As you are sitting down, please take your Bibles and turn together to the letter of James, towards the end of the New Testament. It’s found on page 1011 if you are you using the pew Bible, 1011. We’ve been working our way through the book of James this summer and more properly, the first chapter of the book of James, and we’re in verses 17 and 18 this evening. We’ll be studying James 1:17-18. Before we hear God’s Word, let’s go to Him in prayer and ask His blessing on it. Let’s pray together.
Father, we can scarcely take in the magnitude of what we have just sung – the truth that You are all chance and change transcending, that You are the Lord of human pain, that You transmute our earthly sorrows for joy of heavenly gain. We need to see You as You are, and the only way that happens is if Your Holy Spirit works in our hearts to show us Christ as He is. Help us to do that this evening. Enable us to see what the Spirit has inspired in the Word You have given us. Illumine our minds and our hearts. This is our prayer and we make it in the strong name of Jesus. Amen.
James chapter 1 beginning at verse 17. This is God’s Word.
“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 grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever. Amen.
I came across an interesting story this week about Eunice Pike. I’d never heard of her but now I have. She was working with a group called the Mazatec Indians in Southwestern New Mexico and during the time that she was there of about forty years, she learned some fascinating things about this people as missionaries do, and one of the things that really stood out to her was the fact that nobody in the village would tell you anything about where they learned something. So if she went to the baker and said, “Where did you learn to bake?” he would say, “I just know.” And she would go ask other people, “Where did you learn to do this?” and they would say the same thing, “I just know,” meaning that they did it without anybody’s help. And she began to ask why this was and she learned that according to their concept of knowledge there’s only so much of it to go around. So if you wish somebody, “Have a good day,” that means you’re going to have less of a good day yourself. More seriously, if you have a second child, there’s only enough love for that first child so you can’t give as much to the second child. And this is, as you might imagine, was an impediment to sharing the Gospel because if you gave away the Good News, that means there was less for you. And so she worked with them and tried to get them to understand that no, God has plenty for everybody, a fear that so many times we fall into a mindset with God, particularly when we have trials. That’s what James has been so keen for us to understand – our trials and how we respond to them. I think we have a mindset that God is kind of like a limited good, like these Indians were thinking about things, that there’s only so much of His grace to go around, only so much of His mercy, only so much of His love, and once we exhaust that it’s all dried up. James wants to recalibrate our attention tonight on the God who never stops giving. That’s where he focuses us.
And let me remind you just briefly of our context. This is a New Testament wisdom book. That means it teaches us how to live skillfully for the glory of God. That’s James’ major purpose for us in this book. And last week, James exposed a wrong response to trials where we blame God, and instead, he reminded us that the problem is not God; it’s our own sinful desires. Those are what lure us away and get us into trouble. And so in order to recalibrate our desires, tonight James focuses us on God’s character, showing us that He is truly more desirable than what our sinful desires chase after. That’s what He’s up to. And what he wants us to see is when our desires tempt us, our greatest need is God. That’s James’ main point tonight. Our greatest need is the God who he’s going to tell us about. We could put it this way – James invites us to desire God more than sin by showing us who God is. James invites us to desire God more than sin by showing us who God is. And he does that in two headings. In verse 17, the unchanging God who gives; the unchanging God who gives. And then in verse 18, the purposeful God who saves. The unchanging God who gives; the purposeful God who saves.
- The Unchanging God Who Gives
Look there again at verse 17. “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.” When trials come your way, one pastor put it this way, “What is your first response when bad things happen?” That really tells us the state of our hearts. And when I read that, that pierced me, because I have to admit that so often times my first response to hard providences, to trials, to difficulty, is not the godly response. It’s not the response I get when I have time to step back and think about it. And when we do that, when we have these wrong responses to trials, one of the most common ones is that we begin to think that God is not doing His part. We begin to think that God is stingy. And that takes us right back to the Garden. One of the roots of the first sin, one of the roots at least, was a wrong view of God. This is the lie that the Tempter told Eve. “God is stingy. He’s withholding from you. He doesn’t have your best in mind.” And ever since then, a wrong view of God has been, again, one of the roots of all the sin that we commit. We desire other things because we have a wrong view of the God who actually is.
