If, however, you are fulfilling 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 and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 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. (2:8–11)
Not only is partiality, or favoritism, contrary to God’s character, inconsistent with the Christian faith and with God’s choosing the poor (and, conversely, consistent with the rich persecuting the poor and the righteous), it also is contrary to God’s royal law. In and of itself, it is sin, a transgression of the divine law.
Verse 8 is far-reaching and goes well beyond the issue of favoritism. In the Greek, the clause introduced by If is first-class conditional, meaning that If could be translated “Since,” or “Because.” Such a clause represents a reality that is assumed and self-evident. The meaning therefore is: If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture—and you are—then, as the law requires, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Royal carries the ideas of supreme and sovereign, indicating the absolute and binding authority of the law. When a sovereign king gives an edict, it is incontestably binding on all his subjects. There is no court of appeal or arbitration. According to the Scripture indicates that God’s sovereign, royal law and His biblical commands are synonymous. What James calls the royal law is, in essence, the sum and substance of the complete Word of God, summarized in Matthew 22:37–40 as perfectly loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Paul says, “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10; cf. vv. 8–9). When one loves God with perfect devotion, he does not break any of His commands. When one loves his neighbor perfectly, he never violates another person. Thus perfect love keeps all the commands, thereby fulfilling the whole law.
“A new commandment I give to you,” Jesus said, “that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). In the same vein, Paul explains that “he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:8–10). John admonishes: “Beloved, let us love one another,” reminding us that “love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).
The particular royal law James focuses on is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which is found in Leviticus 19:18 and is what Jesus Himself declared to be the second greatest commandment, next to “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37–39; Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). Jesus also makes clear who our neighbor is. He is anyone whose need we can meet, just as the Good Samaritan selflessly and generously met the need of the man he unexpectedly came upon on the road to Jericho, who had been robbed and beaten (Luke 10:30–37). The Samaritan ministered to him personally and even provided for his further care by others until he was fully well.
The purpose behind that law is obvious. Because we love ourselves, we do not want to be killed, lied to, stolen from, or abused. And if we love others with that same degree of love and concern, we will never do those things to them, thereby fulfilling God’s royal law. Most important, to love others in that way reflects our heavenly Father’s own nature and character. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God,” John says; “and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7–8; cf. v. 11).
Contrary to what many teachers claim today, Scripture does not teach that we must learn to love ourselves before we can properly love others. Quite to the contrary, it simply acknowledges that it is basic human nature to love ourselves, for “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it” (Eph. 5:29). Because we naturally love ourselves so much—whose mouth we are careful to feed, whose body we take care to dress, whose looks we are concerned about, whose job and career occupy our minds, whose life we are determined to make comfortable and happy—that is the same concern we should have for others. And when we determine to occupy ourselves with such love for others, thus fulfilling God’s sovereign law, we will have no problem with partiality (cf. Phil. 2:3–4).
Loving, godly impartiality does not relate to the highly popularized self-esteem and narcissistic self-admiration that are so much promoted today, allegedly in the name of biblical Christianity. The Christian who knows, understands, and fully accepts Scripture realizes that, in himself, he is a vile and wretched sinner who deserves only condemnation and hell, and that it is only by God’s immeasurable grace that he is saved, secured, blessed, and destined for an eternity in heaven with the Lord. The love that Moses, Jesus, and James talk about pertains to the God-given and God-blessed love that is concerned about meeting the genuine human needs of others—their physical needs; their protection; their growth in grace, holiness, and Christlikeness—in the same practical and beneficial ways in which we naturally and legitimately seek to meet our own needs.
You are doing well could perhaps better be translated, “You are doing excellently.” To love others as we love ourselves is to do more than just love satisfactorily. It is to love as our heavenly Father loves and as He wants His children to love. The writer of Hebrews tells us that, by showing “hospitality to strangers, … some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2). But whether they are angels or not, when we impartially help other believers, the Lord will say to us, “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matt. 25:40). And if one day the Lord says to us, “Well done” (Matt. 25:21, 23), it will not be for our talents, our generous giving, our leadership ability, or any other such thing, but for our love of Him and of others, especially other believers, demonstrating our faithfulness and obedience to His Word.
Like the preceding one, verse 9 of James 2 begins with a Greek first-class conditional clause, But if you show partiality, which has the meaning: “If you show partiality, and you do, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” As mentioned before, some believers in the churches to which James wrote obviously were guilty of such partiality. But as will be shown below, the main thrust here is against unbelievers in the church, pseudo-Christians who were masquerading as believers.
