James: Heavenly Wisdom for Christian Living

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on September 22, 2002

James 3:13-18

James 3:13-18
Heavenly Wisdom for Christian Living

If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to James chapter
3. We’re continuing in our study of this great book this morning. Let me remind
you where we’ve been so far. In James 1:1-18, James deals with the subject of
trials and how he expects Christians to respond to them. He expects us to endure
in trials with rejoicing. In James 1:19-27, he turns to the subject of true
Christianity, contrasting true claims to faith and false claims to faith. In
fact, in verses 26 and 27 he gives you a summary statement of what true religion
consists of, and it’s a three-part summary statement. First of all, it shows in
our speech. Second of all, it shows in our care for needy Christians. And third,
it shows in our refusal to conform to prevailing worldliness. And each of those
three areas James begins to focus upon, especially in chapter 3 through the rest
of the book, but there are things in which, things in chapter two as well, in
which he addresses each of those three areas of true religion.

In James chapter 2, verses 1 through 13, he contrasts a sinful partiality with
true fellowship. In James chapter 2:14-26, he shows the evidence of true faith,
a faith which acts, a faith which works, a faith which obeys, a faith which
loves. In James chapter 3:1-2, we saw James briefly address teachers and raise
the particular challenge that teachers have in terms of guarding their own
tongues and using their tongues to build up rather than to divide and tear down.
And in much of the rest of the chapter, James 3:3-12, he focuses more generally
on the issue of the tongue.

And that brings us to the passage we’re going to study this morning. It’s a
passage in which James speaks about wisdom. And you may be wondering, “What is
the connection between sins of the tongue and this challenge, this exhortation
that he gives us in the area of the tongue, and then suddenly talking about
wisdom?” Well there’s actually a fairly obvious connection. You will remember
that James, following Jesus, stressed that the tongue was simply a reflection of
what is in our heart. And we said that that could not be changed by our own
effort, but it has to be changed, the heart has to be changed by God. You have
to have God’s grace in order to have a changed heart.

Well, having moved us from the symptom of the problem to the source of the
problem, in the heart, James now asks the question about how one knows whether
one has true wisdom in one’s heart. So let’s hear God’s holy word in James
chapter 3, beginning in verse 13.

“Who
among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds
in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish
ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This
wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural,
demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exists, there is disorder and
every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable,
gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without
hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by
those who make peace.” Amen.

And
thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word. May He write its eternal
truth upon our hearts. Let’s pray.

Our
Lord, we bow before You today asking for wisdom. We are acutely aware of the
fact that we live in a world filled with knowledge, filled with facts, filled
with information. Sociologists talk about an information explosion in our time.
But all that information, we fear, has not made us wise. And we desire to be
wise. So by Your word and Spirit, by Your grace, make us wise and give us ears
to hear and hearts and hands to obey. In Jesus’ name, amen
.

So, how do you know if you’re wise? How does a person know that she or he
is wise? How do you know if there is wisdom, real wisdom, true wisdom stored up
in your heart? That’s what James asks in this passage today and he gives a very
good, a very careful, a very nuanced answer. You will perhaps sense that James
is already turning to that third topic which he mentions in James 1:26-27. In
James 1: 26, James says that true religion shows itself in the speech. In James
1: 27, he says that true religion shows itself in our care and concern, our
practical love shown towards Christians in need. And thirdly he says, true
religion shows itself in separating oneself from worldliness, in refusing to
cave into worldliness. And in all this talk about wisdom James is already
phasing in to a discussion of worldliness. He’ll give himself almost exclusively
to that subject in James chapter 4.

But already here at the end of James chapter 3 he is on to his third topic of
worldliness. You see, worldliness begins with a lack of wisdom. Wisdom begins
with the fear of the lord. Worldliness begins without the fear of the lord. And
so worldliness always entails a lack of wisdom. And James has three important
things that he wants to say to us about wisdom in this passage. The first you’ll
see in verses 13 and 14 where he talks about true wisdom being shown by the
behavior. The second you’ll see in verses 15 and 16 where he shows us negatively
what false wisdom looks like. And then the third thing you’ll see in verses 17
and 18 where he shows us what true wisdom looks like.


