In the Museum of God's Goodness, Salvation is a Masterpiece (James 1:16–18)

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Rules of Enjoyment

When I first got my driver’s licence my parents put certain guidelines in place in order to help me most enjoy my newly earned freedom. (Of course, at the time, I considered them the unjust decrees of an unreasonable dictatorship, but hindsight is often clarifying, isn’t it?)

One of the rules was that, for the first few months, I wasn’t permitted any passengers to whom I wasn’t immediately related. Translation: No friends allowed.

The rationale was simple: My parents wanted to limit distractions while I was gaining my confidence behind the wheel. They wanted me to enjoy the freedom of driving unhindered by the potentially accident-causing distractions that other teenagers might provide.

In a similar way, God wants us to fully enjoy the good gifts he has given, to understand the source of those gifts, and to celebrate the best of those gifts. 

The distraction from good gifts: Our potential deception

The second section of James opens with a strong warning against a potential distraction from the good gifts God wants us to see, enjoy, and celebrate.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters (v. 16).

This is a strong command softened by a term of endearment. “Do not allow yourselves to be duped, tricked, or fooled, dear ones!” “Stay vigilant, beloved!”

Paul uses the same phrase in a number of different places in the New Testament. Consider the following two examples:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked (Gal. 6:7a NIV).

Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as he is righteous (1 John 3:7 NAS).

Taking those into consideration, the intent is clear: There are ways of thinking that Christians must avoid because they contradict God’s revelation and can be damaging and damning.

For Paul in Galatians it was the idea that one can fool God. For John it was the lie that Christians can live a completely debauched life. Both are pleading with believers to avoid allowing themselves to believe deceptions.

What’s the lie James is warning about in 1:16? To understand this we need to see the command as a hinge between two separate but connected thoughts. 

Last week we found that James was encouraging believers to endure trials by viewing them as opportunities for spiritual growth (1:1–15). After providing reasons why that’s possible, he moves to a warning:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone (v. 13).

We must never accuse God of evil because he is incapable of evil; evil comes from within us, not within God. That’s one side of the hinge.

The other is in the open phrase of verse 17:

Every good and perfect gift is from above … (v. 17a).

Here James is attributing the opposite to God. Whereas, in verses 13–15, he says “God can never produce evil,” in verses 17–18 he claims “God can only produce good.” 

And between those two complementary claims is verse 16: “Do not be deceived!” To say it another way: Don’t be tricked into attributing evil to a good God nor believing the lie that good things can come form anywhere but God. Quite simply, James is calling for believers to think rightly about who God is and how God works.

I know from experience that when sin shows up in my life I all too often look for someone or something to blame. In my weaker moments, I assume it can’t be my fault! James says, “Don’t be deceived: Evil’s not from God.”

I also know that when I experience any kind of success I do want to take the blame for that! I worked hard, I reason. I endured! Or, perhaps, I got lucky! James again, says, “Don’t be deceived: All good comes from God.”

If we aren’t careful we can be deceived and mislabel the source of good and evil and we become distracted from the gifts themselves and, more tragically, from the Giver of those gifts.

The source of good gifts: Our unchanging God

In verse 17, which we’ve already hinted at earlier, James turns his attention to the source of good gifts.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows (v. 17).

Where do all good gifts come from? They come from our unchanging God. While God can never be the source of evil, he is always the source of good. There isn’t a single truly good thing enjoyed in this world that does not have God as its ultimate source. Not one.

And this has always been the case. Consider the creation account of Genesis 1 and 2. 

God created light and, in verse 4, “saw that the light was good.” He separated the land and seas and, verse 10, “God saw that it was good.” Moving through the account we have the sun, moon, stars, vegetation, birds, fish, and animals; good, good, good, good. And, then, to wrap it all up:

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (Gen. 1:31a).

And Moses continues to throw around the word “good” throughout chapter 2 as well (see 2:9, 12, 17, 18). God, who is creating all things, is rightly determining what is good.

But goodness becomes less clear in chapter 3, when sin enters the equation when the serpent tricks Eve.

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). 

The lie had to do with good and evil and the woman's apparent inability to distinguish between them without the fruit.

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it (Gen. 3:6).

