The Crown of Life

Sermon preached on James 1:12-15 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 01/24/2021 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

James began his letter teaching that trials and temptations test our faith, which produces steadfastness. Such steadfastness, he taught, grows us – and our final outcome as Christians will be a state of perfection and maturity in glory. Today’s verses continue to develop that teaching. Here we find important contributions to our doctrine of God, and our doctrine of man, and our doctrine of salvation. I love how such a book about the practical outworking of our faith also includes various rich deposits of doctrine.

Let us begin first by seeing what this passage teaches us about our doctrine of God. Let us begin in verse 13. There we learn something about the character of God. It says that God cannot be tempted with evil. The Bible tells us elsewhere that God is good. He is morally upright and righteous. There is no stain of evil in him. God is light and him there is no darkness at all.

So then, this is why God is not tempted with evil. When it says that he “cannot” be tempted, it’s not because there is some external constraint that prevents anything from trying to tempt God. That’s not what this is getting at. Rather, this is a statement about God’s character. Because God is wholly good, there is no evil thing that could actually tempt him. There is nothing that would entice him of evil. There is no desire within him that would find such an evil thing appealing. So, even if one were to try to hold out some evil thing to God, it wouldn’t interest him in the least. In fact, it would disgust him. It would be abhorrent to him. It would solicit God’s righteous anger and wrath and hatred against it. God hates evil and every false way (Psalm 97:10, 119:128). Scripture even says God hates the wicked, Psalm 11:5, and stands ready to bring judgment upon them. God can’t be tempted by evil because there is nothing attractive to him about it. God loves the good and hates the evil. He’s never found anything good in evil and he never will.

So then, that point about God’s character leads to the main point James is making here about God. Verse 13 goes on to conclude that God does not tempt anyone with evil. Notice verse 13 begins by objecting to anyone who would say otherwise. Then he says that God himself is never personally tempted with evil, due to his goodness. And then James concludes that such is why God never tempts anyone with evil.

This is a significant point for our doctrine of God. Here we see that God is not the author of temptation to sin. I stated it that way because that is the most explicit point here, but by extension it also means that God is not the author of sin or evil. This passage will go on to say that temptation of evil leads to sin which leads to death. And this passage says God doesn’t tempt people to evil. So then, this passage by extension is one proof text in the Bible to affirm that God is not the author of evil. Scripturally, we rightly affirm the sovereignty of God, that he created all things and that he sustains all things and he even foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. But from there, when it comes to the authoring of evil, we must deny that he is the author of evil. He himself is good and not evil. He himself is not tempted of evil nor does he tempt anyone toward evil. Yes, he may permit others to do an evil as part of his larger good plans. We could even fairly say that he ordains such to come to pass. But he is not culpable for evil and his character never changes so that he somehow is pleased with evil in itself. Consequently, he won’t tempt you with evil. He won’t work sin within you. Yes, there is an element of mystery in this. But there is in fact a lot of light too. At the end of the day, it is not that hard to understand and appreciate what is revealed – the goodness of God and his distinction from evil and his rejection of evil.

We can take several applications from this. One, our view of God is not to be like far too many pagan views of God. I think, by example, how during the time of the New Testament the Greco-Roman view of their pantheon of gods were of gods that had all sorts of moral failures and evils. Thankfully such pagan religion is false. Yet I wonder if the more common pagan view today is in reverse – they affirm their moral failures and evil and see that the God of the Bible rejects them. So too often the pagan say their flawed morality is good and God’s actual morality is evil. But such a pagan viewpoint today is also false. There is only one true God and he is indeed perfectly good and not evil in any way.

A second application is that we must not fall into one of the hyper-Calvinistic tendencies to effectively think that God’s sovereignty means that my struggles with certain temptations must just be God’s will for my life and so I shouldn’t be fighting against those temptations. But that’s a perverted way to think of God’s sovereignty which is why its called hyper-Calvinism.

