Main Idea: As people who have been shown mercy, we have the freedom to show mercy to all.
One night in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge was sleeping in a hotel room when he woke up to find that someone had broken into his room through the window and was going through his stuff. President Coolidge quietly spoke up, asking the burglar not to take his watch chain because it contained an engraved charm he wanted to keep. He then engaged the thief in quiet conversation and discovered he was a college student who had no money to pay his hotel bill or buy a train ticket back to school. So after President Coolidge convinced the burglar to give him his wallet back, Coolidge counted $32 out of his wallet, declared it to be a loan, and advised the young man to leave the way he had come in order to avoid the Secret Service!
Now, with all the authority that the President has, that young man could have been swarmed by the Secret Service if the President had simply raised his voice. The President could have brought swift judgment down upon the thief. But instead, he showed mercy.
When someone offends you, is your first instinct to show judgment, or mercy? I’m certainly not saying there isn’t a place for judgment, and judgment is often exactly what a person needs in order to see the consequence of their sin, but what do you want to show them? And what do you want God to show you?
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 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. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:10-13)
Father, help us to obey Your law. And knowing that we have not done so perfectly, thank You for Your mercy. In Jesus’s name, Amen.
As Christians, we ought to see it as our responsibility and joy to trust and obey God.
The writer Archibald Rutledge once wrote about a man he met whose dog was killed in a forest fire. Because he worked outdoors, he often took his pet with him. That morning, he left his dog in a clearing and gave him the command to stay and guard their lunch while he went into the forest. His faithful friend understood, and that’s exactly what he did. So even when a fire started in the woods, still, he didn’t move. He stayed right where he was, in perfect obedience to his master’s word. With tearful eyes, the dog’s owner told the writer, “I always had to be careful what I told him to do, because I knew he would do it.”
How faithful are you to obey God? When God tells you to do something in His word, do you do it, or try to get around doing it? And do you even read His word, or do you keep from reading it because you’re afraid of what He might tell you to do?
James writes in verse 10:
For whoever keeps the whole law… (James 2:10a)
Now, wait, stop right there. Who among us keeps the whole law? Or who even comes close to keeping the whole law? If you’ve heard me preach before, you know where I’m going with this. Most of the world likes to think that we’re basically good, moral people. And it’s true that we’re made in the image of God, and, because of that, we have the capacity to do amazingly beautiful things. But the Bible also names a whole bunch of laws that we break pretty much all the time.
There are laws about not doing work on the Sabbath. There are laws about what we should and shouldn’t eat. There are laws about not taking the Lord’s name in vain. There are laws about laziness, greed, coveting, lust, and loving the foreigner, and while it’s true that many of these laws pertain only to the nation of Israel at a certain time in their history, I think we’re far too quick to just excuse ourselves from obeying even the spirit of them.
I worked at a boys home for troubled youth for several years before becoming a pastor. Part of the training we received was how to talk to the boys about who they are and the things that they’ve done. We were basically trained to tell them the lie that they’re not bad; they just occasionally have done bad things. But I just kind of ignored that part of the training. In fact, I remember one morning talking with one of the boys, and I was encouraging him to make good choices because he had made some very bad choices the day before starting fights, cursing out his teachers, and that kind of thing. So I was encouraging him to have a better today today. And I remember him saying, “Yeah, I know, I’m not bad, I just sometimes do bad things.” And I replied, “No, I think you ARE bad.” And he just looked at me like, “You’re not supposed to tell me that!” I got his attention. So I continued, “The Bible says we’re all bad. We’ve all sinned against God. But through faith in Jesus, we can be forgiven, and we can have strength to change.” He thought about it for a second and said, “That makes sense. I think I agree with you.”
You see, people are fed the lie from a very young age that we’re good and perfect just the way we are. And if we fall into believing that, then we basically have no reason to change anything about ourselves. We have no reason to consider other points of view. We have no reason to change any of our behaviors. If I’m already good and perfect, then why should I try to get any better? With that mindset, I can’t even change the bad things I do, because I’m already good and perfect.
But it’s just not true. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. If I sin even though I’m good, then it’s not possible for me to change. But if I sin because I’m a sinner, then I can rest in Jesus to both forgive me and change me by His power.
So who keeps the whole law? Not us. Only Jesus. 1 Peter 2:22 says:
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. (1 Peter 2:22)
Jesus never sinned. Not even once. Not even in anything that he said or thought. And this was necessary so that He could be our Savior. 1 Peter 3:18 says:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…(1 Peter 3:18)
So while we’re unrighteous because we don’t keep the whole law, Jesus is righteous because He kept the whole law. And then He suffered for our sins in order to bring us back into relationship with the holy God. So while we haven’t kept the whole law, Jesus did…for us.
Let’s continue in verse 10.
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 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 2:10-11)
So we’ve already established that we’re all sinners, but how much of a sinner do you think that you are? Maybe on the scale of sinners, you don’t think you’re all that bad. Like if we all stood in line based on how sinful we are, with the most righteous sinners in the front of the line, and the most unrighteous sinners in the back of the line, I bet very few people would think they would be towards the back of the line. Maybe you wouldn’t put yourself at the front, that’s reserved for people like Mother Teressa and, according to many Republicans, Donald Trump. But I would guess that most people would probably think they’d stand somewhere in the middle.
