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

This message appears as a chapter in The Power of Words and the Wonder of God.

OUR FOCUS IN THIS STUDY is the teaching 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. 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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 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. 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! 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. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

James 3:1–12 contains the single most sustained discussion in the New Testament on the use of the tongue. I take the author of this little book to have been James, the half-brother of our Lord Jesus. It is clear that he is steeped in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament Scriptures and also in the teaching of the Lord Jesus, to which his own teaching has many parallels. Both the book of Proverbs and our Lord Jesus spoke with searching clarity about the nature and use of the tongue. James walks in their footprints. Much of what he says is a powerful exposé of the sin and failure that mar our speech.

In this way James’s words exemplify the central purposes of the teaching and preaching of God’s Word. The resulting effect will be to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort” (2 Timothy 4:2). But James’s message also exemplifies what Paul calls the profitability or usefulness of sacred Scripture: “teaching . . . correction . . . [child-]training.”

In a word, the immediate focus of James’s teaching — one might say the same of all apostolic teaching — is to bring Christian believers to maturity. Here, as well as in other places, he is completely in harmony with the way the apostle Paul employed all his God-given powers: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28–29).

In fact, this is one of James’s burdens also. His five chapters constitute an extended piece of pastoral preaching, laced as it is with words of wisdom and warning. All along his goal is to lead his readers and hearers — men and women who were possibly once under his direct pastoral care but are now widely scattered — to full spiritual maturity, so that their whole being, without reservation, should be wholly Christ’s.

We find that this motif runs through the entire book. As we come upon it in chapter 3, he has already shown (1) how spiritual maturity develops through response to suffering, and (2) how spiritual maturity is enhanced by response to the Word. Now he goes on to show that (3) spiritual maturity is evidenced by the use of the tongue. The mastery of it is one of the clearest marks of a whole person, a true Christian. Tongue-mastery is the fruit of self-mastery.

We will examine this teaching in order to accomplish three goals: (1) to “walk” through James 3:1–12 in order to feel the weight of its appeal; (2) to set this teaching in context of the whole book of James to discover that it is, in effect, only the tip of the iceberg of what he has to say about our speech; (3) to place these words in the broader gospel context that lies behind the book of James.

James 3:1–12 and Its Teaching on the Tongue

As we make our way into James 3:1–12, we notice it has a variety of basic driving principles.

The Difficulty of Taming the Tongue

James issues a special word of wise counsel to those who aspire to be teachers: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (verse 1).

Why should this be? Teachers should be conscious of the weight and potential influence of what they say because words lie at the heart of the teaching ministry. To have an unreliable tongue is likely to pro- vide a destructive model for those who are taught. The potential for multiplication of influence requires a canon of judgment that takes the measure of both responsibility and opportunity into account.

But James does not write as one who has “arrived.” He is conscious of his own shortcomings: “For we all stumble in many ways” (verse 2). He has no false perfectionism. Perhaps he remembers how he misspoke about Jesus, demeaning him during the days of his ministry. Was James among those who said, “He is out of his mind” (Mark 3:21)? Was this one reason why our Lord visited him, in particular (as he did Simon Peter), after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7)?

But James’s words are applicable far beyond those who are called to teach. We all use our tongues. If the mastery of the tongue is a sign of maturity, it is so for all Christians. So James 3:1–12 has general as well as specific application. How we use our tongues provides clear evidence of where we are spiritually.

“Spiritual maturity is evidenced by the use of the tongue… Tongue-mastery is the fruit of self-mastery.”

When I was a child, our family physician used to ask us to stick out our tongues. (That was the only circumstance in which I was ever permitted to do that!) He seemed to be able to tell a great deal about our health by looking into our mouths. That is a parable of spiritual reality. What comes out of our mouths is usually an accurate index of the health of our hearts. Jesus said: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). So here, as a spiritual physician, James engages in a rigorous tongue analysis. James 3:1–12 is a veritable pathology laboratory in which analysis and diagnosis take place.

