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At this writing, the Senate Judicial Committee has completed interviewing Justice Amy Coney Barrett to be the next supreme court justice. While I believe that Justice Barrett is eminently qualified, this article is not intended to be a defense of her nomination. It is a discussion of the Royal Law (James 2:8).
Too often commentators want to simply default to, the law of Jesus, or the Law of Moses, or The Law of God. James is too deep and too broad to omit the full context of his epistle including the historical/cultural context. In this article I want to expound on these and draw out some abiding principles.
First, we must understand what the Royal Law is not. Many attempt to define the Royal Law from a limited perspective. Doing so leads to both contextual error and improper applications of what James is saying. So we must begin by stating what the Royal Law is not.
James addresses his letter to “my brethren,” indicating it is addressed to Christian believers. The content of the letter involves how Christians should live. There are Hebrew overtones both in style and content indicating that, while the epistle applies to all believers, Jews and gentiles, it was written to assist believing Jews in their walk with the risen and ascended Lord Jesus, James' half-brother.
Law is a frequent topic in this short epistle which has caused some to misunderstand it. The term, law, occurs 11 times[i]. Yet when James defines the Royal Law, he describes it by quoting Jesus, “the Royal Law, according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself,".[ii]
In the first occurrence when Jesus used it, He called attention to how this commandment was being perverted by the Jews in His day, You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.'[iii] The Law of Moses never taught that God’s people should hate their enemies.
In the second occurrence, Jesus was asked the question “what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?”[iv] If we interpret eternal life as simply getting to heaven, we make a big mistake, implying that getting to heaven is somehow earned by good behavior, and keeping the law of Moses. A translation, which would clarify a lot of misconceptions about the Bible, would more correctly translate eternal life as life unto the ages. It is life that lasts unto the ages. But what is meant by life? It refers to a quality of existence that begins the moment we are born from above by God and continues unto the ages.
This quality of life is first and foremost a personal relationship with God, one that puts God first and all else after. Eternal life is not simply living forever. The unbeliever is going to live forever also. The continuation of the dialogue demonstrates that the individual was not willing to give up his riches for this quality of life with God, considering his personal possessions of greater value.
The third and last occurrence was when a lawyer asked Jesus what the great commandment is. Jesus responded:
"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' "This is the great and foremost commandment. "The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' "On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets."[v]
It is this third and last occurrence in Matthew's gospel to which James is referring. The last statement, "On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets," is found earlier in Matthew 7:12 in the Sermon on the Mount, and has become known as The Golden Rule.
From this response, Jesus makes it clear that this one statement, while part of the Law of Moses, is not limited to the Law of Moses. But is an overarching, all encompassing law. Not just the Ten Commandments nor the Mosaic Law.
James is speaking to Christians in a new economy (dispensation) in which individual believers were to be governed by God’s Word through the power of the Holy Spirit. From then on they were individually and collectively the Body of Christ. To see this as somehow Old Testament law requires allegorizing the New Testament from Pentecost forward as well as much of the teaching of Jesus while He was on earth.
While this distinction may seem trivial, it is not. Jesus was not offering Himself as King at the time James was writing this epistle, nor is He offering Himself as king today. He came to the Jews as their king and to usher in the kingdom of heaven on Palm Sunday. This is what is meant by the Kingdom of Heaven, in Matthew’s gospel, the only place where it is mentioned in the New Testament. It must not be confused with the Kingdom of God which is from eternity past to eternity future. The Jews rejected their king and hence, the offer of the kingdom was withdrawn. Careful consideration of the contexts where kingdom of heaven is mentioned will demonstrate the difference. See my article regarding Two Kingdoms on this website.
So why did James call it the Royal Law?
The first occurrence of the concept of law in James’ epistle is in 1:25. He previously referred to this as the word of truth,[vi] and the implanted word.[vii] He then refers to it as the perfect law, the law of liberty. Clearly the Royal Law in James’ mind is the whole counsel of God and not just the Law of Moses or even less the Ten Commandments.
At the time of writing, Israel was not a nation, but was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. Nero was emperor. His reign from 68 AD to 54 AD was marked by tyranny, extravagance, and debauchery.[viii] The Roman Republic ended about eighty years before and was still remembered by some alive at the time.
The Roman Republic was not a democracy as we know democracy today but an oligarchy of powerful families with three branches of government, the Consuls, the Senate, and the Assemblies.[ix] The law of the land which came to be known as Roman Law was developed over centuries. Because of the dominance of Greco-Roman jurisprudence, Jewish law and Roman law were in constant conflict.
Roman law and, in fact the Roman Republic itself, developed from a conflict between the authority of a king who often ignored the will of the people and the people he governed. Checks and balances were incorporated to curb the abuses of government. We continue to enjoy the fruits of this struggle as does all of western culture.
James was writing to instruct Jewish Christians and all believers, whether they were in Jerusalem where conflict between Jewish law and Roman Law was most intense or in the outer limits of Roman authority. He was instructing them on how Christians should live. Each time law is used in James, a grasp of the historical context is necessary to understand why he uses the title, the Royal Law. It was the law of the land. The law that governs human behavior in a world of constant flux. As King Solomon said, life under the sun.
Now that we have a better grasp of why James refers to the Royal Law, we are ready to interpret and expound the abiding truths presented here. The preacher would do well to delve deeper into the subjects of Jewish and Roman Law for the many ways this text can be applied. It is not the purpose of this article to do so here.
James identifies the Royal Law as the Word of God in chapter 1.
Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 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 shall be blessed in what he does.[x]
It would be more than a hundred years before the canon of Scripture would be complete. However, Ezra, upon returning from captivity and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, set the canon of the Old Testament. King David already extoled the Law of God in Psalm 19. Many will recognize the beginning of this Psalm:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.[xi]
This Psalm is not about seeing God through His creation. In fact, just the opposite. It is extolling the law.
The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them Thy servant is warned; In keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults. Also keep back Thy servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me; Then I shall be blameless, And I shall be acquitted of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.[xii]
The Royal Law, like both the Jewish legal system and the Greco-Roman legal system, governed the lives of its subjects. But because they were both of human origin, neither was perfect and could not change human behavior.
The ability of the Royal Law to save the soul has led to much confusion, misunderstanding, and consternation in theological circles for centuries. This is the starting point of much false teaching. By seeing the book of James as an epistle regarding eternal salvation and equating this as soul salvation, the entire book has been misinterpreted. This led Martin Luther to label it the Straw Epistle, relegating it to a second level and a less important book of the Bible.
Many years ago, the association of churches to which I belonged, addressed the subject of soul salvation in executive session. They spent hours studying and deliberating on its meaning and finally came up with a statement. I do not have the statement in front of me. However, it revealed how difficult it was for them to reach a consensus. They never came to a clear understanding of soul in James 2:5. They published their statement in the form of a pamphlet which was mail to all of the churches and members of the association. One of the members of the executive committee who participated in that meeting was the secretary of the mission of which I was the director. When I clarified for him that the concept of soul is life under the sun, he was stunned. They wasted hours and valuable resources only to create more confusion when the answer is so simple.
James was writing about the need and means of changing one’s life in the present. God’s Word, to be effective, must be implanted. A farmer takes great care to choose the right soil, tills it properly preparing it to receive the seed, and then nourishes the seed so that it will grow into a healthy, productive plant. This is the Royal Law which, when implanted, will transform and govern the life of the believer.
Once we see the context and understand the purpose of the book of James, the next aspect of the Royal Law is it is perfect. Perfect in English tends to be a one-dimensional concept. Dictionary.com, while listing up to thirteen possible connotations, all of which are approximately the same, gives two definitions:
- conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type
- excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement.[xiii]
Merriam-Webster indicates that the definition, “mature,” is obsolete.[xiv This Like the notation above, is one-dimensional.
One interesting resource regarding the definition of perfect is thefreedictionary.com. It cities the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language which gives twelve connotative meanings to the adjective and two for the noun. One meaning given for the adjective is:
Grammar Of, relating to, or constituting a verb form expressing action completed prior to a fixed point of reference in time.[xv]
For the verb:
- Grammar The aspect of a verb that expresses action completed prior to a fixed point of reference in time.
- A verb or verb form having this aspect.
tr.v. (pər-fĕkt′) per·fect·ed, per·fect·ing, per·fects
To bring to perfection or completion[xvi]
Thefreedictionary.com, citing Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Diction, provides this note:
- of or designating a verb tense, aspect, or form typically indicating an action or state extending up to, or having results continuing up to, the present or some other temporal point of reference.
- of or designating a verb tense, as in Greek, indicating an action or state brought to a close prior to some temporal point of reference, in contrast to imperfect or incomplete action.[xvii]
While the English language seems to have lost the linear aspect of the term, we must not do so when interpreting Scripture because the linear aspect is essential to understanding the texts. Take Paul for instance. Phil 3:10-12 and 15-16:
that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus[xviii].
Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.[xix]
Obviously, Paul has the linear concept of perfection in mind. He views his life as a footrace. The effort he is expending is to know Christ and the power of His resurrection in his life. He does not consider he has reached his full grasp of this knowledge and power. However, he and others have each reached a level of maturity in their individual efforts to embrace this knowledge and power. It is the knowledge and power to transform the soul in this life under the sun.
This transformation is soul-freeing. Before Christ, we were slaves of sin and did whatever our hearts desired. No matter how hard we tried, we could not do what our consciences told us we should and should not do. But when we are born from above, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, we now want to please our heavenly Father. The only way we can fulfill this desire is through knowing God’s Word and walking in the Spirit. This elaboration is all throughout the writings of the apostle Paul. What James states in this simple epistle, Paul expounds in greater detail in letter after letter. The key is to be doers and not hears of the Word.
The most important outcome of the Senate Judicial Committee’s examination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett is the clarification of what law is all about. It is about providing justice for all and freedom to pursue happiness without governmental restraint. The Preamble expresses this clearly:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This statement originated from Roman Law as it was developed over centuries before James wrote his epistle and would have been on his mind when he refers to the Word of God as the Royal Law. Notice that James does not include what Jesus said was the great commandment in the law:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.[xx]
Instead, James mentions the second:
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself,"[xxi]
Roman Law, which involved over time, governed how to live in the Roman Republic and continues to influence Western Civilization. This is expressly stated in the preamble to the Constitution of the United States. The Royal Law of James 2:8 instructs how Christians should live under the sun. Man’s laws never achieve their full intent and are often manipulated for human profit. The Royal Law, when studied and observed, will bring life, liberty, and a quality of life unto the ages.
[i] Jas 1:25 (2), 2:8, 12; 4:11 (3).
[ii] Jas. 2:8.
[iii] Matt 5:43.
[iv] Matt 19:19.
[v] Matt 22:37-40.
[vi] Jas 1:18.
[vii] Jas 1:21
[ix] Gill, N.S. "The Roman Republic's Government." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-roman-republics-government-120772.
[x] Jas 1:21-25.
[xi] Ps 19:1-2, KJV.
[xii] Ps 19:7-14.
[xviii] Phil 3:10-12.
[xix] Phil 3:15-16.
[xx] Matt 22:37.
[xxi] Jas 2:8.