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James 3:13-18


We have pointed out from the beginning of this series of sermons on James that it is a book of wisdom. And we have taken pains to define that term in a way that is faithful to its particular and unique use in the Bible. In the few verses we are to read this evening, James does this for us himself. He gives us, as it were, his own definition of the term both positively and negatively, illustrating true wisdom and, at the same time, distinguishing the biblical understanding of wisdom from its worldly counterfeit. In effect, James does what Proverbs does. He doesn’t give us what we nowadays think of as a definition – there are very few such definitions in the Bible, one of the reasons why we need theologians; they distill the biblical material into definitions – but he gives us examples of the thing. And as in Proverbs, we are also given examples of foolishness. So we learn what wisdom is, and what it is not.

Text Comment

v.13     The Greek word translated “understanding” is a word that suggests something like our modern word expertise, that is, professional knowledge. This sort of knowledge is very often precisely what true wisdom is not. There are a lot of so-called experts in our culture nowadays chatting away all the time, pontificating all the time, so-called experts who utterly lack what the Bible means by wisdom. I remember Paul Johnson’s remark about Bertrand Russell, the 20th century British philosopher, mathematician, and social and political gadfly, to the effect that no one could doubt that Russell had a powerful brain, but no one in his right mind would go to him for advice about anything important! Our world is full of so-called experts who lack true wisdom. Russell himself gave advice to everyone all the time: prime-ministers, presidents, premiers, and the general public. He had immense confidence in his intellectual superiority and felt it only his duty to advise everyone else about how to live. There was little of the meekness of wisdom to be found in Bertrand Russell! He was, by everyone’s account, an exceptionally vain man. [Cf. Johnson, Intellectuals, 197-224]

The proof of wisdom is in the pudding. Does it translate into a good life for that person himself? Ask Russell’s many wives and mistresses and his three children if his expertise did that! He was a philanderer of the first order and, by everyone’s account, unusually preoccupied with himself. James said in 2:18 that we are to show our faith by our works. Well, in a similar way, we are to show our wisdom by our works. Real wisdom demonstrates itself in the push and pull of life. [Moo, 169]

In the Bible nothing counts as knowledge until it is put into action and results in real goodness of life. Nothing is really known “until it also reshapes the life.” [Motyer, 130]   The Bible doesn’t say that Adam knew Eve through any prudishness about sex. It is not polite reticence that explains that way of speaking. It is rather the Bible’s deep understanding of knowledge or wisdom. A marriage is a profound illustration of real knowledge because it is knowledge that results in a deep and intimate relationship between persons.

But take James’ main point as we begin. The purpose of wisdom is not to tell others how to live their lives. It is living a truly good life oneself. And nothing is more fundamental to that life than meekness or humility, which is why James begins there. Real wisdom will always make a person humble. “Meekness” has been well defined as “self-subduing gentleness, both Godward and manward.” [Motyer, 131] A person might be humble before God, but to be meek in the sense, requires relationships with other people. As one commentator put it, “Alone, Robinson Crusoe might have had to shun pride; once Man Friday came along the scene was set for the practice of meekness.” [Motyer, 131-132]

v.14     Bertrand Russell, for example, I don’t know why I am picking on Russell this evening, but he had a nose for what he judged to be dishonesty and injustice, but when aroused, as he often was by some social or political issue, his “respect for accuracy collapsed.” [203] Being faithful to the truth was not one of his strong suits. When called on to account for views he had since changed, he often simply lied about ever holding such views. When his previous published statements were quoted to him, he would change his tack and lie again. And his remarks about this or that person or issue were often simply “over-the-top,” utterly one-sided, often patronizing and cruel. Read enough about Russell and you can’t help asking yourself how someone so smart could so regularly have been so stupid. The story of our world!

