Salvation in James: Gift and Responsibility

Part 2 of 3


In this series of posts, we attempt to offer a rich and appreciative reading of James chapter 1 and 2 with an eye to James’ theology of human redemption—a Jacobian soteriology. In the previous post, we considered the function of the “word” and the “law” as God’s gracious gifts for salvation. Here we specifically looked at James 1:18 and 21 and concluded that this “word of truth” and “implanted word” thus is a new character, a new heart’s disposition created in us. It must be received (1:21) and, as the “law of freedom” it must be obeyed (1:22-25). Thus, the “word/law” in James is God’s instrument for salvation—it is both gift and responsibility. In this second post we will focus on James 2:12-13 where “mercy” triumphs over judgment.

Judgment and The Triumph of Mercy: James 2:12-13[1]

From the “word/law” we now turn to the triumph of mercy in 2:12-13: “So speak and so act as those who are about to be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment will be without mercy to the one not practicing mercy; mercy triumphs (boasts) over judgment.”

These verses comprise two of the most important for James’ theology of salvation; however, they are also two of the most allusive verses in James. In order to appreciate James’ understanding of soteriology here we will consider: (1) what “judgment” might be in view (“judgment” in this world, or the world to come?), and (2) whose mercy is it that “triumphs” over judgment (human mercy or divine mercy).


Judgment by the Law of Freedom: 2:12

The “speak” and “act” of James 2:12 summarize the entire totality of a person’s life, both internal and external. Thus every part of life is to be lived “as those about to be judged by the law of freedom.” And it seems in context, this “law of freedom” places a high priority on the love of neighbor for its fulfillment (2:8). This opens the question of what the “judgment” in James 2:12 might be: does James refer to earthly punishment or to eternal damnation? The confusion is legitimate because much of James focuses on actions within this world, and more importantly, James 2:1-6 uses κριταί to refer to human “judges” in a section dealing with human partiality. However, in the next section, James 2:7-8, indicates that the context has shifted from human “judges” to God himself as the Judge determining who has fulfilled the law.

So here the context has shifted to God as the judge, and thus the “judgment” in James 2:12 appears to be the final, eschatological judgment. Moo observes, “A new twist is added here. For the first time, James warns about eschatological judgment and suggests that conformity to the demands of the law [the “law of freedom”] will be the criterion of that judgment.”[2] The preposition διά is crucial for understanding the judgment that occurs here. Johnson argues, “The dia here expresses the means used by God for judgment. God judges on the basis of the measure that has been revealed to humans.”[3] This “law of freedom” forms the standard by which James’ audience should live, guiding their lives and interactions with one another. Judgment looms near and it will be based on how they have lived out this “law of freedom”, which has at its core the principle of love of God and neighbor.

James’ warning acts as a restatement of Jesus’ warnings that everyone faces judgment and that obedience is both expected and required of his followers—I will say more on this in the conclusion. Judgment, James warns, will be based on how each person “speaks” and “acts,” on whether one has lived according to the “law of freedom.” Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that James teaches that the eschatological judgment will be done in accordance with each person’s actions as they relate to the “law of freedom,” especially whether they choose to love their (poorer) neighbors in a practical manner.


Judgment Without Mercy: 2:13a

Now, what about the “judgment without mercy” phrase in 2:13? This is a “measure-for-measure” saying or a statement of reciprocity. These are wisdom-like sayings that state a clear and direct relationship between a particular action and its just reward or punishment. This statement of reciprocity bears a striking resemblance to the lex talionis (lit. “law of talion” or “retaliation”) which dictates the principle of proportionality for punishment. The lex talionis comes from Israel’s legal code—especially “an eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” (Lev 24:19-21; Ex 21:22-25; Deut 19:16-21; cf. Matt 5:38-39).

To understand James’ final aphorism, one must first seek to understand the nature of “judgment without mercy.” Most agree that this does, in fact, warn of the final eschatological judgment. A background in Jesus’ teaching makes it hard to escape this conclusion. In fact, James restates here the principle of the judgment of Matthew 18 and 25: those who fail to enact mercy will also be denied it in due course.

For those not “doing mercy,” therefore, James warns of “judgment without mercy.” The pattern seen in Jesus’ teaching shows that eschatological judgment and damnation is the merciless outworking of justice declared solely on merciless people. Rob Wall argues that

God’s eschatological courtroom promises a fair trial to every person: the rule of faith is Torah, which clearly and perfectly stipulates God’s will. Since love of one’s neighbor is the rule of God’s coming kingdom, it seems theo-logical that “mercy” is given by God to those who ‘show mercy’ – that is, who love their (poor) neighbors – while divine ‘judgment’ (krisis) is reserved for “the one who has been merciless.”[4]

When James warns of “judgment without mercy” for those who have failed to repent and live a life according to the principle of neighbor love, this is what it means to be judged by the “law of freedom.” Thus, justice demands unmerciful judgment on the unmerciful.

