In his devotional book, Morning & Evening, Charles Spurgeon captured this timeless idea, “Gilt is afraid of fire, but gold is not.” Gilt is a superficial gold. It refers to objects that have been painted with a thin layer of gold, having no substance of the real thing. When tested by fire, gilt burns away revealing the true nature it covers.
He went on to say, “The wisdom of the great Workman is discovered by the trials through which His vessels of mercy are permitted to pass.” In other words, God’s wisdom is made evident when the possessor of true wisdom is put to the test. Only authentic vessels of mercy are permitted to pass. Artificial vessels are prohibited because they lack the divine faith that “produces steadfastness” (Ja. 1:3).
This is the idea behind the trial of wisdom in James 3:13-18. Genuine Christians are like gold which are purified by fire. Artificial Christians are like gilt consumed by the same heat. So, James calls us to the fire to reveal the nature of our faith. In this portion of the epistle, he sets our wisdom under the microscope for examination (Ja. 3:13).
His audience understood that true wisdom is found in God alone, and He gives it exclusively to those who fear Him. So, how do we know that we possess it? Besides the underlying principle, that you must be born again, there is clear evidence of gilt and gold. In James 3:14-16, we learned that artificial wisdom manifests itself in “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” because it is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” It’s outcome is also clear. It leaves a trail of chaos, “disorder and every vile practice.” Now, he turns to the evidence of heavenly wisdom:
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (Ja. 3:17-18)
The Character of Heavenly Wisdom
Foreigners have a peculiar sound to their speech. Don’t they? When visiting London, I have a hard time disguising my southern twang. It easily gives me away, even to English speakers. I’ve heard that we Texans have a flattened monophthong that signals our origin. Even Americans up north can spot where we come from.
In a similar way, wisdom speaks with an accent that makes its origin obvious. Many have described wisdom as knowledge applied to life. And, if applied to life, then wisdom is easily seen. We only need to listen closely to its accent. For wisdom’s accent reveals its origin.
James says that true wisdom comes “from above” (Ja. 3:17). It is heavenly, not earthly. It is spiritual, not unspiritual. And, it is godly, not demonic (Ja. 3:16). This was already mentioned when contrasting the artificial wisdom of the world, which is described as “not the wisdom that comes down from above” (Ja. 3:15). The phrase “come down” suggests the idea that it is not found here in the world, but with God, who is in heaven.
Scripture affirms this. It tells us that wisdom existed before anything was created. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth” (Prov. 3:19). Wisdom says that “the Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old” (Prov. 8:22). Since nothing existed before creation but God, wisdom must be found in God. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33). “His understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:5). Wisdom is not just with God, it belongs to God. It is an eternal characteristic of God’s nature. He is all wise. Therefore, James concludes, “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God,” and no other (Ja. 1:5).
So, how do we know that we possess the true wisdom of God and not some artificial knock-off? In verses 14-16, James listed a few characteristics of worldly wisdom. In this portion of the trial, however, he is far more generous. He provides a roster of eight characteristics of heavenly wisdom.
Heavenly Wisdom is Pure
In recent years, my wife and I transitioned to eating pure foods, ditching processed foods whenever possible. In general, American food providers mix artificial ingredients and chemical stimulants to increase production, size, and shelf-life. By definition, these are impure foods, no longer containing the components as the Lord made them. This is not to suggest that they are necessarily bad for you, but that they are have a mixture of both natural and artificial elements.
True wisdom, on the other hand, is unmixed. It is like pasture raised eggs and grass fed butter. James says that true wisdom is “pure” (Ja. 3:17). It means spotless, uncontaminated, undefiled. And, in this context, it relates to our motives. Simply put, it is the absence of sinful motives. It is having no ulterior motives with people. It begs us to ask ourselves: What is my motivation with others? Am I someone’s friend for what I may gain through them?
Before moving on to the next virtue in the list, it is worth pointing out the two words surrounding this virtue: “first” and “then” (Ja. 3:17). Typically, the Greek language uses word order in order to emphasize parts of the sentence. This is true of lists. We can easily pick up on sequence and progression from word to the next based on its arrangement. Nevertheless, James draws out purity as the foremost of all virtues that follow.
