The Royal Law
June 1976

“The Royal Law,” Ensign, June 1976, 75

The Royal Law

The apostle James invites us to perfect liberty.

I can think of few things that would interest me more than having the opportunity to sit and listen to someone who knew the Savior personally, someone who was acquainted with his concerns and his feelings about life, who really knew him intimately. That experience probably will not be mine in this life; I hope it might be in the eternities to come. Until then have to be content with the letters and writings of those who knew him, as they are presented in scripture.

Assuming that the author of the epistle of James is James, the brother of the Lord, as many believe, I find his letter of great interest. Of all the writers in the New Testament, he would have known the Master most intimately, having been reared in the same home with him. In both lists of the rather large family of Mary and Joseph (which family included five boys and at least three girls), the name of James appears first among the brothers of the Lord. (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3.) If we are to assume from this that he is the oldest of the brothers, then we might also assume that he knew the Master longest on the earth.

We can only yearn for a glimpse into the home life of that family, but all we know from the record is that James seems not to have accepted him as the Messiah until after his resurrection. (John 7:1–5.)

At some point James did accept the Savior’s calling and did become active in the early church. He is mentioned occasionally in the New Testament, especially in connection with the Jerusalem conference, which attempted a reconciliation between the Judaizers and gentile converts to the church. (Acts 15.)

What aspects of the Lord’s teachings impressed James most? What principles seemed most important to him as he became a leader in the early church? What reservoirs of experience did he draw upon in his attempt to provide living water for the early saints? The letter of James gives us our only clues in seeking answers to these questions.

The epistle is addressed “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad,” suggesting that James was reaching for a wider audience than the early church. It may well be a letter for us, as well as for the saints of his time. Its message, which bears a marked resemblance to that given to the Prophet Joseph in Liberty Jail (D&C 122), is certainly as valuable today as it was then.

The epistle is a reminder that affliction, viewed in a positive light, can provide valuable experiences and steppingstones toward joy and perfection. “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into many afflictions.” (JST, James 1:2.) One of the major thrusts of this epistle centers in the need for the development of patience and self-control in our lives. James begins his letter by stressing the need for patience and concludes by calling up images of the prophets of old, particularly Job, as examples of those who endured in patience. His most important case in point is that of the Master. (James 5:10–11.)

To James, patience and self-control seem to be the answer to many of the problems of this world. He suggests that problems do not stem from external temptation, but from man’s inner lack of capability to cope with temptation. “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God … ,” he counsels. “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust.” (James 1:13–14.)

James points out that it is the lust within, rather than the temptation without, that creates our problems. When lust conceives it brings forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death. (James 1:15.) Wars and other evils follow because of the appetites we develop, appetites that can never be satisfied, appetites that lead mankind collectively to strife and eventual war. We seek for things that we ought not to have and belligerently struggle to acquire them, even when it means turning our backs on God and his wisdom. Through our own arrogance and pride we lose the very satisfaction we seek, a satisfaction and greater fulfillment that can come only through patience and learning to rely more on the wisdom of the Lord.

One of the most powerful passages in James concerns a contrast which he draws between the wisdom that guided him before accepting the Lord and that which followed his acceptance—the wisdom of man and the wisdom of God. The former leads to bitter envying and strife and confusion. The latter, that which is “from above,” is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” (James 3:13–18.)

Far too many men seem to be afflicted with envy and strife, possessed as it were by a love of power. The Prophet Joseph in our day noted:

“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” (D&C 121:39.)

Unfortunately, this is true in the Church as well as outside the Church. It is worth noting that the problem to which James addresses himself comes from within the church, rather than from without. He counsels, “My brethren, strive not for the mastery, knowing that in so doing we shall receive the greater condemnation.” (JST, James 3:1.)

Many desire to lead; fewer are willing to follow in supportive roles that have no recognition attached. While teaching at one of the institutes of religion in the Church educational program, I noticed term after term that two classes were nearly full to capacity. One was Courtship and Marriage and the other was Leadership Training. Many wanted to train themselves for leadership; fewer wanted to study the scriptures or history and doctrine of the Church. Jokingly—but half-seriously—I suggested to the director that perhaps we ought to set up a class in “suffering servantship” and see how many it would draw.

James knew well the aspirations of men and the motives behind some of these aspirations. “My brethren,” he continues, “ye cannot have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, and yet have respect to persons.” (JST, James 2:1.) How many of us today forget this advice and yield to the temptation to operate with a double standard—one that treats the wealthy and prestigious with honor and respect, and another that treats the poor with condescension, indifference, or even contempt. This double standard, far too common in the world, has no place in the kingdom of God.

