Read James 4:11-12

"Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against 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 only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?" (James 4: 11-12 ESV)

Sit down with any given group—whether your Sunday School Class at church or your colleagues at work—and you will discover that there are a lot of opinions being passed around. People either approved of Sunday’s sermon or disliked it. They liked the way their favorite college basketball team performed, or they have suggestions about what the team could do next year. And everyone has an opinion about what the government is doing right or wrong. Yes, everyone has opinions about various subjects. And we do have a “right to our opinions”! We call it “free speech.”

There is a problem, however, when opinions go beyond the realm of public expression. It’s when our opinions attack the character or worth of another individual. It is what the Bible refers to as “bearing false witness” against another. In fact, this is what James is talking about in our text for the week.  But to understand this passage better, we need to see clearly what the writer is doing.

  • Please notice, as in all of our passages in the Book of James, that the writer is talking to an original audience of Jewish believers. That is, they may have professed faith in Jesus as the Messiah, but they were still greatly influenced by religious and cultural Judaism. So the words of the text must be interpreted in light of this cultural setting.
  • In addition, you will want to notice that when James talks about the “law,” especially “speaking evil against the law” (v. 11), he is providing a subtle reference to God. God is the One who has revealed Himself and His ways in a written revelation. This same law speaks for God, as if God Himself were present. Therefore, we can say that the “law” represents God.
  • James also goes on to say if we “speak evil against a Christian brother, we are judging the law.” Or to put it another way, when we evaluate the character of another person without all the facts, we are actually taking on the role of God. To make matters worse, we are no longer “doers of the law.” What does that mean? To be a doer of the law was to surrender to the law’s verdict that everyone is guilty before God and worthy of His perfect, accurate condemnation. A “doer” wasn't simply someone who performed religious rituals. A “doer” was someone who agreed with the law’s verdict about sin, judgment, and ultimate salvation.
  • James also says, “There is only one lawgiver and judge.” Do we really need any explanation as to what he is saying? God is the only one who has the right and the resources to evaluate the character of any individual. But be sure to notice that in addition to saying that God alone is judge, our text also says that God is the only one who can save. That is, only God who declares all guilty before His righteous standards is also the only one who can save from His just wrath and condemnation. That means that He can save the very person we are prone to dislike…and judge!

The author’s point seems clear:

We may have a right to our opinions, but not when it comes to evaluating the worth, the value and the character of another person, we must be extremely cautious that we do not usurp the role that is God’s alone.

And yet someone will say, “Don’t I ever have a right to pass judgment?”  Yes, there are places where our Savior calls us to examine words and behaviors that we encounter in the marketplace of ideas (cf. LK 6:43-44).  We refer to such assessments as “discernment.”  Christ calls us to be discerning regarding what is true and what is false when any given thought or idea comes our way.  Every Christian must be discerning, but that does not give us a right to pass final judgment on the individual.  If God is both Savior and Judge, final condemnation is His right alone.

So what is our responsibility, especially when people bother us, irritate us, and lure us into the courtroom of condemnation?  Our Savior teaches us that there are two actions that should characterize those who identify themselves as His followers.

We are to love people and pray for them (cf. MT 5:43-45).

That means that there may be someone in your life who acts and speaks in such a way that you are prone to pass judgment. But before you do, what would be an act of love that you could present instead of judgment? And instead of telling God how bad the person really is, how might you pray for that individual, so as to turn him/her back to God?

My guess is that you have a lot of things to do this week. Be sure to do everything to the glory of God. (1 COR 10:31)  Just make sure you don’t assume the role of a spiritual judge. That vocation is God’s alone!

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