Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin. James 4:17
The book of James will always have a special place in my heart because it is the first book that I ever preached through as a pastor. As I found out, though, the book is hard to outline. As a matter of fact, even though I’ve preached through most of the Bible in my time, I’ve never found a book as hard to outline as James. The problem is that James will clearly talk about one subject for a while and then make a quick jump cut to another one. And sometimes you don’t know if he is still on his previous subject or if he has moved on to a new subject.
The text verse for this post is one that can easily stand alone as a one-text sermon. I mean, I can preach on “to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” all day. That thought can be applied to: believing in Jesus as your Savior, repenting of your sin, loving your spouse, raising your kids as you should, praying, reading your Bible, getting involved in church work, putting money in church, witnessing, showing love to others, reading Russell Mckinney’s blog….. (Okay, maybe I went a little too far with that last one.) But you get the point. Any preacher worth his salt can run wild with James 4:17.
Please notice, however, that the verse actually begins with a very important word: “Therefore.” And what’s the famous old line about that word? It’s, “Anytime you see the word ‘Therefore’ you need to figure out what it’s there for.” So, what is the word “Therefore” there for in James 4:17? Answer: It’s there to link the verse up with what James has been talking about previously.
Of course, the problem now becomes the question of just how far back James wants his readers to go. For example, if we take things all the way back to chapter 1, we can apply James 4:17 to counting it all joy when we fall into various trials (1:2-4), asking God for wisdom (1:5-8), enduring temptation (1:12-16), etc. In actuality, though, it makes sense that we should only go back as far as James’ most recent change of subject, and a new subject begins in verse 13 and runs through verse 16. The subject is that of foolish, arrogant boasting and self-confidence concerning assumptions made about future events. The verses, including James 4:17, read as follows:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.
Okay, so by reading James 4:17 in context we learn that the specific good that we know to do is to live our lives with the understanding that God, not us, is ultimately in control. Basically, it’s absurd for us to talk about all the things we are going to do tomorrow, next month, or next year when we aren’t even guaranteed to live to see tomorrow, next month, or next year unless God wills it. This doesn’t mean that it’s a sin for you to set a lunch date for tomorrow, schedule a doctor’s appointment for three months from now, make a hotel reservation for six months from now, or contribute to a retirement account that you won’t be able to use for several more years. It does mean, though, that you should do all these things with the understanding that you can’t will any of your plans to come to fruition. After all, your life is just a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes, and vapors don’t have any strength.
So, as you make your plans, schedule your appointments, talk your talk, and dream your dreams, you should do it all with the understanding that God might have something completely different in mind for you. Putting it simply, you don’t run the universe; He does. And to believe otherwise is to, as James describes it, “boast in your arrogance.” You see, what we are really talking about here is you understanding just how small you are in comparison to how big God is. That’s a lesson that we all need to learn, and according to James our failure to learn it is sin.