Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

James 2:13

For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

This passage contains an important lesson for us, yet it is often misused by those who twist this passage in order to defend their particular ideology. Like anything else in the Bible, context is important. So in this article, we are going to see what this verse – in its context – teaches us so we can properly apply it and not be guilty of misusing or misapplying it.

How This Verse Is Misused

This passage is often misused by those who want to expand the bounds of fellowship beyond what God has set for us in His word. They argue for being more “tolerant” and “accepting.” Yet the result is that they attempt to be more tolerant and accepting than God. The verse is not the only one to be misused in this way.

Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions” (Romans 14:1).

These verses, when taken by themselves without regard to their context, can easily be misused to argue for a watering down of the gospel and ignoring doctrinal differences in order to accept into fellowship those whom we could not otherwise accept.

The argument often made regarding the passage in James 2:13 is that rather than passing judgment (determining whether a practice or teaching is right or wrong), we are to show mercy (accept those who believe, live, and worship differently than we do).

Of course, those who accept this idea will not always apply it uniformly. Depending on who you ask, you will find many different lines that will be drawn.

  • Some will accept those in adulterous marriages, but not those in denominational churches.
  • Some will accept all those who claim to be Christians (even if they belong to man-made churches), but not those of other world religions (Islam, Judaism, etc.).
  • Some will accept all of these different religions, but not those who are atheists.

There are a countless number of possible lines of fellowship that will be drawn. The point is that those who use this verse to argue for expanding fellowship beyond what the Scriptures allow will still have their own personal lines of fellowship which they will not allow to be crossed. The problem is that all of this is based upon human reasoning. The solution is to go back to the Bible and simply follow what it teaches, respecting the bounds of fellowship that God has put in place.

Understanding the Context

James began this chapter with a warning against showing favoritism.

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and you say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?” (James 2:1-7).

We tend to make judgments based upon appearances. James mentioned a hypothetical situation in which two men entered their assembly (James 2:2-4). The only difference between them – as far as we are told and as far as they would know – was the way in which they were dressed. Yet they took the appearances of these two men and judged how worthy they were of honor based upon how they were dressed. It is tempting for us to do the same – not just in terms of dress, but other factors can be areas in which we pass judgment.

However, James pointed out that reality is often quite different from our assumptions. They assumed the rich man was worthy of honor, yet the rich generally were the ones guilty of oppressing them and blaspheming the name of God (James 2:6-7). Of course, anyone can be guilty of this – rich or poor – yet James was using what was typically true to combat their unfair stereotypes. Rather than showing favoritism – especially on the basis of unfair assumptions and prejudices – we need to adopt God’s view of others.

After dealing with that problem, James wrote about fulfilling “the royal law.

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (James 2:8).

Jesus described this as the second great commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). We are to show love to all people. “And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you” (1 Thessalonians 3:12).

James then talked about being transgressors of the law.

But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:9-11).

Partiality is a sin (James 2:1, 9). If we are guilty of this sin, we have transgressed the law. James went on to explain that committing even one sin makes us a transgressor of the law (James 2:10). Whether the sin is partiality, adultery, murder, or something else, we transgress God’s law when we commit these sins. As a transgressor of the law (a sinner), we are then worthy of death. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Finally, James explained that we will all be judged by God.

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (James 2:12).

Paul described the universality of judgment in his second letter to Corinth: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). The standard of judgment on that day will be the word of the Lord (John 12:48).

James described this standard of judgment as the “law of liberty” (James 2:12; 1:25). However, this certainly does not mean that we are at “liberty” to do whatever we please. Peter explained the connection between our freedom and submission to God: “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God” (1 Peter 2:16). Through the law of God, we have freedom from the bondage of sin (Romans 6:16-18) and the punishment that comes with it (Romans 6:23; 8:1) as well as freedom from any obligation to obey the commandments of men in religion (Colossians 2:20-23).

This also means that we have no right to judge or condemn someone else based upon a human standard. The Pharisees were guilty of this and Jesus condemned them for it (Matthew 15:1-9). We will surely make judgments throughout our lives, but we must do so righteously. Jesus said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

James went on from mentioning the judgment to emphasize the importance of mercy: “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). If we do not show mercy, we will not be shown mercy. Jesus said, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14-15).

What This Phrase Means

Near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). We are to be merciful to others as God has been merciful to us. However, this mercy we are to have is not to be interpreted as a tolerance of sin. How do we know?

  • God does not tolerate sin and error – The wise man described seven abominations “which the Lord hates” (Proverbs 6:16-19). Paul explained that “the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6). Those who teach a doctrine contrary to the gospel stand to be “accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9).
  • We are not to have fellowship with sin and error – Paul told the Corinthians that they were “not even to eat with” a brother who refused to repent of his sin (1 Corinthians 5:11). He told the brethren in Thessalonica to “keep away” and “do not associate with” a brother who refused to submit to the instructions which the apostles taught (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14). Regarding false teaching, John wrote, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 John 10-11).

Instead of tolerating sin and error, James’ point was that we are to assume the best of others rather than being quick to condemn or dishonor them. We are not to rush to judgment based upon appearances; instead, as was mentioned earlier, we are to see others as God sees them (James 2:1; Acts 10:34).

There are some other applications of this principle as well:

  • If someone is in need, help him – “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Of course, we are to exercise wisdom in this (cf. Matthew 10:16). However, at times we may be too quick to assume that those who need help are lazy, wasteful, abusing drugs or alcohol, etc.
  • If someone is weak, strengthen him – “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). We should not be quick to assume that a weak brother is so worldly-minded that he is beyond hope.
  • If someone is in sin, correct him – “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). We should not be quick to assume that such a one will not repent.
  • If someone is in error, show him the truth – “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24-25). This is what Aquila and Priscilla did with Apollos (Acts 18:24-26). We should not be too quick to assume that someone is dishonest and will refuse to admit or correct error.
  • If someone is more judgmental than merciful, be patient with him – “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Let us not assume that these ones cannot change.

All of this does not mean that we are to act foolishly, allow others to take advantage of us, or compromise the truth. Instead, we are to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We are to “judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24), while at the same time being merciful.


We need to show mercy to others. We also need to appreciate the difference between right and wrong. We will all be judged by God; therefore, let us be merciful to others as He has been to us.

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  1. This is a very good article, Andy, and I appreciate you hard work and much Bible study in bringing these excellent points to our attention. God bless you, young man!

  2. Thank you, Wayne, that means a lot.