Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment
As we move into chapter 2 of James, I want to underscore two aspects of the bigger picture of the book. First, Pastor Jonathan amplified the centrality of the word of the gospel last week. James 1:18: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” God, of his own will and desire, causes us to be born again through his living and abiding word. He makes us new creature. The Christian life is begun by God through his word. Not only that, but the Christian life is sustained by the word. James 1:21: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Notice that we are to continue to receive the implanted word. We’re receiving a word that has already been planted. We’re receiving something that we already have. Verse 18 describes the planting of the gospel in our lives. Verse 21 describes the ongoing receiving and growing in the gospel in our lives. So God creates us by the word of truth. God sustains us by our ongoing embrace and reception of the word of truth.
Second, today’s passage is bracketed by two passages that accent the importance of doing the word. 1:22: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” 2:14: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works?” So this passage, like much of the book of James, emphasizes the need to actually do what the gospel says. No lip-service. No mere hearing and speaking. James 2:1-13 shows us a concrete and specific way to do the word, to show our faith by our works. With that as background, let’s look at James 2.
Don’t Show Favoritism
Here’s the main point of this passage: Trusting in Jesus (holding the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ) is utterly incompatible with favoritism and partiality. If you’re trusting in Jesus and if you’re showing favoritism, those different impulses are on a collision course. They cannot coexist. Now, based on the whole testimony of Scripture, we have to qualify this somewhat. For example, Paul says that those who fail to take care of the members of their own family, and especially the members of their own household, have denied the faith and are worse than unbelievers (1 Tim. 5:8). So apparently, it’s not favoritism to take special care of your family. Or again, Paul says, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). So apparently, in our efforts to do good to everyone, we can and we ought to show a special care for other Christians, and that’s not sinful favoritism. My point is that, when the Bible condemns favoritism, like it does in James 2, we must not take it to mean every species of special treatment. Parents are obligated to save up and care for their own children (2 Cor. 12:14). Children are obligated to care for their own aging parents. Christians should devote special care to those of the household of faith. And none of that special care is at odds with James’s command here. I’m going to call that Natural Partiality. We do it by nature. It’s what Jesus mentions when he says, “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children” (Matt. 7:11). Even evil dads have special care for their own kids. Or again, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Tax Collectors and sinners do that. Even Gentiles greet their own brothers” (Matt. 5:46-47). That’s just natural. Jesus doesn’t condemn it; he just calls us beyond it. The Christian life is supernatural. Yes, we should care for our families, and we should care for fellow-Christians. But our generosity and care and sacrifice must spill the banks of nature and flood the world. If we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, we start with our natural obligations and work our way out, and we must work our way out (by loving our enemies and caring for people who have no connection to us).
What James condemns here specifically is preference or partiality or favoritism rooted in wealth, status, and class. This is Worldly Partiality. Two people come into your assembly. The first is dressed to the nines, fashionable, displaying obvious signals of wealth and power, probably with an entourage. The second is a poor and destitute man, in shabby and dirty clothes. If you show favor to or pay special attention to the rich man over the poor man, then you are judging people based on external signals of wealth, power, platform, status, and, James says, you are being evil. You have evil thoughts.
And I just want to accent that word “evil.” In our weekly prayer of confession, the pastors make it a point to say about whatever sin we’re confessing, “This is a great evil.” We do that because many of us don’t think of our sins as great evils. We don’t think that showing preference and partiality to well-dressed, rich people is evil. We think it’s normal. It’s natural. We might even say that it’s prudent and strategic. If the rich or powerful or famous trust in Christ, they have a platform to influence others. They have resources to channel towards the kingdom. That’s good for gospel witness. So it’s wise to give attention to them when they show up in our assembly. And, even if it is wrong, it’s a small sin. But James says, if you do show this kind of worldly favoritism, you are a judge with evil thoughts. It’s evil and wicked to show partiality in this way.
Why Worldly Favoritism Is Evil
Natural Partiality is meant to be surpassed. Worldly Favoritism must be rejected because it’s evil. But why is it evil? James says, “You’ve made distinctions among yourselves.” What’s wrong with that? God makes distinctions among us. We have different gifts, different abilities, different backgrounds, different ethnicities. God has established all kinds of distinctions in his world, and he calls them good. So why are these distinctions evil? To understand why, we need to press into the contrast between rich and poor. Rich and poor here are not merely descriptions of wealth. Notice the characteristics of the rich. They are oppressors of Christians (2:6). They are litigious and unjustly drag people into court to take advantage of them. They blaspheme the name of Christ. So the rich here are oppressive, litigious blasphemers.
The poor, on the other hand, aren’t just materially impoverished. They are “rich in faith” (2:5, no doubt because their faith has been matured and perfected by many trials, 1:4). They love God and will inherit the kingdom. Notice then that James is not talking about bare wealth and poverty. This is oppressive wealth, linked with plundering of the faithful and blasphemy against God. And the simple fact of being poor is no guarantee of salvation. There must be faith in Christ and love for God.