I. The true
Christian lives wisdom, that is, his life course and choices are characterized
by divine wisdom.

Let’s look at verses 13 and 14 together then. Here, James says that true
wisdom and false wisdom are shown by our behavior. Notice his words, “Who among
you is wise and understanding?” Here’s the answer, “Let him show by his good
behavior, his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.” In other words, James is
saying that the true Christian lives wisdom. We might say that the true
Christian lives wisely. Wisdom is not just a matter of notions that you know, or
things that you ascent to, but it shows in the way that you live. So the true
Christian lives wisdom. That is, the Christian’s life course, the Christian’s
choices in life, are characterized by divine wisdom.

You know, when you hear James start talking about wisdom in verses 13 through 18
you wonder if his mind is running back to the first subject he introduced in the
chapter. Remember what he was talking about in verses 1 and 2? He was talking
about teachers. And it would be natural that James would be talking about
teachers who teach the true wisdom and who live the true wisdom, and teachers
who claim to teach the true wisdom but who in fact are living a false wisdom.
But whether he’s thinking about them especially or not, he is talking to us
about our hearts and his words apply to all of us because in taking us to the
heart he is taking us to the same place that his discussion in verses 3 through
12 took us.

And as he talked about the tongue he moved us to think about the heart. The
tongue simply reflects the heart and so he asks a question about our heart. Are
you wise? Does your heart reveal a heart of wisdom? And in answering he doesn’t
give a specific definition of wisdom. He doesn’t give you a nice sentence with
two or three parts to it which strictly defines wisdom. He says, let me show you
how you know whether a person has wisdom or not. He describes for you a person
who has wisdom. He describes it negatively and he describes it positively.

And he begins in verse 13 by simply asking the question, “Who is wise?” What
does a wise person look like? And his answer is that a wise man shows himself to
be wise by living in a way that befits a wise man. You know a wise man by the
way he lives because wisdom isn’t just about knowing notions or even assenting
to right truths. It is about living in the way of the Lord. Do you remember the
proverbs? Do you remember the counsel of the proverbs to us about the essence of
life? Proverbs 3:5 and 6. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on
your own understanding. In all your way acknowledge Him and He will make your
path straight.” Well, wisdom is about acknowledging the Lord in all your ways.
In fact, Alec Motyer, in this wonderful phrase, gives us a good description of
wisdom. “Wisdom is the God-given ability to see how in all our ways we may
acknowledge Him.” And James is saying that, in fact he may be saying just a
little bit more, he may be saying that wisdom is not simply seeing how we may
acknowledge God in all our ways, but actually seeing and doing it. Wisdom is
acknowledging in all our ways, wisdom is living in the fear of God, in the awe
of God, in the respect and reverence of God, in all our ways. In every aspect of
life living in accordance with the reverence of God. And James is saying that
Christians are called by God to live in true wisdom.

In verse 14 he negatively argues that bitter jealousy and selfish ambition show
that a man’s claim to wisdom is false. Look at what he says. “If you have bitter
jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie
against the truth.” He’s saying that a man’s character can belie his claim to
have true wisdom. There may be a teacher, there may be an apparently spiritual,
godly religious Christian person whose heart is characterized by jealousy and
selfish ambition and that jealousy and selfish ambition shows that the man
really doesn’t have wisdom. Because James is saying that wisdom is self-subduing
and other-centered, it’s not only God-honoring, it’s self-subduing and it’s
other-centered, it’s good behavior that leads to deeds in the gentleness of
wisdom. So wisdom is not only the God-given ability to see how in all our ways
we may acknowledge God, it is actually acknowledging God in all our ways. You
see, the person who is jealous and selfishly ambitious is insecure, envies
other, is not thinking of their best interests, is self-focused, is
self-preoccupied, and perhaps even teaches for selfish purposes. Paul talks
about people, even in the days of early Christianity, who preached Christ out of
precisely those kinds of selfish purposes. And James is saying such a person is
not wise. We’re looking for a different kind of wisdom, James says. Now that’s
the first thing that he says. The true Christian lives wisdom. That is, his life
course and choices are characterized by divine wisdom.


