Knowing and Doing Good
by Thomas Watson
"To him who knows to do good, and does it not—to him
it is sin." James 4:17
The Apostle James, in former verses, had met with a sin
common in those days, a sinful boasting among men, verse 13-14, "Now listen,
you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a
year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know
what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears
for a little while and then vanishes." You may be in your graves before
tomorrow! A mist cannot continue long—it is raised by the sun—and dispersed
by the wind. Such is your life—a mist, a vapor, a short breath, a flying
shadow—which "appears for a little while and then vanishes!" Well might they
say, "What need do we have to be taught such a plain lesson? Who
doesn't know all of this—that life is a vapor, and that we ought not to
boast what we will do tomorrow?"
The Apostle seems in the text to meet with them by way of
answer, "Do you know all this? Then the greater is your sin—that you don't
do it. "To him who knows to do good, and does it not—to him it is sin."
I shall only explain this phrase, "to him it is sin";
that is, it is a heinous sin.
Every infirmity, everything which falls short of
the rule, is sin—much more that which contradicts the rule. This
man's sin has an emphasis; it is a crimson sin, and it shall have a greater
punishment. "The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his
duty, he refused to do it!" Luke 12:47. If he who sins ignorantly is
damned—then he who sins knowingly shall be doubly damned!
I. Doctrine implied—we ought to know to do good. We ought
to know our duty.
II. We ought not only to know to do good but to do it.
III. He who knows to do good and does it not is, of all
others, the most guilty.
I. Doctrine implied—we ought to know to do good.
We ought to be well-informed of those things which are to be done by us in
order to salvation. The written Word is a rule of knowledge—and the preached
Word is a commentary upon the written Word. Both of them are to enrich our
understanding and to nurture us up in the knowledge of that which is good.
The reasons why we should know to do good are:
1. Knowledge is our lamp and star to guide us in the
truth. It shows us what we are to do—and what we are to leave undone. If we
do not know that which is good—we can never practice it.
2. Knowledge is the foundation of all grace.
"Those who know your name, will put their trust in you," Psalm 9:10.
"This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in
knowledge and depth of insight." Philippians 1:9 The Apostle joins these
two, knowledge and perseverance. Such as are unlearned will be
3. The chief work in conversion consists in knowledge.
Romans 12:2, "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind." The mind being
renewed, the man is transformed. The first part of God's image consists in
knowledge, Colossians 3:10.
4. There is nothing in religion, though ever so
excellent, which can do us good without knowledge.
USE. See how necessary it is to get the
knowledge of what is good; it ushers in salvation, 1 Timothy 2:4.
Ignorance of God is the cause of all sin! "They go from one sin to
another; they do not acknowledge me," Jeremiah 9:3. Ignorance of God
damns! "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." Hosea 4:6. It is
sad to be ignorant in gospel-times; but many, alas, do not only not know
God—but they are not willing to know. Jeremiah 9:6, "They refuse to
know Me, says the Lord."
II. DOCTRINE. We ought not only to know to do
good—but to do it. This the Apostle implies, "to him that
knows to do good, and does it not...." He implies, that he who
knows to do good should do it. The end of knowledge, is practice. Search
from one end of the Bible to the other—and you will find that it is the
practical part of religion which is chiefly intended. The crown is not set
upon the head of knowledge, but practice. Revelation 22:14,
"Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have right
to the tree of life."
USE 1. It shows us wherein most professors are
defective in the times of gospel, namely, in the doing part of
religion. They know how to do good—but do it not. They know they
should abstain from evil
and pursue holiness, but, though they know this—yet they
do it not.
1. They know they should abstain from evil. Thus they
know they should not swear, Matthew 5:34, "Do not swear at all"; yet
they swear. They are more free with their oaths than their alms. They know
immorality to be a sin—that it wastes the body, wounds the
conscience, blots the name, and damns the soul! Galatians 5:19. Yet they
will go on in that sin and, for a cup of pleasure, drink a sea of wrath!
They know drunkenness to be a sin, that it makes them like beasts,
takes away their reason, makes them unfit for happiness, for they cannot
think of going reeling to heaven. They know that God is preparing a cup of
wrath for the drunkard, Revelation 16:19. Yet for all that, they will not
leave their cups.
Men know that rash censuring is a sin. James 4:11,
"Do not speak evil one of another, brethren"; yet they are guilty of this.
