Three Partiality Contrasts

James 2:8-13 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 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. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.


Welcome back to James’s letter to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (scattered groups of persecuted and suffering Christians). We covered 2:1-7 last week and we’ll cover 2:8-13 this week. If you were here last week, though, you heard me say that is all one big section (2:1-13). As we turn to the second half of this section, then, the three main things to keep in mind from the first half are: 1) The primary charge issued by James was that Christians must “show no partiality”, 2) Christian impartiality is ultimately and expression of Christian love, and 3) James gave six reasons to support those first two foundational realities.

To help you follow along in our passage for this morning, let me quickly state James’s main line of thinking. The rest of the sermon is an attempt to unpack this and its implications for us today. In simplest terms, then, this is what James was communicating to his readers:

It is a good thing to want to obey God’s law. Every law among men is summed up in a single command: love your neighbor as yourself. This means that if you want to obey God, you must love the people around you. The problem is that you are not. You are showing partiality. That is not loving. That is breaking the law. Worse still, by breaking the law in this one area, you are guilty of breaking all of it. Stop doing that. Instead, speak and act like Christians who have been shown mercy and grace by God. And remember, God was merciful and gracious to you even though He is higher above you than you are above anyone you’ll ever encounter. If you refuse to be loving and merciful to others, therefore, it means that you are not really hoping in God and you remain guilty before God.

That was James’s message. To really help his readers understand it, what was at stake in it, and to live in light of it, he framed all of it with three contrasts: Love vs. partiality, sin vs. sinner, and mercy vs. judgment. Let’s ask God to help us wring every bit of truth and grace out of this that He intends us to have from it.


Contrast is measured in the degree of difference between two things. Color, size, skill, brightness, and morality are among the many things for which contrast plays a big role. This is by God’s design. God created the world in such a way that our ability to clearly distinguish between things is important. Contrast is important to God.

Probably the most obvious way we see this is in pictures. If for some reason you have a picture with too little contrast, everything will kind of blur together. Most of the pictures from my childhood, taken on a cheap camera, lack sufficient contrast. Another example is with paint. When Mark and Brad painted the fellowship hall a few weeks ago, they tried to give us an accent wall, but the lack of contrast between the two colors made the “accent” indistinguishable from the original. Likewise, you notice how tall someone is, not when they stand next to other tall people, but when they stand next to someone of more ordinary height. Skill wise, consider the Olympics. Most Olympians only look OK because they are competing against other Olympians. If you or I were to be out there, though, the contrast would be unmistakable. And it is the contrasting flat land of Colorado east of Denver that makes the enormity of the mountains all that clearer.

Moral contrast is more important still. Jesus taught in a number of places about the need for moral contrast between Christians and non-Christians. Christians are to walk in Holy Spirit worked holiness such that we will contrast sharply with the watching world in order that the watching world would clearly see the transforming power of God. And most importantly of all, God gave us things that contrast greatly in the physical realm to help us appreciate the infinite contrast between Him and everything He has made. Indeed, it is not an overstatement to say that contrast is necessary for salvation. It is only in coming to see ourselves in comparison to God that we are able to recognize the sinfulness of our sin and therein our need for the amazing grace of Jesus our Savior.

All of that to say, contrast is a gift from God. The three contrasts in this passage are gifts from God. They help us see more clearly than we otherwise would why we must not show partiality to the rich or poor.

The first thing to see in this passage, then, the first helpful contrast, is between love and partiality. In fact, the contrast between the two is so sharp that love and partiality cannot go together. They are incompatible. To love well is to be impartial. To be partial is to lack love. A person who loves well, will stand out unmistakably from a person who shows partiality. The contrast couldn’t be any sharper. Look at vs. 8-9.

8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.


Again, James’s main point here is that you either have love (which is good) or you have partiality (which is bad). There are three keys in v.8 that we must grasp concerning James’s understanding of love if we are to truly appreciate its contrast with his understanding of partiality. He speaks of love being the fulfillment of the royal law, Scripture as the one definer of love, and love as the eager aim of all of God’s people. Let’s quickly consider each.

