Depravity and Responsibility


As opposed to jealousy and selfish ambition, James has shown that truth, purity of content and belief, gives rise to peaceableness.  Those who act in the sphere of peace—the sum total of those traits listed in verse 3: 17—will produce a harvest of righteousness. This is the fruit of those who make peace. Our text, however, shows the great challenges that always threaten to forestall, impede, and interrupt the harvest of righteousness.


I. Verse 1a – In light of the righteousness that comes from the labor and judicious work of a peaceful man, what is the source of unrighteousness? How can it be that, with the prospect of peacefulness, the radical opposite actually characterizes human relationships including relationships in the church? “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?”

A. Your lusts cause quarrels (verses 1b – 5). James gives a sobering picture of the continuing tendency of the flesh, our corrupt affections, to cause distress and division.

  1. Though the Old Man is dead (Romans 6:6), the passions that once dominated the sinner in his unregenerate state, still wage war though they are sure to be done away with completely (Romans 6:6, 12). James uses the word “members,” also used by Paul in Romans 6:13, and indicates that these lusts still “wage war” in the various ways in which our present body expresses our will. James is giving a vivid and detailed presentation of the vigor, depth, and insistence of indwelling sin.
  • (Verse 2) We justify and often give way to purely personal desires of acquisitiveness and applause and when this desire does not materialize as we want, we harbor envy, jealousy, and hate and, as it were, commit murder in our hearts by allowing our desires to cultivate malice toward a brother. We are given to bicker and claim ascendancy over others, or point to our own self-conceived worthiness of recognition. We glory in our self-sufficiency and do not ask God for those things that are best.
  • Verse 3 – When we do ask of God, we ask as the double-minded man in 1:6-8; we want God to do for us what we deem best, not what is his will for our holiness. Our unmortified desires continue to infiltrate and bear their influence on our petitions so that we can hardly overcome our propensity for self-exaltation and personal comfort and pleasure.
  • Not only do our corrupt desires lead us to murder, they lead us to be adulteresses. God’s saved people are the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:25-27; Revelation 19:7, 8; 21:2, 9). When the marriage is consummated in heaven with the full number of saved ones as the bride, they will be “without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish;” they will be “clothed with fine linen, bright and pure;” as the bride they will be the New Jerusalem and have the “glory of God, its radiance like a rare jewel, . . . and nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable.” Yet, in our present state we find ourselves unfaithful like an adulteress, making idols of this world. The deeply dwelling infidelity of the flesh fights against this work of purification, clings to its source of pleasure and meaning in the world. This should be a warning, that if our desire for the world is unchallenged by a desire for holiness, we show that our friendship is exclusively with the world and we will have God as our enemy.
  1. (Verse 5) Because of the subtle power of indwelling sin, God animates his holy jealousy for his rightful place in the lives of his redeemed. Though some say that this verse refers to the envious character of our own spirit, it is more likely showing the source of the “greater grace” in verse 6.
  • As a future husband would express jealousy to any that challenged his right to his future wife, so God determines to kill the ungodly and unlawful challenger to his rights over the bride for whom Christ died. The presence of the Spirit serves as a constant challenge to the rule of the flesh. The inevitable result of the presence of the Spirit is that “the body of sin might be brought to nothing” (Romans 6:6). The “body of sin” refers to a single principle of corrupt affections that is exhibited in a variety of ways depending on the dynamics of our relationships at any given moment. Its many works are listed in Galatians 5:19-21. But, it is certain that it will be destroyed; it will be put to death. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). Those who have no internal principle of holiness in the presence of the Holy Spirit do not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9) and they will die an eternal death. But those who have Christ, also have the Spirit who will energize their renewed nature to carry on a life-long battle with the corrupt affections, “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14).
  • In order to overcome the “pleasures that wage war in our members,” God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts whereby we cry ‘Abba,’ Father” (Galatians 4:6). “He jealously desires the Spirit which he has made to dwell in us,” and through a process of increasing holiness and spiritual transformation the Spirit will form his own character in us and slay all that opposes his nature. As the glory of the Father is manifested in election, the glory of the Son is manifested in the redemptive blood-shedding and defeat of death and hell, so we find the glory of the Spirit in our being sealed by him “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14). The Spirit will bring all of those for whom Christ died to the final inheritance where they will be “without fault before the throne of God” (Revelation 14:5). The jealousy of the Father for the Spirit’s successful task of sanctifying polluted hearts results in the absolute purity of the bride of his beloved Son.
  • Paul employed this same image: “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11: 2). The zeal that God has for the purifying influences of the Spirit were embraced by Paul in his apostolic ministry. We should imitate that zeal and be jealous to the point of putting to death any rival to the full reign of Christ in our hearts.

