of them laughing. Many times it speaks of our Lord weeping. Never does it speak of Him laughing. We find an explanation in Ecclesiastes (Eccles. 7:2-6). Laughter is not wrong. We need laughter to make life bearable, and it is especially appropriate as an expression of simple joy, although it easily slides into mockery, vulgarity, and other forms of sin. Yet sorrow is better. Why? Because it reminds us of our true condition—that we live in an evil world which we will not escape until we die, and that we will never know genuine happiness until we come to a better world.
  10. "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up" (v. 10). This summation of the whole discussion states the obvious application of the principle given at the outset, in verse 6. If God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble, then we must humble ourselves to be exalted.


1. Whom do I love more—the world, or God?

One of the best ways to assess whether God is your choice is to ask how you spend your free time. Do you ever welcome it as an opportunity to help others, to read godly books, to study the greatest book of all, God’s own Word, or to meet with God Himself in personal fellowship? Do you relish times when you can get alone for communion with God?

The next questions explore whether worldliness has infiltrated and corrupted your values and your behavior. We said that worldliness takes many forms.

2. Am I materialistic?

Do possessions dominate your life? How much time do you fritter away on daydreaming about things you want to acquire? How much time do you spend shopping? What portion of your free money goes to build your collection of junk that you will sell at your next move?

3. Do I love worldly entertainment?

Your standard when choosing entertainment should be simply this: what would I do or watch if could see Christ next to me? Of course, you cannot apply that standard correctly unless you understand that Christ is the Holy One, absolutely intolerant of sin.

4. Do I lack integrity?

Where on a scale of one to ten would others place your personal integrity? There is no better test of which side you are on. God is truth. Fudging truth for personal gain is the hallmark of God's enemy, Satan.

5. Do I ever hurt others with abusive speech?

Do you bully fellow church members, throw your weight around, raise a fuss when you are slighted, and generally make yourself a nuisance in the body of Christ? Are you always complaining or criticizing? Do you make fun of people in ways that are thoughtless and unkind? If you have fallen into any of these sins, it is not surprising in today's world. You are following the examples you see in the media, where nearly everyone has a bad mouth.

6. Do I ever use manipulative speech to gain my objectives?

Do you use flattery and half-truths to win the support of others? Such tactics for getting ahead come not from God, but from this godless world.

The last questions deal with every man's never-ending battle with pride.

7. Am I proud?

What you think is less important than what others think, because a proud person seldom admits to pride. Do others think you are proud? Of course, you must consider the source. Someone jealous of you might think you are proud, just because he feels insecure. The best people to ask whether you are proud are those who have known you longest and who can be trusted to tell you the truth as they see it, someone like a sibling or a spouse.

8. Do I see that I have an enemy who is waging a war against my soul?

Do you consciously resist him? The right strategy to adopt against his onslaughts is fully explained in Ephesians 6 (Eph. 6:10-18). The best defense is always faith. All his threatenings and accusings and enticings melt under the sunlight of faith.

9. Have I dealt with my own sin by putting it away through genuine repentance?

Has the change been both internal and external? That is, are you as much a new person inside as you seem to be on the outside? Have you felt a sorrow for sin? You need not suppose that repentance is invalid unless the sorrow coming from it is vehement and inconsolable. But if sorrow was absent from your repentance, you should question whether you truly repented.

Study Questions

  1. What is the source of lusts that provoke conflict in the church?
  2. What does the world say is the purpose of life, but what is its true purpose?
  3. To what does James compare worldliness?
  4. What is the Spirit's role in our battle against the world?
  5. Why is the church in America not growing?
  6. In what four ways is the world corrupting the church?
  7. By what means can we achieve victory over the world?
  8. What is the key to unlocking divine grace?
  9. What are the ten commands that will lead us down the road to humility?
  10. What is better than laughter, and why?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.