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Our Father of Lights

Our Father of Lights

Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.
James 1:16-18

God is not the author of sin; nor does he tempt us to sin. To reiterate that point, James turns his attention from a look at the process of how we are led into sin by our own lusts (1:13-15) to a consideration of God’s character. In doing so, James teaches us something that has largely been neglected by evangelical churches in America, namely, that sound theology leads to good practice. Christians often want quick and easy tips for living. Sermons are filled with nothing more than practical advice. Rarely do we hear in many churches robust doctrinal and theological sermons. But, in Scripture, we see a necessary connection between right doctrine and right living. Bad theology leads to bad practice. That is what is happening when we grumble and complain against God or doubt his goodness. Grumbling, complaining, and doubting are products of unsound theology. James therefore teaches us that we need good theology to be able to “count it all joy” when we fall into various trials. 

There is a fascinating usage of astronomical terminology in these three verses. The first is in the command, “Do not be deceived.” He uses the passive imperative form of the verb planáō, meaning to wander, to deceive, or to lead astray. Our word “planet” comes from this word. A planet is a wandering body in the night sky. We are, like the stars, to remain fixed upon the truth, but one who is deceived wanders like a planet away from the truth. Look at how Jude described false teachers. He said, “They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars (asteres planétai) for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 12-13). Among other things, he calls them planets. But they also sound similar to James’s description of the doubter in verse six. These are unstable men who deceive others with false doctrine so that they too will become just as unstable. James, in effect, says, “Do not let yourselves become like the wandering stars in the night sky. Remain fixed upon the truth.” 

His exhortation is, on the one hand, born out of love for his fellow believers. He called them “brethren” earlier in the letter (1:2), but now he calls them “my beloved brethren.” He must warn them of the dangers of false teaching because he loves them and doesn’t want them wandering down the path that leads to destruction. We ought to follow his example and warn those we love about the dangers of error and false teaching. We are not showing our brothers and sisters in the faith, our family members, or our friends any love if we allow them to wander astray from God’s Word without warning them. On the other hand, his exhortation shows his gentleness. Even if they were being deceived, he still considered them his brethren. We see in him a sincere desire to win them to the truth. Let us remember this whenever we must correct our brothers and sisters in the faith. Let us not turn them away by harsh words, but rather let us, as the Apostle Paul taught, restore them “in a spirit of gentleness,” considering ourselves “lest we also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). 

The second usage of astronomical terminology is in his description of God. He calls him “the Father of lights” and says that there is neither “variation” nor “shadow of turning” in him. In calling God the Father of lights, James likens God to the sun. The sun, of course, isn’t God or even a god. But the sun is, in a sense, the lord of the sky. It is the brightest object in our sky, and all other bright objects pale in comparison. So God, who is the Lord of all, is the most glorious being because he shines most brightly in his perfections. No other being can compare with him. He is called the Father of lights, too, because all light comes from him. God is the one who spoke light and all light-bearing objects, including the sun, into existence and designed them for their various purposes (Gen. 1:3; 14-18). Without God, there would be no light in the world. God is also the one “who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Without God, we would not have the light of his salvation. But let us remember that the Father of lights is our Father in heaven, and he is the one who “gives liberally and without reproach” (James 1:5). Our daily provision and every gift that helps us onward toward perfection in heaven come from him. We owe our existence and our salvation to our gracious and giving heavenly Father.

But note well that James says that our Father of lights has neither “variation” nor “shadow of turning.” The Greek word we translate into “variation” is the same word from which we derive our word “parallax.” Parallax is the apparent displacement of an object, such as a star, when viewed from different places on the earth. The Greek word can also refer to a change in the positions or phases of heavenly bodies due to seasonal changes. The phrase “shadow of turning” refers to how a variation in the position or intensity of the light source creates differences in shadows. Thomas Manton wrote, “Stars, according to their different light and position, have various shadowings. The nearer the sun is to us, the less shadow it casts; the farther off, the greater the shadow. So we know the sun’s movements by its different shadows.” The variations and shadows of turning we see in the heavenly bodies show that they are not as fixed or stable as we might think them to be. But there are none of these variations and shadows of turning in God. He is unchangeable (Mal. 3:6). He will always be to us our Father of lights. God is, as Manton said, “a sun that does not set or rise and cannot be overcast or eclipsed.”

The immutability or unchangeableness of God is our comfort in the midst of trials. Amidst all the variations and shadows of turning we experience throughout our afflictions, God will ever be our one and only constant. It may seem to us that God’s love is being eclipsed by whatever afflictions we might currently be facing, but we should not let the mutable nature of our feelings deceive us from believing that God is ever good and gracious towards us. 

 “Do not let yourselves become like the wandering stars in the night sky. Remain fixed upon the truth.”

To further prove this point, James teaches us that we are born again unto salvation by God’s will and Word, and that it is God’s will that we “might be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” Note first that we are born of God. He is therefore our Father (cf. 1 John 4:7). If we are children of God, then let us remember all the blessings and privileges, as well as all the duties, that are ours as his children. 

Second, note how we are born again unto salvation. We are born unto salvation, James says, “of his own will.” This is the wonder and mystery of God’s gracious election. Even before the foundation of the world, God willed that we should believe and be adopted as his children in Christ (Eph. 1:4-5). And this was all according to his own free will. There is nothing outside of God that can be said to be a cause of his election. The cause of election is in God himself. And we should remember that if there is no variation or shadow of turning in God, neither is there any in his will. His will is also immutable. Our election is therefore certain. We are born of God’s will, but we are also born “by the word of truth.” It was not by works that we were born but by believing the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be born of the word of truth. There is nothing in the gospel or in the Word of God to deceive us. Every doctrine and every promise of the gospel is truth. And by it we are saved for, as Paul says, “it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes”
(Rom. 1:16). 

Third, note that we are born unto salvation that we might be a kind of firstfruits unto God. Matthew Henry explains this to mean “that we should be God’s portion and treasure, and a more peculiar property to him, as the first-fruits were; and that we should become holy to the Lord, as the first-fruits were consecrated to him. Christ is the first-fruits of Christians, Christians are the first-fruits of creatures.” James, however, doesn’t say that we are born again by the will of God because we proved ourselves to be a kind of firstfruits, but that we might be a kind of firstfruits. We were elected and born again unto good works, not because of good works.

Again, God’s election is all of grace, not of works. God did not elect his adopted children because he foresaw their faith and good works. He elected them merely and only by grace. And because his election is of grace, so also are we saved by grace alone. This is necessary to remember in any study of James, for there are those who will try to pit James against Paul regarding the doctrine of justification by faith alone or will try to say that James proves that justification is not by faith alone. But James shows here that we are saved by grace apart from works. We must maintain the gracious nature of God’s election and salvation because it underscores for us that even amidst our trials and afflictions, God will never remove his salvation from us because he is our Father of lights by grace through faith apart from works lest we should either boast in ourselves or despair in the thought that we might lose his favor.

Sound theology is such a comfort, isn’t it? 

Rev. Steve Carr
Rogers, AR

Under the Shadow of the Almighty | Reformed Biblical Hermeneutics

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