”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 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.
There is another good reason for understanding this verse as applicable to Christians.
Outsiders, those who are lost and unsaved, cannot know the will of God because they have never obeyed the first command of God to believe His Son.
The Word of God is quite pointed in exposing the inability of the lost to please God.
The Wise Man has written:
“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord;
how much more when he brings it with evil intent.”
If you imagine that Solomon’s words are pointed, what will you say of John’s commentary on Jesus?
“Whoever believes in [the Son of God] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the Name of the Only Son of God.” Later, the Evangelist makes the case stronger still when he writes, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” [*John 3:18, 36*].
You will recall that the Master testified, “I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” [*John 8:12*].
Jesus also confessed, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in Me may not remain in darkness” [*John 12:46*].
There is yet another testimony that is necessary for understanding this particular issue before us now.
John has written, “If we say we have fellowship with [the Master] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practise the truth” [*1 John 1:6*].
Of unbelievers, Paul has written, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” [*2 Corinthians 4:4*].
Of Christians, the Apostle has also written, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” [*2 Corinthians 4:6*].
Unbelievers are in darkness; they have no light because they have never received the light of Christ the Lord.
Practically speaking, an outsider cannot recognise what is right; he resents the instruction of righteousness because it condemns his own actions and even his tendencies.
An outsider may perform correct actions, but because she has motives that are displeasing to God, her actions cannot honour Him.
Outsiders may say prayers, but they cannot pray.
Outsiders may perform liturgies, but they cannot worship.
Outsiders may be ever so religious, but they cannot please God.
Since the verse is written to Christians, we should determine the context.
To this point, James has been pointing to specific actions that are displeasing before the Master.
Before this verse, James has raised the issue of whether we */know/* God’s will.
With this verse, he shifts to asking whether we */do/* God’s will.
James is carrying the issue of faith into the realm of active obedience.
If we know God’s will, then we are expected to do God’s will.
There is no excuse for sinning by default.
Implicit in James’ words is the fact that we Christians are responsible to know the will of God.
We have the Spirit of God living within us.
He is the Helper appointed to “teach [us] all things and bring to our remembrance all that [the Master] has said” [*John 14:26*].
As we move about in our lives, the Spirit of God is constantly directing us, saying, “This is the way, walk in it” [*Isaiah 30:21*].
James has already informed us that “the Spirit God caused to live within us has an envious yearning” for us to do what is pleasing to Him [*James 4:5 NET Bible*].
More than that, according to Peter, “we have something more sure” than even experience, and that is “the prophetic Word” [*2 Peter 1:19*].
Frankly, there is no excuse for a child of God living in Canada to claim ignorance of the Word.
We have multiplied translations of God’s Word in our own language.
Radio and television and internet disseminate the Word so that it is almost impossible to believe that someone can exist without hearing the preached Word.
If there is a deficit of opportunity to know the will of God, it lies in the failure of us who are preachers to provide sound teaching.
As an aside of considerable importance, preachers bear an awesome responsibility to declare the Word of the Lord faithfully.
They are responsible to know the Word and to rightly handle that Word.
I fear that many who are looked to as preachers in this day are more like religious cheerleaders than they are expositors of the Word.
Listening to much that masquerades as preaching in this day can produce spiritual dyspepsia at best and ensure spiritual malnutrition at worst.
Preachers are trained to build self-esteem, to make people feel good about themselves, to avoid confronting sinners in their sin.
Thus, contemporary preachers willingly tell a story about a lost dog that generates a few tears, and people feel as though they have worshipped.
Or they tell about a book of pop psychology that can remove feelings of guilt, and people are thrilled to imagine that they are pleasing to the Lord.
However, the people of God are responsible to know the will of God, and we who are appointed to the sacred desk are responsible to ensure that we faithfully declare the full will of God.
Now, James says that if we know the will of God, we are responsible to do the will of God.
According to James’ teaching to this point, (teaching for which we cannot claim ignorance):
· When we refuse to accept testing permitted by God, */we sin/*.
· When we fail to ask for heavenly wisdom, or fail to appropriate that wisdom, */we sin/*.
· When we succumb to temptation, */we sin/*.
· When we fail to hear the Word, */we sin/*.
· When we refuse to bridle our tongue, */we sin/*.
· When we treat fellow Christians as inferior to ourselves, */we sin/*.
· When we reduce the Faith to ritual, */we sin/*.