II.
False
wisdom, though hard to pin down sometimes, shows itself in its product.

The second thing is this. In verses 15 and 16 James teaches that the
character and results of the wisdom from below show you whether a person is
truly wise. He says that false wisdom, though it is hard to pin down sometimes,
false wisdom is harder to see than you might think. You might expect James to
give you an easy, simple packaged Sunday school answer to the question of “Who
is wise?’ James knows that it’s hard sometimes to tell the difference between
heavenly wisdom and unheavenly wisdom, between true wisdom and false wisdom. And
here in verses 15 and 16, he says that false wisdom, though hard to pin down
sometimes, shows itself in its product. You can always see false wisdom in what
it produces. You see false wisdom in its results.

In verse 15, James lists three characteristics of false wisdom or the wisdom
from below. He actually calls it the wisdom that is not from above, but we can,
for shorthand, call it the wisdom from below. Three characteristics of this
wisdom: it is earthly, natural and demonic.

Now, you might think, well if the wisdom has that sort of character, it’s
earthly, natural and demonic, surely I’m going to see right away that this is
false wisdom. Not so fast. Think about it. Earthly wisdom has much to commend
itself sometimes. There are people who are pagans who are full of savvy. There
are people who are pagans that we go to manage our money because they’re,
frankly, they’re really good at it. There are people that we go to as pagans to
give us advice on legal matters, or medical matters. There are pagans filled
with common-sensical knowledge in the world. Jesus Himself acknowledged this. Do
you remember when He turned to His disciples one day and He said, “The sons of
this age are sometimes wiser than the sons of the next.” In other words, He is
acknowledging that there are pagans out there who have been granted, in God’s
common grace, a lot of common sense and earthly wisdom. And it’s not always easy
to tell the difference between that which is merely good common-sensical earthly
wisdom and heavenly wisdom. James is saying here, just because a man has that
kind of common sense earthly wisdom doesn’t mean that he has the wisdom which is
from above.

Secondly, you may say, “But surely if a man’s wisdom is natural, it’s
unspiritual, I’ll be able to recognize that.” Well again, not all unspiritual or
natural wisdom is bad. There are lots of good things that can come from natural
wisdom, wisdom that doesn’t result from the work of the Holy Spirit, wisdom that
is not spiritual with a capital S, that’s not the product of work of the Holy
Spirit in our hearts. The natural man has some wisdom to offer. It’s sometimes
very canny and savvy wisdom.

But then you say, “Yea, but what about that third qualification. You’re always
going to be able to tell demonic wisdom.” Oh really? Let’s play a little role
game. You’re a disciple of the Lord Jesus. Jesus has just announced to you at a
private meeting that He is going to be taken away and crucified at the duplicity
of the Roman occupants of your land and of your religious leaders. Peter stands
up and says, “We’re never going to allow that, Lord. We’d die for You before
we’d allow that to happen to You.” Would you’ve stood up immediately and said
“Peter, that’s demonic wisdom.”? I mean, Peter is just trying to defend his
Master. He’s just looking out for Jesus. He loves Jesus. He doesn’t want Jesus
to die. Jesus turned to Peter and said, “That was of the devil.” James knows
that it’s not always easy to tell earthly, natural or unspiritual and demonic
wisdom from heavenly wisdom.

