Love Your Neighbor [Part 5]

But you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. James 2:8

Jesus said that the second most important command in the universe is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:28-34). And my neighbor, Jesus also said, is whoever crosses my path with a need I can do something about (Luke 10:25-37). We’re growing as a cheerful, non-angry protest movement against apathetic selfishness and for the beautiful truth that everyone matters to Jesus. We want to be more like him. We’re not good at it. But we’re growing. And we’re not going back.

Russell Moore will help us expand our understandings about how to love people in our angry times, so that for the rest of our lives we’ll be less caught off-guard and more able to respond winsomely to people. One reason we keep our distance and stay silent is we aren’t confident that we’ll navigate awkward conversations wisely. God wants to give us that wisdom. That’s why Russell Moore is coming.

Here in James chapter 2 we find this amazing verse, Leviticus 19:18, quoted yet again. This command in the Old Testament is quoted nine times in the New Testament. James gives us three insights into what loving our neighbor looks like. But I want you to know one thing about the book of James as we start. The book of James is all about gospel culture. It assumes gospel doctrine, but it teaches gospel culture. Jesus put the two together when he said, “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8). Freely we have received grace through the finished work of Christ on the cross and the endless power of the Holy Spirit. That’s gospel doctrine. Now, let’s freely give to others. That’s gospel culture. Everything beautiful in life starts with God’s grace for the undeserving. James gives us three insights into spreading a culture of mercy toward our neighbor.

Loving our neighbor is the only Christian Christianity

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. James 2:8-9

What is “showing partiality”? We know from verses 1-7 that it’s kissing up to the rich and powerful and treating the powerless and the disadvantaged as if they don’t count. It’s discrimination. It’s a double standard. And it’s against the Bible. No one’s identity and worth in God’s sight is measured by money, whether they have a lot or a little. The Bible opposes all prejudice. The Bible says, “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great” (Leviticus 19:15). But James was writing to poor Christians. We know that from verse 6. So their temptation was to be social climbers. Here is why all of us can let go of that itch for human approval and being included by the cool kids. Look at verse 1: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” We don’t need human glory. We have in Jesus all the glory we need. He is adored by the Father. He is worshipped by the angels. He will judge the entire human race. Why should we be so insecure that we need anyone’s approval in this present moment? We have in Jesus a glorious King who will approve of us forever with all his noble heart. And his love for us has nothing to do with how we increase his glory. He gains no social advantage from us. He loves us because he has a heart of love. It’s his glory. So we who belong to the Lord of glory don’t stoop to the usual social games down here. Our Lord has given us a dignity above all that.

But James is asking, Is the heart of Jesus making an impact on us? If James were to fly by time machine into our moment, and if he were to move among us for a while, we might ask him, “So James, as a New Testament writer, how are we doing? Does our Christianity look like your Christianity?” If we’re loving our neighbors with the same heart for all alike, all classes, all races, all backgrounds, he would say, “You’re doing well.” But if we’re not loving our neighbor as we should, he would say, “You’re committing sin.” (I’m looking at the wording of verses 8 and 9.) D. A. Carson puts it clearly:

The church is not made up of natural “friends.” It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything of the sort. Christians come together because they have been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. They are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake. Here in James 2 the Bible is saying that prejudiced Christianity isn’t Christian. James tells us in chapter 1, verse 27, what Christian Christianity looks like: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

Real Christianity has both a personal conscience and a social conscience. The gospel awakens us at both levels. If you don’t believe the gospel, you can still be a wonderful human being, and you probably are. But you have a choice. You can define your own ultimate reality and live your own way. You might live for the benefit of others, or you might not. I hope you will. But if you choose not to, your own principles allow you that choice. But a Christian has no choice. A Christian must make the world a better place, because of who God is. The religion God considers pure and undefiled both helps suffering people and guards personal integrity.

Christian history is filled with stories of believers loving their neighbor with a social conscience. For example, George Whitefield, the Anglican evangelist, founded an orphanage. William Wilberforce, another Anglican, led the political fight to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Henri Dunant, a Christian businessman, inspired the founding of The Red Cross. Lord Shaftesbury in Britain, a born again Christian, persuaded Parliament to abolish the sixteen-hour workday and outlaw the employment of women in the mines, who were pushing 200-pound coal carts, and children even as young as four working twelve to fourteen hours a day in the mines. Shaftesbury’s family motto was “Love, Serve.” (What’s your family motto?) Many Christians were anti-slavery abolitionists by gospel conviction, including Jonathan Blanchard, the president of Wheaton College, where Jani and I studied. William Booth, a Methodist preacher, founded the Salvation Army to help the urban poor. Florence Nightingale was a Christian who believed she literally heard the voice of God calling her to care for the sick as a nurse. Her work in the Crimean war reduced the death rate among wounded soldiers from 42 percent to 2 percent. Arthur Broome, an Anglican pastor, saw horses being beaten as they tried to pull impossible loads on slippery pavement at the docks in London and founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Josephine Butler, a devout Christian, fought for the humane treatment of prostitutes under arrest. A tender social conscience is our heritage as Bible-believing Christians.