B. The remedy is a humble reception of divine grace (verses 6-10).

  1. After introducing us to the energetic work of the Spirit according to the fervent desire of God, James focuses on the need that we have for a continual inflow of Grace, a grace provided, in fact, by this same Spirit. Grace operates in two ways for the saving and sanctifying of sinners.
  • First, grace operates irresistibly and unilaterally in bestowing the new birth, repentance and faith, and justification on the sinner, dead in his trespasses and sins. This is the grace of God that gives us objective standing with God as forgiven, justified, adopted, reconciled, and redeemed people. “Through [Christ] we also have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 8:2).
  • The second operation of grace is that which transforms us and entices us moment by moment energizing our will and affections to consent to its promptings and desire deeper and more thorough conformity to the glory of our eternal home. “And from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16). John means the initial power and gifts of grace in regeneration, granting repentance and faith and making us children of God, and then the continual inflow of grace day by day. It is within this context that Paul wrote, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
  • John Gill suggests that this grace is “a growth in every grace, and in the knowledge of Christ Jesus, so that this grace becomes a well of living waters, springing up into eternal life, which at last will have its perfection in glory.” In conformity with this idea we find Peter commanding, “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). To the need for this grace James is appealing, and he admonishes his readers to seek it.
  1. James establishes the guiding principle for each admonition he gives in asserting the scriptural principle annunciated in Proverbs 3:34, “God is opposed to the proud [or is scornful to scorners] but gives grace to the humble.” If we are to receive greater portions of this transforming grace, we must not arrogate to ourselves either sanctifying strength and any sort of intrinsic goodness, but look to God alone as the source of all blessing. This involves a recognition of our weakness and corruption and the destructive intentions of Satan.
  • (Verses 7 and 8a) – James sees sets forth the dominant idea with the phrase, “Submit to God.” This involves a two fold recognition of spiritual dynamics of submission and resistance.
    • Resist the devil. He comes with promises of pleasure, possessions, and prestige in this life but the end of it is futility and eternal death. If we know his ways and that he has come to us with enticing prospects only to deceive and destroy us, and we confront him with this truth and deny his various subtleties of reasoning, then he will flee. He does not like exposure for the liar that he is. He is a manipulator of truth and he hates the exposure that his great gifts are given over to mere chicanery.
    • Draw near to God. Do not resist him, but invite the invasion of your life by all his goodness, holiness, beauty, and justice, with the knowledge that he grants these blessings only by grace. The promise, however, is that such desire for his presence will surely be fulfilled, for “he will draw near to you.”
  • (Verses 8b-9) – The second major idea is “Distrust yourself.” Do not look for goodness in yourself or even consider that there is a sphere of your life that is not continually and immediately dependent on grace. “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
    • James refers to the ritual cleansing and sacrifices as a model for the first quality of drawing near to God because of a thorough distrust of ourselves. The priests were required to wash before offering the various sacrifices on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16: For example see verse 24, “And he shall wash his body with water in a holy place, put on his garments, come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people.”). This is a type of repentance for sin and faith in Christ. Cleaning the body and the hands represents a recognition of evil and the necessity of turning from it, while purifying the heart represents the purifying effect of a perfect sacrifice for sins. David the Psalmist saw this truth when he wrote, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart. . . . Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the God of Jacob” (Psalm 24:3-6). That initial turning and trust that occurs at the threshold of justification continues throughout the Christian life for our neediness does not diminish.
    • The writer of Hebrews follows a similar image in pointing to the reality that only through our high priest can we approach God with the purity required. “Since we have a great 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. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (10: 22, 23).
    • Though the blessings of salvation bring reasons to rejoice and stir confidence in the certainty of all the provisions of God’s grace, the Christian does not fan the flames of flippancy or forget the depth of true mourning for sin. Comfort accompanies mourning (Matthew 5:4). We are not often called upon to “Be miserable and mourn and weep,” but James recognizes, by divine inspiration, a tendency on our parts to forget the depths of our sin—“Infinite, infinite, sin upon sin.” In order to avoid presumption of any sort and at any stage of our Christian walk, James knows that laughter often reflects a carnal shallowness erupting in a spirit of ridicule and apparent joy frequently as a façade soon to be exposed as without substance. Such laughter should be an occasion for mourning; such joy should prompt gloom. That we so easily forget the one on whom all depends and isolate ourselves to worldly values for a sense of well-being ought to be an occasion for alarm and renewed repentance.
  1. James summarizes his instructions in verse 10 by returning to the initial principle of verse 6: “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” The desire for exaltation of ourselves, our spirits, our interests without primary and conscious reference to the glory of our God and our unending requirement of grace upon grace is idolatrous. It constitutes us, again, as adulteresses, idolaters, self-sufficient, in need of nothing. Rather, only a humble submission to the provisions of God for salvation and present sustenance brings proper exaltation as a child of God.