People who are wise in the worldly sense are typically characterized by ambition and by a corresponding indifference to peace and unity, traits that are the very opposite of humility and meekness. Such people divide because they wish to lead and in order to lead they need people to defer to them; they need a party, their party. And so the first casualty of pride and contention is the truth. Real honesty is the trait of the humble and so rarely serves those wishing to be great among men. This is, as we all know, the bane of our politics, but it is equally the bane of so much of our social life.

v.15     Compare James’ description of false wisdom as “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic,” to the traditional triad of enemies of the Christian soul: ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil.”

v.16     James’ justifies the harsh verdict he has just pronounced on false wisdom by describing its sinister effects in human life. And, of course, we have the demonstration of this everywhere we look every day. We are a clever generation, our scientific and technological advances are breathtaking, but we are at the same time living in a world as fully disordered and as full of division and hatred and as really threatened by all manner of catastrophe and of every kind of evil as the world has always been. Being smart has never fixed any of mankind’s spiritual and moral problems and isn’t fixing them today.

In any case, don’t miss the point: jealousy and selfish ambition are the opposite of meekness and so can have nothing to do with real wisdom. Alas the history of the church would read very differently if God’s people had really appreciated how contrary to true wisdom division and discord, jealousy and ambition actually are.

v.17     By “purity” we tend to think of chastity or sexual fidelity. But the idea of the word James uses here is broader than that. It means “moral innocence” or “moral blamelessness.” Some commentators think that it comes first because it is intended to serve as a title for what follows; that is, apparently the terms that follow are all dimensions of this innocence or this purity of life. [Moo, 175]

James does not…tell us anything that we must actually do. [Though, he certainly has done that elsewhere in his letter.] He offers us an ethic not of verbs (do this), nor of nouns (naming this or that item of good conduct), but of adverbs (about the sort of people we are to be whatever we do).” [Motyer, 131]

James certainly practiced what he preached. The James we encounter in Acts 15, in the dispute over whether Gentiles must be circumcised, and again in Acts 21 in his advice to Paul upon his return to Jerusalem, was ever the peace-maker, gentle, reasonable, and impartial.

“Open to reason” doesn’t mean “easily persuaded,” as if the person were easily duped, but always ready to be persuaded, that is, open to the truth and averse to a party-spirit that closes the mind to opposite points of view. He or she is the sort of person who remembers that you don’t have the whole story until you’ve listened to both sides and who knows how readily people tend to put the worst construction on someone else’s viewpoint, rather than the best.

Don’t try to do too much with a list of virtues such as we find here, as if James wanted to mention just these thinking that just these and these alone define the grace of Biblical wisdom. We don’t need to assume that James was indifferent to matters he didn’t mention here as the ingredients of true wisdom, as if there were no other virtues than  these seven. He was making a general point and seven items was sufficient to make it.

v.18     There are questions about precisely how to read v. 18, but the general gist is clear. True wisdom leads to a genuinely righteous life. A person who is peaceable and gentle, for example, will be righteous in other ways and will encourage righteousness in others. And so a person full of mercy, a person open to reason, a person impartial, and sincere.

What is a good life? If you observe American culture, listen to its media, and watch its people – take note of their enthusiasms, their interests, and their commitments, how they spend their time and money, and what they seem most to want – you would conclude that a good life is a comfortable existence, successful, full of fun and pleasure, and largely unperturbed by difficulty. American advertising has succeeded in convincing many Americans, most Americans I think to a very great degree (including far too many Christians), that a good life is a life marked by the possession of the right sort of things, the right sort of clothes, the right sort of cars, the right sort houses, or vacations, the right sort of figure, or whatever. American media, in general, echoes the same theme and, frankly, so does American politics, sports, and entertainment, all of which the American public consumes in vast quantities.