Every Good and Perfect Gift Comes From God
And let me put it like this. Whatever you desire, your desires are telling you a story about trust. Desires tell you a story about trust – what you trust in, what you look to for meaning and significance. So what does James do when he wants to recalibrate our desires when he wants to refocus our attention? How does he do that? He goes out of his way to assure us that we can rely on God. And he does that by telling us who He is. He tells us that “every good and perfect gift” comes from God, the Father of lights. Have you thought about all the good stuff that’s happened to you this week? Now that’s easy for me to say. I just got back from the beach! It’s real easy to think about good stuff there. But even if you’re just doing work-a-day things and you’re going about your daily life, have you thought about all the good stuff you’ve been given? That’s the mark of humility, right? It’s thankfulness. The mark of pride is ingratitude. Proud people have no reason to thank anybody because it all belongs to them. It’s all on their own steam. Humble people always have a reason to be grateful and Christians of all people have the reason to be the most grateful because if you’ve noticed what James is doing here when he tells us about God, he’s focusing on what God does. He gives. And isn’t it amazing that his fellow apostle, John, when he wants to give us perhaps the most famous summary of the Gospel, John 3:16, John states it in similar terms. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” James is doing the same thing here. The best, the perfect gift, the gift that trumps all other gifts, all the good stuff that happened to you this week, points to this gift and that is the gift of His only beloved Son.
That is why that is the capstone of Paul’s argument in Romans 8. When he wants to bring forth the doctrine of assurance that you are saved by God’s free grace, and his argument began back in Romans 5 and carries through to the end of Romans 8, when he wants to tell us why we can be sure that we’ll make it, that God is good, that He’s going to save us finally and completely, how does he put it? Same terms that James uses. “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all…” See, James says, “When you’re tempted to think that God is stingy, remember that everything good comes from Him in order that you might look to the one who is the greatest good that has ever been given to the human race, namely Jesus.” That’s what James wants us to think about when we think about God’s character.
Don’t Flee to Idols
And so if we want our sinful desires to change, we have to desire something greater than what our desires promise. If you want your desires to change, you have to desire something greater than what sin promises. And this is why James is such a good pastor. He’s enticing us. He’s saying, “Don’t go to idols, don’t go to where your desires naturally take you. Go here. Go back to God. Remember who He is. That’s where your desires have to be focused if you want them to change.” He wants to make God more attractive to us.
The Father of Lights
And he does that by going further and giving us two aspects of God’s character to consider. He calls Him the “Father of lights.” Why is that important? James is a Jew. He’s going back to Genesis. He tells us that God in Genesis, Moses tells us that God made the lesser light and the greater light. And then as kind of a throwaway, I love this part of Genesis 1 – “Oh, and He made the stars also! You know, billions, uncountable galaxies! Oh, that’s what He made also. Such is the power of our God!” And James seizes on the imagery of the Father of lights, the One who made them all, and says, “That’s the God you serve.” And he calls Him “the Father of lights.” Do you see what he’s doing? He’s telling us that God is the best kind of father. You see, we need a God who is both powerful enough to help us and willing to do it. Some fathers are powerful enough to do it and not willing to help their children. Some fathers are not powerful enough but are willing to help. That’s how our idols always turn out, by the way. Have you noticed that? They err on either one of those sides. They promise they have so much power but they’re not able to help us. Or they don’t have power but they promise they’ll help us some way. God’s not like that, James says. He’s perfection in both of those. He’s powerful and willing to help. He made the lights. Here’s how James expects us to reason. “He made all that. He can help you.”
But He’s also your Father. He’s not just distant and out there and doesn’t care and has all this power and is willing to exercise it on behalf of a universe but not you. No, He’s your Father. Couldn’t we stop there? One theologian put it this way. To find out if we really understand Christianity, ask yourself, “How much do you make of the fact that God is your Father?” And when you step back and think about it, that’s what James is doing.
God Does Not Change
And then he tells us there’s no variation or shadow of change. He does not change like shifting shadows. The technical, theological term for that is God’s immutability; His inability to change. He never changes. But don’t think about this changelessness of God like a statue, right? When we think about something that doesn’t change we think of like, the statue downtown on the monument. He never changes; He always looks the same. That’s not what James is saying. He’s saying you have to realize that this God who is your Father who made everything, never changes. Why? Why do we need to know that when we have trials? Because a couple of things. We don’t need a God who is temperamental when we have bad stuff happen to us, do we? Maybe you’ve had a father like that. You had to be on eggshells around him all the time because you never knew what was going to come next. Sadly, I fall into that sometimes as a dad – lose my patience with my kids and realize that all of a sudden I am portraying to them exactly the opposite of what God is like for me. He’s never temperamental. Do you realize that? God doesn’t get surprised by anything. He never has a “Plan B” he has to pull out when everything seems to be going astray in our lives or in the world. Why? Because He doesn’t change. He’s had the same plan from before the world was made and it’s being worked out in our lives and part of that plan, as hard as it is for us to hear where James is taking us, is that we have trials; we have difficulties. But none of that surprises God. None of that catches Him off guard.
In order for us to have a God we will desire more than sin, we have to know we can trust Him. And James says, “Do you want to know how much you can trust Him? Nothing catches Him off guard, He never has a temper tantrum, He never changes.” Is He merciful to you today because of what Jesus has done? He’ll be the same tomorrow. Is He loving you today and showing you mercy and grace today? He will do the same tomorrow. That’s why the author of Hebrews when he wants to tell you how amazing this Son, who is better than Moses, better than Aaron, when he capstones that argument he says this. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” And I have to believe Jesus’ half-brother who’s writing this epistle probably had something like that in mind. This God we serve never gets caught off guard. You can trust Him. You can rely on Him.
We Must Take God Seriously
So what James is doing here in this verse 17, let me put it in a nutshell, he’s trying to get us to take God seriously. Because when desires come and point us to idols, that’s what he talked about last week, when desires come and say, “No, have this, want this, desire this more than God,” we don’t take God seriously. He doesn’t seem real. He seems distant. He seems weightless. James says, “No. Think about who he is. He made the sun and the moon and the stars. And by the way, He’s also your Father. And He never changes. And there’s no other idol like that.” That’s what James is trying to get us to see.
And from there, he goes in verse 18 and he says this, “Of his own will, he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” Now where does James then take us when he says, “Here’s what God is like. What does God do? What does this God do?” And James has been setting up contrasts for us. Remember in verse 8 he talked about that the man who doubts ought not to think he’ll receive anything from the Lord. He’s tossed to and fro. He’s just told us God isn’t like that man. He’s never tossed to and fro. He continues the contrast. Last week he told us that when sin had conceived and grown fully it brought forth death. In contrast to sin which brings forth death, we have the God who sovereignly gives us life. That’s where he ends up – with the Gospel. Don’t you love how he states that? He says, “I want you to have no doubt about where salvation comes from.”
- The Purposeful God Who Saves
By the way, this ought to put to rest once for all that James is a book about salvation by works whereas Paul is all about salvation by grace. At the outset, before we get to chapter 2 in James’ lengthy discussion on the place of works in the Christian life, he reminds us that salvation is all of God. Of His own will, He brought us forth. That sounds like something Paul would write, doesn’t it? It sounds like sovereign grace which we find on every page of this Bible. That it’s God’s will who brings us forth. It’s not because of us; it’s not because we’re smarter. It’s not because we deserve Christianity. It’s not because we are raised up here in this church that teaches wonderful things and has a great community. That’s not the reason we’re saved. God uses means, to be sure, but at the end of the day the only reason you’re here tonight and the only reason I’m here tonight is because of His own will He brought us forth. That’s it. Or stated in three simple words – the message of the Gospel is very simple – God saves sinners. Not, sinners save themselves. God saves sinners. Of His own will, He brought us forth. James wants to make sure we understand in our trials grace is primary. God’s grace to us, in Jesus, the Gospel, is primary. What He’s done on our behalf, how He acts sovereignly to care for us, to take us out of this state of sin and misery and bring us into new life.
