instructor of souls, as it is their primal essence, is love.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Pondering the Royal Law
A Reflective Study of James 2:8
The great English poet William Blake (1757-1827) once stated that love is "lawless, wing'd, and unconfin'd, and breaks all chains from every mind." In other words, love is liberating. Love, by its very nature, refuses to be shackled; it must be free to soar within and even beyond the hearts of those who have embraced it. To limit love by law would be criminal. Thus, it is not surprising that, after Paul informs us that the fruit of the Spirit is primarily love (and 8 other qualities inherent to the nature of love and its practical manifestation), he immediately states, "against such there is no law" (Gal. 5:23). To regulate love is to restrain love; to legislate it is to limit it. Love, in the words of Blake, must be "lawless" if it is to be genuine; it must be unconfined and given wings
Therefore, it is not inaccurate, and it is certainly quite appropriate, to characterize love as a "royal" law, or a "kingly" law, or even a "sovereign" law, for it truly reigns supreme over all else, and is subservient to no other precept or principle. Paul even went so far as to declare that no matter how good we become in our daily lives, if we do not have love, all our good deeds profit us nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3). It is not the acts we perform that ultimately concern our Lord, it is whether or not we posses the proper motivation in our hearts for engaging in those acts. Jesus informed the church in Ephesus that He was aware of their many good deeds, and toil, and perseverance, but in spite of these He warned them that they were in danger of having their lampstand removed, for they had abandoned the love they had at first (Rev. 2:2-4). God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), and we are called to look like Him; we are children of the King, and we are to be kingly in our nature. Thus, we love just as He loved us and channeled that love through His Son, who, in His incarnation, became the visible reflection of that divine love. So, is it any wonder that the divine quality of LOVE should be characterized by our Lord's own brother, James, as a "royal law" (James 2:8)? He wrote, "If you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing well."
The vast majority of our English versions render the Greek phrase used by James as "royal law," although a few have opted for a somewhat different reading: "royal rule" (The Message), "law of the kingdom" (New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition), "sovereign law" (New English Bible), "supreme law" (New Jerusalem Bible), "kingly law" (New World Translation), "the most important law" (Contemporary English Version). These all suggest that our Lord's command to love one another is a true reflection of our King, as well as a fitting guiding principle for His subjects within His kingdom. Indeed, as some versions suggest, it is the king of all laws; the supreme command, subservient to no other edict. The apostle Paul declared, "The commandments, 'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not covet,' and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Rom. 13:9). Yes, it is the king of all law, the kingly law, the law of the King, the law of the kingdom! In this command to love one another (as well as the other part of it: to love our God) lies the fulfillment of all other laws, as well as the teachings of the prophets and the inspired writings and directives under both covenants. For those seeking "the list" of what our God expects of His creation, here it is: Love Him and love each other. List complete!!
As James clearly states in James 2:8, if one is truly following this "royal law," then one is "doing well" (i.e., one stands approved in the sight of the Lord God). Too often the people of God want to vastly increase the particulars of God's "list" to include personal and party preferences, perceptions and practices, with fellowship and even salvation either extended or withheld based on how well one follows our list. Divine approval, however, is never tied to such a humanly deduced list. Rather, it is tied solely and simply to the "royal law" -- do this and you "do well" ... do this and ALL law (whatever it may be) is fulfilled. A reader of these Reflections wrote me the other day, saying, "Al, I appreciate your energy to challenge the patternist mentality. I have read your articles all the way through, and I think you may have left yourself open for similar criticism." His point was: I have been asking the legalistic patternists for their "list of particulars" for almost 40 years, and they refuse to provide it. This reader wrote, "Get ready for those guys to ask you." Unlike the legalists, however, I am fully ready and prepared to "provide the list." It is short and to the point: Love God and love one another. There it is! When Jesus was asked for a list, this is the one He gave. It sums up the Law and the Prophets. Paul declares all other law subservient to it, and James characterizes it "royal law" (the law of the King, kingly law, the king of all law, sovereign law, kingdom law). Brethren, here's your "list" -- if you do this, you do well (so says James, the brother of our Lord).
"God's law is the law of love; and love is kingly. The divine nature itself is the foundation of virtue; and 'God is love.' Hence the divine law is the eternal rule and final standard of rectitude. It possesses supreme excellence and supreme authority. Every other system of legislation, and all other rules of duty, ought to be subordinate to 'the royal law.' This law, we know, cannot be unjust; for it is a transcript of the moral perfection of the divine nature, and is therefore the Alpha and Omega of all law" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 21: James, p. 35]. What does obedience to this "royal law" look like in action? In human form? It looks just like JESUS. Thus, HE is our Pattern! He is our great example of how to evidence this "royal law" in our daily lives and in response to the daily challenges of life. To help us in that transformation into His image, God has given us His Spirit, who indwells and empowers us. As we bear the fruit of that Spirit in our lives, we show forth the evidence of this divine love to those about us, and in so doing we keep the "royal law," and we stand approved by our Father. It is truly that simple. Dr. Charles Ellicott writes, "The sovereign law of love, thus expressed by James, is one so plain that the simplest mind may be made its interpreter, and the violation of it is at once clear to the offender" [Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 364].