James refers to a “royal law,” a fitting complement for Peter’s designation of the “royal priesthood.” Elsewhere in the epistle he refers to it as “the perfect law of liberty.” (James 1:25.) It is the law which embraces all other laws: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matt. 22:39.) Every transgression is a violation of the royal law. Any sin, no matter what it is, violates the spirit of the royal law, or as James remarks, “For whosoever shall, save in one point, keep the whole law, he is guilty of all.” (JST, James 2:10.)

This law also has an interesting corollary that James alludes to in passing, one that has to do with judging. Jesus had previously noted that our judgment will be determined by the way we judge others. Not only should we treat others as we would be treated, but we will be judged as we judge others. (Matt. 7:2.) If we hope for mercy, if we hope for love, if we hope for compassion and understanding on the day of our judgment, then we must begin to accord others this same blessing in our relationships with them now, the poor and underprivileged as well as the rich and popular. Further, James comments:

“He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge.

“There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?” (James 4:11–12; italics added.)

In reading the words of James, I often remember experiences in wards and branches where I have lived. I recall, with some remorse, those who came into the ward without gold rings and a pleasing appearance, who were neglected Sunday after Sunday. I also recall those who came well dressed, projecting all of the social graces, and how ward members flocked around them in their great eagerness to extend a welcome. James constantly calls one back to the words of the Master: “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.” (Luke 5:31.)

Once again, “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” (James 3:17.) James urges us to seek this wisdom and suggests that if any of us lack it, we should ask of God. The Lord, he promises from his own experience, will give liberally. He will not chastise us for our lack of wisdom. The fact that we do not come by this wisdom naturally is no surprise to him, for as James notes: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father.” (James 1:17.)

The Christlike stance is then beautifully summed up in one of those aphoristic statements from James: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” (James 1:19.) How vital this is in learning to understand and love others. The world seems filled with those who are quick to judge their brothers and sisters without a hearing. In a gospel setting we need more people with understanding, those who are swift to hear and slow to speak.

With James, hearing is not enough. “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17.) Knowledge needs to be transformed into action. The gospel is not entirely passive; it is active as well. If one is what James calls a “hearer of the word” only, he is like a man looking into a mirror; he sees things as they are, but nothing is done to change the situation. Like a man who walks away from the mirror, gets involved in other matters, and soon forgets the image in the mirror, many lament a bad situation momentarily and then fail to act upon it, leaving it as it originally was.

On the other hand, if one looks into what James calls the perfect law of liberty, he ponders seriously how he would like to be treated in the same situation and proceeds to do something about it. He clothes the naked and feeds the hungry. He demonstrates his faith in the Master through action.

James’s term, “the perfect law of liberty,” is an interesting one. Law commonly restricts and sets boundaries that cannot be crossed. One of the interesting differences in the royal law is that it points to relationships of love and concern. It has to do with the power of love. Love strives for excellence. None of us wants anything less than the very best for his loved ones. Love causes us to magnify our performance, to be creative, to stretch ourselves toward the fullness of our capabilities, to be our best and to give our best. It opens before us all types of possibilities. It is a law that truly has a liberating effect. When one looks into the perfect law of liberty he sees not what is, but rather what could be—he becomes aware of the necessity for action.

The perfect law of liberty is the law that is written on the fleshy tablets of the heart. Love is within, a part of us; law commonly is without, imposed by external forces. Endlessly, law will be external to us—and as such is a ruthless taskmaster—until it undergoes the transformation into love and becomes what Paul called the circumcision of the heart. (Rom. 2:29.)

Perhaps we of the Church today need to do a better job of getting this message across, lest we become like Israel of old, guiding our lives by rules and regulations from without. I mention this because of some unsettling experiences I have had with choice young people in the Church. On several occasions, at firesides, I have asked those present to list three things one must do—and perhaps the question was worded unfairly for the results I hoped to get—in order to gain entrance into the celestial kingdom. The first two items on the list were always the same: (1) be baptized, and (2) be married in the temple. Most commonly there would be no number three on the list, and if it were there, it would usually be something vague like “keep the commandments.”

Not once did I ever find anyone suggesting that entrance into the kingdom was based on the development of love and on our becoming like our Father in heaven in this respect. Yet I believe that James felt this to be one of the most important attributes of God, and if we truly loved the Lord we would keep his commandments, including being baptized and being married in the temple.

We seem to understand power and do a good job of teaching about it, either directly or indirectly; but perhaps we need to say more in the Church about the power of love. Paul points out that we may have all knowledge, we may have the ability to prophesy, we may have the ability to move mountains through faith, we may provide completely for the welfare of the members, we may even die in defense of the Church and its principles; yet, if we do not have love, all these acts are ultimately meaningless to us. (1 Cor. 13:1–3.)

