The Wisdom that is From Above - James 3:17

by Robert Leighton


Many and great are the evils that lodge within the heart of man, and they come forth abundantly both by the tongue and by the hand, yet the heart is not emptied of them; yea, the more it vents them outwardly, the more they increase within: well might he that knew the heart so well call it an evil treasure. We find the Prophet Ezekiel in his 8th chapter led by the Lord in vision to Jerusalem to view the sins of the Jews that remained in time of the captivity; when he had shown him one abomination, he caused him to dig through the wall, to enter and discover more, and so directed him several times from one place to another, and still said, "I will show thee yet greater abominations." Thus is it with those whom the Lord leads into an examination of their own hearts (for men are usually strangers to themselves). By the light of his word and spirit going before them, he lets them see heaps of abominations in every room, and the vilest in the most retired and darkest corners; and truly should he leave them there, they would despair of remedy. No, he makes this discovery on purpose that they should sue to him for help. Do so then, as many as have taken any notice of the evils of your own hearts; tell the Lord they are his own works; he formed the heart of man within him, and they are his own choice too. "My son, give me thy heart." Entreat him to redress all those abuses wherewith Satan and sin have filled it, and then to take possession of it himself, for therein consists its happiness. This is, or should be, a main end of our resorting to his house and service: wrong not yourselves so far as to turn these serious exercises of religion into an idle divertisement. What a happiness were it if every time you come to his solemn worship, some of your strongest sins did receive a new wound, and some of your weakest graces a new strength.

But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. - James 3:17

God doth know that in the day ye shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil, was the first hissing of that old serpent, by which he poisoned mankind in the root. Man, not contented with the impression of God's image in which he was created, lost it by catching at a shadow; climbing higher than his station, he fell far below it; seeking to be more than man, to become as God, he made himself less than man; he lodged not at night in honour, but became as the beasts that perish. Ever since, nature's best wisdom is full of impurity, turbulence, and distemper; nor can anything rectify it but a wisdom from above, that both cleanses and composes the soul. It is first pure, and then peaceable.

This epistle, as some that follow, is called general, both by reason of the dispersion of the parties to whom it is addressed, and the universality of the subject which it treats: containing a great number (if not all) of the necessary directions and comforts of a Christian's life, both from the active and passive parts of it. It is evident that the Apostle's main design is to arm the dispersed Jews against all kinds of temptations, both those of affliction in the first chapter at the second verse, and sinful temptations in verse 13. And having discoursed of two special means of strengthening them against both, speaking to God in prayer, and hearing God speak in his word, in the two last verses of that first chapter, he recommends, as chief duties of religion and sure evidences of integrity in religion, first meekness and moderation chiefly in their speeches, and then charity and purity in their actions; insisting largely upon the latter in the second chapter, and upon the former, the ruling of the tongue, in this third chapter. And here, towards the end of it, he shows the true opposite springs of miscarriage in speech and action, and of right ordering and regulating of both; evil conversation, strifes, and envyings are the fruits of a base wisdom that is earthly, sensual, and devilish (ἐπίγειος, ψυχική, δαιμονιώδης) in verse 15. But purity, meekness, and mercy are the proper effects and certain signs of heavenly wisdom.

The wisdom that is from above is first pure: its gentleness can agree with anything except impurity; then it is peaceable, it offends nobody except purity offend them; it is not raging and boisterous. It is not only pure, being void of that mire and dirt which the wicked are said to cast out like the sea (Isaiah 57:20), but peaceable likewise, not swelling and restless like the sea, as is there said of the wicked; nor is it only peaceable negatively, not offending, but as the word bears (εἰρηνική) pacific, disposed to make and seek peace, and as it readily offends none, so it is not easily offended; it is gentle and moderate (ἐπιεικής), and if offended (εὐπειθής) easily entreated to forgive. And as it easily passes by men's offenses, so it does not pass by but looks upon their distresses and wants; as full of compassion as it is free from unruly and distempered passions, nor does it rest in an affecting sympathy, its mercy is helpful, full of mercy and good fruits, and it both forgives and pities and gives without partiality (ἀδιάκριτος) and without hypocrisy (ἀνυπόκριτος). The word may as well bear another sense, no less suiting both with this wisdom and these its other qualities: that is, not taking upon it a censorious discerning and judging of others. Those who have most of this wisdom are least rigid to those who have less of it; I know no better evidence of strength in grace than to bear much with those who are weak in it. And lastly, as it spares the infirmities of others, so it makes not false and vain shows of its own excellencies; it is without hypocrisy. This denies two things: both dissimulation and ostentation; the art of dissembling or hypocrite craft is no part of this wisdom; and for the other, ostentation, surely the air of applause is too light a purchase for solid wisdom. The works of this wisdom may be seen, yea they should be seen, and may possibly be now and then commended; but they should not be done for that low end, either to be seen or to be commended; surely no, being of so noble extraction, this having descended from heaven, will be little careful for the estimation of those that are of the earth, and are but too often of the earth, earthly (ἐπίγειος).

