Sermon preached on James 2:8-13 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 03/07/2021 in Novato, CA.
Our text for today further develops last week’s passage which spoke against sinful partiality. It also serves as a transition to the next passage which will call us to be showing mercy to the poor. Indeed such a call to mercy is raised in this passage as we see so wonderfully summarized at the end with the glorious affirmation, “Mercy triumphs over judgment!”
Our first point then for today will be to talk about this “royal law” mentioned in verse 8. He describes this royal law in this context of condemning sinful partiality. He summarizes what this royal law is with the call to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We should immediately recall that Jesus taught in the gospels that this was the second greatest commandment, with the first being to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength. Jesus said that on these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:40). And in a similar way, he at another time spoke of the golden rule as a summary itself of the all law and the prophets – the golden rule being, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). So then, we can see why James might highlight Jesus’ teaching on love for neighbor when summarizing the law.
But what are we to understand from the adjective “royal”? Why does James call this the royal law? This is the only place in Scripture that the God’s law is called the royal law. Some interpreters take the word royal here in the sense of “supreme” or “chief”. In other words, they think James is simply recognizing that the overarching call for the love of neighbor as of the status of one of the greatest of the commandments. While that is true in itself, I would want to not miss the immediate nuance of this word “royal”. In the Greek, this word royal is the same Greek root as the words for king and kingdom. Like in English, this word “royal” makes you think of king and kingdom. And so, I wouldn’t want to miss that imagery here. In fact, the context would encourage us to recognize that. Just go back 3 verses. It spoke there of the Christian’s hope that we are heirs of the kingdom. Jesus himself repeatedly spoke of his gospel message about how to be a part of his kingdom. So then, James can summarize Jesus’ teaching on righteousness in terms of a royal law. This is kingdom ethics. It’s the law of the kingdom to come in King Jesus.
To clarify, I’m not saying that this kingdom law is substantively different than the moral law given under the Old Testament. It’s not. But by putting it in such terms it really drives home its relevance for the Christian whose hope is in the coming of the kingdom. The ethics of the kingdom to come call us to the righteousness of God which can be summarized even in our horizontal obligation to love our neighbor as ourselves. Indeed, Jesus spoke much on this call to love our neighbor, and even challenged God’s people on whom all we should consider as our neighbor. As those who are heirs of Christ’s kingdom, this law is our law. The royal law is kingdom law. It’s the king’s law. And thus it’s especially to be the law we embrace as those made citizens of that kingdom in King Jesus. Let me also say it in these terms. James has been getting us to think of the ramifications of our faith. Well, our Christian faith has a law to guide our living. Our Christian faith embraces this law of Christ given to us for our obedience.
So then, James says that this royal law of loving our neighbor is why we shouldn’t show sinful partiality. He says that explicitly in verse 9. Showing partiality of the sort that he outlined in last week’s passage is sin. It’s a transgression of God’s moral law. If we sin like that, we are transgressors of the law.
This is likely why James references the command to not murder in verse 11. While comparing not breaking of the seventh commandment regarding adultery he contrasts that with the breaking of the sixth commandment regarding murder. He doesn’t explicitly draw a connection between murder and sinful partiality, but we can certainly recognize a connection. Just remember how Jesus extended our understanding of the sixth commandment in the sermon on the mount. There, Jesus said that you could break the commandment not only by the actual act of murder, but by sinful anger against your neighbor, or by sinfully insulting your neighbor with your speech. So then, we can see how the kind of sinful partiality describe last week would also fall under the fifth commandment. To insult and dishonor a poor person by favoring the rich person over them is not love for neighbor or caring for their wellbeing.
So then, let’s turn now to our second point and consider how James says that if you keep the whole law but fail in one point you are guilty of the whole law. That’s what verse 10 tells us. Verse 11 then goes on to give an example. If you don’t commit adultery but do commit murder, you are a breaker of the law. Any breaking of any law makes you a law breaker even if you keep the rest of it. That includes the favoritism of sinful partiality. It includes other sins that you might have wanted to rationalize as “not that bad” or a “lesser” sin. But James says any sin means you’ve a lawbreaker who deserve God’s judgment. We could see that behind this is the lawgiver. To reject any one of God’s laws is to reject God as the lawgiver and to rebel against him. This is what happened even at the beginning with our first parents. Their one failing of the law made them all their posterity into lawbreakers. James reminds us then that one failure to keep God’s law makes you fall short of the whole of the law.
This should not be too surprising too us. Think of how this works in our civil society. You might be an outstanding, law abiding citizen most of the time. But if you commit just a single felony, you’re going to prison. If you try to plead to the judge that you otherwise are a law keeper, it’s probably not going to keep you out of prison. You would still be guilty of a crime. No amount of positive law keeping erases your guilt when you break one specific law. And that is exactly what we are talking about here. James is talking about the judicial guilt we incur when we break one of God’s laws. Verse 8 says that if we were actually to fulfill, i.e. keep, all of God’s law, then we would do well. But verses 9 and 10 speak of our judicial jeopardy otherwise. Verse 9 speaks of us being convicted by the law when we transgress it. Verse 10 speaks of our guilt even for failing at just one point.
Yet, somehow, people often understand this point when it comes to civil government, but want to think it is completely different when it comes to God’s law. People naturally understand that in civil society one act of law breaking will get you in trouble. But when it comes to our standing before God, too often people want to think God judges us on some scale or balance. They falsely imagine that God weighs your good deeds versus your bad deeds and as long as your good outweighs your bad, then God will accept you as a “good” person. But that is wishful thinking. It is not in accord with the true of God’s revelation to us. James teaches that explicitly to us here.