Worldly Favoritism vs. Neighbor Love
But we need to press farther. James 2:8, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well.” Then he contrasts fulfilling the royal law of neighbor love with showing partiality. If you show worldly favoritism, you’re sinning and convicted as a transgressor (2:9). Now James is drawing on a distinction in the Old Testament here. Sin is the big category; it covers all disobedience to God. But some sins are transgressions. Transgressions are when we know a specific and direct command and we willfully violate it anyway. Transgressing is willful sin. It’s what Adam did in the garden. Showing favoritism makes you a willful violator of Christ’s royal law. It’s not an “oops” kind of sin. It’s fundamentally opposed to God’s revealed character. How can James say that?
The command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is from Leviticus 19:18.
It’s the climax of a larger section on how we treat our neighbors. And in the midst of that section, God says, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor” (19:15). So in the Old Testament, neighbor love is contrasted with showing partiality in a courtroom, and now we can begin to see why it is so evil and wicked to show worldly favoritism.
If you show preference and try to curry favor with the rich man over the poor man, you are basically saying, “One of my neighbors is valuable, and one is not. One is worth paying attention to; one is not.” And what makes the difference is not need or even natural, familial attachment, but simply wealth and status and power. Which means, what ultimately makes the difference is what this person can do for me. The reason that Worldly Favoritism is evil is because it is profoundly selfish. It is absolutely contrary to neighbor-love because it says that some neighbors aren’t worth loving because they can do nothing for you.
Favoritism says, “You’re worth my time and attention because of your wealth or your fame or your power or your connections. And you’re not worth my time and attention because you can’t do anything for me.” The Royal Law of Liberty (which here seems to mean the entire Old Testament as expanded and fulfilled by King Jesus) says something very different. The Gospel says, “You are both image bearers of God. You are both my neighbor. And therefore you are both worth my time and attention.” And I accent both because the Bible accents both. Notice in Leviticus it said, “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.” It’s not just favoritism to the rich and powerful that is wrong, but any kind of favoritism based on wealth, status, externals, and not righteousness (in the case of a courtroom) and love and perhaps need (in the case of the assembly).
We see the same thing in the New Testament. In Acts 3, Peter and John are going to the temple to preach. A poor, crippled man is sitting by the gates begging for alms. 3:4 says, “Peter directed his gaze at him and said, “Look at us.” And the man looked at them expectantly and Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus, rise up and walk.” Paul does the same thing to a crippled man in Acts 14. And in both cases, the passage says that the apostles looked at the poor beggar. They paid attention to him. They saw him, and they said, “You’re my neighbor, and I love you, and I will give you what I can.”
On the other side of things, do you remember the story of the rich young ruler? He comes to Jesus asking what he needs to do to receive eternal life. And Mark 10:46 says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” and told him how to be saved. Jesus looked at him. He paid attention to him. Jesus said, “You’re my neighbor, and I love you. Not because of your wealth (I’m going to call you to give that up). Not because of what you can do for me. I love you because you’re here in front of me and you’re my neighbor.”
Now it’s obvious why someone might show favoritism to the rich. The rich have wealth and power and influence and we want to gain some of that favor by giving them attention, by giving them the best seats, or groveling at their feet. But why would someone show favoritism to the poor? What can the poor do for us? We might show favoritism to the poor because we’re using them to justify ourselves out of a sense of guilt at our own wealth. Helping the poor makes us feel better about ourselves. Or we might have a Messiah complex. We show favoritism to the poor so that we can create people who owe us something and we love to see our greatness and generosity reflected in those that we help.
But either way, worldly favoritism is evil because it is contrary to neighbor love. This is true whether the favoritism is for the rich or the poor, the famous or the unknown, the powerful or the weak. Favoritism to the rich dishonors and humiliates the poor (“You’re not worth it”) and it uses the rich (“I’m trying to get something from you”). And that’s not love. Favoritism to the poor dishonors the rich and uses the poor. And that’s not love. Now, in a fallen world, it’s generally true that the greater temptation is to show favoritism to the rich. But the biblical principle is that showing favoritism based on externals, based on wealth, power, status, fame, based on what my neighbor can do for me, is always wrong, no matter which direction it goes.
Now before moving to the final verses of the passage, let me try to give a little more concrete help. Because given the subtle danger I just described—of using people for what they can do for us, rather than loving them because they are our neighbor—it would be easy and understandable to be paralyzed. How do I know if my attention to anyone—rich, poor, or in between—is driven by gospel love and thus a fulfilling of Jesus’s royal law, or whether it is motivated by selfishness and guilt? And if I find that my motives are wrong, or if they are mixed, what should I do?
