The Tongue, the Bridle, and the Blessing: An Exposition of James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

(These are notes taken during the session, not a manuscript.)

This is obviously a passage that preeminently illustrates the principle of Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16 and following:

Every Scripture is given to us for teaching doctrine, reproving us, correcting us, training us in righteousness…

The practical purpose of Scripture is to make us spiritually mature. It unfolds truth for our darkened minds, it touches our consciences in the power of the Holy Spirit and convicts us of our sin till the end of our lives.

It’s one of the burdens of James that these Christians to whom he is speaking should be brought to a great spiritual maturity.

He opens the book by talking about suffering, and then talks about how the Word of God and our response to it builds us up and makes us mature.

In verse 2 of chapter 3, he says the man able to control his tongue is a perfect man, mature in his Christian life, sharing the passion of the apostle Paul to present every man mature in Christ before the judgment seat of God. In doing this, he draws on a wide variety of OT teaching, metaphor, proverb, and weaves into this passage so many ideas that we could have a whole conference on these verses.

Perhaps he has in his mind's eye the character and language of Jesus, who spoke with such grace, and yet such a dramatic cutting edge.

I want us to try to get our arms around what James is saying by doing three things:

  1. By walking through these 12 verses of chapter 3 to see what James has to say about the use of the tongue.
  2. To stand back from that and put this teaching in the context of the whole book of James, to see the practical counsel he gives to believers.
  3. To stand further back and see how James sets this teaching on the tongue in the context of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

1. The teaching of James on the tongue in James 3:1-12

First, James addresses the difficulty of taming the tongue. He is speaking in the first instance to those who would teach. He advises us that not many of us should be teachers, because by our words we will be more strictly judged.

As he speaks to those who would aspire to be teachers, he is bringing to bear generic gospel principles. The first principle is the difficulty of taming the tongue. He begins with a personal confession: We all stumble in many ways. Perhaps he is reflecting on occasions in his own life, those first thirty years in our blessed Master’s life when James had a view of everything Jesus was growing into as he grew into maturity. Perhaps from childhood he had seen Jesus grow in stature and wisdom in his use of his tongue, as he grew from holiness to holiness into his adult years. Perhaps James reflects on some of the snide comments he made to Jesus.

To be a mature Christian, you have to learn to be able to bridle to tongue.

It’s fascinating to notice 1 Corinthians 15:7. It stands out as a strange incident. Jesus appears to Peter. He appears to the twelve. He appears to the five hundred at once. But then he appears to James, perhaps to bring him an assurance of power of pardon, that he who had an untamed tongue would grow to become a man whose tongue was so tamed that his words would sear us but that they would be attended with such grace for us.

This passage in James is Dr. James’ light, as he looks at our tongue and sees the subtleness of its twistedness and the language that comes from it. He shows us how difficult it is in the first place to master the tongue. “The man who has learned to master the tongue is a mature man.”

In a sense, James says that the thing that will make the greatest impression on the people around you is not the great things you do, how you appear on the public stage or arena, but the question of whether or not you have mastered your tongue. He engages in a rigorous analysis.

The first piece of imagery he uses is of a person able to bridle his tongue in order to bridle his body. The man who can control his tongue can control himself. When the great masters of the Christian life have reflected on this, they have reflected on this in a certain way, not by speech, but by lack of speech. The man who has bridled his tongue is not just a man who knows how to use his tongue, but who also knows when to remain silent. The man who has bridled his tongue can also move from silence into speaking. There seem to be two camps in Christianity, those who prefer to remain silent, and those who overspeak.

When James speaks about the mastery of the tongue, he isn’t just speaking about the words we use, he is speaking about the sensitivity to use the words that are necessary, those that are sensitive and gracious, and then to remain silent when such silent is necessary. James’ words are also intended for those who are prone to remain silent, so that they would be able to speak for the sake of the gospel.

In James 1:26, he throws out the overture of the symphony of his teaching. “If anyone thinks he is religious and cannot control his tongue, he deceives his tongue.” I think it’s very searching to think that my inability to speak may be an expression of my inability to bridle my tongue, and vice versa. The ability, by God’s grace, to say the right thing in the right person at the right tongue in the power of the Holy Spirit in faith is a magnificent grace in the life of the believer.

Bridling the tongue is a hallmark of spiritual maturity. He says nobody has mastered the tongue finally. It is a moment by moment battle in the heart for a sanctification that is so whole-person that even the grace of our Lord Jesus is manifested through our tongues.

