James 1 begins by telling us to rejoice in trials, since we advance to maturity through them (vv. 2-4). The next paragraph says we need faith and wisdom to advance (vv. 5-12). James tells us how to understand the phenomena of testing and failure (vv. 12-18). He says, “Don’t be deceived” (v. 16), for it is easy to be deceived. He says, “Know this” (v. 19), because we must know some things to understand testing correctly.
When James says, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial,” it reminds us of other Scriptures. Psalm 1 blesses the man who loves God’s law, who bears fruit and prospers, while the wicked perish. Matthew 5 blesses Jesus’ disciples in their poverty of spirit and their hunger for righteousness. The kingdom is theirs and they will be filled. The Greek word for “blessed” means “happy” in ordinary speech. But the psalmist and Jesus and James have no ordinary happiness in mind. They think not of the fleeting pleasures of a satisfying meal or a good laugh. They have in mind the joy that comes from God. It lasts through persecution and trial, because God is in the trial.
James 1:2-4 describes the present benefits of trials. If we withstand our tests, they strengthen our character; they promote endurance and maturity. James 1:12 names the final result of trials: we receive the “crown of life.” In Scripture, crowns are splendid, golden things. They signify glory and honor. They express God’s pleasure, God’s reward, and the beauty God bestows. Scripture links them to the virtues God desires and to the blessings that attend His salvation.
Occasionally, we may hear a believer say he hopes to receive a certain crown in heaven. But this is misguided, for we are not competing for a small pile of crowns that God will distribute to super-Christians on the last day. No, Jesus wore a crown of thorns so that all who believe would receive the crown of life. God crowns every believer who remains faithful to the end. Jesus bestows crowns for His children. Paul says it this way: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day – and not only for me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).
Sadly, trials do not always produce maturity. When facing trials, some doubt God’s goodness and turn away from Him. Instead of growing deeper in faith and love, so that they long for the crown of life, they blame God for their troubles. James corrects this error in 1:13-15.
James knows that a test can be taken two ways. We can view it as a trial and turn to God for aid, so we persevere. Or we can read it as a tragedy, or as a senseless accident, or as a failure – on God’s part – to love and protect us. Worse yet, some who meet trials blame and attack God for them, accusing Him of malice. They say He tests them too severely, pushing them toward sin so they will fall. When they face tests, they do not endure, but give up. Believing failure is inevitable, they do fail, and then seek someone to blame. “God is tempting me,” they say (v. 13). “He is leading me to ruin.
James says that this is preposterous. He writes: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (v. 13). God never singles anyone out for impossible tests, tests they are bound to fail. God does not entice men and women to sin. To do so would be evil. Neither is God tempted to do evil, nor does He entice others to evil, for that would be evil, too.
God does test His people, of course. By His design, tests provide the opportunity to endure in faith, to grow strong, and to receive a crown. Yet God knows and controls all things. He knows that some will face tests and fail. So, the same event is a test from one perspective, for one person, and a temptation from another perspective, for another person. Does God lead people into temptation and sin? No, says James. If a test becomes a temptation, it is sinful human nature that makes it so. God does not “tempt anyone; but each one is tempted…by his own evil desire” (vv. 13-14). Jesus teaches us to pray that we would not be led into temptation. That is, He tells us to petition the Father to spare us from tests we would be doomed to fail. If we do fail, it is because our desires lure and entice us (v. 14).
James says God intends trials to promote endurance, so that we who love Him receive the crown of life (1:2-4, 12). To endure in trials, we need wisdom and faith (1:5-6). If we fail to endure, we should not blame God. If we succumb to temptation, it is because we let our desires drag us into sin. We have no more right to blame God for our sin than the Israelites had a right to blame God for their wilderness grumblings. God had shown every sign for His covenant love. If they doubted Him, the failure was theirs, not His. And so, it is for us.
