So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (2:12–13)
Because partiality is such a serious sin, James closes this section with an appeal for believers to fully consider the danger of divine judgment. And the obvious implication is for them to then forsake the sin of partiality, asking the Lord’s forgiveness and cleansing.
The admonition to speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty is tantamount to saying, “Live and act as a true believer who has been saved by God’s grace and who will be judged on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness. That righteousness frees the believer from the law of bondage and judges him under the redeeming law of liberty, God’s Word of the gospel, the New Testament in Jesus Christ, which frees the repentant sinner from the bondage of sin (cf. John 8:31–32).
God “will render to each person according to his deeds,” Paul declares,
to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. (Rom. 2:6–11)
One of James’s major themes is that a person’s real faith will be manifest in and through his works, “for just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (2:26). If God looks at our life and sees that we have handled trials and temptations in a godly way, that we received and obeyed His Word, and that we have not lived a life of favoritism, that will be evidence of our salvation. Paul states unequivocally that “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Good works cannot produce redemption; but genuine redemption produces obedient and holy living that will be characterized by good works. Living faith will be demonstrated by a holy life.
The gospel is the law of liberty because it frees those who place their faith in Jesus Christ from the bondage, judgment, and punishment of sin and brings them ultimately to eternal freedom and glory. It liberates us sinners from falsehood and deception and from the curses of death and hell. Even more marvelously, it frees us to obey and serve God, to live faithfully and righteously according to His Word and by the power of His indwelling Spirit. And it frees us to follow our Lord willingly out of love rather than reluctantly out of fear. In every sense, it is the “royal law” of God (v. 8), the divine and wondrous law of liberty.
As a further word of warning, James says that judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy. In this context, the one who has shown no mercy obviously refers to unbelievers. Their lives are characterized by partiality, hardness, selfishness, and lack of concern for others—in short, lovelessness. They are far from loving others as they love themselves, reflecting nothing of God’s love and care for those in need. They will not be blessed or receive mercy, for they have not been merciful (Matt. 5:7).
When a man lives without mercy to others in God’s world, he simply shows off the fact that he himself has never responded aright to the immeasurable mercy of God. The mercy a man has shown others as fruit of a life touched by God’s saving mercy will triumph over judgment. His own sins, worthy of judgment, are removed by God’s working in his life, dissolving all the charges strict justice might bring against him. Thus his showing of mercy is not a matter of heaping up personal merit to deserve salvation by his own good works. The mercy he shows is itself a work of God for which he can take no credit.
James brings us to the climax of his great argument. Partiality is inconsistent with the Christian faith because the Christian faith is consistent with the nature of God—and God is wholly impartial. Partiality is inconsistent with the purpose and the plan of God in choosing the poor of this world to be spiritually rich. Partiality is inconsistent with loving your neighbor as yourself. Even if it were the only sin a person ever committed, partiality, like all other sins, shatters the entire law of God and makes a person a transgressor, condemned to hell forever. If you come before the judgment seat of God and He sees that you have lived a life that is merciful to others, He will show mercy to you, because your mercy will testify to your saving faith. It will be true in your case that mercy triumphs over judgment. Contrarily, a person who has lived a life devoid of mercy to others will show himself to be without saving faith.
Judgment and Mercy (2:12–13)
James heightens the issue by reminding his readers that they will “be judged by the law that gives freedom.” Further, “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” We should “speak and act” accordingly (James 2:12–13).
The phrase “speak and act” reminds us of the call to be doers of the word (1:22–25). Judgment is certain and will occur on that basis. Judgment is near (5:8) in the sense that it will surely happen.
The law will be our judge. Why? Above all, because God gave the law. To break the law is to contradict God’s will. Moreover, when we break the law we fail to act like his children. We neither walk in his ways nor imitate him.
This is tragic, because the law gives freedom. Many regard the law as a restriction, since it forbids their doing whatever they please. But there is a freedom that enslaves. We may be free to take cocaine, but cocaine enslaves its users by addiction. We may be free to divorce a spouse. But divorce very often binds people to loneliness and poverty. We may be free to experiment sexually, but such freedom enslaves us to a life of lust and shallow, broken relationships.
Beyond these temporal troubles, sin leads to judgment. When James first mentions mercy in 2:13, he hints that he still has in mind sins against the poor, who need mercy. If we favor the rich, we extend no mercy to the poor. Next, James mentions the need to feed and clothe the poor. All who claim to believe must show mercy, or they will face judgment (2:14–17).
