Faith in Christ Excludes Favoritism
Passage: James 2:1–13
Sermon from James 2:1-13 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word
Delivered on May 29, 2016
Thank you, Aaron Hicks, for preaching last Sunday. What a great reminder that our posture in life must be that of sitting before the King’s word and receiving from his extravagant love in the gospel before we go about our works. What Aaron shared last week really has everything to do with where James will take us this morning. Because when we truly grasp God’s glory and mercy in Jesus Christ, it will transform the way we view and treat other people.
Favoritism in the Church
There’s a bit of favoritism going on in the church that James is writing to. The ESV uses the word “partiality.” The Greek means “to receive the face.” It’s when you show favor to someone based on mere appearances—their clothing, their skin color, their countenance, perhaps even their smell. In this particular case, some are showing a favorable bias toward the rich over the poor.
James calls it evil, sin, lawbreaking, deserving of judgment, and then runs us to the only solution, God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. Essentially it comes down to this: faith in Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, excludes favoritism. That’s clear by the way he starts in verses 1-4…
1My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3and 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,” 4have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
So the church is gathering. A couple of visitors enter. We’re not told whether the visitors are fellow Christians or curious unbelievers (cf. 1 Cor 14:23). But regardless of their spiritual status, their material status was very apparent. The rich guy has fancy clothes; the poor man wears filthy rags. And based on appearances people in the church start showing favor to the rich man. He gets the favored seat; the poor get the floor. And this is a huge problem. Verse 4 says that they’ve become judges with evil thoughts.
Favoritism: A Result of Wavering in Treasuring the Lord of Glory
Where is it that they have gone so wrong? Where is it that we go wrong when we find partiality in us? You might not have a particular bias toward the rich.[i] But do you, perhaps, favor one ethnicity over another? Do you favor one particular subculture over another? Are there ways that we give preferential treatment only to those who share our political opinions, or our marital status, or our healthcare preferences, or education levels, or relational capabilities? If so, we’re not too far from where these folks were.
But what turns us into judges with evil thoughts? That’s what’s happening when we show favoritism. We sit ourselves down in the Judge’s seat and we determine who is acceptable in our sight and who is not based on evil convictions. How does one get to that place of showing partiality?
We get there when we waiver in treasuring Jesus, the Lord of glory. There are a couple ways to translate verse 4. The ESV has this: “Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves?” But I think the better option goes like this: “Have you not then wavered in yourselves?” The only other place where James uses this verb is in 1:6, and there the ESV translates it as “doubting.” Remember, it describes the person wavering in his loyalty to Christ. James is picking up that problem once again. The person showing partiality is a person wavering in his inner-loyalty to Jesus.
But why point people who are favoring the rich over the poor to the Lord of glory? Why this title in particular? He wants them to remember where true glory is to be found. Glory isn’t to be found in what the rich can offer us in this world. Glory is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the revelation of the intrinsic worth and goodness of the invisible God. The fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Jesus, bodily. If you want true, lasting, all-satisfying glory, you go to Jesus.
But even more is that Jesus set aside the right to be seen as the glorious One, and he took the form of a servant to save us. Jesus was rich in glory, but he did not cling to it but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant—even becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross (Phi 2:7-8). We trust in this Lord of glory.
Partiality creeps in when we don’t treasure this Lord of glory. Partiality creeps in when we want to be the Lord of glory, when we want to sit on his throne and dictate to him how people in his kingdom ought to be valued and treated. And all the while we overlook how this Lord of glory has treated us. When we were spiritually impoverished, helpless, and without hope, he laid aside glory to come to our rescue, to raise us up, and give us a seat of honor with him in heaven.
When we lose sight of that goodness…that grace…that glory…we become judges with evil thoughts—discriminating against others for selfish gain. A heart that’s not captivated by the glory of Christ will value what’s contrary to Christ and treat people unlike Christ.
Four Gospel Truths to Kill Favoritism
So how do we change? How do we escape the evil judgments of this partiality, this favoritism? We need to listen. James says in verse 5, “Listen, my beloved brothers.” It is time to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to four gospel truths that kill favoritism and strengthen faith in Jesus Christ…
1. God Chooses to Make the Poor Rich in Christ
Gospel truth number one: God chooses to make the poor rich in Christ. Verses 5-6: “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? But you have dishonored the poor man.”
