The Pressure of Partiality

The Point:  God does not play favorites and neither should I.

Show No Partiality: James 2:1-4.

[1]  My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. [2]  For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, [3]  and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "You sit here in a good place," while you say to the poor man, "You stand over there," or, "Sit down at my feet," [4]  have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?  [ESV]

[1-4]  Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ sets the scene for the whole central, teaching section of James’s letter. Being a Christian is not conforming one’s outward behavior to a religious pattern. Instead it is a heart-relationship to God defined by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. James does not write to us about religion but about faith, for he desires to lead us from the external display to the internal reality. In verses 1-4 James puts before us two sorts of glory and invites a decision as to where our loyalty lies, seeing that they are mutually incompatible. The heart of verses 1-4 is a homely, down-to-earth illustration such as James loves. Into the church meeting come two strangers. One stranger has all the outward trappings of wealth and gets ushered into a seat, while the other, a poor man, has to stand or, at best, to squat on a stool. And when we ask why this is, it comes down to appearance: the one looks important, the other does not. James’ illustration is timeless. It speaks as loudly today as when he penned it. The sin of partiality is the sin of judging by accidentals and externals and, as James noted, it always bears down on the poor and disadvantaged. But why is it a sin? In verse 1 James deliberately introduces the idea of the glory of Jesus and compels us to ask why he does so. Why is the notion of glory so important for James in this context? According to Exodus 34:5-8, glory is shorthand for the personal presence of the Lord in all His goodness and in the fullness of His revealed character. The Lord Jesus Christ is God’s Glory: God Himself come among us in all His goodness and in the full revelation of His person. But why does James introduce the thought of glory at this point in his letter? Verse 4 supplies the answer. In the structure of the verses, the illustration begins with an if in verse 2. Verse 4 is a then-clause drawing out the conclusion: this is what follows if the wealthy are favored and if there is discrimination against the poor merely on grounds of worldly advantage. James casts the conclusion, for emphasis, into the form of a question: have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? James’s point here is whether we put the Lord’s glory first in our scale of values or whether, all the time or from time to time, we allow ourselves rather to be led by the standards of this world as to what is worthy and worthwhile. To depart from this definition of what constitutes true glory is first to set ourselves up as judges, and in passing judgment to allow ourselves to be governed by evil thoughts. We have, in fact, committed a double fault. We have misunderstood our status – as if it were our position to sit in judgment on others; and we have trusted our own judgment – as if, by ourselves, we could make a true and accurate assessment. On the contrary, James teaches by a clear implication that in both status and judgment the Lord Jesus Christ, who is Himself the Glory, must reign supreme. As to how we accept others, we must ask how He would accept them. As to how we appraise others, we must ask how He appraises them. As to how we act towards others, we must ask how He would act towards them. Our values, priorities and activities must ever be governed by the definition of true glory displayed in the person, conduct and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

How God Acts:  James 2:5-7.

[5]  Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? [6]  But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? [7]  Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?  [ESV]

[5-7]  In verses 5-7 James argues first from spiritual experience [5-6a] and then from earthly experience [6b-7] against the sin of partiality where it involves siding with the rich and neglecting the poor. In verses 5-7 James makes his own applications and draws his own conclusions. In doing so he appeals to the experience of his readers on two distinct levels. First, he reminds them of spiritual experience. New life in Christ may trace its conscious and public history back to the moment of decision, of commitment, of accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior. But every conversion has a secret history which the Bible reveals and which owes its origin to God’s choice. As James considers God’s mind as revealed in the way He has exercised His choice, it is clear, he points out, that God has chosen those who are poor in the world. The words in the world are vitally important to James’ meaning. They refer not to the sphere in which God’s choice operates, but to the nature of the poverty experienced by those on whom the divine choice falls. It is poverty as the world understands poverty. Since these are the ones whom God has chosen, then to dishonor the poor [6], as illustrated in verses 2-3, is to contradict the mind of God. Secondly, James calls to mind earthly experience. He points out that it is in fact the rich who persecute believers and drag you into court. Where, then, is the common sense of singling out the rich for preferential treatment? For us the questions must be asked: how are we to understand the words he uses? Is the Lord unconditionally on the side of the poor? Are the rich by nature persecutors and inevitably such? And how are we to understand the mind that lies behind James’ words? Is he calling us to take sides on every social issue on the assumption that the poor man must be right and the rich man wrong? The evidence of the rest of the Bible is by no means as unqualified as James’ words, taken at face value, seem. We see that James is expressing a general rather than an invariable truth. The Lord does not choose only the poor; it is not only the rich who persecute believers and blaspheme the name of Jesus. Yet, in general, this is not only true but overwhelmingly true. It has always been the case that the Lord’s true people are predominantly less well off, the prey for stronger, more ruthless forces, and subject to less than justice from those who know how to manipulate the system. If James calls us to live out the life of God by caring for the poor, he is equally determined that we should not be dazzled by the rich, and this too must be borne in mind. It is by no means unusual for a person to have a voice in church affairs related not to his wisdom but to his wealth. Money still does the talking far too loudly in Christian circles, and where and when it does, the glory of Christ departs.

