James is engaged in a difficult project, which is to compose a letter of encouragement for suffering believers. He knew that the way to do it was to tell them the truth, especially truth about God, which is what he does in James 1:17-18.
He reminded them that God gives gives good and perfect gifts, which he connects to their past and future experience of salvation. Before doing so, he stresses that their God is the powerful, unchangeable Creator.
What does it mean for God to be unchangeable? It means that he cannot improve in any way, because he is perfect in every way; it means that he cannot decay, because he is always perfect. It means that he is consistent, that he is loyal to his eternal commitments, that his all-wise counsels cannot be bettered by reacting to any development that humans might stumble across and cause him to adopt as new-found insights. We should spend time each day thinking about the unchanging God and his attributes, about his activities, and about his aims.
Then James mentions those past and future aspects of salvation. As far as their past was concerned, the initiative for their conversions came from God alone, whatever may have been their individual situations. It was according to his own choice, which is a reminder to us of the doctrine of election. James then reminds his readers that the Father brought them forth – this is language of birth, that they were reborn, made alive, regenerated by the work of the Spirit. The tool that God used to bring this about was ‘the word of truth’, or the gospel of grace.
So we can see why James encouraged his readers to look back in the midst of their troubles and recall the amazing good and perfect gifts that had been sent to them from above by the heavenly Father. They have received an understanding of election, regeneration and the presence of the Spirit, and the gospel and its various gifts of grace.
But we can see from the second half of verse 18 that James also wanted his readers to look forward. We see this future emphasis in his use of the word ‘firstfruits’, which was taken from the sacrificial practices in Israel in which a sample crop was offered to God in anticipation of the coming harvest.
No doubt, this reference reminded James’ readers that they should remain dedicated to God. But it also reminded them that great days were coming, that they were part of the guarantee of a better world in which the whole of creation will be restored.
So what should a pastor say to believers who are experiencing trouble? James would say, ‘Remind them of what God did for them in the past and repeat to them what he will do for them in the future.’ He might also say, ‘Ensure that God gets all the glory for giving such good and perfect gifts.’ And he might say to them, ‘Remember that your fellow Christians are signs that the glory is definitely coming!’