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The Worldly Practice of Partiality / James 2:1-13

As preached by Timothy O'Day.

Practicing partiality is incompatible with the Christian faith.

1) Partiality is the outflow of worldly calculation.

2) Partiality refuses to honor those whom God honors.

3) Partiality seeks to honor those who disdain God.

4) Partiality disregards God's authority.

The Worldly Practice of Partiality

James 2:1-13

Christ Fellowship Church

November 27, 2022

Imagine with me that on a Sunday morning, as we gather to worship, one of our members walked up to a visitor and said to her, “I do not like you. You are a burden to me, to us, and to all. Please leave.” It is hard to imagine that happening at CFC, but let’s imagine it together. I would guess that if you saw that, you would be mortified. You would want to do two things simultaneously: you would want to run up to the visitor and see if they are okay. You would also want to run after the church member and say, “What were you thinking?” I think we would all agree that such an act is a blatant disregard of a person and an act that does not honor or reflect who the Lord is.

And that is an important statement. As Christians, we are to act in accord with the God who has brought us forth by the word of truth (1:18) and has planted the word in our hearts (1:21). The scenario I laid out isn’t just embarrassing on a social level, it is also shameful because it does not reflect the God who calls us his own.

That’s what James, led by the Holy Spirit, is communicating to us in these verses: certain actions are unfitting for the Christian, particularly the act of showing partiality.

This is exactly what he communicates in verse one. Look with me there: “My brothers, show no partiality as yo hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” Put another way, he is saying that showing partiality and holding the Christian faith—looking at Jesus and saying that you believe everything that he says about himself: that he is God the Son, the second person of the trinity, who assumed humanity for us and for our salvation. He lived a perfect life under the law, died a substitutionary death on the cross, died, was buried, and rose again on the third day. He will return to judge the living and the dead and all who call unite to him by faith will be saved from judgment. If you believe that, James says showing partiality is incompatible with that confession of faith.

Verse 1 is very simple. James, speaking to Christians, says “show no partiality. The rest of the passage focuses on why, so let’s dive in to this passage and soak in God’s instruction for us. James wants us to know that practicing partiality is incompatible with the Christian faith, let’s examine why.

1. Partiality is the outflow of worldly calculation

Partiality is favoring others based on appearance. The Greek word used hear to communicate partiality means has the meaning of receiving one’s face. In other words, it is to judge a book by its cover.

This judging a book by its cover has a positive and negative expression, which is what James lays out in verses 2-3. And note from verses 2-3 that James isn’t laying out a hypothetical in these verses. He doesn’t bring up a random idea, “Hey guys, don’t show partiality.” This is an issue that James is aware of in the church and he wants to address it directly and he does so by pointing out how they have shown partiality.

The real life scenario is simple enough. Two people come into the worship gathering. One of these people is dressed well: he is wearing a gold ring and fine clothing. It is worthy of note that a gold ring was much rarer in that day and time. The gap of poverty isn’t as great today as it was then. What the gold ring signifies in this account is that this is a wealthy and influential person. In contrast, a poor man in shabby clothes comes in as well. Partiality is seen in how each man is addressed. The wealthy man is welcomed and told to sit in a good place. The poor man is disregard and simply told to sit on the floor.

We aren’t told anything else about these people and I think that is on purpose. This example shows us what partiality looks like: it is favoring one person over another simply based on appearance. Partiality doesn’t consider the heart or even seek to know the heart. It is looking at someone and giving them favor because they look honorable, influential, and powerful to you.

Don’t be tricked. You may not practice partiality as James lays out this scenario, but you are susceptible to it. How can I know this? Look at verse 4, “Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” The word there for evil thoughts carries the notion of calculating and reasoning. What James is saying, then, is that such an act is not simply a gut reaction. It is a calculation based on worldly variables and it goes something like this: “this person has influence, I want them to like me.” Or, “this person is cool, I want to be in his good graces so that others will think I am cool, too.” Such reasoning on worldly factors makes you partial to those who fit certain criteria while also leading you to disregard those who don’t.

Before considering what we see in the next verses, just pause for a moment and ask, “whose glory has my eye?” Are you looking for those who are glorious according to the standard of this world? The rich, the well dressed, those in powerful positions? We are attracted to what we want to imitate and what we want to be defined by. But we are to look at Christ as the Lord of glory (cf 2:1). He is to have our eye. He is the one we should want to imitate. What would that look like? That is what we see in verses 5-7.

