Practical Christianity: Gospel Repentance | James 4:7-10
Brian Hedges | July 22, 2018
Thank you, worship team. Good morning! It’s great to see you this morning. Turn in your Bibles to James, the fourth chapter. We’re going to be in James 4:7-10.
Do you guys remember, before GPS, how frustrating it was to travel places? So, I’ve been lost in almost every major city that I’ve ever visited before GPS and before Siri; Saint Louis, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta - you name it. It’s frustrating when you find yourself getting off the right path, you’re kind of wandering around in a part of town you don’t know where you are, and the only way to set it right is actually to turn around, right, to do a U-turn, to retrace your steps, until you get back on the right road.
I think sometimes life is a lot like that. We find ourselves getting off the right path, we find ourselves wandering in sort of dark places, and as much as you try to course correct, until you actually do the U-turn, until you actually get back on the right path, until you retrace your steps and figure out where you got off in the first place; until you do that, you don’t really set things right. That act of retracing your steps and getting back on the right path is what we call repentance.
Now, repentance is one of those religious words that’s kind of intimidating to people; it’s about as popular as the words “sin,” “judgment,” and “hell.” It’s a word, if you’re around here frequently, it’s a word that you’re used to hearing, because we really believe that all of life is meant to be repentance. Martin Luther, you remember, said in his 95 Theses that “when our Lord and Master said, ‘Repent,’ he said that the whole life of the Christian should be one of repentance.” So, repentance really should be part of the daily rhythm of the Christian, right, something that we’re always doing.
But it’s important for us to distinguish gospel repentance from what the Puritans called legal repentance or what Tim Keller has called religious repentance. So, Keller’s been helpful for me on this. As you can see, he’s thought really hard about it. Tim Keller said that “religious repentance is selfish, self-righteous, and bitter all the way to the bottom.” It’s very different than gospel repentance.
It’s selfish because it’s fundamentally self-centered. Religious repentance is the repentance that happens only when you get caught. It’s only when you’re mourning about the consequences of sin; it’s like the kid that gets his hand actually caught in the cookie jar.
It’s self-righteous because, at its heart, it’s really looking at oneself as the basis for one’s relationship with God. Religious repentance is almost like we feel that if we repent hard enough, if we mourn long enough, if we grieve deep enough, that that will somehow atone for our sins and make us right with God.
It’s bitter all the way down, because, as Keller says, “In religion our only hope is to live a good enough life for God to bless us, therefore every instance of sin and repentance is traumatic, unnatural, and horribly threatening.”
Well, I don’t think repentance should be traumatic. It shouldn’t be unnatural, it shouldn’t be horribly threatening. It should be as natural as breathing in the life of the Christian, as we are constantly turning our hearts back towards God, that we are turning back to Christ. So we want to learn what that’s like. What does it mean to repent in a gospel kind of way?
I don’t think there’s any passage of Scripture that helps us more with that than James 4:7-10, so that’s where we’re going to be this morning. This is actually continuing the paragraph that we began looking at last week, James chapter 4. So James is confronting us with the deep disorientation of our hearts. He has already said to this community, “There is conflict, there are wars among you”; that’s, really, symptomatic of a deeper problem, and as he diagnoses that problem he said, “It’s because of your desires. It’s your disordered desires,” or idolatrous desires. In fact, he calls them adulteresses. He says that they’re guilty of spiritual adultery because they are looking to created things rather than to the Creator for the deep satisfaction of their hearts; they’re living out relationship with God.
And then he’s reminded them of God’s jealous love for them and of God’s all-sufficient grace, and it’s in light of that grace that then he gives them ten commands, packed into these four verses, ten commands that all have to do with repentance. So we’re going to read the passage, and then I’m not going to so much look at the ten commands in order, but I want us to see three things that are kind of summaries of these commands, three things that have to do with gospel repentance. Okay? Let’s read the text, James 4:7-10.
“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil,l and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. 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, and he will exalt you.”
This is God’s word.
Okay, so I want you to see that gospel repentance requires three things, alright? It requires resisting evil, it requires changing the heart, and it requires embracing God’s radical grace.
1. Resisting Evil
2. Heart Change
3. Radical Grace
All three of those things are necessary for there to be gospel repentance. So let’s look at each one of those in turn.
1. Resisting Evil
First of all, gospel repentance requires resisting evil, and that means especially moral evil. You see this in a couple of ways here in the passage.
