Having outlined the difference between earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom in 3:13–18, James goes on to show his audience in 4:1–3 that far from living according to the wisdom from above, they were in fact living according to the wisdom of this fallen world. Their quarrels and strife demonstrated that they were acting according to those same things that characterize earthly wisdom.
The prophets in ancient Israel condemned the people of their nation for their mistreatment of the poor and for living according to the same covetousness, ungodly jealousy, and selfish ambition characterizing the audience of James’ epistle (for example, Zech. 7:10). Although he certainly would have been justified in doing so, James has not yet offered these same denouncements. He has stood with his audience as a “brother” (1:19; 2:1, 14; 3:1) and has slowly built a case against them both with direct exhortation and the indirect indictment of sin that we read in 4:1–3. Thus far, James has been merciful with his audience given the nature of their problems.
Beginning with today’s passage, however, James speaks just like the prophets of old. In verse 4, he condemns his audience as an adulterous people. The old-covenant prophets often likened the relationship between God and His people to a marriage (Isa. 54:5), making Israel’s dalliances with idolatry tantamount to infidelity (Ezek. 16:30–34).
The unity of the people of God under both covenants means that when new-covenant members are unfaithful to God, they too commit adultery. This happens, James tells us, when we make ourselves friends with the world (4:4b). This is no casual use of the word friend; James is referring to a fundamental compromise with the values and methods of fallen humanity. When we live according to the desires produced by earthly wisdom, we have become friends with this world and enemies with God. Our Lord is jealous of His Spirit that He has put within us (4:5), and so by making friends with the world, we turn away from God. As John Calvin says, “So great is the disagreement between the world and God, that as much as any one inclines to the world, so much he alienates himself from God.”
If someone were to look at your life and values would he say that you are a friend of God, or would he say that you are a friend of the world? Consider your relationships and ask yourself if the problems you might have stem from the ungodly jealousy and selfish ambition characteristic of the world. If so, there is but one solution: repentance and trust in God’s sanctifying power. As Calvin says, we must “renounce the world, if we wish to serve God.”