Vol. 2 - No. 5

May, 1983

Universal Guilt

by Vaughn D. Shofner

One of the paradoxes of the Book of James suggests the above caption. Without giving attention to all of James' paradoxes, I attend to only the troublesome text of our study: "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10).

Here is a principle of teaching that seems more likely to produce despair in the hearts of human beings than to promote virtue; a principle which seems to aim at no less than the exclusion of the noblest Christians from heaven. The principle is, that the sin against one article of the divine laws is to render one's self guilty of a breach of them all!

That the genius of the text may be more clearly understood, three sorts of reflections must be considered. First, we must fix the meaning of our apostle's proposal and clear it from all obscurity. Then we must enforce the sense that we shall give the text, and thirdly, we must characterize those sinners who enter such guilt.

In establishing the sense of the apostle's proposition we must learn whether James had in mind a specific sort of sin, or just any sin. Regarding the answer to this problem, we must consult con-textual fairness. The apostle had been endeavoring to animate Christians with love; not with prejudiced and partial charity which inclines us to pity that relieves the miseries of a few distressed neighbors, but with that universal respect which induces all the disciples of Christ to respect one another as members of the same family, and thus teaches each to consider all as one compact body of which common respect is the bond, "agape," the love of command.

The apostle approaches the subject with, "My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons" (James 2:1). These words are difficult. Specifically they say, Do not judge what faith Christians have by the rank which they occupy in society, by their attendants and dress. A person in all rags is often a nobler Christian than he who is all set off with splendor and fortune. And these words include the reprimand, do not imagine yourselves Christians while you regard the appearance of persons.

Having established this general maxim, James makes the application, "If there come into your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?" This was intended to inform primitive Christians that where there are the distinctions of princes and subjects, magistrates and people in Christianity, the rich would affect rank, aspire to high places, and gratify their vanity by placing the poor on their footstools in order to embarrass them.

James enforces his exhortation by an appeal to charity, and characterizes those sinners who enter such guilt. "If ye fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well: but if ye have respect to per-sons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." Therefore, he considers it as a sin committed with full consent, preceded by a decision of the mind, and approved by the one who commits it. These ideas are contained in the words, "ye have respect of persons, ye are partial in yourselves, ye are judges of evil thoughts, ye have despised the poor." And, what he affirms of love in particular, he affirms of all sins committed with the same dispositions. Every sin that conscience has been made to approve during the commission of it is included in the maxim, "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all."

We must divest the text of one idea to which it may seem to have given occasion, and acquit the apostle of teaching a melancholy, cruel morality. Thus we believe it wrong to place among the sins here condemned, daily faults because of frailties, and involuntary passions that are momentary. In our daily frailties there are imperfections of piety, of repetitious wanderings in prayer, the intrusions of the objects of senses, the low exercises of self-love, and other infirmities of the flesh. A person who is subject to the infirmities of the flesh does not necessarily give approval to them, but may deplore them. To such a person they are not conclusions from principles laid down with full consent; they are sad effects of that imperfection which God left in our knowledge and ability.

I am persuaded that the gusts of passionate urgings should not be included as guilt of the whole law. We live this life as a state of probation, and certainly we must not be ruled by passions. In spite of the inclination to pride, influenced by environment, we may become humble. In spite of the many influences toward anger, we may be gentle. We should not judge our condition by the enemy whom we are forced to encounter, but by the success with which we resist him. Involuntary passions which momentarily control us, when we zealously restrain them, are as exercises of virtue prescribed by our Creator. "If we walk in the light as God is the light…the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:7-9).

James did not endeavor to make all sins equal in the sight of justice. The person who adds murder to hatred is more guilty than he who restrains his hatred and trembles at the thought of murder. The overt act of adultery is more heinous than the sin of the man who looks on a woman to lust after her and commits adultery with her in his heart. "And that servant which knew his Lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given of him shall be much required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:47, 48). These verses contain the Lord's general principle by which different persons will be punished. All sins do not produce the same results from any aspect.

Fellow pilgrim, this upholds the idea that James did not mean that any sin inadvertently committed rendered one guilty of the whole law, but rather he who resolves in his own mind to sin, and who forces his conscience to approve the sin while he commits it, cannot in this manner violate one article of the law of Christ without debilitating the whole of it. The justification of one sin authorizes all other sins.

Gentle reader, there are sins which do not subvert the foundation of faith, and there are those which do subvert it. As simple examples, the law of Christ includes, "Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together," and, "Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him." The exhortation to assemble is mocked by many, and with minds made up to approve the sin while it is being committed. And many who are punctilious in submitting to the example, "Upon the first day of the week, the disciples came together to break bread," respect no order in their contributing to the Lord's treasury, and contribute as they please, or none at all, and force their consciences to approve the sin! "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all!"