Perfection, the Atonement, and James 2:10

For whoever keeps the whole Law, yet stumbles in one point, he is guilty of all. – James 2:10

I am going to write two blogs today. The first will be about what this verse does not mean, and the second about what it does mean.

Do We Have To Be Perfect?

James 2:10 is used in all evangelism programs to teach that we will go to hell if we are not perfect. Is this true?

I believe there is nothing true about it. As I said, we’ll talk in the next blog about what this verse means, but I want to argue strenuously that it does not mean that God will burn people in torment forever for the slightest sin.

God the Just Judge

The Scriptures say repeatedly that God is just. It also says that we are made in his image. Does anyone really think it’s just to torture people for eternity because they lost their temper once? Or told a lie once? Or were vain once?

Of course we don’t. In America today, we don’t believe it’s right to torture people for an hour even if they are planning the murder of thousands of people in a terrorist act. How can we also believe that it’s okay for God to torture people for eternity because they gave in to some small temptation once?

The context of James 2:10 is showing preference to a rich person over a poor person (vv. 1-9). That sin deserves eternal torment in the same way that Hitler’s sins do???

There’s something wrong with the person who thinks that is just.

That servant who knew his lord’s will and did not prepare himself nor do his will shall be beaten with many stripes. But the one that did not know, yet did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few, for to whom much is given, much will be required. – Luke 12:48

Look some time at Romans 3. There it tells us, as all evangelicals know and as is emphasized in every evangelism program, that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But what is that sin?

Look at Romans 3. It is not some small, one-time transgression. There it tells us that our mouths are full of cursing and bitterness, that our feet are swift to shed blood, and that destruction and misery are in our ways.

That is how we sin and fall short of the glory of God, not by stumbling in some small way.

 Our God of Mercy

The LORD … proclaimed, “The LORD … merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but he will by no means clear the guilty. – Ex. 34:6-7

God said this about himself before Jesus died. He also said, “As for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall because of it in the day that he turns from his wickedness” (Ezek. 33:12). Actually, he makes statements like that throughout the book of Ezekiel.

God has always been willing to give life to those who repent. He did not require the death of his Son, the sinner, or anyone else in order to forgive sin. He has always forgiven sin if people would just repent.

An example of this was Cain. Cain’s sacrifice of grain was rejected by God. Contrary to modern  myth, it was not because Cain’s offering was a grain offering. It was because Cain was wicked (1 Jn. 3:12; Gen. 4:7).

God tells Cain, despite his already being rejected for sin, that if he does good, he will be accepted (Gen. 4:7).

And King David tells us quite plainly that God doesn’t need sacrifice to forgive sin. In  fact, he doesn’t even want them for that purpose!

You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would offer it. You do not delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Ps. 51:16-17

Jeremiah adds:

I did not speak to your fathers or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” – Jer. 7:22-23

God doesn’t need death to be merciful. That is a myth invented by Anselm–God bless his soul, as he was just trying to be a good theologian–in the 11th century.

Jesus Didn’t Die for God

Somehow, evangelicals have developed a theology that Jesus’ death changed God.

God doesn’t change because he doesn’t need to change. He has always been perfectly just, perfectly merciful, and perfect in every other way. God did not need Jesus to die for him.

We needed to change. We needed Jesus to die for us.

Jesus died so that we could repent and live a life of holiness.

For what the Law could not do, God did. By sending his Son … he condemned sin in the flesh so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk by the flesh but by the Spirit. – Rom. 8:3-4

For to this end Christ both died and rose and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the living and the dead. – Rom. 14:9

He died for all so that those who live would live no longer for themselves but for him who died for them and rose again. – 2 Cor. 5:15

Our Savior Jesus Christ … gave himself for us to purify for himself a special people, zealous for good works. – Tit. 2:14

The Scriptures also say specifically that if we could have been righteous on our own, then there would have been no need for Jesus to die. He would not have had to pay for the sins that are past because if people had become righteous, then all their sins would have been forgotten (Ezek. 18:21-22).

Is the Law against the promises of God? God forbid. If there had been a Law that could have produced life, surely righteousness would have come by the Law. – Gal. 3:21

However, the Law could not produce righteousness because of the sin in our flesh. Therefore, “What the Law could not do, God did.” Christ had to die to break the power of sin over us.

Sin shall not have dominion over you because you are not under Law but under grace. – Rom. 6:14

The Judgment

Jesus did not have to die to change the judgment either.  The judgment was already just, and it was already abounding in mercy.

Nor did the judgment change. The New Testament says repeatedly that the judgment is still according to works. The judgment is not according to faith, it is according to works!  (Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:27ff; Rom. 2:6-8; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 20:11-15)

(I’m sure there’s many other verses. Those are just off the top of my head.)

There are no exceptions. The judgment is said to be according to works 100% of the time in the New Testament.

And don’t think that it’s just for rewards. Rom. 2:6-8 states clearly that the issue is eternal life.

