Judging the Law

Evil speaking

After James’s fervent appeal for humility as the only way to win divine favor, he returns to the main idea controlling the middle portion of his epistle. It is as if he is writing a symphony and the time has come to restate a main theme so that we will hear the music as a unified whole. This theme is given out in the words, "Speak not evil one of another, brethren." Literally in the Greek, he says, "Speak not against one another, brethren."

The first statement of the theme was back in chapter one, where he warned us against an unbridled tongue (Jas. 1:26). Then in chapters three and four it became the principal subject of an entire movement, as he displayed the iniquity of the tongue in all its variations, including the following:

  1. false or unprofitable teaching (Jas. 3:1-2);
  2. words defiling the body or the course of history (Jas. 3:3-6);
  3. cursing directed against fellow creatures of God (Jas. 3:7-12);
  4. earthly, sensual, and demonic wisdom (Jas. 3:13-18);
  5. lust-driven speech leading to wars and fightings (Jas. 4:1-3);
  6. speech seeking friendship with the world (Jas. 4:4-5);
  7. words serving as the vehicle of pride (Jas. 4:6-10).

When at last he came to pride, he touched the first and fundamental sin. All sin proceeds from the prideful illusion that self has the authority to determine right and wrong. This illusion is equivalent to putting self in the place of God, the same course chosen by Satan when he rebelled, and therefore it is pride of Satanic proportions.

In all these sins we both corrupt ourselves and offend God. But also we victimize a brother. As James brings his discussion of speech to a close, he focuses on the kind of speech that does the greatest damage to others. His purpose in coming to this climax is to show how the central message of his epistle applies to speech. The message prominent throughout is that genuine faith produces a life full of good works, bringing blessing to others rather than harm. Thus, a heart alive with faith should never use deadly words.

As examples of especially harmful speech, he gives two: speaking against a brother and judging a brother (v. 11a). The first, speaking against a brother, refers to any faultfinding with an evil purpose. It is one thing to confront a brother with criticism for the purpose of helping him. Indeed those with spiritual discernment are commanded to help any fellow believer ensnared by sin (Gal. 6:1-2; Jude 22-23). But it is another thing to use criticism as a weapon to tear down a brother. Scripture clearly lays out the difference between the two kinds of criticism. The kind that can rightly be called constructive respects the six rules we gave earlier (see discussion of James 1:26) for any personal confrontation, including Christian counseling. It is (1) private, (2) just, (3) humble, (4) unhypocritical, (5) resistant to being recruited to the same fault, and (6) gentle.

To these six we will now add some others that are more fundamental. Paul said, "That we henceforth be no more children . . . ; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ" (Eph. 4:14–15). From Paul’s description of proper dealings between brothers in Christ, we derive two rules for criticism.

  1. It is true. Yet much of the criticism that passes through our minds is simply nonsense! We are quick to find evil motives where none exists. For example, if someone walks by without greeting me, I had better be sure that the slight was deliberate before I decide that I have been snubbed. Maybe the person was too preoccupied to see me.
  2. Above all, it proceeds from love and uses loving words. Love is the motive, the method, and the outcome.

Any critical speech that does not meet these eight criteria is exactly what James condemns as speaking against a brother.


The second kind of evil speaking that he mentions is judging. Again, he is alluding to the Sermon on the Mount. He is recalling Jesus’ solemn warning, "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matt. 7:1). Judging is basically hostile. It takes criticism a step beyond mere faultfinding to the stage of passing sentence, as in a court of law. It not only holds the offender guilty, but also decides that he should suffer evil consequences. Perhaps this sense of what justice requires will foster attempts to punish him, whether by cutting him off from friendship, or running down his reputation, or driving him from the church. Judging is therefore always a sin.

James teaches us exactly why it is a sin. It is a violation of the law (v. 11b). The law he has in mind is undoubtedly the same law that he has previously upheld as the ultimate standard for Christian conduct, calling it the perfect law of liberty (Jas. 1:25; 2:12) and the royal law (Jas. 2:8). It is the same law that Jesus cited as the summation of all duty to our fellow man (Matt. 22:37–40). The requirement that it lays upon us is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and our neighbor certainly includes our brother. When we make our brother the target of judgmental criticism, we are treating him the opposite of how we wish to be treated. Therefore, we are depriving him of real love and breaking the royal law.

