Two Kinds of Wisdom

September 19, 2021 Speaker: Ray Lorthioir Series: Sermons 2021

Passage: James 3:134–4:10

Sermon 9-19-21

Pastor Ray Lorthioir

Trinity Lutheran Church

Based on the Second Lesson for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, James 3:13—4:10


Two Kinds of Wisdom

As we discussed last week, the epistle of James is almost entirely directed toward the matter of righteous living and good works toward our neighbors — our neighbors being anyone we’re in relationship with at any level, even family — especially family — and those closest to us. Our neighbors are especially in the church, and James primarily talks about relationships within the church.

Now, in their epistles, the other apostles make just as much of righteous living and good works toward our neighbors as James does. However, they do so only after speaking extensively about the work Jesus Christ accomplished on our behalf so that we might have forgiveness of sins and our lives might be justified before God by His grace through faith. Unfortunately James doesn’t do this. Apparently James assumed his readers knew all this. Therefore, as we discussed last week, reading the book of James by itself, with its extensive teaching on righteousness, can easily lead us to despair that we stand condemned before God. This is why Martin Luther once called James an epistle of straw.

Consequently, when reading James we have to keep in mind the love of Christ expressed by the other apostles such as Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

In their epistles, the other apostles also teach the work of Lord Holy Spirit who is the author and source of righteous living and good works for the Christian. For, only Lord Holy Spirit can overcome the sinful nature within us so that we might live lives worthy of Christ. This work of Lord Holy Spirit to produce righteous living and good works in us is known in theology as Sanctification.

Again, James must assume his readers know this. For, he says little about Lord Holy Spirit’s work. Therefore, again, reading James by itself can make it seem that we’re entirely on our own when it comes to sanctification. But the other apostles make it clear that we’re not. Rather, Lord Holy Spirit alone is the power of God in the Christian by which we can lead lives worthy of Christ.

So, God’s people are Justified before Him by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. And our lives are Sanctified by God through the power of His Holy Spirit. We need to keep all this in mind when reading James, lest we despair of being righteous enough in the sight of God.

So, let’s hear what James has to say about our sanctification from this morning’s second lesson. First, in the section between chapter 3, verse 13 and verse18, James describes two kinds of wisdom. The first kind comes down from above, from Yahweh, and is based on His definitions of good and evil as found in His Law. James calls the second kind of “wisdom” earthly because it’s based on the rebellion that Satan started and lured Adam and Eve into — namely that we are our own gods with a right to define good and evil for ourselves. James rightly says this second so-called “wisdom” is of the devil.

James then identifies the primary human emotions that exhibit this earthly “wisdom”, especially in the church. He calls them “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.” First envy — it’s not difficult to envy someone else’s ability with words or persuasion; to envy their skills and the spiritual gifts that Yahweh has given them; to envy their leadership abilities; even to envy their humility. Such envy can become a raging inner storm that disrupts the inner life of the person feeling it. It can even manifest itself by disruptive behavior toward others.

Second selfish ambition — because many jobs blunt our ability to create or lead, some look instead within the church for an opportunity to use that blunted creativity or leadership in order to fulfill dreams of doing something important in life and receiving credit for it. While this is not necessarily an evil thing, when leadership is motivated merely by the power, authority and standing a person can gain in a community, that’s selfish ambition. And within the church conflict can easily arise between people competing to exercise such ambition.

So how can we know which wisdom is at work in any given situation? You just have to look at the results. James says that devilish “wisdom” at work will produce disorder, fighting and the evil practice of cutting one another down. Divine wisdom at work produces purity, the love of peace within the church, consideration for others, submission where appropriate, mercy toward opponents and just general right living.

James goes on to pronounce the cure for the disorder that proceeds from our envy (covetousness) and selfish ambition. It’s simply asking God to supply all our personal and corporate needs within the church. 

However, James notes that if we don’t receive a reply from God, there’s a good reason. Our motivation for asking isn’t correct. If we’re looking for gifts by which to lord it over other people in the church or to spend on personal luxuries, God will happily not supply such gifts.

Finally, James points out another root problem — idolatry. James calls friendship with the world idolatry. And by “the world” James means the world system whereby we follow Satan into making our own definitions of good and evil. For when we do this, we become our own gods, our own idols acting as gods defining good and evil for ourselves. This is the idolatry hidden in our hearts that we need to acknowledge and resist.

To combat all this James advises us in James 4:7-8, “7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”

Here James rightly tells us to engage in real repentance — namely laying down at the Father’s feet the right inherited through original sin to be our own gods, defining good and evil for ourselves and acting upon our definitions. Such repentance is a good start. Through it we begin to move toward God. But ultimately we can’t draw near to God unless our sin is atoned for. God must draw near to us through the atoning work of Messiah Jesus and the forgiveness of our sins. And this is where James comes up short. He never tells us the more important message — how God has come near to us to wash and purify those who repent of their sin and double mindedness.

Therefore, let’s consult Paul on the matter. We read in Romans 7:21-25, “21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God's law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!” This is what we needed to know. When sin in me wages war against God’s goodness, I need a champion to deliver me. And that champion is Jesus who delivered me from sin, death and the power of the devil through His obedient sacrifice on the cross. No one else can do that. Amen.


All Bible quotes are from the NIV.

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