The Royal Law:  James 2:8-13.

[8]  If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing well. [9]  But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. [10]  For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. [11]  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. [12]  So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. [13]  For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.  [ESV]

[8-13]  James links verse 8 to verse 7 by the word if (however). He is turning our attention away from the illustration [2-4] and directing our attention to a principle: If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture … you are doing well. The principle on which James now rests his teaching is this: we have a law to obey. It is a very special law, for it is called the royal law. Also, it is according to the Scripture, which means that it carries scriptural authority. This raises a whole series of questions: how can it be scriptural to say that Christians are under the law? Is James bringing us back into a bondage from which Christ liberated us? What place has law in the life of the Christian? The first twenty chapters of Exodus are a huge, God-given, visual aid on this subject. When the story begins, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt; at the end they are a free people, camped at Mount Sinai. Here, then, is our visual aid, drawn in the vivid colors of history. The first act of God is to redeem His people [Ex. 6:6]. Then He brings His people to the place where He reveals His law to them [Ex. 20:1ff.]. To put the matter another way: those who have experienced the benefit of the blood of the lamb [Ex. 12:13,21-23] must come under obedience to the law. God the Redeemer and God the Lawgiver are the same. Grace comes first, then Law follows. This is biblical logic. When people have received the wonders of God’s grace in redemption, will they not, in gratitude, want to know how to live so as to please the God who has poured His grace upon them? The point is of such importance that it is worth stating it over again. In the Bible, the obedience we render to His law is not meritorious obedience but responsive obedience. We obey, not as those who are trying to merit salvation, but as those who have already received salvation and wish to respond by giving their whole lives up to God their Savior. There is a pattern, then, in the ways of God. Redemption by the blood of the lamb leads to responsive obedience – the life-style of the redeemed framed according to the law of the Redeemer. This is the message of the historical visual aid in the Scripture of the Old Covenant. There is no problem transferring it into terminology expressive of the New Covenant. Those who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, long to grow like Him, to be made like unto the Son of God in all things. This is simply saying that His example comes to us with the force of divine law. In prediction, the New Covenant in fact involves the writing of God’s law upon our hearts [Jer. 31:31-34]. This was fulfilled in Jesus [Heb. 10:15-17] and it is in this spirit that James can call us to make Jesus our standard of glory [1] and also to obey the royal law [8].

[8-9]  The use of the adjective royal must point to the importance of this law, but beyond that it is not certain quite what James intends. The adjective royal is consistently used in the New Testament to have the meaning “belonging to the king.” So the royal law is that which comes to us with some special approval from the King. Jesus Himself took this law and gave it a special dignity within the whole body of biblical law [Mark 12:28-31]. Here, then, is a law which comes to us with all the weight of scriptural authority, but which in particular is marked out as being a special concern of our King. You shall love your neighbor as yourself [8]. How very important the last two words are! They are the key to the whole meaning. If we want to know how we are to love our neighbors, then we must ask a prior question: how do we love ourselves? Loving ourselves means providing loving care and attention. This is the model on which we are to base our relationships to all to whom we owe neighborly duty. Everything conspires today to define love primarily in emotional terms. Scripturally, love is to be defined in terms of commitment and caring, for the love that is owed to our neighbor is the love we expend on ourselves. The opposite of the royal law [8] is partiality [9]. They are contrasted as doing well and committing sin. The essence of the royal law is that wherever there is need there is an obligation to extend the sort of love we lavish on ourselves; whereas the essence of partiality is to select the recipients of our care on some ground other than that they are in need. But all this is very much more easily said than done. The world is full of the needy; we have far more neighbors than we could ever hope to care for. Three things may be offered as guidelines. First, we must each discover from God what is our calling. The world is indeed full of our neighbors, in the sense of people requiring our aid, but the Lord of the harvest is the only one who can direct His workforce, some here, some there, according to His perfect will. Secondly, we must respect each other’s callings. Thirdly, we must enter into each other’s calling. Where we cannot go ourselves, and where we are not called to go, we must stand behind those who are so called, for we are members one of another and all alike trustees of the King’s commission to the whole creation.