So, sin enters the world and the consequences are dire. 

And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (3:22).

Because of their disobedience, humanity would now experience not only the goodness of God that he desired them to experience in his good creation, but also the evil of the enemy from which he had planned to shield them.

This is where the confusion of which James is warning, the potential deception, began. Ever since Genesis 3, we have struggled to not confuse good and evil. It has become blurry. 

It’s telling that, while “good” shows up twelve times in the opening two chapters of the Bible, after the fall in Genesis 3 it’s found only twice in the next twelve chapters. First in chapter 6:

When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose (6:1–2).

We notice that there is confusion over what is “good.” And, then, next in chapter 15 with God speaking to Abram:

You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age (15:15).

While the sinless creation was once described as “good” by its Creator, now that same word has been reduced to a description of aging and death—two things that weren’t in existence prior to Genesis 3. 

James wants us to navigate the sin-caused confusion, to see things rightly: While God is never the source of evil, he is always the source of good, and always has been. James says, he has never changed:

… coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows (Jas. 1:17b).

The heavenly lights are the sun, moon, and stars that God hung in the sky. He’s their father in that he birthed them. And yet, unlike those heavenly lights that move and, in their moving cast shadows that shift, God doesn’t do that. He doesn’t change. He doesn’t shift. He’s not a moving target. He is constant. Theologians refer to this as the immutability of God and it’s one of his beautiful, important, and awesome attributes.

Here’s James’ point: If the God who created all things “very good” is unchanging, then it follows that he remains the source of all that is “very good.” He doesn’t shift like shadows. The fall may have changed our ability to see his goodness accurately and consistently, but it didn’t change him. He is still the source of all good gifts.

My family is a gift from God. My church. My home. The breakfast I ate this morning, my safe commute to work all week, and air in my lungs. The list is never-ending of all the good gifts God has graciously bestowed upon me.

A clear-thinking believer, one that is undeceived, should be a walking billboard of gratitude to their God, the source of all good gifts.

The best of the good gifts: Our new life in Christ

And in verse 18, James describes the best of the good gifts.

He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

As we read this text, it almost seems like James is functioning as a museum tour guide walking us through an exhibit dedicated to the never-changing goodness of our God.

“Look around!” He says and points out some great pieces that show off the Artists’ generousity—the sun, moon, and stars.

But then, he smiles and says, “I’ve saved the best for last. Behold God’s masterpiece, his triumph, his gem!” 

And what do we see when James lifts the curtain? Our new life in Christ! Our regeneration! Our salvation! 

Again, when we scan back up to verse 15, prior to the hinge verse, we are struck with the contrast James is creating as he describes sin giving birth to death in us and, then, in verse 18, God giving birth to life in us.

This new life we’re gifted was through God's deliberate initiative (“he chose"), and his special revelation communicated it to us (“through the word of truth"). God chose to send his Son to provide an atonement for sin, that whoever believes in him, the word of truth he proclaimed, will have everlasting life; will be born again as children of God. Our salvation is the best of the many good gifts that come down from above.

And, while our new birth is a masterpiece of God’s goodness, it’s also foreshadowing. The “firstfruits” of a crop indicate the quality of the rest of the crop yet to be harvested. In this case, our salvation is an incredible, powerful picture of God’s goodness. 

We’ve been renewed by his power and we are being—and will be—freed from the poisonous shackles of sin. And more will come after us and, eventually, creation itself will be liberated and restored.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new” (Rev. 21:1–5a)!

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever (22:1–5).

Don’t be fooled, brothers and sisters: God is good and can do no evil. And, because he is good, every good and perfect gift must be attributed to him and him alone. He has always been the Giver of good gifts and, unlike his gifts, he doesn’t change. He remains immovably good and relentlessly generous with his goodness.

And while his gifts are many, his masterpiece is our salvation. The redemption and reconciliation of sinners to a holy God demonstrates his goodness in ways unmatched and anticipates a future grand display.

May each of us and all of us together, think rightly about God—who he is and how he works. May we daily walk through the museum of his goodness, paying attention to and thanking him for all the good gifts he has showered upon us who deserve none. And may we certainly on our tour stop often and take in that masterpiece.