Winning the Crown (James 1:13–18)

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Doug Van Meter - 24 Feb 2008

Winning the Crown (James 1:13–18)

James Exposition

James 1:12 gives us the promise that those who endure temptation will receive the crown of life, which does not fade away. This crown of life is a picture of eternal life or final salvation. That is, those who persevere in the midst of their various trials are assured that their perseverance will be finally and fully awarded with life. In other words, Jesus will indeed save His people from their sins. And one of the means of this salvation is the successful undergoing of trials. This is what James has been telling us since the beginning of this chapter and it is a theme to which he refers over and over in this small yet powerfully practical epistle.

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An exposition of the epistle of James by Doug Van Meter

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James 1:12 gives us the promise that those who endure temptation will receive the crown of life, which does not fade away. This crown of life is a picture of eternal life or final salvation. That is, those who persevere in the midst of their various trials are assured that their perseverance will be finally and fully awarded with life. In other words, Jesus will indeed save His people from their sins. And one of the means of this salvation is the successful undergoing of trials. This is what James has been telling us since the beginning of this chapter and it is a theme to which he refers over and over in this small yet powerfully practical epistle.

But the question remains, what will enable us to so endure the trials that we will reach this crowning event? James identifies three truths in vv. 13–18 which, if practiced, will assure that we will biblically and thus fruitfully endure. And, of course, endurance is how we win the crown. If we respond obediently to these three broad exhortations then we will indeed be a part of the glorious crowning by our Lord and Saviour, King Jesus. The three exhortations are:

  1. The falsehood to avoid (v. 13)
  2. The fact to accept (vv. 14–16)
  3. The Father to adore (vv.17–18)

May God the Holy Spirit so instruct and illumine us that we will be blessed as we endure trials and be crowned accordingly.

The Falsehood to Avoid

James warns in v. 13, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.” We must be aware of this danger of blameshifting, and must have the necessary readiness of will to avoid it. And in order to equip ourselves with this readiness of mind when tempted to blame God, we must consider His character.

A Sinful Tendency to Reject

When trials come we are faced with the choice to either pass or to fail. We can either say when we are tempted, “I am tempted of God,” or we can resist the temptation to blame Him. James dealt in v. 12 with fruitful and thus crown winning endurance, and the blameshifting tendency that he highlights here is quite obviously the opposite of that endurance. What he is saying is that we must not blame God when we choose to reject the truth of vv. 2–12, when we choose to quit and to go backwards.

James has dealt in vv. 2–12 with various trials and temptation. Commentator Derek Tidball has highlighted the difference between trials and temptations: “A temptation is put before us by someone who hopes we will fail and give in to it. A test is put in front of us by someone who hopes we will pass and grow through it.” It is imperative that we grasp this distinction.

But having said that, readers of the King James Bible might raise a question about a seeming contradiction. James clearly tells us that “God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.” And yet Moses, writing centuries earlier, stated in Genesis 22:1, “And it came to pass after these things that God did tempt Abraham.” Does a true contradiction exist here, or can these two texts be harmonised in some way?

Though this dynamic might be initially confusing to some, you will find upon closer inspection that no true contradiction exists at all. In biblical language, the words for “temptation” and “trial” are the same. Thus, the same word in Hebrew or Greek can speak either of testing or of our sinful, internal response to a trial. The precise translation in any given instance must be determined from the context.

If we keep this in mind we are able to understand texts such as Genesis 22 in their proper light. In Abraham’s case (as in ours) God was responsible for the external trial. He would not, however, be held accountable for any internal temptation to sin. When the Israelites were tested in the wilderness for 40 years, God was putting them to the test. But when they responded sinfully to the test God was not to be blamed.

When James speaks of “temptations” in this passage, he is referring to our sinful internal response to trials. The context of the passage makes this clear.

There is an important lesson to be learned here: We must never confuse God’s responsibility and our own responsibility/accountability. A godly, crowning response to trials is one in which we respond in a God-centred way. Let there be no doubt: God tests our faith, but He does so in order to strengthen faith, not to destroy it.

A Scriptural Truth to Receive

Having warned us to reject the sinful tendency to blame God for our temptations, James now offers us a wonderful biblical truth to embrace: “for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.” This Scriptural revelation of God’s character will guard us against any kind of slanderous calumny against God when we blow it!

Leslie Morton has said, “There is nothing in God to which evil can make its appeal.” Alec Motyer concurs: “Since God is not susceptible to sin, it is impossible for Him to contemplate inducing sin.” It is absurd to think that the good God of the Bible could ever plot our harm. It is irreverent to blame Him for our own sinful tendency to sin because, among other reasons, it is impossible for God to sin. To blame God for our sinful response is both irresponsible and irreverent.

