Legalism is different than the “obedience of faith.” Obedience of faith is expressed in exercising great discipline in the power of the Holy Spirit, completely obedient to God’s word, which includes the law and even more, beginning with the law of love.
Not to gain God’s favor, but out of a humble overflowing gratitude for what God has done and is doing.
Not to gain life, but to sacrifice one’s own life to God’s glory and for others’ good.
But the wisdom from-above is first pure, then peaceful, kind, yielding, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, sincere. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by the ones making peace.James 3:17-18 (DLNT)
James compared worldly wisdom with heavenly wisdom, showing how diametrically opposed they are to each other.
Paul seemed to lean into the same vein in his discourse on the heavenly quality of spiritual fruit (as opposed to the rottenness of fleshly fruit).
And I say— be walking by the Spirit and you will never fulfill the desire of the flesh.For the flesh desires against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh. For these are contrary to one another in-order-that you might not be doing these things which you may be wanting.
. . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. And the ones of Christ Jesus crucified the flesh, with its passions and desires. If we are living by the Spirit, let us also be walking-in-line with the Spirit.Galatians 5:16-17, 22-24 (DLNT)
Some objections may be raised . . .
I remember the first time I really read the Book of James, and I have to admit, I got offended.
It is not as though I had never started a proverbial forest fire with my words. Like everyone else, I have had my moments! And it is not as though I considered myself preternaturally wise (although, best guess, I probably saw myself in a better light than was truly warranted).
But I did know people I deeply admired and respected, who seemed very wise to me in all the ways James described, but they were not Christians. Not even close. Some subscribed to other faiths, and some subscribed to no particular faith at all.
What about them?
Whereas I also knew a number of people who were quite certain they were Christians—born from above by the Spirit believers—but I did not think very highly of their character or their way with people.
So how was it that James could speak of heavenly wisdom accessed by Christians versus worldly wisdom consigned to the rest of, well, the world? When I did not see that consistently played out around me?
And that is when I stumbled across a more nuanced understanding of grace.
Usually when we—or at least I—think of grace, it is in the context of salvation. As the Apostle Paul explained,
For by grace you are saved through faith. And this is not from you. It is the gift of God—not of works, in order that no one may boast.Ephesians 2:8 (DLNT)
In other words, We are saved by grace alone through faith alone. We are saved on the basis of God’s grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which we receive when we hear and believe the gospel.
But there is another way grace is often spoken of in the Christian testament, which Apostle Paul also described.
And God is able to cause all grace to abound to you in order that in everything, always having all sufficiency, you may be abounding for every good work.2 Corinthians 9:8 (DLNT)
Grace makes it possible for God to work through us and in us. God’s enabling grace is abundant, and it is to enable you and me to be generous in doing good, and giving good things. Grace is God’s power, God’s divine assistance, to be the expression of God in every situation.
God gives grace for what is needed. And this is the lesson God taught Paul three times,
In order that I might not be exalted, a thorn in the flesh was given to me; a messenger of Satan to beat me in order that I might not be exalted.
I appealed-to the Lord about this three-times, that it might depart from me.
And He has said to me: “My grace is sufficient for you. For My power is perfected in weakness”. Therefore most-gladly I will rather boast in my weaknesses in order that the power of Christ may dwell upon me.2 Corinthians 12:7-9 (DLNT)
God’s grace is most visible when you and I are weak, when it is obvious that what we have, what we do, is all from the Lord.
This last expression of God’s love for the whole earth is the one I think I might love most, for this is God’s leading edge, the revelation of God that seemed hidden for so long and was finally revealed in Jesus, who said,
I say to you, be loving your enemies, and be praying for the ones persecuting you, so that you may prove-to-be sons of your Father in the heavens—because He causes His sun to rise upon evil and good ones, and He sends rain upon righteous and unrighteous ones.Matthew 5:44-45 (DLNT)
God blesses the whole earth, and sustains all life. The Lord causes God’s love to flow out to people, who experience God’s goodness in so many ways in life.
Because God is love, God’s grace flows from God’s love.
Access to Heavenly Wisdom
Previously, James had taught,
Every good gift-giving and every perfect gift-given is from-above, coming down from the Father of lights, with Whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.James 1:17 (DLNT)
I cannot prove it, and I cannot find a Bible verse for it. But, as I look around me, and see the earth enriched with good wisdom, heavenly wisdom, genuine love, the real deal, I think to myself, This is God’s common grace to all people, for every good thing comes from above, and whether they realize it or not, that person is enjoying, or giving, or receiving something from the Lord.
Perhaps Some Scriptural Examples
I have wondered if maybe the following people were exercising spiritual wisdom in response to the prompting of God, even though we do not know them as members of God’s people.
The Witch of Endor, maybe? She showed care when King Saul had no one else to turn to.
The Phoenician widow? She fed the Prophet Elijah when she had so little she was literally preparing the last meal for her and her son. Nearly a thousand years later, Jesus said of her,
The truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.Jesus, Luke 4:25-26 (NRSV)
Perhaps the trauma of her own poverty, and forced existence on the fringes of society had deepened within her a sense of compassion and generosity to the disadvantaged—as Elijah certainly was in their country.
King Artexerxes? He not only agreed for Nehemiah to return to Judah, leading the exiles home, but also financed rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls and temple.
In fact, writer of Proverbs declared,
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; [God] turns it wherever [God] will.Proverbs 21:1 (NRSV)
King Darius? He decreed that not only should the rebuilding of the temple continue, but the surrounding provinces were to support this work with due diligence.
Then King Darius wrote to all peoples and nations of every language throughout the whole world: “May you have abundant prosperity! I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel:
For he is the living God,
His kingdom shall never be destroyed,
and his dominion has no end.
He delivers and rescues,
he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth;
for he has saved Daniel
from the power of the lions.”
So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.Daniel 6:25-28 (NRSV)
[Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarepta | Bernardo Strozzi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]