Sermon preached on James 4:11-12 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/25/2021 in Novato, CA..
James has been confronting his original readers regarding their conflicts with one another. He has also been confronting them on their use of their tongues – on what they say. We’ve been noting how those things can be connected. We can sin against someone in what we say. Well, today’s passage specifically develops this connection. James again confronts them on their behavior when it comes of how they are sinfully speaking against others.
Though we can notice that his tone changes a bit here. Last week it was such a strong word of rebuke where he called them double minded sinners and wretches. But then he pointed them back to the fountain of God’s grace. And so here he resumes referring to them as brothers. And yet while that should comfort and encourage them, it also should remind them that they have been speaking ill of their brothers. Such is the topic we find being addressed today.
Let us begin in our first point by considering verse 11’s admonition to not speak evil against one another. The word here sometimes is translated as “slander” which is when you attack someone’s character or reputation, often by making false statements about them. But the Greek word is even broader than that, literally to means to “speak against someone”. And so, it prohibits any sort of sinful speech that you direct against someone. Technically this could be done in someone’s presence, but often this kind of speaking against someone is done when they are not present. You speak ill of them and discredit them, and often behind their back. So then, verse 11 is a general prohibition of speaking in an evil manner against someone else.
James further adds to this prohibition in verse 11 when he speaks of the related concern of judging. See how he closely pairs these together when he refers both saying, “the one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother”. Notice that he again is concerned that this is something they are doing to their fellow Christian brothers. So then, James puts speaking evil against others in a similar category here as judging others. It seems James is not talking about two different sins but using nuanced language to help describe what he is addressing. The way they have been speaking evil against each other is also a form of sinful judging. In fact, this idea of inappropriate judging is at the heart of this passage and referenced in various ways.
We recall that Jesus spoke against sinful judging in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:1, he said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” That is an often abused verse because some people will take it to mean that we can’t ever speak out against anyone, regardless of their conduct or creed. But Scripture must interpret Scripture, and there are too many places where we learn that there are times when we must make judgments. What Jesus and what James here must forbid is sinful judging. Even James next chapter, in 5:19, speaks of how it is good if we help a sinful wandering brother back to the truth. Such implies that we would need to recognize and make a determination that a brother is wandering sinfully away from Christ.
And yet it’s James’s point in 5:19 that can help understand in contrast what he is condemning here. It’s one thing to lovingly urge a wayward Christian back to the truth. It’s another to go around and denouncing him before others and pontificating to others that the person should have no place in the church. It’s one thing to lovingly confront someone and try to bring them back to a place of spiritual health. It’s another to bad mouth them and try to get people to have nothing to do with them. Such sinful judging of others doesn’t give the other side a chance to share their side of the story or to defend their good name. Such sinful judging presumes to set yourself up as both their accuser and their judge. Such sinful judging is especially evil when you do it behind their back. And it is especially evil when you are actually in the wrong about your accusations or are misrepresenting their situation to make it sound worse than it is.
More could certainly be said of such sinful judging and speaking against others. It can come in so many forms. It is sinful to impugn people’s motives, making assumptions of their motives when they’ve not told you their heart. It is sinful to make false judgments, meaning judgments that are not consistent with God’s standard of righteousness. It is sinful to judge without any view to mercy or grace and with a harshness that doesn’t remember how much grace and mercy we ourselves have received from God. It is sinful to judge others with a double standard, meaning having a different standard for them than for yourself. It is sinful to judge others as if they are alone are sinful and you are practically perfect in comparison. It is sinful to make yourself like you are their judge when you are not. I could go on. But this is a problem. It’s a problem seen time and time again in the Bible. Just think of how Israel kept speaking against Moses in the wilderness. It was a problem in James’ day in the church. And today, the church of Jesus Christ is full of people acting like they are the judge of others, spouting off their judgments of others as if it were their place to do so. Likewise, it seems increasingly common to have people sit in judgment of whole denominations because of their perceived negative experiences in it, as if that puts them in a position to speak as a judge over the whole denomination.
Let us turn now in our second point to see how James says that sinful speaking against others and such sinful judging is actually us speaking against the law and judging the law. This is what James says explicitly at the end of verse 11. He says, “The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law.” That might confuse you when you hear it at first. It might be confusing for a moment until we realize he’s assumed part of his argument instead of saying it explicitly. What does he mean that speaking evil against our neighbor is speaking against the law? What does he mean that sinfully judging our neighbor is sinfully judging the law? Well, the hint is surely how he mentions our neighbor at the end of the passage. There, let us remember that the law calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, Leviticus 19:18.
That was the passage we read earlier in the service. And the context of Leviticus 19 is so clearly related to what James speaks about here. We typically hear the call to love our neighbor as yourself in isolation from its context in Leviticus. But a brief review of it shows that it is all about not committing injustice against your neighbor, nor about being a talebearer about your neighbor, or taking personal vengeance against your neighbor. In other words, all the same sorts of things that James is saying not to do in our passage for today. What’s the point? The law of God says not to do this. It was just James and Jesus who said don’t sinfully judge your neighbor and don’t speak evil against your neighbor. The law said not to do it. Really Jesus and James are just expounding the law when they taught these things.
Now, hopefully, you see what James is getting at here when he says to sinfully speak against your brother is to sinfully speak against the law. And to sinfully judge your brother is to sinfully judge the law. The law says not to do those things, so if you do them, then apparently you don’t think the law is right. If you blatantly disobey a law then you obviously don’t agree with that law. If you blatantly disregard that law you are setting yourself as the judge of the law and are saying it is a bad law. There is much irony here. James’ brief statement here exposes a sort of hypocrisy or internal contradiction when a Christians does this against another Christian. A Christian speaks ill of another, declaring they have broken God’s law, and the moment they say that, it’s actually themselves that are breaking God’s law. When you cast judgment on someone like you are their judge, you judge the law to be wrong because the law says not to judge them like that.