Do you know what the promise of the Gospel is tonight for you? It’s that you can have new life. Don’ you want to start over? Do you ever have one of those days where you wish you could hit the redo button? God says, “I am always there giving fresh starts, giving new life where sin brings forth death.” Why? Because it pleases Him to do so. Why does it please Him? Here’s my favorite three words that become more precious to me every day that I am a pastor. “I don’t know.” I don’t know why He chose to do it this way. I know it’s a glorious truth and it shouldn’t twist our mind up in knots why God would choose to save us and come to us in His sovereign grace. I do know one thing it should do. It should make us smile and fall down on our faces in worship that He would do this for us. If we sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” these verses should be sweet to us. He brought us forth. He did it. This is the God who acts. He doesn’t change, He’s got a perfect plan, and His plan includes saving failures and wrecks like you and like me. That is amazing. We could take the rest of the day off and end it right here. That’s enough to worship for the rest of our lives.
But notice that He says the means this, “Of His own will, He brought us forth by the word of truth.” Why do we spend so much time preaching the Bible here? Why do we have Vacation Bible School? Why do we have places like Twin Lakes Camp which my daughters attended for the first time this summer? And the songs. We’re hearing them all the time, and you kind of wonder, “Can we stop the songs?” but we love the songs because the songs tell us so much Gospel truth and my children learned Gospel truth. Why do we do all that? Because the Word brings forth life. See, our desires are always talking to us about power; power are what they’re telling us we can have “If we trust this…If we do this…” You want to know where true power is found? It’s found in a book. It’s found in the pages of God’s Word. And that “word of truth” language means everything God has revealed, including what James is writing. It’s the Gospel. It’s Genesis to Revelation. It’s everything He’s given us for life and godliness. He did this for us because that is the means He uses to save us.
So for people – this is what’s amazing when you study a book like James – you realize theological types really do a good job of confusing people about simple truths so often. And I’ve been guilty of that. And what James says here is very simple. How are we saved? The Gospel is preached, we hear it, we believe it, we are saved, all because God chose us for that, of His own will, by the Word of truth. That’s why we spend so much time with the Bible. That’s why missionaries and supportive missionaries is so critical, crucial, and important in these times. What is going to save Muslims? What is going to save those who have no interest in God or His people? Is it going to be all of our clever designs? No. Should we think carefully and strategically? Yes! But at the end of the day, the reason anybody gets saved is because of God’s sovereign grace working through His Word. That’s what James says. That’s how he gives to us. The word of truth.
Jesus the Firstfruits From the Dead
And then he finishes by saying this. That we, here’s the purpose, we should be “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” That language is so, so significant. What were the firstfruits in this society? They were the first part of the crop brought in that was representative of the rest of the crop. If the firstfruits were good, the rest was supposed to be good. And Paul uses the exact same language of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15. He says Jesus is the “firstfruits from the dead.” And now James says, note, Christians are the firstfruits. And who’s right? Both. Because we are “in Him,” Paul’s favorite description of a Christian, that we’re united to Him by faith and by faith alone, we’re part of that firstfruits harvest that began at Jesus’ resurrection. Stay with me here. Here’s the structure for hope in the New Testament; three steps that James picks up on here. We need hope during trials, right? Desires promise us hopes, promise to fulfill our hopes. James wants us to have nothing to do with those. He wants us to accept no substitutes so he goes here and says, “You are the bumper crop in Jesus of what God is doing in the world.” And he says if you want to know how to have hope, here’s the threefold structure. You look back to Jesus, the firstfruits. We’re always looking back to Him. His resurrection is the turning point. If you want to understand where the New Testament gains its center and everything that flows out of it theologically, it’s at the resurrection of Jesus. That’s why Paul spends so much time talking about it. It’s why James uses this firstfruits language. We look back, and then in the present we enjoy God’s inexhaustible grace here. We draw on it; we rely on it. It’s given to us freely. He’s the Father of lights who continuously gives.
