God’s Word for You
James 2:8-11 The whole law
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, July 21, 2020
8 However, if you are carrying out the royal law according to the Scripture: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, since you are convicted by this law as transgressors.
Verse 8 assures us that loving our neighbor is the key to the ‘royal law.’ This is the only place in the Scriptures where the term “royal law” is used, but it’s a reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:40, “On these two commandments (love the Lord and love your neighbor) hang all the law and the prophets.” Loving your neighbor doesn’t mean loving only your rich neighbor (verses 5-7). It means loving everyone without being partial.
Verse 9 is one of the key passages we use in our definition of actual sin. If you remember your catechism instruction, sin is divided into two parts: Original sin and actual sin. Original sin is the sin and culpability we are born with, inherited from Adam and Eve through our own parents. In addition to the guilt or debt which we have from our conception (Psalm 51:5), we also inherit the predisposition to sin even more; it is our fallen human nature to sin. “Every inclination of man’s heart is only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). Actual sins are all of the actions, words and thoughts that are contrary to God’s law. This includes sinful impulses, sins of commission, and even sins of omission when we fail to do some good thing which God desires (honoring our parents, setting aside time for worship, etc.). In short, “everything which is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Yet some things that we do which might not seem to be done from faith are not sinful at all but are in keeping with our faith and thanksgiving to Christ. Such things which we do without thinking include the care of children and the elderly (Leviticus 19:32; Deuteronomy 4:40), seeing to the needs of one’s spouse (Genesis 2:18), doing one’s job to the best of your ability (Proverbs 31:15), welcoming strangers (3 John 5), the natural questions that come up in our study or meditation on the word of God and the catechism (1 Peter 1:12), and other things. Luther remarked about the good work a mother does with her foot (i.e., rocking a cradle) which is more precious to God than all of the seemingly good works of the monks in their monastery.
Actual sins can also be divided into intentional and unintentional sins. About unintentional sin, Paul laments: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). And this is where James has us all by the throat. We want to say that we are faithful to God, that we obey his divine and royal law, and that we have not sinned. But we have. James wants to show us this in one particular point in order to show us how it must apply everywhere, and so he uses the sin of favoritism. How simple a thing it is for us to play favorites with the people we know or with our friends or with some wealthy or well-known person. We want them to like us (this is perfectly natural), and so we become willing to turn a blind eye to certain flaws. We play favorites. This is not a very pretty trait in paltry fallen man. James turns to serious words that we don’t like to hear: “You are convicted by this law as transgressors.” The mirror of the law pulls no punches.
Keep the Whole Law
10 In fact, whoever keeps the whole law but stumbles in one point has become guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For the one who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
Verse 10 might be the most frequently quoted passage from James (apart from those who want to quibble about 2:26). Luther explained:
“Christ says: ‘Your eye is the lamp of your body; when your eye is sound, your whole body is full of light’” (Luke 11:34). And again: “If your body has no part dark, it will be wholly bright” (Luke 11:36). By this allegory Christ indicates that the eye, that is, doctrine, must be completely pure, clear, and sincere, having no part dark and no dark spots. And James said very beautifully: ‘Whoever fails in one point has become guilty of all of the Law’ (James 2:10). Therefore doctrine must be one eternal and round golden circle, in which there is no crack; if even the tiniest crack appears, the circle is no longer perfect. What good does it do the Jews to believe that there is one God and that He is the Creator of all, to believe all the doctrines, and to accept all of Holy Scripture, when they deny Christ? ‘Therefore whoever fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.’” (LW 27:38).
Another way of explaining this which might be useful is that if I break through a fence in one place, I’ve broken through the whole fence. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t gone along with a sledgehammer and smashed every strake of the fence, I broke through it, so I’ve violated the will of the one who put it up. I’ve broken through the whole fence. So it is with God’s holy law. If we break through any portion of it, we’ve broken all of it. This is why we need Jesus. His blood has covered over all of our sins, not just the sins we think we remember.
All mankind fell in Adam’s fall;
One common sin infects us all.
From one to all the course descends,
And over all God’s wrath impends.
But Christ the second Adam, came
To bear our sin and woe and shame
To be our life, our light, our way
Our only hope, our only stay. (Christian Worship 378:1,4)
Pastor Timothy Smith