This, for most of us, is the long, running battle of the heart as we come together for this conference. We ought to ask each other if we are still fighting it.

2. James speaks about the disproportionate power of the tongue (1:3-5)

He uses the images of the bridle and horse and the rudder and the ship to talk about this.

When I was a late teenager, I was taken on the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II. It was a mammoth ship. Then I was taken to see what, comparatively speaking, is this tiny rudder that guides it every which way it goes. James says this is what the tongue is like. It is so small. It has no bone. And yet it is so powerful to build up and destroy. Why does it do that? Because it carries the breath of our souls into the world in which you live.

When I was coming down the elevator, a person came in who had obviously been smoking. Each time this person opened his mouth, the air became more polluted. Why? Because this person could not but breathe out what was within. James says this is true of the tongue. And like smokers, we never notice the atmosphere we are breathing out. James says every time we open our mouths, we give ourselves away. As the KJV says, “We give ourselves away.”

One of the burden of my life living in the U.S. is that people keep telling me I have an accent. I can’t open my mouth without betraying my identity. It’s the apparent disproportion between this tiny, little instrument and the connectedness it has to my being that I can’t open my mouth with out showing whether or not I give myself away as someone who breathes depravity in the room.

Thank God for the Scriptures that encourage us to believe that our tongues can praise Jesus, bring comfort, that a sentence that we spoke a long time ago brought balm to a soul unbeknownst to us.

James says there is a disproportionate power to the tongue that it permeates everything we do.

Because his concern here, in part, is to bring us a deep-seated conviction of sin, to get under our sense of adequacy and show us our need of the grace and mercy of God, he moves on to a 3rd thing.

3. The destruction caused by the tongue

Pictures now simply roll out of James. The tongue is a small member but boasts of many things. It is a fire, set on fire by hell (Gehhena) itself. The Valley of Hinnom became the rubbish dump of Jerusalem. Perhaps this was the very place where the body of Jesus would have been thrown after his crucifixion.

James says the tongue is a world, an entire course of life.

I remember being on a plane and looking at the in-flight magazine. In the quiz in the magazine, there was a picture of the moon and you were supposed to guess what it was. The answer was in the back of the book, and I turned there, only to discover that it was really a picture of the tongue.

It’s almost as if James has this picture of the tongue as a world filled with craters in which so much iniquity can lie.

The tongue is a tiny instrument that ruins everything, like a stain on a dress. The misuse of the tongue can apparently render every other grace in my life impotent. We know that it takes one single wrong word for everything we have ever done to crumble into hypocrisy.

I think, at least in those last three pictures he’s using, James has Genesis 3 in the back of his mind: the poison under the tongue of the serpent, restless in his disobedience to God. Satan goes about like a restless, roaring lion, and he produces restlessness in the heart. He is a beast, and one of his chief instruments is this tiny instrument GOd has given us to praise his name.

James knows from the teaching of Jesus that this tongue can cause endless destruction. You can destroy a person’s reputation by your tongue more than you can destroy their life by assault.

One of the most helpful spiritual exercises one can do is quietly meditate on the 10 commandments of God and think of the way the tongue has the capability of breaching these commandments, and you and I hardly move an inch.

Tongues that were meant to express praise remain silent in worship or are deadened in praise. On the Lord’s Day, tongues that were given to speak words of love that then speak words of flattery, lust, and adultery. Tongues given to speak the truth that tell fabrications, a little less than the truth. Tongues that were meant to give, now take, take, take.

Sometimes, I wonder if the misuse of the tongue is a peculiarly evangelical sin. I’ve been on many occasions with brothers, and when someone’s name is mentioned, the first lash of the tongue is to destroy that brother. He may not be perfect, he may have many foibles, but how dare I destroy with a word a brother for whom Christ has died within the context of fellowship with his people?

I reflected this week on Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions. Here are some about the tongue:

Resolved, never to say anything against anybody except when it is acceptable to the highest degree of Christian honor and agreeable to the golden rule. Often, when I have said anything against someone, to judge it by this resolution. (#31)

Resolved, in speaking narrations, to speak the pure and simple verity. (#34)

Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak. (#70).

In the opening chapters of Romans, Paul brings us to where our mouths are shut with guilt and shame. It’s then, out of the silence before the judgment seat of God and the overflowing grace of God that I want to speak truth, grace, and love.

But James isn’t finished yet.