  1. The Royal Law. This is a unique term, used nowhere else in the Bible. There is some debate on exactly where James came up with the term, although his meaning is quickly made clear.

    “The law” is a common term throughout the Bible. It has some variation in its usage/meaning, but James uses it here in the most common way. It refers to all that God requires; all of God’s laws, commands, and prohibitions combined. Further, something is royal insofar as it is connected with royalty—kings and monarchs. A throne is royal when it belongs to a king. A robe is royal when it is a king who wears it. A crown is royal when it rests on a king’s head. And a law is royal, when it was issued by a king. God’s law is royal, therefore, in the sense that it is from God, the King of all kings and the most royal being in all existence.

    The key here is that the entire royal law, every requirement of God, hundreds of commands given over hundreds of years, is summed up in a single idea: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If you do this, if you really love your neighbor as yourself, James wrote, you are keeping the heart of everything God commanded concerning how we are to relate to others. And this is because genuine love for others is the point of every one of God’s commands.

    James begins to establish a contrast between love and partiality by helping his readers understand the fact that loving others well is the sum total of God’s law.

  2. According to the Scripture. The second love-key is that we only know how to love our neighbor in a way that fulfills the royal law because God has told us how in the Bible. The Bible is the only place royal-law-fulfilling, neighbor-love is explained and demonstrated in an absolutely authoritative way. As we briefly considered last week, love is not something we get to define on our own. It is always “according to the Scripture”.

    Do you want to fulfill the entire royal law? Love your neighbor as yourself. But hoow do you know how to love your neighbor as yourself when they are living with someone they are not married to or have just lost their job or have just received some kind of terminal diagnosis or are struggling to understand their nature and purpose in life or have experienced abuse or some other kind of mistreatment or are pesky in-laws or, as James most directly addresses here, when they are really wealthy? How do you know what exactly it looks like to love in any of those situations? God’s Word alone is sufficient to tell you. Your best guess or intention will never be enough. God alone determines what is best, what is loving, and He has graciously revealed that to us exclusively in the Scripture.

    You must show no partiality. To help you obey, James teaches us that loving our neighbor is the fulfillment of all of God’s laws and that knowing how to do so is inseparably tied to the word of God. That leads to the final aspect of love before James makes clear its contrast with partiality.

  3. If You Really Fulfill…You Are Doing Well. The third key to really grasping James’s concept of love (as contrasted with partiality) is embedded in the phrase, “if you really fulfill the royal law…you are doing well”.

    There are several significant implications of these words. The most important, however, is the idea that seeking to fulfill the law by loving our neighbors, should be our earnest and eager desire. Grace, seeking to obey God’s commands, in particular by loving our neighbors well, must be the great longing of our hearts. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to begin to grasp the incomparable wisdom and goodness and beauty and love and power of God; and to begin to long for everyone around us to know those things in Jesus. Obeying God by loving people, then, simply must be our mission and pleasure.

    If you have any category for counting it a privilege to be connected to your favorite musician or athlete or actor or author or business leader or scientist or gamer or artist or ministry (I remember how absolutely eager I was to carry around stuff for the worship team at a DG conference, simply because of how much I appreciated Piper’s ministry), how much more ought all of us feel this way concerning our opportunity to do the will of our God. Manton says that for those who rightly grasp the glory of God, “service is an honor, and duty is a privilege” (James, 130).

    So, what does James mean by love for the people around us? In short, it means eagerly doing that which God, our King, requires of us in relation to them (as revealed in the Bible). If that’s what it looks like to love our neighbor, consider now the contrast between love and partiality.


