James observed a widespread problem of worldliness infiltrating the lives of Christians in the early church. He beckoned his readers to repent from their sinful ways and return to the Lord: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8, ESV).
James’ use of the phrase cleanse your hands linked his command in a spiritual and moral sense to the language of the ancient Jewish ceremonial rituals of worship. Whenever the priests entered the wilderness tabernacle and approached the altar to minister to the Lord, they were required to cleanse their hands and feet with water from the bronze basin: “They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations” (Exodus 30:21, ESV).
James may have also had these words of King David in mind: “Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god” (Psalm 24:3–4). James’ charge to “cleanse your hands” focused more on the people’s worldly actions and outward deeds. God had issued a similar order through the prophet Isaiah: “Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from My sight. Stop doing evil” (Isaiah 1:16, HCSB).
We get our hands dirty when we play in the world’s sandbox. We cleanse our hands by removing them from sinful pursuits and moral compromises and then seeking God’s forgiveness. We purify our hearts through the inward renewal of the mind and spirit (Psalm 51:10). The apostle Paul taught believers to give their bodies—including their hands—to God as “a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1–2, NLT).
James called the people “double-minded” because they continued to grasp tightly to the world while claiming to love and worship God. A parallel indictment characterized the people of Isaiah’s time: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).
James saw that it was time for the people to tear down the walls of denial and get honest with themselves before God. He encouraged them to draw near to God in genuine repentance by experiencing gut-wrenching sorrow for their sins: “Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor” (James 4:9–10, NLT).
Jesus Christ taught that inner purity is more important than outward, ritualistic cleansing: “The words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you” (Matthew 15:18–20, NLT; see also Mark 7:1–9, 14–15, 20–23; Luke 11:37–41). When James said, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners,” he was speaking figuratively, using the washing of one’s hands as a symbol of repentance and the washing away of sin.
In truth, we cannot cleanse ourselves from sin. Only God, through “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7, ESV). Christ shed His blood on the cross, providing the necessary sacrifice for our sins so that we could receive God’s forgiveness and complete cleansing (John 1:29; Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:12–22; 1 Peter 1:18–19). We can now draw near to God “by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19–22, ESV).