Sermon preached on James 1:16-18 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 01/31/2021 in Novato, CA.
James here gives his original readers and us a stern call to not be deceived. Yet, his admonition does not regard his audience as enemies but warns them as brothers, verse 16, “my beloved brothers.” This is indeed a warning the church of Jesus Christ must receive and heed, being careful if we think we stand lest we fall. Recognize James is talking about being deceived here in the context of temptation. Last passage ended saying that it is not God who tempts us to evil, but rather it is our own desires that do so. James doesn’t want us to be deceived by our own desires, because that is typically what temptation does – it so often works by deception. Eve in the Garden of Eden is an example of this – she was genuinely deceived by Satan’s temptation and fall into sin. Temptation so often tries to trick us with some lie. This is a warning to us lest we be deceived into doing the wrong thing while we think we are doing something right. Surely many of us if faced with an obvious choice to outrightly betray our faith would not do so, but the craftiness of the fallen human heart may try to trick us into doing something wrong while we think we are in the right.
Similarly, James doesn’t want us to be deceived into thinking that God is to be blamed for these temptations to evil that we face. James wants us to see that God uses trial and temptation for our growth as Christians. But God himself is not tempted by evil and therefore doesn’t himself try to tempt us toward evil. So then, our passage here from James continues to develop how our faith ought to be thinking of trial and temptation when he warns us to not be deceived in such matters. Let us dig into today’s passage then to see how James counters the deceptions we might face with the truth that has been revealed to us by God.
Let us begin in our first point by considering how our passage declares that every good and perfect gift comes from God. This is verse 17. Let me note first the emphasis on gift. It appears twice in verse 17 and actually they are two different words in Greek, synonyms, for a gift. Every good gift and every perfect gift. Our heavenly father gives gifts to us his children. We can, of course, think of how God gives good gifts to all his creatures, not only believers in Christ. He sends the sun and the rain to benefit both the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). And he sends even good things to the animals, giving them food to eat, for example (c.f. Psalm 104). Each of us can think of the various good things God has given us, food, clothing, shelter, health, family and friends, a church family, jobs, and many other tangible and intangible blessings. God gives so many things and humans ought to recognize that they find their ultimate source in God. Yes, from an earthly vantage point, we might recognize immediate sources in other places: a friend who gives you a gift, your hard work at your job that lands you a promotion, an inheritance from a loved one that has died, etc. But James tells us that every one of these good things is ultimately a gift from God. God is to be thanked. He is to be praised. We ultimately need to look to him for such wonderful things.
But in context surely the good and perfect gifts here from God especially have in mind what uniquely come us to as God’s saved people. He’s referred to here as our father, and surely that is mean not in a general sense but as our heavenly father of us his redeemed people. He is not only our God and we are not only his people, but he is our father and we are his children. As such, we are told that he gives us good gifts. Good, not evil, gifts. This is in contrast with the previous passage that speaks of how God is not going to go around tempting us with evil. That’s not the kind of “gift” that God will give us his children. Furthermore, this calls to mind how Jesus taught on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 7:11, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” What a relevant verse to this passage. What’s implied in this section is what Jesus just said explicitly. We humans are the evil ones. It is God who is good and only good. Yet even us evil human fathers give good not evil gifts to our children. How much more so will all all-good heavenly father give us good gifts as we ask him. That point connects our passage back to the earlier passage in James that taught us to be asking God in faith for good things like wisdom. Here James now assures us that our heavenly father is indeed the source of all good things, and will only give us good things.
But James also says that they are perfect gifts. This word for perfect is the same word use in verse 4 to speak of how trials perfect us in our sanctification. We noted then that the word perfect referred there to maturity; about something becoming what it was intended to become. I don’t find it coincidence that he then describes these good gifts from God as also perfect gifts. God not only is the source of gifts that are good for us, he’s also the source of the gifts that will perfect us. In other words, I can’t help when I hear the language here of a perfect gift to not take it simply that the gift itself is perfect and complete, but that it is a gift which gives a benefit of perfecting to us. I guess if we want to try to bring out both ideas, we could say they are “perfect” gifts for us because they are for our “perfecting.” It is certainly in context in this chapter to see that God’s gifts for us do bring about that perfecting in us, so I don’t think it’s too much of a linguistic stretch to think about that when he describes the gifts here as perfect.
