To him therefore that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin (James 4:17).
When human beings think about sin, they normally think about “sins of commission”: doing wicked things. We recognize those who commit sexual sins, murder, lie, cheat, steal, or do other such things as “bad” or “evil” people. If we are able to avoid committing such sins, we often pride ourselves on being “good, moral people.” Many people believe that as long as they are these “good, moral people,” avoiding these terrible acts of sin, God will accept them as they are and save them.
This is nothing new. In the days of Jesus, the Pharisees also defined themselves in this way. They prided themselves on their “righteousness,” which meant that they did not commit acts of wickedness and they scrupulously held to many of the laws that God had made (Luke 18:11-12). Their fellow Jews certainly respected them and accepted the notion that this righteous exterior was acceptable to God. The Pharisees and others were the “good, moral people” of their day and age.
But is God pleased when people just avoid acts of wickedness?
Jesus condemns those very Pharisees who considered themselves to be good and righteous people. He did not condemn them for the things they did in accordance with God’s will; they were condemned for not accomplishing the “weightier aspects” of the Law (Matthew 23:23). How can this be?
In James 4:17, James demonstrates that the definitions of sin and morality that many people accept is quite flawed. Yes, it is true that sins of commission are wrong, and will condemn a person if they do not repent of them (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Nevertheless, James indicates that there are also sins of omission– to fail to do the right thing is sinful!
This is a much more challenging definition of sin, and Jesus exemplifies it in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. The priest and the Levite would be reckoned as “good, moral people,” and yet they sinned by violating the command to love your neighbor as yourself when they did not help the man in need (vv. 31-32; cf. Leviticus 19:18). The Samaritan, who would not fit the Jewish definition of a “good, moral person,” nevertheless proves himself by helping the man in need (vv. 33-37). The priest and the Levite would have abhorred the sins of the robbers who beat the man. In the end, however, they are just as guilty of sin by not helping the man in need as the robbers for beating him!
It is not enough for us just to avoid terrible sins; we must also seek to do the right thing. We must not only avoid hate; we must also show love. We must not just steer clear of conflict; we must work to make peace. We should not do anything to harm our neighbor; we should also love him as ourselves. We must avoid the works of the flesh of Galatians 5:19-21; we must also strive to manifest the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. Doing the wrong thing and not doing the right thing are equally sinful before God! Let us strive not to only avoid evil but also to do good when we have opportunity, and exhibit true righteousness!