Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
Are you still hanging onto the lifestyle you followed before you became a Christian? As today’s verse reveals, if you didn’t make a conscious effort to cut yourself off from this world when you came to Christ, you have reason to question whether your salvation was genuine.
First John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” When you become a Christian, your desire should be to cut yourself off from the world. Certainly the world will continue to tempt you from time to time, but you’re to forsake the devil’s evil system.
To say that a person can come to Christ without making a break from the world is a lie. There must be a change of lifestyle! It’s not an easy thing to do—Paul commanded us not to live as we did before we came to Christ (Eph. 4:17). But we can live this life because we have a new nature.
4:4 James condemns the inordinate love of material things as spiritual adultery. God wants us to love Him first and foremost. When we love the passing things of this world, we are being untrue to Him.
Covetousness is a form of idolatry. It means that we strongly desire what God does not want us to have. That means that we have set up idols in our hearts. We value material things above the will of God. Therefore, covetousness is idolatry, and idolatry is spiritual unfaithfulness to the Lord.
Worldliness is also enmity with God. The world does not mean the planet on which we live, or the world of nature about us. It is the system which man has built up for himself in an effort to satisfy the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. In this system there is no room for God or His Son. It may be the world of art, culture, education, science, or even religion. But it is a sphere in which the name of Christ is unwelcome or even forbidden, except, of course, as an empty formality. It is, in short, the world of mankind outside the sphere of the true church. To be a friend of this system is to be an enemy of God. It was this world that crucified the Lord of life and glory. In fact, it was the religious world that played the key role in putting Him to death. How unthinkable it is that believers should ever want to walk arm-in-arm with the world that murdered their Savior!
4. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
Note the following points:
- “You adulterous people.” The New International Version makes the text direct and personal with the pronoun you. In the original the first word is an address and means “adulteresses.” This is difficult to interpret literally, especially when the context indicates that James is not introducing a moral issue. As in the preceding verses (4:1–3), we need to understand the phrase you adulterous people figuratively or, more precisely, spiritually.
James is writing to Jewish Christians who are familiar with the term adulteress applied to the marriage relationship of God as husband and Israel as the unfaithful wife. For example, God told the prophet Hosea, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord” (Hos. 1:2).
Jesus calls the Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matt. 12:39; 16:4; and see Mark 8:38; italics added). Moreover, indirectly Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom (Matt. 9:15 and parallels) and Paul says that Christ is the husband of the church (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22–25; also consult Rev. 19:7; 21:9).
- “Friendship with the world is hatred toward God.” James puts this statement in the form of a question and appeals to the intuitive knowledge of his readers. What husband permits his wife to have an illicit affair with another man? And what do you think of a wife who forsakes marital love by engaging in adulterous relations? What do you think is God’s reaction when a believer becomes enamored with the world? God is a jealous God (Exod. 20:5; Deut. 5:9). He tolerates no friendship with the world.
What does the word world mean? It represents “the whole system of humanity (its institutions, structures, values, and mores) as organized without God.” It is the meaning Paul conveyed when he wrote his second letter addressed to Timothy: “For Demas, because he loved this present world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10).
James is forceful in saying that a person cannot be friendly with the world and with God at the same time. The world does not tolerate friends of God, for they are considered enemies. The reverse is also true. God regards “a friend of the world” an enemy.
- “An enemy of God.” What a terrifying expression! A friend of God who endures the enmity of the world can always take comfort in the words of the sixteenth-century reformer John Knox, who said, “A man with God on his side is always in the majority.” But the person who meets God as his enemy stands alone, for the world cannot help him. The author of Hebrews concludes, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
Who is an enemy of God? The Christian has been placed in the world, even though he is not of the world (John 17:16, 18). The apostle John warns, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). When a person purposely turns to the world to become part of it, he has made a conscious choice of rejecting God and the teaching of his Word. Therefore, anyone who deliberately chooses for the world and against God meets God as his enemy.
