Calvary Road Baptist Church


James 1.17-20

My text for this morning’s message from God’s Word is James 1.17:

17     Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

18     Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

19     Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:

20     For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.

I cannot tell you how much I enjoy preaching through this little letter written by James. You can tell that James was the kind of man who was more interested in a Christian’s walk than he was in a Christian’s talk. This epistle is all about practical Christianity and the faith by which the child of God gets through each tough day. I rather think that this man, James, being a pastor who was interested in building people and in building a great church to the glory of God, would be quite intolerant of much of what passes as New Testament Christianity these days. He was not of the sophisticated school of thought in which the spiritual muscles are fleshy and flabby, or where the spiritual hands and feet are without calluses. No, in the household of faith that James lived in the Father’s children worked! Their spiritual muscles were lean and hard. Their spiritual feet were leathery and callused from taking the gospel out into the highways and byways. Their spiritual knees were bony and tough from time spent in prayer to God. Finally, their spiritual hands were perpetually clenched from holding onto the shield of faith with the left hand and wielding the sword of the Spirit with the right hand. One might take the liberty, if James were alive today, to liken him to being from Missouri. Missouri is the “show me” state. By this, I mean that one should not stop at telling someone he is a child of God. Show him! Therefore, if your faith in Jesus Christ is genuine, it will result in you acting like your faith is genuine. Real faith shows up in behavior.

There are too many people in the world today who are “passing” as Christians. How many of you know what “passing” is? Raise your hand if you know what “passing” is. Until about forty years ago there was something going on in every part of this country called “passing.” For you folks who are too young to remember, there used to be a time in our country when white folks thought they were superior to folks who had darker colored skin than they had. Thankfully, that bizarre and unscriptural notion is no longer in vogue in our country, though tragically it does still exist and will continue to exist until Jesus comes. It is a part of the sinful condition of mankind. At any rate, in days gone by a great many of those who had darker colored skin thought white folks were superior, too. At least that they had advantages that would be nice to take advantage of. How do I know? Simple. If their skin was light enough they sometimes attempted to “pass” as white. That is, they would go into restaurants that had signs posted “Whites Only,” or use water fountains that said “Whites Only,” pretending to be white. This “passing” occurred among other racial and ethnic groups, as well. Used to be that Mexican folks were ashamed of being Mexican. So, they often “passed” as Spaniards if their skin was light enough. American Indians “passed” as Mexicans in many regions. This practice of “passing” was far more widespread than is commonly admitted these days.

Back to our text. This idea of lost people “passing” as Christians is just as unscriptural as the racism that gave rise to the practice of racial “passing.” Do you claim to live by faith? Do you profess to be a Christian, but without any corresponding behavior to support your claim? In our text, we learn how faith, genuine faith, actually exhibits itself by one’s conduct. Genuine faith has a predictable response to temptations to commit sin. We are going to examine two general ways in which what we will identify as living faith responds to temptations to commit sin. Remember that only living faith will respond in the ways James presents. Bogus faith, faith that is not genuine and real, which is to say faith that is not fixed upon the person and work of Jesus Christ, which is to say faith that is not saving faith, faith that is not trusting faith, will not respond in the ways that are set forth in our text.

Note two things, brought out in our text:


Admittedly, there are going to be times in your life when you do not think in a rational way, when you are pressed so hard by afflictions and circumstances that you are only reacting, not thinking. When you are overwhelmed at those times of your life, here are some things living faith will remember:

