10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at one point, he has become guilty of all.
11 For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.
13 For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
Today’s passage proclaims a message that is reiterated throughout Scripture, yet is often not taught in the Church – in fact, it seems to me that the exact opposite is widely believed.
You see, we live in a world that says, “I wouldn’t call myself a sinner…I mean, I’m better than that guy over there! I mean, sure, I’ve fudged my taxes a couple of times, maybe flirted with the secretary a couple of times, but come on – it’s not like I’ve ever killed anybody!” However, the reality is that any sin, no matter how tiny, makes us wretched before a just God. Stumbling at one point – pride, jealousy, whatever – makes it as if we broke every commandment. Think of it this way: If I have a business contract with somebody, and back out on one item out of a hundred, they can still legally sue me for breach of contract – the entire contract (or covenant) is broken by one little slip. The man we know as the Rich Young Ruler discovered this in Mark 10:17-22 – the man asked Jesus, “…what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” and claimed to have kept all the commandments. Jesus’s response was, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” The man’s one problem area was his greed – and it made him a transgressor of the entire law.
Another thing I wish to point out about this passage is that just because it uses the extreme examples of murder and adultery, it is not remotely saying that only “big” sins break God’s law. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” The same concept is applied to murder earlier in the Matthew passage, verses 21-22. Sins may have different earthly consequences – pride may have no ill earthly effects, while murder will put you in prison for life – but in the spiritual realm, they are all the exact same.
Now, let’s move on to the concept of the “law of liberty.” What exactly is it? This question is answered earlier in James, chapter 1 verse 25: “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.” Under the law of liberty, we no longer have to eat kosher or keep Sabbaths…but the point is still to please God. I believe that the law of liberty is comprised of what the Holy Spirit within us directs us to do (what most people would call our conscience), and as we get closer and closer to God, we become more and more intimate with this law. So how does this fit into context? Basically, James is saying that we need to remember that we are all sinners, no matter how self-righteous we feel, and we need to keep in mind that the point of walking with God is not to mark more attributes off our “Holy Checklist,” but to become intimate with Him and become more like Him. In a way, the law of liberty frees us from all the requirements of the Mosaic Law, yet it creates in us a heart to go the even greater lengths to please Him because we know that liberty was bought with a price – His precious blood.
Finally, let us examine verse 13. It serves as a perfect segway between thoughts. From the previous passage, verse 13 reminds us to show mercy in the capacity of not showing favoritism to those who are not struggling with sin. From today’s passage, verse 13 reminds us that the law of liberty is based on God’s mercy toward us. And the next passage talks about works being the evidence of faith – therefore, showing mercy is by no means a requirement for salvation or a means of obtaining it, but rather, if you are truly saved, you will show mercy to others. That last bit’s an interesting paradox we’ll dive into more on the next Bible study post.
Today’s discussion starters:
1. Being a very list-oriented person (trust me, I make lists for everything…), I’ve fallen into the trap of living by a “Holy Checklist” before, and it’s something God’s really had to work with me on. Have you had a similar struggle with this? How have you learned to correct this behavior?
2. When we live in a world so inundated with false theology (such as, I’ll get into heaven if I’m better than Hitler, and, there are small sins that don’t matter and big ones that do), do you find it hard to try and correct others when they express these (false!) ideas? What strategies do you employ?
As always, remember that these are merely discussion starters. If there’s something else in the passage you have a comment on (no matter how loosely related! J), please do!