Notice James’s axiom: the mature person is able to “bridle” his tongue. The person who can do this is master of the whole body (note that some scholars take “body” here to refer to the church. For a judicious assessment, see Dan G. McCartney, James, BECNT [Baker Academic, 2009] on 3:1–12). The spiritual masters of the past understood this to have a double reference. The control of the tongue has both negative and positive aspects. It involves the ability to restrain the tongue in silence. But it also means being able to control it in gracious speech when that is required.

Sanctification in any area of our lives always expresses this double dimension — a putting off and a putting on, as it were. Speech and silence, appropriately expressed, are together the mark of the mature (compare with one of the clearest illustrations of this in Colossians 3:1–17). Nor is this James’s first reference to speech. He had already noted that for a professing Christian to fail to bridle the tongue is to be guilty of self-deception (1:22–25) and the hallmark of a person whose religion is worthless (1:26). One might think here of the ease of speech but emptiness of weighty words in the life of John Bunyan’s Mr. Talkative. He was all talk but no control, all words but without weight.

But with all of this said, James is forced into a confession. Nobody — Jesus excepted — has succeeded in mastering the tongue! Our only hope as we pursue the discipline of self that leads to mastery of the tongue is that we are Christ’s and that we are being made increasingly like him. But this battle for vocal holiness is a long-running one, and it needs to be waged incessantly, daily, hourly.

Are we fighting it? We must seek to do so for a very important reason.

The Disproportionate Power of the Tongue

In James 3:3–5, James uses two commonplace but very vivid illustrations. The tongue is like the bit in the mouth of a horse. This tiny appliance controls the enormous power and energy of the horse and is used to give it direction. James may well have been familiar with this picture from common experience in daily life. He had seen powerful Roman military horses and had probably heard stories of chariot races. The point, however, is the extraordinary power and influence concentrated in one small object. So it is with the tongue.

The tongue is also like the rudder in a boat. Large ships were not unknown in the ancient world. The ship that originally was to transport Paul across the Mediterranean en route to Rome held 276 people (Acts 27:37). We know that a large ship like the Isis could carry one thousand people. Yet such a capacious and heavy vessel was directed simply by a turn of the rudder!

So it is with the tongue. The tongue is small. But its power, both for good and for ill, is out of all proportion to its size. “A fool’s tongue,” Bruce Waltke wryly notes, “is long enough to cut his own throat” (Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1–15, NICOT [Eerdmans, 2004], 102).

Why does James speak this way? Presumably out of both biblical knowledge and personal experience. The tongue carries into the world the breath that issues from the heart.

Alas, we do not realize how powerful for evil the tongue is because we are so accustomed to its polluting influence. En route to give this address, I rode the hotel elevator with several others. On one floor the elevator stopped, the doors opened, and a woman entered the confined space. The doors closed, and I suspect everyone in the elevator almost instantaneously had the same thought: “She has been smoking!” In this confined “smoke-free” environment her breath could not be disguised.

So, says Jesus, the tongue projects the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It is from within, “out of the heart,” that the mouth speaks (compare with Matthew 12:34; 15:18–19). But like the smoker, so accustomed to the odor, the atmosphere in which they live, the person with polluted speech has little or no sense of it — no sense that they exhale bad breath every time they speak.

Yet there is another side to this, a wonderfully encouraging side. Scripture teaches us that the breath by which we express our deepest desires, instincts, and opinions may produce helpful and pleasing fruit. Writes the wise man of Proverbs 15:4:

A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.

So James sees that the tongue is an instrument of extraordinary power, out of all proportion to its size. Whatever its anatomical connections, its most significant connection is to the heart — whether hardened by sin or recreated by grace.

At this stage James is chiefly concerned that we should have a sense of the convicting power of his teaching. For this reason he began by addressing the difficulty of taming the tongue. It is a word spoken primarily to bring conviction of sin. For the tongue is difficult, indeed impossible, to tame naturally, because, as we have also seen, it exercises power out of all proportion to its size.