The due order of handling these particulars more fully cannot well be missed: doubtless the subject, wisdom from above, requires our first consideration, next the excellent qualities that are attributed to it, and lastly their order is to be considered; the rather because so clearly expressed, first pure, then peaceable, etc.

Wisdom from above: there are two things in that: there's the general term of wisdom, common to diverse sorts of wisdom, though most eminently and truly belonging to this best wisdom. Then there is the birth or original of this wisdom, serving as its difference to specify and distinguish it from all the rest: wisdom from above. Wisdom in general is a very plausible word among men; who is there that would not willingly pass for wise? Yea, often those who are least of all such are most desirous to be accounted such, and where this fails them, they usually make up that want in their own conceit and strong opinion; nor do men only thus love the reputation of wisdom, but they naturally desire to be wise, as they do to be happy; yet through corrupt nature's blindness, they do as naturally mistake and fall short both of the one and the other, and being once wrong, the more progress they make, they are further out of the way. And pretending to wisdom in a false way, they still befool themselves, as the Apostle speaks (Romans 1:22), "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools" (φάσκοντες εἶναι σοφοὶ ἐμωράνθησαν).

Our Apostle, v. 15, speaking of that wicked wisdom that is fruitful of wrongs, strifes, and debates, and that is only abusively called wisdom, shows what kind of wisdom it is by three notable characters: earthly, natural, and devilish. Though they are here jointly attributed to one and the same subject, we may make use of them to signify some differences of false wisdom. There is an infernal, or devilish wisdom, proper for contriving cruelties and oppressions, or subtle shifts and deceits that make atheism a main basis and pillar of state policy. Such are those that devise mischief upon their beds, etc. (Micah 2). This is serpentine wisdom, not joined with, but most opposite to, dove-like simplicity.

There is an earthly wisdom that does not draw so deep in impiety as the other, yet is sufficient to keep a man out of all acquaintance with God and divine matters, and is drawing his eye perpetually downwards, employing him in the pursuit of such things as cannot fill the soul, except it be with anguish and vexation (Ezekiel 28:4-5). That dexterity of gathering riches, where it is not attended with the Christian art of rightly using them, abases men's souls and wholly indisposes them for this wisdom that is from above. There is a natural wisdom far more plausible than the other two, more harmless than that hellish wisdom, and more refined than that earthly wisdom, yet no more able to make man holy and happy than they. Natural (ψυχική) is the word the Apostle St. Paul uses (1 Corinthians 2), naming the natural man by his better part, his soul; intimating that the soul, even in its highest faculty, the understanding, and that in the highest pitch of excellency to which nature can raise it, is blind in spiritual objects. Things that are above it cannot be known but by a wisdom from above. Nature neither affords this wisdom, nor can it of itself acquire it.

This is to advertise us that we mistake not morality and common knowledge, even of divine things, for the wisdom that is from above. This may raise a man high above the vulgar, as the tops of the highest mountains leave the valleys below them, yet it is still as far short of true supernatural wisdom as the highest earth is of the highest sphere. There is one main point of the method of this wisdom that is of most hard digestion to a natural man, and the more naturally wise he is, the worse he likes it. If any man would be wise, let him become a fool that he may become wise (1 Corinthians 3:18). There is nothing that gives nature a greater prejudice against religion than this initial point of self-denial. When men of eminent learning or strong politicians hear that if they will come to Christ, they must renounce their own wisdom to be fit for his, many of them go away as sorrowful as the young man when he heard of selling all his goods and giving them to the poor.

Jesus Christ is that eternal and substantial wisdom that came from above to deliver men from perishing in their affected folly, as you find it at large (Proverbs 8). St. Paul, in the first chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians, calls him the wisdom of God (v. 24). That shows his excellency in himself, and verse 30 tells us that he is made of God our wisdom. That shows his usefulness to us, and by him alone is this infused wisdom from above conveyed to us. In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). And from his fullness (if at all) we all receive grace for grace; and of all graces, first some measures of this wisdom, without which no man can know himself, much less can he know God.

Now this supernatural wisdom has in it both speculation and prudence. It is contemplative and practical. These two must not be separated: "I, wisdom, dwell with prudence" (Proverbs 8:12). This wisdom, in its contemplative part, reads Christ much and discovers in him a new world of hidden excellencies unknown to this old world. There are treasures of wisdom in him (Colossians 2:3), but they are hid, and no eye sees them but that which is enlightened with this wisdom. No, it is impossible, as he says, ἀόρατα. But when the renewed understanding of a Christian is once initiated into this study, it both grows daily more and more apprehensive, and Christ becomes more communicative of himself and makes the soul acquainted with the amiable countenance of his Father in him reconciled. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him (John 1:18). What wonder if the unlettered and despised Christian knows more of the mysteries of heaven than the naturalist, though both wise and learned? Christ admits the believer into his bosom, and he is in the bosom of the Father.

But withal know that all this knowledge, though speculatively high, yet descends to practice; as it learns what God is, so it thence teaches man what he should be. This wisdom flows from heaven, and a heavenly conversation flows from it, as we find it there characterized by these practical graces of purity, peace, meekness, etc.

This wisdom represents to us the purity of God's nature (1 John 3:3). It gives the soul an eye to see the comeliness and beauty of purity, as the philosopher said of virtue: to the end it might be loved, he would wish no more but that it could be seen. And as it thus morally persuades, so by an insensible virtue, it assimilates the soul to Christ by frequent contemplation. It also produces all the motives to holiness and obedience; it begets these precious qualities in the soul. It gives a Christian a view of the matchless virtues that are in Christ and stirs him up to a diligent, though imperfect, imitation of them. It sets before us Christ's spotless purity, in whose mouth there was no guile, and so invites us to purity. It represents the perpetual calmness of his spirit, that no tempest could reach to disturb it; in his mouth, there was no contentious noise; his voice was not heard in the streets. And this recommends peaceableness and gentleness, and so in the rest here mentioned.

Hence I conceive may be fitly learned for our use, seeing there is a due wisdom and knowledge necessary for guidance and directing in the ways of purity and peace.

It is evident that gross ignorance cannot consist with the truth of religion, much less can it be a help and advantage to it. I shall never deny that a false superstitious religion stands in need of it; not too much scripture wisdom for the people: the pomp of that vain religion, like court masks, shows best by candlelight; fond nature likes it well; the day of spiritual wisdom would discover its imposture too clearly. But to let their foul devotion pass (for such it must needs be, that is born of so black a mother as ignorance) let this wisdom at least be justified by those that pretend to be her children. It is lamentable that amongst us, where knowledge is not withheld, men should through sloth and love of darkness deprive themselves of it. What abundance of almost brutish ignorance is amongst the commons? And thence uncleanness and all manner of wickedness; a darkness that both hides and increases impurity. What's the reason of so much impiety and iniquity in all places but the want of the knowledge of God? (Hosea 4:1-2 and 2 Thessalonians 1:8). Not knowing Jesus Christ and not obeying his Gospel are joined together. It will be found true that where there is no obedience, there is no right knowledge of Christ: but out of all question, where there is not a competency of knowledge, there can be no obedience; and as these two lodge together, so observe what attends them both. He shall come in flaming fire to render vengeance on them that know not God and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

And if there be any that think to shroud unpunished amongst the thickets of ignorance, especially amidst the means of knowledge, take notice of this: though it may hide the deformity of sin from your own sight for a time, it cannot palliate it from the piercing eye, nor cover it from the revenging hand of divine justice. As you would escape then that wrath to come, come to wisdom's school, and how simple soever ye be as to this world, if you would not perish with the world, learn to be wise unto salvation.

And truly it is mainly important for this effect, that the ministers of the Gospel be active and dexterous in imparting this wisdom to their people. If they would have their conversation to be holy, peaceable, and fruitful, etc., the most expedient way is once to principle them well in the fundamentals of religion, for therein is their great defect. How can they walk evenly and regularly so long as they are in the dark? One main thing is to be often pointing at the way to Christ, the fountain of this wisdom. You bid them be clothed and clothe them not.

How needful then is it that pastors themselves be seers indeed, as the prophets were called of old, not only faithful but wise dispensers, as our Saviour speaks (St. Luke 12:42). That they be διδακτικός, able and apt to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). Laudable is the prudence that tries much the Church's storehouses, the seminaries of learning, but withal, it is not to be forgotten that as a due furniture of learning is very requisite for this employment, so it is not sufficient. When one is duly enriched that way, there is yet one thing wanting that grows not in schools: except this infused wisdom from above season and sanctify all other endowments, they remain κοινός, common and unholy, and therefore unfit for the sanctuary. Amongst other weak pretences to Christ's favour in the last day, this is one: "We have preached in thy name," yet says Christ, "I never knew you." Surely then, they knew not him, and yet they preached him. Cold and lifeless, though never so fine and well contrived, must those discourses be that are of an unknown Christ. Pastors are called angels, and therefore though they use the secondary helps of knowledge, they are mainly to bring their message from above, from the fountain, the head of this pure wisdom.

Pure: If it comes from above it must needs be pure originally, yea it is formally pure too, being a main trait of God's renewed image in the soul. By this wisdom the understanding is both resigned and strengthened to entertain right conceptions of God in his nature and works. And this is primarily necessary, that the mind be not infected with false opinions in religion. If the springhead be polluted, the streams cannot be pure; it is more important than men usually think, for a good life. But that which I suppose is here chiefly intended is that it is effectively and practically pure. It purifies the heart (Acts 15:9), said of faith (which in some sense and acceptation differs not much from this wisdom), and consequently the words and actions that flow from the heart.

This purity that true wisdom works is contrary to all pollution. We know then in some measure what it is, it rests to inquire where it is, and there is the difficulty; it is far easier to design it in itself than to find it among men. Who can say I have made my heart clean? (Proverbs 20:9). Look upon the greatest part of mankind, and you may know at first sight that purity is not to be looked for among them. They suffer it not to come near them, much less to dwell with them and within them; they hate the very semblance of it in others, and themselves delight in intemperance and all manner of licentiousness, like foolish children striving who shall go furthest into the mire. These cannot say they have made clean their hearts, for all their words and actions will belie them. If you come to the mere moralist, the world's honest man, and ask him; it may be he will tell you he has cleansed his heart, but believe him not. It will appear he is not yet cleansed because he says he has done it himself, for (you know) there must be some other besides man at this work. Again, he rising no higher than nature, has none of this heavenly wisdom in him, and therefore is without this purity too. But if you chance to take notice of some well-skilled hypocrite, everything you meet with makes you almost confident that there is purity; yet if he be strictly put to it, he may make some good account of the pains he has taken to refine his tongue and his public actions, but he dare not say he has made clean his heart. It troubles his peace to be asked the question: he never intended to banish sin, but to retire it to his innermost and best room, that so it might dwell unseen within him, and where then should it lodge but in his heart? Yet possibly, because what is outward is so fair, and man cannot look deeper to contradict him, he may embolden himself to say he is inwardly suitable to his appearance. But there is a day at hand that shall, to his endless shame, at once discover both his secret impurity and his impudence in denying it.