This stings. The depth of these demands could drive disciples to despair. Render complete obedience, James declares, or you render nothing. What shall we say? We follow the logic: believers must obey God’s laws because they are God’s laws. But when James says, “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful,” the gospel seems to be missing. The Sovereign commands that we show mercy, but where is his mercy? James is ready with his answer: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” This is a short, undeveloped burst; James will present more of his gospel in chapter 4.
“Mercy triumphs over judgment” has been understood two ways. It may refer to human mercy. That is, disciples will act in mercy after all, so that human mercy will win the day! But this seems unlikely. James hardly seems optimistic about human goodness. Indeed, James 2:1–7 shows that we fail the tests of true religion.
The second explanation of “Mercy triumphs over judgment” asserts that the mercy is God’s. Though James has not been thinking of mercy, it seems that he simply cannot end by declaring judgment “without mercy” (2:13). He does not explain, at this moment, how mercy triumphs over judgment. But he is speaking to believers. We know that mercy triumphs by a simple yet profound process. First, we recognize our sins and repent, grieving over them and intending, by God’s grace, to abandon them. James says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (4:10). Second, we turn to Jesus as he is offered in the gospel, knowing that “he was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Believers fail, yet by their faith in the Redeemer, God’s mercy to his children triumphs over the judgment we deserve. In Christ, mercy triumphs.
When a true believer strives to obey and fails, the final word is still grace. For that reason, a sinning, failing Christian never despairs, never descends into self-recrimination. Through Christ, we are united to the triune God. The one who demands mercy shows mercy. For disciples, God’s mercy is always his last word.
Taking Mercy Home
Of course, Scripture teaches us to ask for mercy. It commands us to pray for forgiveness every day, since, unless we are comatose, we sin every day. But it can be difficult to repent. God’s mercy does not depend on our ability to request it properly. Nonetheless, we will be healthier if we know how correctly to face our sin. Indeed, we can respond to our sin in several ways, and not all of them involve repentance.
- We can excuse our sin, especially by blaming others. If we get angry, someone provoked us. If we fail, someone tempted us. We even blame God for our sins. James says: “When tempted, no one should say,‘God is tempting me.’ ” For God does not tempt anyone. Rather, our own evil desires entice us (James 1:13–14).
- We can deny our sin. We redefine our actions so they sound better. You know the scene: Two people are arguing and someone says, “Will you two stop bickering?” The disputants then reply, “We’re not arguing, we’re having an animated discussion.” Unrepentant people never shout, they just make their points emphatically. They don’t steal, they borrow things indefinitely and without permission. If anyone points out their sin, that person is judgmental and her standards are too high.
- We can succumb to our shame. We can collapse in despair, guilt, and self-recrimination. We can give up and fall deeper into sin, thinking effort is futile.
- Or we can resolve to try harder. We can stir ourselves with grim resolve and vows of self-reformation. We can redouble our efforts until we collapse in failure and shame again, days or weeks later.
- Or we can take the sin to God and plead for mercy. The guilt-stricken man asks, “Will God forgive when I commit the same sin yet again?” And Jesus and the gospel say, “Yes.” Remember the Lord’s prayer. If we can ask for bread daily, we can ask for forgiveness daily.
James 2 stings the complacent believer with several sharp warnings about sin. First, even a “small,” common, all-but-invisible sin such as favoritism has large consequences; by it we fail the tests of true religion. Second, we have no right to pick and choose among God’s commands. If we reject a command because it is unpalatable, we have rejected the Lord who gave that law. These are serious matters. Still, God’s grace is greater than our sin. The gospel goes to sinners, to the unworthy, to the poor in spirit. The Lord is pleased when we obey, yet for all who repent and believe, he loves and forgives even when we fail him.
13. For he shall have judgment. This is an application of the last verse to the subject in hand, which confirms altogether the second explanation which I have mentioned: for he shews, that since we stand through God’s mercy alone, we ought to shew that to those whom the Lord himself commends to us.
It is, indeed, a singular commendation of kindness and benevolence, that God promises that he will be merciful to us, if we be so to our brethren: not that our mercy, however great it may be, shewn towards men, merits the mercy of God; but that God would have those whom he has adopted, as he is to them a kind and an indulgent Father, to bear and exhibit his image on the earth, according to the saying of Christ, “Be ye merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful.” (Matt. 5:7.) We must notice, on the other hand, that he could denounce nothing on them more severe or more dreadful than the judgment of God. It hence follows, that all they are miserable and lost who flee not to the asylum of pardon.
