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New Testament Study - James 4:11-17

Disrespect for the Law

11Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you--who are you to judge your neighbor?

Again, James exhorts us concerning sins of the tongue, as he has in every chapter. He says, "Brothers, do not slander one another." This relates to the preceding section (James 4:1-10) because the slander spoken of here comes from the same source as the quarrels and fights spoken of in the previous section: the source of both is pride. We slander and speak against our brothers because we want everyone to realize how great we are in comparison to them.

The word translated "slander" here denotes telling outright lies about someone, but it also denotes spreading news about the true shortcomings of others. We are not to do either. "Brothers" are not to speak against "brothers". Reviling is common in the world, and as such, it is a difficult habit to break as we come to God because we are exposed to it so much. However, slander and reviling do not befit the people of God. In Psalm 15, David enumerates the qualities of the person who may "dwell in [God's] sanctuary". Among other things, he "has no slander on his tongue" and "casts no slur on his fellowman" (Psalm 15:3). Slander and reviling, rather, befit those of the devil, for Satan is called "the accuser of our brothers" (Rev. 12:10).

James goes on to say that "anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it." Now, the child of God would never explicitly speak against the law of God; he would not hold up the Bible to ridicule. Nevertheless, James is saying that when we speak against our brother, we indeed are reviling the law of God, the very words of God. The law of God explicitly says that we are not to lie (Lev. 19:11) and we are not to "go up and down as a talebearer among thy people" (Lev. 19:16, KJV). So, to practice these things is to show contempt for these laws.

Any sin that is practiced without remorse in effect judges the law. When one knowingly continues in some activity that he knows is against God's law, he is judging the law and putting himself above the Word of God. To do so is dangerous, for "there is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy." The law has authority because the Lawgiver controls eternity. We have no authority or power, so who are we to put ourselves above the law?

When we do not like a law of God, we often try to think of reasons why it does not apply to us. We put ourselves above the law by rejecting and ignoring parts of it. We make excuses, saying, "Oh, that was a cultural command," or "I'm not under law, but under grace." We slowly become more and more tolerant of sin. In doing so, we gain the respect of the worldly. They say of us, "Look at him. Even though he is a Christian, he's `cool'", because we tolerate their sins and even engage in them ourselves. We call our sins by different names, convincing ourselves that to practice them is all right. "Drunkenness is good fellowship, censure is conference and good discourse, error is new light, rebellion is zeal of public welfare."[Footnote #3] We would do well to remember that the Lawgiver is "the one who is able to save and destroy." We had better respect His law. Let us not forget, "The law of the Lord is perfect" (Psalm 19:7).

The Will of the Lord

13Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." 14Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." 16As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. 17Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins.

James, who spoke in the previous section about those who take lightly God's law, goes on to speak of those who take lightly God's providence. He commands our attention by saying, "Now listen," because so many of us do not realize that the behavior he describes is sinful. James takes to task those who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Those who plan in such a way, not acknowledging God's desires and work in their lives, actually are a type of atheist. There are three types of atheists: absolute atheists (those who deny the existence of God), partial atheists (those who deny some specific attribute of God, such as His omniscience, His omnipotence, etc.), and practical atheists (those who deny that God is active in and cares for His creation). Those who deny God's providence are the third type of atheist. And atheism is an appropriate term in this case, for isn't it as bad to deny God's providence, as to deny the existence of God? To make plans with no regard for God's will is to deny a very important aspect of God's nature: that He loves us and has a specific will for our lives.

In James' hypothetical situation, the speaker has decided everything. He has decided when, where, how long, what will be done and what the result will be. He is confident in himself and in his plan. He is sure of his ability to carry out his plan and "make money". This is reminiscent of a parable that Jesus told. "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, `What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.' Then he said, `This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."'" This man's prosperity made him overly confident of his own abilities. He saw himself as being in control of his life. He saw himself as the master of his destiny and gave no regard to the true master, the Lord. The outcome of his life, however, was very different than he imagined: "But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'"

Making a similar point, James states, "Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow." In times of prosperity, we become confident in our own control of our lives. We do not realize that the whole course of our lives could change in a moment, even though we read daily in the newspaper of people whose lives are disrupted by unexpected events: earthquakes, fires, murders, disease, etc. We have no assurance of comfort or earthly prosperity tomorrow.

