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Is Sin an Active and Foreign Agent in your Body? (James 4:1)

My nephew Dave Gundlach preached an excellent sermon (at 39:00 in the video) this morning (March 24, 2024) that alerted me to something I had never seen before. It's about singular and plurals. James 4:1 says, “What accounts for the quarrels and disputes among you? Is it not this—your desires that are at war in your members?”

I know that the word “members” doesn't refer to members of the church, but the Greek is plural. ἐν τοῖς μέλεσιν ὑμῶν. These constructions are always interesting because they can refer to things among the group, and one of the uses of μέλος can refer to people who make up a group. “We who are many are one body in Christ, and individually members (μέλη) who belong to one another” (Rom 12:54; cf. 1 Cor 12:27; 2 Cor 12:5, 26; Eph 4:25). This is the second definition in BDAG.

And yet, many of the uses of μέλος in the New Testament refer to individual parts of our body. “So also is the tongue a small member, yet it boasts of great things” (James 3:5). “For just as the physical body is one yet has many members (μέλη), and all the members (μέλη) of the body, though many, are one body, so also is the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). BDAG’s first definition is, “a part of the human body, member, part, limb literally, of parts of the human body.”

I had always assumed James was saying that the source of quarrels and disputes among a group of Christians was that people’s desires were at war with other people, but my nephew saw μέλεσιν as the individual members of each individual body. Most translations agree with him. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (NIV) “What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from your passions that wage war within you?” (CSB)

This creates a helpful picture of the battles we all face with sin. Sin is an active agent in our body, affecting every part of who we are. It creates such dissension within us that our internal battles produce Paul’s quandary: what he wants to do, he doesn't, and he doesn't want to do, he does. Sin’s battle plan is to affect every individual part of who I am, turning one part against another.

I think I shared this in an earlier blog, but one of the most helpful discussions I had along these lines was with Tom Schreiner. I had been thinking of sin as a passive agent, sitting around looking for opportunities to lead us down the wrong path. But Tom helped me see that sin is very active, very deliberate, a foreign agent that is alive inside each one of us and is aggressively working to accomplish it's purposes. As Paul writes, “It is no longer I myself who do it (i.e., sin), but it is sin living in me” (Rom 7:17). This reminds me of those Science Fiction movies where the alien goes into the human body, is nurtured by the body, and ultimately controls the body.

This should all lead us to Paul's conclusion. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24–25).


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