In Part 1, we learned James examines four basic Christian doctrines in the light of the way we treat other people. Today, we will look at the last two.
The Word of God (James 2:8–11)
In recent years, believers have waged battles over the inspiration and authority of the Word of God. Certainly, it is a good thing to defend the truth of God’s Word, but we must never forget that our lives and ministries are the best defense. D.L. Moody often said, “Every Bible should be bound in shoe leather!”
James reached back into the Old Testament for one of God’s laws, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). In His Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus told us that our neighbor is anyone who needs our help (Luke 10:25–37). It is not a matter of geography, but opportunity. The important question is not, “Who is my neighbor?” but “To whom can I be a neighbor?”
Why is “love your neighbor” called “the royal law”? For one thing, it was given by the King. God the Father gave it in the Law, and God the Son reaffirmed it to His disciples (John 13:34). God the Spirit fills our hearts with God’s love and expects us to share it with others (Rom. 5:5). True believers are “taught by God to love one another” (1 Thes. 4:9).
“Love your neighbor” is the royal law for a second reason: it rules all the other laws. “Love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:10). There would be no need for the thousands of complex laws if each citizen truly loved his neighbors.
But the main reason why this is the royal law is that obeying it makes you a king. Hatred makes a person a slave, but love sets us free from selfishness and enables us to reign like kings. Love enables us to obey the Word of God and treat people as God commands us to do. We obey His Law, not out of fear, but out of love.
Showing respect of persons can lead a person into disobeying all of God’s Law. Take any of the Ten Commandments and you will find ways of breaking it if you respect a person’s social or financial status. Respect of persons could make you lie, for example. It could lead to idolatry (getting money out of the rich) or even mistreatment of one’s parents. Once we start acting on the basis of respecting persons and rejecting God’s Word, we are heading for trouble. And we need not break all of God’s Law to be guilty. There is only one Lawgiver, and all of His Laws are from His mind and heart. If I disobey one law, I am capable of disobeying all of them; and by rebelling, I have already done so.
Christian love does not mean that I must like a person and agree with him on everything. I may not like his vocabulary or his habits, and I may not want him for an intimate friend. Christian love means treating others the way God has treated me. It is an act of the will, not an emotion that I try to manufacture. The motive is to glorify God. The means is the power of the Spirit within (“for the fruit of the Spirit is love”). As I act in love toward another, I may find myself drawn more and more to him, and I may see in him (through Christ) qualities that before were hidden to me.
Also, Christian love does not leave the person where it finds him. Love should help the poor man do better; love should help the rich man make better use of his God-given resources. Love always builds up (1 Cor. 8:1); hatred always tears down.
We only believe as much of the Bible as we practice. If we fail to obey the most important word—“love your neighbor as yourself”—then we will not do any good with the lesser matters of the Word. It was a glaring fault in the Pharisees that they were careful about the minor matters and careless about the fundamentals (Matt. 23:23). They broke the very Law they thought they were defending!
The Judgment of God (James 2:12–13)
Every orthodox statement of faith ends with a statement about the return of Jesus Christ and the final judgment. Not all Christians agree as to the details of these future events, but the certainty of them none denies. Nor would any deny the importance of a final judgment. Both Jesus (John 5:24) and Paul (Rom. 8:1) assured us that Christian believers will never be judged for their sins; but our works will be judged and rewarded (Rom. 14:10–13; 2 Cor. 5:9–10).
Our words will be judged. Note the words spoken to the two visitors in James 2:3. What we say to people and how we say it will come up before God. Even our careless words will be judged (Matt. 12:36). Of course the words we speak come from the heart; so when God judges the words, He is examining the heart (Matt. 12:34–37). Jesus emphasized caution when speaking in some of His warnings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21–26, 33–37; 7:1–5, 21–23).
Our deeds will be judged. Read Colossians 3:22–25 for additional insight. It is true that God remembers our sins against us no more (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 10:17); but our sins affect our character and works. We cannot sin lightly and serve faithfully. God forgives our sins when we confess them to Him, but He cannot change their consequences.
Our attitudes will be judged (v. 13). James contrasted two attitudes: showing mercy to others and refusing to show mercy. If we have been merciful toward others, God can be merciful toward us. However, we must not twist this truth into a lie. It does not mean that we earn mercy by showing mercy because it is impossible to earn mercy. If it is earned, it is not mercy! Nor does it mean that we should “be soft on sin” and never judge it in the lives of others. “I don’t condemn anybody,” a man once told me, “and God won’t condemn me.” How wrong he was!
Mercy and justice both come from God, so they are not competitors. Where God finds repentance and faith, He is able to show mercy; where He finds rebellion and unbelief, He must administer justice. It is the heart of the sinner that determines the treatment he gets. Our Lord’s parable in Matthew 18:21–35 illustrates the truth. The parable is not illustrating salvation, but forgiveness between fellow servants. If we forgive our brothers, then we have the kind of heart that is open toward the forgiveness of God.
We will be judged “by the Law of liberty.” Why does James use this title for God’s Law? For one thing, when we obey God’s Law, it frees us from sin and enables us to walk in liberty (Ps. 119:45). Also, law prepares us for liberty. A child must be under rules and regulations because he is not mature enough to handle the decisions and demands of life. He is given outward discipline so that he might develop inward discipline and one day be free of rules.
Liberty does not mean license. License (doing whatever I want to do) is the worst kind of bondage. Liberty means the freedom to be all that I can be in Jesus Christ. License is confinement; liberty is fulfillment.
Finally, the Word is called “the Law of liberty” because God sees our hearts and knows what we would have done had we been free to do so. The Christian student who obeys only because the school has rules is not really maturing. What will he do when he leaves the school? God’s Word can change our hearts and give us the desire to do God’s will, so that we obey from inward compulsion and not outward constraint.
There is one obvious message to this section: our beliefs should control our behavior. If we really believe that Jesus is the Son of God, God is gracious, His Word is true, and one day He will judge us, then our conduct will reveal our convictions. Before we attack those who do not have orthodox doctrine, we must be sure we practice the doctrines we defend. Jonah had wonderful theology, but he hated people and was angry with God (Jonah 4).
One of the tests of the reality of our faith is how we treat other people. Can we pass the test?