The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary tells us that the word “first” originally referred to the lowest forward gear in a motor vehicle. This is not to suggest that James had motor vehicles in mind, but that it captures what James did have in mind quite perfectly. Generally speaking, vehicles start in the lowest gear. First sets the car in motion. The rest of the gears merely increase the speed.
Purity is the first gear. The qualities that follow in the list merely increase the speed, figuratively speaking. Purity is the chief quality, the first and foremost, the most important. The remaining virtues flow from it and depend on it. Therefore, they are all pure, unmixed and uncontaminated by the world.
Heavenly Wisdom is Peaceable
While “pure” related to internally to applied wisdom, this next virtue, like all those that follow, relate to our external demonstration of wisdom. The next virtue is “peaceable” (Ja. 3:17). In particular, it relates to how you view and handle conflicts between yourself and others.
Peacemakers settle disputes rather than causing and provoking them. Bitterness, a mark of worldly wisdom, desires to throw gas on the fire for some selfish gain. A person who is peaceable desires to find peaceful resolve in all circumstances that allow it. He does not see conflict as a tool or a blessing. “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbringing,” Paul said to believers (Rom. 14:19).
Peacemaking is ought to be very close to the Christian mind and heart, for we have benefitted from divine peacemaking. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10). To reconcile is to make peace between to opposing parties. Jesus brought peace between a holy God and sinful man. We enjoy inner peace through His peacemaking work on the cross.
If this peacemaking Lord exists in the Christian, the Christian will also demonstrate peacemaking among others. This is why Jesus taught, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). It is also why Paul instructs all Christians to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called” (Col. 3:15) and the writer of Hebrews said, “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb 12:14). Do you desire to see peace among others? When you find conflict, does your heart break and your will strive to make peace?
Heavenly Wisdom is Gentle
The next virtue is a gem, rarely found in the world. It is “gentle” (Ja. 3:17). It means kind, sympathetic, considerate, mild. A gentle person will endure disgrace in order to maintain peace with others. He will not insist on his own way, style, agenda, or philosophy.
There is nothing more damaging to a relationship than someone who refuses to bend to the ideas of others. If you have ever been in a meeting with someone who is insistent on his own way, you know this to be true. Gentle people are willing to yield for the sake of others. They never want a pound of flesh. They don’t hold people to the letter of the law, but offer mercy and grace as they have received it.
Paul told Titus to keep reminding the church “to be submissive to rulers and authorities” during a time when civil leaders were persecuting Christians. He said “to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1-2). When listing the qualifications of pastors, Paul said that they “must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24-25). Many of us in the church can be real knuckleheads as we develop in our faith. Pastors, who are our examples, have to show us a great deal of gentleness.
Martin Lloyd-Jones had an excellent thing to say about this:
The man who is [gentle] is not even sensitive about himself. He is not always watching himself and his own interests. He is not always on the defensive … to be truly [gentle] means we no longer protect ourselves, because we see there is nothing worth defending … the man who is truly [gentle] never pities himself, he is never sorry for himself. He never talks to himself and says, “You are having a hard time, how unkind these people are not to understand you.”
Heavenly wisdom produces gentleness in Christians. We won’t insist on what we may believe we are entitled to have. We won’t require from others with ruthless or inhuman demands. Rather, we will show grace as the Lord has shown us.
Heavenly Wisdom is Reasonable
Next in this marvelous list of virtues are the words “open to reason” (Ja. 3:17). This is another rare gem. It means easily obeying, compliant, easy to be entreated, persuadable. People who are open to reason recognize that they don’t know it all. They understand that they can still learn from others. So, they are willing to truly listen.
Reasonable people are not stubborn or above question. They will not shut you down when you offer alternative ideas. Nor are they easily angered when asked to explain themselves. One pastor said, “it doesn’t require a heavy truck to move them.” They are not headstrong or unwilling to submit. This is a crucial characteristic to resolving conflict. We must be willing to consider the other side. Are you reasonable? Are you willing to hear a better way?
Heavenly Wisdom is Merciful
The next two virtues are modified by the word “full” which carries the idea of having an abundance of and overflowing with. The first of the two virtues is “mercy” (Ja. 3:17). Heavenly wisdom is overflowing with mercy. He bubbles with compassion, not just in heart, but in action, especially to those in distress.
