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James 1:15 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it has run its course, brings forth death.

'when it has run its course' - signifying a possible alternate route if one is able to 'change the course' of sin and avoid the resultant death. IOW, death is not a default result if the course is altered.

What does James mean with 'run its course'?

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  • Do you not believe 'when it has run its course' is far less important than 'brings forth death'? Who doubts 'when it has run its course' is so much less meaningful, it's hardly worth discussing, while 'brings forth death' is more important in every way, which is why it is so clearly and 'when it has run its course' is not at all contentious? Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 23:01
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    Looking at the context, James 1:15 is not saying that we can alter the course of sin. The operative word being “we.” The seed of sin lies within man, with his own lust and desires (v14). Sin has its roots in our nature and leads us ever further away from God. In contrast, righteousness for us is rooted in Christ who, as he (his spirit and grace) lives in us, leads us ever closer to God (cf Gal 2:20, 5:16–17).
    – Nhi
    Commented Mar 19, 2023 at 13:58

4 Answers 4

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"Run its course" translates APOTELESTHEISA (Based on TELOS, meaning "perfect").

Thayer offers the meaning "to perfect, to bring quite to an end".

The RSV offers the translation "sin when it is full-grown..."

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ἀποτελεσθεῖσα is an aorist passive participle and consistent with the τελος root it has the idea of end are completion (lexicons such as BADG).

ἀποτελέω ... ① to bring an activity to an end, bring to completion, finish ... ② to accomplish someth., but without special reference to a beginning, perform ... -- Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 123). University of Chicago Press.

At the point of lured and enticed the path can change the results (1 Cor. 10:13). After sin the result (end, completion) is inevitable (Rom. 6:23). The only alternative is for someone else to pay the penalty. Jesus Christ did (1 Peter 2:24), so that we can take a different path through his blood (Heb. 9:12).

When it is full-grown (ἀποτελεσθεισα [apotelestheisa]). First aorist passive participle of ἀποτελεω [apoteleō], old compound verb with perfective use of ἀπο [apo], in N. T. only here and Luke 13:32. It does not mean “full-grown” like τελειοω [teleioō], but rather completeness of parts or functions as opposed to rudimentary state (Hort) like the winged insect in contrast with the chrysalis or grub (Plato). The sin at birth is fully equipped for its career (Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:5). -- Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Jas 1:15). Broadman Press.

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If you use the translation, "sin, when it has run its course", you could liken it to a person running a race, determined to get to the finishing tape. That would be to complete the course. It matters not here if there are millions, or billions of humans all seen to be running this race. Every one of them will complete the course because every one of them will die. "For the wages of sin is death" we are told elsewhere in the New Testament (Romans 6:23a), which agrees with what James said, though using a different way of illustrating the point.

All humans have the sinful nature that guarantees they are on that course, being driven by sin, which leads to death. Whether they run, or walk, or crawl, they will one day die, proving that sin had (sooner or later) claimed them in death. There is, however, a wonderful, divine intervention that will mean eternal joy despite having to die physically. The rest of that sentence quoted above states what that is:

"...but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Romans 6:23b A.V. (See also Ephesians 4:2-9.)

Back to the one verse in question, James 1:15. The A.V. simply translates it as:

"Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death."

As all people are sinners, that is their default position before God. Yet the verse in Romans shows that God has established his triumph over sin and death, through what the Son of God did to defeat the power of sin, death and the devil. Now all who admit that they are sinners who need what Jesus did to liberate them from their slavery to sin, put faith in him (no longer in their own efforts). James says in verse 12 that the person of faith is able to endure temptation. And, as in verse 21, James says that having laid aside all filthiness (sin), those people of faith receive with meekness the engrafting of God's word, which is what saves their souls.

The final outcome for them is radically different to those who go along with their lusts and sinful desires. They will still have to receive their wages for the body of sinful works they did, and die physically (as per Romans 6:23a) but death will just be a blip (as it were) for they have already passed over from death to life the moment they believed (John 5:24). Death will not be able to 'hold' them because they have been freely pardoned as in Romans 6:23b. They found the narrow gate (Christ), entering the narrow path that leads to life eternal, not eternal condemnation as is the final result for all on the broad road paved with lusts, temptations and sin.

There just could not be any greater encouragement for those who have been liberated from sin's chains to resist temptations. Alas, those who are still captive to their lusts and desires are being pulled along to the finishing line by invisible chains. James starts chapter 1 saying faithful believers can have joy when tempted because their patience means they will not give in to temptation. They have wisdom from God to see the matter from above, from where God pours out on them every blessing and good gift (verse 17.)

Although the question is about James' teaching of sin in just one verse in his epistle, the whole chapter makes it clear, no matter whether the translation of verse 15 says of sin, 'run its course', or 'when it is full-grown', or 'gives birth to', or 'when it is finished'.

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What does James mean with 'run its course'?

Those are not James's actual words, of course, since English didn't exist during his lifetime. They are the words of a Bible translator. If you're not equipped to understand the Greek, then it can be useful to check what some other translators did with the same words.

I found a couple of others that use "when it has run its course", but most of the dozen or two I checked use variations on "when it is full grown". For example:

NIV:

Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

NLT:

These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.

Perhaps The Message, which leans on paraphrase in an attempt to the convey ideas in a more engaging and easier to understand manner, would be enlightening. Or at least entertaining. It renders verses 13-15 like so:

Don’t let anyone under pressure to give in to evil say, “God is trying to trip me up.” God is impervious to evil, and puts evil in no one’s way. The temptation to give in to evil comes from us and only us. We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust. Lust gets pregnant, and has a baby: sin! Sin grows up to adulthood, and becomes a real killer.

There are a few other variations, too, such as JUB:

Then when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death.

With that said, "to run its course" is an English expression that means to go to completion. Those translations that use it mean it in that sense. Contrary to your claim, it does not convey an implication of any alternative course or destination being available.

It does, however, convey the idea that the process takes some time to complete, and that it may be possible to prevent its completion. In this case, one would prevent that completion and the resulting spiritual death by repenting of the sin, asking God's forgiveness, and, by God's grace and strength, giving up that sin.

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