James 2:13 says that mercy triumphs over judgment. What does that mean, and how should it impact our interactions with other people?
Both of these concepts can be found throughout the Bible, and they are used in various ways. We may sometimes envision the idea of leniency when we hear the word mercy, and the idea of condemnation when we hear the word judgment.
Using those definitions might lead us to view mercy and judgment as competing concepts that are unable to coexist—either you receive mercy, or you receive judgment.
The full verse in James 2:13 states, “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (emphasis added throughout).
How exactly does mercy triumph over judgment? Is James indicating that judgment no longer has any relevance once mercy enters the picture?
Consider the context of “mercy triumphs over judgment”
To gain a better understanding of the phrase in question, it can be helpful to examine the preceding verses. The end of James chapter 1 states that a key aspect of “pure and undefiled religion before God” is “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble” (verse 27). The general principle involved is to show compassion to those who are in need—in essence, we are to show them mercy, as is also brought out in Proverbs 14:31.
While we may typically think of the concept of mercy in relation to forgiveness of someone who commits wrongdoing, it can also encompass kindness toward those who may be in difficult situations through no fault of their own.
This section of James primarily focuses on the fact that we should show mercy to those in need. But the same general conclusions apply with respect to showing mercy to someone who has sinned—as will be addressed later in this article.
Either way, an important takeaway highlighted by James 1:27 is that mercy must be part of our way of life. God wants us to be kind and compassionate to those around us.
Additional discussion about various aspects of godly mercy can be found in the articles “What Is the Difference Between Mercy and Grace?” and “Blessed Are the Merciful.”
An example of judgment without mercy
The second chapter of James then presents a specific scenario that reinforces this foundational principle of being merciful. A warning against showing partiality is given in verse 1, followed by an example of how that might occur.
James 2:2-4 states, “For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or, ‘Sit here at my footstool,’ have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”
In the situation described by James, a rich man and a poor man were treated differently because of their financial status. The scenario in these verses was in conflict with the “pure and undefiled religion” of James 1:27.
The importance of mercy—displaying kindness and compassion to those in need—should have resulted in Church members seeking to help the poor man as appropriate. Instead, showing partiality in judgment “dishonored the poor man” (James 2:6).
Mercy and God’s law
The Christians to whom James was writing may not have given much thought to the practice of showing favoritism to the wealthy, as it would have been a common occurrence in their society. However, James reminded them that God’s “royal law” gives the instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 8). He went on to state that being partial violates that law, and thus is a sin (verse 9).
Why was partiality contrary to God’s law of loving one’s neighbor? In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus Christ emphasized that the foundation of God’s law is love. He then told the story of a Samaritan who had compassion on a man who had been attacked, robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. As verse 37 highlights, the Samaritan demonstrated love to his “neighbor”—someone he didn’t even know—by showing mercy to him.
God wants us to exhibit that same type of mercy and love in our own lives; He wants us to willingly show compassion toward all of the people with whom we interact—regardless of who they are. The discrimination against the poor man in the scenario that James wrote about reflected a failure to display mercy and to obey that law of love—and was thus a sin.
God’s standard of judgment
Romans 6:23 tells us that if we commit any sin, we have earned the penalty of eternal death. No matter how diligently we may obey various aspects of God’s law, falling short in a single area means that we are guilty of sin (James 2:10-11) and thus deserve the death penalty.
Since failing to show mercy is a very serious matter, James continued his message by instructing his audience to make sure that their words and actions were in alignment with “the law of liberty”—the standard by which God judges us (verse 12).
Contrary to what some may believe, James’ use of the word liberty does not mean that Christians have been given freedom to break God’s law. Rather, the Bible makes it clear that obedience to God’s law is a vital aspect of achieving true liberty—which is freedom from captivity to sin. (For a more detailed discussion of this topic, please see “Galatians 5: What Does ‘Yoke of Bondage’ Mean?” and related articles.)
God uses His law as the basis for judgment when He begins calling an individual. This form of judgment is a process that continues throughout the remainder of a Christian’s lifetime. It’s not the condemnation that we may typically envision.
A condition for receiving mercy
If the only factor used to decide our final judgment was our obedience to God’s law, then none of us would have any hope, for we all have sinned (Romans 3:23). But God does not want any of us to die! His desire is for each one of us to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4). He wants to show us mercy!
But He also wants us to recognize the destructive nature of sin and reject it. He wants us to realize that His way is best and that we should take steps to become like Him.
