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“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” James 1:17

That God is the God of perfection, a light in whom there is no darkness, receives all emphasis in this context of the epistle of James. In verse 13 the holy writer expresses this thought by declaring that God cannot be tempted with evil and therefore tempteth no man. In verses 14-16 the truth of God’s perfection is again confirmed where we read that every man is tempted of his own lust, thus being drawn away and enticed, and that lust brings forth sin which, when completed, brings forth death. Sin, therefore, in the ethical sense, is of man and not of God. In verse 17 James gives positive expression to the truth of the Lord’s perfection by declaring that He is the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. It is well to bear this context in mind unto a correct understanding of this seventeenth verse.

James speaks in this text of “good” and “perfect” gifts. We read that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of lights, etc.” The clear implication is that the Father of lights is the exclusive source of these gifts. The first question which requires an answer involves the identity of these “good and perfect” gifts.

Many would generalize this text. It is often used, e.g., on Thanksgiving Day. These “good” and “perfect” gifts, then, refer to earthy things, such as health, corn, grain, etc., and are bestowed by God upon all men. Of course, we would not dispute the assertion that God gives good things to men, rain and fruitful seasons, thereby filling their hearts with good and gladness (Acts 14:17). We do not contradict the assertion that these gifts are good things in themselves. We would, however, maintain that this interpretation of verse 17 of James 1 does not fit in at all with the context of this passage. The entire context is ethical, spiritual. That God is the God of ethical perfection receives the emphasis here throughout. And we violate the Word of God if we give verse 17 an interpretation which does not harmonize with this context.

First of all, we read here of “every good gift”. The word “good” means literally: excelling in any respect, distinguished. The fundamental meaning of the word is that something has the quality whereby it is what it should be. Thus the Word is often used in the Scriptures with respect to earthy matters. A tree, then, is good when it produces wholesome fruit.

A servant is good when he, as a servant, is what he should be. Soil is good when it is productive. This word is also abundantly used in the Scriptures to denote moral, spiritual perfection. Rom. 9:11 speaks of “children having done neither good nor evil.” And striking is the thought that a good man out of the treasures of his heart bringeth forth which is good.

“Good”, then, we would define as the quality of moral perfection, that He is infinitely exalted above all that is called creature, and therefore worthy of all praise and adoration. This goodness of God also determines the meaning of goodness as applied to the creature. We are good when we are as we should be. And a creature is as he should be when, with all that is in him, he stands in that spiritual relation to the living God whereby he loves and serves the Lord with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. The good gifts of our text are therefore those gifts from above which render man good, enable him to assume that spiritual relation and attitude to the living God. This interpretation is surely in harmony with the context. That context speaks of man even as he is tempted, being tempted with evil, drawn away and enticed of his own lust. The context in verses 13-16 is therefore ethical, spiritual. The “good gifts” of verse 17 must be understood as the opposite of this evil. Hence, “good gifts” are those gifts which enable us to withstand evil, to resist temptation, to walk holily unto the glory of the living God.

We also read of “perfect” gifts in this text. The word “perfect” means literally: brought to its end, finished. It therefore means: “wanting nothing necessary to completeness”, and in that sense “perfect”. In this sense a man is said to be perfect, in distinction from a child, because he is complete. He has grown unto full stature. This also throws light on the meaning of the word in this text. This thought, too, must be understood in the light of its context. The good gifts of verse 17 are contrasted with the evil of verse 13. But the “perfect” gift also has its contrast. Sin, we read, when it is finished, brings forth death. The word “perfect” of verse 17 is principally the same as “when it is finished” of verse 15. Sin is finished when it runs its full course in the life of the individual sinner, who does not experience the restraining and redeeming power of the grace of God. Perfect gifts are gifts of God which render the child of God complete in his service of the Lord. Every good gift is a perfect gift already in this life. Surely, our imperfection cleaves unto us. Yet, the grace of God takes hold, be it in principle, of our entire being, all our heart and mind and soul and strength, together with all that we possess, so that the child of God, walking out of the principle of holiness, will dedicate his all to the living God. And ultimately the perfect gift will be realized at the end of time. Then we; shall serve God completely. All sin shall be no more. God’s tabernacle shall be completely established with man. And our redemption shall have been completely perfected.