The Destruction Caused by the Tongue

Now, third, a series of vivid pictures flashes rapidly across James’s mind as he thinks about the power of the tongue.

A Fire (verse 6). A small fire can destroy an entire forest; all it takes is an uncontrolled spark. So it is with the tongue. A sharp word, a loose sentence, a callous aside can cause a conflagration that cannot be extinguished. Words can consume and destroy a life.

James is very specific about the energy source for such destruction. The tongue that sets on fire is set on fire itself by hell. James uses the biblical term Gehenna — the background reference being to the Valley of Hinnom on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem. It served as the city dump — hence the reference to fire — which presumably constantly burned there to destroy garbage (Dr. McCartney reports that it continued to be thus used through 1996 and beyond).

“Vocal holiness” includes both gracious speech and silence.

Was this the place to which our Lord’s body would have been taken were it not for the thoughtfulness of Joseph of Arimathaea? If so, it is difficult not to share with James a sense of disgust. It is from such a hell that destructive words arise. Remember that imagery whenever similar words seek to force their way out of your mouth.

A World (verse 6). The tongue is “a world of unrighteousness.” I remember reading a picture quiz in an in-flight magazine many years ago. Various things photographed from unusual angles were presented, and the challenge was to guess what the objects actually were. One seemed to be a striking photograph of the moon with all its craters — a dark world of death. Turning to check the answers I was astonished to find it was in fact a photograph of a human tongue! How appropriate that, when photographically magnified, it would appear like an entire world of death and darkness, full of dangerous craters.

A Stain (verse 6). The tongue is “set among our members, staining the whole body.” How careful you are as you put on a dress for a wedding, especially if it is your own. How nervous about that new silk tie during dinner. The spot need only be a small one, but it ruins everything. So it is with the tongue and its words. No matter what graces you may have developed, if you have not gained tongue mas tery, you can besmirch them all by an unguarded and ill-disciplined comment. Graces are fragile; therefore guard your tongue lest it destroy them.

A Restless Evil (verse 8). The unregenerate tongue roams the wilds, quick to defend itself, swift to attack others, anxious to subdue them, always marked by evil. It mimics Satan in this respect, who, having rebelled against the God of peace, can never settle. He goes to and fro throughout the earth (as in Job 1:7; 2:2), like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). The tongue that is under his lordship always shares that tendency. It has an inbuilt need to guard its own territory, to destroy rivals to itself, to be the king of the beasts.

A Deadly Poison (verse 8). James shares the perspective of Paul and, in turn, of the psalmist. The “venom of asps” is under the lips of sinners, “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive” (Romans 3:13; Psalm 5:9). Whether suddenly or slowly, life is eaten away and destroyed. Perhaps here there is an echo of Genesis 3 and the deadly deceit of Eve by the serpent — with all its deadly and hellish consequences.

James, however unbelieving he might have been during Jesus’ early ministry, has clearly absorbed his half brother’s teaching and has been led by it to the multitude of Old Testament word pictures about the power and destructive ability of the tongue. If the pen is mightier than the sword, it is equally true that we can kill a man as easily with the words we use as with a physical weapon (Matthew 5:21–22).

Of course, all this is naturally true of the unregenerate man. The tragedy is — and it is this tragedy that surely concerns James here — that the same destructive powers may be released within the believing community.

I sometimes wonder if this is a distinctively evangelical sin. Of course it is by no means exclusively so. But how commonplace it seems to be to hear a fellow Christian’s name mentioned in some context or other, and the first words of response demean his reputation, belittle him, and distance him from acceptance into the fellowship, although this is a brother for whom Christ died!

The saintly Robert Murray M’Cheyne was surely nearer the mark when he resolved that when a fellow Christian’s name was mentioned in company, if he could not say anything good about him, he would refrain from all speech about him. Better that, surely, than to be careless with fire and “destroy a brother for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15; 1 Corinthians 8:11).

