The Goodness of God

Seeing God correctly

In the last verses we considered, James confronted sinners who try to blame God for their sin. He bluntly denied that God is a source of temptation. To entice any man into sin would itself be an act of wickedness, and wickedness cannot touch God, for just as He tempts no man, so He "cannot be tempted with evil." James concludes His defense of God’s righteousness with a fervent appeal, "Do not err, my beloved brethren" (v. 16). In other words, do not err by harboring in your minds any slight suspicion that God is less than holy and pure at the degree absolute.

Far from being the source of anything evil, God is the source of everything good. Verse 17 can be translated, "Every act of giving [something] good and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." The meaning is that the Father above is the source of every good thing we receive, as well as every circumstance that brings a good thing into our lives. Our God is a dependable giver of wonderful benefits because His very nature is light (1 John 1:5), which in the physical realm provides the energy necessary for life and for every achievement and enjoyment that life makes possible, and which in the spiritual realm furnishes all truth necessary for a relationship with God Himself (John 1:1–14). To demonstrate that He is light, God created the luminous bodies of the sky. James calls Him "the Father of lights," or, literally, "the Father of the lights," referring generally to the celestial bodies, but especially to the sun and moon.

Yet the Creator is greater than His creation, for whereas the sun and moon vary in color and intensity according to their position in the sky and according to conditions of cloud and atmosphere, the Father is perfectly unchanging. His goodness shines with a constant radiance. Also, whereas the moon is sometimes obscured by the earth’s shadow and the sun is rarely but occasionally obscured by the moon’s shadow, with God there is no "shadow of turning." The idea is that His light is never interrupted or overcome by darkness. His goodness is secure from any setback or defeat.

Notice that James understood basic science. He knew that the shifting darkness that may appear on the moon’s surface or sun’s surface is basically the same as an ordinary shadow on the earth. Furthermore, James recognized that shadows on the moon and sun come about as a result of "turning"—in other words, as a result of the heavenly bodies moving through their orbits.

Proof of God’s goodness

James next proceeds to prove the goodness of God. The primary evidence is that He has offered salvation to man (v. 18). Motivated by love, He has given each of us a chance to live forever, even though we belong to a race of rebels and have gone astray into sin that divine justice must condemn. The destiny we deserve is second death in an eternal hell (Rev. 20:12-15). Yet God has taken sinners like us and turned us into new creatures through a process of spiritual rebirth. In our new existence we stand united with Christ and partake of His moral perfection. We are without sin in our position although not in our practice, and when we shed sinful flesh we will be sinless altogether. Therefore, God will be glad to receive us into His ever-enduring fellowship.

How has God made us fit for heaven? He has accomplished our new birth through the "word of truth." James means simply the gospel. The preaching of the gospel has awakened in us a consciousness of our sin as well as a desire to be saved, and it has also shown us the Savior, who is Jesus Christ. James emphasizes that the winning of souls requires preaching, the same principle we find eloquently set forth by Paul (Rom. 10:13-15).

The consequence of our new birth is that we have become "a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." Firstfruits were the beginning of a harvest. The third feast in the yearly cycle of feasts that God prescribed for Israel was the Feast of Firstfruits, so called because the first grain taken in the barley harvest was brought to the Temple and offered to the Lord. In his characteristic precision, the Holy Spirit speaking through James says we are "a kind of firstfruits." He avoids saying that we are "firstfruits," because the term better applies to Christ as the firstfruits from the dead (1 Cor. 15:23). Yet we are similar to firstfruits in that we are the first of many creatures that God will yet bring into existence.

It is uncertain what James means. The word translated "creatures" literally means "things made," so the reference might be either to some creatures, whether living or nonliving, or to the entire system of created things. If he is speaking chiefly to Christian readers of his own time, perhaps he means that they were the first of a great harvest of souls that would continue into succeeding ages. Or if he is addressing Christians throughout the whole Church Age, perhaps he means that they were the first of a new creation that will eventually supplant the present cosmos, which is tainted by sin, infested with death, and subject to decay. We find the latter sense of firstfruits in Paul’s epistle to the Romans (Rom. 8:21-23). Both writers view God’s work of regenerating believers as the opening phase of His program to make a perfect world that He will be willing to sustain forever.


