Two thousand years ago, the original audience of the epistle of James found itself facing many trials. The exact nature of these trials, while unclear, do show us that some wealthy people persecuted the Christians that James addressed (James 2:6–7). These Christians needed to know how authentic faith responds to such trials, and thus James wrote in order to give them instruction.
At the time of his writing, the original audience was not responding to their trials in a way that reflected true faith. Far from honoring all believers no matter their wealth or social status, the audience was giving greater respect to the affluent (vv. 1–5). While we cannot be sure of why this was the case, perhaps the original audience was hoping that their honor of wealthy believers would persuade these rich people to help bring an end to their persecution.
This audience likely prided themselves on being faithful to God’s “royal law” (v. 8). However, in showing partiality, they were actually being unfaithful. They were transgressors (v. 9) because they were not keeping the whole Law, and only by keeping all of the commandments do we really keep the Law in its entirety (vv. 10–11).
James is not saying here that salvation rests on our ability to keep the Law. We are unable to keep the Law perfectly and must rely upon Christ alone who has kept the Law perfectly and can alone put His people into right standing with God. Nevertheless, we must be concerned with obedience to God’s commands, for in our obedience we show that we possess true saving faith (see vv. 14–26).
At the judgment, we will be judged according to our conformity to the Law. Those who are in Christ will be accepted into God’s presence because of His perfect conformity to the Law. His righteousness is ours by faith alone, and the authenticity of our faith is displayed in that we are concerned to live in a way that will be approved by the “law of liberty (v. 12). This “law of liberty” is the “royal law” (v. 9), or the law of God as fulfilled by Christ. God’s law remains our guide to holy living, and we must continue to obey all of its moral precepts lest we be revealed as lacking authentic faith.
When James speaks of the “law of liberty,” he is speaking of the whole law of God as interpreted by Jesus. Because the ceremonial law has been fulfilled by Christ, we are no longer bound to keep its ceremonies and rituals. However, the Law’s sum and essence — loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves — still binds us today. Go to the Lord, and ask Him to enable you to live faithfully in obedience to His law in Christ.