First, living faith will remember that good gifts are from the Lord. A number of things about God’s gifts are learned from verse 17: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” First, we see that God’s gifts are both good and perfect. We have examined this before, but some application may be helpful: If God’s gifts are so good and perfect, why do people decide they do not want children, or decide they do not want any more kids? One reason may be that they do not respond to the trials associated with child rearing with living faith . . . that is why. If God’s gifts are so good and perfect, why do more Christians not respond as Paul did when he finally learned that God wanted him to have his thorn in the flesh?[1] Because professing Christians typically do not respond to the trials associated with such a thorn in the flesh with living faith . . . that is why. Second, we see that good gifts are from above. If you receive something from some other source than God, it is, of necessity, neither good nor perfect. Would you not agree? Out of God’s will, since he was unsaved at the time, the patriarch Abraham received many things from Pharaoh while he was in Egypt. Were the gifts from Pharaoh good? At first sight, they must have seemed good to Abraham, or else he would not have accepted the gifts. However, the gifts proved not to be good, not being from God. In fact, the gifts proved to be disastrous. The wealth Pharaoh had given to him prevented Abraham and his nephew Lot from living in close proximity. The result was Lot living close to the wicked city of Sodom, then living in the city of Sodom, and finally attaining a position of status in Sodom. Oh, what heartache resulted from that. An entire sermon could be preached dealing only with the tragic consequences of Abraham and Lot having herds too large for them to live close to each other. It is not a good thing for God’s people to be so scattered from each other. Then there was the gift of a slave girl named Hagar. She proved to be a temptation to both Abraham and his wife Sarah, causing great harm to their marriage, with lasting implications from the birth of Hagar’s son Ishmael by Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac by Abraham that are felt to this day. Two illustrations showing the gifts Abraham gained while in Egypt were not good gifts, since they were not from above. Friends, if it is a good gift, it is from God. If it is not a good gift, then it is not from God. None of the gifts that come to anyone from down here is good. The good ones come from up there. Third, we see His gifts are from a holy Father. When James refers to God as the “Father of lights,” he is referring to the holiness of God. Holiness is one of God’s most important constitutional attributes. How much of the Old Testament scriptures are devoted to God establishing that He, unlike the false gods invented by the idolatrous pagans, is holy. Therefore, let us never forget that the holy God cannot give a gift that is tainted with sin, or that would tempt anyone to commit sin. God is not the Author of sin or of the temptation to commit sin. I illustrate: When a parent who is frustrated with his own shortcomings says, “If it were not for this stupid kid, I might have some fun now and then,” he is actually attacking the holiness of the God Who gave to him his child. Isn’t that right? I illustrate again: What are pastors described as in Ephesians 4.8 and 11?

8      Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.

11     And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.

These two verses show us that pastors are gifts given by the Lord Jesus Christ. Complain about His gifts and behave as though His gifts are not good for you, and you slight the holiness of the God who gave the gifts to you. Finally, we see His gifts are from an unchangeable Father, concluding verse 17: “With Whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” When you are ultimate perfection personified, as God is, what possible improvements can be made? None whatsoever. Therefore, God, being perfect, cannot change for the better because He is perfect. Malachi 3.6: “For I am the LORD, I change not.” Does that not pretty well destroy the Mormon myth of people evolving into gods, which is one of the foundational beliefs their anti-Christian cult is based on?[2]

As well, living faith will remember, “salvation is of the LORD,”[3] verse 18. “Of His Own will begat He us with the Word of truth.” Living faith responds to trials and temptations with the conviction that salvation originates in God’s will, salvation occurs in our new birth, salvation is obtained via the Word of God, and salvation is ordered by God’s purpose. First, salvation originates in God’s will. Consider John 1.13: “Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Is there anything in that verse indicating that a believer’s conversion is something that originated in his own mind or heart? Of course not. Now, consider John 15.16, where the Savior said, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.” Same thing there. Second, salvation occurs in the believer’s new birth. Your salvation occurred when you were born again, as we see in First Peter 1.18-25:

18     Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers;

19     But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot:

20     Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you,

21     Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God.

22     Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently:

23     Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.

24     For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away:

25     But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.

Third, salvation is obtained by the Word of God. We just heard First Peter 1.23, so we now consider Romans 1.16 and Romans 10.17:

1.16      For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

10.17    So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

The gospel is the power of God to save those who believe, or who place their faith in the Christ of the gospel. How does one come to have the faith to believe in Christ? By means of hearing the Word of God. Fourth, salvation is of the LORD because it is ordered by His purpose. I read Ephesians 1.4-7:

4      According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:

5      Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will,

6      To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.

7      In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.

Who chose whom here? Whose good pleasure and whose will are we talking about here? Obviously, God does the choosing according to God’s good pleasure and God’s will. I do not know why so many professing Christians get itchy when you start showing Bible verses stressing that salvation is of the LORD. But I don’t care. Salvation is of the LORD! Jonah, who first uttered this great truth, knew it. James knew it. And I know it. Salvation is of the LORD. It harms no one to emphasize that great truth. These, then, are the proper remembrances of genuine faith in the bad times, as well as the good; that good gifts are from the LORD, and that salvation is of the LORD.

However, what does this last phrase of verse 18 mean? “that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” This is a difficult phrase to understand until you remember precisely whom it is James is writing to. He is writing to Jewish believers who had been scattered abroad throughout the Gentile world by persecution visited upon them by unbelieving Jews. When the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were scattered, very few Gentiles had come to Christ. However, first fruits means there is more to follow, much more. James is telling his beloved Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ that they are just the first wave of those who will eventually come to know Jesus Christ. That news had to be heartening to them.