In fact, according to many studies, pretty much everyone thinks they are above average. When people are asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, the most common answer is 7. Most people think they’re above average when it comes to charity, productivity, personal righteousness, and even attractiveness. Listen, we can’t all be 7’s! It’s so common that psychology even named it. It’s called illusory superiority. It’s the idea that we all seem to have that we’re somehow better than everyone else.
And maybe you don’t think you’d say that about yourself. Maybe you think, “Pastor Chris doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I would never believe I’m better than anyone. I’m better than that!”
But James has an awesome way of dealing with our illusory superiority. He writes in verse 10 that even if you managed to keep the whole law, and yet failed at just one tiny point, you’d be guilty of breaking all of it. I hear a lot of people so condemning of other peoples’ sins, as if they were the worst in the world, not realizing that their own sin is just as bad before God. We’re all equally deserving of death and hell.
James picks two laws as an example, adultery and murder, but we could really use any two laws and make the same point. If you say, “I’ve never stolen anything” but you have lied about something, then you’re a lawbreaker. If you say, “I don’t hurt others,” but you do engage in a little gossip from time to time, then you’re guilty of breaking the law.
And I think even the examples that James used are universally condemning. Jesus said that:
Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28)
And John wrote:
Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:15)
So we’re not just a little guilty. We’re completely guilty. James says that we’re guilty of breaking the whole law. None of us are at the front of the line. We’re all at the back. We don’t just do bad things, we are bad.
But if we admit this reality, there’s good news, because there’s a solution to our badness. Verse 12.
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. (James 2:12)
Since we know that our sin leads to death, we’re given the encouragement to change. But James doesn’t just say, “Change or else.” He reminds us that the law that condemns us is also the law that gives us freedom.
That’s not usually how we think about the law, is it? We think about laws mostly as condemning. But good laws are actually meant to give us freedom. The law to not speed isn’t meant to take away the thrill of going really fast, and its purpose isn’t merely to make it take longer to get places. It’s to give us and everyone around us the freedom to live and not die.
And the Bible’s laws have an even greater liberty-giving purpose. While they show that we can’t possibly live up to all of them, they also show us the One who did. The law points us to Jesus, who died for us, showing us mercy, and saving us from condemnation under the law.
So speak and act as those who have freedom, not merely because you feel like you have the right to it, but because you’ve been shown God’s mercy and grace. So what does it look like to speak and act out of a position of mercy?
I read a woman’s story about how her life was changed by Jesus. She had been addicted to drugs and alcohol, and one day found herself in prison. But after her sister died, she talked with the prison chaplain and became a Christian. From that day forward, she didn’t see prison as judgment, but as a Bible study with a good security system. Although she was still in prison, she felt free. She used the time to study God’s word and grow in her relationship with Jesus. She shared her faith with both inmates and guards. And after she was released from prison, she began volunteering in prison ministries and eventually founded an organization called Breaking Chains International, which is committed to reaching the lost inside and outside of prison to Jesus Christ.
You see, speaking out of a position of freedom and mercy means speaking the truth in love. It means sharing the gospel out of love, not as a weapon, but because you want others to experience the same grace that God has shown you.
And acting out of a position of freedom and mercy means not being afraid to live out your faith. It means being free to glorify God in ways that you might find scary, and yet ought to thrill you to no end as you embark on the journey.
Failing to speak and act this way shows something about our faith. Verse 13.
For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 1:13)
As people who have been shown mercy, we have the freedom to show mercy to others. And if you don’t show mercy to others, the Bible warns you about judgment without mercy.
Jesus taught something similar through a parable in Matthew 18.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)
Here’s the thing. If you’ve really come to understand how much your sin is deserving of God’s wrath, then you’ll also begin to understand how much God has shown you mercy. It’s not just a little bit. It’s unfathomable, complete, and perfect mercy. And seeing that kind of mercy shown to you will transform you so that you begin to show that same mercy to all.
And when you feel like you can’t forgive someone because their sin just seems too bad, remember the last thing James wrote in this passage.
Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13b)
Are you thankful that God’s mercy triumphs over His judgment toward you? Then show that same mercy toward others. I just get the impression that so many of us are so angry with so many people in the world today, and we want them to experience God’s judgment. And it’s true that God’s judgment is real, and it might be the only thing that wakes some people up to their sin, but we ought to want them to receive God’s mercy and grace.
So, the most pressing question for you this morning is this: have you received God’s mercy? Have you received God’s mercy toward your sin? The gospel is simply that although we’ve all sinned, Jesus came and took the judgment for our sin. He died on the cross, so that by grace through faith, mercy triumphs over and even through judgment so that we can live in freedom.
Father, help us to live in freedom, knowing that we have been set free. Help us to show mercy, knowing that we’ve been shown mercy. And help us even to rejoice in Your judgment, seeing that through Christ’s judgment of our sin on the cross, we’re set free. In Jesus’s name, Amen.
Pastor Chris Huff has been with us since July 2009. He and his wife, Abby, have four children. Chris is originally from St. Louis, MO and even though he was raised as a city boy, he has a small town heart. Chris is all over the internet, so you can find him on Facebook, Twitter,… (read more)
James is one of the most simple and practical letters in the New Testament written to encourage and instruct believers. The fact that this letter is in the Bible is interesting, though, because it actually almost didn’t make the cut. Some well-known Christians throughout history didn’t like it or think that it measured up to… (read more)