Peter highlights an important condition for receiving mercy from God. He states that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The key to being forgiven by God and spared the death penalty is repentance.
True repentance involves a change in the way we think and live—a change in who we are. If we sin by failing to show mercy to others, then God expects us to change from that wrong way of thinking and acting, and to move toward becoming merciful the way He is.
The merciful shall obtain mercy
Multiple biblical passages reinforce the point that exhibiting mercy to others in all aspects—kindness, compassion, forgiveness—is required if we hope to ultimately receive mercy from God.
- Matthew 5:7 states, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
- In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), the sheep were rewarded for their compassionate service to other people—which occurred with no consideration of who those people were—while the goats were condemned for their lack of compassion.
- In the model prayer that Jesus Christ gave to His disciples as an outline, we are shown that our ability to obtain forgiveness for our sins is dependent on whether we forgive others for wrongdoings they have committed against us (Matthew 6:12).
- The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) vividly illustrates the fact that since God is willing to forgive us a debt that we could never repay (the penalty of death that we have earned because of our sins), we should be willing to have compassion on others as well.
As God works with us, He is going through the process of evaluating how well we are internalizing His trait of mercy (and all aspects of His character). His fervent desire is that, at the conclusion of this judgment process, He will ultimately show us mercy when our final sentence is rendered!
But from the perspective of our ultimate outcome—our final sentence—either we will be granted mercy and the gift of salvation, or we will receive the condemnation of death that we have earned. Those two final outcomes cannot exist simultaneously.
Mercy’s precedence over judgment
Returning to James chapter 2, we see the essence of the matter summarized in verse 13. The verse begins: “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy.”
In the context of the scenario presented in the preceding verses, if Church members display partiality toward the rich and show no compassion to the poor in their midst, they will earn the sentence of eternal death because of their sin. If they persist in that sin and refuse to repent of their lack of mercy, they cannot expect to be shown any mercy by God.
Verse 13 then concludes on a far more uplifting note: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” This statement reflects the fact that, in spite of the condemnation of eternal death that our sins have earned, God eagerly desires to grant us forgiveness. If we repent and strive to become like Him, He will mercifully refrain from giving us the sentence that we deserve at the conclusion of our judgment process. He will accept Christ’s death in our stead.
When it comes to God’s incredible capacity to show us compassion and to offer us forgiveness, it is certainly true that His mercy “triumphs” over the ultimate judgment we deserve!For the members to whom James was writing, if they displayed mercy and compassion toward other people in their lives—and if they repented of any ways in which they fell short of showing mercy—then they could take comfort in God’s willingness to be merciful and to spare them from the death penalty.
That same mercy from God is available to us today.
Showing mercy is a higher priority to God than executing the judgment we deserve for every wrong thing that we do. In that sense, mercy is victorious over judgment.
But His mercy does not eliminate the possibility of our receiving that condemnation if we refuse to live according to God’s standards! The fact that God is merciful means that He provides us with ample opportunity to repent. It does not mean that He will grant us unconditional leniency regardless of anything that we do.
Becoming more like God
Since God wants us to take on His nature, our goal should be to emulate Him. We are to prioritize showing mercy to those around us rather than giving judgment in the form of condemnation—even when we are the ones who have been wronged by other people.
This does not mean that we are to overlook sin. Being merciful like God involves our wanting to provide others with the opportunity to demonstrate repentance; it does not involve our condoning evil or abstaining from judgment altogether.
For example, Christ instructed His disciples to “judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Similarly, the apostle Paul corrected the Corinthians for being tolerant of sin in their midst. He showed that there are situations in which godly judgment requires us to separate ourselves from those who are practicing evil (1 Corinthians 5:1-13).
It can be challenging at times to determine how we can show mercy the way God expects us to while also properly exercising godly judgment. There is no single approach that applies to every situation; the article “7 Keys for Developing Spiritual Discernment” can be helpful in our lifelong efforts to improve in this area. But a key principle we should take to heart is that just as God eagerly desires to show us mercy, we also should eagerly desire to model the same behavior in our interactions with others. We should love mercy.
A message of hope
Although James 2:13 warns us to examine how we relate to other people, it also provides us with great encouragement. Despite the fact that each one of us has earned the sentence of eternal death because of our sins, God’s mercy is so great that He is ready to forgive us when we repent.
When it comes to God’s incredible capacity to show us compassion and to offer us forgiveness, it is certainly true that His mercy “triumphs” over the ultimate judgment we deserve! Our responsibility is to make sure that we also prioritize mercy in the way we deal with other people.