If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. —James 2:8–9
James calls it the royal law, but his epistle is not the first place we find it in the Bible. Leviticus chapter nineteen is the first place we find this law. See it here in its original context:
Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD. Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.—Leviticus 19:16–18
In the context of not indulging in gossip, not bearing false witness against others, loving enough to correct a brother who is sinning, and not holding a grudge or planning revenge, God tells His people to love their neighbor as they love themselves. It is remarkable how important the Lord Jesus said this precept found in Leviticus really is.
Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. —Matthew 22:35–40
The commandment to love our neighbor is not only a tenet of God’s law; it is one of two principles on which every law in Scripture is based! These two principles are love for God and love for man. Men are to love their Creator with all their being. When they do this, it will follow that they are to love those that God loves. Perfect justice requires that we not only love our fellowman, but that we love him as we love ourselves!
The royal law (literally, the “kingly” law, belonging to the King) has great significance to us today, and we should be reminded in considering it of at least three facts:
1. The Royal Law Is the Basis of American Liberty
The personal and political liberty protected in the founding documents of the United States is based on the Founders’ appreciation of the royal law. The Declaration of Independence famously says that Americans, “Hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Very few societies in all of human history have thought that it is “self-evident” (not needing proof) that all men are created equal. Many societies around the world were and are based on the assumption that men are born very unequal in status, value, and rights. The reason that the writers of the Declaration could state that it was “self-evident” that all men are created equal with the same unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was that they had all been profoundly influenced by a great spiritual event called by history the Great Awakening.
In the years before independence, the thirteen colonies had been the site of gospel preaching accompanied by the Holy Spirit’s power. Although not all of the Founders were converted to Christ during the Great Awakening, they had been touched by the truths of the Bible, including the royal law. In truth, there is really only one way in which men are all equal. They certainly are not all born with the same talents, the same level of health or strength, the same opportunities, or the same intelligence. What our forefathers regarded as the important equality among men was the equal love with which we are all loved by the Creator.
We are not guaranteed equal wealth, equal pleasures, or equal success in life by the Declaration and the Constitution, but our equal standing before the law is protected based on the concept that no man is worth more than others. This is because Christianity taught early Americans that God loves us equally, and that we must treat each other justly and equally. It was in the American DNA because of the royal law, and there is no place on earth where this truth is valued unless the gospel and the royal law brought it there.
2. The Royal Law Condemns Us All as Sinners
Part of the application given to the royal law in James 2 is the proof that to violate it is to commit a sin. We are told that if we break it (which we all have done), we “commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors” (verse 9). Then we are told:
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, and yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.—James 2:10–11
The outwardly moral people who read his epistle felt good about not being sexually sinful, but were not convicted about the sin they committed when they looked down on the poor. So the apostle was showing them that breaking the royal law makes them all (and all of us too) sinners!
We have all broken the royal law, haven’t we? Who has gone through his life loving everybody as we all should? No one has. And the Bible says that if you break just one of God’s laws, we are “guilty of all” (James 2:10).
Now it isn’t really a completely bad thing to find that you are condemned by God’s law as a sinner. Certainly it is not good news, but it is the bad news that gets us ready for the good news (the gospel). We read in Scripture that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Jesus said, “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13). When He died on the cross, He died “for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16–17). So being a sinner means that you are the object of God’s love, a candidate for God’s salvation, and the reason Jesus came and died on the cross. The book of Galatians, in chapter 3, verse 24, states that, “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”
Some may argue that they are not such great sinners, but nobody who is honest and in his right mind would say that he has not violated the royal law. As a sinner, we must admit our sinfulness, and put our trust in the Saviour. By condemning us, the royal law shows us our need for salvation.
3. The Royal Law Is the Guide by which Christians Should Live
Without question, the thrust of the message of James 2:1–13 is that Christians should follow the royal law. When you do, then “ye do well” (verse 8). Christians, according to verses 12 and 13, should speak and do as “they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.” Verse 13 warns us that we must show our fellowmen mercy if we hope to have mercy from the Lord. Christians will be expected to have lived by the precept, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
It is unfortunate that so many pulpits today are silent about this precept. We all know about a lot of things we ought not do, but who hears preaching against breaking the royal law? Unbelievers have an idea of how Christians ought to live, but it is often different from the expectations Christians have for themselves. People look for Christians to be Christ-like, but they do not often think of Christ-likeness in terms of how many church services we attend a week, the generosity of our church giving, or what worldly habits we have given up. They think that a man who lives like Jesus will love his fellow-man and act like it. Now other inconsistencies can hurt the credibility of a believer’s witness, but neglect of the royal law can destroy an unbeliever’s confidence that he is a follower of Christ in any sense at all.
The issue that brought the whole subject up was the mistreatment of poor people when they visited the church meetings. The way we treat people is the whole point of the royal law. We should love them, and not hate them. We should respect them, and not denigrate them. We should reach out to meet their needs, and not pass over their problems without concern. If we would live like Christians, we must bow to the royal law.