Pose some questions to yourself to see whether you understand just how good God is, as He is described in verse 17.

1. Do I ever make the mistake of retouching a true picture of God so that He looks more like me?

Perhaps the first idolatry was to worship a man and woman posing as gods. Mankind has always tried to squeeze God into a human box. When they look at Him, instead of seeing God they see a reflection of themselves.

A few years ago, the famous atheist Antony Flew realized he was wrong and admitted that God exists after all. But what kind of being did Flew first imagine God to be? Not like the God of the Bible. Instead of espousing true theism, Flew resurrected the eighteenth-century philosophy known as deism, which believed that after God created the universe, He took no further interest in it. Later, however, Flew said that he had become open to the Christian idea of God. One problem in deism is that it portrays God as rather like the philosophers who have clung to it in place of Christianity—as a calculating intellectual indifferent to moral values and deficient in love.

Do you make the same mistake? When you picture God in your mind’s eye, do you see your own mirror image, or the image of a being essentially manlike? Do you think of Him as a kindly grandfather with a white beard, or in some other way do you give Him a human appearance? But our heavenly Father does not look like a man. He has no distinct parts. He is a unified Being clothed in light (1 Tim. 6:16). Moreover, just as He has no human appearance, so He has no human failings. Don’t think He is imperfect like you. He is never impatient, mean, selfish, manipulative, or unreasonable. As James says, He is not tempted by evil. Likewise, He is not limited by any of your weaknesses. He never lacks the right answer or the necessary power. He never fails to hate sin or uphold truth. You have the wrong conception of God if you imagine that He approves or tolerates your sin.

I saw a man wearing a T-shirt that bore words to the effect, "Beer was created by God and proves that God wants us to be happy." Like all excuses for sin, this was a specimen of juvenile thinking. Many things exist contrary to the will of God, and many other things harmless in themselves are used contrary to His will.

Here is not the place to address the evils in drinking. I will be content to say that God could not possibly endorse any practice that draws millions into the net of alcoholism, with all of its terrible consequences, destroying mind, body, and soul. Have you known an alcoholic? Have you seen anyone going through delirium tremens? If my example and practice of abstinence can help anyone avoid addiction to drink, then by choosing abstinence I am simply living the Christian life, which is a life of compassion for my weaker brother.

2. Do I give God credit for every good thing in my life?

You probably recognize His hand when He does a miraculous work to help you, perhaps by healing a disease or delivering you from danger. But are you as ready to thank Him for all the simple pleasures of life (1 Tim. 6:17)? Every refreshing moment is a gift of God.

I love a child’s laughter, a sunset, a blooming rose, a cheerful song, a thrilling symphony, the touch of my wife’s hand, a piece of chocolate. You can make your own list, I am sure. But let us remember that even these small blessings, in addition to every larger blessing we know or imagine, originates in the Father of lights (1 Tim. 4:4-5).

3. Do I see His goodness even in the troubles of life?

Whatever the trouble may be, it is another gift of God. God allows it for many reasons—so that you will grow stronger by wrestling with adversity; so that you will learn to depend on Him for victory; so that you will come to praise Him for His superior wisdom in giving you troubles that you would never choose, yet that prove essential for some good purpose (Rom. 8:28).

When my sons were little, we often went on excursions into the wilderness. Once before our youngest was born and our oldest was still a toddler, we visited Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado. At the trailhead next to the parking lot, we saw a sign that the trail we wanted was fairly short. Normally my little boy would have ridden on my back in a child carrier. But since this promised to be an easy hike, I decided that instead of carrying him, I would let him walk beside me and hold my hand. From the trailhead we could not tell what was coming because the course we would follow was obscured by rocks. After a few minutes of trudging upward, however, we found ourselves on a high ridge not far from a steep drop-off. Then suddenly the trail led us onto an overlook with sheer cliffs on the right and left as well as in front of us. The sides plummeted to a river far below. Surrounding the point was very crude protection. As soon as I saw where we were, I was not afraid for myself but for my little boy, and my grip on his arm tightened like a vice, and he began to whine. If he had been slightly older, he would have said, "Daddy, you’re hurting me." For years afterward, I had nightmares about that moment. What might have happened if, in his childish displeasure with my grip, he had succeeded in pulling away from me? Or what if he had pulled away before I saw the danger?

