Being a Transgressor

James 2:9


From Faith, Love & Hope: An Exposition of the Epistle of James, AMG Publishers, 1997.

"But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors" (James 2:9).

In our study of the book of James we have seen one predominating trend of thought, and that is that the motive of the heart is even more important than the external action. In verse 8 James tells us that if the usher in the house of God gives preferential treatment to the rich visitor over against the poor visitor, and does it out of real love and not out of expediency, it is perfectly all right. But, of course, he says that in a more or less sarcastic way. And when he continues, "But if ye have respect to persons, ye are committing sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors." The verb translated "have respect of persons" comes from the same root as the noun in verse 1. It is judging people from their outward appearance, from their facial expressions, as contrasted to their inner selves.

James has definite reference here to the example he gave in the previous verses. He proceeds, however, with a slightly different trend of thought now. He shows the reader of his epistle that he is aware that this behavior is not accidental, but that it has become a habit with Christians in the house of God to put on appearances and judge others by their appearance. The tense of the verb here is such that it would indicate continual, habitual behavior of this kind. It is perfectly understandable for a Christian to slip once or twice, but to make a practice of slipping is something different. The Christian is not sinless, cannot be sinless as long as he has the imperfect body clothing his redeemed soul. The Lord is wonderfully gracious to forgive us our sins, but we should not take advantage of His forgiving spirit and become habitual sinners and act that way in the house of God all the time.

Here is a man who presumably is in the service of the Lord, an usher. He is observed giving preferential treatment to those who come to the assembly of believers. When he is told about his unseemly behavior, he immediately gives an excuse that what he does he does out of love and that his entire life is based upon the royal law, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" What is James trying to aim at here? It is Pharisaism-not to act in a Christ-like way and yet to shout from the housetops that one is the most wonderful Christian there is. Something worse than being a sinner is being a sinner and pretending that one is not.

An evangelist wanting to comfort someone who had just accepted the Lord said to him, "You see how even a publican was accepted when he cried for mercy."

"Ah," said the man, "but I have been a greater sinner than a publican. I have been a Pharisee!" The Pharisaic attitude is what James exposes here.

If you act habitually as I have illustrated above, he says, then you are continually working sin. That is the exact translation of the original Greek. The verb ergzesthe indicates that there is an effort exercised on your part to continue this sinful behavior. It is not accidental but habitual, premeditated action. Ergzomai means "to labor, to work." This word was also used to designate the manual labor of slaves. What we should be very careful about is lest, having been freed from the penalty and curse of sin, we become once more enslaved by sin, which is very easy to do.

The Christian believer will hardly be found stealing, killing, committing adultery, but it is quite easy for him to fall prey to the sins of the spiritual realm, to the sins that do not actually cause physical harm to anyone, but which stab the heart, such as this sin of putting on appearances to make others believe that one is what he really is not, and of judging others from their outward appearance. And the great difficulty is that these sins of the spiritual man cannot be easily pinned down.

Let us not fool ourselves, however. The people of the world are only too well able to see them and be hindered from entering the fold of Christ. As someone has said, "If the sun eclipses one day, it attracts more attention than by its clear shining a whole year." So it is with believers. They are supposed to shine, for they are the light of the world. The darkness in them can consequently be more readily seen, and thus attracts much more attention. God never hates sin so much as when He sees it in His people. It is in gardens that weeds are odious. We are not surprised when we see them in fields and ditches. So it is with the Christian. The more he professes Christ, the more is expected in his life. It is possible (and indeed, to be expected, until we are with Him in glory) for us Christians to fall into sin, an occasional sin. It is terrible, however, when we carry into the Church the practices of the world.

For a rich man to be given the first seat in a worldly lecture hall or theater is understandable, but not in the house of God. In the world the rich can buy the first place, but not in the kingdom of God. Just imagine, then, how God must feel when we, His children, work sin within the house of God willfully and habitually and with premeditation. If you happen accidentally to strike a friend, you ask him to forgive you, and he does forgive and forget. If he sees, however, that you plot and contrive his death, that is a different matter. He will not seek your company anymore. He will avoid you. The same is true of God. When He sees us fall into sin unadvisedly and inconsiderately, He will not withdraw from us for this, but if He perceives that we deliberately contrive sin, work sin, as James has it, He will be highly provoked and will depart from us. In our modern churches, we have carefully preserved our sins of discrimination, but God has taken His leave. James is not speaking of falling into sin, but of becoming slaves of sin within the house of God.