They will not swear—but they will slander and speak to the harm of others.
No physician can heal the wounds of the tongue!
They know they should not vent their passions, James
1:26, "If any man among you seems to be religious, and bridles not his
tongue, this man's religion is vain." Origen observes that the rich man in
the Gospel had no water to cool his tongue. He had sinned most in his
tongue; therefore, he was punished most in it. How unworthy is it for men to
have their eyes and hands lifted up to heaven—and their tongues set on fire
from hell; at one time praying, and another time cursing! How can such pray
in a family, who are possessed with an angry devil?
Thus they know that covetousness is a sin, yes,
the root of all evil; yet the world engrosses all their time and thoughts.
They thirst after gold more than grace; and labor more to have
a full purse than a good conscience.
Thus men know they should abstain from evil—but they
don't do it.
2. They know they should pursue holiness—but they
don't do it. They know they should read the Word, use holy conference, pray
in their families, redeem the time, and walk circumspectly. They know to do
good—but don't do it.
QUESTION. How is it that men know to do good—yet do it
ANSWER 1. It is for lack of sound conviction.
Men are not thoroughly convinced of the necessity of practical godliness.
They think there is a necessity of knowledge, because otherwise there is no
salvation. They will get some notions of Christ, that He is a Savior, and
has satisfied divine justice, and they hope they believe in Him. Well, then;
we tell them that faith and obedience go together. Then they say that God is
merciful and, though they are not as good as they should be, free grace will
save them. Thus men content themselves with general notions of religion—but
are not convinced of the practical part of godliness.
ANSWER 2. Men know to do good yet do it
not—because they are not awakened out of their spiritual sloth. It is easy
to get the knowledge of a truth, to give assent to it, to commend it, and to
profess it. But to digest knowledge into practice, is the difficulty.
ANSWER 3. Men know to do good but do it
not—through unbelief; they are, in part, atheists. If they truly believed
that sin was so bitter, that wrath and hell followed
it—would they not leave off their sins? If they believed that to do the will
of God was a privilege, religion was their interest, that there is joy in
the way of godliness, and heaven at the end—would they not espouse holiness?
But people, though they have some slight transient thoughts of these
things—yet are not brought to the sincere belief of them. Therefore, though
they know to do good—yet they do it not. The reason why there are so few
doers of the Word—is because there are so few true believers.
ANSWER 4. Men know to do good but do it
not—because the knowledge in their head never works into their hearts. It
does not quicken them, nor warm their affections with love to the truth.
ANSWER 5. Men know to do good but do it
not—because of a prejudiced opinion. The things to be done in religion are
judged to be too strict and severe; they restrain sin too much or they press
too much to holiness.
ANSWER 6. Men know to do good yet do it
not—because they love their sin more than they love the Word. Hosea 4:8,
"They set their heart on their iniquity." Some content themselves with
having means of knowledge, judges 17:13, "Then said Micah, Now know I that
the Lord will do me good, seeing I have a Levite as my priest." But what is
one the better to know what medicine he should take—if he does not actually
USE 2. Of exhortation. Let me beseech you all
who have been hearers of the Word, and have gotten a great measure of
knowledge, that, as you know to do good—you would do it. Practice is
the soul of religion. Luther says, "I had rather do the will of God, than be
able to work miracles."
First, to do what you know—evidences your noble
relation to Christ. You count it an honor to be near allied to the crown—but
it is more honor to be akin to Christ.
Second, to know to do good and to do it—sets a crown
upon the gospel. Romans 16:19, "Everyone has heard about your obedience;"
not your knowledge—but your obedience. To know to do good and not to do
it—hardens others in sin, scandalizes religion, and makes people ready to
When some of the Spaniards came to Hispaniola, the
Spaniards' lives being loose and profane-the Indians asked them what God
they served? They answered, "The God of heaven." The Indians replied,
"Surely your God is not a good God, who has such bad servants." Thus, to
know to do good yet do it not—puts a scar in the face of religion, and
brings an evil report upon it. But to do what we know—trumpets forth the
fame of the gospel, and makes those who oppose it to admire it.
Third, to know to do good and to do it—entitles you
to blessedness. James 1:25, "He shall be blessed in his deed"; not
for the deed—but in the deed.
