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How to Repent

Having noted that God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble, James issues a pointed call for repentance. The fact that his readers, who were Christians, still needed to make some changes reminds us that repentance is not a one-time event. James’s call is ten-fold.

1. “Submit therefore to God” (4:7a). Submission is surrendering one’s will to God; no complaining, no arguing, no second-guessing His instructions. In Jesus’ words, “Not My will but Yours be done.”

2. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (4:7b). Instead of resisting God’s will, we must resist the devil. We can and must. “Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13). We are assured that resisting this spiritual bully will put him to flight.

3. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (4:8a). While the devil runs away, God will draw near to us when we draw near to Him. The phrase draw near often refers to drawing near to God in worship, but here it is more inclusive. Instead of being friends with the world (v. 4), we need to be seeking affinity with God, letting Him fill our hearts.

4. “Cleanse your hands, you sinners” (4:8b). Our hands are the instruments through which we act. We need to clean up our conduct! That begins with. . .

5. “And purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8c). Any real change in us begins with a purified heart. It is the man with clean hands and a pure heart who can dwell with God (Psalm 24:4). James rightly notes that the problem is usually double-mindedness: trying to do God’s will and have our own way at the same time. “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24a).

6-8. “Be miserable and mourn and weep” (4: 9a). Some people equate repentance with sorrow. They are not the same thing, but they are connected. Repentance is a change produced by godly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10). James calls for genuine and deep sorrow for sin, using terms that we typically associate with death. Those who take sin lightly or readily dismiss it or make excuses for it do not have a penitent heart.

9. “Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into gloom” (4:9b). James is not calling for an ongoing morose disposition; elsewhere Christians are taught to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). But sin is no laughing matter, and we dare not join the world in gleefully minimizing it, much less embracing it.

10. “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (4:10). The first command, submit, and last command, humble yourself, are bookends enclosing this instruction. Do not exalt yourself. Let God do it, in the right way and at the right time.

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