Again, this should not surprise us that one failing can ruin the whole. One organ in our body failing, can make our whole body die. If someone gives you driving instructions and just one step was erroneous then the instructions are worthless. We might find such truths inconvenient, but it is what it is. And the reality is that God demands a people perfect and holy and right and wholly good. He doesn’t judge in a balance or scale. He doesn’t judge on a curve. And in the grand scheme of things, isn’t that what we would want? If someone did something egregious to us, against love, would we want God to tell us not to worry about it because the person is usually a good person? No, justice demands more. And there won’t be an eternal kingdom of glory along the lines of what God promised as long as its citizens are people who fail at some points of the royal law.
Unfortunately, this means that on our own record we have not done well in terms of the royal law. We have not kept it all perfectly. As Paul teaches us in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Under God’s law, every mouth is stopped and the whole world is accountable to God, Romans 3:19. This is true for those who’ve received the revelation of God’s law through the Scriptures. But it is also true for everyone else, because everyone has had God’s law written on their hearts and have some innate sense of right and wrong no matter how much they might try to suppress it. Each of us, even the godliest amongst us, are sinners and guilty on our own record of being a lawbreaker – save Jesus.
That’s the bad news. But this leads us then to our third point to remind us of the good news of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus that sets us free from the law of sin and death. Let’s consider this as we look at verse 12 which speaks of us Christians being under the law of liberty. Liberty here is a word that refers to our freedom. It’s word that is the opposite of slavery and bondage. James doesn’t specifically define for us this law of liberty, though he did mention it last chapter as well in 1:25 in the context of being someone who is a doer of the Word. And so while he James didn’t definitively define it for us, it sure seems be a wider view of law than simply the moral commands that we break and find ourselves guilty under. It seems to be including that good word of the gospel which proclaims God’s mercy and grace to us in Christ Jesus as we repent of our sins and turn in faith to Jesus for forgiveness. In other words, the law of liberty seems to remind us of the gospel which sets us free from our guilt of the law through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
That understanding seems confirmed as the passage comes to a climax in verse 13 with this joyous affirmation that mercy triumphs over judgment. Judgment says we are lawbreakers and guilty of breaking the whole law even if we fail at just one point. But God’s mercy in Christ Jesus says that he will pass over our sin for the sake of Christ’s blood shed for you.
Now while that point is being made here, notice the main reason he mentions that here. Its in verse 12 that James wants us to see how this should relate to how we regard us. James says that the way we speak and act toward others should keep in mind that we are people who have known God’s liberating grace and mercy. This seems to reference what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:1-2. That’s what Jesus said, “Judge not, that you not be judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” The implication is that we shouldn’t expect God to be merciful to us if aren’t merciful to others.
This is along the lines of that parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18. That was the parable where Jesus describes a servant who owed his master a large debt and his master mercifully forgave him. But then that forgiven servant turned right around and wouldn’t be merciful in return to someone who owed him a much smaller amount. When the master hears about his servant being so unmerciful when he had shown mercy, he was furious and had that unmerciful servant thrown in prison until he paid off his debt. So then, this illustrates what the beatitude in Matthew 5:7 puts in positive terms. That’s when Jesus declared, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Likewise, Jesus commanded in Luke 6:36, “Be merciful as your father is merciful.”
So then, James is reminding us that if we’ve known the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, we should be merciful toward others. We certainly shouldn’t sinfully judge them and essentially condemn someone simply in the case that they are a poor person. I’m drawing in now the teaching from last week here. If such sinful partiality that shows more honor to a rich person over a poor person is a form of sinful judging of that poor person. We see these ideas come together in the prophet Zechariah who said this in Zechariah 7:9-10. “Thus says the LORD of hosts, render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
It would be helpful here to point out that the definition of mercy can include at least two important aspects. One, we can think of mercy in the judicial sense in which someone is granted forgiveness and relief from the judgment they would have otherwise received. So, if someone is pardoned of a crime, we might speak as that as an act of mercy. A second way we can think of mercy is in the sense of compassion that someone gives another who is in some great need. So, for example, when we speak of helping a poor person with diaconal funds, we call that a ministry of mercy. Mercy can include the way you help someone in need, not because they paid you to help them or they deserved your help, but because you took pity on them and came to their aid. This too is a form of mercy. We see these two nuances of mercy coming together in the context of this passage. As we’ve known the mercy of God to forgive us of our sins, let us treat others with mercy as well. That mercy can involve forgiving others who have sinned against us, thus dispelling conflict and quarreling. That mercy can also involve showing kindness and giving help to people like the poor and the widows and the orphans in our life, and certainly not dishonoring such people.
In conclusion, James again directs us to some of the implications of our Christian faith. If we’ve truly trusted in the mercy of God in Christ, how could we try to cling to a harsh judgment toward others? It would be easy to take this as just another law that we struggle to keep. But it’s really something to speak to our hearts. God wants to cultivate his mercy and compassion within us. It’s like how John says we love others because God first loved us. Ultimately, we’re going to be able to show this kind of mercy because we’ve begun to taste it ourselves from God. Let’s become excited then today to look to show it to others and know that as we do it’s part of how God is making us more like himself. This is part of our Christian faith, his fatherly character being developed within us. That too is his mercy, that he would take wretches like us, adopt us as his children, and begin to reform his merciful, holy image within us. This he was pleased to do in Christ for indeed it is God’s pronouncement, mercy triumphs over judgment!
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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