Like the other qualities in the list, this one is easily connected to the reality of our salvation. Christ has shown us tremendous mercy. God did not give Christians what we deserve. Rather, He withheld is wrath in order to deliver us from the punishment we rightly earned (Is. 59:2) and the death we require (Rom. 6:23). When Christ bore our sins on the cross, it was an act of eternal mercy (Phil. 2:5-8; 1 Pet. 2:24). And, by His supernatural work in us, we too can and will show mercy to others (Matt. 5:7).
One day at the office, there was a tour of the building and departments. There were a dozen or so new hires being escorted throughout the company immediately after lunch. Several minutes after they passed by, a strong smell of curry settled in the room. Someone enjoyed some Indian food and we all had to eat it. It made me wonder as you should now. Do I overflow with compassion to those in need? Is there an aroma of mercy that falls around me?
Heavenly Wisdom is Fruitful
The second quality modified by the word “full” is “good fruits” (Ja. 3:17). This refers to the general deeds we do to others. They should overflow with godly usefulness. That is to say that we should abound in doing God glorifying things to other people.
Paul taught that “we are all to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him: bearing fruit in every good work” (Col. 1:10). He encouraged Christian women to “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good work” (1 Tim. 2:9-10).
Although Paul was speaking to women, the principle applies to us all. We should all dress in the garments of godliness in order to be fruitful to the kingdom of God. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Are you producing good fruit? Are you full of beneficial deeds unto others?
Heavenly Wisdom is Impartial
In James 2:1-13, we are brought through the trial of partiality. Here, James exposes the evil of making distinctions between people for sinful reasons. He pictures a situation that is familiar even in our day. Paraphrasing, “Suppose a celebrity walks into the church and you give him special treatment because of his status and what you might gain from his presence, but you point the poor man to the back because he is of no gain to you.” This is the essence of partiality, showing favoritism for selfish gain.
James wasted no words about it, “show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (Ja. 2:1). He call is “evil” (Ja. 2:4) and inconsistent with God’s nature (Ja. 2:5). As a Christian, partiality has no room. We cannot hold faith in one hand and favoritism in the other. It simply cannot work. Heavenly wisdom is a divine perspective. God sees all people in their low state and lifts them up. Are you impartial to others? Do you choose your friends based on what they can do for you?
Heavenly Wisdom is Sincere
The final quality in the list of characteristics of heavenly wisdom is “sincere” (Ja. 3:17). It refers to not being phony, fake, or pretending with others. Ancient theaters were not always replete with actors. Often times, an actor would play both the villain and the hero. He would play one part, then run backstage and put on a mask to return in another role. This actor was called a hypocrite.
One who is sincere is without hypocrisy. It is one who is unakes before others. He doesn’t hide behind a fake facade in order to win the approval or gain some status with people. Instead, he is “genuine toward others” (Rom. 12:9). He possess true wisdom because he possesses true saving faith. And, though he may still be growing in his wisdom, he doesn’t where a mask. Do you? Do you hide behind a face that doesn’t belong to you in order to hide your true intentions toward others?
The Outcome of Heavenly Wisdom
While the list above is strong with indications of heavenly wisdom, James also spells out the result of what heavenly wisdom produces. “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (Ja. 3:18). Agricultural illustrations were very common in the ancient world. However, we usually find the analogy of a seed being sown. Here, James says that a harvest is sown.
This is a strange way to describe gardening. The word “harvest” refers to the collection of crops produced in the field. God, the gardener of our soul, produces a harvest of righteousness in our lives through heavenly wisdom. The seed is the harvest. It grows in our hearts and overflows in our lives. Then, it reproduces itself in the relationships we develop.
It is a fascinating cycle of peace producing peace. Follow the progression. Wisdom calls out to you. When you repent and respond to wisdom, God save you and imparts wisdom into you. Wisdom makes you a peacemaker. God produces peace around you. Wisdom is now calling out to others through the demonstration of peace. “Come, find peace in Christ.”
What a tremendous privilege we have as partakers of heavenly wisdom. While worldly wisdom produces pain, heavenly wisdom produces peace. Peace with God and peace with man. Do you possess heavenly wisdom? Do you find evidence of peace? If your motives are pure, then peace will follow. Those who possess true wisdom possess saving faith, and peace the accent of their life.