James, in the second chapter of his epistle, addresses those who tend to make light of sin. His observation in this regard is straightforward and succinct: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (2:10). If we are completely honest, many of us will be forced to admit that we were taken aback the first time we were struck by the reality of that verse. We want to explain it away, find exceptions, make excuses. But the very purpose of that statement is to sweep all such rationalizations away, leaving us with several stark realities.
1. God is infinitely and perfectly holy. The Law is not fundamentally a list of do’s and don’t’s. It is an expression of the holiness of God. And just as the character of God is an indivisible whole, so is the Law that He gave. To break even one command breaches the unified wholeness of God’s character of holiness. Someone has asked how many links must be broken in a ten link chain before the object held up by the chain falls into the fire beneath. Clearly, if one link breaks, the chain is completely broken and its saving value lost. Anyone who has dropped a drinking glass on a hard floor can attest to a similar reality. The impact occurs at just one small point, but the glass completely shatters. One broken law (no matter which link), in essence, shatters the holiness God demands.
2. Sin is exceedingly sinful. Yes, some sins have more dire human consequences than others. The Law of Moses did not prescribe death for every offense. Some offenses required complete restitution or its equivalent; some required the paying of varying fines, etc. But that is looking at the violation of law as a civil matter, which requires that justice be done for the sake of victims of crime. But regarded in the light of soteriology, respecting man’s relationship with God, the smallest offense is an infinite breach. The gossiper or the proud person is no nearer God and no closer to salvation than the mass murderer or the child molester. Sin—any sin—is so completely inimical to God’s nature that it separates the sinner from God by an infinite distance. Boasters, blasphemers, adulterers, and kidnappers are all in the same boat before God.
3. The sinner’s case is hopeless. Since sin is exceedingly sinful, and since the smallest of sins alienates the sinner from God, his case is hopeless. After all, the vast majority of men avoid the “big” sins that society views as crimes and punishes with prison sentences. But who has never coveted something belonging to his neighbor? Or who has never told a lie? Anyone professing the latter, has just told at least his second one. The ultimate purpose of the Law is to leave sinners without excuse and without hope. All are forced to admit that their state in light of God’s Law is irremediable. If it is really true that to break one law is to be guilty of all, then man is truly, thoroughly undone.
4. Salvation must be by grace. James is not offering a treatise on salvation. But the implication of this verse is that if man is to be saved, it cannot be by his own efforts at keeping the Law. We must turn to Paul for a thorough explanation of salvation: “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh [i.e., man could not keep it], God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3, 4). God alone saves from sin.
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