But James wants us to understand that evil speaking is not just a violation of the law. It is far worse than that. It is a blatant attempt to undermine the authority of the law and to cast it aside. The evildoer is not only attacking his brother; he is attacking the law itself. He is speaking against the law in the sense that he is denying that the law is good, and he is judging the law in the sense that he is trying to overthrow it. When James says to the evildoer, "If thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge," he means that whereas the evildoer should willingly remain under the law, he is trying to lift himself above it—to make himself the final arbiter of right and wrong—to stand in judgment of what God has decreed as though he were a being superior even to God.

God's supremacy

James rebukes such arrogance in words that are decidedly sarcastic (v. 12). He says that there is only one qualified source of law: God. He alone is qualified because He alone has power of enforcement. He can give life or death as He chooses. A man, on the other hand, is a mortal being with no power over His own destiny or anyone else’s. He is a cosmic weakling. Any attempt to make himself a lawgiver higher than God, with the right to judge God’s laws, is folly beyond measure. So, James concludes, "Who art thou that judgest another?" In other words, "You who take it upon yourself to set aside the law of God, who do you think you are? Are you above God?"

We derive the same perspective from Aesop’s fable of the lion and the hares.

King Lion was fair-minded as well as mighty. He saw that the strongest animals did as they pleased, often hurting the weaker ones, and he felt this was wrong. So he issued a decree: "Might does not make right. While I am King, it shall be the law that everyone—big or little—must do what is fair."

This Law of Fairness was popular with most animals. But one day the hares marched to the palace to protest. "We demand a turn on the throne! The law says, ‘Might does not make right.’ Therefore you have no right to be king all the time, just because you’re stronger than we are."

"Chatter, chatter," said the lion in disgust. "One reason I am King instead of you is I don’t chatter." Suddenly he stood up, showing his teeth and claws. "What I do is ROAR!" All the animals in the kingdom heard that roar. Even tigers, far off in the jungle, heard it, and remembered the law.

The lion returned to his throne. "The Law of Fairness did not make me King. Rather, I made it the law. What’s more, I can make it stick. Can you?"

When we question the law of God, we are like the hares who thought they could rule better than the lion.


1. Am I guilty of speaking against a brother, or of judging a brother?

You might do this either openly to others or privately within your own mind.

Recruiting others to hear your evil speaking and judging is gossip, a sin we have already dealt with in detail. Because I teach strongly against gossip, no one ever gossips to me or my wife. In every church where we have ministered, we have seldom heard news through the grapevine. It is hard to hear through a channel you are not connected to. Generally we do not hear news until it appears in the prayer bulletin. But how does the old saying go? Ignorance is bliss.

The second kind of evil speaking and judging—within your own mind—is simply hatred. Before you give place in your thoughts to hatred, you had better ponder the warnings in First John (1 John 3:15; 4:20). If you hate, you are a murderer; you cannot love God at the same time; and your faith is pretense rather than real.

2. Do I slip into evil speaking when I pray?

Once in days past, while my wife and I were praying together, I was waxing eloquent as I poured out my complaints against a brother in the church who was causing me great trouble. I will call him Brother Smith. Something happened to interrupt us—whether the phone rang, I cannot remember. Afterward, I said to my wife, "Now, where was I?" She replied, "You were telling God about Brother Smith." All at once we both burst into laughter, as we realized how dumb I was in trying to inform God about anything. How much of our prayer life consists of pointless complaints about people or circumstances, as if we needed to bring God up to date with the bad news?

3. Do I practice constructive criticism?

We said that there is a place for constructive criticism. But do not attempt it until you have carefully reviewed the criteria setting it apart from evil speaking. The safest course is never to voice criticism unless you have first filled your heart with love for the person you are criticizing.

4. Do I recognize and accept my smallness in the scheme of things?

Do you understand that the only rational response to a god as mighty as the God who exists is to bow the knee? Do not doubt Him, or question Him, or quibble with Him, or fuss at Him, or resent His decrees. Just accept who He is and do your best to earn His smile. Nobody but a fool would do otherwise. Of course, what He wants from you first is to admit that you are a sinner undeserving of His favor: second, to recognize that His favor is available only through Christ; third, to receive Christ as Savior; and fourth, to become His servant working under the direction and power of His Holy Spirit.

Study Questions

  1. How does James restate one of his main ideas?
  2. Why is pride the first and fundamental sin?
  3. What two forms of speech are especially harmful to others?
  4. What are the marks of constructive criticism?
  5. What teaching found in the Sermon on the Mount does James restate?
  6. How does judging go beyond criticism?
  7. What law does judging violate?
  8. Any attack against a brother is also an attack against what else?
  9. Who alone is a qualified source of law?
  10. Why does He alone hold this privilege?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.