III. DOCTRINE. That he who knows to do good and does it
not—is, of all others, the most guilty. To him it is sin—crimson
sin. That is, it is heinous sin, capital sin, sin emphatically, sin with a
witness, and punished with a vengeance!
QUESTION. What is it to sin presumptuously?
ANSWER. To sin presumptuously is to sin against the light
which shines in a man's conscience, when a man is convinced that those
things he does are sin. Conscience says, "Oh, do not this great evil!"
Conscience, like the cherubim, has a flaming sword in its hand to frighten
and deter the sinner—yet he will pluck the forbidden fruit! This is to sin
presumptuously. This sin is highly aggravating for two reasons:
First, because sinning presumptuously against
conscience—is after counsels, admonitions, and warnings. Such a person
cannot say he was never told of his sin; he has had ministers rising up
early who have told him what a damnable thing sin was—yet he ventured on. So
now he has no excuse. John 15:22, "Now you have no cloak for your sin."
Second, it is an aggravation to sin presumptuously
against conscience, when it is after afflictions. After God has made him
hear the voice of the rod, He has made him to feel sin bitter, to
read his sin in his punishment—yet he sins! His sin was following evil
company, and God has punished him for it. He has almost wasted his estate
with riotous living, or he has almost drunk himself blind—yet he will not
leave his sin! His sin was immorality, and his body is diseased and full of
noxious humors; yet, though he feels the smart of sin, he retains the love
of sin. Here is an aggravation of sin, 2 Chronicles 28:22, "In his time of
trouble, King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the Lord."
USE 3. To know what is good, yet not to do
it—is to sin presumptuously. This sin is full of obstinacy and stubbornness.
It is so because men can say nothing in excuse for their sin—they can make
no defense for themselves—yet they are resolved to hold fast their iniquity
like those in Jeremiah 18:12, "We will continue to live as we want to,
following our own evil desires."
USE 4. Take heed of presumptuous sin! If God
has been so terrible against sins of infirmity and anger, as we see in Moses
and Uzziah—Oh, how fierce will His anger be, against the presumptuous
sinner! Better never to have known the ways of God than to know and not to
do them! Oh! as you love your souls, take heed of this.
1. Presumptuous sins are desperate sins—because they are
committed with much premeditation and forethought.
presumptuous sinner does not sin unaware—but he projects
and casts in his mind how to bring his sin about, as Joseph's brethren did,
in betraying him; or as Judas did, in betraying Christ; or as those Jews
did, who laid wait for Paul.
2. Presumptuous sins are desperate—because they are
accompanied with pride. The sinner who knows the mind of
God—yet will act contrary to it, says, like Pharaoh, "Who is the Lord that I
should obey Him!"
3. Presumptuous sins are desperate—because they are
accompanied with impudency. Such sinners are hardened,
fearless, and without shame. Like Judas, they are hardened; though woes are
pronounced against them—they will sin! They are without fear, like
the leviathan, job 41:33, and they have sinned away shame. Zephaniah 3:5,
"The wicked know no shame." He has a forehead of brass. Nay, some are so far
from blushing—that they glory in their shame! Philippians 3:19.
4. To sin presumptuously, to know what is good yet not to
do it, is heinous—because it is ingratitude. It is a high
abuse of God's kindness—and God cannot endure, of all things, to have His
kindness abused. God's kindness is seen in this: that He has acquainted the
sinner with his mind and will, that He has not only instructed him—but
persuaded him. He has made mercy stoop and kneel to the sinner. He has wooed
him with His Spirit—that he would flee from sin and pursue holiness.
Kindness is seen in that God has spared the sinner so long and not struck
him dead in the act of sin! Kindness is seen in that, though the sinner has
sinned against his conscience—yet now, if he will repent of sin, God will
repent of His judgments and mercy shall be held forth. Jeremiah 3:1, "You
have played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to Me, says the
Lord." But the sinner is not melted with all this love. His heart, like
clay, hardens under the sun. Here is a great abuse of God's kindness,
and God cannot endure to have His kindness abused. As the vulture draws
sickness from perfumes—so the sinner contracts wickedness from the
mercy of God. Here is high ingratitude!
5. To sin presumptuously, to know what is good yet not to
do it—is a contempt done to God. He cares not whether God
is pleased or not—he will have his sin! Therefore, the presumptuous
sinner is said to blaspheme God, Numbers 15:30, "Anyone who sins defiantly,
blasphemes the Lord". By his presumptuous sin, he acts as if God was either
ignorant and did not know his wickedness; or impotent and was
not able to punish him. How horrid is this! There is a kind of blasphemy
against God—in every presumptuous sin.