The last thing to note about these gifts is that they come down from heaven to us here on earth. That’s the trajectory mentioned in verse 17. Our heavenly father is up in heaven and these good and perfect gifts are “coming down” from him to us down here. This speaks of the transcendence of God who yet makes himself known by sending us gifts from heaven to earth. James speaks in such terms when he talks about wisdom in chapter 3:15-17, saying that we need the wisdom that comes down from above. That reference, by the way, reemphasizes that the gifts that James here has in mind are for more than simply ordinary this-world blessings, but those things God gives us for our spiritual growth and maturity. So then, we can consider other, even greater gifts, that God has sent from heaven down to us his people here on earth. I think of this in terms of his gift of revelation of himself. He has sent from his Holy Word through the mouth of angels and prophets. Then he sent revelation to us by his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And in these last days he poured our his Holy Spirit to bear witness to God as revealed in Christ and the Holy Word. We should not be surprised, by the way, to think of such things as gifts. Jesus himself when talking about asking God for good gifts promised that if we do, God would be pleased to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him, Luke 11:13. God has indeed blessed us to send from heaven these amazing gifts for our spiritual growth.
Let’s turn now to our second point and consider this description of God as this unchanging Father of lights. Verse 17 is the only place where God is called in the Bible the Father of lights. It then goes on to further describe him as one with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. It may not be immediately obvious to you, but this language is all connected. The lights are surely a reference to the heavenly bodies, in other words, the sun, moon and stars. These all give light, and they are also subject to variation and shadow due to change. Psalm 136:7-9 refers to the sun, moon, and stars as the great lights, for example. Our heavenly father is the one who made all these heavenly lights. He stands as the transcendent creator even above the most transcendent things in this creation.
But not only does God stand above all these things, he is qualitatively different than them. Whereas the heavenly lights change regularly all the time, God does not change at all whatsoever. This refers to the doctrine of God’s immutability and this is one of the proof texts for it. God is immutable – he never changes. His character is constant and fixed. Unlike us, he does not grow or mature. He does not need to be perfected because he is already perfect and has always been perfect and complete in himself. So, while he made the transcendent heavenly lights and stands above them, he is not like them. He is far above them in every way. In fact, the reality that the heavenly lights do change, is part of God’s design for how this created world is able to track change. Remember, in Genesis 1:14, on the fourth day, God made the heavenly lights for the purposes of tracking seasons, days, and years. The most transcendent things in creation — these heavenly lights — are symbols that the creation undergoes change. In contrast, God stands distinct and apart from his creation as the unchangeable God.
Realize the implications of God’s unchanging nature. It means he is reliable. We can trust on him. Our faith can rely on him. We can count on him. In context, that means, for example, that when he sincerely holds out the offer in verse 5 to give wisdom without reproach if we ask, then it means we can trust he will do that. We had seen back in verse 5 that the point of the text was that God had singleness of mind to give us wisdom when we ask, compared to the common problem with us humans that we can be double-minded when we ask. Humans aren’t always reliable and trustworthy, but God is always reliable. Per last passage, we can’t even trust ourselves to not try to deceive us, but we can trust in the goodness of God and in his purposes to perfect us. And so, God’s unchanging nature means we can count on him for all his promises, not only this one in verse 5 about giving us wisdom, but especially the one back in verse 12. There we are reminded that he has promised that eternal crown of life to all who love him.
In context, God’s unchanging nature also has implications with regards to what we studied last time. We said that God’s character is not tempted by evil and therefore he won’t tempt us with evil. Because God’s character doesn’t change, those truths won’t ever change either. God will never ever be tempted by evil. God will never ever tempt us with evil. God will always only do good. God will always only have our best interest in what he ordains for us as his chosen people. The trials of this life are part of what he has ordained for us. God, who sees the end from the beginning, has not been caught off guard by any of the trials and troubles that come upon us in this life. The evils that we bring into our lives or others bring into lives will not thwart God’s good plan for our lives. If we are his children, we can take comfort that he will even use what others mean for evil for our ultimate good. This we can trust in because our God doesn’t change and he is good and glorious. To say it another way, God is not to blame when evils come into our life; he has our good in store as our Heavenly Father who give us good and perfect gifts. Let us not blame God when troubles come but all the more trust in him.
So then, we come now to our third point to see how this section culminates with a specific example of how our Heavenly Father gives us good and perfect gifts. I refer to verse 18 which says, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” What good and perfect gift does this describe? It describes the new birth God has done in our lives as Christians. The language here of “brought us forth” is literally “give birth”. It’s the same language as back in verse 15 that said how human depraved desires give birth to sin. So, we see further the contrast between what our old man wants to do in temptation versus what God has desired already to do for us his elect. God has given birth to us. In context, this must refer to the new birth. When a Christian says they are a born again Christian, this is what they are talking about. It’s what Jesus told Nicodemus is a prerequisite for salvation. We must be born a second time – born from above by the Spirit of God. We also refer to this as regeneration.