Look again with me at v.9, “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

I imagine it’s not that difficult to see in this verse that partiality contrasts each and every aspect of love that James spoke of in the previous verse. Love is obedience to the royal law of God. Partiality is disobedience. To love is to do well. To show partiality is to do sin. Love is about fulfillment. Partiality is about transgression. Love is defined by God’s Word. Partiality is defined by the desires of our flesh. Love is about righteousness. Partiality is about conviction. Ultimately, love is about giving someone that which is best for them, while partiality is about getting something from them.

It’s hard to overstate the contrast between love and partiality. Grace, please do not miss this. You cannot treat someone based on how they look or what they appear to offer, and be acting in love. Or, to word it a little differently, you cannot obey God and show partiality. This first contrast is meant to help us see that our choice is simpler than we might have thought. We can lovingly obey God’s commands toward others or we can sinfully transgress God’s commands and bring conviction upon ourselves by showing partiality toward them.


The second contrast that James highlights is meant to ratchet things up even more. In an attempt to further dissuade his readers from continuing in their partiality, from treating the rich better than the poor, James showed that even more was at stake. He’d just told them that showing partiality was an act of unloving disobedience to God and neighbor. But unrepentant favoritism was more than just an isolated sin. If loving well fulfills the entire law, failing to do so, by showing partiality, breaks the entire law. That is, in vs.10-11, James highlighted the contrast between sin and sinner.

10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 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.

James’s readers might have thought they were doing well in most aspects of their faith. Perhaps they were. For that reason, their continued partiality might not have seemed like a big deal to them. James sought to dispossess them from this grievous error. His main point here was that even if his readers had obeyed every other command of God perfectly (which they certainly hadn’t), their failure to love by showing partiality, made them “guilty of all of it.”

This is a critical concept in Christianity. As I mentioned in a previous sermon, God’s laws are always tied to His nature. In a very real way, the laws of God are merely descriptions/revelation of who He is. The issue is not, therefore, whether we keep this rule or that; or whether we keep more rules than we break. The issue is whether we’re conformed to God’s nature or not. A single act of disobedience is a complete break from God’s nature.

Growing up, we had a creak in our back yard. I loved to play in and around it. When I’d ask to go out and play, my mom would inevitably say something like, “OK, but don’t get wet.” And inevitably, I’d get wet. I’d miss a rock and my shoe would become submerged (we called that a “soaker”) or I’d slip and my bottom would fall in, or, reaching for a crayfish my arm would need to go in further than I’d imagined and my sleeve would drop into the water. I don’t recall ever falling in entirely, but even by getting a soaker, I was breaking my mom’s entire command. It was as if I was all wet. That’s what James was getting at.

For that reason, there is no such thing as committing a sin apart from being a sinner. Apart from faith in Jesus, the Bible does not talk about us as basically good people who occasionally commit sins. Rather, it describes all mankind as people who commit sins because we are by nature sinners.

It seems that James’s readers had failed to appreciate this contrast and were, therefore, not taking their sin of partiality seriously enough. The contrast here is ultimately between believing that (1) we’re OK as long as the scales of justice tip toward the good in our lives and (2) the realization that to break one aspect of God’s law is to completely tip the scales. The contrast is between (1) acknowledging the sinfulness of all sin and trusting in God to save us from it and (2) being OK with certain lingering sins because we believe the rest of our body is still dry.

When we rightly recognize the sinfulness of our sin, we will inevitably run quicker to Jesus for mercy and fight harder to walk in righteousness. We will not long-tolerate partiality or any lack of love. We will be eager to see people as God sees them and treat them as God treats them. We will be eager to serve the rich and poor alike. We will be eager to rebuke the rich and poor alike. We will be eager to share the gospel with the rich and poor alike. And most importantly, we won’t judge people based on things God does not value (like riches and poverty).

The point of this contrast is to show that being partial to the rich is no small matter. To do so is to be guilty of breaking the entire law of God; and it is that for which Christ died.