[10-13]  In 2:10-11 James wants to go beyond a special obligation to obey the royal law to establish a universal obligation, an obligation which no one can avoid. He does it in this way: first [10] he insists that the law is one indivisible whole. There is no way in which we can pick and choose between the commandments, because to break one is to break the whole law. Why is this? James goes on [11] to explain. He does so by turning from the law to the Lawgiver. The thing which gives the law its indivisible nature is the character of the God who spoke it. This means that there is nothing arbitrary about the commandments of the law: each one reflects some facet of the divine nature. Neither is there anything unnecessary: if the law is to express the whole nature of the Lawgiver, then each single precept has its place. To take away a precept from the law is to damage the revelation of God which He has given us in His law. To say that one of the commands does not apply to me is to say that there is some aspect of the nature of God which does not matter, as far as I am concerned. I can get on without it; it is of no particular value. James has so far taught us two truths about the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. First, because it is the royal law, the law that in a special sense belongs to the king, we would wish to obey it – simply because He would specially desire us to do so. Secondly, because it is a command of the law of God, we must obey it. To dismiss it is to dismiss the facet of the Glory of God which it represents. It comes to us as a revelation of God, and with His authority, therefore we must obey it. But, thirdly, it is part of the law of liberty, and therefore we can obey it. The law of God is not a new bondage, but is given to mark the end of the old bondage and the beginning of true freedom. We must now seek to understand how this is so. What is true human nature? We must first know what we are before we can arrive at true freedom. The Bible has the answer: Man is made in the image of God. Our true freedom depends on discovering how we can give expression to our true nature. How can we live so as to be like Him? James answers this crucial question by his startling expression, the law of liberty, bringing together the two things which people think of as opposites, law and liberty. But, as we have seen, the law is the nature of God expressed in commandments. When we obey His commands, then we are living like Him. We are in the image of God; the law is in the image of God. When we bring these two together, we are then “being ourselves;” we are truly free. God’s law describes the life of true freedom; obedience opens the door into the free life. It is for this reason that we as Christians never need hesitate to point anyone to the law of God as the true way of life, for it spells out the image of God for the benefit of those who were created in the image of God. It is the true way of life for all. With the Bible in our hands we happen to know what human nature truly is, and also the way of life that brings true human nature to full development. But for ourselves there is another whole dimension. Acts 5:32 says that God gives His Holy Spirit to those who obey Him. In other words, the very act of obeying is a key to power. The law of God does more than describe the life of liberty; obedience liberates. Hebrews 10:16-17 (quoting Jer. 31:33) explains this by saying that through the saving work of Christ we have been given by God a heart that matches the requirements of His law. His word of truth in all its aspects resides in our new nature, and waits to be triggered off by the precepts of His law. We are called to obey and, because the law corresponds to the wishes and capacities of the new heart, we can. Sadly we fail, over and over again, to live the life of obedience. It is good for us that James goes on now to speak of mercy [13]. We are in constant need of the mercy of God, and He shows us on what terms we may have it: judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. The Lord Jesus taught that it is the merciful who obtain mercy [Matt. 5:7], and amplified His teaching in the story of the unforgiving servant [Matt. 18:21-35]. It is not that our mercy has purchasing power, but that it has evidential value. Neither Jesus nor James would see our merciful deeds as meritorious acts by which we make ourselves worthy of God’s mercy. If we could make ourselves worthy we would not need mercy! The word which links verses 12 and 13 is judged … judgment. Since [12] the law of God is itself a liberating agent, disobedience is without excuse and we have much need of divine mercy. But [13] instead of simply saying that mercy is available, James states the truth about mercy in a way that rounds off his whole argument. The essence of the illustration in verses 2-4 is that a merciful spirit was replaced, on spurious, superficial grounds, by a spirit of partiality, favoring the wealthy. In verse 13 the mercy we need is conditional upon showing mercy, for only the merciful obtain mercy. If we fail to find shelter under divine mercy, then the law takes its absolutely just and equitable course; we get what we deserve. But the presence of a merciful spirit assures us that we can find shelter under mercy. But what does James mean by mercy triumphs over judgment? In the plan of salvation respect is done to justice, but mercy triumphs. Justices demands, as what is due, that the sinner should be condemned; mercy pleads that he may be saved – and mercy prevails. In this way, at the end of a very searching section, James brings us a real word of comfort and assurance. Practical and loving, James directs us, at the end, away from self-questioning to the one thing that is eternally certain. In the cross of Christ justice was fully done, its claims were fully met and God’s mercy to sinners triumphed in the provision of a complete forgiveness and a full salvation. Judgment looks at our deserts; mercy at our needs. And God Himself looks at the cross of His Son.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why does James place the discussion of showing partiality in the church in the context of the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory? Why is showing partiality a denial of our faith and our desire to glorify our Lord?

2.         Verses 5-7 present an excellent example of the importance of historical context for interpreting the meaning of a passage. Taken out of the context of Scripture as a whole, these verses would teach that God only chooses the materially poor in the world. But we see from others parts of scripture that this is not true. So what is James teaching us in these verses?

3.         What is the royal law? Why does James contrast it with showing partiality? Why does James write that we are guilty of the whole law if we break the law at any one point? (Consider what we are saying about God when we break one of His laws.)

4.         What place does God’s law have in the life of the Christian according to verses 8-13? How is God’s Law both a law of judgment and a law of liberty? What is the difference between meritorious obedience and responsive obedience? How does understanding the law of liberty help us avoid falling into the trap of meritorious obedience?


James, Dan McCartney, ECNT, Baker.

The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Message of James, J.A. Motyer, Inter-Varsity.

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