Hostility Toward God
You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (4:4)
Adultery is the sin of violating a marriage covenant by having sexual intimacy with someone other than a spouse. In referring to adulteresses, James uses the term metaphorically in a way that his Jewish readers would clearly understand (cf. Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Mark 8:38), referring to men as well as women. He is not talking about sexual but spiritual infidelity, as the term is often used in the Old Testament of God’s unfaithful people, Israel. Through Jeremiah, the Lord said, “I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also” (Jer. 3:8; cf. 2 Chron. 21:11, 13; Ps. 73:27). Similarly, Ezekiel spoke of Judah as an “[adulterous] wife, who takes strangers instead of her husband!” (Ezek. 16:32). As an object lesson, the Lord commanded Hosea: “Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land [that is, Israel] commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord” (Hos. 1:2).
Scripture nowhere uses the terms adulterer or adulteress figuratively of Gentiles, because only Israel had a covenant relationship with God to be unfaithful to, just as husbands and wives have the covenant relationship of marriage. Gentiles could be spiritual fornicators, as it were, but not adulterers—a contemptible distinction reserved for Israel, the unfaithful wife. Whether they turned to pagan gods and idols or simply turned to the world as their supreme love, to do so was to be unfaithful to the Lord and commit spiritual adultery, a figurative name for apostasy.
Jesus spoke of unbelieving Israel of His day as “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matt. 12:39; cf. 16:4; Mark 8:38). It was because most Jews, even those who were religious, had turned away from the Lord and His revealed Word to gods of their own making and to their own man-made traditions that they did not receive Jesus as their Messiah. They used their traditions to interpret Scripture, and in doing so they strayed from and often contradicted Scripture, becoming blinded to God’s truth and even to His own Son (Matt. 15:1–9; Mark 7:1–13; Col. 2:8; cf. John 5:39–40). Despite fierce claims of faithfulness to Judaism and the God of Judaism, they were adulterous and apostate.
The same can be said of those who claim to be Christians and attach themselves to the church but have no saving relationship to God or love for Him or His Word. They were found even in the early church, and James calls them adulteresses. There is no middle ground. As will be discussed below, you can no more spiritually have two gods than you can legally have two spouses.
Friendship translates the noun philia, which is used only here in the New Testament. Its verb form, phileō, is often rendered “love” (e.g., Matt. 6:5; 10:37; 1 Cor. 16:22) and is even used of the Father’s love for the Son (John 5:20) and of the Father’s and the Son’s love for those who have saving faith (John 11:3; 16:27; Rev. 3:19). Though they are often used as synonyms in the New Testament, the more common and stronger verb for love (agapaō) seems to be more volitional, whereas phileō is more emotional. James uses philia to describe intense and deep affection for the evil world system.
The related noun philos (friend) was used of close personal relationships. Perhaps the clearest definition of this word is reflected in Jesus’ teaching in John 15:13–19, where the highest volitional love (agapē) and the highest emotional, affectionate love (philos) are both willing to give the ultimate sacrifice for those who are loved. “Greater love [agapē] has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends [philos],” those for whom he has philos love (v. 13). He then explains that love for Him is tested by obedience to His Word: “You are My friends [philos] if you do what I command you” (v. 14). At their highest, both loves involve the bonds of self-sacrifice and of obedience. They also involve personal intimacy.
No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends [philos], for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. (vv. 15–16)
Jesus’ true friends are those who have received Him as Lord and Savior, who share a common cause, common interests, and common objectives. And those who truly love Him will also “love one another” (v. 17). Finally, He explains that those who truly love Him will not love the world or be loved by the world, since the world is the hostile enemy of God. Jesus confirmed that reality when He said, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (vv. 18–19; cf. 17:14). Thus did the apostle John command believers:
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15–17)
Those, on the other hand, who do not belong to Christ belong to the world. They have a longing to be involved with the world’s drives, impulses, attractions, and people, for which they have a determined and habitual attachment. For that reason, James cannot be referring to believers who are temporarily attracted by the things of the world and fall into sin for a while. He is not speaking of occasional spiritual weakness in Christians but of the continual, willing, enjoyed, and ungodly drives of unbelievers. A believer could never be called an enemy of God.