Show partiality is a verb form (used only here in the New Testament) of the noun rendered “personal favoritism” in verse 1. The form indicates that James is not speaking of occasional favoritism but of habitual, blatant partiality. Those engaging in it were committing serious sin and were thereby convicted by the law as transgressors (cf. Deut. 1:17; 16:19). Their lives were characterized by breaking God’s law, testifying to their unbelief. And just as loving one’s neighbor as one’s self fulfills God’s “royal law according to Scripture” and gives sure evidence of being God’s child, so does habitual partiality transgress that divinely revealed law and give sure evidence to the contrary.
Partiality is not merely a matter of inconsiderateness or discourtesy but is a serious sin. In this verse James speaks of it in two forms, or aspects. Hamartia, translated simply sin, pertains to missing the mark of God’s standard of righteousness, whereas parabatēs (transgressors) refers to someone who willfully goes beyond God’s prescribed limits. In the one case, a person comes short; in the other, he goes too far. Both are sinful, just as adding to or subtracting from God’s revealed Word are both sinful (Rev. 22:19).
More than that, whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. In order to become a lawbreaker and a sinner, it is only necessary to disobey a single commandment, for we are obligated to keep God’s whole law, not merely part of it. If we fail—as we all do—we are therefore guilty of breaking all of it. To break any of His commands is to defy His will and His authority, which is the basis of all sin. God’s law is unified; it all hangs together and is inseparable. It is like hitting a window with a hammer. You may hit it only once, and that rather lightly, but the whole window is shattered. In the same way, some sins are relatively light and some are extremely vile. But breaking even “one of the least of these commandments” (Matt. 5:19) shatters the unity of God’s holy law and turns the guilty person into a transgressor.
Paul wrote of this same truth in Galatians 3:10–13:
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”
As an illustration, James quotes from Exodus 20:13–14 and Deuteronomy 5:17–18: 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. James chose two of the most serious social sins, in both cases the breaking of which demanded the penalty of death. Perhaps he chose those in order to illustrate the extreme sinfulness of partiality. But he could have used any of God’s laws to make the same point. It only takes the breaking of one commandment, any commandment, to become a transgressor of the law. “For truly I say to you,” Jesus said,
until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:18–19; cf. 23:23; Gal. 5:3)
The Jews tended to regard the law as a series of detached commands. To keep one of those commands was to gain credit. To break one was to incur debt. Therefore, a man could add up the ones he kept and subtract the ones he broke and, as it were, emerge with a moral credit or debit balance.
That philosophy, of course, is common to every works-righteousness system of religion. The idea is that acceptance or rejection by God depends essentially on the moral standing of the person himself. If he does more good than bad, he is accepted by God. If the scale tilts the other way, he is rejected.
That totally unbiblical notion is firmly believed by many, many people, including many who name the name of Christ. God’s standard, however, is perfection. Jesus declared, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). God will accept nothing less. But because no sinful human being can possibly attain to that perfection, God has graciously provided for it to be imputed through the vicarious atonement of His sinless Son.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.… For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.… But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.… For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Rom. 5:1, 6, 8, 10–11)
Many Jewish leaders in New Testament times had tried to use the truth of God’s grace to vitiate His law. Recognizing that no person could possibly keep every commandment for an entire lifetime, they rationalized that God’s grace therefore led Him to overlook most disobedience. Some rabbis even taught that obedience to just one essential commandment was sufficient to satisfy God. Such warped, ungodly reasoning removes the sinfulness of sin and corrupts not only God’s law but also His grace. It was their self-righteousness that prevented them from seeing their need for a Savior, which is why those Jewish leaders so vehemently opposed Jesus Christ and the gospel of substitutionary atonement that He both proclaimed and fulfilled.
Both testaments, however, clearly affirm that there is no grace in God’s law. Without exception, breaking of His law requires judgment and appropriate punishment. There is no such thing as a small, inconsequential, or unpunishable sin.
10–11 To drive home the point, James stresses there are no small parts of the Law that can be treated lightly. Modern biblical scholars speak of the danger of having “a canon within a canon,” meaning an elevation of the parts of Scripture as more important than other parts. By their actions, those whom James addresses were not taking this part of the Law seriously. So James states plainly that to “stumble” on this one law constitutes being guilty. The word rendered “stumble” (ptaiō, GK 4760), which could also be translated “trip,” was used figuratively to speak of sin (e.g., Ro 11:11; Jas 3:2).