To further make this point, James adds at the end of verse 11 that if you are making yourself to be a judge of the law, then you are not a doer of the law. Here we should recall chapter one where James said we should be slow to speak, quick to listen, and should especially listen to the word, but not only listen to it, but be doers of it. But James says when you sinfully judge your neighbor you are judging the law and therefore not a doer of the law.
Let us now turn to our third point and see how James furthers his critique of all this in verse 12 when he reminds us that there is only one lawgiver and judge. Hopefully you see James’ logical progression. Sinful judging of others is making yourself a judge of both them and the law. And that means you are acting like you are the lawgiver with the authority to decide what should be a law or not. But James says there is only one lawgiver and judge, and you aren’t it! We know whom James has in mind. It’s so obvious that he doesn’t even tell us. The one lawgiver and judge is God. Yet, as obvious as that it is, apparently, we humans need to be reminded that God is God and we are not.
Because God is the creator and we are the creatures, we answer to him. Because God is all sovereign and we are his subjects, we answer to him. Because we have our life and breath and continued being in him, we answer to him. God and God alone makes the laws. God sets the standards. God says what is right and what is wrong. God says what is good and what is evil. This comes from God’s very character and nature. Despite the claim of atheists and relativists, there is an absolute moral standard, and it is a standard that is given by God.
Likewise, that standard is not open to our own interpretation and judgment. God is the judge. He as the lawgiver sits above the law. And he judges whether someone has adhered or not to any particular point of the law. It is God’s prerogative to interpret and apply his law to his creatures. It is the height of arrogance to think we can usurp that role from him.
It would be appropriate at this point to acknowledge that just because God is the one lawgiver and judge doesn’t preclude the reality of God delegating his authority in a limited and qualified fashion through lawful institutions. What do I mean? I mean that Scripture reveals to us that God has instituted various governing authorities on earth and granted them certain authorities, even to make certain judgments. We can think of civil governments. We can think of the government within Christ’s visible church with ordained elders and pastors ruling the church and even serving judicially at times. We can think of parents parenting requires lots of official judgments for the children. Other institutions could also be mentioned. It would be wrong to think that James here denies the right execution of authority of these institutions. But we would also agree with James here by stating that these institutions only have authority in so far as God has delegated such authority. We know that such earthly authorities have at times exceeded their authority and when they do that don’t have divine warrant to do so. It’s this fact that God is the one ultimate lawgiver and judge that tells all delegated authorities that they answer to God.
And yet the fact that God who is the lawgiver and judge has instituted such earthly authorities only further emphasizes the fact that people are out of place when they start acting like an authority when they are not. People who are not in places of such lawful authority often like to speak like they are. I am always amazed when I see this happening, for example, on social media. But it is not something unique to that medium. Likewse, we can think of the idea of a vigilante – someone who presumes to take the law into their own hands. Let us not be spiritual vigilantes. Or we can think of the biblical prohibition against being a busy body, someone who inserts themselves in other people’s business and begins to meddle in other people’s business. Let us remember such is not our place. We would all do well to grow in humility to not start speaking like we are someone else’s judge when we are not.
As James draws our attention to God alone as the ultimate lawgiver and judge, we see him give another reason why this is the case. Verse 12 speaks of God as the one who is able to destroy. God is not only the lawgiver and the judge, he’s also the executioner. Jesus taught in Matthew 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” The wrath of God is a terrible thing. Too often people flippantly curse out someone saying to them, “Go to hell”. If only they appreciated how horrible of a thing that is to say. Yet, no human has the ability to actually send someone to hell. But the righteous judge of all the earth can and does. We should not presume to put ourselves in God’s place to act like such a judge and executioner. We should not go around condemning others and trying to cut off others when it is not our place to do so.
Yet it is also hear in verse 12 that James gives us a small nugget of gospel again. For James says that this one lawgiver and judge is not only able to destroy, but also able to save. What wonderful words to hear the hope of salvation when we have been considering today a just and holy God who is judge, lawgiver, and executioner. For if we judge ourselves rightly under the law, we would conclude that we are guilty sinners fully deserving the destroying wrath of God to place us body and soul into hell. To rightly judge ourselves, we should shutter in fear of the righteous judgment of God. In light of God’s terrible judgment, we are so thankful that there is a hope of salvation.
And this God who is both able to destroy and to save has told us how to receive this salvation. It’s in Jesus Christ. It’s through repenting of our sins and turning to him. It’s in looking in faith to trust in his saving work on the cross where he took on God’s judgment in our place. God poured out his destroying wrath upon Jesus on the cross, so that he would bear it in our place. When we acknowledge our guilt before God and looked to Christ to save us, we are assured that are sins are forgiven. And since Christ Jesus not only bore our sins on the cross but also was raised and now ascended, we know that he has satisfied justice in the full and now sits exalted on high, which is our hope too in Christ. And so as Hebrews 7:25 says now of the exalted Jesus, “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Let us draw near to God again today through Jesus Christ, knowing that God saves us to the uttermost through the blood of Christ.
In conclusion, our passage ends with the question, “But who are you to judge your neighbor?” That is surely a rhetorical question. We have reminded today that there is a biblical notion of “knowing your place” when it comes to the temptation to sinfully speak against a neighbor or in making judgments against them. Let us be renewed in the humility that “knows our place” in the best sense of the terms. And in such humility, may we also know our place when it comes to God as our judge. May we know that place of being forgiven in Jesus. And so, in that humility may we be lifted up by the assurance of the salvation that we have in Christ. For the end of that salvation will not be an eternal punishment in hell but to be raised body and soul into the new creation, a place of blessedness, joy, and peace forevermore. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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