“For whoever keeps the entire law, and yet stumbles at one point, is guilty of breaking it all.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
We like for things to be incremental. We want to be able to advance toward pretty much everything in life in a step by step fashion. Every big store offers payment plans for their big ticket items. Cars get paid off over three or four years (and increasingly more). Houses take 30 years even though few people live in one place that long anymore. Why can’t the same be true with getting into Heaven?
What James says here, taken out of context, is incredibly, even offensively discouraging. In context it’s not a whole lot better. The scary part is that it’s true with or without its context.
Out of context, what James is saying is that a lawbreaker is a lawbreaker is a lawbreaker. If you break God’s law (which in the minds of his Jewish background audience meant the Law of Moses) at any single point, you were guilty of the whole. Eat the wrong food? You bore the same guilt as a murderer.
Now, some people here will take this point and change the wording some to be sin is sin is sin. They’ll argue that all sin is the same in God’s eyes. That is, gossip is not different than murder. The result of that is usually to lay an extra heap of guilt on the listener.
I understand the idea, but its truthfulness needs to be parsed carefully lest it be misleading. While all sin is equally capable of separating us from God and leaving us mired in eternal death, it is not equal in its practical impact. If you are going to sin against me, I’d rather you steal my car than murder me. But, either sin on your part leaves you separated from God. Make sense?
In context, James was offering a word of challenge and judgment to his audience. The issue was that they were playing favorites in their churches. They were showing greater respect and deference to rich people at the expense of poorer ones. He gave them three very convicting reasons this was not okay.
First, they were unfairly judging the worth of the poor people in ways that don’t fly in the kingdom of God. Second, poor people bring gifts to a congregation that rich people often don’t and so you need to treat both with equal respect so they’ll stay around. What we’re talking about here is reason number three: it was a sin that made them as guilty in God’s eyes as if they had murdered the poor people.
The practical effect of all of this whether in context or not is that it deeply underscores our need for grace. Here’s the deeper truth to which James is pointing here: Sin separates us from God. Period. It doesn’t matter what sin it is, it separates us from God. If you’ve committed a sin, that sin separated you from God. Have I belabored the point enough?
The reason for this is that God is perfect in holiness. That’s simply His character. It is in His nature to be holy just as it is in our nature to sin. Well, because God is holy, things that are not holy cannot exist in His presence. His glorious holiness would simply burn them away.
Do you see the problem here? Let me spell it out. God made us to be in a relationship with Him. That’s the whole purpose of our creation: to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever in the context of a loving relationship. Sin makes that impossible. If we have even a single sin in our lives, we are not holy. Period. When you have a bucket of pure white paint, and you add a drop of black, you don’t have pure white paint anymore. That’s not being judgmental of the paint, it’s merely being descriptive.
Well, calling us sinners who cannot exist in the presence of a holy God when we have even one, little (as we might characterize it) sin in our lives is not being judgmental, it is being descriptive. Judgment will come because God is just, and that judgment will be to deliver us to the thing we have chosen—separation from Him where there is nothing good. But that’s not the point here. The point is that we are cut off by sin from our created purpose.
What’s more, we have no way of bridging this gap on our own. One sin and we’re guilty, separated from God. Grace covers this gap. Nothing else will do it. Only the grace of Jesus Christ won on the cross can cleanse our sin and make us able, in Him, to stand in the presence of our holy God once again. That’s amazing. I wonder, have you experienced it? You’re not worthy of it, but it’s there for you all the same. All you need to do is receive it.