James 4:12 (ESV) … “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”
James 4:12 is tied directly to the verse before it, verse 11. There we hear James tell us that we are “not to speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.”
Curtis Vaughan writes, ‘To “speak evil” … of a person is to find fault with him, to speak disparagingly of him, to gossip maliciously about him.’ Some people think fault-finding is their spiritual gift!
How sad this is! They were brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. They were members of the same body. And they were turning on one another. It was like the body attacking itself! Suppose my hands started attacking my feet, bringing blood and inflicting severe pain. What a strange sight that would be! But it is no more strange than that which is going on in many churches!
Christians attacking one another! We have a tendency to dismiss it as a trivial thing. James refuses to do so. He wants his readers to stare this ugly thing in the face. He begins by telling them that such evil-speaking means setting themselves above the law.
There is a law against evil-speaking. It is God’s law. When we carve up a brother or sister in Christ, we are breaking that law. But we are doing more. We are suggesting that we know better than God who gave the law. We are saying that this law should not even be a law. Curtis Vaughan observes, ‘The man who deliberately breaks a law thereby disparages that law. In effect he sets himself above it and declares that it is a bad law, not worthy to be obeyed.’
Think of it in these terms: if I speed through a construction zone, I am essentially saying that the people in authority, who set the speed limit, did not know what they were doing. I know better than those people and their law! I am, therefore, putting myself above the law. Gordon Keddie notes, ‘Law works that way: you either submit to it or set yourself above it!’
When we break one of God’s laws, then, we are setting ourselves above God. Now that is pride! And that is begging for trouble! When we set ourselves up against God, we forget that he is the one who has the power both to save and to destroy (v. 12).
Be sure of this: God is not going to let us get away with thumbing our noses at him and his laws. Curtis Vaughan says of God, ‘He may delegate various functions and responsibilities to human representatives, but He permits no man to share His judgment seat, or to cancel or modify His laws.’
Yes, thank God, he has the power to save! Where would we be without that? But he also has the power to destroy! We tend to forget that, but it is just as true as the saving part.
James is saying that evil-speaking always has a price tag attached, and it is a heavy price! Before we buy the product, we should look at the tag. Before we engage in evil-speaking, we should remember that the God who can destroy has promised to judge such speaking.
That judgement takes place to a certain extent in this life. How many of God’s blessings have we forfeited because we spoke evil? How many friendships have been ruined? How many people have been driven from the church? How many church leaders have been driven into discouragement? How many of their children have been driven into disillusionment? Is this a price we are willing to pay in order to enjoy the delicious feeling of cutting up a brother or sister in Christ?
If God’s judgement doesn’t find us here, it will find us in eternity. But it will find us! Make no mistake about that!
Perhaps the thing that we most need to carry away from James’s message is this question: ‘Who are you to judge another?’ (v. 12). We might put it in these words: ‘Who do you think you are?’ This is what God asks each of us when we engage in verbally shredding our brothers and sisters in Christ—‘Who do you think you are?’