The Royal Law
“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well” (James 2:8).
“Royal” here indicates that it is what belongs to the king. This is God’s rule and law that says we are to love neighbor as self (cf. Lev 19:18). Interestingly, this statement comes right in the middle of dealing with the problem of partiality on the one hand, and failure to help others in need on the other. Verse 9 continues, “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
Partiality is sin. Christians have no excuse in showing such. Treating others as “lesser” because of their life circumstances is as wrong as adultery and murder, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (vv. 10-11). In Christ, both the lowly and the rich will find equal standing before God: “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away” (1:9-10). This is particularly poignant today since we live in a world that still feels the sting of oppression, racial tensions, and various injustices. Christians are to rise above these and treat one another with the honor and respect that ought to be given to all who are made in God’s image.
There are two matters here that we often apply in much broader ways, but which the context shows a narrower point being made:
1. The royal law is also referred to as “the law of liberty.” “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (1:25).
“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” (2:12-13).
The “law of liberty” is “perfect” to bring about God’s will in our lives. This law is merciful and gracious because it is the royal law of love. By hearing and acting upon it, we are freed from bitterness, anger, hatred, bigotry, partiality, prejudice, racism, and other evils like these. It leads to pure and undefiled religion, caring for others like orphans and widows, and treating one another with the respect due God’s image-bearers. By holding up God’s word as a mirror, we can know whether or not we are being merciful and loving, even as we also know that “with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt 7:2).
So much hatred and bitterness spills out today. It’s in the news. It’s on social media. It surrounds us and pulls us into a malicious vortex spinning out of control. We often wonder where the respect is, where the general kindness is, or why people are so hurtful and vicious in disagreement. The answer to this is the royal law. Instead of bitter anger, the gospel of the grace of God will prevail in our hearts. We will learn to love and show mercy, knowing full well that this is how we would want to be judged. Paul put it this way:
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:8-10)
2. Seeing the context of the royal law of liberty also helps us better understand the point about how faith works. “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:17). Notice the specific way this was just applied in context: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (vv. 15-16) That attitude is not acceptable for God’s children.
The royal law will lead us to work. By faith we love. By faith we act. Specifically here, by faith we act in a way that demonstrates the love we ought to have for others. The law of liberty opens our hearts to work for the sake of others, to be servants like Christ. We will not be content with walking by on the other side when people are helplessly in the ditch. Faith and love will be working together.
There are other passages that speak to the same spirit, and I encourage you to reflect and be reminded of God’s love for us so we will develop a greater love for God and others. As John says, “let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).