To him therefore that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin (James 4:17).
It is very easy to measure ourselves by the standard of that which we are not doing. If we are not murderers, rapists, adulterers, liars, covetous, drunkards, and so on, we feel like we are doing well. After all, how do most people define a “good, moral person?” If somebody seems nice, is not a bother to anyone, and not living in some obvious sin, they’re “good, moral people.”
We do well if we are able to avoid committing various acts of sin. We should not be murderers, rapists, adulterers, liars, and the like (Galatians 5:19-21). But it is not sufficient for us to simply avoid doing evil– we must also practice what is good and right!
James makes a declaration that is very uncomfortable. To not do the good when we have opportunity is sin, just like committing various unrighteous acts involves sin!
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see the terrible sins of the robbers, beating up the poor man and taking all of his things (Luke 10:30). If the priest and the Levite had seen the events take place, they would no doubt have decried the action as terrible. Perhaps they might even complain about the depravity of their generation. Yet they are as guilty of sin as the robbers– they had the opportunity to do good and did not do it (Luke 10:31-32). Even though they themselves did not beat him or take his stuff, they stand equally condemned before God because they simply walked on by and did nothing good for the man!
James’ statement shatters the pretensions of many. To turn aside from helping the needy is no different from plundering them (James 1:27). To refuse to show compassion to the disconsolate is no different from hurting them in the first place (1 John 3:17). Not showing love to others is no different from actually hating them (cf. 1 John 4). While we humans may find an act of omission to be of less concern than an act of commission, sin is sin before God, and it separates us from Him (Isaiah 59:1-2)!
Society may declare that people who do not commit a lot of “major” sins as “good, moral people,” but God is concerned with not only what people do not do, but also with what people are doing. Serving Jesus means both avoiding sin and practicing righteousness– showing love, mercy, compassion, kindness, goodness, patience, and the like. Let us be known as Jesus’ disciples by who we are and what we do, and not by who we are not and what we do not do!
Ethan R. Longhenry