If you want to argue that Rom. 2:6-8 only applies to non-Christians—which is foolish, but understandable because deception abounds today—then you need to read Gal. 6:7-9, which doesn’t mention the judgment but clearly states that eternal life hinges on walking by the Spirit and not growing weary in doing good.

The Fear of God

I know this may make you afraid. It makes me afraid.

Good, we are commanded to fear the judgment! (2 Cor. 5:10-11; 1 Pet. 1:17; and by inference 2 Pet. 1:5-11)

I’m sorry. It would be nice to have a free ticket. It would be nice to have no requirement to “be diligent to make our calling and election sure.”

It would be nice, but it ain’t so.

It’s worse for me. Here I am teaching these things, and James says that people like me will receive a stricter judgment (Jam. 3:1).

Wow.

Fortunately …

God Is Still a God of Mercy

Jesus didn’t have to die for God because God was already merciful. He’s still merciful.

We can’t live the like the world and expect to go to heaven (Matt. 7:21; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5-8). We can’t claim to know God if we don’t keep his commandments (1 Jn. 2:3-4).

But God has made a way for us. Jesus did die for us! Grace does abound to us!

We have a resource for living a holy life: the Spirit of God.

For those that walk by the Spirit of God, there are wonderful, incredible promises of mercy. As we walk in the light with Jesus Christ, “his blood cleanses us from every sin” (1 Jn. 1:7).

If we stumble and fall, we do not have an enemy in God or in his Son. If we sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One” (1 Jn. 2:1). If we confess our sin, “God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).

Notice that he will not only forgive our sin, but he will also “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” He will restore us to grace, and under grace “sin will not have dominion” over us (Rom. 6:14).

Summation

It is a glorious thing that God has done. He has taken those who were slaves to sin and condemned to judgment, and he has made them sons of God who can overthrow the flesh by the power of the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:13).

Let us never lessen this Gospel. Let us never reduce it to some legal transaction that strips the Gospel of its power to transform the sons of darkness into the children of light.

As for those who do reduce that Gospel, their condemnation is just.

I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation … For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. – Rom. 1:16-17

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4 Responses to Perfection, the Atonement, and James 2:10

  1. paulfpavao says:

    I did notice this. Thanks for commenting.

    This is a 2009 post, and I have wrestled through a lot of this, though I’m not sure I address Heb. 9:22 well in my more recent article, which you can find at http://www.christian-history.org/substitutionary-atonement.html.

    In answer to your question, Hebrews 9:16-18 is easy. That passage refers to the new covenant and that the covenant is sealed with blood, specifically Jesus’ blood. I don’t have an “answer” to that because I I believe it as is. Just as your grandfather’s will doesn’t go into effect until he dies, so the New Testament did not go into effect until “the death of the Testator.”

    Hebrews 9:22 is harder because I am saying that sins can be forgiven apart from blood, and Hebrews 9:22 sure seems to contradict me. I don’t like having even one passage that seems “difficult,” and generally I hold off saying anything until there are none or I have a really good explanation for the one or two “difficult” verses. In this case, however, I wrote the article because I think penal substitutionary atonement has dozens of difficult verses, is illogical, and implies some terrible things about God.

    That said, my explanation for Hebrews 9:22 is that the writer is describing the sacrifices of the Law. There are offerings made under the Law that don’t have blood (meal and oil offerings). However, all sin offerings under the Law have blood. He ties this to Jesus’ offering of his own blood, which is indeed tied to the remission of sins (Matt. 26:28; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14).

    Does that mean, however, that God absolutely cannot forgive sins without the shedding of blood? I think I presented a lot of Scripture saying that he can.

    But the situation God was dealing with when he prophesied the New Covenant (e.g., Jer. 31:31-34) was not one in which a bunch of repentant people needed their sins forgiven. Clearly, he says through Ezekiel that would be no problem. No, what God was dealing with was a people of whom the Psalmist could say, “There is none good, no, not one.”

    For such people a whole new covenant was needed. For such people came the sacrifice of Jesus so that sins might be “forgiven,” but even more so, that we might be “released” from bondage to sin and live in repentance and holiness. Aphesis, the Greek word translated forgiveness, first means release, not forgiveness. Forgiveness is the secondary meaning of the word.

    I don’t know how convincing that was in defending my description of the atonement, which is admittedly a little hazy, as most descriptions of the atonement are … except the penal substition desription, which is certain, exact, clear, and ridiculous, offensive, and unscriptural.

    Have doubt about the accuracy of my explanation, for I am trying to explain the greatest mystery of the universe, but I ask for no doubt about the inaccuracy of the penal substitution system, which is both illogical and unscriptural.

    • Tara says:

      That makes sense. The context is all about the priestly sacrifices and the Law, so reading verse 22 as a statement about those particular rituals instead of a blanket statement about forgiveness seems reasonable. Thanks!

  2. Tara says:

    I’m not sure if a reply to such an old post will be noticed or not, but I have a question and this was the most relevant post I could find. I was reading part of Hebrews today and wondered how it fit in with the concept of not needing a sacrifice for forgiveness. If you see this, can you please explain how Hebrews 9, especially verses 16-18 and 22, relates to this? Thanks!

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