James 4:17
Therefore to him that knows to do good, and does it not, to him it is sin.
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(17) Therefore . . . .—A difficulty presents itself in this verse—whether the application be general, or a particular comment on the words preceding. Probably both ideas are correct. We learn the converse to the evil of vainglory in life, namely, the good which may be wrought by every one. Occasions of well-doing lie in the abject at our doors, and the pleadings of pity in our very hearts. And thus it is that omission is at times worse than commission; and more souls are in jeopardy for things left undone than for things done. In “The Beautiful Legend” there is a strife between the call of duty to give out a dole of bread to the hungry, and the temptation to linger in religious ecstasy over a vision of Christ. But the true brother knew “to do good,” and did it; and, returning at the end of his work, found his cell full of the radiant presence of the Lord, and heard the words of rich approval—

“Hadst thou stayed, I must have fled.”

And again, in another succession of thoughts on the text, God has no need of human knowledge; no, nor of our ignorance; “and it is a sin to shut the ears to instruction: it is a duty to get knowledge, to increase in knowledge, to abound in knowledge.” Nor must we rest therein, but (2Peter 1:6-7) “add to knowledge temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, charity.”

4:11-17 Our lips must be governed by the law of kindness, as well as truth and justice. Christians are brethren. And to break God's commands, is to speak evil of them, and to judge them, as if they laid too great a restraint upon us. We have the law of God, which is a rule to all; let us not presume to set up our own notions and opinions as a rule to those about us, and let us be careful that we be not condemned of the Lord. Go to now, is a call to any one to consider his conduct as being wrong. How apt worldly and contriving men are to leave God out of their plans! How vain it is to look for any thing good without God's blessing and guidance! The frailty, shortness, and uncertainty of life, ought to check the vanity and presumptuous confidence of all projects for futurity. We can fix the hour and minute of the sun's rising and setting to-morrow, but we cannot fix the certain time of a vapour being scattered. So short, unreal, and fading is human life, and all the prosperity or enjoyment that attends it; though bliss or woe for ever must be according to our conduct during this fleeting moment. We are always to depend on the will of God. Our times are not in our own hands, but at the disposal of God. Our heads may be filled with cares and contrivances for ourselves, or our families, or our friends; but Providence often throws our plans into confusion. All we design, and all we do, should be with submissive dependence on God. It is foolish, and it is hurtful, to boast of worldly things and aspiring projects; it will bring great disappointment, and will prove destruction in the end. Omissions are sins which will be brought into judgment, as well as commissions. He that does not the good he knows should be done, as well as he who does the evil he knows should not be done, will be condemned. Oh that we were as careful not to omit prayer, and not to neglect to meditate and examine our consciences, as we are not to commit gross outward vices against light!Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin - That is, he is guilty of sin if he does not do it. Cotton Mather adopted it as a principle of action, "that the ability to do good in any case imposes an obligation to do it." The proposition in the verse before us is of a general character, but probably the apostle meant that it should refer to the point specified in the previous verses - the forming of plans respecting the future. The particular meaning then would be, "that he who knows what sort of views he should take in regard to the future, and how he should form his plans in view of the uncertainty of life, and still does not do it, but goes on recklessly, forming his plans beastingly and confident of success, is guilty of sin against God." Still, the proposition will admit of a more general application. It is universally true that if a man knows what is right, and does not do it, he is guilty of sin.

If he understands what his duty is; if he has the means of doing good to others; if by his name, his influence, his wealth, he can promote a good cause; if he can, consistently with other duties, relieve the distressed, the poor, the prisoner, the oppressed; if he can send the gospel to other lands, or can wipe away the tear of the mourner; if he has talents by which he can lift a voice that shall be heard in favor of temperance, chastity, liberty, and religion, he is under obligations to do it: and if, by indolence, or avarice, or selfishness, or the dread of the loss of popularity, he does not do it, he is guilty of sin before God. No man can be released from the obligation to do good in this world to the extent of his ability; no one should desire to be. The highest privilege conferred on a mortal, besides that of securing the salvation of his own soul, is that of doing good to others - of alleviating sorrow, instructing ignorance, raising up the bowed down, comforting those that mourn, delivering the wronged and the oppressed, supplying the wants of the needy guiding inquirers into the way of truth, and sending liberty, knowledge, and salvation around the world. If a man does not do this when he has the means, he sins against his own soul, against humanity, and against his Maker; if he does it cheerfully and to the extent of his means, it likens him more than anything else to God.

