Last week, I participated in a Bible study on James 2:1-13. I enjoyed the discussion and the progression of James' argument, so I thought I'd reproduce my perspective on the passage here.
James passionately implores us to refrain from any sort of partiality. His reasons may strike you.
My brothers and sisters, favoritism is not consistent with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ—the Glory of God. (James 2:1)
The New Living Translation has it: "How can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?" I think that James' implication is pretty clear: something doesn't jibe with having both faith in Christ and prejudice.
James follows with an example of favoritism, and then a brief explanation—for the sake of this particular example—of why it makes no sense to honor the rich above the poor:
For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, "You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor"—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?
Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? (2:2-7 NLT)
He explains how favoritism and prejudice break the Old Covenant Law. He reminds us that God despises any form of partiality. It's not just a trifle. He continues:
If you really carry out the royal law prescribed in Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
For whoever keeps the entire law, yet fails in one point, is guilty of breaking it all. For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." So if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you are a lawbreaker. (2:8-11 CSB)
But then, he returns to his original point to resolve the issue he left us with in verse 1: How is it that partiality and faith in Christ are mutually exclusive of each other? It's interesting to see the direction James takes with his reasoning. He lifts the weight of his argument off of the Old Covenant Law onto the New Covenant "law":
Speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn't shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (2:12-13 CSB)
So, James compares the Torah Law with this "law of freedom." James has already mentioned a "law of freedom" in his epistle—at James 1:25, where he exhorts us to always keep at the forefront of our minds our identity—the reality of the freedom we have in Christ—and to live according to that reality of freedom and grace. But what is this talk of a New Covenant "law"?
Paul uses similar terminology in his open letter to the Christians at Rome. We pick up his argument in Romans at 3:1-30:
Then what advantage has the Jew [over the Gentile]? Or what is the value of circumcision?... Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.... Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (ESV)
Well, what is a law? It's as the NIV has it here, a "principle"... a principle that is followed, a rule of action. So, when Paul says that there is no room for the Jews to boast in their nationality as though it made them any closer to God than other nations, he explains that this is because there is a principle of faith that needs to be considered. That principle of faith is "that a man is justified [made right with God] by faith apart from observing the law [of works]" (NIV). The "law of faith" is the principle of relationship that allows people like you and me to be reconciled with our Father, God. It is, in other terminology, "the Gospel." It is "Grace."
So, when James says, "favoritism is not consistent with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" and "speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom" (TNIV) what does he mean? What's the connection?
He means that "the law of freedom" motivates us to love, greatly and equally, all people. Why? Because "the law of freedom" is the truth of freedom from condemnation. How do we know this? Because Paul said,
No condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus, because the Spirit's law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (Romans 8:1-2 CSB)
By faith in Christ, by having confidence in the power of God and His love for us, we are set free from the chains of sin and death, because there is no longer any condemnation over us. A condemnation is "a sentence of judgment which condemns some one to do, to give or to pay something." We are no longer criminals being judged. We are no longer condemned to attempt to pay the penalty from crimes too numerous to count. We are free. Rather than condemned, we have been forgiven.
A condemnation is also "an expression of strong disapproval," which is also something that does not exist for us in Christ. We are—you are—totally approved of God. He accepts you. He loves you. He validates you. He considers you valuable to Him. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to change that.
But how then can we, who have been forgiven of our incalculable debts, go on with unforgiveness in our hearts? How then can we, who have been accepted despite ourselves, go on rejecting others based upon our formulated criteria? How then can we, who are loved unconditionally, go on distributing love to others according to how they meet our standards?
Do you favor one person above another, because the one is "cool" and the other is decidedly "not"? Do you love and approve of one friend who is mature, thoughtful, and loving, but look down upon another in condescension who is immature, whiny, and selfish? Do you hang out only with people you find pleasant and avoid people who are annoying, are irritable, or have poor personal hygiene? Do you find yourself surrounded with people who hide well their sins on the inside, but wouldn't dream of befriending people who wear their sins on the outside? Do you stick close to your comfort zone when your comfort zone tells you to socialize only with people of your own ethnicity? Do you give the best seats to the rich?
It is with all this in mind that James continues his thought with, "What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don't show it by your actions?" (James 2:14 NLT)
Jesus taught the same thing:
Then Peter came to him and asked, "Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?"
"No, not seven times," Jesus replied, "but seventy times seven!
"Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn't pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
"But the man fell down before his master and begged him, 'Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.' Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
"But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
"His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. 'Be patient with me, and I will pay it,' he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn't wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
"When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, 'You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?' Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
"That's what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart." (Matthew 18:21-35 NLT)
Do you see then why "favoritism is not consistent with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ"?
If someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was.
Ah! "But," he says!
But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out—he will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:23-25 NET)
I'd like you to read that again, in the Contemporary English Version, to make sure you get the point:
But you must never stop looking at the perfect law that sets you free. God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don't just hear and forget. (1:25)
You are free. You are forgiven. You are accepted. And you must hold onto that truth with a deathgrip. There is no room for shame or guilt or any other form of self-condemnation. Because "there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." There is only love. There is only grace. And when you fix your eyes on that—that is faith. It is confidence in God's love and promise: stubborn faith in stubborn promises.
Grace is God's acceptance of us. Faith is our acceptance of God's acceptance of us. (Adrian Rogers)
This freedom will change the way you look at others. It will change the way you act. Eugene Peterson sums it up pretty well with his paraphrase of James 2:14-17:
Dear friends, do you think you'll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, "Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!" and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?