The young Jonathan Edwards penned a number of his Resolutions around this theme. They are worth noting:

  1. Resolved, Never to say anything at all against anybody, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christian honor, and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility, and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule; often, when I have said anything against any one, to bring it to, and try it strictly by, the test of this Resolution.
  2. Resolved, In narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity.
  3. Resolved, Never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call to it.
  4. Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak. (Cited from Sereno E. Dwight’s Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 1834 [reprinted by Banner of Truth, 1974], 1:xxi-xxii)

How easily the failure to master the tongue can destroy the effect of every grace that had taken years to build into our lives! Introduce poison here and we endanger everything.

A seminary colleague once told me how, because of flight delays, he arrived late and very weary at a hotel where he had booked a room. The young desk clerk could find no reservation under his name. My weary friend, who had had a miserable day, lost some self-control and started a small verbal blaze around the unfortunate employee, as if the problem were of the young man’s making.

“A fool’s tongue is long enough to cut his own throat.” –Bruce Waltke

Having found him a room the clerk invited him to fill in the guest form. My colleague included the name of the theological seminary at which we both taught. As the clerk looked at the form he gasped: “Are you from the Westminster Seminary?” he asked, and then said excitedly, “This is amazing. I have just recently become a Christian. I have heard about your seminary! How amazing, and marvelous to meet you! Wow, are you really from Westminster Seminary?”

The story could so easily have ended on a different note: a stain inflicted on a young man by a mature believer — a stain that might have proved impossible to wash out. We have all seen or caused moments like this. The tongue can be the most powerful, destructive member in the entire body.

In this connection it is salutary to remember the thrust of Paul’s most basic and powerful presentation of our need for the gospel. “Whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped” (Romans 3:19).

I still recall the shivers that went down my spine on first reading, in 1970, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s exposition of these words:

Paul now points out . . . that when you realize what the Law is truly saying to you the result is that “every mouth shall be stopped.” You are rendered speechless. You are not a Christian unless you have been made speechless! How do you know whether you are a Christian or not? It is that you “stop talking.” The trouble with the non-Christian is that he goes on talking. . . .

How do you know whether a man is a Christian? The answer is that his mouth is “shut.” I like this forthrightness of the Gospel. People need to have their mouths shut, “stopped.” . . . You do not begin to be a Christian until your mouth is shut, is stopped, and you are speechless and have nothing to say. (D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans, Exposition of Chapters 3:20–4:25, Atonement and Justification, [Banner of Truth, 1970], 19)

There is a “something” — almost indefinable — about the person who has clearly been converted to Christ. Dr. Lloyd-Jones surely put his finger on the essence of it — the humbling of the proud, self-sufficient heart, the breaking of our native arrogance. Our tongues are so often the most obvious index of that ungodly drive at the center of our being.

But the slaying of inner pride and the illumination of our minds in regeneration create a new disposition and affection. The true convert will have a Jacob-like limp in his speech as well as in his walk — because in spiritual anatomy (as distinct from physical anatomy), the heart and the tongue are directly connected to each other. The subduing of the heart leads to the silencing of the tongue; humility within leads to humility expressed. Only when we have been thus silenced are we in any position to begin to speak. And when we do, by God’s grace, we speak as those who have first been silenced.

The Deadly Inconsistency That Plagues the Tongue

James is not yet finished with his devastating analysis of the tongue. He draws attention to a fourth characteristic as the analysis now rises to a crescendo of exposure:

No human being can tame the tongue. . . . With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (James 3:8–12)

I am reminded of the old cowboy-and-Indian movies my parents used to take me to when I was a child. There is only one line I recall an Indian ever speaking, but it was so frequently repeated it became engraved as one of my earliest memories of childhood: “White man speak with forked tongue.” It was meant as, and really was, a damning indictment.