17. The general principle illustrated by the particular example just discussed is here stated: knowledge without practice is imputed to a man as great and presumptuous sin. James reverts to the principle with which he started. Nothing more injures the soul than wasted impressions. Feelings exhaust themselves and evaporate, if not embodied in practice. As we will not act except we feel, so if we will not act out our feelings, we shall soon cease to feel. Either this may relate to all that the apostle had been before speaking of; q.d. I have admonished you of your duty, and now ye know what ye are to do, and therefore if you do it not it will be your sin: or, it may refer to what he was immediately before discoursing of, and may be spoken to prevent an objection. They might say, he taught them no more than what they knew already; and that they acknowledged God’s providence in all things. To this he replies, that if they knew their duty, they ought to practise it, and so actually submit themselves and their affairs to the conduct of that providence; and their not doing it, now that they knew it, would the rather be their sin.

To him it is sin; i.e. sin indeed, or (as we say) sin with a witness; a greater sin, and which hath more of the nature of sin in it, or is more highly aggravated, by being against knowledge, and so is punishable with severer vengeance, than if done out of ignorance, Luke 12:47. See the like expression, John 9:41 15:22,24. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good,.... This may regard not only the last particular of referring all things to the will of God, the sovereign disposer of life, and all events, which some might have the knowledge of in theory, though they did not practise according to it; but all the good things the apostle had exhorted to, and the contrary to which he had warned from, in this epistle; and suggests, that a Gnostic, or one that knows the will of God, in the several branches of it, revealed in his word,

and doth it not, to him it is sin: it is a greater sin; it is an aggravated one; it is criminal in him that is ignorant of what is good, and does that which is evil, nor shall he escape punishment; but it is much more wicked in a man that knows what is right and good, and ought to be done, and does it not, but that which is evil, and his condemnation will be greater; see Luke 12:47. The omission of a known duty, as well as the commission of a known sin, is criminal.

{9} Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.

(9) The conclusion of all the former treatise. The knowledge of the will of God does not only not at all profit, unless the life be answerable unto it, but also makes the sins far more grievous.

Jam 4:17. With the general sentence: Whosoever knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin, James concludes what he has hitherto said.

οὖν] is used in the sense of conclusion, but indicates that the concluding thought is the result of what has gone before.

καλὸν ποιεῖν] belong together, dependent on εἰδότι; not “whosoever knows the good that is to be done,” which would be to take ποιεῖν as an epexegetical infinitive. Wiesinger correctly remarks: “καλόν is not the idea of good, in which case the article would be put, but that which is fair, in contrast to an action which in its moral nature is πονηρόν.” That the discourse is concerning a sin of omission as such, to which this sentence is commonly referred (Bengel, Jachmann, and others), is rightly contested by de Wette and Wiesinger.[212]

ἉΜΑΡΤΊΑ ΑὐΤῷ ἘΣΤΊΝ] De Wette: “In the sense of reckoning; John 15:22; Luke 12:47 f.” (so already Estius, also Schneckenburger, Wiesinger, and others).

ΑὐΤῷ is here put, as frequently in the N. T., especially after the participle; comp. Matthew 5:40; see Al. Buttmann, p. 125 [E. T. 143]. With regard to the connection in which this sentence stands with the preceding, most expositors understand it as enforcing that to which James has formerly exhorted his readers, and refer ΕἸΔΌΤΙ to the knowledge which they have now received by the word of James. But against this is the objection, that if this expression be referred to all the previous exhortations (Estius: jam de omnibus satis vos admonui, vobis bene nota sunt), this would not be its proper place, because later on more exhortations follow; but if it is only referred to the last remark (Grotius: moniti estis a me, ignorantiam non potestis obtendere, si quid posthac tale dixeritis, gravior erit culpa; so also Pott, Theile, de Wette, Wiesinger), we cannot see why James should have added such a remark to this exhortation, as it would be equally suitable to any other. It is accordingly better to refer ΕἸΔΌΤΙ to the already existing knowledge of the subject just treated of; namely, the uncertainty of human life is something so manifest, that those who notwithstanding talk in their presumption as if it did not exist, as if their life were not dependent on God, contrary to their own knowledge, do not that which is seemly, but that which is unseemly, and therefore this is so much the more sin unto them.[213]

[212] “Since καλόν is the antithesis of πονηρόν, and not some positive good as beneficence, the defect of which is not πονηρόν, as de Wette correctly remarks, μὴ ποιοῦντι does not merely signify a sin of omission, but the omission of καλόν is necessarily a doing of πονηρόν.”