You see it, first of all, in terms of the evil outside of us, and then also the evil inside of us. So look, first of all, at verse 7, where he says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
Now the devil, of course, is the personification of evil. There is a personal and real spiritual being, a personality, who is bent on evil. In fact, C.S. Lewis described him as “the Bent One,” right, the twisted one; this fallen angelic creature who lords over a host of spiritual beings, and their one malevolent design, their intention, is to get you to do evil, to turn you away from God.
The devil is called in Scripture the “tempter,” he’s called the “deceiver,” he’s called the “accuser of the brothers,” and his basic aim and intention is to get us off of the right path so that he can accuse us, so that he can condemn us. James tells us we are to resist him.
That word “resist” means to oppose, it means to stand against. It’s a military word. It’s the idea of a garrison of soldiers who are withstanding an enemy. It’s the same word that Paul uses in Ephesians 6:13, where he says, “Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil, and having done all to stand firm.” It’s the word that Peter uses when he says, “Be sober and be vigilant, for your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith.” We are to resist. You have to resist the evil outside of you, not be complicit with that evil, with the evil one.
You remember that great Bob Dylan song where he said you’re either going to serve the Lord - you’re going to serve the devil or you’re going to serve the Lord, but you have to serve somebody. I mean, here’s the reality, folks: you’re either serving one or the other. You’re serving the Lord or you’re serving the devil. You’re either on the side of good and all that is good or you’re on the side of evil, and to repent means to turn away from evil, to turn against the evil, to oppose the evil, and that means opposing the evil one, resisting him.
But it’s not only that we’re resisting the evil that is external to us, that is outside of us. Someone once said that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, so we also have to resist the evil that is inside of us.
This is pretty obvious in the text in verse 8, where James says, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners.” So he’s confronting them with their personal sin. “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Repentance means resisting that, your personal sin. It means opposing your personal sin, the sin, the evil that is in your heart.
Let me give you an illustration of what this means. A few years ago my father-in-law was visiting us, and he’s kind of a handyman, he’s always helping us fix things on the house. He was working on some things outside and he noticed that there was decay in some of the wood outside, and it looked like there were termites. So he said, “I think you need to call an exterminator, have somebody come examine this, see if there’s termites.”
So Holly called me on the phone and I started trying not to panic, you know; termites, that sounds really bad. So we call the exterminator to come. We didn’t have termites, we had carpenter ants, and not only did we have carpenter ants, but he found out that in the crawlspace we had mice. So Holly said, “We’re selling the house.” We don’t do mice.
So, you know, we had a big exterminator bill, we started trying to deal with the problem of the carpenter ants, getting rid of the mice, and so on. Of course, I’m just frustrated. I’m like, “Why did God make carpenter ants and mice in the first place? Why do these things even exist?”
But the problem is this, that if you don’t deal with the carpenter ants you’re going to have bigger problems, right? You might say, “Exterminate the ants or they’re going to exterminate you,” right? You deal with the mice or you’re going to have diseases and filth and problems in the house and so on. You have to deal with these things, because they’re going to cause bigger problems.
Scripture says that if we don’t deal with sin that we’re going to have bigger problems in our lives. In fact, John Owen the Puritan kind of paraphrased the apostle Paul when he said, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.”
That’s what James is telling us here. He’s telling us that we have to deal with these sins in our lives. You might think of them as the termites of the soul, right? They’re eating away from the inside, and if we don’t deal with this problem in the heart, the evil inside of us, we can never really repent. We can’t be in relationship with God without that kind of repentance.
I think it was George MacDonald, who was really influential in the life of C.S. Lewis. I don’t agree with everything George MacDonald wrote, but George MacDonald one time said that “the one principle of hell is, ‘I am my own.’” “I am my own.” That’s the heart of sin. That’s the heart of sin. That’s why James says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil… Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” We have to oppose that. So, repentance means, essentially, taking God’s side against evil, taking God’s side against evil external to you but also the evil in your own hearts. So, gospel repentance requires resisting evil.
2. Heart Change
Secondly, gospel repentance requires heart change. It requires changing the heart. Again, you see it in verse 8. “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
Douglas Moo says, “These two commands call for a radical repentance that embraces the total person,” so it’s hands and heart. So, James wants us to deal with behavior, but not just behavior, he wants us to go deeper than that, to the root of the behavior. He wants us to deal with our hearts.
