Why in the context of the “law of liberty” did James quote from the Ten Commandments (James 2:8-12) if they are not binding today? He is not by any means referring to it as the “ministry of death” like Paul did, so why is the text in James often used to prove that both the Ten Commandments are binding and are a law of liberty?
Let’s look at four points.
First, the Bible teaches plainly that a Christian is not under the Law of Moses. The Law was given to Israel as part of a covenant extended only to Israel. While all men are transgressors of the perfect and holy Law of God, only one group of people on earth were ever commanded by God to live according to that Law. (See our Exodus study for a complete teaching on this principle).
Secondly, the Bible teaches that no man can meet the test of the Law, whether Jew or Gentile. Every man has broken the Law, and as James says, if we break even one Law, we are guilty of the whole Law. In fact, the Bible says in Romans that the purpose of the Law was simply to reveal our sin; it was not intended to remedy sin or give us a recipe for reducing sin.
So even when a Christian (mistakenly) believes he should keep the Law or even just the Ten Commandments, he is still utterly failing at keeping the Law, and his failure only serves to reinforce the principle that the only purpose of the Law is to reveal our sin.
Thirdly, James quotes from the Ten Commandments to mock those who try to follow the Law. He isn’t reinforcing the value of follow the Law; he’s illustrating the senselessness of following the Law piecemeal, trying to keep one law while simultaneously violating another.
Notice James’ tone of sarcasm and rebuke:
James 2:9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
James 2:10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.
James 2:11 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 2:12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.
Notice James demonstrates the futility of keeping the Law partially. He calls obeying one of the commandments while violating another commandment “partiality.” In other words, keeping some of the Law is useless and foolishness, for it accomplishes nothing. When Christians endeavor to keep the Law, they are merely serving their own egos and fleshly pride, taking satisfaction in trying sanctify themselves by their own works, which is not possible. The Bible says that we are sanctified by the work of the Spirit in our heart as we walk in faith, not by following laws written on stone.
In v.12 James says that rather than trying to follow the Law of Moses, we should instead act as those to be judged according to the Law of Liberty. He isn’t saying that following the Ten Commandments is the same as following the Law of Liberty. That conclusion is a poor interpretation of scripture. The word “so” at the beginning of v.12 means “instead” in the original Greek, so the two laws are being set in opposition in the original Greek language.
Therefore, James is teaching that instead of following the Law of Moses, the Christian follows the Law of Liberty. The Law of Moses and the Law of Liberty are entirely different things. One is written on stone and given to Israel; the other is written on the hearts of those in the New Covenant. One is a ministry of death; the other a ministry of life (according to Paul). One has power only to condemn; the other brings power to please God. (Once again, we offer an extended discussion on the differences in our Exodus study.)
Some churches that practice legalism will teach that certain works of the Jewish Law (like keeping a Sabbath) are requirements for Christians, but this is not the Bible’s teaching. Legalism places unnecessary burdens on believers. Consider the harsh rebuke Paul offered to those who would teach that Christians must follow the Law:
Gal. 2:18 “For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor.
Gal. 2:19 “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.
Gal. 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
Gal. 2:21 “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
Gal. 3:1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?
Gal. 3:2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?
Gal. 3:3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Paul says if we attempt to rebuild what was destroyed by Christ’s death (referring to re-establishing the Law of Moses), we only prove ourselves to be transgressors of that Law. It’s only purpose was to expose sin, NOT to make someone more holy or righteous. We die to the Law when we accept Christ, Paul says (see Romans 7). He calls such people foolish.
Paul was speaking 2,000 years ago, but he might as well have been writing these words to those in your church or any church who teach this same error. We strongly recommend you listen to our Galatians and Romans studies for in-depth, accurate exposition of the Bible’s teaching on the relationship between faith and the Law.