Even though James may have been reared in the same household as Jesus, he came to recognize the important difference between himself and the Master. He begins his epistle, “James, a servant … of the Lord Jesus Christ.” His teachings reflect those of the Master, especially those teachings given in the Sermon on the Mount in Palestine and repeated almost verbatim to His disciples in America.

In the beginning of these two sermons, the Savior sets forth some of the attitudes that he desires his disciples to possess, those qualities that lead to love and concern in the inner man, those attributes he hoped would replace the externals of the law of Moses. These are the eight statements we refer to as the Beatitudes, the profile of the Christian personality.

Jesus began these famous sermons by inviting others to come to him: “Blessed are the poor in spirit who come unto me.” (JST, Matt. 5:5.) He, who was the Life, the Light, and the Way, was the personification of the abundant life that culminates in joy, as well as being the source of the power by which one reaches that end. Those who desire happiness must never forget that. That is why faith in Christ is the first principle of the gospel. We come to him for our model in constructing a life characterized by joy. James records, “Count it all joy when ye fall into many afflictions.” (JST, James 1:2.)

As one considers Christ, the model, and senses the difference between himself and the Master, he changes his pattern of living—hopefully to conform more closely to the life-style of Christ; he has a basis for changing his personality to become more Christlike. This is what the prophets seem to mean by repentance. Repentance is an invitation to a better life. The Lord tells missionaries in our time to preach nothing but faith and repentance. (D&C 6:9.) In no better fashion could the gospel be described: (1) come and meet the Master; (2) strive to become more like him. Little else needs to be said.

However, changing one’s life-style can be extremely difficult. It seems as if we change only when we become deeply dissatisfied with our current situations. It is interesting to note that the Savior said next, “Blessed are they that mourn.” (Matt. 5:4.) Feeling dissatisfaction—“mourning,” in the Master’s terminology—can lead to a desire to change ourselves in the inner man. James records: “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.” (James 4:9.)

When dissatisfied with his condition, one begins to seek answers that might lead to a better condition. He becomes more teachable. When things go well, it is easy to become apathetic and complacent; but when one is reduced to a condition of sorrow, he often begins to listen. “Blessed are the meek” (Matt. 5:5) was the Savior’s way of stating it. James records: “Receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21); and “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. … Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” (James 4:6–8.)

One must also do everything possible to change his condition. He must be willing to try something new. He becomes earnestly engaged in a search for a better way. The Master called this hungering and thirsting after righteousness and promised those who were thus engaged that they would be filled with the Holy Ghost. (JST, Matt. 5:8.) James refers to the same principle in his discussion of the perfect law of liberty.

Once people gain the companionship of the Spirit, they become truly sensitive and compassionate, in manner more like the Savior. They become merciful and patient and willing to forgive. They cease to be hypocritical and become pure in heart. They begin to desire only what the Master desired, the immortality and eternal life of all men. “Blessed are the merciful,” and “Blessed are all the pure in heart.” (JST, Matt. 5:9, 10.)

James’s entire section of the letter devoted to respect of persons illustrates this same point. (James 2:1–13.) It concludes with the comment, “He shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.” (James 2:13.) James also equates purity of heart with singleness of purpose in the work of the Lord: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.” (James 4:8.)

Another step for the Christian is to become a peacemaker, a disciple of the Prince of Peace—to share His gospel and strive to bring about the unity He sought for his disciples and for all mankind. (Matt. 5:9.) James also makes this the apex of his summary of the gospel in a statement that comes remarkably close to the thrust of the Beatitudes in the Savior’s sermons:

“The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.” (James 3:17–18.)

Peacemakers often meet resistance, even persecution. Christ was aware of this and concludes the Beatitudes with “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” (Matt. 5:10.) “Rejoice and be exceeding glad,” he continues, “for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” (Matt. 5:12.) Persecution leads to mourning, which in turn leads to the intensification of the entire process.

James begins and concludes his letter in the same spirit: “Count it all joy when ye fall into many afflictions; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” (JST, James 1:2–4.)

In concluding his letter he writes: “Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience. Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” (James 5:10–11.)

James loved his Master. Reading his letter gives us important insights into the Savior’s teachings and the values He stressed as of major importance. He was a sensitive and dynamic apostle of the Master.

  • Arthur R. Bassett, assistant professor of Humanities at Brigham Young University, serves as a Sunday School teacher in the Winder Eighth Ward, Salt Lake Winder Stake.

Photography by Lonnie Lonczyna