Now, some have taken this to mean that God chooses to save only the poor. But that makes nonsense of other places in Scripture where God clearly saves rich people as well (e.g., Luke 19:1-10; 1 Tim 6:17). A better solution is to read James’ words alongside Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. And there Paul gives us a snapshot of what the early church was like. It says,
…not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
So there were some rich people in the early church, but just not many. The church was largely made up of those despised in the world’s eyes. But the whole point was to show that God doesn’t make his choice based on the world’s values, based on man’s wisdom and power and wealth. God chooses to save people by his own sovereign freedom in mercy and not from anything he sees in us, especially our riches.
One thing that displays God’s sovereign freedom in election is the salvation of the poor. Anybody who shows partiality toward the rich, doesn’t truly understand God’s free and sovereign purpose in election. We’re not saved by what our hands can do, or by what status we hold in the world’s eyes. We’re saved by God’s own sovereign, gracious choice. He looked upon us in sheer mercy, and despite everything about us that deserved judgment, he simply loved us and chose us.
And until that sinks down into our souls, we’ll still evaluate our own identity and other people’s identity and significance in terms of economic status and social appearances and so on. Such evaluations are evil because they don’t align with God’s delight to save those people that the world despises. He loves giving the kingdom to the poor, because it makes the glory of his grace shine. Isaiah 61 said that this is one reason God sent Jesus: to bring good news to the poor and to bind up the broken-hearted. He loves giving the kingdom to the poor who love him. How about you?
If this is the heart of our Father, do we love giving the kingdom to the poor? Is our delight to offer them unspeakable riches in Christ? Is it our delight to use our riches to see the poor honored and raised up, like Christ did for us: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
When you encounter those facing economic hardship, what are your thoughts, “annoying…impossible…just plain sad…awkward…wish he’d just get his act together…” Are they graceless thoughts? Or, can they instead be, “my Father loves making the poor rich in Christ…my Savior gets glory in saving that man’s life…I don’t care how filthy he looks, if he loves Jesus, he has more wealth in Jesus than all the gold in this world…Please! Give him the seat at my table.”
Those can be our thoughts, brothers and sisters, because of God’s gracious choice of us. Often we’re solid on how the doctrine of election moves us to worship God with humble thanksgiving. But the doctrine of election also transforms the way we treat others—God is pleased to save whomever he wants, and that should obliterate any carnal judgment against others. None of us deserve mercy.
2. The World No Longer Owns Us, Christ Does
Number two: the world no longer owns us, Christ does. Let’s pick it up in verse 6: “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?” A couple weeks ago we saw three marks of true religion: controlled speech; care for the helpless; and a refusal to participate in the world’s rebellion (Jas 1:26-27).
The picture of the rich here is the exact opposite. Instead of controlled speech, they blaspheme Christ. Instead of care for the helpless, they oppress them. Instead of renouncing the world’s ways, they’re mercilessly dragging people into court. James is giving them a picture of the worldliness of these rich people. In other words, when we show partiality, the church looks just like the world in their treatment of the poor.
James reminded us that the kingdom of Christ brings with it a divine reversal of the world’s values—God exalts the poor and he humbles the rich (Jas 1:9-11). The church is supposed to be a picture of these kingdom values. But the church is doing just the opposite—they’re exalting the rich and humiliating the poor, which is the way the world naturally functions in its rebellion.
You’ve got this poor man. Who knows how he got in this state—maybe he grew up in poverty; maybe he was abandoned by an orphanage; maybe he never had a daddy teach him how to work; maybe he has a mental or physical handicap of sorts. But for years he’s suffered from the world’s unjust treatment and ugly stairs, and he comes to church on Sunday to have someone tell him, “Sit at my feet” while he looks across the way at everyone greeting the rich man. He might say to himself, “What difference does Jesus really make anyway?”
Friends, we’ve been rescued from the world so that nobody ever asks that question by looking at our treatment of them. You see, James still says, “the honorable name by which you were called”—verse 7. Or better, “the honorable name which has been called upon you.” It’s the honorable name of Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory that has been called upon us. We belong to him. Ownership has been transferred when we put our faith in Jesus. When that happens, we don’t belong to the world anymore.
