By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: Please explain James 2:10 in light of the context.
Reply: James 2:10 reads: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all.”
In the previous verse James is teaching his readers not to show respect of persons. As an example of how this would be done, James wrote in verses 2-4: “For if there come into your synagogue a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, and there come in also a poor man in vile clothing: and ye have regard to him that weareth the fine clothing, and say, Sit thou here in a good place; and ye say to the poor man, Stand thou here, or sit under my footstool; do ye not make distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” The word “synagogue” (Gr. sunagoge) can also mean “assembly” or “a place of assembly.” The context favors the idea of an assembled congregation. Following the illustration of how respect of persons can take place, James says in verse 9: “but if ye have respect of persons, ye commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors.” By keeping all other points of the law, while showing respect of persons, did not excuse them. These verses are the background for the statement in verse 10.
The passage in question can best be explained by simply pointing out first, that sin is the transgression of the law (1 Jn. 3:4). Showing respect of persons is a transgression of God’s law; therefore it is a sin (v. 9). James is not teaching that they had violated other provisions of the law, such as “Do not commit adultery” and “Do not kill.” In other words, if they showed respect of persons this did not mean that they were also guilty of adultery and killing (murder). The meaning of verse 10 is that they were transgressors of God’s law if they violated one part of it. How one becomes guilty of “all” the law by violating one part of it is easily seen in civil law. A man becomes a criminal. What makes him a criminal? Is he a criminal because he has violated every law of the land? Of course not. He is a criminal regardless of whether he has violated one law or a hundred. When he violates one part of the law, he is a criminal because he is guilty of a crime. A murderer does not have to also commit the crime of stealing before he can become a criminal. He became a lawbreaker when he committed murder, and thus became guilty of the “whole” law. He may be keeping all of the other laws, but his violation of one constitutes him a transgressor of the law; thus he is guilty of the “whole” law.
We are not to suppose that if we keep part of God’s law, we are excused from keeping other parts of it. The person who steals, for instance, but declares that he does not lie, murder or commit fornication does not stand justified before God. We must submit ourselves to all of God’s will, not just part of it. It is not our will, but God’s that must be performed. By faith, we are to submit to every ordinance of God. Our conduct should be that which is enjoined upon us in verse 12: “So speak ye, and so do, as men that are to be judged by a law of liberty”; that is, by the law of God which liberates men from sin (see also Jas. 1:25). By it we are to live, and by it we shall all be judged (Jn. 12:48).
Guardian of Truth XXX: 9, p. 261
May 1, 1986