As mentioned in the previous section, this entire second chapter seems to an appeal from James to his brethren to “hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” How that shows up is by not showing partiality to people who walk into the synagogue. Built upon the preceding context about treating all people the same (treat all men well, right, justly), James ties all this to the “royal law” which is found in the Bible. He has appealed to their sensibilities, asking pointed rhetorical questions of his brethren. Having shown them the folly of favoritism, he turns their attention to the sinfulness of partiality. He makes an argument based upon the word of God.
James 2.8-13 (ESV)
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.
9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.
13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
The Scriptural Argument (v.8-11)
James presents an argument which is intended to be somewhat of a test for his readers which answers the question as to which camp they belong to – the “well-doers” or the “transgressors.” The method he uses to communicate this is “on the one hand…on the other hand…” Coupled with an appeal to Scripture (Lev 19.18) and James’ argument packs a powerful punch.
It seems best to understand the “royal law” as being distinct from the Scripture passage. There are those who say that the “royal law” is the heavenly legislation issued by the King of heaven contained in the book of Leviticus. However, while James quotes from the Old Testament, his habitual practice is to reference Jesus in making exhortations to his fellow Christians. Indeed, Jesus sums up the Law and the Prophets in “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matt 22.37-40). While rooted in the Scripture and reaffirmed by the Savior, the “royal law,” which is synonymous with the “perfect law” (1.25) and “the law of liberty” (v.12), seems to be that kingly law issued by the King of Kings whereby the citizens of His kingdom walk.
Realization (v.8-9): James says that on the one hand, if you “fulfill” the “royal law” which is codified in the Scripture (Lev 19.18), “you are doing well.” On the other hand, if you are showing partiality, you work a sin and are shown to be a transgressor. James is calling for his brethren to realize the seriousness of showing partiality – to do so causes you to stand convicted before Almighty God as a transgressor, that is one who over steps the boundaries. But to fulfill (stronger than “keep” in v.10) the royal law is to live “according to the Scripture” – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In this James shows (even as Christ did through His teaching) that the royal law which is the law of the kingdom of heaven “does not replace, but takes up within it the demand of God in the Old Testament” (Moo 94).
What a fantastic thing James has called his fellow brethren and even the church today to especially when we consider it in the context of the teaching of Jesus. Our neighbors would not only include our Christian brothers, but also “perfect strangers” (Luke 10.29-37) and even our enemies (Matt 5.43-44). But to “fulfill” or “complete” the royal law according to the Scripture carries the blessing for the Christian that he/she is doing well (present tense). In other words, you are making it you habitual career to do that which is well pleasing to God. Indeed, one does the very thing for which he was made – obedience to the King. There is a rightness to keeping the law.
Explanation (v.10): Verse 10 begins with “for” (Gk gar) and carries the force of “let me tell you why.” James seeks to explain why showing partiality carries such a heavy penalty even causing one to stand condemned by the law as a transgressor. Most scholars believe this verse has a Talmudic reference: “If a man do all, but omit one, he is guilty for all and each.” Perhaps James, the good Jew that he was, was familiar with Talmudic teaching and knew that his readers were equally versed to some degree. However, this seems to a principle linked with the word of God. Israel was to keep all of God’s Law (Lev 19.37). Jesus touched upon the need to keep the whole law (Matt 5.19). James is merely saying “amen” to what God and Christ have already issued. Further, what is seen in this verse is the unity of the “whole law.” Someone has said that the law is a golden chain whose completeness is broken if you break one link. The unity of the law lies in the Lawgiver – He is One (cf. Deut 6.4). So failure at one point (in this case a very major point – love) leaves one “guilty of all.” That is, he has become and stands guilty before God.
Illustration (v.11): James’ illustration is thoroughly Jewish. It was common for a rabbi or in Jewish texts to juxtapose two commands – one “light” and one “heavy” – to show that it is equally serious to violate either. But James cuts right to the heart taking two commandments from the Ten Commandments of seemingly equal “weight.” It is interesting that he uses these two commandments: in chapter 4 he will call his audience “adulterous” (4.4) and Jesus’ own teaching concerning the sixth commandment equates anger with murder. Seemingly James is calling his brethren who show partiality essentially murderers (cf. 1 John 3.15). Nevertheless, he uses these two commandments to make a point: violation of one commandment is tantamount to violating (transgressing, going beyond) the whole law. You may not commit adultery, but if you murder you have transgressed the law. It almost smacks with James’ intensity characteristic in this work – by your partiality you are murdering!
A Salvific Appeal (v.12-13)
Having laid the groundwork concerning holding the faith and how that shows up manifesting love for one’s neighbor which is fulfillment of the royal law of the kingdom, James reaches a crescendo in which he makes an appeal to his brethren. Two present imperatives are given in verse 12: speak and act. James is calling for these Christians to make it their habitual practice to speak and act in such a manner that is in keeping with 1) the coming judgment and 2) the law of liberty.
First, the perfect and royal law is also the law of liberty (or freedom) for by it one is liberated from the yoke of bondage (Law of Moses, cf. Gal 5.1), either bondage of the Law or bondage to sin, death and hell. This is the law of the kingdom set down by the King of Kings. It is not freedom to do (anything and everything); it is freedom to be (children of God, disciples). So in light of the law of Christ, be mindful of your mouth and your manner.
Second, be aware of the coming judgment. At the judgment, the law of Christ will be our standard for judgment. So if we have been merciful, mercy will be shown us (Matt 5.7). If not, then the law has no mercy for us. This is wrapped in the context of partiality shown in Christian meetings to the rich and not showing mercy to the poor. How you treat visitors in the worship can have an effect on the judgment day. Hence, James’ final ejaculation in verse 13: “Mercy triumphs (or “glories”) over judgment.” That is to say our showing mercy in this life is proof positive of the Christ living in us and through us. This union with the fulfillment of the law, our Lord Jesus Christ, will be our only plea at the final judgment. How vital it is, then, to show the mercy of Christ to all men. At the judgment we will cry “mercy”; but have we shown mercy ourselves? If we have, then God’s mercy will triumph on our behalf at the judgment. John Chrysotrom says, “Mercy is clothed with the divine glory and stands by the throne of God.”