The grumbling Israelites were quitters – or worse. They failed to persevere with God, but they did persevere in their rebellion. Their failure discloses evil desires, which, if full-grown, lead to death. James explains this in verse 15. He personifies evil, saying temptations and desires come together to “conceive.” Their offspring is named “sin.” Sin grows up and becomes a parent too. The name of its child is “death.” When we indulge our sinful desires, sin becomes a pattern and, eventually, a life-dominating force. Unchecked, sin brings death, as the Exodus generation sadly learned.
So, there are two potential paths in any test. Testing met with endurance makes us mature and complete; it leads to life. Or testing met with selfish desire leads to sin and death. “Death” is more than the death of the body, tragic as that is. Rather, just as faith and endurance lead to eternal life, so selfish desire and sin lead to eternal death.
This is the worst possible result of testing, an idea we might prefer to avoid. Therefore, James commands, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers” (v. 16). James warns his readers against blaming temptation and sin on God. He hopes his readers see the truth. Sin begins in our hearts, which are all too willing to follow evil desires. How foolish it is to succumb to temptation, then blame the results on God.
Because of our sin, tests can lead to spiritual death, but God designed them to bring us good. Tests stand among God’s gifts, not His curses. But if our sinfulness leads us to fail life’s tests, how can we escape our failures? The final two verses offer an answer (vv. 17-18).
James says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (v. 17). James emphasizes the source of the gifts, not the number of gifts. They come down “from the Father of lights,” that is, God the Creator. God gives good gifts, not impossible tests. We must view tests as gifts, not traps.
Yet we do succumb to temptations, and they do trap us. We fail to endure, fail to persevere in love for our God. So, do our failures thwart God’s plans? Do our sinful desires lead to hopeless ruin? No, there is hope, in two forms. First, if a genuine believer fails a test, he still loves God, even if imperfectly. God knows our weakness, knows that we are as changeable as He is changeless. Second, if a believer is liable to judgment, James later says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (v. 2:13).
If an unbeliever fails the test, God can use that failure to lead him to Christ. The prophets call this the gift of a new heart (Jer. 31:31-34). Jesus calls it being born from above (John 3:1-8). Paul calls it a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). James calls it birth through the word (v. 18). That is, God took counsel with Himself and resolved that He would not leave sinners in their plight. He decided to grant them spiritual life by “the word of truth.” This rebirth keeps sin from giving birth to death. It makes God’s children the firstfruits of His creation.
God will accomplish this spiritual birth by the “word of truth (v. 18). Clearly, God wills our salvation and achieves it through the gospel. Through preaching of Christ and His gospel, God draws people to Himself. This is the kindness and excellence of God. As the gospel wins the hearts of sinners, they freely choose the new life that He already willed for them. Because our life rests on God’s unchanging goodness, not our own changeable choices, it is secure. That is God’s gift; it proves His good intent in our trials.
James says God’s people are His firstfruits (v. 18). We are the first and the best of His “produce.” He will prove faithful. He will care for us year by year, even as He cared for Israel in the wilderness. This is what the tests should teach us. If we fail, our failure teaches us to turn to God for mercy, as He offers it in the gospel. Then as we persevere with Him in love, come what may, we will receive the crown of life that He has promised.
James 1:12-18 Study Questions:
What sinful and common response to trials and testing is James confronting in verse 13? How does he confront this sinful response? What does his response remind his readers of about the character of God?
What important truths about temptation does James teach in verses 14-15? How does he explain the progression of temptation and sin? What is the final end of unrestrained sinful temptation and desire?
What sinful attitudes lead people to succumb to temptation – and ultimately death? What seem to be keys to faithful endurance in the midst of trials?
Why might verse 17 point James’s readers back to the goodness of God as the giver of all gifts? What spiritual gifts has the Father granted to His children?
To what foundational truths does James call attention in verse 18? What does he mean by “the word of truth,” and what word might we use interchangeably with that phrase (see Eph 1:13 and Col. 1:5-6)? How does the word “firstfruits” in verse 18 describe the people of God? How is this verse an encouraging conclusion to this section of James’s letter, following some stern warnings?