Then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.
In verses 13-14 James has located the genesis of sin strictly with the individual rather than with God, the devil or some other external agency: “Each person is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it.” For the ancient Hebrews, the yetzer hara‘ (an evil inclination or desire) was an inherent impulse and ever-present feature of the human personality, drawing the person towards evil activity. In this verse James continues his practical account of the dynamics of sin. “Then” (eita), says James, indicating a progression and a result, when the enticement or lure meets misdirected desire, a conception occurs—sin (hamartian) has its origin. It may, following the analogy, be a long gestation, secret and hidden before coming to light. Or it may spring swiftly to life, but come to birth it will.
James’ use of the dramatic metaphor of conception (syllabousa) and birth (tiktei) has antecedents in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Psalm 7:14 reads, “Behold, he travails with wickedness, and he conceives mischief and brings forth falsehood.” What makes this text interesting is that the imagery naturally associated with a woman is applied to a male. This is important when considering James’ use of the metaphor, for a number of commentators suggest that James has in mind the image of the loose woman of Proverbs 5-9 (e.g. Davids, 84; Moo, 74; Vlachos, 45), thus portraying sin as a seductress. This link is seen as particularly appropriate given the grammatical feminine of epithymia (“desire”). Care must be taken, however, to avoid the association of the feminine with evil and sin, a danger with a long pedigree in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Sin may be portrayed in terms of a hunter (v. 14) or a seductress (v. 15), but in itself is neither male nor female, and attaches itself to all people equally, irrespective of their gender. Further, it is an arguable proposition that male sinfulness has wrought far more misery in the world and in history than female sinfulness.
Sin, however, is not the end of the story for James continues, “and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death” (hē de hamartia apotelestheisa apokyei thanaton). The coupling of sin and death goes all the way back to Eden (e.g. Genesis 2:17), finds expression in the prophets (e.g. Ezekiel 18:4), and the wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs 1:8-19; 5:22-23). Jesus, too, makes the link between sin and death (e.g. Luke 13:2-5; John 8:24), and it is common in Paul’s theology (e.g. Romans 5:12-14; 6:23; Ephesians 2:1). For James, too, sin leads inevitably to death. James again uses the imagery of human birth and development to portray this link. In Davids’ memorable phrase (85), “…sin is not the end. The child grows up.” Apotelestheisa has the sense of coming to completion or reaching its goal (cf. Luke 13:32), and so in this context is appropriately translated as “fully grown.”
The idea that sin can “grow up” and reach maturity is intriguing and highlights the insidious nature of sin in the human life. Sin is not content until it reigns over the entirety of a life bringing forth death (Romans 5:21). In Genesis 4:7 it is pictured as a wild beast lying in wait to devour, and which must be mastered. So here, sin develops, and having reached reproductive maturity, “gives birth to death.” The language is paradoxical and startling for one normally associates birth with new life. Indeed, when birth results in death it is an occasional for great grief and mourning. Obviously the language is metaphorical and indicates that sin produces or brings forth death. Death, in Scripture, can bear multiple senses, including “spiritual” death, a separation from God and his purposes while still alive (e.g. Ephesians 2:1) and physical death. The death that sin brings is first spiritual and relational and later physical. Davids rightly notes, however, that James’ chain of desire-sin-death in verses 14-15 forms a stark contrast with his chain in verse 12 of testing-endurance-life (85). There the crown of life is understood in eschatological terms and so it seems likely that the kind of death James has in mind is eschatological—death in the ultimate sense of eternal separation from God, life and blessedness.