Of course, we wouldn’t say out loud that the good life is the life that money can buy. We would pay our respects to the time-honored adages that money can’t buy happiness and that the only good life is a life lived for others. But the fact is you’d never think that observing American culture. The fact is, and it is obvious to anyone with a pair of eyes, Americans will make virtually any sacrifice – including the welfare of others, even of their own children – to obtain the comfort and pleasure and success and sense of well-being they have been taught is the definition of a good life. And when the only life anyone seems to care about is the life of this world, temporary as it is, there is still less reason to make sacrifices to obtain what one cannot taste or smell or touch or see. I remember my son-in-law telling me of some professors in the school where he earned his PhD, a married couple with a child, both college professors, who were irritated because the government wasn’t doing enough to make it easier for them to get on with their careers while still raising a child. They were put out that parenthood was interfering with their careers! Why is abortion the law of the land? Because our understanding of the good life requires that we not be encumbered with the consequences of some of the choices that we make.

It is absolutely true that God has promised his people “life-prosperity.” He has taught us many times in many ways that those who are faithful to him, who make sacrifices for the kingdom and seek first the Lord’s righteousness, will be rewarded for that commitment to the Lord in many different ways. What the Lord has not promised his people is “lifestyle-prosperity,” what many confused Christians nowadays seem to think is precisely what he promised them.

The question with which James begins v. 13 suggests that even Christians can have a problem identifying the good life, identifying real wisdom, identifying what constitutes those instruments by which the good life is attained. We too are tempted to think such things are one thing when in fact they are something else altogether and so we are tempted to want one kind of wisdom when what we actually need is another of a very different kind.

There are two words for good in the Greek of the New Testament. One, agathos, refers to the nature of something. That thing is good as opposed to bad. In that sense, for example, it is used in the Lord’s famous statement that only God is good. The other word, also translated into English as “good” is the word kalos, which refers to the beauty of goodness, its attractiveness, wholesomeness, usefulness, fruitfulness, and helpfulness. It is this second word, kalos, that James uses here. [Motyer, 128]

So we can put the same question in this way: what is a beautiful life? We hear nowadays all the time about the beautiful people, and sure-as-shootin the phrase isn’t meant to describe people who are beautiful inside, beautiful in their character and in their behavior. “Beautiful” as it is used in our culture refers to the handsome, the rich, the successful people, the people everyone else envies (at least until their lives fall apart in some way).

The Greco-Roman idea of wisdom was intellectual ability and the knowledge of divine secrets. In neither case was a person’s wisdom judged by whether he or she lived a moral life. Indeed, a wise man in the Greco-Roman conception might very well live a highly immoral life. [Moo, 170] What is more, “meekness” in that same culture was a pejorative term, a vice not a virtue. It was  associated it with groveling and weakness of resolve, of a lack of confidence; the false humility of a Uriah Heep, who, you remember from Dickens’ David Copperfield, was always running himself down before others; the spirit of a nobody and of a useless human being. Meekness in that day was linked with adjectives such as ignoble, abject, and servile. In fact, Epictetus, a Greek stoic philosopher and moralist, a close contemporary of James, who lived in the first and second centuries of the Christian era, put meekness first in his list of moral faults! Well, meekness is not much admired in 21st century American life either. [Motyer, 131] What well-known public figure in our culture today can you think of who is known for his meekness, his gentleness, his peaceableness, and his great capacity for mercy?

The purpose of wisdom according to the Word of God is, in Derek Kidner’s delightfully artless words, “to make the good people nice.” Wisdom operates in the realm of daily personal life, but in matters smaller than the Ten Commandments. Wisdom concerns itself with what a person is like to live with or to employ; how a person manages his or her affairs, time, money, emotions, and so on. Does a person talk too much, work too little, like money more than he or she should, jump to conclusions too easily, have too quick a temper, like to argue, make foolish decisions about this or that, and so on. In the Bible, all such questions are answered in terms of whether or not a person is “wise”. [Kidner, Proverbs TOTC, 13] Anyone can see such issues have an immense influence on the goodness, the fruitfulness, and the happiness of a person’s life and of the lives of people who live with or near that person. Think of a person without the qualities James mentions in v. 17 and it is hard to imagine him producing a “harvest of righteousness;” it’s hard to imagine him even being liked by very many people, much less having a positive influence on the lives of others.

