In judging others we judge the law itself
James 4:10-12 says,
(10) Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. (11) Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother speaks against the law, and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it. (12) There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?
"Humility is the root of all grace," said A.W. Tozer some decades ago. James tells us that if someone has humility, he will not judge his neighbor or backbite against him. Instead, he will extend grace whenever possible. In the flow of topics raised by James, he speaks first of God's grace, then humility, and then its fruit--being non-judgmental toward others.
Those who do not truly understand the law are likely to use the law legalistically to judge others. Legalism is a man-made application of the law. Yet when we understand the mind of the Lawgiver (Jesus Christ), we are able to use the law in a lawful manner, as Paul wrote in 1 Tim. 1:8,
(8) But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully.
In other words, one must use the law in the manner in which God intended. We call that "the spirit of the law." James, then, was not a legalist, but he was very concerned about being lawful. Lawfulness has to do with living one's life in accordance to the mind of Christ as set forth in the law (that is, the entire Word).
In this, James sounds very much like the Apostle Paul, especially in Romans 14:4,
(4) Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
Paul had already laid the foundations of this instruction earlier in Romans 12:19,
(19) Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord.
The law of God forbids men judging one another without going through the proper channels of divine government. God did establish judges in the earth, who were instructed to judge men's disputes as spokesman for the Lawgiver Himself. They were not to render judgments according to their own opinions, desires, or understanding. Thus, the judgment that they were supposed to render was not theirs, but God's, for they represented God Himself.
When men took revenge on their own, they were out of order. All injustice was to be recompensed at the hands of the divine court and the judges who represented God Himself. It is unfortunate that our English word "vengeance" now has connotations of a personal vendetta, when in fact it was meant to convey the recompense of true justice. Through His judges on earth, God upheld the rights of those who had been victimized.
It seems to be a basic tenet of human nature to strike back on a personal level. It is commonplace among children everywhere, and unless we learn the spirit of the law, we may never grow out of it. It is common to think that we have an inherent right to retaliate or take vengeance when others do us injustice. But James says that if we do this, we have judged both the law and the Lawgiver. Leviticus 19:18 says,
(18) You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
Again, the law says a second time in Deut. 32:35 and 36,
(35) Vengeance is Mine, and retribution; in due time their foot will slip, for the day of their calamity is near. . . (36) For the Lord will vindicate His people. . .
Hence, if we take the law into our own hands (other than in direct self-defense), and refuse to abide by the lawful procedure established by God, we judge not only the law but the Lawgiver as well. It is as if to say, "God, you did not do right in this matter, so I myself will make the correction and do what is right to make up for Your failure."
James tells us that if you do this, "you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it" (4:11).
We see, then, that the law itself commands us to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. This law of love did not begin with the New Covenant, but was commanded from the beginning. This is only logical, because Jesus Christ was the Lawgiver in Moses' day and issued His legislation under the name of Yahweh. His character is unchanging and cannot be improved upon. Love was therefore the basis of the entire law, and thus, Paul writes in Rom. 13:10,
(10) Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.
Unfortunately, the scribes and Pharisees did not know the mind of the Lawgiver, so they misapplied it in accordance with their selfish motives. They interpreted the law to mean that they should love their fellow Jews or Israelites, but thought they could withhold love from foreigners. Likewise, many believed that the law demanded justice without mercy, so justice became a duty with no provision for grace.
They did not understand the underlying principle that the victim always has the right to extend grace to the sinner. While the law has no power to reduce a sentence of the law, the victim is fully empowered to do so. A thief convicted by the law must pay full restitution to his victim--unless the victim extends grace either by reducing the debt or eliminating it altogether.
Such grace was the foundation of biblical law even under the Old Covenant, but it was not well understood until the New Covenant was instituted. Jesus demonstrated this principle on the cross, where, as the greatest Victim of all, He said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). As the Victim for the sin of the world, He obtained the lawful right to extend grace to the whole world (1 John 2:2).
This was a principle of law not well understood under the Old Covenant. Hence, many Christians think it is unique to the New Covenant. They do not realize that the law applies to us under both covenants. The only difference is that the Old Covenant made man's obedience a prerequisite to obtaining immortal life, while the New Covenant put conditions only upon God Himself (Heb. 8:8-12). Hence, our salvation is no longer dependent upon our own ability to keep the law, but upon God's ability to fulfill His promise to overcome all the sin in the world.
In the Passover Age (from Egypt to the Cross), the light was dim. In the Pentecostal Age the light was greatly increased. Yet as we come now into the Tabernacles Age, the light will fully illuminate the law so that we can understand and apply the full glory of the mind of Christ.
As we obtain greater understanding, we see with greater clarity the unity between Paul and James, even though they ministered to different audiences. We see that both men honored the law and found grace within its precepts. Paul emphasized grace to his audience; James emphasized the law to his audience, but they extracted their teachings from the same living Word. Both preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In my view, as long as we do not fully understand the unity between Paul and James, our view is yet skewed in one direction or the other. To understand the writings of both men is to obtain the balance of understanding the full Gospel.