Most of the sins we are conscious of are sins of commission: wrongs we commit. Eight of the Ten Commandments are statements about what NOT to do. However, it’s probably true that we fail far more often in sins of omission—things we should do but neglect.
The Bible gives us two instances of a “rule of thumb” for what is or is not sin in debatable matters. One rule is found in Romans 14:23. It says that if I cannot choose an action believing I have God’s approval I should not do it. That first rule of thumb addresses sins of commission; it provides a guide for what we should NOT do. James 4:17 provides the complementary rule of thumb for what we SHOULD do, or rather, what we should not fail to do.
The context for James 4:17 begins in verse 13. The people God is rebuking are those who make presumptuous plans without considering his will or submitting to his providence. “’Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain’” (v. 13). God responds to their self-confidence by reminding them that they “know not what shall be on the morrow” (v. 14). We might think we know, but we cannot guarantee even that we will be alive in a year. Instead, “ye ought to say, ‘If the Lord will, we shall live and do this or that’” (v. 15). Making presumptuous plans without considering that our lives and plans are in God’s hands is to rejoice in our own boasting (v. 15). Just like (from Romans 14) acting contrary to our own faith is evil, so “all such rejoicing [in our own boasting] is evil” (v. 15).
However, if the only principle guiding believers’ behavior is that we must respect God’s unknown, we would be frozen and unable to make any decisions. After all, we don’t ever know the outcome of our actions; God may have other plans that we don’t know about. Of course to act so indecisively is ridiculous, and almost no one thinks that way. But the question of how to act when only God know the future is the context for verse 17. “Therefore,” God says, “to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” This is our second rule of thumb: because so much of our life is under God’s direct control, we are especially responsible for the things we already know to do. We are responsible for the things God has revealed to us to the degree that if we neglect to do them, we have sinned.
The good news is that God has built responsibilities into the way the world works. By nature of the relationships we share and the positions we hold, there are plenty of evident ways for us to do good. Cars need to be fixed, home projects need to be completed, children need to be taught and trained, and community with your fellow believers needs to be strengthened. There are people to invite into our homes, and unsaved people to pray for and witness to, and Scripture to meditate on.
Lest we begin to be overwhelmed with the responsibilities, we should not forget Scripture’s warning not to become preoccupied with tomorrow at the expense of today. So, what good should we do today? What people or opportunities has God providentially put into our path right now? Those things should be our focus. If we know the Lord wants us to act, and we have the opportunity, we should do it. Not to would be sin.
The above article was written by Jonathan Kyser. He is a pastoral assistant at NorthStone Baptist Church in Pensacola, FL. To offer him your feedback, comment below or email us at email@example.com.
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