The first thing to say is that your motives will be mixed. Those of us who have been brought forth by the word of truth still wrestle with sin and selfishness. That’s why we have to put aside filthiness and wickedness and continue to humbly receive the implanted word that saves our souls. There’s a fight in your soul between the firstfruits of God’s new world, and the remnants of the old world. So mixed motives are simply going to be a part of our lives in our pilgrim condition. And we can’t let mixed and impure motives paralyze us.
So let’s say you’re aware of the mixed motives. You know that you sometimes use people or help people out of guilt, that you subtly show favoritism. And then an opportunity to pay attention to someone (rich, poor, or in between) presents itself. What should you do? Let me draw your attention back to last week’s passage (1:23-25). James says that a mere “hearer of the word” is someone who sees himself in the mirror and then forgets what he looks like when he walks away. Hearing = looking in the mirror. Not doing = forgetting when you walk away. But a gospel doer is someone who looks in the law of liberty and perseveres. He doesn’t forget. He acts based on what he sees in the mirror of the royal law of liberty, and he is blessed in his doing.
C. S. Lewis called this “good pretending.” Bad pretending is hypocrisy. It’s when we pretend to be something that we’re not. Our pretense, our fakery is a substitute for reality. Good pretending is when the pretense leads up to the reality. It’s what children do when they pretend to be grown up so that they can grow up. And it’s what Christians do when they have mixed motives about doing the word.
Practically speaking, it means something like this. Imagine what you’d do if you really did experience deep, gospel renewal. If you really believed that God was for you and that he would meet all of your needs and that you didn’t need to use people to get what you want because you know that God accepts and approves and embraces you and so you overflow with his kind of love. Imagine that version of yourself, the one that is free and happy and full of love. Now take that imaginary you and put him in the situation where you can help someone. What would that imaginary, gospel-you do? If you really did love your neighbor sincerely, what would you do? When you have the answer, go and do it (even if you suspect that your motives are still mixed). In other words, do the deeds of love even when (some of) the substance is lacking. Don’t wait for your motives to be fully pure. Repent of your impure motives and sinful preferences. Look at yourself in the mirror of the gospel, the royal law of liberty. See what you are in light of the good news. Now don’t walk away and forget. Remember. Persevere in that vision of yourself in Christ. Walk away and do what you saw, even if you don’t fully feel what you saw. And, James says, you will be blessed in your doing.
What We See In the Royal Law
Now if we do look into the royal law, what will we see? The first thing that we see is that all sin is ultimately against God. Notice the logic of 2:10-11.
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 commit murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
Or we might say, if you don’t commit adultery or murder, but you do show favoritism to the rich, you have become a transgressor of the law. Why? Because the one who fails at one point fails the whole test because God said both. All sin—adultery, murder (perhaps David and Psalm 51 is lurking in the background here), favoritism to the rich, using the poor—all sin is ultimately against God.
The result of this is that we can’t excuse our failures at one point because of our obedience at another. You can’t say, “Because I obeyed over here, that cancels my disobedience over here.” Because I helped the poor, that cancels my lust and anger. Because I did an act of kindness, that cancels my lies and bitterness. That’s not how God’s law works. Sin cannot be excused. It can only be forgiven.
Therefore, speak and act as one who will be judged by the law of liberty. That’s the same law that James told us to look carefully into and persevere in 1:25. That’s the royal law of King Jesus that we fulfill when we love our neighbor as ourselves. When we look carefully into this law, we find that receiving a good verdict is not a matter of obedience outweighing disobedience. It’s a matter of mercy triumphing over judgment.
The Bible teaches that we will reap what we sow. The merciless will receive no mercy. The bitter will only receive bitterness. Those who swim in vileness will drown in vileness. And no amount of obedience in other areas will change that simple fact. But even the merciless, the bitter, and the vile can be forgiven. Mercy can triumph in their lives. And mercy triumphs when God, of his own will, through the word of truth, causes us to be born again. And because we’ve been born again and are the firstfruits of God’s new world, we continue to receive the implanted word. We abide and persevere in doing what we see in the law of liberty. Because we look intently into the gospel law of liberty, we are free. We are free to look at the rich and the poor as our neighbors. We are free to love them with the same love with which we’ve been loved. We’re free to show mercy to them and to refuse to use them or dishonor them or show favoritism to them, because God has shown mercy to us and loves us as we hold the faith in the Lord Jesus.
This is what we mean by gospel renewal. We are a people who love that mercy triumphs over judgment, and that’s why we love to come to the Lord’s Table. This is The Table of Mercy. There is no favoritism here. Rich and poor, famous or unknown, strong or weak—all are welcome here. The only requirement is that you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus, the Lord of glory. The Lord of Glory is here at this table, revealing himself to us in the bread and the wine. He is saying to us, “You are my people, the sheep of my pasture. You are my brothers and sisters. I was judged so that you could be free. I was cut off so you could come in.” So come, and welcome to Jesus Christ.