Now it will not have escaped your notice that not much is said in these verses about God or about Christ or about the Holy Spirit, or about the forgiveness of sins or the love of God. That is also true about the book of Proverbs, of which we have said it is the book of the Old Testament most like James in the New Testament. There is nothing in Proverbs about the exodus, or the Passover or the saving grace of God. But remember, just as in Proverbs we read at the outset that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and just as it is the Lord’s covenant name Yahweh that is used throughout Proverbs, so James has said enough already to remind us that what he is describing is a Christian life. He is assuming many things while talking about what we have called some of the finer points of a Christian character and of a Christian way of life, But James certainly expects his readers to understand that only the Christian can be wise and understanding in the true sense of those words because only the Christian knows God and has, by the grace of God, the capacity to live a truly beautiful life.

But James is here like Proverbs in another way. In Proverbs there is no mention of the Law of God, the Ten Commandments, or the major obligations of Christian obedience. And here in these verses about wisdom James does not talk about adultery or theft or idolatry or disrespect for one’s parents. The ingredients of wisdom are finer than that. You won’t find among the Ten Commandments, or even in the myriad laws that expound and apply those commandments, a command to be gentle or to be open to reason or to be careful not to jump to conclusions or to be slow to speak. Surely there is no opposition between the Law of God and true wisdom, but they address different aspects of our lives, different measures or levels or dimensions of our goodness or righteousness or of our responsibility to glorify God with our lives.

Let me give you some examples that, I hope, will help you see what James is getting at, what true wisdom actually is, and why it makes such a difference. It will make the whole matter clearer if we realize that some immensely important failures of our cultural life and of our church life are actually failures of wisdom, not so much or so clearly failures of law.

  • Take as a first example the unwed mother and the child born out of wedlock.

When I was in high-school we never saw a pregnant high school girl and, in those days before Roe v. Wade, she was much more likely to be and remain pregnant if she conceived a child with her boyfriend. It didn’t happen very often in those days, out-of-wedlock births were genuinely uncommon – I don’t remember such a pregnancy ever happening to someone I knew – and I attended a very large public high school in suburban St. Louis – but when it did, the girl stopped coming to school until the child was born. There were features of our practice in those days that were very, very different from what you young people now consider commonplace today. However, some of what was commonly done in those days was deplorable.

Even as late as my teenage years children born out of wedlock were regularly referred to as bastards. No Christian can think that terminology acceptable or that it would be somehow proper  to blame or demean the child for the sins of his parents or to load him down with a burden that would be difficult to bear for the rest of his life.

Girls who got pregnant were called sluts, whether or not this was the only time she had had sex, whether or not she had been pressured into it, whether or not her family culture had prepared her for this dimension of life, and so on. There was never, as there is not today, a corresponding term for the fellow, selfish, stupid, and irresponsible, who had impregnated the girl. The double-standard was firmly in place.

The pregnant girl got condemnation from her community but not much else. It was better in the church, to be sure, but sometimes, alas, not much better. Our practice was by no means gentle and full of mercy.

But now, in part because we have turned our backs on moral condemnation as a culture and on shame as the proper response to sin, especially in matters of sexual freedom, we have an epidemic of children born out of wedlock. Now some forty per cent, almost half, of all children born in the United States and over 70 per cent of African American children are born to unmarried parents. We may have grown used to these numbers, but they are both utterly unprecedented in the history of the world and a recipe for social catastrophe. There is nothing good about this development. It is calamitous for children. Virtually everyone knows – including many people in the elite culture who have no intention of doing anything about the problem – I say, everyone knows that to be born without a father and mother together in the home makes much more probable a cascade of sinister results in a person’s life, results that upon the child reaching adulthood have immense and uniformly adverse social consequences as well, that is to say consequences for all of us. The lack of condemnation and the refusal to assign moral responsibility for out-of-wedlock births has, predictably, profoundly altered the ethics of conceiving children in our culture, and not for the better; indeed, horribly for the worse.