So how do you tell it? James tells you in verse 16. “For where jealousy and
selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.” What’s James
saying? The results of false wisdom, the results of merely earthly wisdom
without the grace of the Spirit are telling in evidencing that false wisdom,
jealousy, selfish ambition, disordered, division, ungodliness, these things are
the product of the wisdom which is from below. You see, if jealousy and selfish
ambition lead to disorder and division and ungodliness, then we are seeing the
results of a person who is living a self-serving life, and there is no true
wisdom. James says, Paul says, Jesus says, the proverbs say, the whole Bible
says, that there is no true wisdom in a self-serving person. A person who has
not subdued himself, denied himself, and given himself over to the service of
God and his brethren and his neighbor does not know true wisdom. And so, false
wisdom, though it’s hard to pin down sometimes, eventually shows itself in its
product.


III. True wisdom,
though hard to pin down sometimes, shows itself in its product.

The third thing that James says in this passage you see in verses 17 and
18. Here he shows you the character and results of the wisdom which is from
above. True wisdom, though it can be hard to pin down sometimes, shows itself in
its product. True wisdom isn’t always easy to see. Sometimes true wisdom is a
hard truth that is hard to swallow, and for that very reason it’s not easy to
see. The wounds of a friend are sometimes hard to distinguish from the barbs of
an enemy. They hurt but they’re wise. And so also true wisdom isn’t always easy
to see. But, though it’s hard to pin down, it shows itself in its product.

In verses 17 and 18 James gives us the character and result of the wisdom which
is from above. And he tells us that true wisdom is known by eight
characteristics and one result. True wisdom is known by eight characteristics
and one result. The truly wise person, the wise Christian, has these eight
qualities, these characters.

The wisdom from above is first, James says, pure. There is a purity, there is a
cleanness before God, there is a holiness in this wisdom that characterizes the
truly wise person, the wise Christian. Secondly, it is peace promoting. It is
peaceable. He says true religion, true wisdom, is peaceable. It promotes peace
among the brethren. Now this is not peace at all costs. There are many in this
room, who, precisely because they were loyal to the Bible and loyal to God have
left places where they were worshipping and have joined this congregation. Some
of you have left denominations for those very reasons. And you have had
denominational officials, liberals, say to you, “Oh, well you’re dividing the
church. You’re just making all this fuss over whether Jesus is God and whether
the Bible is true. Shame on you. You’re dividing this church.” I’m not talking
about peace at all costs here. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking
about those who are promoting peace among the brethren. Let’s say you’ve just
had a Christian friend uncharacteristically share with you some gossip that, if
you were to share, would really bring division in a family or in the church. And
you decide that I’m not going to pass that on. That piece of gossip that I just
heard is going to die with me. It’s not going anywhere else here. That is a
peace-promoting Christian. Well, James is saying that Christians who promote
peace amongst the brethren, they’re wise. Real wisdom is peace-promoting. It has
an agenda to promote godly, spiritual, true Christian unity amongst believers.
That doesn’t mean that it compromises on the faith. Far from it. That’s not what
James is talking about. But it is desirous that the brethren would dwell
together in unity. It recognizes that unity is a very, very priceless but
important commodity and it seeks to promote peace. That’s what wisdom does.

The truly wise Christian, the wise person, thirdly, is gentle in demands made
upon others. He is gentle, he’s meek. Have you ever met a young Christian,
maybe just converted, very conscious of the sins which he or she was committing
prior to conversion and absolutely determined that the entire church is going to
repent immediately by 12:07 tomorrow afternoon of its sins? You know, he did
those sins and all of you that are doing those sins, and you’re going to stop
right now. Now let’s never forget that God was patient for 18, 19, 20, 23, 25,
27 years with that brother or sister, he wants the church to repent now. He’s
sensitized to that sin. He’s zealous about that sin. He’s zealous that that sin
not be committed because he knows what it did in his life. But he’s not gentle
in dealing with other Christians who haven’t seen yet what he’s seen. You see,
the mature believer, the wise believer has grown enough to know to be patient
even with the sins of Christians which he or she once committed. Or maybe it’s
not just a recent convert. Maybe it’s a Christian who’s been struggling with a
habitual sin for many, many years and suddenly that sin is as real as the
building that we’re sitting in or the pews that we’re sitting on and that
Christian becomes determined that the church no longer be characterized by that
particular sin and begins a crusade but is not gentle in dealing with the
brethren. You know, Jesus was patient with his disciples and if He had
confronted all of their sins all at once and demanded immediate obedience, they
all would have failed. To the end of their days, they, like you and me, were
still dealing with sins. And so the person who is wise is gentle in demands made
upon others.