James shared that perspective but brought to it a more profound analysis: “Forked tongue connected to forked heart.” Such speech is a mark of the “double-minded man” who is “unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). It is not an amiable weakness. It expresses a damnable contradiction in our very being. It is an “ought not to be,” like a spring that spouts forth both fresh and salt water. It is more contradictory than anything we find in nature, like a fig tree bearing olives, a grapevine producing figs, a salt pond yielding fresh water.

Notice the power of James’s own words. Do not try to parry the blow. His words are intended to be a sharp two-edged sword “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

We were created as the image of God to bless God. It is blatant hypocrisy, double-mindedness, and sin to bless God and then casually curse those who have been made as his very likeness. But the forked tongue of the double-minded person enslaves him or her. He or she thinks the unthinkable and speaks unspeakable contradictions. James is blood earnest as he rips up the consciences of his contemporary readers, many of whom were, perhaps, once members of his dear flock in Jerusalem before being scattered abroad.

If such words could be spoken to professing Christians serious enough in their faith to experience persecution and suffer privation in a world that was becoming increasingly inhospitable to the followers of the Way — how much more devastating are they when addressed to pampered, often self-indulgent professors of Christianity in the early twenty-first century?

But now that our consciences have been, to use Puritan language, “ripped up,” a question arises. Why does James apparently give no practical counsel about how we are to deal with the tongue? Are we left to go to the local Christian bookstore, or attend a seminar or conference, in order to know how to sanctify the use of the tongue? Why is there no practical counsel?

“Words can consume and destroy a life.”

But in fact there is — if we will only stay with James long enough to hear it. Indeed, whenever there is such analysis in the New Testament letters there is ordinarily practical counsel written into the teaching itself. True, it may not be immediately evident, but if we keep our minds and spirits in the passage long enough and learn to wait patiently on the Lord in his Word, it will become clear.

Even where there are no obvious imperatives to tell us what to do next, they are almost invariably implied in the text, woven as it were into its very warp and woof, underlining for us that it is by the Word itself and not by ourselves that we are sanctified. Did not James’s brother pray “sanctify them in [or by] the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17)? In order to help us to grasp how James does this, it will be helpful, further, to consider how this teaching fits in with the rest of the book.

James 3:1–12 in the Context of the Entire Book

We are told in the sacred record that when Job felt himself to be under special pressure in his sufferings (and, unknown to him, under the specific assault of the Devil to destroy his enjoyment of God) he made “a covenant with [his] eyes” in order thus to bind on his heart the pattern of holiness he needed to develop (see Job 31:1). Guarding the eyes implied guarding eyes in the heart as well as in the head.

Temptation, and therefore spiritual compromise, often find their easiest access route to the heart via the eyes. By the same token, sin may find its easiest exit route from our hearts via the mouth. The exhortation of Proverbs to “keep your heart with all vigilance” is immediately followed by an exhortation to “put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you” (Proverbs 4:23–24). Guarding the heart involves guarding the tongue. To apply Job’s principle to our present subject, we need to learn to say, “I will make a covenant with my tongue.”

Rather wonderfully, this is what James helps us to do throughout his letter. Perhaps, in the context of a book coming from a Desiring God conference, we may be permitted to take a leaf out of Jonathan Edwards’s Resolutions and express the burden of the practical exhortations implicit in James in a similar fashion.

Here, then, are twenty resolutions on the use of the tongue to which the letter’s teaching gives rise:

1) Resolved: To ask God for wisdom to speak and to do so with a single mind.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. . . . in faith with no doubting. . . . For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything . . . he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:5–8).

2) Resolved: To boast only in my exaltation in Christ or my humiliation in the world.

“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away” (James 1:9–10).

3) Resolved: To set a watch over my mouth.

“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13).

4) Resolved: To be constantly quick to hear, slow to speak.

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).

5) Resolved: To learn the gospel way of speaking to the poor and the rich.

“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1–4).

6) Resolved: To speak in the consciousness of the final judgment.

“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty” (James 2:12).

