A Theology of the Heart from James

by Peyton Hill November 17, 2015

The church is made up of imperfect people who are being transformed into the image of Christ. Unfortunately, on this side of heaven we will continue to have churches filled with quarreling, fighting church members. In James 4:1, Pastor James asks rhetorically, “And what causes this behavior?” James answers, “You quarrel and fight because of what’s in your hearts.”

What is in our hearts?

And what is in our hearts? “Passions at war within you.” The word, “passions,” is used five times in the NT, and two of the instances are in James 4. It can also be translated “pleasures.” James says, “You fight and quarrel because of the passions/pleasures at war within you.” He says in 4:2, “You desire and do not have.” James goes back to his argument from the last part of chapter 3. He’s going back to the jealously within us that craves for something we don’t have. He’s going back to the selfish ambition that clings to what we have so that others won’t take it away. You have a desire, and that desire eats at you. This word “desire” is a sexual word speaking to an overwhelming lust within. We long and pine for our own pleasures, and when we don’t get what we want, we fight and we quarrel.

This was Satan’s issue. He desired something he could not have; he wanted the throne of God. And like Satan before us, when we cannot have what we desire, we transform into fighters who seek to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10).

James says what these people were doing because of what was going on in their hearts is that they were committing murder (4:2). No one is actually killing each other (that we know of), but James is doing what is half-brother Jesus did in saying that murder comes from a deep rage birthed from the desires in our hearts. James says, “You want what you want, and you tell yourself that you deserve it. And when you don’t get it, you murder. You hate and you complain, and you commit murder in your heart. And you do it by picking fights and quarrelling with others.” James is not addressing unbelievers here. He is speaking to the churches scattered abroad. They’re quarreling and they’re fighting, and they’re doing it because their hearts are overcomes with passionate desires for their own pleasures.

James sentences the churches in 4:4. He sees the symptoms. He sees the quarrelling among the people of God. He hears about all of the fighting, and he says, “You adulterers.” James has already said in 3:15 that selfish ambition and bitter jealousy is demonic, and now James calls us spiritual adulterers. On one hand, we say we’re the bride of Christ. We’re married to Christ. On the other hand, we want to get into bed with our own desires and passions. We are part of the bride as long as it doesn’t mean we have to give up our other pleasures, and James says, “You’re an adulterer.” You say you are friends with God, but you’re actually friends of the world. Brothers and sisters, that’s not soft language.

How do we overcome our hearts?

And so, having looked at our symptoms and diagnosed the passion-driven adulteress nature of our hearts, James moves forward to answer the question: “How do we overcome our hearts?”

James begins in 4:5 by reminding the church of the jealous nature of the love of God. To this point in James’ letter jealousy has been portrayed in a very poor light. In 3:14, James condemns bitter jealousy, but here in 4:5, James points us to the Scripture to show us the jealousy of God.

What was the first of the 10 Commandments God gave to Moses? “Don’t have any other gods besides Me.” What was the second? “Don’t make any idols, whether material or in your heart, and call them gods.” Why does God demand that he alone be our God? Because first, there is no other God, and second, he is jealous for our love.

We know how willing God is to show us his jealousy for our devotion because he sent his Son to redeem for himself people from every nation, tribe, and language. The cross reminds us how jealous God is for our affections. No other god came to earth to take on the punishment that we deserve. None of the passions of our hearts can satisfy us like the love of God.

And if that wasn’t enough, James goes on to say in 4:6: “But he gives more grace.” God’s jealous actions overflow from his marvelous grace. The jealous grace of God reminds us of the jealous affections a husband has for his wife. Pastor James tells us that we receive God’s grace when we humble ourselves to a point of desperation and neediness. God gives us his grace when we reach an end to ourselves and realize that nothing we do and nothing we gain will satisfy. God overcomes the sinful desire for temporary pleasures by giving grace, and then we repent toward God.

Responding to God’s jealousy and grace

In 4:7–10, James gives 8 commands. These are imperative statements, things we are to do, that flow out of the indicative statements, things that God has done. God overcomes our hearts by pouring grace upon grace. We don’t deserve it; we did not earn it. How do we respond? We repent toward God. The Bible teaches that the response to God’s grace is always repentance and faith. These are not separate actions but rather two sides of the same coin. We repent toward God, meaning we turn away from ourselves and our sin and our own pleasures (repentance) and turn toward God in faith, clinging to his promises.

James is not writing an evangelistic tract. He’s writing to believers scattered abroad into various churches, many who probably had James as their pastor in Jerusalem before being forced to leave. James tells these believers, “Respond to God’s grace in Christ by repenting toward God.” “Submit to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, cleanse your hands, purify your hearts, be wretched and mourn and weep, turn your laughter into mourning and your joy to gloom, and humble yourselves before the Lord.” But do these things out of a response to God’s jealous love for you. He has given you grace to turn from the affections of your heart toward him and his wonderful work on the cross.


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