Seminary Viewpoints

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Worldly Wisdom and the Faith-Practice Gap

Sam Horn | October 20, 2022
Theology Thursday

My wife and I for years conducted a summer leadership development program for high school students, most immersed in Christian homes, churches and education. More significant to us than the inevitable gaps between many young people’s claimed beliefs and their personal choices and conduct was their level of comfort with these inconsistencies.

And yet more disturbing: that same comfort with sin is far too prevalent among professing adult fundamentalist believers, immensely damaging not only personal walks, families and faith communities, but especially our witness.

What accounts for this destructive gap between professed faith and worldly daily walk? Pastor James’ answer: “double-minded” believers’ struggle to embrace wisdom from above while bombarded with the compelling attraction of wisdom from below.

Surprisingly, even Christians who have experienced the transforming power of God’s truth choose to operate by the values and behaviors of those in the kingdom of darkness. James shows us that the wisdom we embrace is devastatingly connected to our entire lives — what we feel, and therefore, say and do — revealing four important truths in this regard.

1. False Wisdom is, in Fact, a Choice.

James encourages his readers early on, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (1:5). Wisdom from above to guide our lives is freely available, no matter our current spiritual condition.

2. False Wisdom Fuels Sinful Desires.

The consequences of rejecting this offer become clear when wisdom from below works on our hearts. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’” James admonishes (1:13-14). “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” — for things that God hasn’t yet granted or we don’t believe He will grant.

Jesus made clear that these worldly feelings are themselves sins: even ogling a woman is adultery. We see that today with exclamation points in the vile pornography perused by a majority of Christian men, choosing worldly perspectives on sex over God’s intent.

Sinful feelings of “bitter envy and selfish ambition” are also generated by false wisdom (3:14-16). This envy is sinful zealousness for our personal agendas when others get what we feel we deserve, be it material belongings or simply recognition for their giftedness. Selfish ambition pursues personal gain or advancement, for example through a particular theological agenda.

3. False Wisdom Plays Out in Our Works.

For James, the sure test of a believer’s choice of wisdom is behavioral. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” he queries. “By his good conduct let him show his works” (3:13).

The converse is also true: we will clearly see evil outworkings of desires generated by wisdom from below. James points out that when lust “has conceived, (it) gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (1:13-15). And specifically, when the desires of bitter envy and selfish ambition take hold, they produce “disorder and every vile practice” (3:16).

We saw — and see — disordered relationships in favoritism of rich over poor and factional quarrels in James’ day (2:1-16; 4:1) and today’s partisanship and tribalism. Paralleling James’ admonitions against unbridled tongues speaking ill of brothers (3:3-12; 4:11) is the foul language that pervades not only our culture but the speech of too many Christians, and the crudity and cruelty many display over social media.

We saw — and see — vile practices in the early church’s covetousness (4:2-3) and present-day materiality and celebrity obsession. And church members’ “passions” and “adulterous” behavior (4:3-4) have now widened to encompass every imaginable sexual perversion, not to mention divorce and the destruction of families.

Finally, we saw — and see — wrong wisdom choices played out then and now in obsession with material wealth and business success over trust in the Lord and desire to do His will (4:13-17), and especially declining fervor for spreading the Gospel.

4. False Wisdom’s Ultimate Source is Satan Himself.

Ultimately, false wisdom is so powerful due to its “demonic” source (3:14): Satan himself. James points out that his readers’ tongues were “set on fire by hell” (3:6), and that when we operate from false wisdom, we are friends of the world, putting us at enmity with our Savior (4:4).

James’ Solution: Draw Near to God — and to Each Other.

To escape the devastation of wrong choices, James directs us back to the beginning: seeking the right wisdom from Him who offers it “without reproach.”

James 4:7-10 commands us to “resist the devil” and his demonic wisdom and “draw near to God” through submission, repentance and “purification,” that is, holiness. And 5:16 encourages us to draw our brethren into this circle through mutual confession and prayer, that we might be “healed,” implying both physical and spiritual wholeness.

And lest we forget how God communicates wisdom to us from above: “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (1:21).

The wisest wisdom of all: if we draw near to God, His Word and each other, He will once again draw near to us — and close the gap between our preaching and practice.

As discussed by Sam Horn on The Steve Noble Show on October 20