God’s Gracious Call to Adulterers (James 4:4-10)
The 17th Sunday after Pentecost (September 19, 2021)
What would you consider to be the ultimate betrayal? Would it be a friend who is talking behind your back, telling others your intimate secrets or criticizing your faults? Would the ultimate betrayal be when an elected official whom you voted for, stood up for, and perhaps even heavily supported with your monetary donations, suddenly puts policies in place or takes actions that totally contradict and go completely against the values and philosophies he said he held that had so endeared him to you in the first place? In both of these cases, it’s like being knifed in the back.
But I still think there is a betrayal that would make these other betrayals seem quite mild in comparison. The betrayal I’m talking about is adultery. On of the greatest pains any married person could ever be called upon to endure is if their spouse had an adulterous affair. The death of your spouse would be easier to endure. At least with your spouse’s death, unless of course it was intentionally self-induced, you would have the small comfort of knowing that their death was not their rejection of you or your love for them. But when your spouse takes up with another person, it is a true repudiation of your love for them as well as their vow of fidelity to you. Their adultery is betrayal in the 10th degree!
Holy Scripture, in describing the blessed essence of marriage says this, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). In marriage the two become one, a union of one that God permits no man to put asunder… to divide… to break apart. That includes, of course, either party to that union of one flesh. The marital union is entered into for the very reason to love and honor another person. As the Apostle Paul articulates, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord…Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”
Husbands and wives have the assurance that their spouse married them for the very purpose to love and cherish them alone. That’s what the public vows are all about. But when a husband or wife abandons their spouse for someone else, it is never for the noble and God-pleasing purpose of loving someone else. An adulterer becomes one with someone else purely for selfish reasons; that is, to indulge his or her own lusts. Whoever they take up with should beware. The adulterous husband or wife won’t love them any more rightly than they did their spouse. This adulterous man or woman is not now clinging to them to love them for their sake but only to gratify their own wicked desires. It will only be a matter of time before they too will feel the hurt of being betrayed!
Now, here is what makes the text before us from James so harsh sounding. He in no uncertain terms calls his readers, literally, “adulteresses.” I’m afraid, in this ultra sensitive culture in which we live today, James would never be given much of a hearing. Why, he would be quickly condemned as being rude, mean spirited, demeaning and even prejudicial. After all, the prevailing notion is that we are supposed to be accepting of everyone’s lifestyle choices. If someone wants to leave their spouse for another man or woman, well, that is their choice. They have a right to personal happiness and fulfillment. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has even gone on record saying that people can even be in a “committed relationship” with someone of the same sex if they so chose and are not to be condemned as a sinner. Of course, they have totally disregarded what God has said concerning marriage and adultery. But, by all means, let’s not make adulterers feel guilty by what God says! How blasphemous such attitudes are!
Fortunately for James, as well as for the sake of the truth being told, he didn’t have to be concerned with the politically correct police of our day and age. He could call a spade a spade. He could and did confront the sinners with the full ugliness of their sin. He gave them no room to wiggle their way out of the piercing light of God’s Law. He rightly and straightforwardly names them “Adulteresses.”
Now, by addressing his hearers with this accusatory name, James could hardly mean that all of them were being unfaithful to their spouses. Perhaps, as with any group of sinful people, there were indeed some among them who were being unfaithful to their spouse. But from the context of James’ whole epistle, we can be certain that James applied the term adulteresses to his readers for entirely different reason. He had in mind a different form of adultery. It is an adultery that is a betrayal of God! He says, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
Adultery is being friends with the world? Now, I’m sure our first reaction is to say, “How can this be adultery or unfaithfulness to God? God created the Earth as the place for us to live, work and play. Does faithfulness to God mean we have to despise the earth, our associations with other people, or even the physical pleasures our earthly environment supplies us? Am I an adulteress by being a friend of planet earth? Al Gore and company will really go ballistic against Christianity if this is the case!”
First of all, James use of the term world (kosmos) is not meant to refer to this spherical planet (tera ferma) Even though sin has marred and corrupted the Earth, God created it to be very good. Instead, James is using the term world to refer to the wicked environment in which we exist; that is, that environment which is shaped and molded by the godlessness and wickedness that resides in our own sinful nature and that which resides in all other people, as well as the devil’s evil schemes and corrupting influence. To be a friend with this world is to be an adulteress. It is to unite oneself to different husband than the LORD God.