And then with that, the third step is we look forward to the day that the firstfruits are complete. You do realize that the harvest began at Jesus’ resurrection. It’s what He meant when He said, “The Son of Man will send out His angels to the four winds and they will begin to reap the harvest.” That’s not just right before He returns. You’re living in the middle of that reaping. If you are a Christian, you are a part of that harvest and God looks at the world and looks at us as Christians with all our flaws, all our wrong responses to trials, all our flawed and sinful desires and says, “This is the crop I am harvesting in Jesus.” He’s bringing us forth, working in our lives, working through trials, recalibrating our desires so that people will desire a better harvest than what their sinful desires give them, namely death. Everything else cheats you. There’s no firstfruits in sin because it always ends up in the same place – death. God is reaping a firstfruits harvest of righteousness through Jesus, by faith alone in Him, through all of us.
The Sufficiency of God’s Generous Grace
So what do we say to all this then? Two things to take away tonight. First of all, the sufficiency of God’s generous grace. I run after sinful desires and all of us run after sinful desires because they promise to meet a need. Do you see how complex they are, by the way? They have all these different facets. We’ve been trying to touch on them the past couple of weeks. They promise to meet a need. The approval of people, for instance, promises to make us feel wanted. Money promises to make us feel secure. Another boyfriend or another girlfriend promises to meet that need for companionship. Maybe another spouse promises to meet a need. All our desires promise to meet a need and the one thing they all have in common, for all the many different ways they show up in our lives, the one thing they have in common, they are shouting at us every single day, “God’s grace is not enough for you to be satisfied.” And what James does is He takes that and says, “God’s grace in Jesus is the only thing that’s enough. That’s the only thing that can meet our deepest desires.”
Only the Gospel Gives us a God Who Dies to Change Our Desires
Let me put it this way. All the idols we chase after kill us through our desires. Only the Gospel shows us a God who dies to change our desires. Everything else kills us through desires. Only the Gospel gives us a God who dies to change our desires. What is He up to in your life and in my life tonight in all the many different circumstances we find ourselves? He’s bringing us back to Himself. He’s saying, “I’m worthy of all your love and worship and trust and you’ve given it away. You’ve taken it to other lovers and they’ve failed to satisfy you and like Hosea, I am pursuing you. I am willing to go to the cross, to the point of death to win your affections back.” Because unless your desires change, your habits, your sin, your lifestyle never will. And the only thing that changes a lesser desire is to have a greater desire for what is greatest, and that is Jesus. And it is only the Gospel of the cross that can crush our petty little life-stealing, death-dealing desires that entrap us, enslave us, make our lives dull, make our worship dull, make us not passionate about the Gospel, make us grumpy and irritated, all of that is a story of desire and God comes and says, “I’m enough. And when you learn that about Me, you’ll realize you don’t need to desire anything else because I’m the only One who can meet them for you.” That’s what Jesus tells us. And we’re scared. We go, “I don’t know if I can transfer my trust from what’s been supposedly meeting my needs.” And Jesus says, “Yes you can. Come to Me and find out how good it is.” That’s what James does for us this evening.
And what that does to us, after we begin to grasp the generous nature of God, it ought to do a few things for us. Do you struggle with impatience? That may be one of my biggest sins, I think – impatience. I want things on my timetable. What does that say about my desires? It says I want to be God. “I know better how to run the world than you do, God.” But if we get God’s generous grace, if we realize that no matter, in Christ, how often we fail He still pursues, He never gives up, He’s patient with you and with me, that makes us more patient with each other. Don’t give up on that person who you think is a lost cause, whether it’s a family member, a friend, a coworker – you might be that person tonight. We’re not going to give up on you. Christians don’t give up on anybody because they know the sovereignty of grace is what alone saved them and they have no claim to it and they know that that grace can change anybody, anywhere, at any time. It should make us more patient with each other.
It should make us more outward instead of inward focused. You know what the number one thing trials do to us? They make it all about us. Brian Regan does this great comedy routine about the “Me Monster.” Some of y’all may have seen it. It’s the guy at the party who always has to have the best story and he’s waiting for somebody to be done so he can say, “Me!” And we’re all “Me Monsters” at heart and nothing will bring out your inner “Me Monster” like a trial because then all of a sudden it’s a self-pity party. “Let me have you over or let’s get a bunch of people together and I just happen to have a DVD burned of why I’m awesome and why trials shouldn’t be happening to me. Let’s watch it together.” That’s what we do. We have pity parties. Trials make us inward focus. When we get the Gospel of God’s generous grace and we realize we have no claim upon it, that it’s all by God’s sovereign initiative, it takes the focus off us and puts it on Jesus and that fills us to be full to give it away.