And mercy rejoiceth. As though he had said, “God’s mercy alone is that which delivers us from the dread and terror of judgment.” He takes rejoicing or glorying in the sense of being victorious or triumphant; for the judgment of condemnation is suspended over the whole world, and nothing but mercy can bring relief.
Hard and forced is the explanation of those who regard mercy as put here for the person, for man cannot properly be said to rejoice or glory against the judgment of God; but mercy itself in a manner triumphs, and alone reigns when the severity of judgment gives way; though I do not deny but that hence arises confidence in rejoicing, that is, when the faithful know that the wrath of God in a manner yields to mercy, so that being relieved by the latter, they are not overwhelmed by the former.
So Speak and So Act as One Being Judged by the Law of Liberty (2:12–13)
12–13 James concludes the unit, as he started it, with an exhortation: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom.” Yet at the same time, 2:12–13 forms another key transition in the structure of the book and works with the reference to the law and judging at 4:11–12 to bracket the heart of the letter. Here James highlights that the law of love involves both right speaking and right acting. This twin approach to righteous living, speaking and acting, is seen in Leviticus 19:9–18, which, as already noted, has a significant influence on James, as well as on the teaching of Jesus (see, e.g., Mt 5:21–48; 25:31–45). If interpersonal relationships within the community of faith are to be healthy, right speaking and right acting must be embraced. The law of freedom, as noted at 1:25, is the divine ethic of love, taken up and reaffirmed by Jesus, as central to a life lived effectively for God. It is, therefore, God’s law that sets the standard by which the actions of all individuals will be assessed. Therefore, the one who breaks God’s law (such as that delineated in Lev 19:9–18), demonstrating a lack of love and mercy, will be judged mercilessly, perhaps echoing the implication of Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5:7). Earlier in the passage James has shown favoritism to be a form of evil judgment (v. 4). Thus the tables are turned, the judges standing before God as Judge! The concluding statement, “mercy triumphs over judgment,” perhaps means that a life of mercy diffuses such a judgment.
Favouritism indicates an unmerciful spirit (v. 13)
No, James was not suggesting for a single minute that we can secure salvation for ourselves by showing mercy to the poor and needy. He was much too good a theologian for that!
We are saved only by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. But those who are truly saved cannot live as if they have never been touched by the mercy and grace of God. Those who know mercy cannot withhold it from others.
Curtis Vaughan offers this good summary of James’s teaching:
James surely does not mean that by showing mercy to man we procure mercy from God. That would make salvation a matter of human merit and would contradict the whole tenor of Scripture.
What James means is that by failing to show compassion on our fellow men we prove ourselves to be utterly devoid of Christian character. Christian people are the children of God. They bear His image; they copy His example. It is therefore impossible for them to fail to share in His compassion, to fail to reflect His spirit of mercy.
Those who have truly been saved will give evidence of the merciful character of the God who saved them. As they give that evidence, they will assure themselves that they truly have been saved and, therefore, have nothing to fear on the Day of Judgement. ‘Mercy triumphs over judgment’ (v. 13).
2:13 / To back up this argument from scripture (i.e., because) and to begin to shift the focus to the next section, James adds a proverbial saying: judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. God is merciful, as any reader of the Old Testament should know. Exodus 34:5–6 states that when God revealed to Moses his nature and pronounced his name he described himself as “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (cf. Deut. 4:31; Ps. 103:8–14, which connects this to his judging “in favor of the oppressed”). If this is God’s personal standard of righteousness, then it follows that his true followers should copy him. “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, cf. Hos. 4:1; 6:6; 12:6; Prov. 14:21; Dan. 4:27). Or again, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.’ ” (Zech. 7:9). Not to show mercy is to step outside of God’s covenant and to invite God in return to judge by the same strict standard.
This teaching was made even more explicit in the intertestamental and rabbinic periods. Sirach states, “Does [a person] have no mercy toward a man like himself and yet pray for his own sins?” (Sirach 28:4; cf. 27:30–28:7; Tobit 4:9–11; Testament of Zebulun 8:8), and “Rabbi Barabbi said, ‘To him who is merciful to the created, Heaven is merciful, but to him who is unmerciful to the created, Heaven is also unmerciful’ ” (b. Shabbath 151b).
