11 Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?
Today’s passage is nothing more than a continuation of a thought process seen throughout all of ch. 4. It’s important to remember that, because whenever we should grab a few verses to look at them, it’s very easy to isolate the verses in neglect of the thought flow from which they come. Remember that James 4 speaks of a breakdown in relationships because of selfish desires and a failure to submit to God in humility (vv. 1-10). There is also a call to repentance, the promise of God’s assistance and the devil’s fleeing should he be resisted. God gives grace to the humble but resists the proud.
Given the context, it’s not overly surprising that James steps back into how his readers are to relate to one another again. He started with human relational breakdowns, went further down into the spiritual issues at play, and then resurfaces back into the treatment of others.
It is necessary that we see a spiritual dimension to our interactions with others; God is always present and ready to assist, but the devil is always seeking unsuspecting prey to devour, oftentimes pitting people against each other in an effort to destroy them with their own hands. Spiritual awareness of a real spiritual battle is tantamount to how we see our interactions with others; forget the spiritual, and we live for lesser reasons and fight with little sense that we may be falling prey to Satan’s plans.
Verses 11 and 12 take the reader to the issue of speaking evil of as well as judging the law. What does this mean? Speaking evil refers to being degrading and judging refers to criticism. There is a mirror effect in this verse: it says that when we degrade and criticize a brother (another person), we do it to the law.
Now what is the law? Most simply, it’s the Word of God, the Bible. More exclusively, we might point to the 10 Commandments as “The Law.” Jesus, though, pointed out many times that it wasn’t just the external keeping of it, but doing so in the heart as well. Let me highlight that briefly from Matthew 5:27-28:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old,`You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
The term “law” comes up ten times in the book of James found within three separate passages. We find them here:
- (James 1:25) “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.”
- (James 2:8-12) “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; 9 but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.
- (James 4:11) “Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.”
If speaking evil of a brother and judging a brother is regarded as equivalent to doing so to the law, consider John’s words in 1 John 4:20:
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”
John is saying that to hate one’s brother is to hate God; James says that to speak evil of and judge a brother is to do so to the law of God. When there is inconsistency between proclamations and character, it ought to put up a major red-flag.
James is saying that those who willfully sin and yet justify it degrade the standards of God and criticize those standards in a reinterpretation of what is good and acceptable to do. When a Christian remains in sin, they are functionally dethroning God and taking up lordship of their own life, defaming God and distancing themselves from Him. When we rewrite the rules, we are not doers of the law, but critics (judges) of the law; to do this to the law is to dismiss God’s authority in favor of our own.
James reminds the reader that there is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another? Only God can save, only God can destroy. Very similar in wording is Jesus’ statement found in Matthew 10:28:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“Who are you to judge another?” forms a rhetorical question given in light of one Lawgiver identified in the Lord. No one answers to another creature on judgment day, but to God. When we choose to sin, we must inevitably move God’s boundary lines in our hearts to accomadate the justification we may seek in harboring sinful attitudes. Poor treatment of others, especially believers, is inconsistent with a love for God and a keeping of His word. Only a person in denial who has subtly shifted the boundary lines could feel okay in their conscience when hating a brother and deceving themselves that they love God or His word at the same time. We really need to do some self-examination in those areas where there are inconsistencies between what we saw we agree with and what we functionally believe.
I encourage you (as well as myself) to pray to the Lord for the help to follow His word as He commands it, not as we would have it. We must repent in those areas of reinterpreting sin as anything less and move away from the crossing of those lines before God. Finally, remember the laid out plan provided in James’ earlier words in chapter 4 as a gameplan for repentance:
7 Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. (James 4:7-10)
May God’s word find you well today and whatever your state may be, may you be sensitive to Him and submissive to His desires for you today.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.