Most of would say we can obey the Bible partially. “All of nothing” seems like the wrong category. After all, we are tempted daily and sometimes succumb, so we would say we try to obey God, but find only partial success. For example, we try to control our tongues, but we all fail at times; our success is partial (James 3:2-8). Both theology and our experience tell us our progress in holiness is slow and incomplete (Rom. 7:14-25). Yet James 2 says there is a sense in which obedience is all or nothing.
For James, obedience is the proof that a profession of faith is genuine. Genuine believers, we recall, pass three tests of true religion. They (1) keep a tight rein on their tongues, (2) look after orphans and widows in their distress, and (3) keep themselves from the pollutions of the world. That is, true Christians control their speech. They care for the poor and the needy out of pure mercy, without expecting anything in return. They remain in the world, where they eat, dress, and travel like other members of their society. Yet they shun the sinful customs and the godless values of their day. They “test everything” and “hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:21).
True religion is visible in daily life, both in big, public events, and in small acts of faithfulness or unfaithfulness. For example, James asks us to examine the way we treat church visitors. If we favor the rich, giving them the last good seat or the warmest greeting, and if we coolly let the poor man sit on the floor, we fail the tests of true religion. The small disposition we call favoritism mistreats the poor, misuses the tongue, and succumbs to worldliness. Favoritism is also foolish because it contradicts the character of God. James says, the rich are often hostile to the faith. They pursue wealth and exploit the poor. But God gives His kingdom to the poor.
As we have seen, favoritism is foolish and worldly, though it seems such a small sin and doesn’t seem to hurt anyone much. Favoritism is the antithesis of love for the needy and for neighbors (2:8-9). Anyone who loves his neighbor does well and fulfills “the royal law.” But favoritism violates the King’s law, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (v.8). Anyone who shows favoritism sins and is “convicted by the law” (v. 9).
“Love your neighbor” is the royal law in two senses. It is the law of the kingdom, and it is the law of the King Jesus. Love your neighbor is essential to Old Testament law. God told Moses, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). The law of Moses often looks to the needs of the poor as it forbids unfair treatment of anyone (Lev. 19:15). But Jesus takes love to its apex. He says, “Love you neighbor,” and He shows us how to love our neighbor. “Love your neighbor” is both what the King says and the way the King lives. By His incarnation, Jesus became our neighbor. By His sacrifice on the cross and by His resurrection, He demonstrated the extent of His compassion for us.
The point James makes in verses 10-11 is, if we break one law, we do indeed violate the whole law. That is, if someone violates just one law, he is accountable for the whole, because God gives the whole. If the very God of the universe says, “Do not murder,” then deliberately murderous thoughts, words, or deeds violate not only His will; they violate His person – His tole as Lord of Lords – as well. In this sense, obedience is all or nothing. Further, any mistreatment of a neighbor breaks all laws for neighbor, since all laws aim at their good.
Using, as examples, murder and adultery – the central moral commands – James 2:11 exposes the danger in the mindset that is content with partial obedience. This is the problem: If people pick and choose what they obey, then they are still very much their own god. All commands are united by this principle: God gave them. If we say, “I will follow the law about murder, but will not follow the law about adultery,” then we are saying we will obey laws that we judge to be sound. If we obey the laws that seem right to us, then we obey only when a law passes our judgment or suits our purpose. This approach forgets that God gave every law. It enthrones the self. Thus, if we disobey any law, we disobey God. We are not simply disobeying His law; we are rejecting Himas Lord and Lawgiver.
If we pick and choose among the commands, we never really obey God Himself. If we follow only the laws we like, if we obey only laws that we find agreeable, we make ourselves the final arbiter of truth. In effect, we consult with God and possibly gain valuable pointers from Him. But we are still masters of our lives. In this way, obedience is all or nothing. We submit to God totally or not at all.
People do pick and choose among God’s commands. Some would never kill but cheerfully commit fornication and adultery. The murder mentioned in verse 11 might refer to persecution of Christians. But whether physical murder is in view or not, James observes other forms of murder. Favoritism is a kind of murder of the poor. It despises the poor, and that is a form of hate and murder (Matt. 5:21-26). James also mentions judgment of others and condemnation as a kind of verbal murder, sometimes called character assassination.
James heightens the issue by reminding his readers that they will “be judged by the law that give freedom.” Further, “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” We should “speak and act” accordingly (James 2:12-13). The phrase “speak and act” reminds us of the call to be doers of the Word. Judgment is certain and will occur on that basis. Judgment is near in the sense that it will surely happen.
The Law will be our judge. Why? Above all, because God gave the Law. To break the law is to contradict God’s will. Moreover, when we break the Law, we fail to act like His children. We neither walk in His ways nor imitate Him. This is tragic, because the Law gives freedom. Many regard the Law as a restriction, since it forbids their doing whatever they please. But there is a freedom that enslaves. We may be free to divorce a spouse. But divorce very often binds people to loneliness and poverty. We may be free to experiment sexually, but such freedom enslaves us to a life of lust and shallow, broken relationships. Beyond these temporal troubles, sin leads to judgment.
Though James has not been thinking of mercy, it seems that he simply cannot end by declaring judgment “without mercy” (2:13). He doesn’t explain, at this moment, how mercy triumphs over judgment. But he is speaking to believers. We know that mercy triumphs by a simple yet profound process. First, we recognize our sins and repent, grieving over them and intending, by God’s grace, to abandon them. Second, we turn to Jesus as He is offered in the gospel, knowing that “he was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Believers fail, yet by their faith in the Redeemer, God’s mercy to His children triumphs over the judgment we deserve. In Christ, mercy triumphs.
When a true believer strives to obey and fails, the final word is still grace. For that reason, a sinning, failing Christian never despairs, never descends into self-recrimination. Through Christ, we are united to the triune God. The One who demands mercy shows mercy. For disciples, God’s mercy is always the last word. Of course, Scripture teaches us to ask for mercy. It commands us to pray for forgiveness every day, since, unless we are comatose, we sin every day. But it can be difficult to repent. God’s mercy does not depend on our ability to request it properly.
James 2 stings the complacent believer with several sharp warnings about sin. First, even a “small,” common, all-but-invisible sin such as favoritism has large consequences; by it we fail the tests of true religion. Second, we have no right to pick and choose among God’s commands. If we reject a command because it is unpalatable, we have rejected the Lord who gave that law. These are serious matters. Still, God’s grace is greater than our sin. The gospel goes to sinners, to the unworthy, to the poor in spirit. The Lord is pleased when we obey, yet for all who repent and believe, He loves and forgives even when we fail Him.
James 2:8-13 Study Questions:
How does verses 8-9 continue James’s teaching on favoritism and partiality – and the dangers of both? What do these verses add to the discussion, and how does James ground his teaching in the law of God?
Why is verse 10 surprising and unexpected? In what ways is this statement contrary to what most people think, concerning religious devotion, in your culture today? What does this verse teach us about the character of God?
How does verse 11 further explain and demonstrate the point that James is making in verse 10? What potential danger is he exposing in a potential attitude and approach to the law of God? In what ways might verses 10-11 drive us to our knees and confront us with our desperate need for Jesus?
What does James assert about “judgment” in verse 12? On what basis will we all be judged, according to James, and why is this important? Why must every Christian understand this truth?
While James speaks frankly about judgment, he doesn’t speak of judgment unaccompanied by mercy. What is encouraging about his mention of “mercy” in verse 13? What does he say about the “mercy” of God? Why is this a deeply encouraging conclusion to this passage, and how does it relate to the work of Jesus Christ?