Sermon preached on James 4:13-17 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 05/02/2021 in Novato, CA.
If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that. Today’s passage draws our attention to a common topic among Christians. It’s the topic of planning and decision making and how that relates to the will of God for our lives. And yet it is so often the case that when Christians delve into that topic that they spend most of their time trying to figure out what can’t be figured out – to know the secret things of God. I mean that often Christians in decision making and planning get consumed wanting to know what God’s secret will for their life is. God’s secret will is in contrast to his revealed will. God’s secret will is what will actually come to pass, as it flows out of God’s eternal decree whereby he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. But God has not told us his secret will. Instead, he has told us his revealed will. In the Word, he tells us certain things that will come to pass. And he tells us, in general ways, how he wants us to make decisions and live out our lives. So then, on the one hand, we’ve been given certain revealed things by which we should be trying to base our decisions upon. Yet on the other hand, it is an exercise in futility to try to make decisions based on trying to discern the secret things of God because those things are not knowable. It is this fact, this truth, that today’s passage gets us to deal with. Today is not a passage that talks about making decisions and plans in light of God’s revealed will. That’s a lesson from other passages. Today’s passage wants us to think about decision making and planning in light of the fact that we don’t and can’t know God’s secret will. In fact, every decision in life, every plan made, has this hearty element to it: that we don’t know God’s secret will in regards to our plans. Let us then look at what James has to tell us in light of this sure truth.
We’ll begin in our first point looking at verses 13-14 where we see he introduces today’s topic. He begins in verse 13 addressing a hypothetical person. He says, “Come now, you who say,” and then describes the person who’s planning a one-year business venture. James here uses a rhetorical technique known as “apostrophe” where you interrupt your speech to suddenly address a third party, in this case these people who are making business plans. Interestingly, he does the very same thing again in the next passage, starting in chapter 5, verse 1. There he addresses rich people who have been trusting in their riches and persecuting the poor. The close proximity and parallel structure might suggest at least some connection. While the next passage will go on to address unsaved rich people, here maybe he has in the mind Christians who would presume to become rich by their business ventures. Clearly there is a financial component to this when he describes their interest in making a profit in verse 13.
Yet, James’ here doesn’t say that making a profit is bad nor is that his concern in this passage. For that matter, he doesn’t speak against planning, per se, either. But he is speaking to people who are making plans. In this case, it is business plans, though certainly his words have application to all sort of plans we might make. So then, while he pauses to address this imagined third party group of planners, I think we should all listen up. Some of us, myself included, especially pride ourselves in being planners, versus the more spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment, sort of people. People who are especially planners need to be reminded of the truths that James is bringing to our attention today. But surely all of us make plans of various sorts and need to hear what James is teaching here today.
So then, we see in verse 14 that James is not objecting to planning, but he is objecting to planning that doesn’t involve appropriate humility. He makes his point about humility in verse 14 in two ways. First, he says that you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Read this in contrast to how the planners were planning a year out, but we can’t even be sure of a day out. Prov 27:1 says, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day will bring forth.” Now this doesn’t mean it’s wrong to make plans a year out. But humility will remind us that these plans are tentative. In our planning for the future, we can think we are in control, but James reminds us to have the humility that acknowledges otherwise.
James’s second reason for such humility in verse 14 is to point us to the uncertainty of our lives. He says that we are but a mist that appears a little while and then vanishes. James says in humility we must recognize the fleeting nature of our lives. James says that yes while planning is fine, we need to recognize the shortness of life might mean those plans might not come to pass. In other words, James is saying to the person who plans a year out, that he might not even be alive in a year – or even tomorrow.
I’m reminded of the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21. That’s the one about a rich man who saved and saved and built bigger and bigger storehouses, and put his trust in his reserves. But in the parable God then says to the rich man, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” This also reminds us of Ecclesiastes which speaks of the futility of life under the sun as vanity of vanities, that we can work so hard to store up wealth only to leave it to our heirs who might turn out to be fools.