Kosmos (world) does not refer to the physical earth or universe but rather to the spiritual reality of the man-centered, Satan-directed system of this present age, which is hostile to God and God’s people. It refers to the self-centered, godless value system and mores of fallen mankind. The goal of the world is self-glory, self-fulfillment, self-indulgence, self-satisfaction, and every other form of self-serving, all of which amounts to hostility toward God.
Therefore, James continues, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Boulomai (wishes) connotes more than just wanting a desire or wish to be fulfilled. It carries the stronger idea of choosing one thing over another. Similarly, kathistēmi (makes himself) means to appoint, make, or ordain, also indicating conscious intent. Whether he recognizes it in his own mind or not, a person who wishes to be a friend of the world system has chosen to make himself an enemy of God. In his heart, his desire for the world supersedes any supposed positive ideas he may have about God. He does not have a neutral relationship with God, as an impartial bystander or a distant admirer, but is in the fullest sense His enemy. And to be God’s enemy is to remain in spiritual darkness, daily grow more fit for eternal death, and have the sovereign King of the universe as your foe.
Anyone who does not belong to God belongs to the world, and everyone who belongs to the world does not and cannot belong to God. Friends of the world are controlled by the spirit of the world and have no part with the Spirit of God. On the other hand, Paul makes clear that believers “have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God” (1 Cor. 2:12).
Friendship with the world and friendship with God are mutually exclusive. “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” Paul asks rhetorically (2 Cor. 6:14).
Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you.” (vv. 15–17)
Christians have a nature so utterly distinct from the lovers of the world, the followers of Satan, that they should never entertain any of the ways or hold any of the loyalties that characterize unbelievers.
Believers not only are to be separated from the world but dead to the world. Like Paul, they should say, “May it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). Contrary to Demas, who “loved this present world” and deserted Paul and the church (2 Tim. 4:10), we are to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12).
For believers to pursue worldly things goes against the grain of their new nature, and they cannot be comfortable or satisfied until they renounce those things and return to their first love. It is because believers are susceptible to temporary worldliness that Paul warns, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2; cf. 1 Pet. 1:14–16), and, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). Christians are “to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries” (1 Pet. 4:2–3).
On the other hand, when unbelievers outwardly identify themselves with Christ and His church but do not truly belong to Him, they eventually become uncomfortable. They are like “the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns,” who, as Jesus explains, “is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Matt. 13:22). As James makes so clear, they cannot produce the fruit, the good works, that are necessary proofs of saving faith (James 2:17–20). “Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?” he later asks. “Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Neither can salt water produce fresh” (3:11–12).
The Old Testament has much to say about the enemy of God. David testified, “Surely God will shatter the head of His enemies, the hairy crown of him who goes on in his guilty deeds” (Ps. 68:21), and Solomon declared, “Let the nomads of the desert bow before him, and his enemies lick the dust” (Ps. 72:9). Isaiah proclaimed, “The Lord will go forth like a warrior, He will arouse His zeal like a man of war. He will utter a shout, yes, He will raise a war cry. He will prevail against His enemies” (Isa. 42:13), and Nahum said, “A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; the Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies” (Nah. 1:2, cf. v. 8).
The New Testament also has much to say about the enemy of God. Luke reports that when Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark
had gone through the whole island [of Cyprus] as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for so his name is translated) was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on him, and said, “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:6–10)
Elymas was a sorcerer, a medium who contacted demonic spirits under the guise of summoning up the dead. Under Satan’s influence he sought to undermine the faith of Sergius Paulus, and in doing so incurred that severe rebuke and condemnation by Paul. For all unbelievers, “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
Reciting the blessings and benefits that come to believers because of their salvation and justification before God, Paul told believers in Rome, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:10). Later in that letter he further explained,
For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. (8:6–9)
The enemy of God is fleshly and by definition devoid of the Holy Spirit (Jude 19).
Looking forward to the future resurrection of believers, when the Lord Jesus Christ takes His own fully to Himself, Paul writes, “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet” (1 Cor. 15:23–25; cf. Heb. 1:13; 10:13; Nah. 1:2). Jesus will then reign during the Millennium, after which, in the final judgment, all of His remaining enemies, demonic and human, will be cast forever into the lake of fire and brimstone (Rev. 20:8–10).
