Summary: While we are careful to avoid doing what is wrong, we often neglect doing what is right.

JAMES 4:17


”Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

It is one thing to be ignorant of what is expected and to thus offend; it is quite another thing to know what is right and yet fail to do it. We evangelical Christians are familiar with the “thou shalt not’s” that are seemingly held as a sacred trust by our various denominations. However, we evangelicals are less fussy about making ourselves aware of the “thou shalt’s.” Consequently, whilst we are quick to tell others the things we don’t do, it seems that we deserve a failing grade on fulfilling the positive commands of God’s Word. This situation has prevailed historically among our churches, though it would seem that even the “thou shalt not’s” are being increasingly ignored within contemporary Christendom.

I am not suggesting that we should depreciate the negative commands of our Faith; I am, however, suggesting that we need to understand the positive commands of our Faith and recognise the consequences of failure to implement these various responsibilities in our lives. James succinctly confronts all Christians with a systematic failure to avoid sin by doing what is right when he writes, “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” His stinging words will prove beneficial for each of us to contemplate.

MOVING FROM THE SPECIFIC TO THE GENERAL — Reviewing the instructions James has provided to this point, you will recall that he has been quite specific. “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil… Draw near to God… Cleanse your hands … Purify your hearts… Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord” [JAMES 4:7-10]. “Do not speak evil against one another” [JAMES 4:11]. However, James’ admonitions now become general.

The transition is startling, abrupt, without warning after being so particular in verse 16. For this reason, some scholars become almost dismissive of this particular verse in their comments on his letter. They imagine that James is loosely citing a proverb or that he is quoting a saying that was commonly recited by the people of that day. Consequently, they wonder if his words have any immediate application in this instance.

I am convinced that James’ words are vital to a wholesome, well-rounded life for Christians. Consequently, while it is evident that he indeed makes a generalised statement, that statement presents an essential principle for a life pleasing to God. Underscore in your mind that James has provided a concise proverb to guide our lives. We do well to memorise the principle. “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

NECESSARY INFORMATION — If we will make sense of this verse, there are a couple of issues that should be established. First, to whom does this verse apply—to outsiders, or to Christians. Secondly, it will be beneficial for us to explore the consequences of sin. We should have some understanding of the consequences of our actions, and that means that we must understand how God reacts to sin in the life of His child. In short, will God disown His child when that child sins? Or does God ignore sin in His child?

I am certain that the verse before us this day is written for Christians; James is not admonishing sinners to believe. Throughout the letter, he confronts fellow Christians who are under siege by inhabitants of an unbelieving world. Having grown weary of the need to defend themselves constantly, these Christians were beginning to accommodate the world—their actions were increasingly indistinguishable from the actions of earth dwellers. These saints were trying to find a way to lessen the pressure on their lives through deflecting attention because of their strange lifestyle. It was a problem that other biblical writers addressed. Certainly, Peter was concerned that those reading his letters were steadfast in the face of opposition. Paul, also, was deeply concerned that those to whom he wrote not only professed Christ, but that they exhibited the transformation that He must bring to one’s life.

The reason I am confident that this verse is written for Christians who are tempted to deviate from the path of righteousness lies in the tenor of the letter. Throughout, James has confronted us who name the Name of Christ. First, he encouraged us to remain firm in the tests that are certain to come into the life of each Christian; and he urged us not simply to hear the Word, but to do the Word. He rebuked us Christians for expressing prejudice against others who come into the Faith, insisting that we were responsible to treat one another with dignity. He confronted our persistent tendency to accept profession for possession; and he confronted the all too human characteristic of destroying fellow believers with our tongue. He reminded readers of the necessity of heavenly wisdom even while urging us to eschew worldly wisdom; and throughout the chapter before us, he has argued against the tendency to live as the world lives.

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