[213] When Lange, in arguing against this explanation, maintains that the word refers to the better knowledge of the readers, of evangelical behaviour in general, the definite connection of thought, in which here the general sentence is placed, is not properly considered by him.Jam 4:17. Although this verse may be regarded as standing independent of what has preceded, and as being in the form of a more or less inexact quotation, it is quite permissible to take it with what has gone before. Those to whom the words have been addressed had, to some extent, erred through thoughtlessness; now that things have been made quite plain to them, they are in a position to know how to act; if, therefore, in spite of knowing now how to act aright, the proper course is neglected, then it is sinful. This seems to be the point of the words of this verse.—The words are perhaps an echo of Luke 12:47, ἐκεῖνος δὲ ὁ δοῦλος ὁ γνοὺς τὸ θέλημα τοῦ κυρίου αὐτοῦ καὶ μὴ ἑτοιμάσας ἢ ποιήσας πρὸς τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ δαρήσεται πολλάς. With καλὸν ποιεῖν cf. Galatians 6:9, τὸ δὲ καλὸν ποιοῦντες μὴ ἐνκακῶμεν.—ἁμαρτία αὐτῷ ἐστιν: for the converse of this, namely, doing what is wrong in ignorance—in which case it is excusable—see Acts 3:17, “And now, brethren, I wot that in ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers”; 1 Timothy 1:13, “… howbeit, I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief”.—It is, however, quite possible that we have in these words the enunciation of the principle that sins of omission are as sinful as those of commission; when our Lord says, “… these things ought ye to have done, and not to have left the other undone” (Matthew 23:23), it is clear that the sins of omission are regarded as wilful sin equally with those of commission, cf. Matthew 25:41-45. There is always a tendency to reckon the things which are left undone as less serious than actually committed sin; this was certainly, though not wholly so, in Judaism. It is exceptional when we read, for example, in 1 Samuel 12:23, “God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you”; as a rule sins of omission are regarded as venial, according to the Jewish doctrine, and are not punishable. The conception of sin according to Rabbinical ideas is well seen in what is called the ‘Al Chêt (i.e., “For the sin,” from the opening words of each sentence in the great Widdui [“Confession”] said on Yom Kippur [“the Day of Atonement”]); in the long list of sins here, mention is made only of committed sins. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma, viii. 6) it is said that the Day of Atonement brings atonement, even without repentance, for sins of omission; in Pesikta, 7b the words in Zephaniah 1:12, “I will search Jerusalem with candles, and I will punish the men …,” are commented on by saying, “not by daylight, nor with the torch, but with candles, so as not to detect venial sins,” among these being, of course, included sins of omission. Although this is, in the main, the traditional teaching, there are some exceptions to be found, e.g., Shabbath, 54b; “ ‘Whosoever is in a position to prevent sins being committed by the members of his household, but refrains from doing so, becomes liable for their sins.’ The same rule applies to the govenour of a town, or even of a whole country” (see Jewish Encycl., xi. 378).

Having regard to the very Jewish character of our Epistle, it is quite possible that in the verse before us the reference is to this subject of sins of omission.17. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good …] The law of conscience is here enforced in its utmost width. To leave undone what we know we ought to do, is sin, even though there be no outward act of what men call crime or vice. The bearing of the general axiom on the immediate context is obviously that though men assented then, as we too often assent, to the abstract truth of the shortness of life and the uncertainty of the future, they went on practically as before with far-stretching calculations. Such men need to be reminded that this inconsistency is of the very essence of sin.Jam 4:17. Εἰδότι, to him who knows) A brief conclusion, leaving the haughty to themselves.—μὴ, not) A sin of omission.Verse 17. - Conclusion of the section. "Some have supposed a direct reference to Romans 14:23, 'Whatsover is not of faith is sin.' We can scarcely assume so much; but the correspondence is very remarkable, and St. James supplements St. Paul. It is sin to doubt whether a thing be right, and yet do it. It is also sin to know that a thing is right, and yet to leave it undone" (Dean Scott, in the 'Speaker's Commentary').

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