by Jonny Atkinson
Most of us know the story of Les Miserables in which Jean Valjean spends an excessive amount of time in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release he seeks shelter in the home of a bishop. He then “repays” this bishop’s kindness by stealing his expensive silverware. After sneaking away, he is caught and brought back to the bishop’s home by the police to be questioned. At this point the bishop tells the police that he actually gave the silverware to Jean Valjean. The bishop’s lie mercifully spares Jean Valjean from going back to prison, and as a result of receiving mercy, Jean Valjean reforms his life doing merciful good deeds to others.
This story expresses the idea that being a recipient of mercy has power to transform someone into one who shows mercy. In this instance, it was not spending time in prison or being caught by the police that transformed Valjean’s life, but being shown mercy by the bishop. In the same way, Christians are people who have been transformed by the mercy of God and commissioned to share his transforming mercy with the world.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying judgement, justice, and the fear of punishment do not also have power to transform. They do (Romans 13:5). But James tells us that mercy triumphs over judgement (James 2:13). Mercy is not anti-judgement, or against the idea of justice. Mercy is mercy because it acknowledges that judgement is deserved, but then spares that very judgement. Or as Alec Motyer puts it: “in the plan of salvation…respect is done to justice, but mercy triumphs. Justice demands…mercy pleads…and mercy prevails.”1
To act and speak only of judgement is to share an incomplete gospel, if you could even call that good news.
The gospel however is good news about mercy that has beat judgment, so to speak. The word in James 2:13 literally means “to boast” and so the translation of triumph comes from the idea of boasting over something in victory. Triumphant mercy boasts over judgement, like a winning sports team.
This proverbial saying in James—mercy triumphs over judgement—comes right after the passage about showing partiality to the poor (James 2:1-11) and right before the passage about faith needing to be accompanied by works (James 2:14-26). So in context, James has in mind that those who have received mercy ought to show mercy to the poor, not in word only but also in deed. He reminds his readers that their merciful acts are evidence of their faith and evidence that, in their own lives, mercy has triumphed over judgement for them (James 2:12).
James is just one place in the whole Bible that teaches this. Many verses throughout Scripture teach that, in God’s own attributes, his mercy prevails over his judgement (Hos 11:8-9). And the overarching story of the Bible then shows that his mercy prevails over judgement for many (John 3:17). This call to speak and act out a merciful gospel is thus a call to imitate God, in showing mercy that is greater than the judgement we deserve.
Gospel = Not Fair News
Do you remind yourself of this gospel of mercy that has been victorious over the judgement you deserve? Do you remember that you have received mercy, or do you crush yourself under judgement?
And remembering this merciful gospel, do you live it out in word and deed before others? The good news that this holy and just God is also merciful and compassionate and, because of Jesus Christ, he does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10). Do you share the good news that comforts those who mourn, binds up the brokenhearted, bestows a crown of beauty instead of ashes, and a garment of praise instead of despair (Isa 61:1-3).
Think of this: Though certainly not the only cause, and possibly not even the most common cause, but sometimes people are poor because of their own sin (Prov 10:4). Let’s imagine you meet such a person. Judgement would say “you deserve to be poor,” but mercy triumphs over judgement. Christians, as recipients of mercy, as those who have not been treated as their sins deserve, ought to treat others with the same kind of mercy. And mercy is shown, not in word only, but also in deeds. In other words, whether or not that person is poor because of unfortunate circumstances or their own poor choices is irrelevant to showing mercy that would feed and clothe them.
When you share the gospel, do you seek to mercifully bind the brokenhearted, or to further crush them because it’s their fault their heart is broken? Do you seek to mercifully comfort those mourning, or to add to their mourning because they should be crying for what they’ve done? Do you hold out for others a merciful garment of praise, or want to keep them in despair because they don’t deserve to be happy?
When you look at your arrogant workmate, your foul-mouthed neighbor, your selfish family member, your annoying sibling, your drunk uncle, your licentious boss, your stubborn spouse, your self-righteous grandmother, or your lazy child—all lost in their unbelief—are you more inclined to judge or show mercy? Picture them right now; can you imagine yourself putting a crown of beauty on their head?
— But they don’t deserve it!
That’s right. You’re starting to get it.
A Conditional “Unconditional” Gospel?
One of the most ridiculous, wicked, and forgetful reasons many of us speak and act out “judgement that triumphs over mercy” is because we don’t want to be viewed as having “gone soft” in our evangelism. What?! We have some strange notion that we cannot offer mercy to someone until they meet some condition, like feeling bad enough for their sin. We want them to earn mercy. We keep judgement-beating mercy a secret until we think they’ve been judged enough. But is this how you received mercy? Are you really willing to say that you felt “the right amount” of condemnation before a holy God, and that’s why he showed you mercy? How would you even measure that amount?
You do not deserve to be a child of God. You yourself have sinned in immense ways. There was nothing desirable in you—nothing—when God sent His Spirit and called you from death to life. And in that moment when you began to grasp for the first time what you really deserved you also realized that you wouldn’t be getting it because God had shown you mercy, He had forgiven all your sin.
Mercy begets Mercy
We are often prone to judge and condemn rather than bind and deliver. We want to heap more ashes on the heads of the wicked and often can’t imagine offering them a crown. But when we act this way—in religious snobbery that looks down on others and acts like our good merit caused us to receive God’s mercy—we have forgotten what true mercy is. We are like the servant who was shown mercy by the king and had his immense debt paid, but then would not forgive the minor debt of his own servant (Matt 18:21-35). But what did the king say? “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt 18:33). Those who have received mercy ought to be the most merciful.
This is a scary place to be, for James also reminds us that the one who does not show mercy, will be judged by God without mercy (James 2:13). Or, as Moo says, James reverses the beatitude from “Blessed are the merciful” to “Cursed are the unmerciful, for they will be judged without mercy.”2
What if, instead of thinking we’ve gone soft, we shared the full and merciful gospel in word and deed to an undeserving world with tears of joy in our eyes, emphasizing, rejoicing over, and celebrating what’s really good about it: God had mercy on me and He can have mercy on you too! God didn’t give me what I deserve so I am not going to give you what you deserve. In so doing we will show the heart of God who sent His Son to earth not to condemn but to save (John 3:17).
1 Alec Motyer, The Message of James, 1985.
2Douglas Moo, The Letter of James, 2000.