This chapter begins with a warning against “partiality”, or showing favoritism. James presents a scenario in which an obviously poor man and an obviously rich man show up at the same time for a worship service (v.2-3). The rich man is given the best seat, the seat of honor, but the poor man is ushered out of the way. This sin of partiality (literally “accepting face”) means judging a person’s worth by their outward appearance. So why does James make such a big deal of this? Don’t we all do it?
Partiality is a serious matter because it is so unlike Jesus. He didn’t play favorites. Can you think of a single time when Jesus was impressed by someone’s fame or money? Can you imagine Jesus flattering the rich and powerful people so they would like Him? Can you imagine Jesus avoiding a person who is a sinner, afraid it would affect His reputation? Jesus was drawn to the down-and-outers as well as the up-and-outers. No one was too poor or too sinful for Him to accept; He touched them and talked to them. As a sinner saved by the grace of God, I can’t profess faith in Jesus and at the same time be a spiritual snob. Besides, partiality violates “the royal law” (v.8), a.k.a. “the golden rule”: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We are supposed to be showing the love of God to this world. When we look down our noses at someone else, when we don’t reach out because we’re afraid we’ll get our hands dirty — we are not showing love.
All of us have violated that “royal law” and many other of God’s commandments and standards. Some sins are more serious than others, some carry more consequences than others, but a sin is a sin. If you break just one of God’s laws, you are a sinner. It only takes one sin to become “a transgressor of the law” (v.11), a spiritual criminal. There are no degrees to being a sinner — you either are or you are not — and you are! But (Hallelujah!) God has shown us mercy by making a way of salvation through Christ (v.13). James’s point: if I have received mercy from God yet refuse to give it to others, I can expect to receive judgment when I sin. I forfeit mercy. Ouch.
Next James turns to the central theme of his letter: genuine faith is proven by good works (v.14-26). We know that our salvation is not based on how well we perform or how many good deeds we can do, but on the work of Jesus on the cross. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. However, genuine faith always results in a changed life and a proliferation of good works. The effects of true salvation will be evident. As Jesus taught, where there is no good fruit there is no good root (see Matthew 7:15-20). The root of genuine faith inevitably produces the fruit of good works in abundance.
James was not necessarily pushing for more good works, though that would be great. He is pushing for us to evaluate our faith. Is it genuine? Aside from what you claim to believe, where is the proof? If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Faith without works is a corpse (v.26). That’s the point.