6. To sin presumptuously, to know what is good yet not to
do it—is a bold contest with God—a daring of God to punish! The
man who sins against conscience presumptuously and will not be reclaimed, in
effect says, "What do I care for God's commands? They shall be no check upon
me—but I will go on in sin and let God do His worst."
A godly man is said to fear the commandment, Proverbs
13:13. He dares not sin because the law of God stands in his way: but the
presumptuous sinner does not value the commandment. He will sin in spite of
God's law. Oh, desperate madness—to dare God to His face! 1
Corinthians 10:22, "Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than
He?" Good reason, then, that we should take heed of presumptuous sin, since
it is so heinous and desperate! "To him that knows to do good—yet does it
not, to him it is sin"; it is heinous and presumptuous sin!
USE 5. Trial. Let us examine if we are not
guilty of sinning thus presumptuously, knowing to do good—yet not to do it.
Is it not to sin presumptuously—when we live in the total
neglect of duty? We know we ought to pray in our families—yet we do it not.
To live in the neglect of family duties—is not this to sin presumptuously?
Is it not to sin presumptuously, when we will venture
upon the same sins which we condemn in others? Romans 2. You condemn another
for pride—and yet you live in that sin yourself. A father condemns his son
for swearing—yet he himself swears. The master reproves his servant for
being drunk—yet he himself will he drunk. Is not this to sin presumptuously,
to live in those sins which we condemn in others!
Do not they sin presumptuously against conscience—who
will sin in spite of heaven? Though they see the judgments of God executed
on others—yet will adventure on the same sins. Daniel 5:22, "And you his
son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this";
that is, you saw the judgments I inflicted on your father.
Do not they sin presumptuously, they who know to do good
yet do it not—who labor to stifle the convictions of their conscience and
will not let conscience speak freely to them? This the Scripture calls
"holding the truth in unrighteousness," Romans 1:18.
Do not they sin presumptuously who, after they have felt
the smart of sin—it has bred a worm in their conscience, and a moth in their
estate—yet, after all this, they again embrace their sins.
That I may show you what you have to fear, and that I may
beat you off from presumptuous sins—let these things be seriously laid to
1. These presumptuous sins greatly harden the heart.
These are two of the greatest blessings—a sound judgment and a soft heart.
But sinning presumptuously and knowingly, congeals and hardens the heart. It
both wastes the conscience and sears it, 1 Timothy 4:2. By sinning
knowingly, a person gets a habit of sin; and the habit of sinning
takes away the sense of sinning. Ephesians 4:19, "Being past feeling." Tell
the presumptuous sinner that there are treasures of wrath laid up for him,
he fears not; his heart is like a piece of marble which will take no
impression. When men know to do good yet do it not—their hearts are hardened
insensibly, and that is dangerous.
2. Such as sin presumptuously, or they who know to do
good yet do it not, are self-condemned. Titus 3:11. The sinner
knows in his conscience, that he is guilty. He know that he has sinned
against warnings, education, and conviction. Therefore, his own heart
must, and does condemn him. And when God judges and condemns him,
he will exonerate God, "You are right when You pass sentence; You are
blameless when You judge." Psalm 51:4.
3. Presumptuous sins make deep wounds in the soul.
They lead to despair, and despair is the agony of the soul. The atheist
Spira, in despair, was like a living man in hell. Despair sucked out his
marrow and vital blood; it made him a skeleton. The sinner goes on
stubbornly—yet his foolish heart tells him all will be well; but, when God
begins to set his sins in order before him, and conscience, which was before
like a lion asleep, begins to be awakened and roars upon him and he sees
death and hell before him—now his heart faints! His presumption is
turned to despair—and he cries out as Cain, "My punishment is greater
than I can bear!" Genesis 4:13. Now the sinner begins to think with himself
thus, "I would have my sins and I had them; and now I have the wrath
of God upon me for them! Oh, how foolish was I to refuse instruction! But it
is too late now! The mercy-seat is quite covered with clouds. I am shut out
from all hope of mercy; my wounds are such that the balm of Gilead will not
heal!" The more presumption in the sins of this life—the more eternal
4. If a person knows to do good and does not to do it, if
a person sins presumptuously, God may, in just judgment, leave such a one to
himself. It is a terrible thing when God shall say, "You have, by
your presumptuous sin, affronted Me and provoked Me to My face! Therefore, I
will give you up to your own heart. You shall sin still; seeing you will
be filthy—you shall be filthy still."
