James 2:10 states: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble at one point, he is guilty of all” (nkjv).
Some people have mistakenly thought that this verse means that all sins are equal in God’s view, that no sins are worse than others.
In the Old Testament, there were sacrifices to atone for sins done in ignorance or through weakness. But deliberate, premeditated transgressions were a more serious category of sin for which the law couldn’t atone (Hebrews 10). People who committed such sins (Leviticus 6:1-2; 10:1-2; 20:1-27; Numbers 15:32-35; 16:26-32) either had to make restitution (as in the cases of theft or lying) or be put to death (as in the cases of adultery, violating the Sabbath, cursing one’s parents). When David premeditatedly committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed, he wrote, “You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; . . . The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart” (Psalm 51:16-17 nkjv). David knew that no sacrifice could atone for what he did, and that he could only, like other Old Testament believers who committed such sins, cast himself on God’s mercy. The law provided no forgiveness. He needed grace.
Paul’s declaration in Romans 2 that God will judge “according to works,” “light,” and “opportunity” implies that there are degrees of guilt, as did Jesus’ declaration that rejecting Him and His gospel was a more serious sin than the sin of Sodom (Matthew 10:15; 11:23-24). If there are no degrees of sin, then it would be pointless to struggle to seek the lesser of two evils in the kinds of situations we all sometimes face.
What James is confronting in this verse is the self-righteous attitude that we don’t depend as much on God’s grace as someone who has committed more obvious and heinous kinds of sin. This kind of thinking is self-deceiving and encourages complacency. Any violation of the law is enough to keep us from being justified by the law’s standards. A person who doesn’t murder or commit adultery but shows partiality to the rich should not feel self-righteous. He is a lawbreaker too. The function of the law is not to justify but to bring awareness of sin (Romans 4:14-16; 5:19-21; 1 Corinthians 15:56). We should be humbled and conscience-stricken by the many sins we do commit, and not feel superior to those who sin in ways we don’t.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees’ self-righteous hypocrisy because it blinded them from seeing their need for repentance and a Savior.
Many Pharisees prided themselves in their strict avoidance of obvious, outward sin. But they refused to look inside themselves and acknowledge the presence of inner sin that didn’t fall within the boundaries of their man-made rules. Jesus knew that in spite of their obsession with outward perfection, they willfully resisted consciousness of their inner corruption and need for grace:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:25-28 NKJV).
Jesus didn’t associate with “known sinners” like tax collectors because He minimized their sin ( Luke 19:1-10 ). He freely associated with them because He knew that they were more open to repentance.
Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Matthew 9:10-13 NKJV).
“Known sinners” weren’t full of self-righteous pride, deliberately concealing their hidden sins behind a legalistic façade of “righteousness.” Jesus was keenly ironic when He said, “I didn’t come to call the righteous to repentance.” He knew that the Pharisees weren’t righteous, but their pretense of righteousness kept them from accepting the only remedy for their condition — repentance and faith in Him. The obvious sins of “public sinners” made them more likely to repent and look to Jesus for the answers they needed.
We are all sinners, both inwardly and outwardly. Although we may not be notorious “public sinners,” we all share a fallen nature and are often controlled by the “flesh” — the “sin principle” — within us (Romans 8). Jesus’ stern warnings to the hypocritical Pharisees make it clear that sin we ignore and deny is no less serious in its effects than the sin of the public sinner.