The Meaning of James 4:17: What Is a Sin of Omission?

James 4:17 says that we can sin by failing to actively do good. What does this mean? How does this principle apply to each of God’s laws?

What is a sin of omission?

A sin of omission is when we neglect to do what we know is right.  

James touches on an often overlooked concept in his epistle to the first-century Christian Church.

In James 4:17, he writes: “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.”

This brief but profound verse can often be overlooked as a mere encouragement to practice good works. But, while good works are essential, there is far more significance to these words in James 4:17. Many often ignore this significance.

James reveals that direct disobedience is not the only way to transgress God’s law. It is also possible to sin through inaction, especially for those who know better.

How can inaction result in sin? Is there really such a thing as a sin of omission?

To learn more about sins of omission, read “Sins of Omission: Do They Exist?” 

Knowing what’s right isn’t enough

In academic circles, knowledge is usually considered the first step in an individual’s path to understanding something. Anyone can learn information, but there remains a distinct difference between those who accumulate knowledge and those who actually apply what they learn in order to change and grow.

Earlier in his epistle, James elaborates on what God expects of those who hear His Word. In James 1:22, he pleads that we “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”

Hearing brings knowledge, but James confirms that knowledge is useless if no action is taken after learning it. If we are to properly follow God, knowledge cannot be the final step.

Ultimately, everyone who learns the knowledge of God and His way of life must choose between a life of action and a life of inaction.In Romans 1:18-23, Paul applies this concept to people who claim to know God but fail to follow His laws.

Speaking of these people in verse 21, Paul writes, “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God.” As a result, these people “became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

Here we see a sobering example of people who had the knowledge of God at their fingertips—they knew who He was! Yet their knowledge was useless because it did not cause them to change the way they lived.

Clearly, it is not enough to simply have knowledge of God and His way. We cannot be scholars only, failing to put His precepts to proper use in our lives. God requires that we put knowledge into action.

Ultimately, everyone who learns the knowledge of God and His way of life must choose between a life of action and a life of inaction.

Sins of omission

A sin of omission is a sin of inaction, or not doing something related to God’s law.

The other type of sin is a sin of commission, which is an action that specifically breaks one of God’s laws (for example, telling a lie, stealing, etc.). 

Sometimes, overcoming sins of omission can be a more significant challenge than overcoming sins of commission. Abstaining from sinful things is relatively simple in concept, but acting on our better judgment to establish a righteous way of life can be far more difficult.

Sins of omission often stem from not understanding the spirit of God’s law, or the intent behind each of God’s commandments.Sins of omission are often much harder to see because they often aren’t displayed physically. As such, locating sins of omission requires a deep look at ourselves and how we live our lives concerning God’s law.

Ignoring potential sins of omission can cause us to fail to keep the whole meaning of God’s 10 Commandments. Each of His precepts tells us precisely what not to do or what to do, but there is a deeper meaning behind each.

Sins of omission often stem from not understanding the spirit of God’s law, or the intent behind each of God’s commandments. For example, we can abstain from worshipping idols, but what is the deeper principle behind this law forbidding idolatry? What should we practice daily to fulfill God’s intention behind each commandment?

Sins of omission and the 10 Commandments

Below, you’ll find a list of God’s 10 Commandments, followed by practical action steps that Christians must take to fulfill each law’s intent and to avoid committing sins of omission related to that law. 

1. “You shall have no other gods before Me”

Christians should strive to actively put God first in their lives. Failing to put God first in any way is a sin of omission and can be just as treacherous as worshipping a pagan deity (Ezekiel 14:3).

2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image” 

Christians must make sure to worship God the way He wants to be worshipped. Failing to worship God in the correct way is a sin of omission and can be just as bad as worshipping a graven image (Jeremiah 1:16).

3. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain”

Christians should take the time to fully appreciate God and revere His vast power and unerring righteousness (Psalm 147:4-7). Failing to respect and honor God with our words is a sin of omission and will almost surely lead to other sins.

4. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” 

Christians should engage in religious activities by attending church services, meditating on God’s law, and studying the Bible on the Sabbath. To neglect spiritual activities on the Sabbath is a sin of omission. The seventh day should be devoted to God, not just a day to take a break from work (Acts 13:42-44). 

5. “Honor your father and your mother”

Christians should practice an attitude of respect and honor for those whom God has given responsibility over us, especially our parents. Failing to show honor and respect for authority figures, especially parents, is a sin of omission. 

6. “You shall not murder” 

Christians should respect human life, which is made in God’s image. Instead of fostering an attitude of hate and murder, Christians should practice godly love. To withhold this kind of caring concern for others is a sin of omission (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

7. “You shall not commit adultery” 

Husbands and wives should strive to treat one another with the honor befitting their position, being attentive to each other’s needs and fulfilling the duties required of a marriage partner (Ephesians 5:22-33). To neglect to love and care for one’s spouse is a sin of omission. 

8. “You shall not steal”

Christians should treat their neighbors’ property with care. Not doing so can lead someone down a path of carelessness and disrespect for what God has given others and can be a sin of omission (Exodus 22:14). Paul taught that those who had stolen in the past should instead work so they would have something to give to those who had need (Ephesians 4:28).

9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”

Christians aren’t called just to refrain from lying, but should strive to actively tell the truth. Even if no lie is actively told, withholding the truth can be a lie by omission (Acts 5:1-4). Study this further in our article “Speak the Truth in Love.” 

10. “You shall not covet”

Be thankful to God for what He has given you rather than focusing on other people’s possessions. Always practice an attitude of thankfulness to God (Psalm 118; 1 Thessalonians 5:18). Neglecting to give thanks for the blessings He has given us can be a sin of omission. 

These are just a few examples of concepts hidden within God’s laws that we must be careful not to omit. We must also think deeply about the truths behind each law and not just focus on the most obvious applications.   

These commandments are the foundational and basic principles that define our duty to love and obey God. Each commandment is further expanded in our booklet God’s 10 Commandments. Please be sure to download a free copy of this all-important booklet. 

Overcome sins of omission by practicing good living

God doesn’t want us to be lazy in our Christianity, doing only the bare minimum. Doing the bare minimum will naturally lead us to sins of omission. We must actively practice the full intent of God’s laws and ways. 

Through His Word, God blesses His people with an acute knowledge of right and wrong (Micah 6:8). While this understanding often points out the obvious actions we must avoid, it also points us to righteous ways of living, beyond surface-level Christianity.

Knowledge is only half the battle. Christians must apply the knowledge of God’s law to their everyday lives, doing good as they have an opportunity (Galatians 6:10). This represents more than doing isolated good deeds; it means living by a pattern of righteousness hidden deeper in God’s precepts.

We must “do good” in every aspect of our lives. That is the life-changing meaning of James 4:17!

For more information about how we can actively practice good works, read our article “What Are Good Works?

Topics Covered: Doctrine, Christian Living, Overcoming

About the Author

Jordan Iacobucci

Jordan Iacobucci

Jordan Iacobucci attends the Raleigh, North Carolina, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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