Born to Holiness
In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures. (1:18)
In this verse James adds another piece of evidence (to those in vv. 13–17) that God is not responsible, directly or indirectly, for our temptations, much less our sin—namely, proof from the nature of regeneration itself. The new life that the Lord gives to those who believe in Jesus Christ is a godly, holy, Christlike life. It is the life of God in the soul of man. By the new birth, a believer is re-created, given a completely new nature that has no part in sin or evil. Our own lust begets death (v. 15); the gift of God in Christ begets life.
In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul quoted from Psalm 14, saying, “As it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one’ ” (Rom. 3:10–12; cf. Ps. 14:1–3). Besides Jesus Christ, not one human being since the Fall has been born righteous or become righteous, that is, morally pure and right with God, through their own efforts. In all of human history, there has not been a single one; nor will there ever be in this present age. “Their throat is an open grave,” Paul goes on to say; “with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:13–18). That is the condition of every sinful, unredeemed person, every person separated from God. Man’s condition is by choice as well as by nature, as John explains: “The Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:19–20).
To Christians, Paul wrote: “You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Eph. 2:1–3; cf. 4:17–19). Before salvation, our conduct was dictated by the evil system in which we lived, because our evil natures readily responded to it. We were unknowing but willing subjects of Satan, “the prince of the power of the air, … the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (2:2). He was, as it were, our spiritual father (John 8:44).
Because fallen man’s problem is internal, the solution to his problem must be internal. There is no external ritual, ceremony, rite, profession, or action that can change his basic evil nature. He cannot become righteous by trying to act righteously or talk righteously. He needs an entirely new heart, a new nature, a new being. He needs to be re-created, changed from his old nature of sin and death to a new nature of holiness and life, for without holiness, or sanctification, “no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
In 1:18, James answers four questions about regeneration, the new birth, that shed light on the proof that God is not responsible for our temptations or for the sins that result from succumbing to them. Rather, He is responsible for our righteousness.
Who Does It?
In the exercise of His will (1:18a)
Regeneration is the act, and wholly the act, of God, “the Father of lights” (v. 17), accomplished in the exercise of His will. Through His sovereign will, God washes away sin, grants forgiveness, and plants new life—a completely new nature within each person who trusts in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. He even takes residence in that life through His indwelling Spirit (John 14:17; Rom. 8:9). As the Lord promised through Ezekiel, “I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:25–26).
The phrase in the exercise of His will could be rendered most simply as, “by His own will.” But it translates the aorist passive participle of the verb boulomai, which expresses the idea of the deliberate and specific exercise of volition, which is suggested by the NASB’s addition of in the exercise of. The phrase is also in the emphatic position in the Greek, reinforcing the truth that God’s sovereign and uninfluenced will is the source and basis of the new life.
Not only theologically but logically, that is the only way life could be given to those who are dead. The dead have no awareness or understanding of sin, no desire to turn from it (John 3:19–20), and no power or resources to change if they wanted to. They do not, of course, even know that they are dead. Regeneration could only happen by the sovereign will and power of God, the Source and Giver of spiritual life. “But as many as received Him [Jesus Christ],” John says, “to them He [the Father] gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13, emphasis added).
No child has ever been born into the world by its own will or plan. Its conception, gestation, and birth are completely out of its consciousness and control. It is merely the passive recipient of the will and action of its parents. Just as certainly, no person wills, much less creates, a new spiritual nature within himself. Jeremiah asked rhetorically, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23). Through that same prophet the Lord set forth the only way that the needed change can and must be made.
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer. 31:31–34)
The natural man not only cannot make such a change in himself, but, apart from God’s revelation, he cannot even know that he needs such a change. To the contrary, if he thinks he needs change at all, he underestimates what he really needs and presumes he can make it satisfactorily by himself. “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God,” Paul explains, “for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14).
“But God, being rich in mercy,” Paul assures us, “because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4–5). The only way a spiritually dead person (all unbelievers) can have spiritual life is to receive it as a gift from God through faith in Jesus Christ. The Christian therefore can say with Paul, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him,” Jesus said (John 6:44), later adding, “You did not choose Me but I chose you” (15:16).
The most beautiful and graphic explanation of regeneration is in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, a devout and highly respected Pharisee and teacher, who “came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him’ ” (John 3:2). The leader only made a statement about Jesus and did not say anything about himself or ask the Lord a question. But the Lord knew what was really on his mind and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3). Understandably puzzled, Nicodemus responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (v. 4). Nicodemus was not referring to physical rebirth, for he knew Jesus was speaking about spiritual life, not physical. He was simply picking up on the figure Jesus had just used. But he was nevertheless confused by what he heard. Being a highly trained teacher of the Mosaic Law, he assumed, as did most Jews, that men pleased God and became right with Him by obedience to that Law, and in no other way. He also assumed that whatever was necessary to become right with God had to be done by himself, by his own efforts, accomplishments, and goodness. So his question was, in effect, “How can I make myself reborn, earn for myself new life?”
The Lord went on to explain. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (vv. 5–8). The Spirit of God sovereignly moves in where He wills and gives new birth to those whom He has predestined to salvation. “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (Eph. 1:4–5). “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul says later in that letter, “and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (2:8; cf. Phil. 1:29).
The source of new life was not in Nicodemus’s power, as it is not in any man’s power, to achieve or to earn. It comes from God, through His Holy Spirit, the only imparter of new spiritual life. The Lord promised that truth long ago through Jeremiah, saying, “I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the Lord; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart” (Jer. 24:7). The new birth is a sovereign gift of God, implanted by His Holy Spirit in those who have come to Him by faith in His Son. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
The new birth results from God’s sovereignly coming down to a sinner and by His grace cleansing him, planting His Spirit within him, and giving him a completely new spiritual nature. He then has “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:24).