Realize how this happens. The source of it is from God. Verse 18 says “of his own will” he has begotten us. It is not the will of man that makes himself born again. This is the teaching of monergism. In order to be born again, it is not something we humans do. Rather, the point in this chapter is that our fallen selves want to give birth to sin then death. But it is God who intervenes in the hearts of his chosen people to bring a new birth to their souls. It is only from such a reborn soul are we enabled then from the heart to believe in God and be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. And it is only through such a spiritual new birth will we possess the saving faith that is described in the book of James. And, we are thankful that this chapter reminds us that God’s good gifts are not just to begin us in this new birth, but also to work steadfastness in us unto that crown of eternal life.
And so, when it said that God gives us these gifts from heaven to here on earth, we see that he brings new birth to us humans here on earth. But we also note that the means by which he brings forth such new birth is the word of truth. That’s how verse 18 explains how God brings forth this new birth. God could, hypothetically, just speak forth our new birth like how in the beginning he said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. But that’s not how he has chosen to do it. Instead, he has decided to bring new birth by the word of his truth. We already mentioned how his word is also something that he has sent down from heaven to this earth. And so, we rightly recognize that God brings new birth in the context of his Holy Word going forth. True, sometimes God’s word falls on deaf ears and new birth isn’t brought forth. But we should not expect new birth to ever happen apart from God’s word coming to someone.
Realize why it’s important that the word is described here as the word of truth. That’s in contrast to the start of this passage that warned us against being deceived. Our old man will want to lie to us to deceive us. But God speaks truth to us. Our old man’s lies want to lie to us to bring us spiritual death. God speaks truth to us to bring us spiritual life. The contrast here is so clear. And it’s rooted in the contrast between the creator and the creature. The benevolent creator is the source of truth, goodness, and life. Our old selves are corrupted through lies, evil, and death. This passage calls us afresh to abhor and humble ourselves before God and look to God to save us in Jesus Christ. God’s truth says we need the salvation that is only found through trusting in Jesus for forgiveness and grace. Let us each heed that call afresh and keep putting our hope in the Lord.
Part of why this chapter needs to be emphasizing these things is that when troubles and trials come there is the temptation to respond the way Job’s wife told him to respond. She told Job to just curse God and die, Job 2:9. The assumption was that God had done him evil and so his life was hopeless. But that was a lie. And if yourself or someone you know tells you that same lie today, it is still a lie. God is the source of every good and perfect gift. He is the one who has brought us to a new life in Christ Jesus. He is the one who will carry us through to the end. Examine your faith to see that you are in such a faith. If you do not have such a faith, then God’s word of truth today calls you forth today from your spiritual death unto the new life that is found in faith in Christ Jesus.
For us who have found such new birth, look at how we are described at the end of verse 18. It speaks of Christians being a king of firstfruits of his creatures. Let me explain what this means because it can be easily misunderstood. The firstfruits of a harvest is the first of that season’s crop. What verse 18 surely doesn’t mean that James was writing to the first Christians who were just the beginning of a harvest of more Christians to come. If that were what he meant, the next generation of Christians would be second-fruits and third-fruits and so on. But I don’t believe that’s what he’s getting at. Rather, the right interpretation is surely that all Christians are the firstfruits. The ones back then who first were reading James’ letter, the Christians here alive today, and the ones yet to come – we are all “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures”.
This is imagery rooted in the Old Testament offering of the firstfruits. Under the old covenant, Israel was supposed to take the firstfruits of the harvest each year and give it as an offering to the LORD. The firstfruits was to be set apart as holy in that it was to belong to God. The rest of the harvest was allowed to be kept by the farmer for his own. But the firstfruits was to be offered to God and belonged in a special way to him. That’s an interesting point because we know that ultimately everything belongs to God. But the Bible speaks of certain things that especially belong to him.
God says that we his born-again believers belong to him in this special way. As 1 Peter 2:9 says, Christians are a holy people for God’s own possession. I love the trajectory of this. Our passage today has focused on how God sends down from heaven to us good gifts here on earth. That includes the gift of our new life and salvation. But then by calling us his firstfruits, suddenly the trajectory reverses. We are then the firstfruits that are to be given – gifts – back to God. We from earth are now holy sacrifices offered and given to God in heaven.
That’s my closing application then. God is the giver of every good and perfect gift we have. Everything we have is because of him. Let us in turn offer ourselves, our whole lives, back to him in holiness as our gift in return. Such is our reasonable service and our spiritual act of worship. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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