We need to know God, and we need to guard our hearts. If we truly know God then we will be sure that He can neither be tempted to sin nor tempt us to sin. He is wholly good and holy, and sin has no part in Him. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Knowing this, we must beware of using the doctrine of God’s sovereignty to shift our responsibility. That is, we do not give into sin without a fight “because God is in control and that’s obviously what He wanted in this situation anyway.” We do not expect God to prevent us from sinning “if He wants to” and therefore refuse to actively pursue holiness. “God may call you to endure difficulties, but He will never cause you to experience defeat,” writes John Blanchard. “The blame lies closer at hand.”

Do we not see this dynamic on stage in the story of Job? Job was a godly man, who honoured God in all his ways. When the Lord allowed Satan to put Job to the test, Job’s friends insisted that he must have done something wrong in order to suffer so much. At one point in the story, Job’s wife counselled him to curse God and die (Job 2:9)! But Job would not blame God—at least not initially.  To his wife’s suggestion that he curse God and die he responded in faith, “What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” The storyteller states it plainly: “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). To be sure, Job eventually questioned God and God called him to task for it (chapters 38–41). Job came to the point of repentance (42:1–6) and God blessed him afresh for his integrity (42:7–17).

The overriding lesson that we learn is that God was not responsible in any way for Job’s sin, though He certainly claimed responsibility for putting Job to the test. Job’s friends (initially) and Job himself (eventually) were foolish to even think that the wrong lay in any way with God. Job was commended most when he gave God the glory.

The choice is ours: either a coffin or a crown. It is those who respond faithfully in their trials who receive the crown of life. And the following verses flesh this out for us.

The Fact(s) to Accept

At the end of the day, whether our trial is a test or a temptation is entirely up to us. At this point James takes the opportunity to address some very real facts about our sinful tendency and thus our responsibility for turning a trial into a temptation. He talks straight. You will observe that nowhere in these verses does he mention the devil. The responsibility is ours entirely.

A Truthful Explanation

Having warned his readers not to blame God for their temptation, and having revealed the glorious truth about God’s unchanging holiness, James now plainly states the truth about sinful desires: “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (vv. 14–15).

In these two verses James very straightforwardly tells us that our failures regarding trials—that is, our sinful response to them—is entirely our fault. And he does so by explaining the course of our failure.

Desires

Failure always commences with our desires. “Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lusts.” “The tempting voice,” says Motyer, “is the voice of our own sinful nature.” Of course, we should understand that this is true both of believers and unbelievers. Paul described in moving terms the battle that he (yes, even the great apostle!) waged against his own lusts.

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.

(Romans 7:18–23)

The phrase “drawn away” literally means “to be dragged out” or “to be dragged apart.” Jesus said that no one could come to Him “except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44). He stated elsewhere that He would “draw” all kinds of men to Himself (John 12:32). The word is used in Acts 16:19 where it describes the riotous multitude who “drew” (dragged) Paul and Silas into the marketplace. James himself uses the word later to describe believers being dragged to court by their persecutors (2:6). In short, it is a strong word which speaks of a forceful compulsion.

The word “lusts” speaks not only of sexual sin but of any strong desire. It speaks of “longing,” of “setting the heart upon” something. This bears powerful witness to man’s innate tendency to sin. It is man’s “own” lusts that draw him away. There is something ingrained in fallen man which compels him to be inclined to sin. It is his nature to rebel against God. He is not intrinsically good but intrinsically evil, and but for the restraining grace of God absolute chaos and anarchy would ensue in the human race.

The exhortation here is straightforward: Guard your heart! Know your weaknesses and commit long before giving into them that you will do all you can to avoid temptation. Commit with David, “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes” (Psalm 101:3). Vow with godly Job, “I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?” (Job 31:1). Know your weaknesses, and “keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

Deception

And so failure commences with our desires, but it continues through deception. James uses the word “enticed,” which speaks of “capturing with bait.” Warren Wiersbe notes that this “bait keeps us from seeing the consequences of sin.” Just as bait on a fishhook disguises the sharp edge and thus the danger posed to the fish, so the bait of our own enticing desires keeps us from seeing the very real and dreadful consequences of sin.

How does this work out practically? Let me try to illustrate with a personal example. When it comes to shopping, I have two great weaknesses: quality luggage and quality pens. I do not know what it is about these items that attract me as they do, but I realise that they do attract me nonetheless. Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with me admiring a well-constructed set of luggage, or a finely crafted pen, and nothing intrinsically wrong with me wanting such items. It can become a problem, however, when I am enticed into claiming that I need them.