II. Is any mortal man to be set as a lawgiver and judge over his fellow mortals? (Verse 11, 12) Here James returns to the destructive and unruly conduct of a man through his tongue. He has looked at the tongue in 1:26, in 3:1-12; and will return again in 5:12. He gives a specific instance in which slowness to speak avoids lawless confusion.

A. He gives a command not to speak in an evil way against a brother. “Evil-speaking” implies that a person condemns a fellow Christian with a severe statement against his moral character, supposedly in an area of personal discretion. He imputes evil to his brother by a specific criticism. Paul observes a similar situation in the Roman church over food when he asks, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” The person stands or falls before his own master. Even when a brother is overtaken in a “fault,” a true violation of divine law, he is to be dealt with in a spirit of gentleness and watchfulness (Galatians 6:1).

B. This kind of judgmentalism James says is a judgment against the law. How is this so?

  1. It appears that the criticism, or the imputation of evil to the brother, concerns a matter not specifically required by or forbidden in the Law of God. A person has pursued a course of action on some element of personal discretion, personal conduct, or personal relationships, that is not an issue of moral law. Perhaps, given the tensions of Jewish Christianity in this time, it has to do with something in the ceremonial law about foods or clothing. Perhaps it is about maintaining friendships with some unbelievers. A person with a different set of personal convictions views this conduct and judges this brother to be violating moral standards. He invents a moral oughtness where God has not established one, and in doing so judges the Law as given by God to be inadequate and God himself to be an imperfect Lawgiver. Jesus himself was judged as a blasphemer, lawbreaker, demon-possessed by the learned religious pundits of the day, his good was evil spoken of, and his truth was misconstrued as a lie. When we judge others and speak of them as evildoers, when we criticize, and seek the defamation of the character of another over mere personal judgments or issues of personal offense, we seek to invent standards of judgment that relate to us, our preference, and our well-being and thus condemn the Law of God that stands over us. The critic himself violates the “royal law” “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and does not walk in light, but in darkness (1 John 2: 8-11).
  2. Perhaps the critic thinks he knows the heart of the person and judges him to be a person with evil motives when his purpose and his motives may actually be God-honoring. He makes himself an omniscient and morally perfect judge with an ability to adjudicate the moral dimensions of every person’s thoughts. Only God can read the heart and he alone has the competence and capacity to give full and perfect judgment. Paul indicated that those who judge others place themselves in a more vulnerable place under the judgment of God: “In passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:1, 2). God will make all things known perfectly in the final day: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:2, 3). This is God’s business alone and we gain no moral plumage in conducting ourselves as independent of the Law of God as we seek to adjudicate by our invented standard of conduct.
  3. James has emphasized with regularity and clear teaching that we are to study the law, embrace its teaching, and judge ourselves in it light, not others, and follow its wise dictates in our personal walk of faith (James 1:22-25). When we judge the law, we put ourselves in the wrong relationship to it. When we insinuate that certain persons or groups of people owe apologies to us when they have not violated any law of God concerning love for neighbor toward us, we stand in judgment of them, assume omniscience about their heart, and make ourselves lawgivers.

C. Moral Law comes from one source, for it is a reflection of the character and sovereign prerogatives of the Eternal Being, the maker and sustainer of the world, and its only governor, lawgiver and judge.

