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What does "purify your hearts" in James 4:8 mean?:

Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded

Is it a kind of general statement or some practical action is implied here?

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James is a practical Epistle. Sometimes under the guise of general principles and theology a person can evade the forcefulness of the scripture and James in some ways avoids general principles (as dangerous as that could be at times) to pin down the hypocrite, who does not live according to them though may be very conversant about them. As such is the case, to understand the theology and principles that present the context of James, ironically we really have to turn to other Epistles.

For example a more doctrinally positioned call to ‘draw near to God’ can be found here:

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (NIV, Heb 10:19–23)

When comparing this to James one obvious thing seems to be worth noting. James is using language more appropriate to sinners rather then believers. James says ‘You adulterous people’, ‘you sinners’, ‘enemy of God’, etc. As scripture does not use this type of language with respect to genuine believers we must understand that the direction is for ‘sinners’ to draw near to God, whereas the parallel Hebrew reference is assuming faith in those verses.

It is a common fallacy in biblical exposition to assume that believers are always the intended audience to every verse in every Epistle but that is sheer nonsense. One must always use the context and choice of words to determine if the verse is directed to believers, unbelievers or those who might be one or the other based on their unclear commitments and obscure confessions.

What does it mean for a double minded man to purify his hearty and wash his hands? It means that by nature man is away from God and must humble himself to draw near to his throne. ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’. In the context this must mean that a sinner must recognize he is one and needing salvation or face the eternal wrath of God. In repenting and believing in Christ he must turn from the practices of sin (i.e. cleans the hands that are otherwise engaged in acts of evil). However the gospel does not ascribe any real righteousness to a person who only repents outwardly without faith. Therefore the heart must also be cleansed by receiving Christ through faith, making a soul righteous and justified before God.

By cleansing the hands and the heart through faith a person will no longer be double-minded but will become a Christian. A double-minded man is not a description of a Christian struggling with sin (as in Romans 6), it is a description of a wicked hypocrite:

A double-minded man, δίψυχος ἀνὴρ] The word signifieth one that hath two souls; and so it may imply, 1st, A hypocrite, as the same word is used to that purpose, “Purify your hearts, ye double-minded, δίψυχοι” (Jam. 4:8). As he speaketh to open sinners to cleanse their hands, so to close hypocrites (whom he there calleth double-minded, as pretending one thing and meaning another) to purify their hearts; that is, to grow more inwardly sincere; and so it suiteth very well with that phrase by which the Hebrews express a deceiver, “With a double heart do they speak” (Psa. 12:2): in the original, with a heart and a heart, which is their manner of expression when they would express a thing that is double or deceitful; as divers or deceitful weights, is a weight and a weight in the original (Prov. 20:23). As Theophrastus saith of the partridges of Paphlagonia, that they had two hearts; so every hypocrite hath two hearts, or two souls. (Manton, T. (1840). A Practical Commentary, or An Exposition with Notes on the Epistle of James ,p. 39)

Respecting a drawing near to God within the context of a believer the story is different. A believer has been made perfect before God through an external righteousness charged in a court against him. This has effectively opened up a living way as a result of God drawing near to us in Messiah. Therefore rather then recognizing that we might be ‘enemies’ and that God might be ‘opposing us’ and that we should therefore ‘mourn’ and be ‘humbled’, we have already been humbled and already do mourn, therefore the key words in our approach are to be with boldness and a ‘full assurance of faith’. We are to boldly approach the throne knowing we are accepted and 100% righteous through grace. The contrast between a ‘sinners’ approach to a God of judgment and a ‘child’s’ approach to Father that has adopted him, is very different in deed.

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It's both: a general statement and a practical action.

In the context, James likens a Christian's friendship with the world (the cosmos, in which are the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life--1 John 2:16) to spiritual adultery. For a Christian to have one foot in the church and one foot in the world is a contradiction in terms. We need to have both our feet firmly planted in the church of God, wherein we have our identity, our dignity, and our worth in Christ.

A pure heart is undivided and unalloyed with impurities, much as gold is before it is refined in the refiner's fire. The purpose of the refining process is to produce 24-karat gold containing no impurities that would lessen its value. In James' letter, these impurities are things such as

  • being quick to speak, slow to hear, and quick to be angry
  • faith without works
  • faith and doubting, or double mindedness
  • being a hearer and not a doer of the word
  • favoritism, especially favoring the rich over the poor
  • an untamed tongue
  • bitter jealousy and selfish ambition
  • friendship with the world, which is in reality enmity with God
  • pride and boastfulness
  • impatience
  • complaining against our brothers and sisters in Christ

All the above can be viewed as "general statements," as you put it, but which one of them does not imply some practical action? To me, each one of them is eminently practical.

Is your heart pure? Is mine? I think you (and I) know the answer!

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Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

James 4:8 (NIV)

Acts 15:9 also spoke about the purification of the heart.

He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.

Acts 15:9 (NIV)

Both texts used different Greek words for "purify." James 4:8 used ἁγνίσατε (hagnisate) while Acts 15:9 used καθαρίσας (katharisas). The former defines purity in the sense of "set apart" (pure, different from the world since like the Lord)" while the latter defines purity in the sense of "unmixed" (pure, without undesirable elements). The distinction of meaning reveals in what way purity is being held by the writer.

The Impure Heart

Jesus told us that the origin of a person's defilement or impurity is the heart.

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Matthew 15:16-20 (NIV)

James 4:8 is addressing its readers to make their hearts different from the world's.The object of the imperative is Christians since the choice of word (ἁγνίσατε not καθαρίσας) directs the command to believers (those set-apart people i.e. the saints). The text tries to pinpoint our identity as God's people, that we are not from this world (John 15:19). It is telling us that the way we live our lives should reflect that reality.

A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

Luke 6:45 (NIV)

Since Christians have "all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:19) and "every good gift comes from God" (James 1:17), their hearts should express their being in God's likeness (James 3:9) from the inside out -- both in words and in deeds (James 1:22).

In James 4:8, the readers who were commanded to purify their hearts were double-minded individuals.

Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

James 4:8 (NIV)

It is interesting that the Greek word δίψυχος (lit. two-souled, double-minded) is used in both James 1:8 and James 4:8 since in both occurrences of the word, the same thought is expressed in its context. Our hearts should be expectant that God will grant the desires of our heart (James 1:7-8) that are, of course, in line with God's will (James 2:2-3).

The Heart Purifier

Acts 15:9 is telling us about God's actions inside the believer. It speaks of God making the hearts of the gentiles free from any spiritual defect by means of faith.This is talking about salvation. It is pointing to God's work of putting a new heart to those whom he saves (Ezekiel 36:26).Note that Matthew 5:8 used the same Greek word for purify (καθαροὶ) as found in Acts 15:9.It is interesting since both texts were in the context of salvation.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Matthew 5:8 (NIV)

Only those whose hearts were pure by faith will see God.

In James 4:8, the way believers purify their hearts must also be by faith because Romans 1:17 says that from start to finish the Just shall live by faith.Faith is the starting point wherein the impure heart is made pure and it is also what makes it possible to have a pure heart until the end.

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