James asks us to contemplate this: "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." This is a sobering thought, even for Christians. We do not like to be brought face to face with the end of our life on this earth. Nevertheless, God wants us to consider the fact that life on earth "is a mist", for there are many places in the Bible where life is described in similar terms: life is like fading flowers of the field (Isa. 40:6,7), like a windblown leaf (Job 13:25), like a fleeting shadow (Job 14:2), like a breath (Ps. 39:5), etc. By meditating on this, we come to realize that we in fact are not in control of our lives. This realization, though sobering, brings us to a proper perspective of life. Man can never wisely plan his life until he understands the brevity of it. Through the realization that we do not control our lives, we turn to God, saying: "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:12); we come to say as David, "My times are in Your hands" (Ps. 31:15) and as Jeremiah, "I know, O LORD, that a man's life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps" (Jer. 10:23). Our response to this realization should be a changed life. We should make every effort not to waste what little time we have on this earth, for life is short. We should try not to burden ourselves with things of this world: "The ship goes the swifter the less it is burdened; men take in too much lading for a mere passage."[Footnote #4] We should rather "store up treasures in heaven" (Matt. 6:20). Most importantly, we should seek, in all things, the will of God in our lives: "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him" (Col. 3:17).

Rather than devising and boasting of our own plans for our lives, James tells us: "Instead, you ought to say, `If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.'" All we do must be tested by the Lord's will, not just spiritual matters, but also personal, financial, governmental, civil, domestic, etc. Always leave room in your plans for the Lord's will. More than that, never jump into anything without seeking the Lord's will through prayer. It is a good habit to literally say, "If it is the Lord's will..." when making plans. If you do not say it, you must at least think it. If you do not think it, start saying it, so as to convince your heart of the truth of it!

Now, do not get the wrong idea. James is not forbidding the planning out of your life; he is only forbidding the ignoring of God in planning your life. We are to plan, but in submission to God's will. There are many examples in the Bible of godly men planning their future: Joseph planned for the famine (see Gen. 41:35); the disciples in Antioch planned to aid the church in Judea when a famine was predicted by prophets (Acts 11:39); Paul, by God's will, planned to visit the Roman church on his way to Spain (Rom. 15:24); etc. In the book of Proverbs, ants are held up to us as an example of how we should live, because they "store up their food in the summer" (Prov. 30:25; also Prov. 6:6-8).

So, we must plan, but plan according to God's will. And how do we make sure that we do God's will? First and foremost, obey His revealed will, the commandments in the Bible. This is the starting point. You can never be within God's will if you are living in disobedience to His clearly revealed commandments. Second, commit all that you do to His will. Do nothing that you have not tested through prayer. Third, seek His will. Actively endeavor to find ways to serve Him. Fourth, listen for His guidance. Keep a spiritual ear tuned for His marching orders. He may speak to you through His Word; He may speak to you through the counsel of the godly; He may speak directly to your heart. Fifth, always leave room for Him to give further guidance. God seldom gives us the whole picture at once. He usually guides us one step at a time. We tend, with the first step, to plan out the whole journey. We must be flexible so that we are ready at any time to abandon our itinerary for God's itinerary.

There are great benefits to seeking God's will in all things. By seeking God's will, we lose uncertainty about our future prosperity. We are assured of future prosperity, not necessarily financial prosperity in this life, but eternal prosperity through inheritance into the riches of God's kingdom. And in this life, we have promises for following His will. As is often cited, "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28); and, "Delight yourself in the LORD and He will give you the desires of your heart" (Ps. 37:4).

James chastens those who ignore God's will: "As it is, you boast and brag." To believe that we have control over our lives is presumptuous; it is "boasting". Such an attitude comes from the pride of the world. The world would tell us, "You're on your own"; and the world would like it so. The world does not desire to submit to God's will or be in any way accountable to God. Those of the world would like to use their short lives to follow after their own pleasures and desires. However, "we were sent into the world, not to grow great and pompous, but to enrich our souls with spiritual excellencies."[Footnote #5] As James says, "All such boasting is evil." It is evil because it presumes that man is lord of his own life; it is evil because it keeps one from God's guidance and will; it is evil, because it rejects God's personal care.

James concludes this section by stating: "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins." We know that we are to seek God's will, and even knowing this, many ignore the direction of God and go their own way, make their own plans. To do so, as James points out, is sin. It is not enough to know what is right, we must do it. All our studying the Word of God is no good if we do not put the things we learn into practice. Worse, to know what we should do and to neglect to do it is sin. Our knowledge brings responsibility. As James exhorts earlier in the epistle: "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (James 1:22).

This last verse in chapter four hits home to all of us. We all know of some "good we ought to do". There are people we ought to pray for, praises to be sung, thanks to be given, resources to be shared. There's a friend who should be told of God's love. There's a helping hand to be lent. There's a peace to be made in a long held grudge. Let us begin today to do this good that we ought to do.

Closing Prayer

Yes, Lord, give us the opportunity to do the good that we ought to do. Forgive us for our sin of not doing the good that You have put in our hearts to do. Help us to realize how brief life is and, through this knowledge, help us to put our short time on earth to good use in furthering Your Kingdom. In Jesus' name we ask these things, Amen.


3. Manton, A Commentary on James, pg. 382.

4. Ibid., pg. 391.

5. Ibid., pg. 387.

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