Of course that means moral cleansing in the heart; I mean, that’s part of repentance, it’s cleansing the heart. But it’s not just that, it’s also unifying the divided heart. What I want you to see here is that sin divides the heart and repentance is the pathway that gets us back to a reintegrated heart.
Some of you may remember, back years ago when you were running Windows computers, that sometimes you had to do something called defragging your system, right? The defragmentation of your system, because all of the data in your computer would get kind of spread out all over your hard drive instead of all in one place together, and it slows down the computer, so you have to run this defrag program.
Well, essentially, repentance is the defragmentation of the soul, because in our hearts, this is what happens when we’ve sinned: when we sin, we start getting fragmented, we start losing integrity. I mean, what is integrity? It’s wholeness, and James is after wholeness. He wants our lives to be whole, and sin is what fragments us so that we are not whole.
Now, there are all kinds of illustrations of this in popular culture. You might think of the really dramatic ones, okay. You might think of Smeagol and Gollum, The Lord of the Rings, right, this kind of schizophrenic conflict within oneself.
You might think of Kylo Ren, right, in the new Star Wars movies. So Kylo Ren, he’s the son of Han Solo, and there’s a scene where he’s drawn by the dark side of the force, right, and yet here’s his father before him, and he says, “I’m tired of this conflict within; it’s tearing me apart.”
You might think of the classic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so this kind of monster story where here’s a man who has given in to evil and the potion actually turns him into this personification of evil.
One of my favorite illustrations of this actually comes from a novel by C.S. Lewis. This is not one of the better-known novels; it’s called The Pilgrim’s Regress. In The Pilgrim’s Regress the main character of the story is a guy named John, and he’s on this journey, sort of like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan’s story. There’s a place in the story where John comes upon a group of disfigured, deformed men. They’re kind of lying on the ground, they’re disfigured and they’re deformed, and walking among them is what Lewis describes as “a dark witch.”
He says that these men, they’re paying close attention, of course, to this woman, who’s walking among them. She’s giving them something to drink, but as they drink it it causes them to actually kind of spin off other creatures. So, an arm will start to look like a reptile and then will detach itself from the body and start crawling around like a reptile. It’s a really grotesque scene; I mean, some of you would love this book, some of you would hate it.
But it’s an incredible story, and Lewis describes one young man among them who looks healthy, and this witch comes to him, and she offers him this cup, and you can see the conflict. He reaches up to grab the cup and then he turns away, she starts to walk away, and finally he grabs the cup and he drinks it, and then she walks away, and when she does his fingers kind of take on a life of their own.
Well, the name of the woman Luxuria, which is the Latin word for lust, for one of the seven deadly sins, okay. So, essentially, this is a picture of someone who’s giving in to lust, and the most important thing about this is Lewis’s comment on the scene in his personal notes in the annotated edition of Pilgrim’s Regress. This is his comment: he says, “Lechery means not simply forbidden pleasure, but the loss of man’s unity.”
In other words, it’s the fragmentation of the soul, it’s the dividing of the soul. When you give in to sin it begins to divide you, it begins to split you, it begins to fragment your very self, alright? Some of us live with this all the time. Some of you know that there’s more than one you, right; there’s a shadow side to you, and you know what this is, when Mr. Nasty gets kind of unleashed on your family and there’s this part of you that no one else really knows except those who are closest to you. It’s a shadow side of you, it’s a dark side of you.
Some of you know the things you do in the darkness, that you do in solitude, that you do in private, this private kind of life, and it’s a disorientation and a fragmentation of the soul, a division of the self. Repentance means correcting that. Repentance means bringing these fragmented parts of the soul together once again so that there is a whole heart for God. Sin divides us, it tears our souls, it fragments our hearts, it makes us less human, it makes us less ourselves and less than what God intends us to be. What we need is a reintegration of the heart, reintegration of the soul.
So, how does that happen? Well, it happens in repentance, and you see it in James says here, “Purify your hearts, you double-minded.” There’s the fragmentation, the double-minded, the two-souled person. So, there must be a purification of the heart, and this is how it works: the purification of the heart is a total reorientation of the life, okay, hands and heart, deeds and disposition, right, behavior and motivation. All of that gets reoriented. “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
But it’s kind of counterintuitive, because before you can really enter into the joy of repentance there’s a sorrow that’s involved, right? You see that in verse 9, where James says, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” He’s using the language of an Old Testament prophet who’s calling on God’s people to mourn for their sins.
