God’s Word for You
James 4:8b-9 Wash your hands
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, August 17, 2020
Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve and mourn and weep. Change your laughter to sorrow and your joy to gloom.
Obviously this is the hard part of what coach James has to say. Using words meant to break the heart and crush the confident spirit, he accuses his dispersed Christian Jews of being double-minded. Being double-minded means trying to remain Christian while remaining lustful or sinful, either openly or in secret. This term occurs only three times in the Bible, and two of these are here in James (see also James 1:8 and Psalm 119:113). One of the early Church fathers called double-mindedness “the devil’s daughter” who does a lot of evil in the world, because being double-minded sets Christ aside, and our God will not and must not take second place to anything or to anyone. This is not only because Almighty God is rightfully a jealous God (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:9), but because any attempt at righteousness or any qualification for eternal life apart from him can only lead to disaster. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), and both his “no one” (οὐδεὶς) and his “except” (εἰ μὴ) exclude and reject every other means of achieving heaven. A year ago this month (August 2019) a large group of ecumenical Lutherans (those words joined together bring bile to my throat) chose to take an open stand that other religions, who reject Christ utterly, can still bring their people into heaven, a statement that was also made several years ago by the Roman Catholic church. It would be easier for a sow to perfume herself or a horse to ride a goat than for any Hindu or Buddhist to get to heaven by damning Christ as they do. But before we point any other fingers, the coach wants us to look in the mirror at our own sins.
Both “wash your hands” and “purify your hearts” are references to repentance, as are the words, “grieve, mourn and wail” and what follows. When we begin each day, we awaken to new opportunities to serve God. We wash our hands and we groom ourselves and prepare for the new day, and we have an opportunity to remember our baptism when we were washed spiritually as well as physically and we were given a new birth in Jesus’ name. But as the day wears along we become soiled, sweaty, dirty, in need of washing once again. As we wash up, we return to the state we were in when we began the day. That’s also a picture of repentance. “Repentance,” says Luther in the Large Catechism, “is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, that we repeat and practice what we began before, but abandoned” (Part Four, Baptism, par. 77). And again: “For what else is repentance but an earnest attack upon the old man (that his lusts be restrained) and entering upon a new life” (par. 74).
To repent is to listen to the law that condemns our sinfulness and to be frightened when we see our sins in that law. There in the law are the Roman soldiers, whipping Jesus for my sins (John 19:1). This is what each of my sins deserves for all eternity, with tormentors and their whips, the cat-o-nine-tails with its thongs studded with nails and spikes, ripping open my flesh for each transgression of my life on earth, day after day every grim day of forever in hell, surrounded by uncountable cries of despair everywhere and all around. It isn’t hard at all to listen to James in this pit of despair and turn our laughter to sorrow; our joy to gloom. Terrified into speechlessness by this, we have nowhere to turn, nowhere to look except to God. Peter speaks from the pulpit to us at this moment: “Repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19). Peter was a sinful man himself, as all pastors are, with much to repent of, but he also knew the gospel of forgiveness through Jesus and spoke it for us to hear even now, even after the sins of today, this morning, just now. The time to repent is always now, not tomorrow, because we don’t know if tomorrow will dawn.
Jesus also said, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25). This is much more severe than Solomon’s tame “Even in laughter the heart is sad” (Proverbs 14:13). When thinking of repentance we should turn rather to Job, who thought of his struggle with sin as a wrestling match and being bested by God: “He throws me into the mud, and I am reduced to dust and ashes” (Job 30:19). Jesus’ prophetic warning brings us to the same place as Job’s lament: We are crushed by our sins, and without the gospel we will remain crushed and tortured for all eternity. But the Holy Spirit has called us by the gospel. He has given us hope through the words of Christ. He has pointed us to the cross through the sacred Scriptures, through the Sacraments, and through the privilege of listening to solid preaching week by week. Through the means of grace the gospel fills our lives like wind filling a sail, and then the poetic words of Christopher Cross illustrate the truth: “Oh, the canvas can do miracles, just you wait and see; believe me.”
The Bible describes many times the beginning of repentance as the grief of ashes on the head, but then Isaiah climbs his pulpit and proclaims the end to grief through Christ: “A crown of beauty,” he announces, “instead of ashes; the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:3). This is the end of repentance: after remorse comes faith, faith in the end of our sins in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. All sins, however many there are, are forgiven us by God because of Christ’s merits. So: trust in Jesus and do not despair over your sins. You are forgiven in Jesus. You are at peace with God.
Jesus came, the heav’ns adoring,
Came with peace from realms on high;
Jesus came to win redemption,
Lowly came on earth to die,
Alleluia! Alleluia! Came in deep humility.
Jesus comes again in mercy
When our hearts are worn with care;
Jesus comes again in answer
To an earnest, heartfelt prayer.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Comes to save us from despair.
Jesus comes to hearts rejoicing,
Bringing news of sins forgiv’n;
Jesus comes with words of gladness,
Leading souls redeemed to heav’n.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Hope to all the world is giv’n. (Christian Worship 26:1-3)
Pastor Timothy Smith