Last Sunday evening, we looked at some of Paul’s words in the fourth chapter of I Thessalonians. What it means to do the will of God is often misunderstood, but Paul could not have been clearer. He said that doing the will of God means that we avoid fornication and stop cheating one another. In other words, we must submit ourselves to God’s law.
But then the question is, How do we do that? The desire to sin, even for believers, is often overwhelming. So, how do we face temptation and emerge the victor?
That’s what today’s text is about. Let’s see what the Word of God says.
The Great War
Before all else, we have to come to grips with exactly what we’re facing. Our tendency is to minimize the significance of temptation and sin. After all, a little “white lie” or a quick glance at a pretty woman won’t hurt anyone. It’s not like we’re planning a bank heist or the assassination of a President. So, what’s the big deal?
But remember the ugliness of our sin is not always, or even primarily, determined by how it affects other people. It hurts us by compromising our holiness before God. And, even more importantly, it brings into question the holiness of the Holy Spirit, whose work is to sanctify us and make us more like the Lord Jesus Christ. Our Heidelberg Catechism, in fact, cites this as the reason for the severity of God’s punishment for sin. It says that “His justice therefore requires that sin, which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment both of body and soul” (Q/A 11). God’s most high majesty would certainly include his absolute holiness.
Instead of thinking of temptation and sin as minor annoyances, let’s use more Biblical terminology. The Bible describes this as a war. Sin and temptation are on that side. We, by the grace of God, are on this side. The world, the flesh and the devil are our mortal enemies.
It’s been this way since Adam first sinned in the Garden of Eden. God said to the serpent, And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (Gen. 3:15). In the New Testament, we have a list of the weapons that we are supposed to use in this war, viz., the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the boots of the preparation of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:10–18). Most of these things, if not all of them, emphasize the objective truth of Jesus Christ. That’s what we fight with. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only thing in this world that never changes.
James also sees us engaged in battle. This isn’t particularly evident in our English translation, but several of the Greek words that James used relate specifically to warfare. The word translated resisteth (ἀντιτάσσεται) in verse 6 literally means to meet an enemy face to face in battle. This is what God does when he resists or opposes the proud. In verse 7 we have a related word, but this one describes one’s own troops. When a military commander hands out assignments, it was the soldier’s duty to submit (ὑποτάγητε) or to fall into line. The Lord instructs us to fall into line. We need to obey his commands. And also in verse 7 we have the word resist (ἀντίστητε), but here it’s not the same word that was used in the previous verse. Here the word means to stand against or withstand someone. That’s what we are to do with the devil. When we face him in combat, we are to oppose him with every ounce of energy we can muster.
Satan — Defeated but Still Fighting
Now, it is true that Satan is a defeated enemy. Jesus said, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven (Luke 10:18), and, The prince of this world is judged (John 16:11). Both of these verses speak about a past act, although Jesus probably meant that Satan’s fall and judgment was so certain and so close at hand at that point in his ministry that it was as if he had already fallen and been judged. In any case, the devil’s defeat was secured once and for all when Jesus Christ atoned for our sins on the cross and triumphantly rose again from the dead for our justification.
But this does not mean, however, that Satan is now powerless, that he can no longer touch men, or that he has no influence in men’s lives. The Bible indicates that he still quite active, particularly among unbelievers. I John 5:19 says that the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one (ἐν τῷ πονηρῷ). And II Timothy 2:26 adds that unbelievers are in the snare of the devil and are taken captive by him at his will. Only the grace of God can break such bondage.
Even believers are not immune to the devil’s wiles. When Paul wrote that the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly (Rom. 16:20), he meant that Satan had not yet been bruised under their feet. The Lord Jesus Christ had his foot firmly on the devil’s neck, but the brethren in Rome did not. Paul reassured them that this would soon be true of them, too. They would experience more and more daily victories in their battles against sin and falsehood. The fact that the Holy Spirit of God dwells in the people of God guarantees that it will be so.
Likewise, the Lord Jesus taught us to pray, Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matt. 6:13). Here evil (τοῦ πονηροῦ) is not just some abstract malevolent force, but the devil himself. The Greek could more accurately be translated, “Deliver us from the evil one.” According to the Heidelberg Catechism, this means that we are asking God “to preserve and strengthen us by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may make firm stand against [our deadly enemies] and not be overcome in this spiritual warfare, until finally complete victory is ours” (Q/A 127).
Both of these passages teach us that we have an increasing victory over temptation and sin. Although in this life we will not completely cease to sin, we will learn to overcome more and more sins so that sin ceases to be our way of life. This is what John meant when he wrote, We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not (I John 5:18).