In verse 19, James provides a brief review of wise behavior: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” These are not traits that are always found in young Christians, since James is urging this conduct upon his readers. Those with living faith will grow into these characteristics. Addressing his readers as “my beloved brethren,” we can see James’ advice comes from a heart of love for his readers in the hopes their faith will grow, will mature, and will strengthen by God’s grace. First, be mindful that a wise man is swift to hear. I read five verses from Proverbs:

Proverbs 1.5:   “A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels.”

Proverbs 10.8:   “The wise in heart will receive commandments: but a prating fool shall fall.”

Proverbs 13.1:   “A wise son heareth his father’s instruction: but a scorner heareth not rebuke.”

Proverbs 15.31:    “The ear that heareth the reproof of life abideth among the wise.”

Proverbs 19.27: “Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge.”

Ever know someone who knows everything and will not listen to anyone else, or when he does listen he listens to the wrong people? That is unwise behavior. Next, be mindful that a wise man is also slow to speak. Again, from Proverbs:

Proverbs 10.19:  “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise.”

Proverbs 17.28:  “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.”

Proverbs 18.13:  “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.”

Proverbs 21.23:  “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles.”

Be careful about speaking out on matters before you have enough information. Finally, be mindful that a wise man is slow to anger. Once more, from Proverbs:

Proverbs 14.16:  “A wise man feareth, and departeth from evil: but the fool rageth, and is confident.”

Proverbs 16.32:  He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.

Proverbs 19.19:  “A man of great wrath shall suffer punishment: for if thou deliver him, yet thou must do it again.”

Proverbs 22.22-24:   22     Rob not the poor, because he is poor: neither oppress the afflicted in the gate:

23     For the LORD will plead their cause, and spoil the soul of those that spoiled them.

24     Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man thou shalt not go.

Psychologists speculate that people with explosive tempers and short fuses suffer from very low self-esteem. That may be, but I have observed that it is the people around them who do most of the suffering. God does not want you to keep company with someone who has an explosive temper. The wise, on the other hand, have learned to fear God, which produces tremendous control over one’s hot head. What do these things have to do with living faith, you may ask? I am glad you did ask. Whether it be the ears, the tongue, or the temper, living faith learns to react and respond more slowly to situations than fraudulent faith does. Why? Because fraudulent faith is found in the life of a person who is really trying to depend upon himself. Therefore, to get by, he must try to react very quickly to the situations of life. In contrast, the person who lives by living faith can wait a little longer, take in a little more information, stay much more calm, before dealing with life’s situations . . . because he knows that everything is okay. He knows that God is in control. He is a person who trusts.

In verse 20, James pronounces the reason living faith rejects wrong behavior: “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” It is possible to be angry and sin not, according to Ephesians 4.26, where Paul writes, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” However, generally speaking, most anger produces wrath in an individual, and such wrath never pleases God. One illustration of why the wrath of man does not please God: We are not only spiritual beings, but also chemical creatures, with powerful hormones that can be released when provoked to anger. Once released, those hormones can interfere with the exercise of self-control, what Galatians 5.23 identifies as the temperance the indwelling Spirit works to produce in us. Anything that reduces your ability to rationally control yourself is a bad thing, with anger being one of the chief contributors to a failure to exercise self-control.

James is pretty tough on Christians, is he not? He was a man who, no doubt, hated phony Christianity and did everything he could to instruct and encourage believers to properly represent the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Neither was James a sentimentalist. His approach seems to have been to bear down on a spiritual problem until the problem was solved or the person went away. That head on approach is the right approach to take with genuinely converted people, who seriously want to grow in grace and become more mature and effective Christians.

My friend, I mentioned “passing” earlier. Perhaps you were once aware of people “passing” in order to be accepted by a different ethnic group from the one they were born into. I do not think folks do much of that anymore, as more and more folks have learned to appreciate those ethnic distinctives they possess that are not opposed to the knowledge of God. However, folks do still “pass” a lot. Only they “pass” as Christians when they are not Christians. Even Christians “pass” off fraudulent faith as living faith from time to time. How do you respond to the hard times and to the temptations that visit you to commit sin or to become discouraged? Do you have the proper remembrances? Say you lose your job. Do you get angry or worried? Or do you say, as Job did, “The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD”?[4] Of course, you cannot do that unless you remember that it was the LORD’s job to give to you in the first place, and that you are after all still a child of God, if of course you are a child of God. How about your reactions? Are you counted among the wise because you trust God? Are you a person who is swift to hear? How about slow to speak? And are you slow to anger, or is your reputation for having a short fuse well known? We have examined faith’s response to temptations to commit sin, and we come away from our text with some things in our Christian lives that need work. Amen?

[1] 2 Corinthians 12.7-10

[2] For more on this see Ed Decker & Dave Hunt, The God Makers, (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1984)

[3] Jonah 2.9

[4] Job 1.21

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