But in the early 1900s, something in American Christianity went wrong. Theological liberalism entered in from Europe and took over some of our denominations. What I mean by “theological liberalism” is refusing to take the Bible straight. An early example was Thomas Jefferson, who took scissors to his New Testament and cut out all the references to the supernatural. What was left? Ethics and morals. So liberalism threw out the heart of the gospel, and all they had left was doing good things for society. Now, the Bible-believing people a century ago saw what was happening and didn’t like it. They rejected what they called “the social gospel” of the liberals. Here’s my point. The liberals were wrong to depart from the Bible, and the conservatives were wrong to withdraw from the culture. And it’s still with us today. If you grew up in a church, it’s possible you’ve never seen the both/and that God has commanded in Scripture. I have to say that, to their credit, the African-American churches held the both/and together. But many other churches lost their way. And it’s time for us all to go back and claim our inheritance in Christ, with both a personal conscience and a social conscience, both loving holiness and loving our neighbor, because that is the Christianity that’s truly Christian.

Loving our neighbor is the only obedient obedience

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. James 2:10-11

Why is James saying this? Remember that he puts honor on visiting sufferers in their affliction. Widows and orphans cannot benefit us. And it’s always tempting to avoid people who need us and move toward people who can benefit us. But Jesus died and rose again to create a new kind of community in this world, a culture of mercy where we love one another. And that love includes the poor, because we’re all poor before the Lord, and he loves us all so sincerely, so tenderly. But even here in a gospel culture, a temptation is close by. James puts his finger on it right here. It’s this. I can tell myself it’s okay to use my church for, let’s say, business networking, disobedient as that is – but it’s okay, I can tell myself, as long as I obey God in other ways to make up for it. The temptation is to lie to myself by thinking, I can offset disobedience over there by my obedience over here. That is very wrong. It is nothing less than me redefining Christianity by saying I can follow Jesus selectively. I can decide for myself how I’ll obey him and disobey him. But I can ignore my disobedience, because I am obeying him in some ways. After all, here I am in church. I serve on a committee. I even tithe.

Here’s how crazy that thought is – and I’ll use James’ categories in verse 11. Let’s imagine a man who is lovingly faithful to his wife. But he also murders his neighbor. That man is a criminal. He’s going to jail. We would never say, “But wait a minute. He shouldn’t go to jail for murder. After all, he loves his wife.” Obeying one law doesn’t give us permission to disobey another law. Everybody knows that. But this is how crazy our thoughts can become.

What’s wrong with selective obedience to Jesus? What’s wrong is, that kind of Christianity is not partly obedient; it is totally hypocritical. If I choose to obey the Lord in some ways and disobey him in other ways, then even where my life lines up with his Word it isn’t obedience; it’s coincidence. I’m just doing what I want anyway. My choices don’t really have anything to do with Jesus in his grace and mercy for me. What he commands in the Bible is not my reason for how I behave. Doing what he says in some ways is really my excuse and my cover for doing what he forbids in other ways. James is saying that selective obedience is complete hypocrisy. Verse 11: “He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.” The total love of Jesus for us calls for total surrender from us. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Not that we obey him perfectly, but we wish we could. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).

Some of us need to face this. We’ve been cutting corners and making compromises and telling ourselves it’s okay. Where is that in the Bible? If we push away God’s commandment to love our neighbor, what’s actually happening is, we’re showing God what we really think of the commandment to love him. How we really feel about God in his place of glory above us is revealed in how we treat the disempowered in their place of need below us.

Here’s how we can know if we have fallen into this hypocrisy. Are we longing to obey the Lord more and more, because he loves us so? Or do we feel a smug satisfaction that we’re pretty decent Christians because we obey him in some ways? Following Jesus is not like taking a test, and if we get a 90% score we think that’s pretty good. We think, “I’m doing well. That’s an A minus.” Following Jesus is more like a friendship, where years of faithfulness can be undermined by one act of betrayal. That betrayal can be forgiven. But that is the remedy – forgiveness of sin. It isn’t a small thing. If we’re seeing the command to love our neighbor, and out of our peripheral vision we’re looking for ways to get out of it because we think our obedience has already gone plenty far enough, then the time has come to repent of our half-way Christianity and accept Jesus for all that he is – a total Savior for a total sinner like me, like you. But if you want to obey God as little as possible and disobey God as much as possible, why do you think you’re a Christian? The only obedient obedience is saying Yes to all of Jesus, trusting him for forgiveness for every failure and also for strength to obey him more. That is an obedient heart in his sight. You can come to the Lord as you are right now, even with a divided heart, and he will love you and forgive you and give you a whole new heart.

Loving our neighbor is the only non-judgmental judgment

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:12-13

When we see people in hardship, they might deserve it. But then, they might not. If our minds are quick to leap to a negative conclusion – how is that merciful? A judgmental heart is not a Christian heart. Here’s what James is saying. Christianity is not simply avoiding the big bad sins like adultery and murder. Christianity is enjoying and rejoicing in and spreading the mercy of Christ to more people. The language here in verse 13 is strong. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” means great big muscular mercy stands over and gloats over and boasts over teeny-weeny judgment. That joyful release from the past and from every burden – that freedom is what the Lord of mercy wants more people to experience here among us as a gospel culture. By the power of the cross, mercy has won bragging rights in this angry world. Not that many people believe that. Most people believe, if you want to come out on top, you’ve got to beat the other guy out. In this world, mercy looks weak. That is why our world is violent. There is no faith that God is on the side of the merciful. But we know there’s a new sheriff in town. His name is Jesus. And he said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” If you want success, show mercy. If you want happiness, show mercy. If you want to come out on top, show mercy. Why? Because mercy is where the Lord is.

People need help. People need forgiveness. People need love. Not only the people on the other side of the world, but the people in our path every day. Let’s love them. Let’s love them not as our sin offering to God, to gain his mercy, but as our thank offering to God, to celebrate his mercy.