So then, our first point is to see how James calls planners to humility, both in light of our inability to ultimately know the future, and in our ever possibility of our deaths. Let’s turn now in our second point to consider verses 16-17. There we find James’ further developing his concern about the kind of planners he’s addressing. He shows here that he’s mentioned humility because he’s been dealing with people who have been arrogant in their planning. Look at verse 16. “As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
Realize James is speaking then to a heart issue. It’s near impossible to hear tone in writing, and so here James tells us the tone of his quote before when he envisioned people speaking about their one-year business plans. He has in mind people who are boasting about their plans. They are arrogant about them. They say them with pride and an inordinate confidence. The root here is the arrogance. The person making the plans has pretension and presumption in their heart. Here we see this as the opposite of the humility that recognizes that they are not infallible, let alone immortal. When we think too highly of ourselves, it is pride and arrogance.
So then James envisions such arrogance and pride coming out in their boasting. Let’s talk about that boasting for a moment because apparently this was something James’ original recipients were doing. Boasting, generally, is when you are speaking of something with a high degree of confidence. There is a theoretical godly boasting that boasts in the Lord, per Paul in Romans 5:11. That’s when we find our confidence in God and how he saves us by grace through Jesus Christ. So, there is a godly form of boasting. And yet, more often than not, human boasting is an expression of our pride. Such sinful boasting usually involves self-glorying, drawing attention to yourself. In this case, we can imagine someone who boasts about their business plans to others to try to show how smart and business savvy they are and to look wise and important and prestigious to others. They basically declare their business plans a complete success even before they begin their business. They are counting their chickens before they hatch and then telling everyone the count. Again, it’s not difficult to think of other applications too when it comes to planning. There can be various ways people boast of their plans to others as a way to draw attention to themselves or because of their pride in their hearts. So then, James is very clear on this. Such arrogant boasting is evil. That’s what he says. In other words, it is a sin.
We might not have thought of it that way. The world boasts about stuff all the time, which can tempt us to join in on such boasting. It’s especially in our face in many advertisements. Too often companies boast of their products to the world, but cross the line when they exaggerate claims to try to sell their products. People too can certainly cross lines in their boastings about the future and about their plans. But James wants to speak to the Christian to have a different attitude by recognizing that boasting can too often be a venue for sin. Verse 17 makes this point. There he follows up on his comment about the sinfulness of such boasting by saying this, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” That’s a rather general statement that almost seems out of context here. It’s been suggested that it may have been some proverb or common saying that he is quoting. But what it seems to do is make this simple point: that maybe before you didn’t think about how your boasting was sinful, but now you know. So, therefore, do not do it anymore!
Let us now turn in our third point to see what James says we should be doing instead. This is verse 15. He says, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” So then, James doesn’t say not to plan. He doesn’t say the fact that we don’t know God’s secret will that we should just live spontaneously without any preparation for the future. That’s too often a reaction people have when thinking about what we’ve talked about so far today. Like that parable of the rich fool who hoarded treasure upon treasure not knowing he would die that night – sometimes people foolishly react to that parable thinking it is ungodly to plan. But that’s not right either. People might even try to make their lack of planning sound holy by saying they are living by faith. But it’s not living by faith if the Bible commends planning to us. Just read the book of Proverbs and we can find the wisdom in planning ahead for the future. Likewise, when James deals with this topic and gives his solution in verse 15 it would have been easy for him to say “therefore, don’t plan ahead.” But he doesn’t say that. That’s because the problem was never the planning. The problem was the arrogance and the pride and the presumption that results in things like sinful boasting and trusting in yourself. So then, James’ counsel isn’t to not plan. It’s to put off the arrogance and pride and put on in its place godly humility. It’s that godly humility that he describes in verse 15 when he says we should say “if the Lord wills.”
Notice how his counsel to humility in verse 15 touches on the two inabilities he mentioned earlier. In our first point, we saw that James said that none us know what tomorrow will bring so we can’t know for certain if our one-year business plans will be successful. He also said that we don’t know if we’ll even be alive then. Realize those are two things about the secret will of God. We don’t and can’t know if our business plans will succeed. We don’t and can’t know if we’ll be alive year from now or even tomorrow. Those are part of the secret things of God. We can use wisdom and prudence to balance risk and reward and make decisions based on likely outcomes. But there will always be some unknown because of the secret things of God that we only learn after the fact. So then see how verse 15 addresses both those things. If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that. If God wills, we will live tomorrow and into next year. If God wills, we will do this or that – in other words – successfully carry out our business plans. The two things James said we couldn’t’ control – whether we live or whether our plans succeed – James says we need to recognize that those things are in God’s hands.
