Seaborn Hall, 11/01/19
A sign reading ‘mercy triumphs over judgment’ used to hang in the sanctuary of a large, prominent Southern California church for years. What the leaders meant the sign to mean is that God’s grace and mercy is so great that it triumphs over our greatest faults and sense of condemnation. But that is a far cry from what the verse means, in fact, it is almost the opposite.
James is a book about the merging of faith and action. Much of the book comes straight out of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, one portion of which ends with Matthew 5:48, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48 NAS95).” A good argument can be made that another major portion of the book comes straight from Elihu’s argument to Job in Job 32-37, an argument for repentance from dead works and pride in the face of a righteous and just God. So James as a whole is a far cry from a book about grace or mercy.
It is in this context that we take a closer look at the passage leading up to James 2:13.
What Is The Context Of The Verse?
James 2 opens with this statement: “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” (James 2:1 NAS95) From this and successive verses we can see right away that the immediate context of the verse in question is about ‘partiality.’ The passage is not about any kind of partiality, it is about the partiality that leaders in a church are tempted to show towards congregants in the church due to their varying degrees of power, influence, or wealth.
In the particular situation described in James 2, apparently the leaders of the church have given in to the temptation of treating rich members of the church more favorably than poor members of the church. According to James this is wrong and is sin. He says, “have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?” (James 2:4 NAS95) When a leader makes a distinction between church members due to wealth, gifting, status, beauty or whatever – James says that it is not just sin, but evil.
In this context we might define evil as being a corrupt condition of perpetual and habitual sin. James calls leaders who commit the sin or partiality ‘judges with evil motives.’ This is quite a statement!
Who Does God Choose?
James now explains why what the leaders are doing is wrong. God did not choose the rich. He chose the poor.
According to James 2:5, “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5 NAS95) In this verse James elaborates on a theme he began in the first chapter of his book when he wrote, “But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away.” (James 1:9-10 NAS95)
According to James, it is humble circumstances that cause us to seek God and put Him first, creating a need for Him that actually gives us precedence in the kingdom of heaven. Wealth can cause humiliation and waste because those who have it squander it on their own desires and willfulness, even becoming arrogant in many cases. For a church leader to show partiality and favoritism to the very group that God disfavors – the rich – is for him to reject the heart of God.
The whole truth, of course, is that God does not show partiality to anyone, especially because they are rich or poor. He requires those who serve Him as leaders to display the same lack of partiality. According to James, the leaders of the church have dishonored the poor man (James 2:5). What is the antidote?
How Does A Leader Avoid The Sin Of Partiality?
According to James leaders avoid the sin of partiality by obeying the ‘royal law’ “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He then defines the fulfillment of this command with a negative in James 2:9. “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (James 2:9 NAS95)
James implies strongly that if, as a leader, you show partiality to the rich, to the gifted, to the beautiful, to the married, to the well-dressed – to anyone – that you are sinning and you are convicted by the royal law, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ So he defines loving your neighbor as yourself as a leader not showing partiality in any way, shape, or form. The leader is to be ‘perfect’ as God is ‘perfect.’
He then equates the sin of partiality with murder, which, as we know, the Sermon on the Mount defines just as it defines adultery, as internal, not external. That is, just as a man who commits lust in his heart has committed adultery, in the same way, someone who hates has committed murder. James now takes this further and explains that partiality is a ‘kind’ of hate. The logical conclusion? One who is partial is equal to the one who has murdered in God’s eyes.
So we are to speak and act as those who will be judged by the royal law, the internal law of the Holy Spirit and of the heart. This now brings us to the climactic James 2:13.
What Does ‘Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment’ Really Mean?
According to James 2:13, “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13 NAS95)
We can now understand to what issue this verse is speaking. Who has been merciless? The leaders of the church and other members in the church who have shown partiality to the rich over the poor. Who has shown ‘no mercy?’ The same. So, when James says, ‘Mercy triumphs over judgment’ what does he mean?
Obviously, he is speaking to the leaders of the church and everyone in the church who has shown favoritism towards the rich. His point is if the leaders and the church correct this sin and begin to show equal ‘mercy’ to the poor, not favoring the rich any longer, judgment will be averted.
Note the implication here and its seriousness. If the sin of leadership is allowed to continue it will bring judgment not only on the leaders but on the whole congregation, the entire church – “judgment will be merciless to the one who has shown no mercy.”
What Does This Mean In Practice?
As James says later in his letter, “Let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we will incur a greater judgment.”
Unfortunately, many Western churches don’t even realize they are under judgment because their criteria for blessing is upside down. Many western churches continue to grow larger and become more wealthy, taking this as a sign of God’s blessing.
James says the exact opposite. Large and wealthy may, in fact, be evidence of lack of blessing and judgment. On the other hand, a church may remain too small because of the same sin.
Judgment is a continuum that begins with discipline and God’s long suffering and progresses to subtle judgments like the absence of God’s presence, the absence of miracles, and lack of love in a fellowship. Wealth itself can actually be evidence in some cases of a first level of judgment because if the leaders show partiality it can create lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit and divisions in the church body.
This is one reason we featured the Todd Bentley controversy on our site recently. How leaders treat and discipline gifted people – the spiritually wealthy – in the Body of Christ matters. Discipline should be the same, that is, without partiality, regardless of the gift, stature or influence of a leader or gifted person. A great ‘anointing’ or healing gift should not justify a quick return to ministry after a great moral failure. A high platform or great gift should not justify or excuse lax discipline.
If the church embraces the full meaning of Jame’s message mercy will indeed once again triumph over judgment and God’s full presence will return to the church.