The final contrast (between mercy and judgment) is the harshest contrast of all. In its harshness, however, is also, perhaps, the most help for obedience. In our passage this morning, James has moved from teaching that love is the fulfillment of the entire law to teaching that being partial is breaking the entire law and now to teaching that showing partiality is withholding mercy, and withholding mercy leads to the severest judgment of God.

12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.

All of us will be judged. The only question is on what basis. It will either be on the basis of our own unrighteousness or on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus. If on the basis of our own unrighteousness, we will be condemned to hell. If on the basis of Jesus’ righteousness, we will enter into fellowship with God forever.

But how do we know on which of those two basis we will be judged? God’s word tells us that the basis of our judgment is tied entirely to the object of our deepest trust. If our trust is in Jesus, we will be judged on the basis of Jesus’ righteousness. If our trust is in anything else, we will be judged on the basis of our own unrighteousness.

But how do we know if our deepest trust is in Jesus? That’s where this final contrast especially comes into play. For James (clearly here, and unmistakable in the next section), a changed life is the only genuine proof of genuine faith. Anyone can claim to have faith or to have had some type of religious experience. The great promise of the gospel, however, is that true faith is always accompanied by true heart-change. And true heart-change, always shapes our words and deeds, our speech and actions.

Apart from Christ we must keep the law to keep favor with God. In Christ, we have the favor of God so we love to do His will. Apart from Christ, every awareness of a violation of the law is a matter of great trepidation and guilt. In Christ, every awareness of a violation of the law is a reminder of the gospel and an encouragement to repent. Apart from Christ the law is a crushing burden. In Christ, the law is a reminder of God’s amazing grace. Apart from Christ, the judgment we will receive according to the law leads to death as God looks upon our sins. In Christ, the judgment we will receive according to the law leads to life as God looks upon Christ’s righteousness. Apart from Christ, the law is a law of slavery to disobedience. In Christ, it is a law of freedom for obedience.

Having commanded his readers to forsake partiality, and having explained that partiality is incompatible with Christian love and faith, James positively charged them to demonstrate the authenticity of their faith in Jesus by speaking acting “as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.”

Rather than show partiality, they were to bless and serve and honor those whom the world despised and discarded, but Christ held dear. Those who were rich in faith, but poor in the worlds’ goods were to receive as much honor as those rich in both, and more in every way than those rich only in the world. They were, in their words and actions, to esteem the things that really matter, not the things that don’t. They were to esteem genuine faith wherever it was found and give no thought to things that moth and rust can destroy.

In one final appeal, to really drive all of this home, then, James made the contrast as clear as possible. Receiving forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of Christ through faith is an act of indescribably mercy. This kind of vertical mercy is always immeasurably greater than any horizontal mercy we might offer. Therefore, showing mercy to others is perhaps the greatest act of impartiality, and the greatest act of genuine faith. To know the mercy of God on our own lives is to make it impossible to withhold mercy from others.

For that reason, James wrote, “13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Mercy is showing compassion and giving help to someone in a time of need. James said as clearly as possible that God will judge us in no small measure by the mercy we show. If we withhold mercy from others, God will judge us without mercy. But if we are merciful toward others, God will be merciful toward us. In this, James was helping his readers to understand that the outpouring of mercy is a necessary proof of authentic faith in Jesus. In other words, showing partiality toward the poor is to withhold mercy from the poor, and to withhold mercy from the poor is to demonstrate that we have not truly received the mercy of God.

Practically, this forces us to ask: What’s my first thought when I see someone in need (a person begging on the side of the street or a single mom in a rough apartment or a kid being picked on in school)? Is my initial impulse compassion and a desire to help, or is it to imagine what they might have done wrong to get themselves in their current situation? This is close to the heart of what James is getting at in describing the contrast between mercy and judgment.


Love vs. partiality, sin vs. sinner, and mercy vs. judgment. May we see these sharp contrasts and what’s at stake in them, may they cause us, therefore, to turn to Jesus in faith, may He forgive us of our sins as we do, and may He empower us to walk in loving obedience to all that God commands, and especially to show no partiality!