This is humility. If God’s plans coincide with my plans, then my plans will succeed. Regarding my life and longevity – If God wills, he will prolong my days. Regarding my business ventures or career plans or financial goals – If God wills, they will come to fruition. Regarding my life goals, if God wills, they will be met. If someone seeks a spouse, which is a good thing to seek, when the Lord wills they will marry. If someone desires children, it’s ultimately up to God. That new home or car or trip other major expense you are saving up for – if the Lord wills you will one day enjoy it. If our church is granted a conditional use permit by the City of Petaluma for this building we desire – that will happen if the Lord wills. None of this precludes planning. None of this means we shouldn’t have godly ambitions and actually seek after them. For most good things in life, you will need to do a lot of goal setting and planning and then pursuing those goals and plans with a lot of hard work and diligence and perseverance, and when obstacles come you will have to work even harder to try to overcome them. But whether they ultimately succeed still comes down to whether or not the Lord wills it to come to pass.
So then, James is speaking to our hearts. He doesn’t want us to lose godly ambition or wise planning. But he wants us to submit all things in humility to the Lord. James’ teaching today is all about our hearts. We need to put off arrogance and pride and put on humility that trusts our plans ultimately to God. And since he is our heavenly father, we can and indeed have a peace that comes in entrusting our plans to God. And if our plans are ultimately submit to God’s, then in that sense they can’t ultimately fail. That’s how I think of Proverbs 16:3 that says “Commit your work to the LORD and your plans will be established.” If we say, “my plan is to do this or that, Lord willing,” then our plan will succeed because our plan has the caveat that if the Lord wills.
So then, James shows that such an attitude of the heart changes our words from boasting of our plans to words that submit our plans to God. We see this by example in Paul in Acts 18:21, when he leaves Ephesus that he tells them, “I will return to you, if God wills”. Or even Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane before the cross prayed, “Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.” Let us turn sinful boasting aside and express words of submission to God’s will in the midst of our plans and endeavors, and in so doing give glory to God.
But realize that while such a heart of humility can express itself with such words “Lord willing”, let’s be careful to not just turn into a mindless cliché. It is so easy to do that with certain common Christian lingo. We can say the Lord’s prayer on auto-pilot without actually thinking and meaning what we are saying. We can respond to good news with, “Praise the Lord!” without actually meaning that praise from the heart. People can slap “in Jesus’ name” on the end of a prayer but forget to think of the significance of what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. Let us use the language “Lord willing” with meaning. May it never become rote. Along those lines, we shouldn’t misapply James’ here to mean that any and every time we discuss a plan that we are sinning if we don’t throw these words on the end of our sentences. There are plenty of godly examples in Scripture where people speak of plans where they don’t say “Lord willing” and we have no reason to think they were sinning in those cases. It’s clear from this passage that James’ concern here is not so much about the words but the heart. The words are fitting, but the heart is of chief concern. You could utter the words and not mean them from the heart and that would be wrong. But you could not speak these words and yet in your heart be submitting your plans to God and that would be the right spirit of this passage. So then, let us not make the word “if the Lord wills” be some rote words, but let us ultimately look to have those words on our hearts and minds when we make our plans.
As we conclude our sermon for today, I want us to think of one final thing we should be planning for. Today’s passage made the point that we don’t know if we will be alive a year from now or even tomorrow. There is an uncertainty over the timing of our death. But what is not uncertain is that our life will one day end. As Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment.” We will one day die. It is the Lord’s will for this to happen. That’s not a secret thing. We should be planning for this. I think of when Jesus spoke of how the wicked of Noah’s day failed to plan for this. Matthew 24:38, Jesus spoke of how they were “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away.” One day too, our time will come, and that will bring an end to all of our life plans in this age. We don’t know when, but it will be the case. Let us be sure that whatever we plan for in this life makes sure we are planning ahead for this certainty.
We plan for that eventuality by repenting of our sins and turning and putting your faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. As we do that, we learn of another part of God’s secret will that is revealed when we come to Christ in faith. As James 1:18 told us, “Of his own will he [God] brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” How comforting for the Christian, that we know not only is it God’s will for our eventual deaths, but when put our faith in Jesus, we realize it was also God’s will for us to live evermore in a wonderful place he has planned for us. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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