One of my loyal readers asked me a question about the interpretation of James 4:17, a verse I have addressed a couple of times before , and I thought the question of the verse’s translation and interpretation was a worthwhile topic to address, both on its own merits as well as the way that it reveals some of the pitfalls of interpreting verses in isolation apart from a whole biblical context. First, I would like to begin with the question from the reader:
I just discovered how differently James 4:17 can be translated: εἰδότι To [him] knowing…ἁμαρτία sin αὐτῷ to him ἐστιν. it is. (BIB) If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. (NIV) A relativistic, subjective morality: Sin to him it is. versus Therefore οὖν to the [one] αὐτῷ [or: for “Anyone” (NRSV)] knowing εἰδότι…it is ἐστιν. sin. ἁμαρτία (BIB) Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin. (NRSV) A non-relativistic, objective morality: For anyone, it is sin. Might a possible blog post address this difference in translation?
Let us first note that there is a difference in this verse between two versions of the Greek texts. The NIV generally takes its cue from the Alexandrian text which is at the basis of the Nestle-Aland-UBS text that is referred to as the NU text in the footnotes of many Bibles. In stark contrast, the NRSV is following a different text here and comes to a different conclusion. Why is it that this is so? Why does one translation lead to a subjective definition of sin that would imply something is a sin for one person but would not be a sin for someone else, but another translation states categorically that those who know what to do and do not do it (dealing with sins of omission) commit sin?
To explore such differences, it is worthwhile to examine the immediate context of this verse. To gain this context, let us look at James 4:13-17: “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” In looking at this verse, we note that James 4:17 begins with a therefore, which at a minimum means that the verse is connected to what is going on before it as an example of informal logic. Nowhere do we see in the preceding verses that the sin of boasting, and of neglecting the importance of actively remembering God’s will and human limitations in performing what we boast, is in any way a subjective sin. James states that “all” such boasting is sin, and in light of that fact, that it is sin in turn to avoid doing what one knows to do, such as recognizing that God’s permission is necessary for us to accomplish what we wish to do and what we plan to do.
And in light of this context, we can see James 4:17 as providing the general case for which James 4:13-16 is a particular example, showing that the neglect of remembering God is an objective example of a sin of omission. It must be noted that James 4:17 is not the only case where the Bible affirms that sins of omission are just as serious as the more obvious sins of commission. 1 Samuel 12:23 tells us: “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you; but I will teach you the good and the right way.” Here Samuel, in the midst of rebuking Israel for their rejection of God as king, affirms that he will not sin by omission in refusing to pray for His rebellious people. Likewise, Matthew 25:41-45 tells us: “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And who is the least of these but whoever we deem to be worthy of the least kindness and graciousness?
We can therefore answer the question that began this entry with a statement that James is very clearly marking the sin of omission as an objective category of sin that is just as serious as the more obvious to recognize sin of commission. When we fail to do what we ought to do, and what we know we ought to do, we are objectively sinning, regardless of whether anyone else knows or recognizes it or not. That said, there are many times that we sin in ignorance, because we do not know what is expected or required of us. The approach of James to this is to inform the reader of what God expects of us with the expectation that those who truly wish to serve God will change their behavior and no longer sin once they are aware of what the right and proper standard of behavior is. It is a sin to boast that we will do such and such thing in the future because we do not know if God will allow us to do that or if we will even live long enough to perform what we wish. We do not know where we will be and in what state we will be in to perform anything that we plan or wish to do until that time comes. And God does not wish us to remain in ignorance, but wishes for us to know how to behave and to do it, even if it takes a great deal of His help for us to live according to His ways.
 See, for example: