James 2:1–13 (NKJV)
In this passage, James moves from a discussion of temptation and the need to live righteously with compassion to a further discussion of human relations. He instructs the readers to treat people from all walks of life the same, and suggests that love and mercy are the hallmarks of the Christian attitude toward others.
1 My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2 For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?James 2:1-7
5 Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?
Spelling out the instructions concerning partiality, James begins with the rationale: you cannot be a brother in Christ, holding onto the faith of Christ, and show partiality. The faith and partiality do not fit together. One cannot know the Lord of mercy and then treat another with inequality. In this passage, he uses the rich and the poor as the subjects of partiality. James presents a case study of sorts, posing a scenario where a rich man and a poor man come into a gathering. The rich man is obviously wealthy, with gold rings and wearing fine apparel. The poor man is filthy, wearing rags. He says that if you give the rich man the best seat and place of honor, and then give the poor man a place to stand or a position on the floor next to your footstool, that you have shown partiality, judging the poor man with evil thoughts.
James reminds the readers that the poor in spirit inherit the kingdom of God, and are often rich in faith. Why would you dishonor the poor man? He then reminds them that the rich often oppress others and take them to court in matters. They even at times blaspheme the name of the Lord, the noble name by which Christians are called. Although this may not be an ironclad system of operation for the rich and the poor, it was the trend of the day. Therefore, James tries to help the reader understand that the rich may have money, but may not have the heart to help others. The poor may not have funds with which to bless you, but they often have the humility of spirit to help in many other ways. The latter is more pleasing to the Lord and useful to the kingdom than the former.
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; 9 but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.James 2:8-13
The royal law according to the Scripture, as James poetically calls it, calls upon the Christian to “love your neighbor as yourself.” If a believer observes and fulfills this law, they do well. However, if a believer shows partiality, he or she commits sin, and is convicted by this royal law spoken by our King. Transgression of the royal law makes one a royal sinner, and that one is guilty of all the law in stumbling at one of them. Remember, this letter is written to the twelve tribes scattered abroad, which are Jews of the dispersion who are now Christians. James, himself being Jewish, is using a legal argument to help them understand the seriousness of sin, His message does not drip with the grace concept of the new covenant, but is nevertheless a lesson that a Jewish Christian audience could grasp.
While we do believe in the covenant of grace, this discussion of partiality is still congruent with the new covenant. It simply helps the believer understand that partiality or prejudice is just as sinful as any other act of iniquity spoken of in the Word of God. God spoke all the commandments, which are still in force. Adultery and murder are both sins, and either will make you guilty of the law. The method of forgiveness is the difference in the covenants. In the old covenant, transgression of the law was held to one’s account until they could offer a sacrifice to the priest at the tabernacle or temple. In the law of grace, one can go to God immediately and ask for forgiveness, and the Lord of grace will grant it. God still has a standard for His people, but grace allows the believer to come before God with a repentant heart and be forgiven. The law of liberty still requires obedience, and judgment will come to those who do not confess and repent. Judgment will come without mercy to those who are without mercy toward others. Therefore, show mercy without partiality, for mercy triumphs over judgment in the covenant of grace.