For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
James spoke about the importance of faith without partiality – i.e. that Christians should not show favouritism – in the first half of James 2. The context at that time was likely a church congregation that had become prone to favouring the rich and despising the poor, and James obviously saw it a serious enough issue to address extensively in his letter. James did not mince his words – I see him as a rather direct teacher, and while some of what he taught may seem to, at first glance, contradict with the teachings of Paul, we must bear in mind that James never had epistle after epistle in the Bible to give us a clear outline of his theology, but Paul did. James only had 5 chapters, and for the most part I believe that it complements well with the teachings of Paul. In today’s study, we will examine this rather strong declaration by James that by stumbling at just one point renders one’s good work at keeping the whole law meaningless, and decipher his gentle reminder behind these seemingly harsh words.
For whoever keeps the whole law – What is the law? Usually, the law mentioned by in the New Testament refers to the Old Testament, especially the Mosaic Law, and this was likely the case here as well. If that’s the case, is it easy to keep the law? It certainly isn’t, but many would have prided themselves on their ability to follow the law. Take for example the Pharisee in one of Jesus’ parables in Luke 18:11-12 – The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ Many of us are typical Christians: we do good, we tithe, we serve actively in church, and when we look around, we know we’re good Christians.
But the key word here, perhaps, is ‘whole‘. The whole law.
and yet stumbles at just one point – More often than not, there are more than just one command that we fail, or that we struggle, to keep. The earliest example was Adam. He did all that God commanded him to do – but when the moment of temptation came, he stumbled, and the result was the entry of sin into the world. James understood that this as well, as he admits in James 3:2 – We all stumble in many ways. As righteous and godly a man as David also has his one, notable sin – his affair with Bathsheba. Moses, as close to God as he was, hit the rock twice instead of once. Perhaps the only one who can claim to have kept the whole law was Christ Jesus, who himself fulfilled the law in its righteousness. Many of us may perceive ourselves to have kept the law wholly, perhaps such as Paul before Damascus, but yet that wholesomeness is but just a delusion on our own parts.
is guilty of breaking all of it – it’s not that hard to grasp if we compare our commitment to God to a contract. I’m no expert on law, but even I know that not fulfilling a single subpoint in the contract is equivalent to breaking the entire contract, even if everything else is completed.
Some years back, I heard a pastor give an analogy while trying to dislodge our self-righteous illusion that we are all faithful to God. He has been married for close to 30 years, and in all these years he has been faithful to his wife, and thus he is known as a faithful husband. However, all it takes to destroy that, is just one single moment of err. One single mistake. It wouldn’t even take a long-term affair; it wouldn’t even require a mistress in the equation, just a single one-night stand, or a single kiss or flirtation, and his reputation as a faithful husband will go down the drain. Even if he has never done it at all in the 30 years prior to that and will never do it again in the remaining years ahead. Even if he brews coffee for his wife every morning and treat her like a precious jewel and love her with his entire being – all it takes is one single mistake, and he isn’t a faithful spouse anymore.
That’s harsh, but perhaps we modern Christians all need to be stricter with ourselves. Probably many of us – myself included – think quite highly of ourselves, thinking – well, not without reason – that we are rather good Christians, that we read the word of God an hour a day, we pray an hour a day, we tithe a tenth and join every church activity and help out with every needy brother or sister in Christ. We look around us and we think we’re faithful to God. And we probably are, by men’s standards. But sometimes we put ourselves on a pedestal and blind ourselves with the beautiful Christian image that we have and forget the little things that we do in our daily lives, and we delude ourselves into thinking that we aren’t sinners.
I think the emphasis of James is not to condemn us, as it might seem like at first glance. Yes, it is a reminder to us that we are all but just sinners who have been blessed. Some argue against James teachings by using Paul’s epistles, on the aspect that we are no longer slaves to the law and there is no longer any condemnation in us, but I think that is blatantly missing the point that James was trying to make here. It isn’t as much as it is to point out that we are sinners, as much as it is to encourage us not to think it’s okay to overlook certain parts of the law just because we keep most of it. We sometimes have a tendency to be selective Christians. We choose who we hang out with, we limit ourselves to certain ministries, we do not even think about the possibility of reaching out to certain minority groups due to our own biases, we apply certain commands of God but skip out on certain ones because they seem impossible or inconvenient. That was likely how favouritism became an issue in the early Church. It was not those who were bad Christians who were guilty of favouritism. Good, strong Christians who appeared to keep the whole law – they were showing favouritism too.
I think that is James’ emphasis here. Let us not think that it is okay to just follow the commandments that we think are easier, and conveniently ignore the commandments that we cannot keep. That is not a Christian life. That is but just a deluded Christian life. At the end of the day, it is one thing to struggle to keep the whole law, but it is entirely another thing altogether when we blatantly overlook some parts of the law and make no effort to keep them. The law is whole. Let’s learn to be obedient in full and not in parts.