2. Partiality refuses to honor those whom God honors (5-6a).

In contrast to how these brothers are treating the poor in their midst, James gives them this needed reminder: God regards the poor and gives them favor. This is evidenced, as is laid out in verse 5, through what God has done for those who are poor. See what he says there. He has…

  • Chosen the poor (those who are poor according to the standard of this world)

  • To be rich in faith (to abound in trust in God)

  • And heirs of the kingdom (they are rich according to what is to come)

  • Which he has promised to those who love him (these poor that you disregard love God)

Simply put, God’s disposition toward the poor is clearly seen in the act of redemption. God delights to choose the weak and helpless in this world for salvation. He does not favor the rich. He does not favor the strong. In fact, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29,

“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.”

God chooses those who are humble and know their need of him. This is not to say that all materially poor people are chosen by God, but it is easy to see that those who are materially poor feel their actual neediness more than those who can afford to cover their needs with worldly comforts. Many people who are well off financially look at the poor who tend to believe in God and say, “It’s because they need help in their suffering,” or, “of course they believe in God, they cannot afford a proper education.” But that is an egotistical response. Do you know what God says? It is because the poor are usually more humble. God delights to meet the needs of those who humbly come to him. It just so happens that it is easier to see how spiritually poor you are when you are materially poor. When you are materially wealthy, you have a hard time seeing your weaknesses and needs. It isn’t impossible, but it is harder. Jesus says so,

“And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you , only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23).

The main point is this: do not estimate someone’s worth by their material standing. Rather, look on others with an eternal view. How does God view this person? If someone came into our gathering in shabby clothes, not smelling very good, and in need of a good shave, would your inclination be, “oh, no. Now we have to deal with this.” Or would you say, “Lord, this may be one of yours. I want to honor him as you honor him.”

Unless we do that, then we too will be guilty of dishonoring the poor man that God has honored, as James says in verse 6.

What Do You Value?

Though poor in this world, the materially poor can be rich in faith and heirs to the Kingdom. This is a reality that should strike us middle class, very comfortable Americans in the heart. So let it strike you and rest on you. Let me ask you a question that will hopefully help this text penetrate us even more.

What would you rather have: comfort or faith? Riches in the present that can make you cozy or an eternal kingdom and joy in the presence of God? A bank account so full that you are never concerned about money or life so full and everlasting that you are not concerned about death and hell? A rainy day fund or a faith that can weather all of life’s storms?

If you say, “Faith. Give me faith. I want that more than earthly riches.” Then would you be ready to get on your knees and pray for it? Are you willing to say, “God, do whatever it takes to lead me to value above all else you as my greatest treasure. Strip away my health. Strip away my money. Strip away my privilege. Strip away my job. Strip away my house. Strip away my family. Strip away my reputation. Strip away my mind. Strip away my status. Please do whatever it takes to lead me to value you as you truly are and to see as you see. Do whatever it takes. Lead me in to trials of various kinds so that you may refine my faith, so that I may be rich in faith.”

Are you afraid to pray one of these things? Then you should know that you cling to it too much and you will be swayed to show partiality to whomever you think can give it to you. You will favor the one who can give you what you value most.

3. Partiality seeks to honor those who disdain God (7)

While not everyone with riches disdains God, there is a correlation between the two. Those with money have power; those with power have status; and those with status think that they are untouchable. This belief then manifests itself in how they treat those who cannot fight back. James points this out with a series of questions in verse 7 that all expect an answer of “yes.” What he is revealing is that the one’s we are tempted to honor are those who live in ways that God hates. What are these ways?

  • They are oppressors: The rich often seek to oppress others out of money. In the ancient world, this could look like buying up land and forcing others to work on it for meager wages because no one could keep them from doing otherwise. Today it could look like someone forming a crypto currency exchange and promising people confused about crypto currency that he has it all figured out when in fact he is just using their money with no intention of properly investing it for them. They are so many ways to oppress people when you have money and doing so shows a disdain for the one that God honors.