Perhaps as I spy a fine Mont Blanc pen in the window of the stationery shop I might begin to reason that I really need that pen. After all, I am a pastor, and I do a lot of writing. Surely such a pen would do something to improve the quality of my sermons? If that is the case, then it is not so much a carnal desire for the pen as it is a desire to be a more effective minister to my church. If the quality of my sermons improves, then the church will be better fed, and so ultimately the desire is not for the pen but for the spiritual well-being of the flock. In truth, I have deceived myself by allowing myself to be enticed by my own lusts.

That may be a simplistic and even laughable illustration, but I think the point is made. It is easy for us to rationalise our sinful desires and to deceive ourselves into justifying them for the greater good. The story is told of a woman who had a problem with spending money. Whenever she went to the shops she would come home bearing bags of new clothing. Her husband eventually sought to deal with the problem and forbade her from spending any more money on clothing on her shopping excursions. One day she came home carrying a shopping bag. When her husband asked what was in the bag she sheepishly replied, “It’s a new dress.” He reminded her of what he had said, and she pleaded with him that she really had been unable to resist when she saw how good it looked on her. When he suggested that she might have said, “Get thee behind me Satan,” she said, “Oh, I did … but he said it looked good from back there too!”

The exhortation then is for us to do all we can to avoid the hook! Joseph was a tremendous example of this. Tempted by his Potiphar’s wife to commit fornication, he literally fled from her presence, even leaving his cloak in her hand. He understood his own desires and the very real possibility that existed of him giving into his testing situation, and he took the necessary steps to avoid the bait.

Disobedience

Third, the failure conceives disobedience. “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin” (v. 15). It began with, “I like it,” and quickly moved to, “I need it.” Now it has reached the stage of, “I will take it.”

Conception, of course, leads to birth, and once the lust has been allowed to conceive it is all too likely that sin will be birthed. “There is certain inevitability in this process,” says Motyer. “The end is implicit in the beginning.” Just as conception necessarily and naturally results in birth physically, so the conception of sin in our hearts naturally produces the offspring of sin. Writes Daniel Doriani, “When we indulge our sinful desires, sin becomes a pattern and eventually a life dominating force.”

Consider this process in David’s mind. He saw Bathsheba from a distance and liked what he saw. As he thought much on her, he decided that his desire was in fact a necessity, and so he sent and took her. The sin, of course, had terrible consequences.

We must make the early decision to use spiritual birth control. When we first begin to desire what we know is wrong, we must decide then and there to take whatever steps are necessary to stop the process. And so, to return to my illustration of pens, if I know that I cannot handle walking past a stationery store without giving into the temptation to covetousness and bad stewardship, I must decide not to walk past the stationery shop.

What are your weaknesses? Can you identify them? Then do so, and commit to doing whatever you can to avoiding the temptation that will certainly conceive and bring forth sin. Inasmuch as is possible, avoid those situations that you know feed your sinful flesh.

Death

The culmination of the process is death. “And sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (v. 15). As lust becomes a parent to sin, so sin ultimately becomes a parent to death.

“Death,” as spoken of in this text, refers to more than mere physical death. Thomas Manton described James’ “death” as “a modest word for damnation.” The death of which James writes is a serious thing, for it has eternal consequences. If we endure temptation we shall receive a crown of life (v. 12), and that “crown of life” speaks of eternal life. To the contrary, if we do not endure temptation, if we give into our sinful desires and allow lust to conceive, we inherit death. And just as “the crown of life” speaks of eternal life, so “death” speaks of eternal, spiritual death. That is, if we do not persevere and overcome sinful desires, we have no good reason to believe that we have eternal life. We end up with a coffin rather than a crown.

There is a great danger for us here, for this passage teaches that spiritual apostasy does not usually begin with grave doctrinal error, but instead with simple sinful desires. As we give into our desires, the sin grows. Soon, we find that we no longer enjoy the fellowship of the saints as before. No longer do we find pleasure in reading and studying the Word of God, or in praying to God. Slowly but surely we drift further from God until we end up in spiritual death.

Once again, Joseph is a great example. When tempted, he refused to sin against God (Genesis 39:9). Importantly, Joseph’s life is not recorded so that we might despairingly conclude that we can never attain such heights. On the contrary, his life is set forth as an example of the type of life that we, by God’s grace and power, can live! We can overcome sin; we can receive the crown of life.