So the challenge should be obvious: how do we as a people both forgive and encourage the young mother, demand responsibility of the young father, and welcome the baby with the same love and provision with which we would welcome any other child, and at the same time maintain a vigorous, public, and unmistakable opposition to the conceiving of children out of wedlock. The law of God – and for that matter the welfare of human beings requires chastity and forbids promiscuity. But what are we to do with the promiscuous, especially the promiscuous who have conceived children? That is not a law question; that is a wisdom question. A variety of obligations have to be met at the same time and have to be met furiously at the same time.

And surely the answer is that we must be several things at the same time: we must be both pure and morally innocent and gentle and full of mercy. We must set an example of bearing good fruit – there should be for all our children growing up here an unquestioned and unquestionable expectation that sex and children are for marriage alone, generally the position of our culture until very, very recently, an expectation founded on what our children see everywhere around them as they are growing up. At one and the same time we must be honest and candid with our children about the consequences of sin for themselves and for others and there must be no question that we love them and will love them through thick and thin. We need large measures of truth and gentleness; of purity and mercy. Faithful Christians through the ages have proved what a difference it makes when wisdom is holding the reins in the life of the church and its people.

  • Or, consider another case, that of controversy.

A lot of harm has been done over these past several years in conservative American Presbyterian churches because of the way in which we have disagreed with one another. Not because we have disagreed with one another, but by the way in which we have disagreed. What is, for some men, an interesting but not terribly important difference of opinion about the right way to define the details of a particular doctrine or about the interpretation of some biblical text is for other men a fatal heresy. Remember, I’m talking about men who share a commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible, to the theology of both the early Christian creeds and the Reformation. That is, men on both sides sincerely identify themselves as Reformed evangelicals and have ex anima, or from the heart, sworn allegiance to the Westminster Confession of Faith. We are talking about differences of opinion between these men.

There were angry glances and angry words but precious little peaceableness, or meekness, or gentleness, or being open to reason. Proof of that is that hardly anyone ever changed his opinion as the result of a man clarifying his views or explaining that he had been misunderstood. A man whose views were in question might even admit that some of his words were open to misunderstanding and withdraw them; he might explain in greater detail what he meant by what he said and particularly what he did not mean; but he might as well have kept silent for any good that it did. Again, this is not an issue of law; it is an issue of wisdom.

How do we handle our disagreements with one another in the church? After all, there have always been, there will always be disagreements and the Bible bears its own witness to how much damage to the church’s unity and witness can be done if our disagreements are not managed in a wise and gentle and loving way. Do you realize until 1529 there was the real promise that the Reformation would produce one grand Protestant church? It’s a terrible story to read about how it was fractured into one hundred different pieces by one disagreement after another. The Great Awakening in the 18th century similarly broke apart through quarreling. It was precisely the importance of the church’s unity for its ministry to the world that prompted the Lord Jesus to pray his so-called “high-priestly prayer,” the prayer we have in John 17. How do we measure what is truly a threat to the gospel and what is one of those differences of opinion of which there have always been a number even among men who believe the same things about almost everything else the Bible teaches? Well meekness is a start, a watching our hearts lest there be in them some jealousy or selfish ambition motivating us. Then a concern to be open to reason, to be gentle with others, and to be peaceable would probably do the trick in most cases, don’t you think?

Obviously there were such disputes among the Christians to whom James was writing, as will be made even clearer in the next chapter. James doesn’t seem to think that they were usually the result of faithful men standing up for truth or righteousness, though some disputes undoubtedly are of that sort. Rather he saw them as the fruit of selfish passions, especially their covetousness, as he will say in the opening verses of chapter 4. So much harm has been done to the church, to the people of God, more sadly to the influence of the gospel because of our tendency to quarrel in the church. Wisdom is the antidote, James says, and the only antidote: that skillful navigation of differences that both discerns the difference between harmless or less important differences of opinion on the one hand and killing errors on the other; and wisdom that can then, with gentleness and peaceableness, preserve Christian love and harmony even when brothers don’t see eye to eye.