We belong to an alternative society, to a new humanity that doesn’t show partiality against the poor, but one that does justice to all people, and especially to the poor. The questions in verses 6-7 are meant to get us thinking, what humanity do my thoughts and my judgments reflect? What humanity do my attitudes reflect? Do they reflect the humanity still dead in Adam? Or do they reflect the new humanity in Christ?
When I roll my eyes or sigh because I have to go put up with this person, when I’d rather be hanging out with someone more like me—what humanity do I reflect? A different name has been called upon you—Jesus Christ is your banner now. The Lord of infinite glory and worth gave you his name, people. He looks over you in all your waywardness and sin and still says, “Mine!” Let your actions toward others reflect the ownership he has taken of you.
3. God’s Law Is Fulfilled in Christ through Neighbor-Love
Gospel truth number three: God’s law is fulfilled in Christ through neighbor-love. Verses 8-11, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 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.
What does James mean by the “royal law”? A really good clue is that he mentioned the kingdom of God back in verse 5. So to label the law as “royal” is for James to show that it belongs to the King, to God himself. But notice something else. The royal law isn’t limited to the one command of neighbor love; it’s what gets fulfilled according to the command of neighbor love. So we’re more so dealing with a collection of God’s demands that all get fulfilled when we love our neighbor as ourselves.
And let’s get this straight: “to love your neighbor as yourself is not merely to love another as much as yourself, but to take up the life of another and make it your own”—I’m indebted to Timothy Savage for that explanation of neighbor love. Loving our neighbor will mean taking up their life, their needs, their pain, their brokenness and making them our own. Having compassion, showing them mercy, doing them justice, meeting their needs—when that happens, we fulfill God’s law as a whole.
This is very similar to what Paul says in Romans 13:9-10, “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (cf. Rom 8:4; Gal 5:14).
James is saying that partiality contradicts neighbor love. Interestingly enough, if you go back and read the context of Leviticus 19:18—which is where James is getting this love command—you’ll actually find this just three verses before it: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”
In other words, even under the Old Testament law, it was very clear that partiality contradicted the love command. It was contrary to the love command because it didn’t uphold God’s justice. And, therefore, it didn’t reflect God’s character. We shouldn’t think of the Old Testament law merely as a list of rules; it’s the revelation of God’s character. Partiality was forbidden in the covenant community because partiality was something absent from the God of that covenant community. God shows no partiality (2 Chron 19:7; Rom 2:11; Gal 2:6; Eph 6:9).
If that’s what the law reveals about God’s character, and we as a church fulfill that law through love—that is, we reflect the King’s character on earth when we fulfill his royal law through love—we can better understand why James says that partiality is sin and makes someone a lawbreaker. They’re not living a life that reflects God’s character within the covenant community.
Rather, as verses 10-11 seem to be laying out, they’re picking and choosing what they do and don’t like about God’s character. After all, verse 11 says that God stands behind every commandment in his law. To depart from love by showing favoritism is actually to prove yourself a lawbreaker instead of a law-fulfiller.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not law-keeping to earn God’s favor. This is law-fulfilling because you already have God’s favor in Christ. And James expects better of the church because of God’s favor in Christ. That’s what the “law of liberty” was all about in 1:25. It was all about them having the law internalized by the Holy Spirit under a new covenant; and that’s only possible through a union with Jesus and the forgiveness of sins and a right relationship with God.
Because of that grace, Christ fulfills the law not only for us but through us. You don’t have to be a lawbreaker anymore. By trusting in Jesus, God frees you to be a law-fulfiller. You can love your poor neighbor as yourself, because now your heart is happy to imitate God’s character in the community. Now your heart isn’t picking and choosing individual commands to follow; the Spirit empowers you to follow the burden-bearing example we find in Jesus who is the goal of the law.
4. Final Judgment Reveals If We Truly Grasped God’s Mercy in Christ
Finally, gospel truth number four: final judgment reveals if we truly grasped God’s mercy in Christ. Verses 12-13, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
Since we covered the “law of liberty” a couple weeks ago, I won’t belabor it here, only to say that the “law of liberty” represents the law of God as interpreted by and fulfilled in Jesus, and then as internalized by the Holy Spirit under the new covenant. It’s the law of liberty, not because the law in and of itself sets us free but because Jesus’ cross and the Spirit’s power set us free to live as we ought to live.