5. To know what is good yet not to do it, to sin
presumptuously, is a great degree of the sin against the Holy Spirit.
Such as sin presumptuously, sin willfully. Though
presumption is not final apostasy—yet it comes very near to it; and a little
more sin will make you so guilty, that there remains no more sacrifice for
sin. To sin presumptuously against light may, in time, bring on malice and
despite to the Spirit; as it was with Julian, who threw up his dagger in the
air as if he would be revenged on God. When once it comes to this—there is
but one step lower a man can fall—and that is into hell.
6. There is little hope for such as know to do good yet
do it not, who know what is evil but will not forbear. There were
sacrifices for sins of ignorance—but no sacrifices for sins of
presumption, Numbers 15:30. Indeed, presumptuous sinners hope all will
be well, Proverbs 14:16, "The fool rages and is confident." Such a fool is
spoken of Deuteronomy 29:19-20, "When he hears the words of this curse, he
blesses himself in his heart saying, 'I am safe, even though I am walking
in my own stubborn way.' The Lord will not pardon such people. His anger
and jealousy will burn against them. All the curses written in this book
will come down on them, and the Lord will erase their names from under
7. Such as sin presumptuously, who know to do good yet do
it not, who know what is evil yet will not forbear it—God refuses all their
services—whether reading, hearing, praying, or communicating. God
abhors their sacrifice. Isaiah 1:15, "When you make many prayers—I will not
hear; your hands are full of blood." And Hosea 8:13, "The people of Israel
love their rituals of sacrifice, but to me their sacrifices are all
meaningless! I will call my people to account for their sins, and I will
Thus you see what cause you have to tremble, who are
guilty of this sin; you see your misery. Besides all that has been said,
consider these two things:
1. You who sin presumptuously, who know to do good and do
it not, who know what is evil yet will not forbear—you cannot sin as cheaply
Though sin will cost everyone dearly—yet it will cost you
more dearly. You go directly against conscience; and, if there is either
justice in heaven, or fire in hell—you shall be sure to be punished!
2. You who sin presumptuously cannot take so much
pleasure in your sin as another may have. One whose conscience is less
enlightened, though his sin will be bitter to him afterwards—yet at present
he may roll it as honey under his tongue and find pleasure in it. But you
who sin against your knowledge cannot have as much pleasure in sin as he—for
your conscience will put forth a sting, and all the threatenings of the Word
will set themselves in battle array against you so that you can have no
quiet of conscience. That trouble which you feel now in your conscience, is
but the beginning of sorrow!
QUESTION. What shall we do that we may not sin
presumptuously against conscience?
ANSWER 1. Take heed of little sins. Though, to
speak properly, there are no such things as little sins—there is no
little treason. But I comparatively, one sin may be lesser than another.
Take heed of little sins! The frequent committing of lesser sins, will
prepare for greater sins. A lesser disease of the body, if it is left alone,
prepares for a greater disease. Being unjust in a little, prepares for being
unjust in much, Luke 16:10. Such as were, at first, more modest—yet, by
accustoming themselves to lesser sins—by degrees their sins have grown up to
a greater height of sin. Jail sins have begun as little sins!
ANSWER 2. If you would not sin presumptuously,
knowingly and willfully—then reverence the dictates of conscience. Get
conscience well-informed by the Word, as you set your watch by the sun—and
then be ruled by it. Do nothing against conscience. If conscience says, "Do
such a thing," though ever so unpleasing, set upon the duty. When conscience
says, "Take heed of such a thing!" then do not come near the forbidden
fruit! Conscience is God's deputy in the soul. The voice of conscience, is
the voice of God. Do not trifle with checks of conscience, lest God allows
you to harden in sin and, by degrees, come to presumptuous sin.
ANSWER 3. Labor to have your knowledge
sanctified. Men sin against their knowledge, because their knowledge is not
sanctified. Sanctified knowledge works upon the soul. It inclines us to do
good. It makes us flee from sin. Sanctified knowledge is like a breastplate,
which keeps the arrow or presumptuous sin from entering!