James returns to a danger he has already highlighted in the previous verses. The danger was showing partiality or favouritism, and it should be obvious that this activity can never be an expression of loving another person.
Partiality is always an expression of loving oneself. If I choose to avoid those who are difficult to handle, it is because I love myself and want to give myself an easy time. If I choose not to share with someone because they have offended me at some time in the past, that is an expression of self-love that thinks I am too important to be offended. I may give benefits to an individual or to a set of individuals because I want to work myself into their favour. I may regard them as important and not bother giving the same benefits to those I regard as unimportant.
Yet when we engage in such behaviour we are breaking God’s commandments. The law defines us as transgressors, as those who have ventured beyond the limits that God has laid down. In fact, we then are doing something that God does not do, which is to show favouritism for selfish reasons, and this means that we cannot appeal to him for support. The law highlights clearly that the space we now occupy is outside the path of obedience and that is not a suitable place for believers to occupy.
The problem is made worse by the fact that in showing partiality James’ readers were breaking not just one commandment but were breaking the law as a unit. It is not possible to assume that we can obey nine and break only one. This shows the seriousness of breaking one commandment. Even if it is a smaller sin than adultery or murder, it is the one law we have broken and therefore we face the penalty of having broken it. Of course, we know that we have broken the law in numerous ways.
James chooses two large sins when he mentions adultery and murder. Perhaps he was thinking of David when writing this verse since they were the particular sins that he had committed when he became involved with Bathsheba. But I don’t think James is only suggesting that we look at David and imagine that we should not think of our own sins. Instead we are meant to think about what has been called the spirituality of the law. We see this in the way that the Saviour applied the commandments, including those on murder and adultery, in his Sermon on the Mount. Speaking nastily or angrily with or about another disciple is breaking the sixth commandment and having immoral thoughts is breaking the seventh commandment. The spirituality of the law reminds us that its application is concerned with more than our external responses.