What does James 4:17 mean?The entire passage leading up to this verse has been about the difference between earthly, worldly wisdom, and heavenly, godly wisdom. Most recently, James has pointed out that speaking about human plans without acknowledging the influence of God is evil. It's a form of bragging and fits only with the arrogant attitude over which he's been scolding his readers.
Then, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, James makes this profound and challenging statement. This verse is a bit jarring, and it is probably meant to be. James has offered several arguments about what it means for a Christian to live out our faith in God. He has been clear that many of the "normal" ways we're used to thinking about our lives are arrogant, self-serving, and faithless.
Most religions frame moral obligations in a very passive way. They emphasize the avoidance of evil. Here, James follows the example of Jesus, who gave us a much more difficult, more powerful command: to actively pursue the good of others (Matthew 7:12). James's intent here is to make the need for obedience to God very personal. Christianity does not accept the idea of passive spirituality—a response is required from all men.
For the non-believer, this begins with the response to—or rejection of—the gospel. For the saved believer, it means acting according to what we claim to believe. To continue down a path of worldliness and self-reliance instead of trusting God in our everyday choices is sin. We know what we should do, so we have no excuse not to do it. If any of James's teaching in this book describes us, we will be wrong if we don't change course now.
It's too easy to respond to the teaching of Scripture philosophically without really making any changes. We might enjoy pondering the big ideas, considering the various points and counterpoints, weighing the meaning. But if all we do is think about it and never become "doers of the word" (James 1:22), we will be in sin. This verse adds a layer of duty to our knowledge: failure to act is, in itself, an act. We are not merely meant to avoid evil—believers are morally obligated to do what we know is good.