4. The deadly inconsistency that plagues the tongue

We bless God, but we curse his image. We should never minimize these words. We should understand that the words “bless” and “curse” have little significance. These are words that describe the serious, covenantal purposes of God to bring judgment that will lead to hell or grace that will lead to heaven. Here we are, blessing God and then cursing those made in his image.

My parents used to take me to movies, usually of cowboys and Indians. In seeing many a John Wayne movie, the only words those Indians used to know were “White man speak with forked tongue.” What a tragedy when that white man is a Christian believer.

What is this a sign of? By nature, our problem is that we are double-minded men, unstable in all our ways. We are like a spring giving out two kinds of water, a tree giving two kinds of fruit, etc.

James is going from Genesis 3 to Genesis 1. God made us to have dominion, not only over the external order, but also over the internal order.

Man and woman were to have dominion over the way they spoke to one another, to speak words of grace to one another.

Now, we have lost dominion so that we are reduced to the dust we were supposed to have dominion over. We have also lost dominion over this little instrument we were supposed to have dominion over.

In the Context of the Whole Book

Now, having said these four things, we might well find ourselves saying to James, “Do I have to go to the Christian bookstore to get practical counsel about how to do this?” I want us to stand back from this passage to set it in the context of the whole book to see how the James who breaks our consciences, also undergirds his teaching with the most amazing counsel about how I may grow to maturity and use my tongue well. It’s a great general lesson that, at first sight, the Scriptures say very little about the how-to’s. Paul doesn’t do this.

James is saying that, just like Job understood he needed to make a covenant with his eyes, that is not the whole of the Biblical principle, but the application of a Biblical principle to a particular member of the body. We need to make a covenant with our eyes and our lips.

I want to walk you through the whole book of James in just a few minutes. I want to do it in the form of some Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions.

Amazingly, outside of this passage, the book of James has at least 20 resolutions that need to be part of the Christian’s covenant with God about how the believer is going to employ the tongue and lips, and master the heart in such a way that the beauty of Jesus is expressed:

  1. I resolve to ask God for wisdom to speak out of a single-minded devotion to him (1:5).
  2. I resolve to boast only in the exultation I receive in Jesus Christ and also in the humiliation I receive for Jesus Christ (1:9-10).
  3. I resolve to set a watch over my mouth (1:13).
  4. I resolve to be constantly quick to hear and slow to speak (1:19).
  5. I resolve to learn the gospel way of speaking to both rich and poor (2:1-4).
  6. I resolve to speak in the present consciousness of my final judgment (2:12).
  7. I resolve never to stand on anyone’s face with the words I employ (2:16).
  8. I resolve never to claim as reality in my life what I do not truly experience (3:14).
  9. I resolve to resist quarrelsome words as evidence of a bad heart that needs to be mortified (4:1).
  10. I resolve never to speak decided evil against another out of a heart of antagonism (4:11).
  11. I resolve never to boast in any thing but what I will accomplish (4:13).
  12. I resolve to speak as one subject to the providences of God (4:15).
  13. I resolve never to grumble. The judge is at the door (5:9).
  14. I resolve never to allow anything but total integrity in everything I say (5:12).
  15. I resolve to speak to God in prayer whenever I suffer (5:13).
  16. I resolve to sing praises to God whenever I’m cheerful (5:14).
  17. I resolve to ask for the prayers of others when I’m in need (5:14).
  18. I resolve to confess it whenever I have failed (5:15).
  19. I resolve to pray with others for one another whenever I am together with them (5:15).
  20. I resolve to speak words of restoration when I see another wander (5:19).

Are you looking for guidelines in the gospel. Here your whole life is suffused with how God will give you this training for your life and for how you will speak. You need to resolve those things for how you will speak to others.

It would be wonderful if such resolutions were fixed in our hearts.

In the Context of the Gospel

We’ve walked through the passage, set it into the book’s context, and now I want to set this in the context of the gospel. What is James intending to do?

He’s bringing us to see the depth of our sin, pollution that so easily flows from our lips. I often think of these words of Isaiah 5,6.

In chapter 5, Isaiah has been speaking powerfully against the nations and against sinners. He goes through “Woe, woe, woe, unto you.” If you have any sense of the fabric of the Hebrew mind, in reading that, you would sense that it’s not finished yet.

It finishes when Isaiah sees the Lord high and lifted up.

The thing that pulls me down to size, not least as a preacher of the gospel, is that Isaiah says, “I live among a people of unclean lips, and I am a man of unclean lips. Woe to me.”