After Augustine was converted, a woman he formerly lived with called to him as he walked down the street, but he did not answer. She persisted and finally ran up to him and said, “Augustine, it is I.” To which he replied, “I know, but it is no longer I.”
Our conscious experience of conversion, of believing in Jesus Christ, in His death and resurrection on our behalf, of committing our life to Him, is all the consequence of God’s sovereign will. “In this is love,” John says, “not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). In fact, we could never truly love at all—we could not even love God or other believers—had not “He first loved us” (v. 19). “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified (Rom. 8:29–30).
What Is It?
He brought us forth (1:18b)
Brought … forth is from the same verb rendered “gives birth” in verse 15. In regeneration, God gives birth to a new spiritual life. Regeneration is a miracle of God by which the principle of new life is implanted in man and the governing disposition of his soul is made holy. This is the new birth, being born again (cf. John 3:3–8; Eph. 2:5–6; 1 Pet. 1:23; cf. Ezek. 36:25–27).
In Christ believers actually “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). The new birth is unseen by any human eye but is able to be experienced by any human heart that turns to God through faith in Christ. It is evidenced in a transformed life. “I came,” Jesus said, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly …; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:10, 28).
How Does It Happen?
by the word of truth, (1:18c)
By the word of truth could be rendered literally “by the truth’s word,” that is, by the Word of God, by Scripture. Believers are born again, regenerated, by the power of God’s Word.
Paul uses the phrase logō aletheias (word of truth) several times. In his second letter to the church at Corinth, he speaks of commending himself as a servant of God “in the word of truth, in the power of God” (2 Cor. 6:7). He reminded believers in Colossae of “the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel” (Col. 1:5); and admonishes his beloved Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). In its broadest sense, therefore, the word of truth is the whole of God’s Word, and in its more restricted sense is the gospel, as Paul also clearly states in Ephesians: “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13).
“For this reason,” Paul wrote the church at Thessalonica, “we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). In his letter to Titus, he presented the same truth in these words: “[God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Speaking of the church as a whole, he explained to believers at Ephesus that Christ “gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:25–26).
“How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” Paul asks rhetorically. “[And] how will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?… So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:14, 17). Regeneration occurs when God sovereignly acknowledges a person’s belief of the gospel—that is, belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior—and credits him with the full righteousness of His Son (2 Cor. 5:21). As Peter explains, “You have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. For, ‘All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:23–25; cf. Isa. 40:6–8).
Why Is It Done?
so that we would be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures. (1:18d)
Finally, James explains why God regenerates those who place their trust in Jesus Christ. Although salvation is the greatest possible blessing a human being can receive, its primary purpose is not to benefit man but to fulfill God’s sovereign purpose of believers becoming, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures.
The Lord commanded Moses, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you enter the land which I am going to give to you and reap its harvest, then you shall bring in the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord for you to be accepted; on the day after the sabbath the priest shall wave it’ ” (Lev. 23:10–11; cf. Ex. 23:19; Deut. 18:4). The first fruits were the first and best of the crops that were harvested and were usually an indicator of what the rest of the crop would be like. A farmer would be inclined to take that early harvest and store it away in case the rest was lost to drought, locusts, or other calamities. But the Lord required that it was to be that first and best which was offered to Him.
When James writes we, he is applying the term to the believers of that time, perhaps especially Jewish believers who were the first of the harvest of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were the first of many more to come in the spiritual harvest God was beginning. Paul spoke of the household of Stephanas as being “the first fruits of Achaia” (1 Cor. 16:15).
When referring to people, His creatures means all who will be saved (cf. Acts 15:14–15). The Greek term is used several times to refer to the material creation, so James may have had that also in mind. In an immeasurably greater way, those who are regenerated through Christ in this present age will be the first fruits among His creatures in His ultimate re-creation of the new heaven and new earth after the present heaven and earth have been destroyed (Rev. 21:1; 2 Pet. 3:10). “These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4). Jesus told the apostles, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). Paul tells us that
the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. (Rom. 8:19–22)
Believers are the first installment on God’s new creation that is to come (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10–13).
18 To counteract the devastating effect of pregnant lust’s birthing of sin, which leads to death, God exercised his will in giving us one of his good gifts. He “chose to give us birth”, which could be a reference to God’s creation of human beings in the beginning (Laws, 75–78) but is more likely a reference to redemption (Moo, 79; Martin, 40). “God’s will” is a common biblical idea speaking of God’s sovereign choice rooted in his own determination (Job 23:13; Ps 113:9). This “birthing” is how God determined to express his grace to us.
The means of this birth experience is “the word of truth.” Whereas deception is possible in this fallen world, God’s word is true and has the wonderful spiritual effect of establishing our relationship with God (2 Co 6:7; Eph 1:13; Col 1:5; 2 Ti 2:15).
The reason God has acted this way toward us is “that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” “Firstfruits” is a designator variously used of believers in the NT (Ro 16:5; 1 Co 16:15; 2 Th 2:13; Rev 14:4), and in the OT the concept carries several connotations. It, of course, refers to the first ripening of a harvest or first offspring of an animal, which was offered to God in acknowledgment that he owns everything already (Ex 23:16–19; Lev 27:26; Nu 18:15–18; Dt 14:22–23). Thus the firstfruits were considered sacred, set apart for God. More closely related to James’s usage, it also referred to the firstborn among sons (Ex 34:20) and was used to speak of Israel as God’s firstborn, or chosen, people (Ex 4:22; Dt 7:6; Jer 2:3). So we are set apart as God’s special people for the destiny to which God has birthed us and designated us.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 57–64). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 224). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.