After these, there follows a few despised and melancholy persons (at least as to outward appearance) who are almost always hanging down their heads and complaining of abundant sinfulness. And sure, purity cannot be expected in these who are so far from it by their own confession. Yet the truth is that such purity, as is here below, will either be found to lodge among these or nowhere. Be not deceived, think not that they who loathe and (as they can) fly from the unholiness of the world are therefore taken with the conceit of their own holiness. But as their perfect purity of justification is by Christ's imputed righteousness, so likewise they will know and do always acknowledge that their inherent holiness is from above too, from the same fountain, Jesus Christ. The wisdom from above is pure; this their engagement to heaven, for it excludes vaunting and boasting. And besides that, it is imperfect, troubled and stained with sin, which is enough to keep them humble. Their daily sad experience will not suffer them to be so mistaken; their many faults of infirmity cannot but keep them from this presumptuous fault. There is a generation indeed that is pure in their own eyes (Proverbs 30:12), but they are such as are not washed from their filthiness. They that are washed are still bewailing that they again contract so much defilement. The most purified Christians are they that are most sensible of their impurity. Therefore, I called not this an universal freedom from pollution but an universal detestation of it. They that are thus pure are daily defiled with many sins, but they cannot be in love with any sin at all, nor do they willingly dispense with the smallest sins, which a natural man either sees not to be sin (though his dim moonlight discover grosser evils), or if he does see them, yet he judges it too much niceness to choose a great inconvenience rather than a little sin. Again, they differ in another particular: a natural man may be so far in love with virtue after his manner as to dislike his own faults and resolve to amend them, but yet he would think it a great weakness to sit down and mourn for sin and to afflict his soul, as the scripture speaks. The Christian's repentance goes not so lightly, there is a great deal more work in it (2 Corinthians 7:11). There is not only indignation against impurity, but it proceeds to revenge. The saints we read of in scripture were ashamed of their impurity but never of their tears for it. Let the world enjoy their own thoughts and account it folly, yet sure the Christian that delights in purity, seeing he cannot be free from daily sin, when he retires himself at night, is then best contented when his eyes serve him most plentifully to weep out the stains of the past day. Yet he knows withal that it is only his Redeemer's blood that takes away the guilt of them. This is the condition of those that are truly, though not yet fully, cleansed from the pollutions of the world by the spirit of wisdom and purity. What mean they then, that would argue themselves out of this number because they find yet much dross left, and that they are not so defecated and refined as they would wish to be? On the contrary, this hatred of pollution testifies strongly that the contrary of it, purity, is there. And though its beginnings be small, doubt not, it shall in the end be victorious. The smoking of this flax shows indeed that there is gross matter there, but it witnesses likewise that there is fire in it too; and though it be little, we have Christ's own word for it that it shall not be quenched; and if he favours it, no other power shall be able to quench it. You find not indeed absolute holiness in your persons, nor in your best performances, yet if you breathe and follow after it, if the pulse of the heart beats thus, if the main current of your affection be towards purity, if sin be in you as your disease and greatest grief and not as your delight, then take courage, you are as pure as travellers can be. And notwithstanding that impure spirit, Satan, and the impurity of your own spirits vex you daily with temptations and often foil you, yet in spite of them all, you shall arrive safe at home where perfection dwells.

Wisdom from above is Pure. Be ashamed then of your extreme folly, you that take pleasure in any kind of uncleanness, especially seeing God hath reformed and purged his house amongst us. You that are, or should be, his living temples, remain not unreformed: if you do, Church reformation will be so far from profiting you that, as a clearer light, it will but serve to make your impurity both more visible and more inexcusable. If you mean that the Holy Ghost should dwell with you, entertain him, avoiding both spiritual and fleshly pollutions. The word here used doth more particularly signify chastity, and certainly, wherever this wisdom from above is, this comely grace is one of her attendants. Whatever any have been in times past, let all be persuaded henceforth to mortify all lustful and carnal affections. Know that there is more true and lasting pleasure in the contempt of unlawful pleasures than in the enjoyment of them. Grieve not then the good Spirit of God with actions or speeches, yea, or with thoughts, that are impure. The unholy soul, like the mystical Babylon (Revelation 18:2), makes itself a cage of unclean birds and a habitation of filthy spirits, and if it continues to be such, it must, when it dislodges, take up its habitation with cursed spirits forever in utter darkness. But as for those that are sincerely and affectionately pure, that is, pure in heart, our Saviour hath pronounced their begun happiness: "Blessed are the pure in heart" (and assured them of full happiness), "for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). This wisdom is sent from heaven on purpose to guide the elect thither by the way of purity. And mark how well their reward is suited to their labour: their frequent contemplating and beholding of God's purity as they could, while they were on their journey, and their labouring to be like him, shall bring them to sit down in glory, and to be forever the pure beholders of that purest object. They shall see God. What this is, we cannot tell you, nor can you conceive it. But walk heavenwards in purity, and long to be there, where you shall know what it means; for you shall see him as he is. Now to that blessed Trinity be praise forever.

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