James 2:8-13 The Law of Liberty

FBH InternationalJamesJames 2:8-13 The Law of Liberty

Most legal systems are ones of obligation — you have to do this; you must not do that. We’ll get to the law of liberty later in the program. Right now I want to overlap a couple of verses that we looked at last time. These are the verses we finished with on our last program. We’ll begin with them on this one.

James 2:8-9 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

I wanted to repeat these verses because they do something most of us would rather not do. They collect all of the aspects of God’s standards under one name: “the royal law.” Personally, I find such a thing does unflattering things to my ego. As long as I look at all of the laws and principles of the Bible in separate categories, I can convince myself that I’m doing pretty well. Sure I might not do so well in some areas, but in others I excel. I overeat sometimes, but I’ve never been drunk. I slip in the pride department sometimes (you just caught me), but I’m not a liar. I may be weak at putting others first, but I’m not a thief. You know how it goes. We puff up ourselves by confessing to a few sins and then trying to dazzle everyone by shifting attention to the ones we haven’t committed.

James deflates us by reminding us that God’s standard of love — first toward Him and then toward our neighbours — is a unified whole. Whenever we commit any sin, we have acted unlovingly toward someone. It may be against another person, or against God, Himself, but if we have failed to be motived by and act out of love, we have broken the law. As James points out so bluntly in verse 9: “If you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” You’re not a good person with a pride issue, you are a transgressor of the law.  After getting this matter onto the table, James proceeds to develop the idea.

James 2:10-11 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Here James pointed out that, assuming it were possible, someone who kept the whole law of God, yet stumbled in one specific area would be guilty of all. That needs a little clarification.

When we think of “the law” the first thing that comes to mind is civil law — the law of the land. There, we see a hodge-podge of individual statutes that are often quite unrelated to each other. The state tries to cover all the possible contingencies and consequently is constantly making new laws as technology and culture change. But, in a sense, not all laws apply to all people at all times. Gun laws are for gun owners. Traffic laws place obligations on car drivers. Smoking bans place restrictions on smokers, and so on. All of these laws exist even though not everyone owns guns, drives cars, or smokes.

Not only are human laws narrow in their focus, they change. New laws are introduced all the time. They reflect cultural values. When I was a child, no one would think of limiting a person’s right to smoke, in any way. Now, tobacco smoking is highly regulated. At the same time, we see several jurisdictions reducing restrictions on cannabis smoking. Things that are acceptable in one time or place are against the law in others and vice versa. But God’s standards are different.

God’s law exists for different purposes than human laws. God’s law reflects His nature. By looking at it, we get a sense of who He is: His values, His priorities, even His purposes. Thus the law of God is a unified whole in a way the human legal systems are not. Consider this: Every government in the world today is busy writing new regulations, placing more and more restrictions on its citizens. Occasionally, old statutes are struck down, but often they stay on the books and just aren’t enforced any more. I’ve seen several collections of out-of-date-laws that sound ridiculous to us because they are so irrelevant.

While new human laws come into effect every day, the trend throughout the Bible is in the opposite direction with divine laws. Those who have counted them up tell us that the Old Testament has 613 laws. However, some were clearly seen as more important than others. That is why in the gospels we read conversations which draw these down to two chief laws:

Matthew 22:37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

You’ll notice that both of these commandments or laws are founded on the principle of love for others — first for God, then for our fellow humans. Jesus indicated that all of the obligations expressed in the Old Testament could be fulfilled by keeping these two general commandments. And speaking of fulfilled, Jesus said very clearly that He had come to fulfill the law.

Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

I like what William MacDonald said about this in his Believer’s Bible Commentary: “Since people had broken the law, they were under the curse of death. God’s righteousness and holiness demanded that the penalty be paid. It was for this reason that Jesus came into the world: to pay the penalty by His death. He died as a Substitute for guilty law-breakers, even though He Himself was sinless. He did not wave the law aside; rather He met the full demands of the law by fulfilling its strict requirements in His life and in His death. Thus, the gospel does not overthrow the law; it upholds the law and shows how the law’s demands have been fully satisfied by Christ’s redemptive work.

“Therefore, the person who trusts in Jesus is no longer under the law; he is under grace (Romans 6:14). He is dead to the law through the work of Christ. The penalty of the law must be paid only once; since Christ paid the penalty, the believer does not have to.” That’s the end of the MacDonald quotation.

Did you notice that Christians are no longer under the law because we are dead to it. In other words, it’s restrictions and penalties no longer apply to us. Think of it this way: I have several older friends who are at the stage of life in which it is prudent for them to give up their driving licences. As long as they have those, they are under the force of the entire traffic act. They are obliged to meet all of its demands or pay the fines for failing to do so. However, when they give up their licences and stop driving, they are free from the law (that sounds nicer than saying they are dead to it). The point is, it no longer controls their behaviour. The keeping of the law with its penalties is behind them.

This isn’t a perfect analogy, but it gives you the idea. When we believe in Christ, we give up our striving to meet the demands of the law. In Christ, the law has been kept and the penalty associated with breaking it has been paid. This is not a reflection on the law. It still has its purpose. It just doesn’t apply to us as it does to the unbelievers. As long as they refuse to believe in Jesus, they are under condemnation.

John 3:17-19 God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

So, to sum up James’ teaching about the law, he showed that the law is an integrated whole, not a collection of unrelated statutes. To fail in or break any aspect of the law is to sin or transgress the law. We cannot console ourselves with the thought that we have kept some or even most of the law. Any infraction in any area makes us guilty of breaking the law in its perfect wholeness.

We’ve reminded ourselves that Jesus came to fulfill the law, removing the penalty of death so that it no longer hangs over those who believe. That’s fine at the theological level, but what about our lives down here where the rubber meets the road? How should we live? James steps up to answer that question in the next two verses.

James 2:12-13 So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” RON: Here James tells us to live, not under the old law with its penalty motivations, but under a new law, the law of liberty. The keeping of this law is driven by gratitude for what Christ has done for us, not fear of what God will do to us.

The term “law of liberty” seems a little odd at first. You’d think that where there were liberty, there would be no law, and where there were law, there would be no liberty. Notice that James told his readers that they should “speak and do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.” In other words they were to be motivated by this law, whatever it might be. We know that much of our human motivation to keep any laws comes from our fear of the negative consequences of breaking it. If a law has no negative consequences, why would anyone obey it?

The one common character of the law that we find in the Bible is that it is humanly impossible to keep. Verses like Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16 specifically state that no one no one is justified by keeping the law. This is true because no one can keep the law. The law expressed in the Old Testament was impossible to keep and then Jesus made it even more difficult when He taught that even thinking the sin in your mind without acting it out leaves you equally guilty before God. In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul gave the purpose of the law. It was “our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

The purpose of any tutor is to teach us things. The law served this role by teaching us about our inability to meet God’s standards and to reveal that a relationship with God would have to be based on something other than keeping it. That “something” was faith. We are justified or made acceptable to God by our faith in Jesus. He did keep the law exactly as God intended and satisfied the Father by doing so and then by dying for all those who could not do so.

So the “law of liberty” is different from the law of the Old Testament. It governs our behaviour based on the mercy of God which He gives us because Jesus has already fulfilled the law. The purpose of keeping of the old law was to avoid punishment. The purpose of keeping the law of liberty is to experience blessing. It flows out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for us.