With all of this in mind, what James wrote is both simple and profound. He wrote, Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (Jas. 4:7). It’s simple because the Word of God is summoning you to take sides in this great war. It’s also simple because victory is assured to those who submit themselves to God and oppose the devil. And yet it’s also profound because it affects your whole life. Submitting to God and resisting the devil are not things you do today but ignore tomorrow. Nor are they things you do in one area of your life (e.g., marriage) but not others (e.g., business). No, these principles have to be applied across the board, i.e., to every decision you make. And you will find that the more you practice them, the easier they will become. That’s why simply resisting the devil demands that he flee from you. He really doesn’t have much of a choice.
Joshua once challenged the people of his day to make a choice. The gods of the peoples round about seemed to offer so much. Supposedly, they blessed agriculture and livestock, seafarers and even caused it to rain. But the Jews had to commit themselves to one side or the other. Joshua said, And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD (Josh. 24:15).
The Jews of Joshua’s day chose to follow the Lord, and they did so until Joshua died. But what about you? Are you willing to commit yourself wholly the Lord in your striving against sin? Will you take a stand against all evil?
Hear how Joshua responded to the people. And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the LORD: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If ye forsake the LORD, and serve strange gods, then he will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that he hath done you good (Josh. 24:19–20). Did Joshua intend by this to discourage the people from following the Lord? Was it his purpose to dissuade them of their quick choice? Of course not. But he did want them to search their hearts, to make sure that their commitment to Jehovah was sincere and wholehearted. Why? Because those who end up forsaking the Lord in favor of some other god will find themselves to be casualties of war. Those who come to the Lord must weigh the cost of their commitment.
You all might think that a lot of this is fairly self-evident, and perhaps in some ways you are right. But keep in mind that it’s the nature of temptation to deceive you. As Jesus said to Peter, Behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren (Luke 22:31–32). Temptation will call into question your commitment to Christ. It will make you reassess what you value. But before the temptation ever comes, James exhorts you to choose sides. He says, Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Engaging the Enemy
Now, the question is, How does this work out in practice? When you’re in the midst of temptation, how should you handle it?
To begin with, the exhortation to submit to God and resist the devil is itself eminently practical. In fact, it’s exactly what Jesus did in his wilderness temptation. He resisted the devil by saying, Get thee behind me, Satan (Luke 4:8), which is also what he said when Peter later tempted to abandon the way of the cross. In other words, you have to make up your minds not to listen to Satan. Your ears should refuse to hear his words. And our Lord also submitted to God by answering every temptation with a quotation from Scripture. His mind was so filled with the Word of God that every temptation was contradicted in his thinking even before it was proposed.
You see, that’s the way it should be with you. Are your ears immune to Satan’s seductive voice? Have you memorized enough Scripture so that you can immediately answer every temptation that Satan puts in front of you? Understand, beloved, that your marching orders are given to you in the Bible, and that you cannot carry out your commander’s will unless you know what his will is. So, if it’s not your practice to study, memorize and meditate on the Word of God, you need to do so. This is the first and most important step in resisting temptation.
And don’t forget to pray! Jesus prayed for Peter. He also prayed for you. In his high priestly prayer he asked the Father to preserve you from the evil one (John 17:15). And in the Lord’s Prayer, he taught you to pray for yourself: And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matt. 6:13). If you have any hope that you can conquer temptation by your own strength, then let me assure you that you will fall. Only the sovereign power of Jesus Christ — the blood of the cross — can prevail in this war!
James also has some instructions to help you resist temptation. In explaining this in verses 8–10, he follows a common Hebrew practice of giving his instructions in reverse order, so that the first thing mentioned is the last thing done, and vice versa. So, to put it all in proper perspective, we’ll begin with at the end.
The last thing that James mentions is humility: Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up (v. 10). Here James is picking up on the war methodology that he had mentioned in verse 6. God stands against the proud in battle, but he also gives grace to the humble. So, if we would seek God’s favor in the war against temptation and sin, we have to humble ourselves before him.
True humility means that we have to know where we stand in relation to God. We are his creatures, mere men, the sons of mere men. Psalm 8 reminds us of this when it says, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Ps. 8:4). Job went even further. He said, How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman? Behold even to the moon, and it shineth not; yea, the stars are not pure in his sight. How much less man, that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm? (Job 25:4–6).
