Notes on James 4:13-17

10 Aug
The self life or the grace life? This is the choice that faces every believer every day. The goal is not to be good or to just avoid doing bad things. The goal is knowing Jesus and living under His reign. This life in Christ results in the good fruit of faith: good works. Problems arise for us when we either ignore the importance of works as an indicator of authentic Christianity or emphasize works to the point that they become the root of salvation rather than the fruit of our salvation.
The battle between the self life and the grace life is a battle in our souls. Our mind, will and emotions work together and, along with various external influences, we live by a certain worldview. Now we may not even be fully aware of our worldview and many of us have not sat down and taken time to think through our worldview, but everyone has a worldview. We all take a certain approach to the realities of life. And this approach is based on fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality. And these beliefs are based on our experiences, observations, values and what sources of knowledge we accept as authoritative. Many churchgoers have a fundamentally non-Christian worldview. In other words, their approach to life is not shaped by Jesus but by their culture. And many non-Christians carry forward some aspects of Christianity from our culture into their worldview. Our goal as Christians should be to have a worldview shaped by conformity to Jesus Christ. Foundational to this Christ-centered life and worldview is a trust in the sovereignty of God and a turning away from trusting in riches. These two truths are the foundation of a right worldview, and a right worldview can lead to a righteous life (see 3:17,18 for a description of this righteous life).
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—
We should say, first of all, that this passage is not saying we should never make plans. Plans are OK, but are not to be the ground of our trust. Proverbs acknowledges that a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps. So the problem here is not advance planning but arrogant presumption. It is one thing to make plans, it is another to assume they will come to pass without a hitch. James opens both 4:13-17 and 5:1-6 with the phrase “Come now.” This phrase introduces a discussion with an imaginary person whom James sees as representing some of those to whom he was ministering.
As is the case throughout the letter, the issue of wealth and poverty is implied in this paragraph. James is talking in general terms about trusting in the sovereignty of God and not arrogantly presuming our plans will come to pass, but the pursuit of riches are the illustration he gives for this general truth. All the “we will” phrases in verse 13 show the arrogance of these businessmen as they express their confidence in their planning and do not acknowledge God. And of course their goal is to make a profit. Again, I don’t think there is anything inherently evil about making a profit. Profits made through oppressing others are wrong, but here the evil of making a profit seems to be found in the attitude of worldliness that is found in those who are pursuing profit. The profit, not God and His kingdom, has become their pursuit. Their minds are on what material blessing they can derive from this life and that takes them on a straight line to the self life, as they will consistently put their own needs above the needs of others.
14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
James attempts to shake the confidence of his readers in verse 14, reminding them that in spite of their plans they do not know what tomorrow will bring. This is yet another parallel to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 6:34). And of course in the Sermon on the Mount, the antidote to worrying about this life is to “seek first His kingdom.” Freedom from the self life comes through the pursuit of the grace life.
All of us know, once we’ve lived long enough, that we can’t know what tomorrow may bring.  What is your life? From God’s perspective it is precious, precious enough for Him to send His Son to redeem you. But from the perspective of longevity and certainty, our lives are temporary and, from our perspective, uncertain. James compares our lives to a mist, a meteorological phenomenon with which his readers in Palestine would have been very familiar. Like the fog off the Mediterranean burning off in the dry air of the wilderness, so is our life, a mist, here and gone.
15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
Rather than trusting in our own ability and planning, we need to recognize that our lives are temporary and that our lives are in God’s hands. We can’t do anything apart from the sovereignty of God. We do nothing apart from God permitting it. So James is reminding his readers, in particular those who pursue wealth, that they live under the authority of God. So we need to live with an awareness of God’s rule over us and we need to live with a flexibility and willingness to alter our plans while submitting to the Lord.
Now here we want to avoid the trap of magic words. We can’t just do what we want and put a “Lord willing” on top of it as a kind of pious frosting on our worldly cake. We can say, “Lord willing” or “praise the Lord” or “glory to God” or “I’m praying for you” or any number of other pious phrases and be as worldly and wicked as the next person. So don’t be worried about always using the phrase “Lord willing.” Instead, focus on the attitude of your heart. Are you living in the way of wisdom (see 1:6), asking God for guidance and living with an awareness of His sovereignty and your place under His Lordship? If you don’t live in this way, you fall into the error of verses 16 and 17.
16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
James says these traveling businesspeople boast in their arrogance. This is an interesting phrase. I think it means that they are proud of their assumed autonomy. These people are happy to be what they are: God-neglecting, worldly-minded, and presumptuous. Today, they might be writing Christian leadership books. Rather than living under God’s authority, they are trusting in their own ability. This kind of life is evil. It is friendship with the world and enmity toward God (see 4:4). It is choosing the self life over the grace life. Rather than a life of humility there is a life of pride.
17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
This last verse in chapter 4 struck me at first as strange. It doesn’t immediately seem to fit the passage, but it really does fit right in if it is aligned with the previous discussion. The key is in determining what is “the right thing” James is speaking of here. I believe based on the context that the “right thing” here is the truth of living in humility under the Lordship of Christ. That these people would know this right thing means that James is speaking to believers (as I think he is throughout the book) rather than unbelievers.
Knowing the right thing to do and not doing it is sin. This is the well-known idea of the “sin of omission.” Sin is not just what we do but what we fail to do. We need to think about this often. We will likely find that we sinfully leave undone even more than we do. The key to avoiding this sinful path and living the grace life is found in the opening section of chapter 4 (submit to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, live from a stance of repentance and humility).
The first paragraph of chapter 5 is the harshest paragraph of the whole book. James rails against those who trust in riches. The passage has an amazing number of parallels to statements Jesus made in the gospels. But how does this paragraph fit into the bigger picture of James? That is what we’ll consider below.
5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jas 4:13–5:6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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