Fourthly, the person who has true wisdom is not unwilling to respond to
reasonable requests. True wisdom isn’t always a monologue. I’ve figured it out,
now you just be quiet and listen. True wisdom is reasonable. True wisdom doesn’t
cut you off three words into a sentence making a perfectly reasonable request.
It’s reasonable. It will listen, it will listen to reasonable requests.

Fifth, true wisdom is active in sympathy and compassion. It is full of mercy. It
is full of mercy. It is active in its sympathy and compassion towards other
believers.

Sixth, true wisdom displays the fruit of the spirit’s work in life. It is full
of good fruits. You can look at a person with true wisdom and in some measure be
able to say, “Yes, I see the fruit of love, joy, peace patience, kindness,
goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control in some measure in that
person. Not all of those fruits are of equal strength, but I see the fruit of
the spirit working in that person’s life.” True wisdom is full of good fruits.

True wisdom is unwavering, that’s the seventh thing that James says. It doesn’t
vacillate. It’s not hot one day and cold the next. It’s not wise one day and
incredible goof-bally off the beam the next. There’s some consistency. There’s
some focus. There is some endurance and perseverance and steadiness to true
wisdom.

And eight, it is not hypocritical. It is without hypocrisy. The true wise
person, the wise Christian is no hypocrite. She’s a person of integrity. He is
whole. What he is on the inside he is on the outside. What he is on the outside
he is on the inside. There’s no dissonance working in the life, where you’re
trying to be one way, or to be perceived one way on the outside when in fact on
the inside you’re a different way.

You see how James describes wisdom? He doesn’t describe it with verbal
imperatives, ‘do this and you’ll be wise.’ He doesn’t even describe it with a
definition, ‘this is what true wisdom is.’ He shows you what true wisdom is by
how it looks in a person’s life. Because true wisdom isn’t just about the
notions that you assent to. True wisdom is about acknowledging the Lord in all
your ways.

So once again James is insisting that true religion, true faith, true
Christianity shows itself in our lives. That our lives, our choices, our
priorities, our behavior, is the best index of whether we are wise or not. So
just as true wisdom shows itself by the fruit of righteousness so also grace
shows itself in righteousness. Just like Paul said in Romans, chapter 5, here in
James 3:18 James says this is the one result, the one certain result of true
wisdom. The seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make
peace.

James is saying, “How do you know you have the seed of wisdom in your heart?”
Because it springs forth in the fruit of righteousness. And then when you re-sow
it in the lives others you sow it in peace. You do it with the desire of
creating peace, peace between god and man, peach between Christian and
Christian. And in our discipleship here at first Presbyterian we’re aiming to
produce wise people but we know that only the Spirit can make a wise man. Only
the Spirit can make a wise man. If you lack heavenly wisdom completely today, I
can’t give it to you. I can’t teach it to you. Only the Spirit can give it to
you. The natural man does not see the things of the spirit, only the spirit can
give it. And if you are a Christian today you realize that you’re not as wise as
you ought to be. There’s no technique, there’s no seven step or twelve step
method to getting that wisdom. You need to apply to the Spirit. And by the grace
of the Spirit, through the means of grace, the spirit will grant you wisdom.

James will tell us in a few moments that the only reason that we lack wisdom is
that we haven’t asked for it. And we need to go to the Father of lights who is
willing and generous in the way He gives and answers prayers, and we need to
pray for wisdom. May God grant us that wisdom. Let’s look to Him in prayer.

Our
Lord, grant us that we might live in wisdom and so show that you have implanted
in our hearts the seed which springs forth in the fruit of righteousness. In
Jesus’ name. Amen.

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