7) Resolved: To never stand on anyone’s face with words that demean, despise, or cause despair.

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15–16).

8) Resolved: To never claim a reality I do not experience.

“If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth” (James 3:14).

9) Resolved: To resist quarrelsome words as marks of a bad heart.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1).

10) Resolved: To never speak evil of another.

“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge” (James 4:11).

11) Resolved: To never boast in what I will accomplish.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:13).

12) Resolved: To always speak as one who is subject to the providences of God.

“Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15).

13) Resolved: To never grumble, knowing that the Judge is at the door.

“Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:9).

14) Resolved: To never allow anything but total integrity in my speech.

“But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (James 5:12).

15) Resolved: To speak to God in prayer whenever I suffer.

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13).

16) Resolved: To sing praises to God whenever I am cheerful.

“Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise” (James 5:13).

17) Resolved: To ask for the prayers of others when I am sick.

“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14).

18) Resolved: To confess it whenever I have failed.

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16).

19) Resolved: To pray for one another when I am together with others in need.

“Pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).

20) Resolved: To speak words of restoration when I see another wander.

“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19–20).

Will we so resolve?

Finally, we turn to consider this passage in the context of the gospel.

James 3:1–12 in the Context of the Whole Gospel

When we take one step back from James 3:1–12 and read it in the context of the entire letter, we discover that James’s searing analysis is surrounded by the most practical counsel to enable us to master the tongue and to speak well for God.

When we take another step back and view his words through the wide-angle lens of the biblical gospel, we are able all the more clearly to understand and appreciate what James is “doing” when he speaks as he does.

As is well known, in his early days as a reformer, Martin Luther thought that James was “an epistle full of straw”:

In sum the gospel and the first epistle of St. John, St. Paul’s epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians; and St. Peter’s first epistle, are the books that show Christ to you. They teach everything you need to know for your salvation, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or hear any other teaching. In comparison with these, the epistle of St. James is an epistle full of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical. (From Luther’s 1522 preface [to the New Testament], cited from Martin Luther, Selections from his Writings, [Doubleday, 1962], 19. Later experience with antinomianism would clarify his thinking on the importance and value of James’s perspective.)

He would later think better of it. For the truth is that James’s teaching cannot be rightly interpreted without realizing that it is rooted in the teaching of and energized by the grace of “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1).

As temptation often comes in via the eyes, sin easily exits through the mouth.

In that light we can discern a profoundly gospel-centered pattern in what James is seeking to accomplish as a pastor of the souls of his readers. His gospel method is in three steps.

1) Realize That the Depth of Your Sin, the Pollution of Your Heart, and Your Need of Saving Grace Are All Evidenced in Your Use of the Tongue

This is the method of grace from beginning to end. It is nowhere more starkly illustrated than in the experience of Isaiah. There is no more powerful passage in the Old Testament than Isaiah 6; but it is often read as if it were detached from Isaiah 1–5. By reading it in isolation we inevitably miss a very clear pattern into which it fits.

Isaiah has been ripping up the consciences of his sinful contemporaries. He does so in a series of six woe pronouncements (Isaiah 5:8, 11, 18, 20, 21, 22). God’s holy anger burns against them (5:25). Like a shepherd whistling for his dogs to come to tend the sheep, Yahweh will call on the nations to come as his servants, with arrows sharp as flint, with horses’ hoofs like flint, with roaring like a lion.

Darkness and distress will ensue — the terrible judgment of the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 5:26–30). But for the sensitive Bible reader the appearance of six woes creates an expectation that a climactic seventh woe is about to be pronounced. Against whom will Isaiah pronounce the ultimate woe?

The answer follows in chapter six. The prophet meets with the exalted God whose majestic presence seems to flood the temple. Isaiah sees creatures who are perfectly and perpetually holy cover their faces before the glory of the One who is eternally, infinitely, inherently, uncreatedly holy. Everything around Isaiah seems to be disintegrating. Everything within him seems to come apart. He is “lost,” or “ruined” (Isaiah 6:5).

The language expresses the stunned silence felt in the presence of major disaster or death (See, J.A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah [InterVarsity, 1993], 77). This is Isaiah’s “twin towers” day, the 9/11 moment in his spiritual experience. From his assumed security he had pronounced six devastating maledictions. Now he realizes that the last and climactic woe must be pronounced against — himself! And why? “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).

In whimsical moments I think I can see Isaiah as he staggers into the house of his friend Benjamin later that day, ashen faced, shaken to the roots by his experience. He blurts out fragmentary details of his vision of the Holy One of Israel (the title that hereafter will be his preferred way of describing the Lord). He has discovered he is a “man of unclean lips.”

I think I can hear dear Benjamin reply sympathetically — worried that his friend of many years is becoming unstable: “Not you, Isaiah; you are the last person of whom that is true. You are our most prominent and most eloquent preacher.”

I think I hear Isaiah say in response, “You do not understand. I have seen the King. I have felt the pollution on my tongue. The light has exposed the darkness in its every crevice. Alas for me, it is in the very instrument God has called me to use, in the very area of my life in which others call me ‘gifted,’ that sin has most deeply entangled itself. I am a wretched man! Woe, woe, woe is me!”

We foolishly assume that our real struggles with sin are in the areas where we are “weak.” We do not well understand the depth of sin until we realize that it has made its home far more subtly where we are “strong,” and in our gifts rather than in our weaknesses and inadequacies. It is in the very giftedness God has given that sin has been at its most perverse and subtle!

But when we are brought to see this, stripped bare of our layers of self-deceit, and led to repentance, then God may make something of us.

Many — although I do not number myself among them — seem to find speech easy. Recent generations have, after all, been educated to be able to speak, to contribute to discussion and debate, to express themselves by the spoken word rather than by writing (as was true of my generation — at least in my native land of Scotland).

It rarely seems to strike us that it is precisely here, therefore, in our speech, that sin is most likely to abound.

Only when we have been brought to such a recognition do we realize how dangerous and destructive our tongues have been. Only then do we cry out to God in repentance and run to him with tears to seek forgiveness in the gospel.

Then we need to grasp a second principle.

2) Recognize That You Are a New Creation in Christ

At the beginning of his argument, James had urged his hearers, “You need to recognize that you have become a new creation in Christ Jesus, indeed a kind of firstfruits of his creation” (compare with 1:18). I may not yet 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 an ordinary Christian life! We live in a created order marred by sin. That sin has twisted and polluted our speech. But God has begun his work of new creation and has inaugurated aspects of it that will be consummated when Jesus Christ returns. Then in the “regeneration” of all things (Matthew 19:28 NASB) every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. (The translation “the new world” (ESV) is a rendering of the Greek palingenesis, which elsewhere is translated “regeneration.” The present renewal of regeneration is best seen as a present participation in the final, cosmic transformation that will take place at the return of Christ.)

But notice carefully how God regenerates us: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creation.” Regeneration is a sovereign work of God, yes; but it does not ordinarily take place in a vacuum. Since it involves having our eyes opened to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3), God ordinarily regenerates us in the context of the truth of the gospel illuminating our minds. Truth in the mind forms truth in the heart, the very thing for which David prayed (Psalm 51:10), and which he realized would lead in turn to transformed speech:

     Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
     Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation,
          and my tongue will sing aloud of your  righteousness.
     O Lord, open my lips,
          and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psalm 51:13–15)

How important for us to recognize the power of new birth to create new affections, which in turn come to expression in the new speech patterns of the gospel!

3) Continue in the Word

The work of the Word inaugurates the Christian life, but it also sustains its progress. My tongue is ongoingly cleansed and transformed by (if I may so express it) what comes from God’s tongue. As the heart hears with open ears the Word of God again and again, it is renewed and begins to produce a transformed tongue. The principle is this: what comes out of our mouths is more and more determined by what has come out of “the mouth of God.” The sanctification of the tongue is a work in us that is driven by the Word of God coming to us as we hear it and indwelling us as we receive it.

