James: The Place of Wisdom in the Life of Faith
I must commend the editor for choosing Wisdom in the New Testament as the theme for this month’s Gospel Herald. I also believe that he is correct in identifying an emphasis on justification by faith as part of the reason for our neglect of New Testament Wisdom Literature. We (quite rightly) have come to see the need to admit our own unworthiness and to emphasize that salvation is by “grace through faith” (Eph 2:8).
One can hardly overemphasize the truth that it is the perfect work of Christ, not our own imperfect effort, that saves us. But while one cannot overemphasize this truth, it can sometimes be misapplied. When our doctrine of justification causes us to discount the importance of wise living, we have misstated, misunderstood, or misapplied the biblical doctrine of justification.
This is one of the fundamental issues with which James wrestles in his epistle. It seems that some of his first readers had so misapplied the idea of salvation by grace through faith, that they were in danger of living foolish, pointless, and unproductive lives. God’s grace delivers us from sin; and his grace is accepted by means of faith. But neither grace nor faith free us from the need to walk according to wisdom. The one who rejects the counsel of wisdom makes a fool of himself and is of no use to his fellowman (James 2:14–16; cf Ephesians 5:15ff).
James and Old Testament Wisdom
If we compare James to the Old Testament Wisdom Literature, we find many striking parallels. Let us consider a few parallels between James chapter one and passages of Old Testament Wisdom.
Trials lead to insight
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4, ESV).
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12, ESV).
Wisdom is not won in a vacuum. Even an excellent person, a person devoted to God and to righteousness, will gain greater insight by enduring difficulties. James is here stating succinctly what the Book of Job taught at greater length.
God the source
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5, ESV).
That God, rather than personal insight or experience, is the ultimate source of wisdom has been stated earlier in the canon – in the opening chapters of Proverbs, for example. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7, ESV). And “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6, ESV).
Practice is critical
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22, ESV).
One does not learn a language well merely by reading a textbook or by taking classroom instruction regarding the language. Anything that we learned well, we have practised. This message is found throughout scripture. “Hear, meditate on, and do” is a regular theme. That this is the path to wisdom, that those who only hear become fools, is taught by James and by earlier Wisdom passages such as Psalm 119.
“Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way,
in order to keep your word.”
(Psalm 119:98–101, ESV, emphasis added)
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26, ESV).
James introduces the problem of the tongue in chapter one and revisits it at length in chapter three. In emphasizing the importance of the tongue, he is echoing a common Wisdom theme (see Psalms 15:3; 34:13; 37:30; 39; Proverbs 10:31; 12:18–19; 15:4; 18:21; 21:23; 25:15). Perhaps the most obvious parallel is between the teaching of James and that of Psalm 50.
“But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips? 17 For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you. 18 If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers. 19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. 20 You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son. 21 These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.” (Psalm 50:16–21, ESV)
James and Non-canonical Wisdom
A detailed study of the use James may have made of non-canonical Wisdom Literature lies outside the scope of this article. But a few comments may be in order.
There appear to be several parallels between James and some of the Apocryphal Wisdom books. In the first two chapters of James, Alfred Plummer finds nine passages that seem to be reflections of something said in The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach.1 Of course, James, if he read the Apocrypha, did not do so indiscriminately. In sharp contrast to Ben Sirach’s attitude toward sinners (Sirach 12:1-7),2 James urges his readers to be merciful to others (2:12-13; 3:17-18).
The use of non-canonical books by the biblical writers should not trouble us. It is more common than many realise. Paul definitely quotes non-Christian authors (Acts 17:28) as do the authors of Joshua and Samuel (Joshua 10:12-13; 2 Sam 1:18). Jesus may at times cite non-biblical sources, although the quotations have not yet been traced (see Matthew 5:43). Second Peter, Jude and John’s Revelation similarly contain various quotations, allusions and verbal parallels to other sources. Their use is of course under the direct supervision of the Holy Spirit affirming facts of history. Inspired New Testament writers give us insights into the character people such as Cain, Abel, Esau and Balaam that are not revealed in the Old Testament.
Trying to determine which authors James may have been reading before writing his own book would be an exercise in futility. But the fact that inspired biblical authors read widely and made use of truth no matter where they found it, should be a lesson to us.
The Value of Wisdom
James is not recommending wisdom as the source of our salvation any more than he is teaching that our works accomplish salvation. Works are proof that our faith is genuine and alive (2:14–26). Wisdom is not the source of salvation; but it is worth having. It will not save us on its own (see also 2 Timothy 3:15); but it is helpful in living a life that honours the One who has saved us. It is also helpful in serving the Lord’s other children. This is our calling, to serve and thereby to honour God (1:27 cf Matthew 5:16). Wisdom will help us to serve well.
In seeking wisdom, we must remember that it is not self-accomplished but is a gift of God (1:5; 3:13–17). Like the Old Testament Wisdom Literature, James emphasizes our utter dependence on the Lord (4:13–17), and sternly warns against arrogant self-centredness (4:1–10). Advancement, in wisdom as in anything else, is promised to the humble and denied to the proud (4:6,10).3 “No human being can tame the tongue” (3:8); yet one who fails to control his tongue is making a phony religious profession (1:26). In other words, we cannot control our tongues on our own, but with God’s help we can and must control them.
There is a tendency, when teaching any wisdom passage to drift toward an anthropocentric emphasis. Many wise statements can be misconstrued into pragmatism and legalism. It is critically important to maintain the God-dependent view that hems James’ brief epistle (1:5; 4:13–17). Yes, we should live wisely and work energetically, but ultimately our success is a gift of God.
1 Consider the following texts from the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (1:23–24, 28, 30; 2:1-5; 7:10–11; 15:11–12; 31:1–9.
2 “If you do good, know to whom you do it, and you will be thanked for your good. 2 Do good to the devout, and you will be repaid– if not by them, certainly by the Most High. 3 No good comes to one who persists in evil or to one who does not give alms. 4 Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. 5 Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. 6 For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. 7 Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner. (Sirach. 12:1–7 NRSV)
3 James 4:6, is, of course, citing Proverbs 3:34 from LXX.