The Judgment of Believers

Working for church growth

In the foregoing verses, James has been trying to bring down one of the great obstacles to growth in the church, an obstacle not only in the Jewish churches he is addressing, but in all churches. That obstacle is the natural human tendency to give the wealthy and privileged a warm welcome, while treating the poor with indifference. Favoritism hinders progress of the gospel in two ways.

  1. To make the poor feel unwanted contradicts God’s own character. He is no respecter of persons. Therefore, a class-conscious church offends God and loses His blessing.
  2. Partiality toward the rich disregards the best strategy for church growth. Christian outreach generally reaps a larger harvest of souls among the poor than among the rich. Thus, God expects that churches will always make a special effort to reach the poor.

Error in excusing any sin as minor

In the verses now under consideration, James continues with another strong argument against favoritism. He has just pointed out that it is a violation of the law, both of certain specific regulations (mentioned in the last lesson) and of the great commandment to love our neighbor. Now he anticipates the likely reaction of his readers. Instead of owning up to their partiality, they will run from his accusing finger and hide behind their reputations as good church people. They will recite all their good deeds and boast of all their victories over other sins, including many they regard as far worse than partiality. But James warns them that to break one law makes them offenders of the whole law (v. 10). If they have practiced partiality, they are in God’s eyes as much of a law-breaker as any murderer or adulterer. Why? The answer is that the whole law comes from a single source, God (v. 11). It is He who expresses His mind and speaks His will in every point of the law.

Still, how does the law’s origin in a single source put every offender’s guilt on the same level and make us all equally bad? How does violation of what we would regard as a minor regulation, such as the rule against partiality, plunge us into the depths beside the blackest of criminals? Because whether we choose to obey any law coming from God shows our heart toward the law-giver. Though we break only one minor regulation, we put ourselves in the position of rebels.

Adam and Eve had only one law to follow. What kind of law was it? Did God tell them, do not kill the mate I have given you; or even, do not get into squabbles with each other; or even, do not be hard to live with? No, He said they should not eat the fruit of a certain tree. The only behavior off limits was to enjoy a mouthful of eye-catching fruit. From man’s perspective, the law seems of little consequence. We cannot see that they did great harm by breaking it. Yet their failure to keep that small requirement brought upon them the worst conceivable penalty—death in this world and damnation for eternity. The reason for God’s severity is that they broke the law deliberately, with full knowledge of what He had said and in willing cooperation with His enemy, the serpent. They became rebels as black in their treason as any doer of an outwardly greater sin.

Likewise when we disobey any divine law, though it be a lesser law such as His prohibition against partiality, we reenter the Garden of Eden, as it were, and stand in the place of our first parents. As they did, we deliberately set our faces against God’s will and join in Satan’s cosmic insurrection against God. Thus, our guilt is no less than it would be if we broke every law.

There is another reason why breaking one law makes us guilty of all. One transgression is enough to show that under the right circumstances, we would commit any other transgression. If a sinner chooses a somewhat moral life, he is merely serving his own convenience. He is upholding his moral pride by avoiding the bad conscience that would follow greater sin. If any social penalties would also follow, he is avoiding them as well. But if these penalties were altogether removed, conscience would afford little protection. Only one slip into sinful pleasure would leave his conscience weaker, so that a second sin would be easier than the first. Then, against the fading resistance of conscience, the third would be easier than the second, and the fourth easier than the third, until the course of his life became a gradual slide into every manner of self-indulgence. Somewhere along the downward slope his conscience would cease to function, and the silencing of its voice would leave him capable of every sin. Formerly he limited his transgressions to self-indulgence. Now he can attack others and leave them devastated. He can even commit murder.

Cruelty always lies at the end of sin’s progression to worse forms. Generally when a person first falls into sin, he sees it as a good time, but later, after sin becomes habitual, he realizes that to go on satisfying himself, he must pay the price of hurting somebody else. Sin then has such a strong hold on his will that, sooner or later, he will agree to the terms, especially if he feels secure from social penalties or, blinded by passion, fails to consider them. There will not be enough love or pity or common decency left in his heart to hold him back.

Thus, every sinner is capable of every sin. The proof is that the sins of the human race soon leaped beyond the pleasure-seeking disobedience of Adam and Eve. In the next generation, brother murdered brother.

The prospect of judgment

Having stressed the enormity of sin, James gives his readers the most sobering reason of all to shun it. He reminds them that they will stand in judgment before God (v. 12). So, they must live and act and speak accordingly. It is one of the great consolations of the Christian life that we will not stand before God at the Last Judgment, when He sits upon His great white throne (Rev. 20:11-15). All who stand there will be condemned. Nevertheless, after all dead believers are brought up from the grave and all living believers are raptured, the whole church will appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ. There they will give an accounting for both their good deeds and their bad. For their good deeds they will receive rewards (Matt. 10:42; 25:23; Luke 6:35; 1 Cor. 3:13-15; Eph. 6:8; 1 Cor. 9:25). For their bad deeds that have never been confessed and put away, they will incur penalties (Rom. 14:12; 2 Cor. 5:10-11; 1 Pet. 1:17; Luke 12:48). Notice Paul's exact wording in 2 Corinthians 5:10. He says that every believer "will receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad." Addition of "or bad" is an obvious threat of unpleasant consequences.