Emphatically James attributes these good and perfect gifts to the living God. In the first place we read that they are “’gifts” and “from above”. It is true that the emphasis, in connection with these gifts, falls upon the words “good” and “perfect”. Yet, it should not escape our attention that they are mentioned as gifts. It is a fact that, when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin, and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. The good and perfect, on the other hand, is presented as a gift in this text because whatever is good and perfect must be given. In me no good dwelleth. Among all the children of men none seeks the Lord. All have sinned and corrupted the glory of God. Ethical goodness and perfection must be bestowed. And the same truth is expressed in the text when we are emphatically told that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.

Secondly, that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, from God alone, is because God is the Father of lights. The lights in this text have generally been understood as referring to the lights in the firmament, and that for a three-fold reason. Firstly, we read of the plural “lights” instead of light. Secondly, the expression “lights” is used in Scripture to designate the heavenly bodies in the firmament, as in Psalm 136:7 and in Jer. 4:23. And, thirdly, the text itself seems to indicate this explanation. We read: With Whom there is no variableness neither shadow of turning. Variableness and shadow of turning are surely applicable to the heavenly bodies. We therefore conclude that James refers here to the light bodies in the firmament.

God is the Father of lights. That James speaks of God as being the Father of lights is because the idea of “Father” is fundamentally that of creative source. He is their Father because He brought them forth. It is not necessary at this time to call attention to the creation as such of these luminaries on the fourth day. We would emphasize the thought, however, that James refers to the creation of these heavenly bodies for a specific reason. It is not merely his purpose to tell us that they were created by God. He would call our attention to the fact, however, that their creation by God reveals God unto us. The magnitude of the universe must speak to us of the greatness of Him who created it. The sun, moon, and stars, pouring forth light upon the earth, expressive of purity, in the rays whereof all dust particles are instantly exposed and condemned, speak to us of the Lord, who made them, who is infinitely above them, as the Creator must be exalted above the creature, and who in Himself is the God of perfect light in whom is no darkness whatever. God Himself is Light and the God of infinite glory and perfection, the sum total of absolute goodness.

Consequently, from Him alone must come every good gift and every perfect gift. To be sure, from Him alone also proceeds the death of the sinner. When we read in the context that sin brings forth death we understand that this death is from God. Only, we must bear in mind that God inflicts death through sin. And God inflicts death through sin, exactly because He is light, in whom is no darkness and who therefore hates all iniquity, condemns it, and turns against it forever. In fact, God eternally in His counsel willed sin to show forth forevermore His eternal and spotless perfection. But, for the same reason, every good and perfect gift is from Him alone. We understand that, if the sinner is the author of his own sin, the child of God, too, is the author of his good works. If we, then, read that every good and perfect gift is from above we realize that, maintaining the truth that man is a morally free agent, whether he be a child of darkness or of light, the emphasis in this text falls upon the fact that our good works are worked in us by God alone, that God only can be their source, because He alone is a light in whom is no darkness. Notice that we read here that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, the Father of lights. The thought is not merely expressed that God always gives good gifts. But we read that every perfect gift is from the Lord. This means emphatically that good and perfect gifts apart from God are inconceivable. God Himself is good, the God of infinite perfection. Apart from Him is darkness. As the God of infinite perfection He alone can bestow good and perfect gifts. And, bestowing this good upon His people, the Lord cannot rest until He shall have finished in them the good work. Then they shall stand before Him in eternal glory. Then He shall delight in them and they in Him, and God shall be all in all.

Finally, there is with God no variableness or shadow of turning. Various explanations of this expression are possible. We understand that James here is declaring of God what is not characteristic of these heavenly bodies. They are characterized by variableness and shadow of turning. In many ways this part of the text can be interpreted. Does James refer to a shadow caused by turning, or a shadow which causes turning, i.e., a change? Besides, instead of reading “neither” we can substitute the word “which”. Then we read of variableness, which consists of a shadow caused by turning. Be all this as it may, the meaning of the expression in the text is plain. The heavenly bodies are characterized by change. God is unchangeable. He is the unchangeable giver of every good and perfect gift. He is unchangeable in His punishment of the sinner, and sin must bring forth death. He is also unchangeable toward His people and will bless them forevermore.