James 4:17

James 4:17 - If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.

James 4:17 | NIV | Other Versions | Context


If we attempt to categorize sins in general we will probably end up with the most general two types – the sins of commission and the sins of omission. James 4:17 is one of the most prominent verses about the sins of omission; which often flies under the radar and happens without us noticing it. There are many verses that do point out the situation of omission of sins.  However, for today, for this verse, I want to focus on what’s been on my mind for a while – which is the knowledge of sin. What kind of difference does it make if you know it’s a sin versus if you do not know it’s a sin? Anchoring ourselves with James 4:17, we will be examining what it means to be ignorant about sin, at the same time looking deeper into the sins of omission.


knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins – this entire verse can be said to be the definition of sin of omission itself. Sins of commission are by and large hard to hide – acts of sin that you do, that you commit. Sins of omission, on the other hand, are the acts that you ought to do but you didnt do. Instead of the typical sins of idolatry, murder adultery lies; more common sins of omission would be not following God’s words, not spreading the gospel and so on, things that people would not actively look out for. Well, let’s put it this way. You won’t actively look out for the bad in anybody, probably, but if you see a brother in Christ watching pornography, you will notice his sin – even if you choose to do nothing about that knowledge (which is a son of omission itself). But if a brother-in-Christ doesn’t Read God’s words at all, you won’t notice it unless you ask him since you won’t see him not reading God’s words.

knows – Oh, but what if I did not know that it was a sin? A lack of knowledge, and a lack of preparation. If you do not know what you should be doing, then you are not guilty of the sins of omission. Many Christians today think like this. The more you know, the more you are restrained, and the more you are expected to do (since you now recognize that not doing it is a sin). Ignorance is often regarded as bliss.

Is that really true? Let us refer to Luke 12:47-48 to help anchor ourselves a little. That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Contrary to popular belief, ignorance is not bliss. Committing a sin without knowing it as sin is ignorance, but not blissful. It is still a sin, and you are similarly guilty of committing the sin. The difference is, if you didn’t know it was a sin, you get a few blows. If you knew it was a sin, you get many blows. What does this mean? Basically, it is a greater sin to commit a sin knowingly. It’s like how law enforcers tend to suffer in court with a heavier sentence because they know they law and yet break it. Pleading ignorance doesn’t mean you’re not guilty of the sin, though. It’s still a sin.

Is it better not to pursue greater understanding of God’s words, so that we will not be guilty of the greater sin? While I’m not advocating that we should all desperately put aside our careers and study God’s words all day; I do believe that since Christ had left behind his Gods words for us and commanded us to know his words, a deliberate attempt to avoid studying God’s words is akin to committing a sin of omission knowingly; and not studying God’s words for any other reason is akin to committing a sin of omission unknowingly. Again, I am not saying everybody should devoted their entire lives to the study of the word of God, but do it at your own pace. An hour a day, 10 min a day, a chapter a day – well, I’m embarrassed to confess that I only study a verse a day, and I barely am able to skim the surface at that.

There are a lot of “do”s and “don’t”s in the Bible. These are instructional, and they are called commands. The Ten Commandments [Exo 20] are great and important, and the two commandments that Jesus singled out are great and important [Matthew 22:37-38]- but we don’t sin only when we break them. There are still many more commands, and we do sin when we break them.


Luke 12:47-48 speaks of the punishment in store for the servant when he fails his master, knowingly or not, but I don’t think that’s the focus of our faith today. It’s not about the punishment – let us not avoid sinning out of fear of divine punishment, but let us steer clear of sins out of obedience and love to God. Our God is full of grace and mercy – The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love [Psa 145:8] – he is quicker to forgive than he is to anger. If we are given few blows for each knowing sin and many blows for each ignorant sin, we would be dead several times over by now. If God truly metes out the punishment to us according to what we deserve, accurately and calculatingly, well, I have no doubt that we wouldn’t be able to take it. Our God is a gracious God. When we sin, let us return to him in repentance. If we learn about something we have always done and that it is a sin, let us repent for our past and stop doing it immediately. Let us repent equally for our sins of commission and sins of omission, and let us continue to learn more about God, so that we will no longer live in ignorance, for let us not fool ourselves any further. The sins committed or omitted due to ignorance are still sins. Sins of omission that flies over the radar of men are still sins.

God bless,


One thought on “James 4:17

  1. ” let us not avoid sinning out of fear of divine punishment, but let us steer clear of sins out of obedience and love to God.”

    Well put. That is exactly the attitude that we need. Thanks for this timely reminder 🙂

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