Jewish teachers of the era emphasized the unity of God’s law. For example, in 4 Maccabees 5:19–21 Eleazar, upon being commanded by the pagan king to eat unclean food, replies that there are no small sins, for to break the Law in small matters or great is equally serious. Paul also reflects this sentiment in Galatians 5:3, where he writes, “Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law” (see Moo, 114). For James and those of his day, the importance of the whole Law, and the Law’s unity, was grounded in the authority of God, who gave the Law. The same God who gave the command not to commit adultery also gave the command not to commit murder. Thus these laws are linked by the action and authority of the Giver. Consequently, if a person does not commit adultery and yet does commit murder, the Law has been broken, since one point of the Law has been violated.
2:10 / The reason behind this conclusion is a truism: Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. The statement does not mean that it is just as bad no matter which commandment one breaks (e.g., stealing a shoe is as bad as murder) but rather that if one breaks a law one demonstrates an underlying attitude toward the lawgiver and thus is simply a criminal. Deuteronomy 27:26 puts it this way, “Cursed is the [one] who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.” The particular offense may have been more or less serious, but the person stands under a curse whichever commandment he or she has broken. James’ argument is important in that he is showing that the rebellion against God is more important than the specific act and that no deliberate transgression of God’s teachings is unimportant.
2:9–11. This section deplores the violation of the royal law. If the readers truly practiced favoritism, they committed sin and stood convicted as lawbreakers. Leviticus 19:15 had warned against the practice of favoritism, against either the poor or the rich. It appealed for fair treatment of our neighbors.
Lawbreakers describes persons who have stepped over a line or a limit. Lawbreakers had mockingly stepped over God’s boundaries and performed a forbidden practice.
Verse 10 shows why those who practice partiality are lawbreakers. Some Jews saw God’s law as containing many detached requirements forbidding such actions as murder, adultery, and robbery. They failed to see its unity. They may have felt that strict obedience at one point would compensate for disobedience elsewhere.
God’s Law is not like a setup of ten bowling pins which we knock down one at a time. It more resembles a pane of glass in which a break at one point means that the entire pane is broken.
The primary application of verse 10 was to one who showed partiality for the rich over the poor. Violating this single commandment made a person a lawbreaker. We should apply the statement of verse 10 in other areas where we are tempted to praise ourselves for obedience at one point while neglecting to consider the points where we grievously disobey God’s teachings.
The Bible does not say all sins are equal. Stealing a candy bar is not the same as committing adultery. Thinking about murder is not as bad as committing the act. Every sin does bring guilt. It takes only a single sin to make a person a sinner. No act of obedience can compensate for acts of disobedience.
It applies to a hit man for mobsters who prides himself on his marital fidelity while he ruthlessly murders mob enemies. It applies to a citizen caught running a red light who excuses his disobedience by claiming that he had previously stopped for ten thousand red lights. It applies to professing Christians who feel that giving $500,000 for equipping a new church facility will secure their salvation after years of indifference. Disobedience of one section of God’s Law makes a person a sinner. No amount of imagined or actual obedience can compensate for that fact!
Verse 11 shows the unity of the Law lies in its origin in God. The commandments prohibiting both adultery and murder originated with God. To resist one requirement of the Law is to resist God, the authority beneath its requirements.
Keep the Royal Law
What does the Bible say about favoritism and discrimination? Perhaps a Jewish Christian asked James this question and then suggested that Scripture should be the measure of all things. Apparently James anticipates this type of question, which was commonly asked in Jewish circles. With the Old Testament in hand, James answers the reader who questions him and thus proves his point.
8. If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.
James goes to the heart of the matter and avoids details. That is, he is not interested in searching the Scriptures to find a particular command on the sin of favoritism. Rather, he states the fundamental principle of God’s law to which Jesus referred when he was questioned by an expert in the law. The expert asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36). Instead of listing a specific command, Jesus summarized the law for him and said, “Love the Lord your God … and … love your neighbor as yourself” (vv. 37–39; and see Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18).
James calls attention to only the second part of the summary, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He stresses this part, just as Paul does in his epistles (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; and compare Matt. 19:19). But the implication is the same: the entire law is summarized in expressing love for one’s neighbor. Keeping the second part of the summary means fulfilling the first part as well. The two parts are inseparably connected (1 John 4:20–21).