A third application is that we shouldn’t blame God when the temptations come. What I mean is that sometimes we can get upset at God when we are struggling with some temptation or some deep trial comes upon us. We might technically affirm the goodness of God. But inwardly there can be a part of us that might blame God or somehow think he is out to get us for some reason. Basically, we can find we are angry at God and blame him for our troubles. James, here, confronts us if we find ourselves starting to think like that. Such is not the perspective of the Christian faith. Such is not truth. There is no place whatsoever for blaming God for evil.

Let us turn next in our second point to see what this passage teaches us about the doctrine of man. This follows nicely from what we were just talking about. If we can’t blame God for our temptations, our doctrine of man does teach us where to put the blame. James, here, says to put the blame on yourself. Verse 14, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” This fact was true even in the garden of Eden, before mankind’s initial fall into sin. Genesis 3:6 speaks of how Eve desired the forbidden fruit, seeing that it was both a delight to the eyes and to be desired to make one wise. If one’s own desire was the source of temptation even before mankind’s fall into sin, how much more after the fall in man’s fallen state of total depravity. And this is true even for us Christians who have been born again by the Holy Spirit – we still yet have desires that would tempt us with evil. Recognize how this is in contrast with our doctrine of God. It is God who is incapable of being tempted with evil because he doesn’t desire evil things. It is us humans who desire things we shouldn’t and aren’t content with righteousness and find ourselves tempted to sin.

Notice how James describes how these desires tempt us. The language of verse 14 is that we are lured and enticed. This language is actually fishing imagery. The word for “enticed” is in the sense of bait that attracts someone. The language of “lured” is actually the idea of being caught and dragged off. So, the language is saying that temptation is our desire setting up some bait that hooks us and then reels us in!

So then we see where we get drug off to. We get drug off to death. That’s what verse 15 says is the trajectory of temptation. Our evil desires if left unchecked lead to death. The imagery of verse 15 is in terms of the human reproductive cycle – that’s the literal language of the Greek here. Desire conceives then gives birth to a child named sin. Sin then grows up and when mature gives birth itself to a child named death. This language of sin being fully grown shares the same root as back in verse 4 about being perfect. There, in verse 4, it spoke about how true Christians grow unto into spiritual maturity through trials and temptation. But here, we see the opposite is true for the non-Christian. For them, trials and temptations will ultimately grow the person unto death. And we know what kind of death that is for the godless. It a death unto that that eternal lake of fire. It is death unto a fire that cannot be quenched and to where the worm never dies.

Such is the contribution today of this passage to our doctrine of man. Left to himself, this is what happens to every human born today. Their depraved desires tempt them with evil. It results in a pattern and life of sin that is turned away from the Lord. It ultimately leads to their death and eternal damnation. Yet, our passage also holds out a great hope of life to those who are in Christ Jesus by faith. This leads us then to our last point for today, to turn and consider what this passage contributes to our doctrine of salvation.

This is found in verse 12. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Here then is the contrast to the death mentioned in verse 15. Wretched humans that we are, we can be saved from that trajectory of death, through saving faith in Jesus Christ. Recognize how verse 12 is to be read in light of verses 2-4. It’s the same sort of language being used in verse 12 as in verses 2-4. The language here of steadfast, trial, and test, is the same language of steadfastness, trial, and test from verses 2-4. Verses 2-4 said that the Christians’ faith is tested through trial resulting in their sanctification with the trajectory of perfection in glory. Verse 12 then adds to that by saying that trajectory includes a crown of life.

That crown of life is a reference to our eternal reward – to the eternal life of blessedness that we will enjoy in the glory that awaits us beyond this life. And so, when we read of a crown here, don’t think a king’s crown. Think instead of the laurel wreath of victory that an athlete would receive if they won a race. That’s the crown it’s talking about. It’s the reward someone gets at the end of a competition that shows they won. In 2 Timothy 4:7, when Paul’s death drew near, he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Paul’s words there are similar with what James is saying here. And they also bring out an important nuance that is also present here in James: that his victory is by faith and not by works. You see, to say that we are victorious unto eternal life after we endure a lifetime of trial and temptation might give you the wrong impression that we have earn our way to glory by our good works. But that’s not what James teaches here. Remember that verses 2-4 set this in the context of faith. It’s our faith that is tested by the trials and temptations. It’s not our ability to measure up in terms of good works that is being tested. It’s whether our faith is proven to endure through the tests. And of course, Scripture is clear – faith is not a work. Faith is what looks away from itself to the object of faith. To the grace of God in Christ Jesus, to the forgiveness of our sins that he won for us on the cross, and to the perfecting power of his Holy Spirit in our hearts. And even our ability to believe is a gift from God, praise be to Him!

