The Epistle of James: Wisdom and Works
For whatever reason, perhaps stemming from Martin Luther calling it a ‘right strawy epistle’, James is not a book many Christians are familiar with. If you know anything about James then you have most likely heard it called the ‘Proverbs of the New Testament’. However this is not necessarily a kind comparison, since anyone who has studied Proverbs probably found the book dislocated and quite perplexing. Added to this proverbial nature, James draws dangerously close to the ‘Papist heresy’ of self-merited righteousness: justification is by works, not faith alone (2:24), much to Luther’s distaste. But cleverly tying these two issues together, Graeme Goldsworthy offers a clear way forward, in Gospel & Wisdom: James is concerned with the wisdom of old, which comes from God and shows itself in a good life; wisdom is both a gift for and expectation of the community of faith. So in this post I want to explore the idea of James as wisdom literature and how the emphasis on both wisdom and works fits with salvation by faith.
In an overview of James, Daniel Akin provides a very helpful definition of wisdom: seeing the world from God’s perspective. In order for us to become “mature and complete, lacking in nothing” we need wisdom from God (1:4-5). As Christians endure their fallen world the wise Christian recognises that suffering produces steadfast faith (1:2-3), wealth and comfort will fade (1:11), and those who remain faithful to the end will receive the crown of life (1:12). A sure faith, without doubting or double-mindedness, approaches the only wise God and petitions for wisdom not merely to persevere through trials but also to perceive the ruined creation as God does, awaiting its glorious restoration. And the community of faith are the “firstfruits” of that recreation (1:18).
Along with praying for wisdom, we are also told to practice not manmade religion but the pure religion of God our Father (1:26-27), which produces the righteousness of God in our lives (1:20). Therefore our faith must be shaped by listening to God’s word, which is able to save our souls (1:21), and becoming a community of faith characterised by obedience to God’s words (1:22-25). Wise faith that comes from enacting God’s words, as well as prayerfully acquiring God’s view of wealth and poverty (1:9-11), will be impartial towards those who poor in the eyes of the world, remembering that only those who are rich in faith will receive the kingdom (2:1-7). Thus mistreatment and calloused apathy towards the impoverished and disenfranchised might reveal that our faith is dead (2:17). The lives of Abraham (2:21-24) and Rahab (2:25) demonstrate saving faith that justifies, since living faith will result in works of righteousness (2:26).
Following on from James’ contrast between God-given faith and manmade religion, he further develops this point in showing two kinds of wisdom: earthly, unspiritual wisdom (3:15-16; 2:5) and “wisdom from above” (3:17-18; 1:5). The former causes disorder and disharmony while the latter creates peace. In the context of 3:1-12, James’ most renowned passage, scrutinising our tongues, the obvious link to make is this: God’s gift of wisdom is closely tied to how people speak. The untameable tongue is destructive, harmfully effective despite its size. So, as James says earlier, we should be quick to hear and slow to speak (1:19). This is wisdom. Furthermore, living faith that is seen in wise living will be exhibited as we are peaceable, gentle, open to reason, and full of mercy (3:17). On the other hand, earthly wisdom is revealed in jealousy and one-upmanship (3:16), tongues that bless God yet curse people (3:9-10). And as James says, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”
Considering the preceding chapter, we already know the answers to James’ questions in 4:1. It is worldliness, or earthly wisdom (3:16), that causes quarrels, fracturing the community of faith. So his repeated exhortation is towards humility (4:6-7). In some ways this section, specifically 4:4, presents the reader with an ultimatum: friendship with the world or God. Abraham, “who was called a friend of God,” possessed saving faith and godly fear or wisdom (2:22-23). Friendship with the world on the other hand, is evidenced by what Peter H. Davids calls the uncompromising desire to get ahead. It is proud and presumptuous (4:13-16), forgetting that all of us are nothing but a momentary mist (4:14), a wildflower beneath the scorching sun (1:10-11). Humility is a mark of biblical faith, wisdom gained from the vantage point of God’s grace towards those in the community of faith. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).
Finally, in 5:1, 3, 6, 9, and 12 (also see 2:12-13; 4:12) we are admonished to consider that our fleeting lives are carried out before the returning Christ, to whom all hearts are open. This signifies judgment for those who have lived as if Christ is not their impartial Lord, arrogantly presuming upon their wealth and status (5:1-6); on the other hand, it will result in vindication for the steadfast, the innocent sufferers, as in the case of Job and the Lord’s prophets (5:7-11; 1:4, 12). The latter group illustrate wisdom, similar to the farmer, in observing the “firstfruits” of restoration in their own lives and the life of the Christian community (1:18), patiently waiting for the Judge who is standing at the door (5:9). Coming full circle, wisdom is marked by prayerful faith that without doubt or double-mindedness commits all things to the Lord (5:13-18; 1:4-8). If we claim to belong to the community of faith then there must be evidence of it: godly wisdom and good works that necessarily entail saving faith.
We started with a helpful suggestion from Goldsworthy, that James deserves its comparisons with Old Testament wisdom due to the book consistently drawing the link between the good life (or godly wisdom) and the gift of faith. In closing I want to tie this point in with another made by John Calvin (in his commentary on James). Drawing comparisons between wisdom literature and the Psalms he writes: “the former was intent on forming the outward man and teaching the precepts of civil life, the latter spoke continually of the spiritual worship of God, peace of conscience, God’s mercy and gratuitous promise of salvation. But this diversity should not make us to approve of one, and to condemn the other.” James certainly emphasises “the outward man”, godly lives and wise living, but this accentuation is grounded in a biblical and saving faith.