James 1:16-18: The Erratic and Committed Life
You, yes you the reader, I think that you have been deceived to believe that the erratic life is more joyful than the committed life.
I said this same thing to my church in this sermon, and I’ll say the same thing to you in this blog.
I know that you value the erratic life more than the committed life, because I’m guessing that you would answer yes to at least one of these questions: is your relationship with the local church marked by flightiness rather than commitment? Are your beliefs about God marked by cultural trends rather than biblical depth? Is your relationship history an inconsistent string of burnt, hurt, and broken friendships rather than lifelong friendships?
In the 1950s, Jack Kerouac published his novel called On the Road that presented Americans with a vision for the American life that looked completely different to the white picket-fence, one-career, one-spouse American life. He presented a vision for the American life that was life lived on the road, with no relationship commitments, no church commitments, and no careers responsibilities. Bob Dylan, speaking of On the Road, said, “it changed my life, just like it changed everybody else’s.” It was only one novel, and it was only one push in a cultural movement, but it represented the dethroning of commitment and the enthroning of wanderlust in American values.
Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, they are all filled posts, pictures, and graphics celebrating wanderlust.
James, while writing to a wanderlust church, says this in James 1:16-18: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
The one and only command in this text, “do not be deceived,” is more than just theological, wanderlust reader.
We know this, because this command is the finished product of conveyer belts in a linguistic assembly line. It’s the finished product of the conveyer belt that comes before it in James 1:6: “don’t be like a wave of the sea that is tossed by the wind.” In other words, don’t let your heart be deceived. It’s the finished product of the paragraph before it: “don’t say that God is tempting you.” Don’t let your mind be deceived. It’s the finished product of James’ three different usages of the word “steadfast” in James chapter one. Don’t let your lives be deceived.
So when James says, “don’t be deceived, my beloved brothers,” it might be helpful for us to think of this command holistically: “don’t be erratic, undependable, or wishy-washy with your beliefs, speech, or commitments, my beloved brothers.” An even shorter translation: “be committed.” And then, after the command, is where the text transcends mere helpfulness and dazzles with beauty.
Following the command, a description of God: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” No variation. No shadow. No change. So, why be dependable and committed?
Because God is dependable and committed.
Yes, his character is dependable; yes, his works are dependable; yes, his nature is dependable! And reader, his salvific choice to covenant in relationship with you is dependable! In fact, this is the very note James chooses to leave his readers with in this paragraph. Look at verse 17 and 18: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
Massively, massively important is the harmony between verses 17 and 18: don’t miss the connection between God’s unchanging nature in verse 17, and God’s unchanging love in verse 18. Don’t miss the connection between God’s authorship of light in verse 17, and God’s authorship of our salvation in verse 18. Don’t miss the connection between language from the past (from the book of Genesis) in verse 17 and language for the present (God’s saving work in you now) in verse 18.
This is the connection: the same way that God created light in Genesis is the same way he creates salvation in us. To say it a second way, the story of creation in Genesis is primarily a template for the story of new creation in your life. His character, his nature, and his ways are unchangeable, and this is good news for these three of one million reasons:
His salvation is unchangeable: He is an unchanging God with unchanging salvation towards those he redeems. How did you first believe the gospel? For 16 years, 25 years, 40 years, your heart sat in your chest without form and void and darkness hovered over the face of its deeps. Every time you heard the gospel, it just fell into the void and darkness of your heart without ever making a dent. And then, for some reason when you heard the gospel for the one-hundredth time, something changed. By his own will, the Father of Lights said “let there be light” into your heart and for the first time in your life, your heart blinked, rubbed its eyes, stared at Christ crucified face-to-face. And the God who did this to you is an unchanging God. His decision to save you has no variation or shadow due to change, and he will not change his mind or decision.
His mercy is unchangeable: He is an unchanging God with an unchanging mercy towards those he loves. In Malachi, God shows us the connection between God’s character and his mercy by saying: “I the Lord do not change, therefore, you will not be consumed.” Reader, does amazement fill your heart when you wake up in the morning and you’re still a Christian? Does astonishment fill your mind when you experience hardship and somehow still come out a Christian? Does wonder fill you when you deliberately sin and find yourself somehow not consumed by God’s wrath? There is only one reason why this is true in your life: you worship an unchanging God with unchanging mercy towards you.
His blood is unchanging: He is an unchanging God who covers us in unchanging blood in an unchanging gospel. For those whom Christ died, the blood he spilled to cover us is emphatically and radically and supremely final. Jesus Christ will not return, wipe off, or smear his blood from our lives. He has covered us in blood that leaves the permanent stain of righteousness.
So, imitate him.
The doctrine of God’s unchanging nature (referred to by theologians as immutability) should not just comfort your conscience, it should make demands on our character. Thomas Manton, a puritan pastor from the 1600s, said this to his church: “The more changeable you are, the less like God you are. You should despise it when you are so fickle.”
To your Christ, be unchangeably Christian. To your wife, be unchangeable husband. To your children, be unchangeable mother. To biblical theology, be unchangeably devoted. To your church, be unchangeably member.
The committed and dependable life, after all, is more beautiful than the erratic life. We know this, because committed lives are the lives we celebrate at funerals. The erratic life look may looks more beautiful on movie screens and in social media, but not in eulogies. Read these two eulogies, and ask yourself which is more beautiful.
The erratic eulogy: “When things got tough in his marriage, he always knew how to hit the road and leave his children behind with his wife. Like the average American church-goer, he tithed an average of $16 a week. Well, when he was there. And like the average American adult, he reported having zero close confidants. On beliefs, if you wanted to know what he stood for, it depended on the day. But he sure knew how to disconnect, hit the road, and have some experiences, and that’s how we’ll always remember him.”
Now, the committed eulogy: “He didn’t have a perfect marriage, but he knew how to fight for the marriage when it got tough. He was the type of churchman that if he had ever walked away from the church or wavered in his commitment, the organization would have crumbled, but instead, it thrived. He created lifelong close friendships that, if you asked his friends, they would credit God’s work through his friendship in bringing them closer to the Lord. He always stood for the gospel. He was dependable, consistent, committed. Somebody to count on.”
Be committed, dependable, and consistent. Never deceived.