In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
The first question to be asked of this verse concerns whether James is writing with respect to the creational or redemptive work of God. If verse 17 is understood in a creational sense, it is possible to read this verse in the same way. Humanity, generally, has been created in the divine image by God’s word of command to be the first amongst God’s creatures. In our comment on the previous verse, however, we concluded that although the text could be read in a creational sense, it is better to understand it in terms of an exhortation to the believing community. So here, James uses language that elsewhere in the New Testament refers to God’s salvific work. The “word of truth” refers to the message of the gospel (Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 6:7), which, more broadly, is understood as the instrument by which men and women are brought to faith and so to salvation (cf. Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:23-25). The emphasis on divine sovereignty in this verse echoes Paul’s similar emphasis in Ephesians 1. The broader context of verses 13-18 suggests that James is piling up reasons for why his hearers should not blame God for the trials they experience. God’s will and activity toward us has ever been gracious and kind. God does not tempt us with evil, not only because his goodness is incapable of evil, but because such an act would also be counter to his ultimate purpose, which is to establish his people as the paradigm of his intent for the whole creation. God does not will evil, sin and death, but life.
“In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth” (βoulētheis apekyēsen hēmas logō alētheias). βoulētheis is an aorist participle meaning “by an act of will, deliberately” (Zerwick-Grosvenor, 692). The use of the aorist participle with the verb indicates that God’s action was the outworking of his logically prior determination. The implied subject of the verb (apekyēsen) is the “Father of lights” from verse 17. Salvation, a premier example of a “good and perfect gift,” has its ground in the divine purpose and intent. If James’ messianic community has experienced salvation, it is because God has purposed it; the whole emphasis is on God’s purpose and God’s activity, and so on grace. As such, this verse could have been written by Paul, and undermines the idea that James has a soteriology of works rather than grace.
The verb itself is daring, for apekyeō is properly applied to a female, and literally means to give birth (from kyō, to be pregnant). The image is applied metaphorically to God—the “Father of lights” gives birth!—and is almost certainly deliberately used by James here in contrast to its previous use in verse 15. Whereas human desire leads to sin which gives birth to death, God’s will gives birth to new life and new creation (see McKnight, 129). The image of salvation as new birth is found elsewhere in the New Testament in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, in John 1:13; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, and in 1 Peter 1:23. Although it is common to think of being born again in personal and therefore individual terms, McKnight (130) argues that the “us” (hēmas) in this text, refers to the messianic community which God has “delivered” into the world. McKnight’s emphasis is a helpful corrective, and a reminder that while salvation is personal, it is neither private nor simply individual, but has a corporate intention and public aspect. Indeed, McKnight goes on to say that,
The “new birth” of James is both intensely personal and structurally ecclesial: God’s intent is to restore individuals in the context of a community that has a missional focus on the rest of the world (131).
This intent comes more fully into view in the final phrase of the verse, “that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (eis to einai hēmas aparchēn tina tōn autou ktismatōn). With this phrase, the whole saving purpose of God comes into view, and God’s salvific work is identified as the fulfilment of his creational activity. Because God has his eye on the whole of creation, he has brought forth the community of God’s people. They are the “first” of the harvest, and the promise of the full harvest which is yet to come. In the Old Testament, the first fruits belonged to God, whether the firstborn in a family, the first animal of the herd, the first grain of the field (see, e.g., Exodus 13:1-2; 22:29-30), and had to be offered to God or otherwise redeemed. As the first fruits of his creation Christians are God’s treasured possession, the first harvest of his intention that the whole creation shall be renewed and redeemed. God is giving birth to a new creation and believers, having been brought forth by the gospel, are the first fruits of this renewed world. It should be noted that the New Testament uses the idea of regeneration both with respect to the salvation of individuals and of the cosmos itself (see, e.g. Titus 3:5; Matthew 19:28; cf. Acts 3:21). The Father of lights has not abandoned his creation but is leading it towards its consummation.
That God’s intent is the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21) does not imply universalism, especially in James, where the threat of judgement is very prominent and directed especially against the rich. Rather, and this picks up McKnight’s insistence that the messianic community has a missional focus, the redeemed community is to function as a picture of God’s intent for all humanity, and as the instrument by which God will continue his harvest. This reminds us of the call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3, where God called Abram because he had his eye on “all the families of the world.” So God has brought forth the church, not simply to be the sole recipient of his goodness and blessing, but that through the church, his every good and perfect gift might also be directed to every creature. Such a gracious God is not leading people to fall as some in the community seem to be asserting (v. 13). Rather, the good and gracious God is one who strengthens them to endure the test that God’s purposes for them and for the entirety of the creation might be realised (Davids, 90).