It is right to note that while verses 2-4 did put the focus on our faith, verse 12 puts the focus on our love for God. Again, let us not think of this in terms of a work by which we earn eternal life. Rather, we should see that our love for God is intimately connected with our faith. How can we truly have a genuine faith apart from a real love and desire for God? This is in fact how we can begin to discern that God has indeed worked in our hearts a new birth. It’s the person that is not born again that doesn’t have any love for God but rather his love is for himself – and that’s why he lives out his desires to please himself. But when someone is born again from above, God has begun a change in them. God has given such a person a new heart. That heart has new desires, a desire for the Lord, and for righteousness; a desire to turn away from sin and to reject our former evil desires. Yes, such a new heart yet wars against the old man until we enter glory. But there’s been a real change within us that includes a love for God. In that new birth, with those new desires, we put our faith in God and look to him for salvation and life.

And we are reminded today that as we love God and put our faith in him, that we receive the gift of eternal life. Verse 12 says God has promised this to us. Let me point out the obvious. God keeps his promises. We who have begun to love God and turn to him in faith, we know that ours is eternal life. That will be an eternal life of blessedness and happiness and joy and peace. In light of the hope of that future, James can declare the blessedness of us who are in Christ by faith.

I would note that verse 12 does qualify this declaration of blessedness that it is only for those who persevere in the faith. I used that language to reminds us of those five points of Calvinism which ends in the fifth point with the “P” of “perseverance of the faith.” The hope of glory is only for those who believe and who believe unto the end. Now the Bible elsewhere rightly teaches that our ability to persevere is like how we are able to have faith in the first place – it is all ultimately a gift of God. The fact that we began to believe is a gift of God. The fact that we continue to believe is a gift of God. That gift is what we were just talking about – it’s about being born again from above by the Spirit of God. That new birth changes our desires and gives us a new perspective and renews our wills. That new birth is why we turn to believe in God. And its why we continue to believe in God through life’s trials. Indeed, as Hebrews 12:2 says, Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. As Paul speaks about in Philemon 1:6, God who begins a good work in us will also complete that good work in us.

Yet, while this is true that God perseveres the faith of the elect, he has not revealed to us his list of the elect. Yet, that’s what James here is helping us to understand. James is saying that as our faith is tried and tested through trial it is being proven through that. That should then encourage us that we are indeed God’s elect. It’s like Peter says in 2 Peter 1:10 that we are to diligently seek to make our calling and election sure. James says that we can find such assurance through the testing of trials and temptation.

On the other hand, should you find your faith unproven through the trials of life, then this passage graciously yet gives you the warning to indeed repent of your sins and see the beauty and goodness of the Lord and put your faith in Jesus for grace and salvation. If you are hearing this passage today and haven’t yet truly trusted in Jesus, then I urge to do that today. Confess your sins to God. Acknowledge that his way is right and good. Ask him to forgive your sins for the sake of Christ’s shed blood on the cross. Repent of your sins and look to follow Jesus as your Lord. Become Christ’s disciple as you are united to him in faith. Be baptized in his name and begin to enjoy a new life of faith in Christ. If you do, you then have what verse 12 declares: the blessed hope of eternal life!

That is what I leave us today, dear saints in Christ. This perspective of blessedness. We’ve been learning in James about how our faith thinks about things. Our faith says we are blessed as we endure trial and hardship while trusting in Christ. In a trial, we probably don’t feel very blessed. But faith knows that we are. Be renewed in the blessedness of our eternal hope that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. May such faith encourage us then to keep fighting the good fight and keep running the race so as to win. All by the grace of God and to his glory and even for our good! Amen.

Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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