It is doubtless true that most unbelievers do not consider themselves enemies of God. Many believe that, because they are not openly hostile to God, they actually are friendly toward Him. They may even acknowledge His existence and His goodness, truthfulness, and power. But pleasant, sentimental thoughts about a sovereign divine Being are far from a saving relationship to the true God.
Many unbelievers claim to be sincerely searching for God and simply have not found Him yet. But Paul, quoting David, puts a lie to that claim, saying, “There is none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11; cf. Ps. 14:2). Such people may well be searching for what they can get from God—His love, provision, security, hope, and other blessings—but they do not want God Himself. They want a god of their own making to do their own bidding, tolerate their sin, and take them to heaven anyway. They do not want His forgiveness, His righteousness, or His lordship and, consequently, do not really want Him.
Many unbelievers who claim to know God and belong to Christ are outwardly moral, helpful, and friendly. Like the rich young man who told Jesus he had kept all the commandments from his youth (Luke 18:21), they think they have lived basically good and acceptable lives. And for that very reason, they do not feel in need of salvation or of the perfect righteousness of Christ, with which God credits those who trust in His Son.
Some unbelievers who masquerade as Christians have considerable knowledge of the gospel and give it lip service. But, as cited earlier, Peter says of such people that “it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them” (2 Pet. 2:21).
Unbelievers may regularly participate in Christian worship services and other church activities. They may even feel bad about their sins, recognize their imperfection, and, like the governor Felix, have a certain concern about their standing before God, but they never desire to forsake their sin or confess Christ as Lord and Savior (Acts 24:25). Regardless of their outward appearance and profession, the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18) are all of the unredeemed, the unregenerate, those who oppose Jesus Christ, His gospel, and His church, “whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things” (Phil. 3:19).
Before salvation, all Christians were themselves “formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds” (Col. 1:21). But their salvation changed them from enemies of God into His friends. Scripture nowhere refers to believers as enemies of God. Earlier in this letter James clearly identified faith in God with the friendship of God, saying, “the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God” (James 2:23; cf. Gen. 15:6; 2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8).
Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24; cf. Amos 3:3). You cannot, of course, serve God and any other master. Therefore, an enemy of God cannot possibly be a believer, even an unfaithful believer, who, despite his unfaithfulness, will eternally be God’s friend. As believers, we often stumble, doing those things we know we should not and not doing things we know we should. But like Paul, we hate the sins we commit and desire our lives to be pure and holy (see Rom. 7:15–25). Christians can certainly be drawn into the world and its ways, think worldly thoughts and do worldly things, but they can never be happy or content there. 
4 In prophetic style, James calls his hearers “adulterous.” The image of an adulteress for people who, turning away from the true God, give themselves to other “gods” has a rich background in the OT, where it is the most common image for apostasy. Israel is like a wandering, faithless wife who turns away from Yahweh, her husband, to go after other gods (e.g., Jer 2:1–3; 5:7; Eze 6:9; 16:1–63; Hos 1:2–3). In the NT Jesus calls those who reject his ministry and teaching an “evil and adulterous generation” (Mt 12:39; 16:4; cf. Mk 8:38). Both the OT’s use of the image and Jesus’ use of it speak of those who, consumed in their own interests, have turned away from faithful love of God. The image is extended to false teachers in 2 Peter 2:14, which asserts that evil, false prophets have “eyes full of adultery,” and the book of Revelation uses the image (in the form of Jezebel) of false teaching as well (2:20–22).
James seizes on the image to speak of divided loyalty, asking, “Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?” He then reiterates, “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” To embrace the world in friendship is “hatred” (echthra, GK 2397) or “enmity” toward God. The term speaks of being the enemy of someone, or hostile to them, such as when Pilate and Herod were enemies (Lk 23:12), and such relational hatred is one of the deeds of the flesh (Gal 5:20). Christ, on the other hand, breaks down such hostility (Eph 2:14, 16). Most egregious of all is to have a posture of hostility toward God himself (Ro 8:7), as James describes here. Yet the choice of the world and its ways over God and his wisdom constitutes just such a posture, and a choice, either for God or the world, must be made. One cannot have it both ways.
 MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 175). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2236). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 134–135). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 191–198). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 254). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.