You see what I am driving at. Sometimes we say to God, "Daddy, you’re hurting me." But why is He hurting us? Because He can see the cliff. Just as my tiny son had no idea of his peril, so we do not realize the tragic direction our lives would take except for God’s protection, and His protection often takes the form of trouble that strengthens our character and molds our will so that we are capable of choosing the safe path through life.

4. Have I gone through a spiritual rebirth?

You have not begun to experience the goodness of God unless you have received His greatest gift, salvation. Reaching out to accept it by faith makes you eligible for every other divine gift.

But perhaps you say, "Why should you preach salvation to me, the diligent reader of this Bible study?" Or perhaps you say, "Am I not a good church member?" Because the sad truth is that many professing Christians are unsaved. Some are deliberate hypocrites pursuing a personal agenda. Some do not know their true condition.

In one of our churches there was an old man in his nineties, a widower who had belonged to the church for fifty years. He loved to talk about what a wonderful person his wife had been. Indeed, she had a reputation as a godly woman. But after she died, her husband as he grew older became more hardened in his indifference to anything spiritual. None of us ever heard him give a testimony of salvation. If you pressed him about it, he would recall how he and his wife had often invited the pastor for Sunday dinner. Once when I visited him in the hospital, I asked, "Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be reunited with your wife in heaven?" His face stiffened and he said nothing. His own daughter, a member of our church, did not think that he was saved. He was very hard to get along with. She doubted that he had ever shown any real fruit of the Spirit. Yet he had belonged to the church for fifty years. Obviously, when he was younger, he had done a better job of playing the hypocrite, But age tends to accentuate and display our real character.

I have seen many similar cases. It is not unusual for a family to join the church together even though the husband or wife is not saved. Then after the passage of years, the Lord generally takes the life of the saved spouse first, giving the other as much time as possible to repent. The Lord’s desire is that in his or her loneliness, the one bereaved will pursue the only course that will achieve reunion with the one departed. He or she must submit to the message of salvation through Christ.

I have discovered that some of the unsaved spouses in our churches do not really understand the gospel. They hear it every week perhaps, but its true meaning never registers in their hearts. So let me ask you, "If you died today, do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?" If your answer is just, "I hope so," or "I think so," you are probably not saved, and you need to talk to someone about your soul’s destiny. Do not be too proud or too embarrassed to do what is necessary to stay out of hell and enjoy heaven.

If you say that you are sure of going to heaven, the next question is, "How do you know?" Because your parents were Christians? Because you are married to a wonderful Christian? Because you have always attended church? Because you have been a church member for fifty years? Because you’ve had the pastor over for dinner? If you give any of these answers, your salvation is in doubt. The only right answer is, "Because Jesus died for my sins and I have trusted in Him as my Savior." It is not these exact words that save you, of course. You are not saved by reciting a formula. What saves you is faith. These words are grounds for assurance only if they express what you truly believe.

5. Do I meditate on my future state in a perfect world?

The Bible gives you abundant information about what that state will be like, information that God intended to encourage and cheer you as you deal with this present imperfect world. To gain these benefits, read the closing chapter of the Book of Revelation and see the wonderful future that lies in store for all of God’s children.

Study Questions

  1. What kind of wrong thinking must we avoid?
  2. What kinds of gifts proceed from God?
  3. Why is God a dependable source of good things?
  4. What proves that God is light?
  5. What is one respect in which God is greater than the celestial lights He created?
  6. How does James demonstrate understanding of basic science?
  7. What is the greatest gift that God provides?
  8. By what tool has He brought us to spiritual birth?
  9. What do we become as a result of our new birth?
  10. What is the likely meaning, especially in light of Romans 8:21-23?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.