"What James is implying is that obedience to the 'love commandment' fulfills the 'royal law,' which refers to the entire will of God, especially as revealed in the teaching of Jesus" [Dr. Ralph Martin, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 48: James, p. 67]. "Jesus taught that love is at the base of every duty, whether to God or man" [Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the Epistle of James, p. 119]. Too often we seek to make the specifics of our "duty" to God and others the particulars of some "law list." In so doing, we completely miss the point of our Lord's teaching. Particulars of compliance to the "royal law" may vary from place to place, culture to culture, or over the course of time. The "royal law," however, is eternal. To elevate the former to the level of the latter is a fatal error, and one that has led to the factional feuding we find in the church today. God's "law" is very simple; all the rest is peripheral. Notice the following story told by Guy N. Woods: "A Gentile, desiring to make fun of the tremendous mass of material assembled by the Jews in their traditions, once said to a rabbi, 'Rabbi, teach me the law, provided you can do so while standing on one foot!' The Gentile, of course, felt that the eminent scholar could not long speak in this position. The rabbi wisely answered, 'Love God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul; and your neighbor as yourself:That is all the law; the rest is mere commentary!'" [ibid, p. 120]. Similarly, Rabbi Hillel (c. 110 B.C.-10 A.D.), one of the most important religious leaders among the Jews (and who is said to have lived 120 years, just like Moses), is reported to have stated that the commands to love God and love others are "the essence of Torah; the remainder is commentary" [Dr. Ralph Martin,Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 48: James, p. 68]. Little wonder, then, that the apostle Paul should write to the Galatian brethren, "The entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Gal. 5:14). It is the king of law; the sovereign law; the law of the kingdom; the "royal law."
"Being the most excellent of all laws, we may call it the sovereign principle of our conduct" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 21: James, p. 29]. "It is 'royal law' because it is sovereign over all other laws, and is a law of such quality that on it hang all the Law (the Torah) and the Prophets (the whole Old Testament)" [Dr. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle of James, p. 570]. "It is called 'royal' because it is the supreme law to which all other laws governing human relationships are subordinate" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 179]. "The great King, God, is love; His law is the royal law of love, and that law, like Himself, reigns supreme" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1452]. Thus, those who "practice lawlessness," and who thereby will stand condemned at the final judgment, are those who refuse to "practice love." It is this (rather than non-compliance with a long list of legalistic, patternistic, party particulars) that constitutes "lawlessness" (contrary to what the legalists might tell you as they seek to tie "lawlessness" to such things as using multiple cups in the Lord's Supper, singing with an instrument, eating in a church building, having a Sunday School, etc.). To be lawless in the estimation of our Lord is simply to be loveless in our interactions with others! When we stand in judgment before our Father, it is how we treated others that will come up, not religious rules and regulations! This will come as a huge surprise to "the rigid religionists and legalistic patternists" at the great separation of sheep from goats! While they were busy performing their meritorious works of law, they failed to keep the "royal law." To these "lawless" ones, Jesus will say, "Depart from Me ... for I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite Me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after Me" (Matt. 25:41-43). All their religious exactness will profit them nothing, for they followed precisely the petty party patterns of mere men, rather than following the Pattern of the Person of Jesus Christ, the personification of the Royal Law -- LOVE. If we desire to "do well," in the words of James, we will followthis law.
Such a course through life is truly liberating. We are liberated from following the countless religious rules and regulations deduced, assumed and inferred by men, and are bound only to the "royal law" of love. "His royal law is at once a law of love and of liberty" [Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, p. 1452]. James refers to this as "the perfect law that gives freedom" (James 1:25). Therefore, we should all "speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom" (James 2:12). It is the divine standard of LOVE by which all will be measured in judgment. Those who look like Him will be approved; those who look like the world will perish along with it. Yes, when we submit to the rule of love (the royal law), we are thereby freed from bondage to all other law. As Paul told the Romans, "you are not under law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14). In this dispensation of grace we are liberated from law and are now free to simply LOVE our God and one another as fully and freely as we desire, to His glory and their edification and our enrichment. Brethren, while I will continue to plague the patternists for their legal list of particulars, and while they will continue to refuse to provide it, let me invite you who are weary of their ways to come and embrace the "royal law" of our Lord. Together, let us simply learn to LOVE. It will be a liberating experience!!