Getting What You Don’t Deserve
There is a temptation to jump past the introduction of James chapter 2 in order to address the opening exhortation, “don’t show favouritism.”
We’ll get to that exhortation, but first let us examine the qualifying statement: “Brethren, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favouritism” (Jas. 2:1).
James here links the command to our identity.
This is not a command rooted in pragmatics. This is not a command that preserves existing cultural norms. The reason we refrain from favouritism has everything to do with our relationship to Jesus Christ and what He has done for us.
What has He done? What does Christ offer to the one who places faith in Him?
Two words: Grace and Mercy.
The salvation of every Christian hinges on the twin blessing of grace and mercy. We are believers because of grace and mercy. We regard the Lord Jesus Christ to be altogether glorious because of grace and mercy.
But what do these two words precisely mean? And what is the difference between them? Let’s start with the word ‘mercy.’ Simply put, mercy is not getting what you deserve...and that is an extremely good thing.
The New Testament explains that there was a time when each of us was counted by God as an “enemy” (Rom. 5:10) because of our sin. Using stark language, Paul says we were actually “objects of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). In other words, we were on track to receive the worst punishment imaginable—which is what our sins deserved.
Instead, however, the believer in Jesus Christ receives mercy. We deserved wrath and punishment, but we got mercy instead. You could say that mercy is blessing by subtraction. Mercy is blessing by not getting something that would hurt or hinder.
Let me offer a recent personal example... [tell the story of my dropping the digital camera]
Allie had every right to demand a new camera. Allie had every right to assign blame. Allie had every right to call me a numbskull...but I was not blamed, nor was I scolded. I got none of the things I deserved. Instead, I got mercy...blessing by subtraction.
Grace is different from mercy. With grace, I get something I don’t deserve. Do you see the subtle difference? Mercy is not getting something that you deserve. Grace is getting something that you don’t deserve.
Believers in Jesus Christ not only avoid punishment and divine wrath (that’s the mercy part); believers in Jesus Christ also gain salvation (that’s the grace part). We gain the merits of Christ, the righteousness of Christ, the power of Christ, and so on. And we didn’t do anything to deserve these blessings. In no sense could you say that you earned or deserved the blessings that accompany the gift of salvation (Eph. 2:8). It’s all grace.
I once heard grace defined as ‘unmerited favour’, but that description doesn’t go far enough. Grace is favour bestowed in the presence of demerit. It would be like Allie, after watching me bounce our digital camera off a set of steps, insisting that I sit down so she can immediately fix me a snack and a cold drink.
Think also of The Prodigal Son. After frittering away his inheritance on sinful living, the wayward son thought he might be received back by his father as a hired hand (Lk. 15:19). Instead, he was received back as a son—that’s mercy. The father then proceeds to order for his returned son a robe, a ring, and some sandals. A fattened calf is prepared for a feast—that’s grace.
Mercy is not receiving a punishment you deserve.
Grace is receiving something good that you don’t deserve.
And friends, this is the economy of salvation. It is both counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. And this is the all-important context from which we have the command, “don’t show favouritism.”
Favouritism thrives in a culture based upon merit. The merit might be wealth or fame. The merit might be one’s education, occupation, or social class. The merit might even be based on a person’s ethnic background.
But here’s the reason why favouritism should never thrive within the church: Our standing as Christians has absolutely nothing to do with merit.
The church, like our salvation, is to be grounded in grace and mercy.
R. Kent Hughes says it well, ‘favouritism is spiritually irrational.’ Favouritism just doesn’t fit in a context where grace and mercy carry the day. And yet, James nonetheless addresses the issue of favouritism in his letter. And as you read the Book of James, you get the distinct sense that he’s not pulling these issues out of thin air. These were issues that the early church actually struggled with. Moreover, church history tells us that the issue of favouritism has consistently been a challenge for the church.
Bearing that in mind, as a Christian congregation in the 21st Century, here by the grace and mercy of Christ, we ought to be asking ourselves: ‘Where do we detect favouritism? Where are the danger points for us in this regard?’
Outside the walls of this church building, our personal contexts will vary, and so our temptation to favour a certain kind of person or group will also vary. In the realm of commerce, I’m guessing that an ever-present temptation is to favour those with the greatest means. For example, I understand that most financial institutions have levels of service available which depend upon your net worth. There are advisors whose expertise I simply cannot access until my bank balance and investments reach a certain level.
I realize that such practices are common and appear to be justifiable as prudent business strategy. But even if I grant that, we all must admit that such approaches include a thick level of favouritism, even if such favouritism is based on definable merit.
And why is it, that when you need an MRI you must wait for several weeks before the test is available? And how is it that a member of the Blue Jays, or a member of the Maple Leafs can get an MRI within 48 hours?
Favouritism, since it is almost always based upon some identifiable merit, often appears sensible—or, at the very least, normal. Within these walls, however, and within the hearts of Christian believers, favouritism ought not to be regarded as normal.
Again this response of impartiality is rooted in our identity. Before believing in Jesus, the degree to which we were estranged from God was equal. The degree to which we were once guilty before God was equal. James makes this point in verse 10, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
The flipside of that is also true. Just as we were equally guilty in our estrangement, we are equally loved as sons and daughters of The Almighty.
I love that!
God does not love His ministers and His missionaries more than He loves other believers.
God does not love Christians in Canada more than He loves Christians in India.
God does not love Presbyterians more than He loves Baptists.
Sometimes I catch myself on this point. I look at a Billy Graham, an R.C. Sproul, or an Alistair Begg, and I think to myself, ‘God must really love that great preacher!’
Well, He does really love those preachers...but He loves me just as much as them....and He loves you just as much.
That’s because Christianity is not a system driven by merit.
Christianity is a relationship grounded in grace and mercy.
So what is James requiring?
I hear in James the voice of God: ‘Do you see how much I love you? Do you see how much I am for you? Do you see how My love for My children is equal? And did you notice that My Son didn’t simply come to redeem ‘religious’ people, but that He redeemed a tax collector, a prostitute, and a thief on a cross.’ I hear God saying to us in this text, ‘Give no special regard to individuals according to merit. Just as I have shown you mercy and given you grace, let those principles direct you in your treatment of others.’
Our determination to show mercy, and our determination to give grace in the presence of demerit is a huge part of what makes followers of Christ different. I want to be different in this regard, and I want us to be different in this regard.
Let’s practise this grace based lifestyle within these walls. Let’s make grace work for us in here. And then, as followers of Jesus, let us go out and bring the grace of our glorious God to bear upon this world of ours.
Let’s be different and let’s make a difference—for God’s glory. Amen.