James 2:13 says, “Because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” When looking for the meaning from any passage, it is always important to look at the context. This chapter, and indeed the whole book of James, is a letter from the apostle James to the Church about practical Christian living. Not only does it deal with how to respond to God, but also how to maintain a Christlike relationship with others.
The first half of chapter 2—which includes verse 13—addresses the favoritism some believers were showing toward the rich at the expense of the poor (verses 1–9). James then goes on to speak about the Law and how breaking even one of God’s commands makes one guilty of breaking all of them—one infraction is all it takes to make one a lawbreaker (verses 10–11). While some in the church may have seen favoritism as a “lesser” sin, James informed them that any sin, no matter how small it seems, constitutes breaking the entirety of God’s Law for His people.
James 2:12–13 fit right into the flow of the previous verses. Verse 12 says, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom.” James reminds the believers that they are no longer held under the old Law; instead, they are under a new law of freedom that was established through Jesus’ death and resurrection—born-again believers are under the New Covenant. This liberty, which comes through the gospel of Christ, gives us freedom from the power of sin. Live your life in such a way, says James, that proves that you expect to answer to God some day for your actions. No believer will be able to excuse his sin by saying, “I couldn’t help it,” because the cross of Christ did away with that bondage. We are under the law of liberty now.
In James 2:13, the thought is continued: “Because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” We dare not violate the law of liberty in our hearts by withholding mercy from others. If we who have been shown such great mercy act unmercifully toward our neighbors, then we will be dealt with in similar fashion. Jesus made the same point in the parable of the unforgiving steward (Matthew 18:23–35). And the principle goes back to Solomon’s time: “Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13). James’ mention of “mercy” here corresponds to his mention of “love” in verse 8: the “royal law” is to love your neighbor as yourself.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). James gives the converse of that statement in James 2:13, saying, in essence, “Cursed are the unmerciful, for they will be shown no mercy.” A Christian is not under God’s curse. One of the qualities of the Christian is that he shows mercy and compassion toward others.
This brings us to the final statement of James 2:13, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” The idea is that mercy “glories” or “boasts” against judgment, knowing that, where mercy and judgment seem to conflict, mercy wins. The good news for every child of God in Christ is that God’s mercy toward us will triumph over His judgment of us (see Romans 8:1). Our sins may argue against us, but Christ is our loving Advocate who argues for us and prevents us from receiving the judgment we deserve. We, in turn, display God’s type of mercy toward others.
In essence, James 2:13 tells us that, since God will judge us with mercy, we should judge others with mercy. Being merciful is an act that shows our thankfulness for all God has done, and it is made possible through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling.