For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it… So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgement is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. – James 2:10-13
The problem with this passage begins in verse eight of the text. James discusses an accountability to the law which we violate in its totality when we violate it at any point. The context of this is a discussion of the sin of partiality, which was a problem in the church James was writing to. Apparently, rich guests got sits of honour while shabbily dressed visitors were dishonoured. Here, as in the last passage we looked at, James is not primarily concerned with the existed of economic disparity, but the believer’s response.
Still, James seems to be going against our theology of the law and grace in this passage. Paul spends a significant portion of his longest letter addressing our freedom from the law. In the early churches, there was an idea that people needed to follow the law in addition to faith in order to be saved. Paul challenges this at every opportunity, showing that we are not under obligation to the law, but are made free by Christ and are under the law of the Spirit of life. Yes, we continue to sin, but we count on the righteousness of Christ for our justification before God. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21).
Is there a way to be true to this text without introducing a element of accountability to the law which Paul works hard to refute? Spoiler alert: The answer is yes. The key, as it often is, is in the context.
This passage is part of a rebuke James gives in verse four: “Have you not become then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” The message here is that in treating people differently according to their outfits, the church is attempting to give to each person exactly what it feels they deserve. They are making themselves a judge of man and not doing a good job of it.
James goes on to explain his point by giving two reasons why partiality is wrong. The first is fairly straightforward (2:5-7). If a person is a believer, it is no accident. It is by God’s invitation that even the poor receive salvation. And so, by what right does any human dishonour someone God has chosen to honour? It’s not as though the rich as a group have proven to be more virtuous than the poor. Most of the persecution that congregation had faced was at the hands of rich oppressors. Wealth is not correlated with righteousness, and there is no reason to dishonour God’s financially challenged elect.
This is where our problem passage begins. It is the second point in explanation of why attempting to treat people according to what they deserve is wrong. James, being (likely) the brother of Jesus would have been very familiar with His teachings, including the Great Commandment from Matthew 22:37-39. It’s likely that the early church used this simple formulation as a recognized code of conduct among its members. So James challenges them in showing that partiality violates this law and makes them disobedient to what Jesus described as the greatest commandment of the law. And because the law is singular, violation at any point is violation of the whole.
In essence, James reminds people that they are sinners deserving of judgment. They are transgressors. Yet the church doesn’t expect to stand guilty before God for this violation because they are not being judged by the Old Testament law, the law of sin and death.
It’s important to understand that the “Law of Liberty” is used by James much the same way Paul talks about the” Law of Spirit of Life” in Romans. “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:2-4). Both Paul and Peter both speak to the Christian being free in Christ (Galatians 2:4, 5:1, 1 Peter 2:16).
James’ use of the term “Law of Liberty” is not to hold them accountable before some standard of morality for salvation, but to remind them of the freedom they have by God’s mercy. God doesn’t give us what we deserve, so why do we attempt to treat others how we feel they deserve? Mercy is to be the defining characteristic of church life, not justice. Mercy triumphs over justice.
So why then does James say, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy”? Well consider the similarity between this statement and Jesus’ in Matthew 6:15: “but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Jesus illustrates this with the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35.
I believe these verses speak to an inevitable natural response when we comprehend the gospel. If we, who have been forgiven much, cannot forgive one another, then have we really understood and accepted the grace that’s been given us? How can we, who have been given reconciliation not offer it to others in response? A heart that refuses to display mercy is one that not received it from God. The caution from James to the church is that their actions reflect the heart of people who have not truly received Christ. Only those who do not truly believe they will be judged under the law of liberty would continue to behave as they have been.
What we are meant to understand from this passage is God’s mercy to us who believe. James’ instruction for us is to reflect God’s mercy in our dealings with others, especially in the church context. We are not called to simply try to give others what they deserve, but to act as people who have been reconciled with God despite what we deserve.
May God be glorified in our reflection of His mercy