For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of 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. 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 2:10-13).

It’s a humid, August afternoon. The courtroom is packed. There aren’t many murder trials in this town. Everyone and their mother wants a seat. The stench of sweat fills the wood-paneled room. The judge enters. The crowd rises on command. The accused is called to the stand, sworn in. To the disappointment of many gathered to gawk, he hardly looks a murderer. He looks like the guy next door—you know, the good neighbor.

The alleged murderer turns to the judge. “Your honor,” he says, “I confess I did murder that man, and in a horrible way. But I was angry, not acting like myself. It was a mistake. I am a good man for the most part.” He lists some of his better moments, his good deeds.

The judge contours his face in a thoughtful pose, rubs his furrowed brow, chews his pen a bit, and replies in a surprisingly affable tone, “All right, then. We all make mistakes. I suppose we can let this one slide. You’re free to go.” The crowd nods in agreement. The victim’s family shrugs their shoulders as if to say, “It’s true, I suppose, it’s one mistake.”

Sinful as our human race is, we still have an inkling of what justice is. Such a trial would be a scandal. Murderers are on trial for murder, not their better moments. Otherwise, those vans wouldn’t take those guys in orange back to prison after kindly picking up highway trash. When someone breaks the law, he is accountable for it. The police officer could care less if you brought a can to the food drive when he writes your ticket for speeding.

We expect God to try us, not for our crimes, but for our better moments.

Yet how often don’t we expect God’s courtroom to be just like the one in the story? We expect God to try us, not for our crimes, but for our better moments. We misunderstand what the scales in Lady Justice’s hands accomplish. They make the punishment meet the crime, instead of weighing good deeds against bad. Why such confusion when it comes to God’s courtroom? It’s primarily because none of us wants to deal with the reality that, if we are judged for our crimes, and not for our better moments, none of us will escape punishment. One crime makes us a criminal. Our sins define us, at least so far as the law is concerned, until it meets its end.

Any attempt to be saved by the law is not only a vain and impossible task, but a frustrating and terrifying one, yet our flesh sets us precisely on this road. Trying to escape God’s condemnation for breaking the law by means of fulfilling that same law is like climbing a mountain. From far away, you can see the whole mountain, with all its intimidating height. But as you get closer, into the nuts and bolts of climbing it, you are deceived into miscalculating its vastness. Each cliff appears to be the peak, and as you approach it, you are sure you have reached the summit, only to arrive at a horrible revelation when your weary eyes glance over its edge: there is another cliff above you yet. It’s a never-ending process, and the higher you get, the more inescapable your situation becomes, the more dangerous any fall, the harder it is to turn back. For those who would redeem themselves from the Law by the Law, there is no top to this mountain. There is only despair, disillusionment, and, worst of all, damnation.

Current athletes and former athletes can call to mind the feeling of a heartbreaking loss. You left your heart on the field, and the opposing team cleated it. Remember after the game, when Mom tried to comfort you. “You played your best,” she said, and you wanted to scream at her. “You played your best” makes the loss sting all the more. Your best wasn’t enough. You weren’t good enough. “You played your best” isn’t comfort—although Mom means it that way, “You played your best” is a painful reminder of your deficiency for the task.

“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” No ifs, ands, or buts: lawbreaker or law keeper. So what then? Step back from the mountain. Listen to Christ, who descended for you to hear Him all the better. The whole point James is making regards the chief work of the Law, which is to bring us to the end of doing, to turn us outside of ourselves for an answer. When our hope in works dries up, the rainstorm of the Gospel, justification through faith, is ready to start pouring. Mercy triumphs over judgment in Christ. It’s under the Law of liberty, where we are free after all, that we will be judged.

“But James says faith cannot save,” one might object. No, he most certainly does not. Reading is more than sounding out letters. James says, “Can such faith save him?” Faith that does not breathe has no life in it. We are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone. Faith will produce fruits or it is no faith at all; but we must not confuse the fruits with the trees. Remember Jesus’ story of the fig tree. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:6-9).

If we want the tree to bear fruit, we have to tend the tree. If we want faith to produce works, we have to tend faith. And faith, like salvation, is not tended by climbing the mountain, because the Christian starts on top of the mountain. So faith is tended on top of the highest peak, at the foot of the cross, through the Gospel.

So faith is tended on top of the highest peak, at the foot of the cross, through the Gospel.

You are a criminal. You are a transgressor. You are a lawbreaker. You cannot fulfill the royal Law found in Scripture. Don’t be mistaken for a moment, either; the same is true of me. The same was even true of James. But we have an Advocate, who, amazingly, is also our Judge. He has come down the mountain to make His absolution, His mercy, heard, loud and clear through His faithful preachers. You are a criminal, but a forgiven criminal, a transgressor, but a forgiven transgressor, a lawbreaker, but a forgiven lawbreaker. The verdict is in, the exculpating evidence Christ’s wounds. Mercy has triumphed over judgment. You are a free man or woman. Live free.