I had a missionary say to me once, “Never let truth be a dead-end with you.” Continue to give it away. Continue to pass it on. When we get that God is gracious, is there anything else more amazing to tell people? When you watch what happens – again, another week full of headlines that are horrific – and you wonder, “What’s going to happen? What do people need?” What they need to know is the grace of God in Jesus because nobody else has that story friends, nobody. Nobody’s ever invented a God who dies to change their desires. That’s only found here in the New Testament. Nobody invents an idol that is gracious. They only enslave. That’s why this is so important. That’s why we need to be outward focused. And when that happens, and it happens in a community like this of believers, something else happens that’s marvelous, that’s wonderful. When we get the Gospel of God’s generosity and grace to us we become a whole lot more willing to enter into each other’s mess.
The problem a lot in our society, especially here in the south, is we don’t like people knowing our mess, do we? Everything looks great. Everything’s fine. And if you get the Gospel, though, what that does for us is this. It makes us enter into each other’s mess with humility and boldness. Why those two? Humility because when you go to somebody who’s breaking apart, and that usually happens at the end when everything is falling apart and you’re maybe the last person to know about it or the first person after everything’s come to its full conclusion and you’re going, “You’re life’s falling apart,” and at that moment the Gospel says to you, “In no way shape or form should you have pride and should you go, ‘Well you should have done…’” and the first response is humility. The first response is, “I am just like you.”
Here’s what the Gospel teaches us, very quickly, about that. If you understand what James is saying here, you’ll realize that at any single moment of any single day you and I are capable of anything. Put it another way. The seeds of Hitler are in every heart in this room tonight. That brings humility. When God saves people who are like a nursery for Hitler, that’s who God saves. And that gives us humility when we enter into somebody else’s mess, but it also gives us boldness because the Father of lights who never changes, who’s shown us grace, still has grace to give. We can go and talk to each other and minister to each other with boldness because we have the expectation that God will work. Do we believe that? Do we believe that nobody’s too far gone, that no situation is too far gone for God to work, the God who made the sun, the moon, and the stars, who’s planned and predestined everything from your next breath to the orbits of planets in galaxies we haven’t even seen yet? Do you think we ought to be expectant that He will act and work through us? Generous grace always changes us. It changes churches, it changes individuals, it changes how we live life together.
In 1757 the Sun King died, King Louis XIV of France. He was probably the most opulent ruler of France. He had a reign of seventy-two years. He himself gave himself the title of “The Great” – Louis XIV, The Great. That’s what he wanted to be called. And he was the monarch who made the famous statement, “I am the state. Law, everything, wealth, power, everything terminates with me.” And when he died, he had one of the most opulent funerals probably in human history. And when they got to the great cathedral, they had all the lights dimmed down so that there was only a single candle burning over his opulent, jewel-encrusted, golden coffin. And there was a bishop, Jean-Baptiste Massillon, who was the pastor of this cathedral, called upon to do his funeral. And when he came in and saw Louis XIV lying in state, Louis the Great, he walked up to the single candle burning over the coffin, reached over, and snuffed it out, and looked out at the church and said, “Only God is great.”
And you see, when it comes to our sinful desires, burning like candles to illuminate all the false promises and the idols of this world, just like we see at the Sun King’s coffin, they will only be snuffed out when we realize what the bishop knew. Only God is great. And we know that because He’s generous and good. He did not even spare His Son for us. Only God is great. Let’s pray.
Father, thank You for Your Word. Thank You for Your generosity in giving us Your best when we give You our worst. We thank You that we’ll never exhaust Your patience or Your care. As we heard this morning, You’ll never put us on a shelf. Thank You, thank You, thank You. Only You are great. Bless us as we go forth from this place. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
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