His words against sinners have turned against himself. What a word to us who preach and teach. It makes you want to cry out, “O, God be merciful to me a sinner.’ I wonder if your use of the tongue has ever brought you to that, that you would pronounce a woe upon yourself because you haven’t used your tongue to the glory of God and aren’t like other Christians who overuse their tongues. That while there is sin in other areas of your life, this one is secure. That is the very place into which sin has woven itself.

James is not only a teacher of wisdom but is a prophet of God. He brings us to say, “O, God, be merciful to me.”

At the beginning of his argument in 1:18, he says, “You need to recognize that you have become a new creation in Christ Jesus.” The tactic of the evil one is to say “It doesn’t matter if you have abused and misused your tongue.” And then when we do, he comes around the backdoor and says, “You are damned by this failure.”

James says, “By his own will he has brought us forth as a kind of firstfruits of his creation.” No matter how much I sin, layers of sin keep being unfolded before my eyes by the Holy Spirit. I may not be that mature man I want to be, but thank God that I am not the old man that I once was.

What a great way to think about your ordinary Christian life, that you live in this creation marred by sin, and God is bringing aspects of the new creation that will be consummated when Jesus Christ will return and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Because he has brought us forth through the word of truth, as he regenerates us, he doesn’t do it in a vacuum. He does it in the context of the truth of the gospel illuminating our minds.

If that’s how the Christian life begins, it’s how it continues. That’s how the tongue is to be transformed. The tongue has no ears. It’s the heart that has ears. And as the heart hears with open ears the word of God again and again, the transformed heart begins to produce a transformed tongue.

John Piper quoted some exquisite words from some poems in Isaiah. One of them is so beautiful, that Jesus doesn’t cry aloud or break a bruised reed or grow faint or discouraged in the ministry. If we ask how that was true in his life, the answer is two servant songs further along. Listen to these words: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of one who is taught, that I might learn how to sustain those who are weary. He awakens my ear to hear as those who have been taught.”

The most important single aid to my abilty to use my tongue for the glory of Jesus is allowing the Word of God to dwell in me so richly that I cannot speak with any other accent. That’s why it’s so important to be under the ministry of the word where it’s preached with grace. It’s so important to get under that ministry in public and private, so that the word of God begins to do its own spiritual work in us.

We live in a time when people think that God saves us and we do the rest. We need to see that God’s word sanctifies us. That the more people feed us with the Word, the more I awake in the morning and feed myself with the Scriptures, the more Christ will do his sanctifying work, the more Christ will train my tongue as his word molds me and shapes me. In that, our Savior is our exampler.

But he is not only our exampler. In order to be that, he must be our Savior.

The passage in Isaiah 50 says, “The lord God has opened my ear and I am not rebellious.”

Isaiah 53 says that “ he was oppressed and afflicted, and he opened not his mouth….”

Why was Jesus silent? My friends, he was silent because of every word that by nature has proceeded from your lips, which would be adequate reason for God to damn you for all eternity, because you have cursed him and his image, and Jesus has come into the world to bear the judgment of God against the sin of our tongues. When he stood before the judgment seat of Pontius and the high priest, be accepted the sentence, “ Be silent,” and bore in his body on the tree the sins of my lips and my tongue.

Many of you wish you could control your tongue better. You want to follow the example of Jesus, but you need to understand that he’s Savior first, and then he is example.

You need to come, conscious of the sin of your lips and say, “God be merciful to me a sinner. I thank you that Jesus came and was silent in order that he might bear the penalty of all my misuse of my tongue. Knowing that he has done that, you come to him and say, “O, for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise.”

He is able to answer your prayer in a song we sing: “Be of sin the double cure, cleanse me and make me pure.” All the guilt can be cleansed away, and there is power in Christ to set you free from the misuse of the tongue. You come to him and discover what a glorious Savior he is.

As I said early on, almost everywhere I go people say I have an accent. The most wonderful thing is that 15 minutes into preaching the word, no one remembers my accent. The best place outside of the sanctuary is in elevators. I get off on my floor, and people say “Where do you come from?” As the doors close, I say, “Columbia, SC” and see a puzzled look. That’s a parable for what’s possible for the people of God in our own time.

Wherever you are, it’s not so much what you say while you're in the room, it’s the questions people have when you leave the room. “Where do you come from?” This is someone who has been with Jesus. By God’s grace, James says that we may so grow to maturity that we may begin to speak like our blessed Lord Jesus.

Sinclair Ferguson is a noted author, the Senior Minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, and a Professor of Systematic Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.

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