James calls the summary of the law “royal.” He does not elaborate and he refrains from explaining the word in context. He puts the sum and substance of the law in a conditional sentence that states a simple fact. He says, “If you really keep the royal law … you are doing right.” The believer who fulfills the supreme law of God, given in the Scriptures, is doing God’s will and keeps himself from falling into the sin of favoritism.
God shows no favoritism (Rom. 2:11), but shows his love to the poor as well as to the rich. If God is impartial, then the believers also should show love to all people without discrimination.
Perhaps James has in mind the broader context of the Old Testament teaching, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). In this context Moses tells the Israelites, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15).
James, however, refers to the sin of favoritism that the readers are committing. Therefore, he adds that by being partial (Deut. 1:17) they stand convicted by the law of love. The summary of the law condemns them as lawbreakers. The readers are actually working at sin, says James. And they do so by stepping across the boundary that has been given to keep them from sin, namely, the law. No one is able to say that he stepped across the line in ignorance, because the law specifically forbids showing partiality (Lev. 19:15). Transgressing the law of God is a serious offense to God that makes the sinner stand before him as a lawbreaker. The charge is leveled against the transgressor. When the law convicts him, no one can claim to be a partial transgressor. He is guilty.
10.For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
Consider the following issues:
- “The whole law.” James uses a sentence that states a condition. He says, “If anyone of you tries to keep the entire law of God, but stumbles in regard to one of the commandments, he is guilty because the whole law condemns him.”
The Jews in the time of James made a distinction between the more important laws and those that were less significant. For example, they considered the law on sabbath observance most pressing. But other commandments, like the one against swearing, they did not consider very important (see Matt. 5:33–37; James 5:12).
Even though James initially wrote his epistle to Christians with a Jewish background, he excludes no one from the obligation to observe and keep the law of God. Every reader of his letter ought to take note of the unity of God’s law. We cannot maintain that keeping the commandment, “You shall not kill,” is more important than the one that says, “You shall not covet.” Scripture does not allow us to add value judgments to the commandments. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches that nothing from the law will disappear “until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17–19). And Paul refers to the obligation of obeying the whole law (Gal. 5:3). Thus, in his discussion on the law, James, too, stresses that God’s law is not made up of individual commandments but that it displays unity.
Certainly, the law consists of numerous commandments, but transgressing one of them means breaking the law of God. If I stub my toe, not only my toe but also my whole body hurts. Every part of my body is integrally related to the whole. “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). If I break one of God’s commandments, I sin against the entire law of God.
God himself has originated and formulated his law. He also enacts and enforces it, because through the law he expresses his will. God said, “Do not commit adultery.” He also said, “Do not murder.” These two commandments are part of the law, that is, the Decalogue (Exod. 20:13, 14; Deut. 5:17, 18), and bear the same divine authority as the rest of God’s law.
The order of the two commandments is the reverse of the grouping given in the Hebrew Bible and the modern translations. But in the Septuagint the order is the one which not only James has adopted. Luke in his Gospel (18:20) and Paul in his letter to the Romans (13:9) have this same sequence.
James has selected the two commandments that are mentioned first in the section of the law that pertains to the neighbor (see Matt. 19:18–19 and parallels). The simple logic is that if a person keeps the one commandment but violates the other, he is nonetheless a lawbreaker and God declares him guilty.
Doctrinal Considerations in 2:8–11
Too often we look at the commandments from a negative point of view. We do so because most of them are cast in a negative form: for example, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal. But the Ten Commandments have a positive side, too. They teach us that within the boundaries of God’s protective laws we have perfect freedom. As fish thrive in water because water is their natural habitat, so the child of God flourishes in the setting of the law. He realizes that God has graciously given him these laws for his protection and safety. He knows that “the law of the Lord is perfect” and that “the precepts of the Lord are right” (Ps. 19:7, 8). He experiences the love of God in these commandments, so that he in turn can express his love to God and his neighbor.
Why does the believer keep the law of God? He keeps the law because in this way he is able to show his gratitude to God. The law of God, then, is a rule of gratitude for the believer.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 111–115). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 236). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Davids, P. H. (2011). James (p. 61). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Lea, T. D. (1999). Hebrews, James (Vol. 10, pp. 283–284). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 80–83). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.