  • Or consider one further illustration of the importance of wisdom to an authentic and fruitful Christian life. In this case: sexual temptation.

I’m going to be speaking about this the next three Lord’s Day evenings in introducing our new Genesis 39 ministry, but for now, let me simply say that much of what we will be talking about in the months and years to come concerns this wisdom James is talking about here. He doesn’t focus on that wisdom that applies directly to the sexual life, but he might have just as well. Surely certain things are perfectly clear in this dimension of life. Sexual promiscuity is sinful. God’s law condemns it. The Lord, in his Sermon on the Mount, which is an exposition of God’s law, made clearer still that one could not even indulge promiscuity as a mental exercise and remain free of sexual sin.

But other things are also clear. We have been created with very powerful sexual urges. They require a great deal of control. No formula or technique so far invented or recommended by Christian moralists through the ages has proved sufficient to solve the problem of lust and sinful sexual desire. Certain expedients that were once at least helpful seem no longer to be possible: single-sex high school and college education, for example.

In the autobiography of John Wenham I read recently, he recalled that in his college days all the students at his Cambridge College were men. There were two colleges in the University that women attended, but they were colleges for women only. At the Inter-Varsity meetings the women who belonged to the Christian Union at Cambridge would bring their women friends as the men would, but the women would sit in pews reserved for them. This was the 1930s. He says that there was virtually no mixing of men and women in University life. He writes:

“Incredible though it may sound today, this was to us one way of ‘seeking first the kingdom of God’. And God wonderfully added the blessing of happy marriages to nearly all of us. Some sixty of us [graduated] from Cambridge in 1934 [he’s speaking of his male fellow students] and we kept in touch with each other by six-monthly duplicated letters thereafter and, in spite of prudish upbringings and lack of sexual knowledge, not a single one of our first marriages went wrong.” [54]

Well the Law of God does not command us to sit the men and women in separate pews. Jesus himself had private conversations with women, even about their sex-life, as, for example, the woman at the well in Samaria. What is more, as John Wenham also observes, there is no getting around the fact that men find women a pleasure to look at. For that matter, the Bible itself often draws attention to a particular woman’s physical attractiveness, speaking of a number of different women as beautiful in form and figure as beautiful to look at. Think of Rebecca or Esther for example. The law of God does not forbid men to look at women but only to lust after them, that is to imagine them as sexual objects or partners.

It is in the small distance that separates admiration of a woman’s physical appearance and pleasure from lusting after her that one finds biblical wisdom at work. In the old days it operated in certain ways acceptably not simply to the church but to the culture. What are those ways in our day?  Admittedly, James does not mention here that particular piece of biblical wisdom, that particular sort of savoir faire, that adroit managing of temptation that is also part of wisdom, but he’s talking about precisely that sort of expertise, those sorts of characteristics and skills that make up true wisdom and out of which a harvest of righteousness grows.

Most Christian men know very well what is right and what is wrong in the sexual dimension of life. What they either don’t know or are as yet not sufficiently committed to acquiring is the Christian wisdom by which one manages this dimension of life in a God-honoring and soul-nourishing way. That is, as you know, a major theme in Proverbs.

In conclusion, what James is telling us is simply this: one cannot stop with the Law of God. If one is to live a truly godly life, a fruitful life he or she must become wise, must learn the skills and put on the virtues that make possible a life that is successful in the pursuit of holiness, attractive to others – Christians and non-Christians alike –, a life that is a recommendation of the gospel and the law of God to others both in and outside of the church. That is how important wisdom is! And that is what wisdom is!