  • They are abusers: One of the primary ways that the rich can abuse the poor is through the court. If a rich person takes a poor man to court, then the odds are heavily in favor of the rich man. Why? Because he knows attorneys and can afford an attorney. The poor man usually has neither of these luxuries. Likewise, the rich man can bribe in order to get his way. Such actions are despised by God.

  • They are blasphemers: The rich are also open to the charge of mocking God’s people, those upon whom God has placed his name, and so mock God and blaspheme him. For the rich, many pathways of pleasure are open that are closed to the poor. You could see, then, that the rich could mock God’s people for not living in liberal ways in regard to food, drink, sexuality, and such. In fact, they might have been offended (and convicted) by the fact that Christians did not live that way. Again, riches can lead to disdain for those whom God loves.

So why are we tempted to honor such men? Let me lay out two reasons, each based on the worldly calculation that is spoken of in verse 4.

The first reason is that we think they can give us what we want. When something in this world has your full attention, then you will be partial to the one that can give it to you even if he is plainly oppressive, abusive, and blasphemous. You will overlook it because he offers you something that you want and love more than God. As I said a few minutes ago, you will favor the one who can give you what you value most. There is no reason Aerial should have trusted Ursula, but Ursula promised that she could give Aerial what she wanted.

The second reason is related to the first but has a holy covering over it. We can fall into the worldly thinking that God needs the rich and influential in order for the gospel to spread. Here is a test for us to see if we are falling into this worldly calculous. Would you be more excited if a homeless man visited us today or a wealthy movie star? Years ago I remember overhearing a conversation that displayed how insidious this kind of worldly calculous is. The conversation was about a singer who, in accepting an award, had said things that made it sound like he was a Christian or close to it. One of the people talking about this said, “Wow. What a get this would be for Christ.”

What does that statement reveal about this person’s thinking? It is saying that this person coming to faith is a bigger deal than someone else. Why? Because he has money. Because he has influence.

But we need to insert biblical variables into our calculations if we are not to fall into the worldly practice of partiality. God is not impressed by money. He isn’t thrilled by clothes. He sin’t pining away for someone with influence in the government or in Hollywood to choose him so that he can make an impact there.

Who has held the oceans in his hand?

Who has numbered every grain of sand?

Kings and Nations tremble at his voice.

All creation rises to rejoice.

Who has given counsel to the Lord?

Who can question any of his words?

Who can teach the one who knows all things?

Who can fathom all his wondrous deeds?

God is not impressed by the things that so easily impress us. And we are so easily impressed by these things because our eyes are not on the Lord of glory.

4. Partiality disregards God’s authority (8-13)

Verses 8-11 make a shift in James’ argument. He has told them that they should not be partial, he based that command on the fact that God does not judge by outward appearance, and then also points out the foolishness of judging by outward appearance. Now he turns the argument to the authority of God.

He says that if they really fulfill the royal law, which includes this command, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” then you are doing well. Let’s pause on this phrase, “the royal law.” We need to understand it before we can go further.

The royal law is the same law that is referred to in verse 9 as the law that is transgressed when we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. Again, it is the same law that is spoken of in verses 10 and 11. And then, in verse 12, James refers to the law of liberty, under which we will be judged. If we put this all together, the royal law is the same law as the law of liberty, which was also called the perfect law in 1:25. Since that is the case, why is it spoken of as the royal law in verse 8? It is because it is the law that belongs to our King, Jesus. Just as a king might have a royal throne room or a royal brow, Jesus has a royal law because he is the King of the Kingdom of God. The law of Christ, which is the law fulfilled and taught by Christ, is the law that we are to live under.

The intent of calling it the Royal Law is to remind us that we have a King. Christians, you have a King whom you cannot disregard and still call your King.

What James is saying, then, in verse 8 is that you do well when you live in accord with the law of Christ as it is revealed in Scripture through the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Then in verse 9 the reality hits: if you show partiality, you are not doing well because you are transgressing this command to love your neighbor. Showing partiality is not loving your neighbor. Judging someone and assigning worth to them based on their appearance is not loving.

