Archive for May 8th, 2012
Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin. James 4:17 NASB
Right thing – Two factors are immediately apparent from James’ statement. First, sin attaches to what I know, not what I don’t know. And second, if I know what is the right thing to do, it is assumed that I am able to do it. Knowledge and ability are essential to the concept of sin. Let’s examine these factors more carefully.
James is Jewish, of course. In the Jewish context, it is possible for me to commit a sinful act and not know it. Sins like this are covered in Leviticus. There are ritual atonements for unintentional sins. No man is held accountable for sins he was unaware of committing – until he is aware of them! As soon as awareness dawns, he is guilty. But God has made provision for such a dawning. Atonement is available. When James states that sin is attached to what is known to be disobedience, he is not pointing toward unintentional acts. He is pointing toward a much more serious problem – sins that I willfully commit! James chooses a Greek word to describe this moral choice before us. The word is kalos. In classical Greek this word is connected to agathon, the idea of the divine. In Greek thought this word expresses the ideal life. Kalos is Plato’s concept of the Good (with a capital G). For Plato, and for the Greeks, the Good is what is naturally beautiful, moral and true. Kalos connects men with the realm of the divine. Of course, this raises a crucial question: How do I determine what is naturally beautiful, moral and true? And that becomes the quest of Greek ethical debate for the next 2500 years.
But James isn’t Greek. He is Jewish. He uses this powerful Greek word, kalos, as a translation of the Hebrew yafah (lovely, beautiful, healthy, useful, and by extension, morally good). However, the Hebrew is a far cry from the robust Greek idea of kalos, a word connected directly to the eternal. In Hebrew thinking, there is no human ideal life apart from the will of God revealed in Torah. If anything, the Hebrew ideal is connected to the Greek word doxa (glory), not to a word that expresses human utopia. Therefore, when James uses kalos, he is referring to what is morally good according to the Jewish standard of Torah. James does not have a problem with determining what is ethically proper because James already has the final word on this matter. He does not have to enter into 2500 years of ethical debate about what is ultimately right. He already knows. God told him. Perhaps 1 Maccabees 4:24 gives us the best Jewish connection between what is good and what is holy. Good is thanksgiving, praise and enduring mercy.
If we read James within the Jewish context of his time, we realize that his statement is a reiteration of Torah observance. I know what is right because Torah directs my behavior. If I do not do what I know from Torah, then I sin. This assumes that Torah is known, and that is precisely what James advocates in Acts 15. Teach Torah and men will know what to do. Teach Torah and men will be accountable. Teach Torah and sin will be obvious. It is not a matter of my inner conscience or my particular slant on what I consider right. James is a Torah observant Jew. What is right is what God has revealed. What I think about it doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is whether or not I do what God tells me to do.
By the way, most Christian ethics is Platonic. By adopting an anti-Torah view, Christians are thrust into the same Greek debate about a basis for ethical action. Without Torah they must determine for themselves what constitutes the Good. Thus you find all kinds of proposals for determining moral behavior – the “law” of love, the moral “situation,” the cultural conditions, political correctness, some abridged version of the Ten Commandments, the “do no harm” rule. On and on it goes. Why? Because just like Plato, Christians without Torah must produce a human solution to a divine problem.
“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV).
Topical Index: James 4:17, Micah 6:8, good, sin, kalos, right thing