You remember even Jesus spoke this way, when Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” and when he said in Luke 6:25, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” I mean, it’s going to be one way or the other. Either you’re going to mourn now so that there’s joy later or you can live in kind of blissful oblivion to the reality of your sin now and weep later. It’s one way or the other.
What James is calling upon us to do is to mourn our sins now so that there can be joy later. So this is an inside-out kind of process, it’s a counterintuitive process, and it’s upside-down, because the pattern here is humility before exaltation. You see that in verse 10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
James here is probably quoting the Lord Jesus, who was his brother, his half-brother. Several times Jesus said something almost exactly like this, and I think maybe the most important one is in Luke chapter 18, and it’s the story of two guys who go to the temple to pray; do you remember this?
One of the guys goes to the temple, he’s a Pharisee, he’s a religious guy, he has his act together; and he goes, and he essentially says, “God, I just thank you I’m not like other people. I’m not the adulterer, I’m not the extortioner, I’m not a sinner; I’m certainly not like this guy over here, I’m not like the tax collector. I fast twice a week, I tithe of all that I possess.” He felt like he really had his act together!
The other guy was a tax collector, and he’s kind of like the lowest riffraff of society. Everybody despised the tax collector. Think about how you feel about an IRS agent who calls you to do an audit, okay, and then multiply that tenfold. That’s how they felt about the tax collector. The tax collectors were guilty of extortion, they were always using people for their own advantage.
This tax collector comes to the temple to pray, and Jesus says he won’t even lift up his eyes to heaven. He said he looks down, he beats on his breast, and he prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
This is what Jesus says about him. He says, “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God, for those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
How do you get a whole heart? You get a whole heart by admitting you don’t have a whole heart. You get a whole heart by humbling yourself. You get a whole heart by taking inventory of what’s wrong on the inside, getting honest, confessing it, and crying out for grace and for mercy. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In other words, gospel repentance does away with pretense. It means that you can’t pretend that everything is perfect and alright; it means that you have to get honest and right with God.
3. Radical Grace
So, gospel repentance; it requires resisting evil, it requires a change of heart, this inside-out process; but here’s the other thing, the third thing, and I think the most important of all: gospel repentance requires radical grace. It requires radical grace, what we might think of as the embrace of God’s grace.
You see this in several ways in the passage, alright? You see it in our embrace of God’s grace. Look at the “therefore” in verse 7. James says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God.” Now, why does he say “therefore”? He says that because of what’s gone before in verse 6, and in verse 6 it’s all grace, right? Do you see what it says in verse 6? It says that “God gives more grace” and that God “resists the proud” but he “gives grace to the humble.” It’s in the context of grace, therefore, that we repent.
You also see the grace in the promises in this passage. Three times in these verses James gives us a command followed by a promise. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” That’s a promise. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” That’s a promise. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
Those are promises of God. Those are declarations of God’s favor given to us before we repent. That’s motivation for us, that we can be sure of receiving God’s favor when we return to him.
Let’s just think about one of those for just a few minutes before we wrap up, drawing near to God. What does it mean to draw near to God?
Let me give you a statement from Adolph Saphir, who was a Hungarian Jewish Christian in the 19th century. He was converted under the ministry of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and he wrote a wonderful book called The Hidden Life: Thoughts on Communion with God. In this book Adolph Saphir said this; he said, “Drawing nigh to God is the most comprehensive expression to describe the soul’s attitude towards God. Prayer is the culminating point of this attitude. Drawing nigh to God describes the character of the Christian’s life. In the meditation of our hearts, in the desires of our souls, in the activities and enjoyments of our daily path, we approach God, for we wish to live before him conscious of his presence, in constant dependence and in constant enjoyment of his grace.”
That’s what it means to draw near to God. It means to prayerfully place ourselves before him, to come to live, to live coram Deo, before the face of God.
You know what becomes crystal clear in Scripture when you read the Bible? The only way to draw near to God is through a mediator, and that mediator is Jesus Christ. Listen to what the writer to the Hebrews said. “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened up for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
Here’s the deal: you can’t repent apart from grace, and the grace is given to you in Christ! The only way to repent, the only way to draw near to God, the only way to come to God, is through grace. But the grace is there, there’s the invitation: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Now, here’s the good news: if you draw near to God, if you make the turn, you make the U-turn to get back on the right path; when you do, and you’re headed towards God, he’s there waiting for you with open arms.