Then, in verse 10, James wants to make something very clear: you cannot claim that partiality is a minor offense. He says in verse 10 that it isn’t minor because the law isn’t individual parts. Rather, it is a unified whole. That means if you break one command you are counted as a transgressor of the whole law. How can that be? Because the law comes from our one authoritative Lord, our King. Here’s what I mean. Imagine you are over at my house and I tell my kids to go get ready for bed. I tell them to go put on their pjs, to brush their teeth, and to wash their faces. One of them comes back and says, “I put on my pjs and washed my face, but I didn’t brush my teeth. That one didn’t seem all that important.” I wouldn’t say, “well, two out of three isn’t bad. No big deal!” No, I would say, “then you didn’t obey me.” The commands I gave my kids weren’t disembodied. They all came from me and I said them authoritatively.

This is what James means when he says in verse 11, “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.” You might think, “If I am morally pure, then it doesn’t matter as much if I am partial in my dealings with people.” God’s response is: don’t view my commands as disembodied statements. They come from me and I give them to you as your King. To disregard a command is not to disregard mere words. It is to disregard God himself and to transgress against him.

What Are We To Do?

Maybe you are thinking, “I do show partiality in some ways. And I have not viewed it as a serious thing until now.” What are we to do with the fact that partiality is a sin and leads us to transgress our king? What are we to make of the fact that we cannot be partial and live consistently as Christians?

Remember the audience of James. James is writing to Christians who have been practicing partiality to a terrifying degree (cf. 2:2-3). This letter and these verses are not written to condemn them and write them off. It is meant to correct them so that they would confess sin, turn from sin, and obey the authoritative word of the king. And that is exactly what we are told to do in verses 12-13. What does he tell us there?

“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” That is to say, speak in such a way and conduct yourself in such a way that comports with the fact that you will one day be judged under the law of Christ.

Now, no one is always perfectly obedient—at least not yet. So we are all transgressors of the law. And since we are transgressors, what does living in light of the fact that we will be judged under this law look like?

But before I get to that question, let me just address what some of you may be thinking. Some of you are thinking, “Judgement? What?” You are thinking, “What about Christ’s imputed righteousness to my account! He took my judgment on that tree!” You may want to stand up and recite Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And then say, “case closed!” And I say to Christ’s imputation of righteousness on our behalf and also to the fact that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, “Amen!”

But I also say that that isn’t what James is talking about here. All of Scripture speaks of true believers standing before the judgment seat on the final day. Jesus says it will happen in Matthew 25:31-33,

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.”

Jesus is speaking of the final judgment in these verses and the ones that follow and all people, those in Christ and those outside of Christ, are before the judgment throne.

Likewise, Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:10 writes,

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”

That all will appear before the judgment seat is clear. So let’s get back to the other question: what does it mean? Simply this: since all true faith manifests itself in some way, judgment for the believer will simply be a declaration of the evidence of faith for all to hear. God will declare throughout all of creation “This one is mine by faith, and here is how that faith manifested itself.” This is exactly what is happening in what Jesus teaches about the judgment in Matthew 25. In that passage, Jesus separates the sheep from the goats and then he says to the sheep, “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me’” (Matthew 25:34-36). You know how the righteous reply: “When did we do these things?” (Matt 25:37-39). And Jesus says, “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). Jesus is saying, then, that true faith manifests itself not in partiality but in caring for the needs of the least of these—your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Just as we quoted John Calvin last week, we could do so again here: “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.”

So we are judged but we are judged under the law of liberty. The law of liberty does not trap us under sin and condemn us. The law of liberty frees us from the guilt and power of sin. Speaking and acting as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty, then, is to respond to the authority of Christ which calls us to confess, repent, and turn from sin to obedience.

So, if you do not show mercy to those who have nothing materially to give you, then you have no evidence that mercy will be declared over you on that day. This is what James means in the first part of verse 13, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.” But if you hear God’s word—“show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory”—and believe it, then you will manifest that belief in the way that you speak and act. Mercy will manifest through you in some way. This mercy is the evidence that is then declared on the last day. And it is this mercy that triumphs over any fear of judgment.

In closing, let me be very clear about what you are to do:

First, take your sin against the Lord very seriously. You may not think partiality is a big deal, but he is telling you that it is.

Second, take the mercy of God very seriously. He saves by the word of truth (1:18), implants his word in those who believe (1:21), so that it will sprout forth from their hearts as acts (1:22) of honoring whom God honors and not seeking the comforts of this world.


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