The law of liberty

James counsels his readers that the only safe way to prepare for our dreadful accounting before God is to live according to the law of liberty (v. 12). As we said before, he is referring to the law enjoining us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Indeed, if we go through life consistently practicing love toward all around us, we have nothing to fear when we meet God in judgment. A life of bringing grace and blessing to others will doubtless earn us those wonderful words of commendation that we all long to hear from the lips of Christ: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant: . . . enter thou into the joy of thy lord" (Matt. 25:21).

The blessing in being merciful

Our interpretation of the law of liberty is confirmed by what James says next (v. 13). He teaches that regular obedience to this law so fashions a man’s heart and character that he becomes outstanding in mercy. Indeed, the way of mercy is the way of love. God is so pleased with mercy that He is willing to extend His own mercy to the merciful. In putting forward this principle, James is alluding to one of the most famous sayings of his brother. In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Matt. 5:7).

Mercy is one of a trio of related virtues. Just as we must be merciful to obtain mercy, so must we forgive to be forgiven (Matt. 6:12, 15), and so must we refrain from judgment to escape judgment (Matt. 7:1). In Jesus’ mind, not judging and forgiving appear to be synonymous with mercy. Our imprecise notions of these virtues easily obscure their real meanings. All three refer to a decision not to punish.

James reminds us that habitual mercy is the only quality of a man’s soul that sets the standard for God’s treatment of the man himself. In the day of judgment, the unmerciful man will receive no mercy, whereas the merciful man will have reason to rejoice, for God will be merciful to him. God will be lenient when judging his failings. The last statement in verse 13 could be translated, "And glories [or boasts] mercy over judgment." James chooses the word "glory" and sets it first to show how triumphant mercy will be. Our Lord’s mercy and love will easily be great enough to set aside the strict requirements of justice. Where we deserve His wrath, we will see His smile.

The application James wishes his readers to make is to their treatment of rich and poor. If they heed his counsel and gladly receive the poor into their churches, they will be showing mercy and building credit for the day of judgment.


1. Do I treat small sins as serious? Or do I take them lightly, with the excuse that I am doing pretty well just to keep away from larger sins?

There is a difference between small sins and large sins. Being upset with a brother is obviously not the same as killing him. In the day of judgment, the Lord will no doubt consider the degree of evil involved in each sin. Yet we must always remember that all sins are equal in the sense that they are all sufficient grounds for condemnation. In that sense, a transgressor of one law is a transgressor of all. Thus, we must never excuse any violation of God’s law or God’s will as a minor offense, as a mere peccadillo, or, as the Catholics say, as a venial sin as opposed to a deadly sin. Notice Romans 6:23. It does not say that death is the wages of some sins. No, the offense deserving the ultimate penalty is defined as sin; by implication, any sin. Every sin is deadly.

2. Does the prospect of judgment enter my thoughts and affect my decisions?

If at no other time, we should certainly think of coming judgment when we stand in the midst of temptation and coddle the impulse to yield.

3. As I think about the Judgment Seat of Christ, do I view it with sober respect, recognizing all the ramifications of being accountable to a holy God?

When Paul considered his future moment of judgment, he sensed a degree of terror (2 Cor. 5:10-11). If such a fruitful servant of God was nevertheless apprehensive that he might fall short of God’s approval, surely we should not be complacent about our summons to the Judgment Seat of Christ.

That future moment may seem far away, but James elsewhere reminds us that the Judge stands at the door (James 5:9). He means the door of heaven, which Christ will open when He returns to gather His people. But we can also think of it as the door to the courtroom. So understood, the warning is that Christ is about to enter and hear our case.

4. Is the law of liberty the controlling principle in my life?

In previous lessons, we have discussed the manifold ways that a believer will make love practical.

5. Is mercy the habit of my life?

Do others see in you the outworkings of a merciful heart? All our dealings with others should be governed by a resolve to minimize and overlook their faults. Our dominant purpose must always be to extend help rather than to exact justice.

A person in authority must enforce obedience to rules and policies, but even when discipline is required, there may be a choice between being harsh and being more moderate. The right option is never to be harsh.

Study Questions

  1. In what two ways does partiality hinder the work of the gospel?
  2. How does James deal with the excuse offered by those guilty of partiality that overall they are pretty good Christians?
  3. Why does one sin make us guilty of all?
  4. What was so bad about the sin of Adam and Eve?
  5. What is another reason that one sin makes us guilty of all?
  6. What always lies at the end of sin's progression to worse forms?
  7. How was this demonstrated in the history of the human race?
  8. What prospect should deter us from sin?
  9. What rule will keep us away from sin?
  10. What virtue sets the standard for God's dealings with us?
  11. To what other virtues is mercy equivalent?
  12. What is one practical opportunity to show mercy?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.