Jesus taught, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5:7). This is underlined in his teaching on forgiveness (Matt. 6:14–15), his response to the Pharisees (Matt. 12:7, quoting Hos. 6:6), his parable on forgiveness (Matt. 18:21–35), and his parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31–46). Therefore it is the unified witness of the Gospels that Jesus followed standard Jewish teaching and taught that God would show mercy only to those obeying him and doing likewise.
James’ use of this saying shows that he had learned Jesus’ tradition carefully, for it becomes his clinching argument. Even if the logical and biblical arguments have not convinced the reader that justice and love demand that the poor be treated honorably, then the Christian must still honor the poor person out of mercy and the fear of God’s judgment.
Furthermore, mercy triumphs over judgment! This is the positive side of the proverb. It is—as the parables of Jesus cited above show—mercy, that is, a person’s faithful submission and obedience to God, that conquers judgment. This cuts two ways, for the mercy will destroy both one’s judging of others and God’s judgment of oneself.
Significant in the choice of words here is the fact that mercy in scripture is not simply charitable evaluation of others but caring for the poor, that is, charity. This not only reflects the previous section of honoring the poor but asks why the Christians were not themselves caring for the poor.
James now focuses on charity and its relevance to faith within the overall topic of the care and appreciation of the poor. The structure is parallel to 2:1–13: in each section James opens with a topic verse, then has an example, a logical argument, and a two-part biblical argument.
Mercy and judgment (2:13)
Sadly we fail, over and over again, to live the life of obedience, and we are very blameworthy, for at one and the same time we have to admit that ‘Yes, I did disobey’ and ‘No, I did not have to’. It is good for us that James goes on now to speak of mercy. 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 (13).
The Lord Jesus taught that it is the merciful who obtain mercy (Mt. 5:7), and amplified his teaching in the story of the unforgiving servant (Mt. 18:21–35). Forgiveness was extended in relation to an impossible debt, but when the merciful king discovered that he was offering mercy to one who had no mercy in his own spirit the offer was withdrawn—and, said Jesus, ‘so also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive’ (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! Both teach that, if we are not merciful, we can neither credibly seek nor effectively receive the mercy he offers.
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, favouring the wealthy. In verse 13 the mercy we need is conditional upon showing mercy, for only the merciful obtain mercy. We need to be careful about the words without mercy (13). James Adamson is quite wrong in saying that a person lacking mercy ‘will come under the old ruthlessness of the “law” ’. Ruthlessness is an inappropriate description of Old Testament law, which had as its basis an insistence on absolute equality between crime and punishment. Without mercy is not the same as what we mean by merciless. 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 sue for and shelter under mercy.
rsv tries to help James by smoothing over the abruptness with which he ends his paragraph. We read, yet mercy triumphs over judgment. There is no yet in James’ Greek. niv makes the words an independent exclamation, and this is correct. But what do they mean? The words are not a command or an invitation, but an unqualified statement. We need to ask when and about whom such an assertion can be made, and A. Barnes gives us the lead we need: ‘In the plan of salvation … respect is done to justice, but mercy triumphs. Justice 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. To be sure, if we show ourselves to be merciful, we can reckon on God’s mercy, but there is no way in which anything about ourselves is a sufficient ground of confidence in prospect of the judgment-seat of Christ. In fact, is our capacity for showing mercy worth talking about? Are we always as truly merciful as we ought? Even at its best is our mercy a pure, good, perfect mercy? Is it not a tawdry and inadequate thing, just as much shot through with the taint of our selfishness as is anything else we sinners do? Such questions flood the mind—and we know the answers only too well. 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. Maybe the very abruptness of his words as he (so to speak) blurts out this great truth shows how James’ own heart was moved at the thought of Jesus, Calvary and the great, eternal acquittal. Thus even before the judgment-seat mercy wins the day. It ‘crows over judgment’. This is our position before God. Judgment looks at our deserts; mercy at our needs. And God himself looks at the cross of his Son.
But there is another application. In verse 4 James rebuked us for ‘becoming judges’. This is not only wrong in itself, but makes us unlike our God. Should not we too be those in whose every act mercy has the last laugh?
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 115–117). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Doriani, D. M. (2007). James. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 75–78). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (pp. 308–309). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 236–237). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Ellsworth, R. (2009). Opening up James (pp. 86–87). Leominster: Day One Publications.
 Davids, P. H. (2011). James (pp. 62–63). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Motyer, J. A. (1985). The message of James: the tests of faith (pp. 102–104). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.