Do you remember that wonderful story of the prodigal son? Here’s this son (here’s the painting, by the way, Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son), this wonderful story where the son takes his father’s inheritance, right. He goes off into the far country, he wastes it all on wild living. He’s partying, he’s drinking, he’s probably sleeping around; he’s completely breaking his father’s heart, completely estranged from the family, wasting it all; until that moment when he wakes up. He’s in the pigpen, he’s with the swine, and he realizes, “What am I doing? I’m starving here, I’m eating the husks of swine, and if I go back to my father I can at least go back and live as one of his servants.”
He starts the journey home, and he comes home, and do you remember what it’s like when he comes home? Do you remember what the father does? The father doesn’t start preparing a lecture for the son to tell him everything that he did wrong. That’s not what he does. He doesn’t say, “You know what? I’m going to put him on probation, and if he’ll just straighten up and live well for the next three months, well then we’ll welcome him back into the family.” That’s not what he does. He runs to meet him! He runs to meet him, and he says, “Kill the fatted calf! Let’s have a party! My son is back!” That’s what he does.
I want you to know that every single time you turn your heart back to God, he’s not waiting there ready to judge you; he’s already judged Jesus for you. He’s waiting there with open arms, and he’s saying, “My son, my daughter, my child is coming home; let’s celebrate, let’s have a party.” You see, as we embrace God’s grace, we can be confident that God embraces us in his grace, that he’s there waiting on us.
Now, the very heart of this whole movement of gospel repentance is seen when a person confronts the reality of their sin and the reality of God’s grace in the cross of Christ, so I want to end with this. The great hymnwriter John Newton - he wrote the hymn we all know and love, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me.” But he wrote another hymn that’s not as well known, but it’s a powerful story. It’s really the story of Peter, who denied Jesus, you remember, three times. You remember in the gospel narrative that Jesus looked at Peter, and when Jesus looked at Peter, that’s when he realized what he had done, and he goes out and he weeps bitterly.
That’s the story behind the hymn that John Newton wrote called “The Look.” The lyrics of this hymn, I think, capture exactly what we want in gospel repentance, and I just want to end with these words. Listen to what Newton said. He said,
In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight
And stopped my wild career.
I saw one hanging on a tree,
In agonies and blood,
Who fixed his languid eyes on me
As near his cross I stood.
Sure, never till my latest breath
Can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with his death,
Though not a word he spoke.
My conscience felt and owned the guilt
And plunged me in despair.
I saw my sins his blood had spilt
And helped to nail him there.
Alas, I knew not what I did,
But now my tears are vain.
Where shall my trembling soul be hid,
For I the Lord have slain?”
Here’s Peter. He’s coming to grips with what he’s done, his sin has put Jesus on the cross. But listen.
A second look he gave which said,
‘I freely all forgive.
This blood is for your ransom paid;
I die that thou mayest live.’
Thus while his death my sin displays
In all its blackest hue,
Such is the mystery of grace
It seals my pardon, too.
With pleasing grief and mournful joy
My spirit now is filled,
That I should such a life destroy,
Yet live by him I killed.
That’s the heart of repentance. Pleasing grief, mournful joy, because I look at the cross and I see my sins are so bad he had to die for me. There’s the mourning. I’m so lost that he had to die for me; there’s the mourning. But at the same time, he loves me so much that he was willing to die for me; there’s the joy. That’s the heart of repentance. It’s mournful joy, it’s pleasing grief. It’s resisting the evil that put him on the cross, it’s changing our hearts so that they are focused on Christ, oriented to Christ, a whole heart for him once again, and it’s doing that in the context, in the embrace of God’s gracious provision for us in him.
Let me ask you this morning where you are with the Lord. Some of you have been Christians for years and you’ve just been living distant. You’re just not living close. You’re not in fellowship with God, you’re not in communion with God, you’re not walking with God. Your heart is far from God. The call this morning is [to] repent! Take these fragments of your heart and unite them once again so that you are serving him with a whole heart.
Some of you this morning, you’ve never been saved; you’re lost, you’re lost in your sins, and what you need is salvation. You need to repent, you need to seek his forgiveness. It’s not that your repentance earns anything, but it’s that you recognize the sufficient provision of God through his Son, Jesus Christ, it’s enough to pay for your sins, it’s enough to cleanse your heart, it’s enough to make you new, and you return to him in repentance and faith. I guarantee you that if you come to him, he will receive you with open arms.