“Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?”
(James ch 4 vs 11, 12)
In understanding this, the only verse in the New Testament where the term ‘Lawgiver’ is used, we have to be sure to apply the normal rules of common sense and of exegesis. As always, context must determine how we see it saying what it is saying. And as always, Kipling’s six strong serving men will also serve us:
“I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.”
There are two errors (at least) that it is possible to fall into when considering Scripture. One is to play the ‘numbers game’. This has one basic rule – that the more often a word or phrase occurs, the more important it is. The wise realise that there are major aspects of doctrine which actually do not get referred to frequently – the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is one such. But the opposite error is to therefore argue that this question (of frequency) must not be a consideration at all. And thus upon sparse Scriptural grounds, all manner of strange beliefs may be constructed and adhered to. In this case, where this word only appears once, surely the reasonable thing to do is to evaluate it by its context, and not to import into it meaning that the author did not intend, or to broaden it beyond the scope it was intended to cover.
So we must ask here questions like
- Who was this written to?
- Why was it written?
- When was it written?
- What is the writer’s intention?
- How is what is said intended to challenge and correct?
… and we will let Mr Where rest for the moment.
We can see from the immediate description in this chapter alone that although James calls these readers ‘brothers and sisters’, they are in desperate trouble. Just look at what is true of them:
- They are fighting and quarrelling
- They covet and ‘kill’
- They are driven by wrong motives and sinful. selfish desires
- They are proud and arrogant
They have sold out to the world and are behaving like unbelievers. They have committed spiritual adultery – something that old covenant Israel was guilty of many times over. They are proud and resistant to God’s Spirit. They have only their own interests at heart, and are prepared to trample upon the needs of others and to besmirch those others’ names in order to get their way. No holds barred! And their outward behaviour demonstrates the turmoil of their hearts. All of this whilst still maintaining that they are yet Christ’s and are of the faith.
To deal with this dire state, James counsels absolute, unconditional repentance. They are to abandon these terrible behaviours and turn from them completely. They are to cast themselves, with utter abandon, on the mercies of God – to depose their puffed-up egos and re-enthrone their God in His rightful place. They are commanded to
- ‘wash your hands’
- ‘purify your hearts’
- ‘grieve, mourn and wail’ – this is not a feast, it should be a funeral!
And thus humbled, it will be God, not they, who lifts them up. When God lifts up, no-one can cast down. When God casts down, no-one can lift up!
Included in this corrupt and chaotic cocktail of wickedness is the business of speaking against other believers. James’ argument here is that anyone who thus ‘speaks against’ another ‘speaks against’ the law. That is, they weigh, in their own dubious judgement, not only the worth and value of the victim, but also the worth and value of the standard they use to perform that evaluation. They place themselves in the position of judge – ready to ‘hear the case’ and ‘deliver the verdict’. And here is James’ radical condemnation:
“There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. “ (vs 12)
These Jews knew all about the One who had given them the Mosaic Law – the Lawgiver of Sinai. He had demonstrated that, within the bounds of covenant, this was His right and His alone. So, those who presume to judge others are making themselves Judge/Lawgivers – they are putting themselves in the place of God Himself. “Who are you to do this?” asks James! A quote from Kurt Richardson’s commentary on James:
“James pointed out to his audience that God alone is the lawgiver, echoing the earlier affirmation that there is but one God (2:19; cf also Jesus’ declaration that “there is only One who is good” in Matt 19:17). Only he who gave the law is qualified to judge based upon the law, for this law of God is the instrument of God’s will by which some will be saved and some will be destroyed. Earlier, James had ascribed this saving capacity to the Word of God. God alone possesses the right to save and destroy (cf. Matt 12:4 and also 8:25; 16:25; Luke 6:9; 19:10). God’s prerogative of judgement, whether to grant life or to condemn, is why judging is prohibited for believers.” (New American Commentary)
So we can see that this passage does not have the aim of giving to Jesus the appellation of ‘Lawgiver’. It does not even name Christ – it speaks of ‘God’. It does not state that the role of the Son, specifically, is to be one of ‘new Lawgiver’. Otherwise it could be expected for the argument to go on to say ‘and here are His laws’. Would not this be the ultimate killing stroke against these wayward people? To say, ‘you are behaving like (this) when Jesus has commanded that you behave like (this)’. But rather the thrust of this is to depose these pretenders and strip from them their rebellious and pretentious assumption that they have the right to judge. This is ‘homology’ as much as it is ‘theology’ – about what man isn’t as well as about what God is. But it is not specific Christology. Surely our Christology points towards the contrast and dissimilarities between ‘lawgiver’ and ‘grace-and-truth-bringer’ (John 1 vs 17)
To derive from this passage that Christ is, in fact, Moses’ replacement as ‘the new Lawgiver’ is not supportable. To use it in that way when it does not even name Jesus specifically just seems to make use of it as a ‘prop’ to support the convictions of those who have already made up their minds that He is this. But this is not the proper way to understand God’s word, and the weakness of the argument actually damages their cause instead of supporting it.
Preacher & Teacher
Studied Theology at London Bible College
Lives in Northampton, Northamptonshire UK
Serves a moderator for the New Covenant Grace Facebook group.