The theological backdrop here, of course, is the Biblical concept of the marriage union between God and His people. God always pictured His relationship with Israel of old as that of a husband and wife.
And even under the New Covenant, God through His apostles speaks of the Christian Church as His Bride. Jesus Himself is spoken of as the Husband. The glory of heaven which awaits God’s people is often referred to as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, when the Bride will be presented to her Groom. In fact, a good case can be made that God designed the very institution of marriage to be a model of His union with His Bride the Church.
Accordingly, the intimate union God has with His people is that “one flesh” of faith in Jesus Christ. God in Christ dwells in the believers and they in Him. Faithfulness is the bond of that union. It is expressed in the love God has for us and we have for God. There is no place in this union for any kind of self-love, or loving so that we can be loved in return.
God is incapable of being unfaithful to His “beloved.” God is and always has been totally transfixed on loving us for our sake not His. Everything He longs for, thinks about, and does is all to help, save and comfort us, His Beloved! He loves us with no regard for what might be best for His own best interests, but always for ours. He has every right to be jealous of us. As James states: “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.’”
Unfortunately, the same can not always be said about us. Like the people to whom James originally wrote, we don’t always love God with a purity of heart that loves Him for who He is…that loves Him simply for His sake… that loves Him with no regard for ourselves, our welfare, or our fleshly longings… that loves God with our whole mind, heart, body, spirit, and strength as if there is no one else… that loves Him without expecting to receive from Him anything in return.
Instead, just as James’ accusation against his original audience was right on target, so we, too, must rightly bear the unflattering title of adulteress. We also have been and often continue to be unfaithful to our Husband.
This we do by dividing our love, our loyalties, our time, our energy, and our heart with someone else. Often, we seek to straddle the line between the World and God, imagining that we can be friends with both. However, just as a wife can not both love her husband and keep another romance on the side and still remain faithful to her husband, so we can not be friends with the World and God at the same time.
Jesus got at this same infidelity by framing it in a different way. He said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). The minute we love the World as our friend, we alienate our Husband, God. We make Him our enemy.
What is the essence of this adulterous love for the world? As James delineates it, it catering to our lustful passions for the world and its goods. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a day of fishing, but when that fishing becomes the sole object of my affection, that for which I live for, that from which I seek my comfort and solace, takes me away from spending time with my Husband in worship, then it is it is my mistress, and I have betrayed my Divine Husband. There is nothing wrong with enjoying some time away, but when that time away also means time away from God, His Word and His Sacraments, then I am having an adulterous affair with another lover. When I chose to allow the world to shape my understandings of right and wrong, I have committed adultery, showing that I give more credence to man’s reasoning’s than God’s expressed will in His Word.
Needless to say, there is not one of us who can say we have never committed this form of adultery. Our hearts have not always totally belonged to our Husband. God, then, is fully within His matrimonial rights to divorce us…send us away to our eternal punishment with a certificate of divorce in hand.
Yet, our eternal Husband, is so full of love for us that He continues to beckon us to come back to Him… to turn from our adulteries… repent of our spiritual fornication… and return once again to Him in faith and faithfulness.
He calls us to repent of our adultery and to come back to Him with some pretty incredible promises… sweet words from the Husband Who truly loves us:
“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (vs. 7-10).
Our Husband has drawn near to us adulteresses in the flesh of His Son. In His compassion to do what is best for us and in His sincere love for us, He purchased us from our adulteries with His own shed blood. He beckons us to come back to Him, “All is forgiven, dear wife. Yes, you have been unfaithful. But I have atoned for your adultery. Come home to Me. No one loves you as I have loved you. With every fiber of my being I love you. With My whole life I have loved you. I love you with an everlasting love.”
Our Husband extends His forgiveness to us in Holy Baptism, washing our polluted garments in the blood of Christ. Through the spoken word of Absolution, He cancels the charge of adulteress and declares us righteous in His sight. He feeds us the delicacies of His love, calling us to eat of His very body given in death for us… to drink His very blood shed for us, giving us the very foretaste of His eternal wedding banquet.
How can we not love a Husband like this? How can we not repent and come back to Him? How can we even entertain notions of being a friend with the wicked mistress of the world, which seeks only to lead us to our own destruction?