Question:

What does it mean in James 4:17, that "he that knoweth to do good, but doeth it not, to him it is sin"?  I've heard it explained two ways.  One, that he that knows how to live a moral life but neglects to do so sins.  But this seems like a tautology to me.  Two, that he that can do a good deed for another and doesn't sins.  Of course, this is in spirit with all of Jesus' teachings about helping those in need, spreading the gospel, etc.  But if that reading were correct, then it would seem in order not to sin we have to be doing good deeds every moment.  Even harmless activities, if they stopped me from being charitable or something like that, could be sinful.  I know I must be not seeing something.  Do you have any light to shed on this subject?

Thank you so much for your insight and help.  It has been extremely helpful to me!


Answer:

"Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin" (James 4:17).

Notice that this verse starts with "therefore." It is a conclusion or summary of the points made before. This is not independent statement, but what naturally follows from the arguments previously presented. So let's look at the point before:

"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" (James 4:13-16).

We have a lot less control over our lives than we might imagine. See: "What does it mean when people say "God's will be done" or "Lord willing?"" for additional details. But people make plans as if they are in complete control of the world.

But if we realize who little control we have, then we won't put off doing what is right because we might not have another opportunity. Have you heard someone say, "After I get ... done, then I can serve the Lord, but right now I'm too busy"? This is a person who thinks he has control of the future.

"The Lord said, "Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his lord will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the right times? Blessed is that servant whom his lord will find doing so when he comes. Truly I tell you, that he will set him over all that he has. But if that servant says in his heart, 'My lord delays his coming,' and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken, then the lord of that servant will come in a day when he isn't expecting him, and in an hour that he doesn't know, and will cut him in two, and place his portion with the unfaithful. That servant, who knew his lord's will, and didn't prepare, nor do what he wanted, will be beaten with many stripes, but he who didn't know, and did things worthy of stripes, will be beaten with few stripes. To whoever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked" (Luke 12:42-48).

The point James is stating is the we need to take advantage of the opportunities we have. We should never expect that they will remain available tomorrow because too many other things can happen.

Do you remember the parable of the talents in Matthew 25? One of the servants was given one talent, and when the master returned he returned the one talent to him. Yet, he as reprimanded and cast out because of that. Why? Because he did not use what was given to him to the master's advantage. We to are given time and ability to serve the Lord in both great and small ways. Do we pass by opportunities because we can get to them tomorrow, or do we do what we can now even if it isn't the most convenient time? It is a sin to waste opportunities.