  1. Men may set policies and rules for their spheres of authority and governments may establish laws for the stability, safety, and protection of society. Since we view God as the one who establishes authority, we live within the confines of these ordered spheres of human existence (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). We live freely, however, even within these human regulations, for finally we trust God alone, and will answer to none but him in the final day of perfect judgment. If we are asked to violate God’s law for the sake of human law, we must be willing to suffer at the hands of men for the glory of God (Acts 4:18-20; 5:40-42).
  2. The Lawgiver is able to save or destroy. He may do this according to his own purpose and as a magnification of the goodness and inviolability of his Law.
  • God saves. God saves lawbreakers from their deserved wrath by giving a Savior who can meet all the demands of the Law both for perfect obedience and for its threat of death. Jesus died as a propitiation, to show both God’s love and his justice (1 John 4:10; Romans 3: 25, 26).
  • God destroys. God destroys sinners with the “punishment of eternal destruction,” away from any manifestation of mercy or the glory of his might (the full display of the beauty and ravishing love of his intra-trinitarian relationship – 2 Thessalonians 1:9, 10)


III. Who controls your life? (Verses 13-17) Another manifestation of indwelling sin is presumption and self-sufficiency. James points out this moral flaw with an invitation for solemn consideration of the folly of a certain way of thinking: “Go to now,” “Come, come,”—words of a wiser, more seasoned, and fittingly serious person to one who has not fully considered his manner of speaking. Though James has in mind primarily the attitude of this person, it is obliquely relevant that he employs a reference to the unthinking use of the tongue—“those of you who are saying.”

A. The words show the intent of the person to go to a specific city to engage in business. He has designated the amount of time it will take him to turn a profit worthy of the time and energy invested. It is all calculated; the future will yield to the shrewd plans of the businessman.

B. James corrects such a way of speech first by reminding the speaker that he has no certain knowledge of what will occur in his life from one day to another—or even one moment to another. The planner speaks as if he controls all other beings, and circumstances, and, in a sense, is self-existent, independent of any power outside of himself, functioning apart from extenuating circumstances. Like the evaporation of mist breathed on a glass so is our life—it appears for a little while and then vanishes. This is the common observation from generation to generation; none of those who have made our present are here to see what they made. As intense as convictions were, and as energetic and determined as were all the plans and schemes, none of the persons who engaged in the American Civil War, or any who lived during that time are presently alive in this world. Their life was a vapor.

C. If our speech is to manifest truth, and show true humility of heart, we should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

  1. God has created all things for a purpose. Each thing that comes into being does so from a power not in itself but from outside itself. It comes into being to fit into a purpose that transcends its brief period of existence. All things that are or ever have been have been given existence by God and their continuation has been absolutely subject to the same power of God that created them. The depth of our sin is manifested in this casual sense of independence as if our existence and environment, our pleasure and purpose were generated by ourselves and subject to our sovereignty.
  2. Even what appears to be pure chance to us is a matter of divine determination: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). Though prudence and wise planning are commended by God and are surely a reflection of his own character, we must have a constant and conscious disposition of awareness of our dependence on God and submission of our plans to him: “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established” (James 16:3). If God’s will is our preeminent desire in all our plans and prayers (1 John 5: 14, 15), we may be sure that our plans and prayers will “be established.”
  3. Without the commitment to our fragile and dependent existence to the Lord and apart from the determination to live to his glory, we function like the persons described in verses 2-4. James points to this godless confidence as arrogant and evil (verse 16). We think our plans arise from wisdom, shrewdness, and prudence, but God knows if they are sinfully covetous, lustfully worldly, and perversely independent: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs: 14:12). “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit” (Proverbs 16:2).


IV. (verse 17) – The failure to respond in a godly way to any of these admonitions, reprimands, and instructions is sinful. “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” Specifically, James is looking at the most recent word of caution about presumption, but that word includes all that is involved in the other parts of his moral vivisection of the human soul.

A. One might respond, “But if these evil propensities lie so deeply embedded in our spirit that they inevitably poison all that we do, are we to be held accountable for them? Perhaps we are not perpetrators of evil, but rather victims of our own natures.” Such a response would show a failure to consider the indivisible connection between motive and motion for all the actions of all moral agents. Jesus taught, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23). We are justly held accountable for what comes out of us and for the moral defilement from which all these actions and attitudes arise.

B. God is a moral agent who has such immutable goodness within him that he can do nothing other than that which is good, designed for his own glory, and demonstrates the full range of his perfectly excellent attributes. For these very things, moreover, he is to be praised as “Holy, holy, holy.” Intrinsic moral determination in God does not diminish his goodness and holiness and worthiness of praise but constitutes the very ground for them. Even so was it with Jesus Christ in his works of righteousness as the man in certain and inevitable pursuit of our redemption.

C. Consequently, a consistent source of repentance for sin is an ever-increasing awareness and acknowledgement of the power and perversity of indwelling sin. At the same time, we can take comfort in God’s full knowledge of all these things and his purpose of grace to redeem sinners and take them finally to heaven.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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