Is God Partial?

The New Testament writers are clear as crystal on this: God is not partial, nor should we be. It seems Peter may have thought that Jehovah was partial toward the Jews, but having been instructed through the illustration of the tarpaulin full of all sorts of animals, he told the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). Peter also tells the Christians to expect fair and even treatment when the Father “without partiality judges according to each one’s work” (1 Pet 1:17).

Partiality is “a bias in favor of one thing or person compared with another.” The word occurs 14 times in the OT, and often refers to impartiality in judicial matters, the idea behind the blindfolded lady as the symbol of American jurisprudence. Lady Justice is supposed to treat everyone equally under the law, an idea that seems to have eroded in recent years.

Paul agrees with Peter regarding God’s offer of mercy to both Jews and Gentiles, as quoted in Romans 2:11: “For there is no partiality with God.” He also warns masters to treat their servants even-handedly, “knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Eph 6:9). And he warns Timothy, and through him all local church elders: “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear. I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality” (1 Tim 5:20-21).

James adds his voice to the matter when he contrasts earthly wisdom (which is sensual and devilish) with “the wisdom that is from above” which he describes as “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (Jas 3:17). May God’s people in these days, sensing the paucity of such other-worldly wisdom, “ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (1:5).

But do we not find James’ words puzzling when he addresses the importance of being impartial in our dealings with fellow believers? He writes in chapter 2:

“My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 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?” (Jas 2:1-4).

So far, so good. The life of faith looks beyond the superficial and sees what God sees in a person. Don’t be short-sighted when you look at people. See beyond the exterior and learn what Samuel had to learn when comparing Saul and David. The Lord explained: “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).

And James’ conclusion agrees:

“But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (Jas 2:6-9).

So if James chapter 2 skipped the middle verse in the section, everything would be crystal clear. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the world’s rich in material things are also rich in what matters most. Fine clothes don’t always cover fine characters. The old Yiddish proverb underlines this folly: “With money in your pocket, you are wise and you are handsome and you sing well, too.”

In order to drive home his point, the writer seems to complicate—almost contradict—the subject by using the example of God Himself. He says, “Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, to be heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (v 5).

Let me get this straight. Don’t be partial towards certain people, especially by preferring rich people, a preference based on their bank accounts or wardrobes. After all, God prefers poor people—poor people, mind you, who are also rich in faith. So it’s all right to be preferential…as long as you prefer the ones God chooses?

Let’s take a deep breath and think carefully through the argument. What if God had chosen for His purposes only the rich—those who had access to possessions, or skills, or influence? Then most of us would have been disqualified, and men would have gloried in the accomplishments of men, rather than in God (see 1 Cor 1:26-31). Note that in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says, “Not many…” He doesn’t say, “Not any…” Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and Erastus, city treasurer of Corinth, are a few examples of rich men who were also “rich in faith.”

It is a substantial assumption to think that the choosing mentioned in James 2 and 1 Corinthians 1 is primarily to salvation. It is not my purpose here to discuss at length the subject of election or choosing, but it should be noted that the word is used to describe the divine choice of: Christ (Isa 42:1; Lk 23:35; 1 Pet 2:6); angels (1 Tim 5:21); Israel (Rom 11:28); the twelve—including Judas (Lk 6:13; Jn 6:70; 13:18; 15:16); the Church (Eph 1:4); and the remnant in the Tribulation (Mt 24:22, 24). In every case, election is for a role, designed to bring blessing to the widest possible number. And here is the key that unlocks the mystery in James 2.

A significant pattern repeated throughout Scripture is seen in the way God bypasses the one born first, who had a right by law, and selects those whose only claim must be the grace of God. Whether Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Reuben and Judah, or David over his brothers, it seems the one born first was never the firstborn. When old Jacob crossed his arms to bless Ephraim and Manasseh, he was following the pattern that God’s grace had taught him.

If the one born first was chosen, or if the rich and eloquent and mighty were selected, they alone would be able to claim the prize. But if “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty” (1 Cor 1:27), all a man has to do is discover how weak and foolish he is to qualify!

Do you see it? The world’s wise would leave the foolish in confusion; the world’s mighty would crush the weak. But what if the world’s foolish shamed the wise into recognizing their own foolishness before God? What if the world’s weak brought the mighty to their knees through weakness? The wise would then become foolish, the mighty would become weak—and they would all qualify for the kind of people God wants to use! What a plan! What a God!

You remember the wealthy young man in Matthew 19. He wanted eternal life and asked Jesus what he should do to get it. The Lord explained that material things can actually get in the way of your acquiring what you need most. Eternal life can only be found in a Person and received as a gift. Would the man be willing to divest himself of these distracting possessions, then, by following the Master, “have treasure in heaven”?

The man made his mistake by a wrong calculation, assessing how much it would cost to follow Christ rather than what he would lose by not following Him. But his mistake went deeper than that. Remember that the qualification for being chosen is two-fold. “Has God not chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith…” It was not only that the man wanted to provide something himself to gain new life; he also valued his point of view over Christ’s. He was not rich in faith.

Is faith something preferentially given out to only certain people, without which “it is impossible to please God”? The apostle Paul says No: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17). The incarnate Word spoke truth to the man; and he disagreed. This was Satan’s work in Eden and it is his work still—to offer a second opinion. Anything in my mind that disagrees with the Master is a stronghold of the devil, and we need to be daily “casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

So is God partial, biased against the rich, powerful and accomplished people of the world? No, He loves the whole world. We are to pray “for all men” (with the rich and famous actually at the top of our prayer list, see v 2) because “God our Savior…desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). By choosing mostly the poor and lowly of the earth, He made the gospel accessible to all, including the rich and famous, if only they will repudiate their own “self-made-man” status, and accept eternal life by grace through faith. Remember that grace means I accept salvation as a gift, provided entirely at God’s expense. Faith means I reject all other opinions, including my own, in favor of trusting God’s word.

Which reminds me. When God wanted a Man to model His plan, the Heir of everything Himself became poor to accomplish His Father’s will. Jesus knew exactly what He was asking when He called on the rich man to divest himself in order to gain eternal wealth. He tells us the same thing. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Lk 9:24). And faith replies, “I agree. He knows what He’s talking about.”