Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

James 3:13-18

How you sow seed determines the quality of the harvest you receive later.

Paul makes it clear that the gospel will save or justify a hearer who believes it even if the preacher is operating from bad motives.

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Philippians 1:15-18

So, even with bad motives, preaching the gospel to people who believe it will produce righteousness, that is justification, the righteousness that is imputed to us by faith. That is, we get Jesus’ perfect resume in place of our fouled up resume.

There is another definition to righteousness to which I believe James is referring in our passage. It refers to what I will call practical righteousness where people begin to behave more like Jesus with love, peace and joy along with other qualities of Jesus’ character.

It has been my experience that some preaching of the gospel can produce conduct that is not righteous in the practical sense. I believe this is what James is referring to here. Notice that the chapter begins with the admonition that, “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” He goes on to write about the tongue and how dangerous the tongue is, with it we bless God and curse people, it ought not be so.

We should all, not just formal teachers, be aware that how we live taints our words and impacts on those who hear us. In my years I have known preachers who preached sound doctrine. The content of their preaching could not legitimately be criticized. However, these men exuded arrogance or as James labels it, bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. They were consumed with two motivations, one that their doctrinal position was the right one and everyone who saw it differently was wrong and two that their church had to be growing faster than any other church in town. While people were truly coming to saving faith in Christ under this Pastor’s ministry, the character of his disciples was not like that of Christ, but like that of the Pastor who was consumed with bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. This principle applies to every believer, not just ordained clergy.

My point? The seed we sow (God’s word) can be perfectly good seed, but how it is sown will impact the quality of the harvest. James is pushing us to the wisdom that is from above that is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere; not the wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.

These are really harsh words James is writing and have deeply penetrated my heart to pursue the wisdom that is from above. I want any harvest that comes from my sowing to not only help people to saving faith, but also for me to be an example that demonstrates godly wisdom so when my spiritual children begin to imitate their spiritual Dad, I won’t be ashamed of their behavior.

Yes, I know that Jesus is the example we are to follow but to not understand that we follow other human beings is to be naive. Even Paul told his followers to follow him as he follows Christ. Those who are younger in Christ than ourselves will follow our example be it good or bad. If our example is not good, hopefully in time our disciples will become sufficiently saturated with the word of God that it will overwrite our poor example and our disciples will look more like Jesus than we do. Of course, the best thing is to be a good example in the first place and our disciples won’t have to unlearn bad habits.