James’ statement in 2:13a, follows logically, then, for he promises an “unmerciful judgment” to the “unmerciful.” And this in itself brings with it the justification of the righteous—or the “merciful”—as they watch the wicked brought down in judgment.


Mercy Triumphant: 2:13b

Finally, “mercy triumphs over judgment.” This last phrase raises the most complicated questions. First, to whose mercy and whose justice does James refer? Second, does this “triumph” by mercy negate justice? And finally, is mercy then a “work” by which people are saved?

Whose “mercy” triumphs—or literally, “boasts”—over judgment? Some argue that because judgment here is God’s final, eschatological judgment (as we argued above), then surly this mercy is also God’s alone. God is the God of mercy who, in the end, provides a way to escape final judgment.

However, because of the context this seems unlikely. Doug Moo argues: “The ‘mercy’ that James has been referring to in this context is human mercy, not God’s (v. 12). We therefore think it more likely that he is making a point about the way in which the mercy we show toward others shows our desire to obey the law of the kingdom and, indirectly therefore, of a heart made right by the work of God’s grace.”[5] This seems to make best sense of the context because James has consistently referred to human actions throughout chapter two, at least up until verses 12 and 13. Even though judgment in 2:13-14 is the imminent judgment executed by God at the eschaton, the “mercy” is clearly human mercy, not divine.

James seems to be focusing on the connection between human responsibility and God’s response. According to The Venerable Bede, James “says, by acting in this way, you see to it that by loving your neighbor you deserve to be loved by God; by showing mercy to your neighbor you become worthy of mercy in the divine judgment.”[6] On this side of the Reformation the language of deserving and worth should be questioned, yet Bede’s comment helpfully highlights this statement of reciprocity—the “measure-for-measure” of mercy.

To be clear, human mercy in and of itself does not accomplish salvation from God’s judgment. God’s mercy triumphs at the judgment through the cross. But here, in James, this divine mercy is due specifically to God’s response to human mercy—that is, the triumph of God’s character within humanity itself. James’ emphasis is primarily on human mercy as contrasted with divine judgment in 2:13. That is, the human practice of “mercy” succeeds in averting a merciless, final judgment by God and rather invokes God’s mercy over judgment. This, of course, does not make God unjust. Rather, because God is just, when his people live in accordance with his character—“mercy”—then in his justice God responds to his people with mercy, not judgment.

This leads into the interesting observation that here mercy “triumphs” or even better “boasts” over judgment. The only other time κατακαυχάομαι appears in James (3:14), it is an arrogant boast, done in pride and willful insubordination. That meaning does not appear dominant here. Here, it is the quality of mercy—not human pride—that “triumphs over” God’s negative “judgment.” In this “boast” mercy is almost personified as the victor basking in triumph over judgment. Kamell notes, “In a picture worthy of an apocalyptic text, Mercy ‘boasts’ together with the righteous as justice is enacted. As the injustices of the world are put to right in God’s final justice, Mercy sees the vindication of the righteous… This is not a mockery of justice, but instead the fulfillment of justice. Mercy can boast because she witnesses the judgment of the wicked and the protection of the merciful within herself.”

Ultimately, then, human actions of mercy appear necessary to a favorable declaration in justice. Scot McKnight notes here that: “The final judgment for James, as for Jesus (e.g., Matt 12:36; 16:27; 25:31-46) and Paul (1 Cor 3:10-15; 2 Cor 5:1-10), will be established on the basis of both what the messianic community says (James 1:19, 26; 3:1-12; 4:11-16; 5:12) and what it does (1:27; 2:1-26; 4:1-10; 5:1-6).”[7] As 2:14-26 will make quite clear, good intentions do not suffice and a faith that does not act hospitably and charitably fails to save. Clearly the next section, James 2:14-26, continues this theme of mercy.

Mercy must, it appears, be enacted in order to be efficacious. And thus the answer to the third question regarding this proverbial statement appears to be “yes,” mercy is a “work” required for salvation. But that is a misleading way to understand James. It is better perhaps to call the mercy that triumphs an appropriation of the divine concern (2:5, 8), proof of the reality of the “birth” (1:18) and the “implanted word” (1:21), and an accurate understanding of “faith” (2:14). This question of what constitutes “good works” will be explored next, but the thrust of James 2:12-13 has been that the audience must “speak and act” in a manner that will bring them into the mercy of God at the final judgment, and therefore speech and actions (responsibility) are the essential criterion with which James is concerned here.

In the next and final post in this series, we will think through the section of James that is always contrast with Paul—James 2:14-26, but we will attempt to understand James’ discussion of “faith” and “works” in light of what James himself has argued about salvation in chapters 1 and 2.  


[1] Much of this section is indebted to Kamell “Soteriology of James,” 160-170.

[2] Moo, James, 116

[3] Johnson, James, 233.

[4] Wall, Community of the Wise, 128.

[5] Moo, James, 118.

[6] Bede, Commentary, 25.

[7] McKnight, James, 219.