James is saying that we should live as those who will be judged under that law of liberty. In other words, if we have experienced the liberating power of Christ in the gospel, that will become evident on the Day of Judgment by whether we showed mercy to others in this life. Judgment day will be a judgment according to works. And if we did not show mercy to others in this life, verse 13 says that we will not be shown mercy at the judgment. Judgment will be without mercy, it says.
Again, this is not salvation by works. This is not saying that we must do mercy to others, in order to win God’s mercy toward us. It’s saying that God’s mercy toward us will inevitably produce mercy toward others. And that mercy toward others will be held up before all on Judgment Day as evidence of whether we truly belonged to Jesus and experienced God’s mercy in the forgiveness of our sins.
Maybe a parable from Jesus would help illustrate this point. This comes from Matthew 18:23-35. Jesus says,
23Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
This is mercy, right? He owed so much to the master; he deserved the penalty. But then, out of pity, the master forgives the debt. But look at how the servant then responds…
28But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
That sounds a lot like James 2: “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.” The one who shows no mercy will have to pay the penalty himself. But the one who shows mercy will demonstrate that Christ already paid his penalty. He has truly grasped the forgiveness he was shown in Christ. Judgment day will prove it.
Judgment day will be the vindication of all of God’s people. God will hold up their works of mercy toward others and say, “See! Look at my son! Look at my daughter! Chosen by grace. Bought by the blood of the lamb. Sealed by the Holy Spirit. Image bearer of my mercy. Evidence of my gracious triumph over their sin. Enter the joy of your Master, child of the merciful God.” That will be what happens to everybody in Christ. Your mercy toward others will demonstrate that God’s mercy in Christ is too glorious to just ignore. It must be displayed!
It must be displayed in every relationship we have—whether with the rich or the poor; whether with the black or the white; whether with self-confident or the socially-awkward. Far be it from us to show partiality toward others when we have been shown so much mercy in Christ. We must extend mercy toward all people, having been captivated by God’s mercy in Christ. His mercy triumphs over our judgment.
The judgment we deserved fell on Jesus, because God showed us mercy. He bore our wrath and settled the debt we could not pay. And I tell you, that’ll kill favoritism in the church. A church that truly understands the severity of the judgment they deserved and the glory of the mercy that rescued them will not show partiality to others. Favoritism may slither its way into the pews on occasion, but it won’t take long before Christ’s mercy crushes its head beneath their feet in that church.
That people knows what it means to be saved. Do you? Anyone who has truly been captivated by God’s mercy in giving up his only Son to pay our penalty, will be vigorous in showing mercy to all others, especially the despised in society.
So, what about you? How do these four gospel truths find you this morning? Are they slaying favoritism as we speak? Let’s keep them before us in our gatherings. Let’s remind each other of them when we observe a favorable bias toward some folks over others. Or when we see patterns that may suggest we’re showing favoritism to rich over the poor, let’s act on these gospel truths.
God chooses the poor to be rich in Christ; so let us delight to include them. We will share the kingdom with every one of them who loves God. God has also called upon you the name of his Son, Jesus Christ. You’re not the world anymore. You’re the new humanity, where people from all walks of life and backgrounds and ethnicities and social standing can find rest from the world’s oppression. Show them that the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
God also fulfills his law in Christ through enabling you to love your neighbor. Learn daily from the cross of Jesus what sacrificial, burden-bearing love looks like, and then imitate him. And finally, live in light of Judgment Day when God will vindicate all his elect for their deeds of mercy. Be careful not depend on the deeds of mercy before judgment day; depend on Christ alone for salvation. Deeds of mercy inevitably follow faith in Christ, not faith in deeds. So put your faith in Christ and God will do the rest to the praise of the Lord of glory.
[i]The Greek behind the ESV’s “partiality” is actually plural and better rendered, “show no partialities…” James is dealing with a particular situation where the church is showing a favorable bias toward the rich, but partiality can manifest itself in other ways.
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