There is no article in front of the word "sin." "If ye judge from the outward appearance," he says, "ye work sin." What does the word "sin" mean here? The general meaning of the word is "the missing of the mark." God has a goal for each of us to attain. The aim of all creation, including man, is to glorify God the Creator and to give His particular and special creation, man, the greatest blessedness and happiness possible. One of the laws of happiness for man has already been quoted by James, "to love thy neighbor as thyself." When we discriminate in the house of God, and are motivated by expediency, we do not fulfill this particular and important law of human happiness. Actually, we are not making the rich happy by inflating their ego and making them believe that God would treat them the way Christians do. And we are not making the poor happy when we discount their spiritual riches because of their physical poverty.

Once a soldier was reported to Alexander the Great as having shown great cowardice on a particular occasion. When the soldier appeared before Alexander the Great, he asked him his name. On hearing that it was Alexander, he upbraided him with the dishonor that he had brought on such a name, and entreated him either to change his name or else act differently. It would be better for the cause of Christ to have fewer call themselves Christians if they are working sin and not righteousness.

Now who is to judge whether our actions are right or wrong? The next phrase of our verse throws light on this: "And are convinced of the law as transgressors." The first thing we should make sure of is what James is speaking about. The definite article in front of the word this time indicates that he may be referring either to the particular law, the royal law of love, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," or to the entire body of the Mosaic Law. One of the smartest tricks that Satan, and many of those who try to please him, use is to call to their defense Scripture verses and the Law of God. It is true that love should cover a multitude of sins, but they should be the sins of others and nor our own.

"Why shouldn't I love the rich?" asked the usher. "If it were I, I would certainly have liked the first place in the assembly of believers; so since the Law of God says, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,' I gave the rich man the place that I would have occupied myself" That is the reasoning of the usher, and he thought that thereby he would be able to rationalize his unscriptural and discriminatory action. But what about the poor man? Is he not our neighbor? To show kindness and courtesy to the rich is perfectly permissible, but not at the expense of the poor. To become rich is not against the Law of God and against the law of love, but to become rich at the expense of the poor is contrary to divine rule and sanction.

One's neighbor, as the Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated in the story of the Good Samaritan, is not necessarily one's friend, but often one's enemy. It was the Samaritan, a traditional enemy of the Jew wounded on the wayside, who proved to be the real neighbor. We are not really demonstrating love when we direct it only to the lovable and to our friends. Love, if it is the love which God implants in the heart of the believer, should be the kind that makes no distinctions. We are not to give the rich the first place because we would have sought it ourselves and thus try to justify our action. God's law of love demands that the believer should desire the humblest seat for himself. Thus the argument of our usher falls to pieces, and the law of love he called to his defense becomes his accuser.

It is also quite possible that James refers here to the entire body of the Law of Moses. This Law told the judges to do what was simply right, "Ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man" (Deut. 1:17). "Thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor" (Lev. 19:15). It is in this same chapter of Leviticus that this royal law of love is found, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (v. 18).

Let us notice once again that James is speaking to people who have tasted the grace of God in regeneration. No unregenerate sinner can ever be convicted by the Law, but by the Holy Spirit of God. How well an old woman put it to a preacher: "Preach the law first, then the Gospel, then the law again." The power of the Law in the life of the Christian is to prove him wrong and to make him acknowledge his shortcoming.

That is what the participle elenchmenoimeans. The Law of God reproves us with the truth in such a way as to cause us to acknowledge the sins within our own hearts, although that acknowledgment may not lead to the confession of the need of a changed life. It is a terrible thing for a person to know that he has done something wrong and not to seek to correct it. One can hardly find an unhappier person in this world thanthe Christian who lives in sin and refuses to amend his ways. The worst traveling is on the road frozen after a thaw. In the same manner, those are frequently the most hardened who have had some convictions, who have had some knowledge of the Gospel, some love for the Savior, and have then relapsed into their natural hard-heartedness.

There is a last word to which I would like to call attention and that is the word "transgressors." In the original Greek it is parabtai. This is a compound word made up of the preposition par, meaning "beside," and bainō, meaning "to walk or to step." A transgressor is one who has a prescribed course to follow but deviates from that course. It is stepping over a line or stopping short of that line or stepping off the road. Something must transgress before there can be a transgressor. That something is the specific commands of God in His Word that constitute His Law. As we read the Apostle Paul's writings, we find that he considers parbasis, or the transgression of a command distinctly given, even more serious than sin, hamarta. This thought should sober us Christians in a real way. Our transgressions of stepping out of line, short of the line, or over the line are very serious, and we shall be held accountable for them.

Let us imitate the barber who one week noticed that there was a real increase in his business. When he tried to find out why, he discovered that his competitor, another barber in the village, was ill. When the week was ended, he took all that he had made above his average earnings and carried it to his competitor with his Christian love and sympathy. We need more such Christians.

Spiros Zodhiates (1922-2009) served as president of AMG International for over 40 years, was the founding editor of Pulpit Helps Magazine (Disciple's predecessor), and authored dozens of exegetical books.

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