The mere fact that we are men doesn’t account for much, since mankind is condemned under the righteous judgment of God. We deserve to lose our jobs and have no money. We deserve sickness and disease. We deserve to have our houses burn to the ground and lose everything that we’ve ever owned. We deserve to sit in a pile of ashes with miserable companions, scraping the boils off our flesh with shards of pottery. We deserve death. Humility is recognizing that this is so.
Augustine once said, “As a tree must strike deep roots downwards, that it may grow upwards, so every one who has not his soul fixed deep in humility, exalts himself to his own ruin.” How true this is! And this makes God’s promise all the more wonderful. He says that if you will humble yourself before him, he will lift you up.
Humility is preceded in verses 8 and 9 by earnest repentance: Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.
Repentance is often pictured, especially in the Old Testament, as a very violent act. To emphasize this violence the Jews literally tore their clothes, screamed and covered themselves in ashes. They understood that repentance was not just a break with one’s former sins, but an absolute and total repudiation of everything that stands against God and his righteousness. Unfortunately, these outward displays of repentance often took precedence over the inward reality and sometimes replaced it altogether. When this happened, the prophets had to remind them that God was not as interested in the outward show as much as in the inward reality. Joel said, Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil (Joel 2:13).
The point to note here is the extent of true repentance. Modern evangelicalism often presents repentance as something you do once, i.e., when you first come to know the Lord, but you don’t have to do it again unless you commit some scandalous sin. This really weakens the Biblical idea of repentance. Real repentance requires a cleansing of the hands and purifying of the heart — a constant evaluation of everything we do. When we see areas in our lives that have not yet been brought into submission to Christ, we should be afflicted, mourn and weep over them. As David wrote in Psalm 119, Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law (v. 136). Rivers of water should also flow from our eyes when WE do not keep God’s law. Every sin we commit should tear us apart and make us so miserable that we cannot sit still until we have wrestled with the Lord for the assurance of his forgiveness. I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said, Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted (Matt. 5:4).
The Heidelberg Catechism defines repentance as “Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.” So, true repentance means, first, that we must loathe our sins. It also means that we have to turn away from them and give them up.
James says that we have to turn from our sins in two ways.
First, we have to purify our hearts or bring our desires under control. Our hearts are by far the hardest thing to manage. Jeremiah wrote, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jer. 17:9). It is impossible, according to this verse, for any of us to comprehend how depraved we really are. And yet the Word of God instructs us to purify our desperately wicked hearts. The only way to do this is, by the grace of God, to follow Job’s example. To avoid the sin of lust, he made a covenant with his eyes not to regard the lovely form of other women (Job. 31:1). In other words, he made up his mind not to let evil control his heart. So often our sins rage within us because we are not really purposed to avoid sin. O, that we would purify our hearts more consistently!
Second, James instructs us to cleanse our hands. Our hands carry out the desires of our hearts. Once our hearts are purified, our hands are also cleansed. But until we bring our hearts under control, we must at least cleanse our hands. Our desires may rage and roar within us, but we must not act upon them. It’s bad enough to lust after or covet something that’s not ours, but it only compounds the sin to carry out our desires.
And the last practical step for resisting temptation, which James actually listed first, is to draw near to God. We find this in verse 8: Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Here James tells us not only that it’s a good idea to draw near to God, but he commands us to do so and he gives us a promise to motivate us to do so. If we draw near to God, he wrote, he will also draw near to us.
The truth is that God is never far from his people, except when we alienate ourselves from him by our sins. If the Lord is not helping you resist temptation, maybe the problem is not that he is ignoring you, but that you have strayed from him.
What a wonderful promise James gives us. When sin has interrupted our fellowship with the Lord of the entire universe, it can easily be restored simply by drawing near to God, i.e., by calling on his grace and favor once again. The blood of Christ has already given us access to God. Why not take advantage of it? Why not make good use of the benefits that already belong to us in the Lord Jesus Christ?
The war rages all around us. The problem, of course, is that it also rages within us. We cannot be tempted to do what we don’t really want to do. Earlier in his book James wrote, But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed (Jas. 1:14). There must be some desire for the temptation to ignite or else the fire will never burn.
We’re in the battle whether we like it or not. But whose side are we on? Are we following our commander’s orders? Do we use the weapons that he supplies? Have we adopted his war methodology as our own?
Well, if you want to resist temptation, and you should since you bear the name of Christ, there’s only one way to do it. James tells you how.
May our thrice holy God teach each of us how to be good and faithful soldiers of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! May he teach us how to wage war against temptation and sin to his honor and glory! Amen.
 Quoted in Calvin’s Commentary, in loc.