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Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin. (James 4:17)
These words of James in verse 17 are contextually related to what had been said in verses 14-16, i.e., boasting in ignorance as to their future successes when they have failed to consider God. This is a sin if a person understands that they cannot accomplish anything eternally successful without God’s help, and yet fails or refuses to depend on God. However, James’ words can by implication apply to sins of omission as well.
Thus, one who offers himself to God must carry out that commitment. He has an obligation to carry out his Christian duties, responsibilities to the best of his abilities. It is a sin if he does not do the right thing. How can this be, you may ask? Well, picture him coming out of a store when he sees a very young child running into traffic. What if he has every opportunity to grab the child before it is run over, but instead, he turns his back and walks away? True, there will be no legal consequences in the human legal system. However, as a Christian before the one lawgiver and judge, the fact that he could have done what was right, what was obligated, and did nothing, would be a sin. Are there times when we failed to express Christian love toward another, especially a spiritual brother or sister, or toward God? Each time we failed to do so, it was a sin for us. Every Christian should humbly recognize his dependence on God.
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Simply put, he is guilty of sinning if he does not do the right thing if it is within his power to do so. If we have the ability to do good, as Christians, we are obligated to do so. While this is certainly a general principle that should be applied in our entire Christian life, James is specifically using it here with the previous verses, making plans for our future. So, let’s spell that out with this directive. He who knows what biblical mindset, biblical view he should have regarding the future, and how he should make those plans based on the uncertainty of life, yet he still does not do it, going on recklessly, boasting, and having absolute confidence in his success as he makes his plans, he is guilty of sinning against God. Yet, we do not want to try and apply this general principle only with making plans and attempting to sidestep doing good elsewhere when it is with our power. We will still be guilty of sin if we do not do what is right. A little word of caution here, though. Christians are not obligated to offer kind acts blindly. If a person is trying to scam us because of our kindness, we are not obligated to do anything. If we have a relative that never grows as an adult or takes accountability for his life, it is not our job to carry him. We are to be as innocent as doves but as cautious as serpents. – Matthew 10:16.