The Priority of a Pleasurable Purity
Years ago, while working as Associate Pastor and Personal Assistant to Dr. John MacArthur, I was tasked with coordinating the yearly donor cruises sponsored by John’s radio ministry, Grace to You. At one of the ports-of-call, I took advantage of an excursion to enjoy some deep sea diving in the pristine waters of St. Thomas. Accompanied by a few buddies, I descended under the watchful eye of our instructor. After learning the mechanics I found myself enthralled with the crystal clear luminosity of the blue Caribbean paradise. The brilliant colors of the tropical fish, the varieties of shells, and the clarity of it all left me in awe. It was like discovering a whole new world of dazzling brilliance with an awakened set of eyes.
Contrast that amazement to a snorkeling attempt I pursued in high-school in the lake where our family lived in southern New Mexico. The lake was fed by the muddy Rio Grande River. Swimming near the inlet, I made numerous attempts to see something other than my hand right in front of my face. Post haste, I conceded the effort, realizing that the water was simply too dirty to enjoy any kind of aquatic sightseeing.
Just as navigating in a body of water is more enjoyable in pristine and unobstructed surroundings, so should it be with life. Yet, this ideal has been lost in today’s culture.
Selective Pursuits of Purity
We still love purity, at least selectively. Americans are obsessed with pure water, evidenced by the astonishing sales of bottled H2O and in-home filtering systems. We know that impure water can result in intestinal sickness short-term and endangered health long-term.
The major nations of the world convene to address the dangers of polluted air. Contaminated food can tank a food-supply company or restaurant almost overnight when E-coli or some other food-borne illnesses are discovered. Yes, we value purity when it comes to the health of our bodies.
But, when it comes to the health of our souls and relationships, purity seems a passé and discarded commodity. Our culture has pursued values and behaviors that have polluted and corrupted our relationships. As a result, marriages, families, friendships, and churches have suffered. God’s ideal for us includes pure, clean, clear, harmonious, and ultimately enjoyable relationships. Sadly, we have muddied the waters with all sorts of foolery based on the lesser and life-robbing values of this world.
So, it is no surprise that the writer James begins to unpack his inspired description of New Testament wisdom by saying, “the wisdom from above is first pure” (James 3:16). Wisdom is pure and purity is wise.
The purity of wisdom is listed first for good reason. Purity is preeminent in a wise life. The word pure (hagnos) refers to innocence and moral blamelessness. This word refers to something free of contamination or defilement (just like we want our water, air, and food). In the New Testament hagnos is most often translated “holy”.
Purity is the fundamental essence of all Gospel wisdom and must be at the core of the other virtues, like those listed by James in the following verses (3:17-18). Remember, this wisdom is “from above”. God, who reigns above, is first holy. As you are reading this page something truly awesome is concurrently happening “above” that must capture our hearts. The heavenly creatures are surrounding the throne of God in the midst of “flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder” (Revelation 4:5). “Day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Revelation 4:8)
In response to God’s holiness, the description follows, “the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created’” (Revelation 4:10-11).
In this imagery we see both the priority and power of purity. In the apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon, it says that wisdom is “the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty” (7:25) and, “O send her from thy holy heavens from the throne of thy glory” (9:4). Jewish writers agreed that true wisdom came from above, specifically from the glorious throne of a holy God.
Back on earth, we grovel along in this sin-sick and relationally broken world. How can we possibly experience and exhibit that kind of wisdom? So pure. So holy. Throughout human history mankind has recognized the gulf between sinful man and pure diety. Even among the Greeks this was illustrated. The mythical god, Aesculapius, was the God of healing. Inscribed at the temple dedicated to him in the 4th century BC in the city of Epidaurus, these words appeared: “He who would enter the divine temple must be pure; and purity is to have a mind which thinks holy thoughts.” [i] Holiness preceded healing.
The true holiness leading to healing has became our reality in Christ. First Peter 2:24 says of Christ, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” Hebrews 10:10 underscores this, “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (NIV). A few verses later the writer of Hebrews says, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (10:14). The Apostle Paul also writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Pure. Holy. Right before God. Healed. All because of the work of Jesus on the cross.
A Core Response
In his letter James contrasts this purity with the fruits of earthly wisdom that are anything but holy. He says, “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.” He then says worldly wisdom produces “disorder and every vile practice” (3:14 & 16). Since we are bombarded every day with this evil “wisdom” via the media and by unregenerate people in every segment of society, how should we respond?
James admonishes, “do not boast” (take pride in) this way of living. Rather we should repent before God and humbly acknowledge our sin and His holiness. James also instructs us, “do not be false to the truth.” We must embrace the truth of God’s word in our minds, our emotions, and the depths of our souls so that we will not be conformed to the corrupt wisdom of the day, but transformed by the transforming word and wisdom of God (Romans 12:1-2).
Possible, Promised Purity
For those who have been transformed by the Gospel, the reality of a pure life before God is possible. The reality of a pure God manifested in our life is promised. First Corinthians 1:30 assures us, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Notice the life of Jesus’s wisdom in combination with His righteousness, sanctification, and redemption – all ours in the fullest – as He lives through us. We could say that Christ’s pure life in us is the source of a truly wise and winsome life where the waters are clear and the journey is truly rewarding.
Special note: Think Before You Look – Avoiding the Consequences of Secret Sin is a practical and potent tool to help men avoid the negative consequences of pornography. The book provides 40 positive reasons to avoid impurity via short, high-impact chapters. Check it out HERE.
Copyright © 2016 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.
[i] William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976) 95