“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 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. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:8-13
James now points out the folly of trying to use the law to show we are righteous. Both in his day and today people considered themselves “good-living” if they generally kept all the big commands and didn’’t go around killing people or stealing left right and centre. But James makes the point that now matter how much law we keep, there is always going to be some area where we fall short. It will be different for each of us, but there will always be something. We may not murder, but we may look lustfully, which Jesus says is tantamount to adultery. We may not commit adultery, but we may get angry, which Jesus says is tantamount to murder. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
What James is saying is that the law is a whole, and if you break any part of it (which we all have) then the bottom line is you have broken the law, no matter how many other parts we have not broken. Consider this example – my wife recently dropped and broke a plate (fortunately it was a flowery patterned one I wasn’t that keen on in the first place…). It broke into some large and some smaller pieces. There would have been no point in me picking up the larger pieces and saying “look how much of the plate isn’t broken!” – the fact of the matter was the whole plate was broken. Likewise if we break one part of the law, we break it all. No-one can claim to be righteous by his or her own deeds, for we have all broken the law. But there is good news!
The good news is that mercy triumphs over judgement. God is rich and abundant in mercy. Mercy is when we don’t get what we deserve. And because we each break the law we deserve death. But God sent Jesus to take the punishment we deserve. Because of the cross, Jesus dying in our place, mercy can triumph over judgement and all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. This passage in James is a sobering reminder that now matter how good we think we are we are all law-breakers deserving condemnation. But it is also a reminder of the hope we have in Christ – there is noone too bad for the mercy of God and there is noone too good for the need of God. We all need God’s mercy and it is available to everyone.