In the second part of v.8 James continues with the theme of repentance. In this verse we learn the true nature of repentance. It begins with an inward change of the heart, and it results in an outward change in behavior. We are to repent and draw near to God, and to do this we must cleanse our hands and purify our hearts. We will look at the first of these today (and hopefully the second tomorrow).
First, James says that we must wash our hands; we must do this because we are sinners. Similar analogies of washing hands are used in several places in the OT. In Isaiah 1:15-16 the Lord warned the unrepentant people of Judah,
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil.”
In Psalm 18:20 David refered to his righteousness as the “cleaness of [his] hands.” Based on these references we can see that the hands represent our actions, and the level of cleanliness represents our righteousness. This means that, according to James, we must have a life that is righteous (or clean hands) in order to repent and draw near to God. This is a serious problem! It is the stain of sin, a stain that we all bear, that makes our hands dirty and prevents us from approaching God. There is nothing that we can do to wash clean this stain of sin. Thankfully God has provided a divine cleansing to all who will humble themselves and submit to Him. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
James’ command to cleanse our sinful hands is a command to humbly submit to God’s gracious and miraculous cleansing of sin; a cleansing that can come only through the blood of Christ. Unfortunately the people to whom James was addressing this section had not done this. It is important that we learn from their mistake. If we want to postition our lives in such a way so as to receive grace we must not only repent unto salvation, but those of us who are Christians must also live a life of repentance.