God’s mercy trumps his judgment.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 May

James 2.8-13.

Primarily James wrote his letter to Jews. Jm 1.1 Secondarily to the rest of the church; now that gentiles have been adopted as God’s kids, it applies to all Christians. But regardless of whether Christians are Jewish or gentile, there’s a tendency to lapse into Pharisee thinking: To figure God chooses to save us because we act Christian: We stick to how popular Christian culture tells us we oughta live, or we follow Jesus’s teachings, or the Law. And in gratitude, or as a reward, or because we’ve racked up all that good karma, God grants us salvation. We’re saved because we worked for it.

Nope, not even close. The rest of the New Testament makes it mighty clear: Humans are saved by God’s grace. Ep 2.5 We don’t merit it. We can’t.

James brought up the Law in the previous passage, where he corrected his readers for sucking up to the wealthy. The Law instructs otherwise: Everybody’s equal under the Law.

James 2.8-9 KWL
8 But if you fulfill the kingdom’s Law, you do right.
(“You’ll love your neighbor as yourself,” Lv 19.18 according to scripture.)
9 If you show favoritism, your disgraceful, backslider-like behavior produces sin,
according to the Law.

Contrary to dispensationalist belief, the Law didn’t become void once Jesus paid for our sins. (If it did, there’d be no more sins! You could violate the Ten Commandments with impunity. As some Christians, y’notice, already do.)

But even though James reminded his readers to follow the Law, he also needed to remind ’em we’re not saved by the Law. Never were. We don’t work our way to salvation. It’s all by grace.

Christians need to be reminded of this because we’re creatures of extremes. Either we figure the Law is vital, needs to be central to Christian life, and we turn into full-on legalists; or we figure the Law doesn’t matter, cheap grace is the name of the game, and we turn into full-on libertines. James’s readers had the same problem: Either Christians who wanted to strain out gnats, or Christians who wanted to swallow camels. Mt 23.24

The Law’s proper place is after salvation. The LORD saved the Hebrews from Egypt; and once saved, he gave them his Law so they’d thereafter follow him properly. Likewise Jesus saves the world from sin; and once saved, he assigns us good works to do. Ep 2.10 Grace saves. Good works are our response to God’s grace. They’re the cart. Not the horse.

And the Law is good works, so we should follow the Law. Apart from the bits Jesus fulfilled so we don’t have to, it’s still the Law of God’s kingdom. Jm 2.8 (Although various translations like to blunt this idea by translating nómon basilikón/“kingdom’s Law” like the KJV’s “royal law.”) Now that Jesus emphasizes grace and mercy, we can see the Law as God always intended it: His ideal. Something we’re to attempt and strive for. The path to sanctification. Not the path to salvation, ’cause we got that before we were ever given rules and missions. And when we stumble—as we do, as we will—we have Jesus. 1Jn 2.1-2

Legalists rarely grasp this idea. To them, the rules are the whole point. When we stumble, they don’t point us towards forgiveness and mercy; they punish. They demand we earn back God’s good graces. (Really their good graces.) More legalism.

Hence they apply the Law without grace and mercy—exactly like Christians ought never do. So here, James corrects them.

Which takes priority? Law or grace?

Yes, we still gotta follow the Law. Yes, the Law is kinda strict—if we break one command, we break the entire Law. As James wrote here.

James 2.10-13 KWL
10 For whoever’d keep the the entire Law could stumble in one command
and become guilty of breaking the whole.
11 He who said “Don’t adulter” Ex 20.14 also said “Don’t murder.” Ex 20.13
If you don’t adulter, yet you do murder, you become a Law-breaker.
12 That’s what you say; that’s what you do,
as if it’s how the Law of freedom is meant to judge.
13 Because judgment is merciless when you don’t practice mercy.
But mercy is emphasized over judgment!

The two commands James pointed to are in the Ten Commandments, and two of the commands most Christians know better than to break. (Heck, most pagans know better than to break.) You don’t adulter; it can destroy your relationship. You don’t murder; it’ll definitely end your relationship.

Do either, and society will seldom forgive you. You’ll always be a cheater and murderer. We can’t really undo a wronged spouse or a dead person. So some folks never will forgive.

God will. It’s why, even in the face of these two heinous sins, James still brought up mercy.

Historically a lot of Christians have interpreted James as a legalistic letter. Mostly ’cause Martin Luther struggled to reconcile what James taught about faith, with how he figured faith works. Which only proves Luther didn’t get it, and loads of Christians thereafter don’t get it either—if they ever bother to read it. They assume because James upholds the Law, he must therefore be a legalist, not believe in grace, not believe in justification by faith, and is teaching out of the wrong dispensation. Which means many a Christian will figure they get to ignore his letter and its wisdom, and pretend it’s not in the bible, or that it belongs in the New Testament apocrypha.

Hence we never catch James’s teaching here: We’re to prioritize grace over Law. Mercy over judgment. Forgiveness over punishment. Exactly like our Father does.

This doesn’t mean James didn’t uphold the Law. Of course he did. As does his brother Jesus. But Jesus taught grace. The Law still defines what sin is, but thanks to Jesus, we’ve been forgiven, and are getting mercy. That’s why the Law isn’t about legalism, rules, or any of the other stuff people misappropriate it for. It’s “the Law of freedom.” It shows us how to live. Sin penalizes us for not living that way. But Jesus defeated sin, so it doesn’t have to do that anymore! When there’s sin, there’s more grace. Ro 5.20 Don’t abuse this fact; Ro 6.1 just uphold the Law. Ro 3.31

Sin doesn’t have to penalize us anymore, but legalists don’t understand this. They’d rather bind us to sin again. “How’re you gonna enforce the Law properly when you keep giving Law-breakers slack?” They don’t do mercy. Which means they’re wrong.

James understood this need for Law and grace to work together. He knew we live under grace. Hence he taught us mercy trumps judgment. The Law isn’t a slavemaster, harshly punishing us when we break it. It’s our guide, and God graciously forgives us when we break it. Do try not to break it, for when we follow it, we follow Christ—and that’s freedom in Christ.