A Tender Exhortation

James concludes his explanation (that the blame for a sinful response lies with us) by giving a tender and affectionate exhortation to his readers: “Do not err, my beloved brethren” (v. 16). James clearly had a pastor’s heart. He used the term “brethren” no fewer than 19 times in his five chapters. He was, I believe, the pastor-teacher at the church in Jerusalem, and he had a tender affection for those under his instruction, who were now “scattered abroad” (v. 1).

The word “err” is a translation of the Greek word planao, from which we derive our English word “planet.” The word literally means “to wander” (as the planets “wander” in circles through the sky). He did not want his readers to wander, either by blaming God for their sin, or by responding naturally and giving increasingly into sin. If they allowed themselves to wander they would end up in deception and, ultimately, death.

This is an exhortation that we ourselves need to hear. We must be careful of the Christian (or reportedly Christian) doctrine to which we expose ourselves. There is absurd teaching masquerading as Christianity in our world, such ridiculous and blasphemous teachings as the need to forgive God! To forgive God necessarily implies that you blame God, but that is precisely what we are told here not to do. We must expose ourselves consistently to the truth of God, for only by so doing will we be able to avoid the error of which James warns.

The Father to Adore

James rounds out his appeal to his readers that they win the crown, that they not disqualify themselves, by an appeal to the Fatherhood of God. “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. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:17–18). We learn two things from this.

God is Holy and He Gives Light

The term “Father of lights” has a very Jewish ring to it. Of course, this makes sense for James was primarily written to Jewish believers (v. 1). God was the one who created all the lights. He spoke light into existence and created the lightbearers. But those bodies that He created to bear and to reflect light change. We sing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” because, if you look closely, that is precisely what stars do: They twinkle. They constantly appear to change. The sun is, at least from our perspective, brighter and hotter at some times than at others. From our perspective the moon changes as it goes through its various phases. But the Father of lights, the One who created all the lights, never changes. With Him there is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

James is emphasising here the holiness of God. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” The holy Father of lights will never tempt us to sin. Instead, He gives only what is good. He gives “every good gift and every perfect gift.” Whilst He may allow bad things to happen to us, His purpose is always good, and He always works together all things for good to those who love Him and to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). How could we ever blame such a good God for our sinful tendencies?

In light of God’s unchanging holiness and goodness, we are strengthened to overcome the deadly process of a sinful response to trials. That is, when we properly adore the Father, when we are properly in awe of Him, we are strengthened against the sinful tendency to turn the good gift of His trials into sinful temptations.

God is Loving and He Gives Life

But not only is He a holy God who give light, He is also a loving God who gives life. “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (v. 18). The essence of this verse is that, as God has taken the sovereign, loving initiative to give us spiritual life, so will He ensure that we receive the crown of life. To say that God tempts us to sin is to say that He is against us (for the fruit of sin is death). But the gospel flies in the face of such an accusation, for it was God who took the initiative to save us by “the word of truth.”

Tidball has summarised it well with a pointed question: “How can a morally incorruptible being whose nature is to give life and spread light tempt people into sin, rob them of goodness and disseminate darkness?” The answer is obvious: He can’t!

This verse teaches us that God has a glorious purpose for His creation (eventual glorification and perfection) and thus we should never doubt that His (always good) trials for us are part and parcel of this glorious plan. In other words, God is for us. How then could we ever give in to the idea that God is ordering trials for our downfall and our defeat?

Such a notion is absurd! God does not seek our downfall. Instead, He uses trials to renew us, to perfect us, to glorify us. A trial is for our victory, a temptation is for our defeat. If we are tempted, then it is an enemy, not our loving Father, who is behind it. And, as it is said, we have met the enemy and it is us!

What then shall we do? Let us count it all joy as we realise that God is working all things together for our good—at least for those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose.

Augustine once said, “Grace is God giving to us sovereign joy in God which triumphs over joy in sin.” In other words, God saving us was more than a mere deliverance from the penalty of sin. Thank God that we are delivered from hell, but thank God even more that we are delivered daily from the power of our sin. As God works the reality of the gospel in us, we will find ourselves enjoying sin less and less and enjoying God and His holiness more and more. That is God’s ultimate goal for us.

The only way to overcome our sinful desires, which ultimately lead to death, is to have a greater desire. We overcome our joy in sin by rejoicing in the Lord. Simply stated, by desiring God above all else we overcome sinful desires. When we treasure God above all else temptation loses its power.

Grace is indeed sovereign joy in God that triumphs over joy in sin. May we experience that sovereign joy and be delivered from the power of sin.