This was the “secret” of the Lord Jesus’ own use of his tongue. Matthew sees our Lord Jesus as fulfilling the prophecy of the first of the Servant Songs in the second half of the prophecy of Isaiah:

He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench. (Matthew 12:19–20, quoting Isaiah 42:2–3)

If we ask how this was true in his life, the answer is found in the third Servant Song:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. (Isaiah 50:4–6)

The most important single aid to my ability 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. When I do, the result is “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing. . . . And . . . in word or deed, do[ing] everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father” (Colossians 3:16–17).

That, incidentally (although it is not an incidental matter) is why it is so important to be under a ministry of the Word where the Scriptures are expounded with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. It is by this means — yes, with private study — that the Word of God begins to do its own spiritual work in us. As words that have been formed in God’s mouth are digested as the bread of life by us, they begin to form our thinking, affections, and volitions in a wonderful way.

Sin often thrives in our strengths more than in our weaknesses.

Too many Christians fall into the trap of believing that God gives regeneration and justification, but then we are essentially left to our own efforts to do the rest. We need to see that we live by every word that comes out of God’s mouth. God’s Word sanctifies us. The more I awake in the morning and feed myself with the Scriptures and the more I am saturated with the Word under a biblical ministry, the more the word of Christ will do the sanctifying work in me and on me, and consequently the more Christ will train my tongue as his Word molds and shapes me.

Yes, there needs to be rigorous activity — but it is in order to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” It is a receptive activity! In this, as Isaiah’s song teaches us, our Savior is our Exemplar. But he is not only, nor is he first of all, an exemplar. To be that, he needed first to become our Savior. All this is part of the grand vision of Isaiah’s Servant Songs (so influential in Jesus’ own reception of God’s Word). The Father opened the ear of his Son; the Son was not rebellious. He was willing to be “oppressed and afflicted.” As he experienced this in his trial and condemnation, “he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).

Why was Jesus silent? Is there more to this than meets the eyes? Indeed there is! He was silent because of every word that has proceeded from your lips; because of every word that provides adequate reason for God to damn you for all eternity, because you have cursed him or his image.

The Lord Jesus came into the world to bear the judgment of God against the sin of our tongues. When he stood before the high priest and the judgment seat of Pontius Pilate, he accepted a sentence of guilt. But that was my guilt. He bore in his body on the tree the sins of my lips and my tongue.

Do you wish you could control your tongue better? Do you want to follow the example of Jesus? Then you need to understand that he is 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.

And when you know that he has taken God’s judgment and wrath against your every sinful word, you cannot but come to him and say:

“O, for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.”

He is able to answer that prayer, and its companion petition:

“Be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power.”

All the guilt can be cleansed away! Christ can deliver you from the misuse of the tongue. And when you come to him conscious of that sin, you discover what a glorious Savior he is. Delivered, albeit not yet perfected and glorified, your tongue now shows forth his praises. Taken out of the pit and from the miry clay, on your lips is now a new song of praise to your God. Then people not only hear a different vocabulary, but they hear you speak with a different accent. That is what leaves the lasting impression of the power of Christ and the transformation of grace in your life.

My native land is Scotland. I have the privileged status of being a resident alien in the United States. I carry a green card. But people often remind me, “You have an accent.” (That said, it is one of the wonderful things about the presence and work of Christ’s Spirit in preaching that, fifteen minutes into the exposition, it is possible that others cease to notice the accent and hear only his accent.)

Being “afflicted,” therefore, with an “accent,” brief elevator rides — and the usual brief conversations that ensue there often give me a certain mischievous pleasure. As the doors open at my floor and I step out, someone will occasionally call, “You have an accent. Where do you come from?” As I watch the doors begin to close, I say with a smile, “Columbia, South Carolina,” and watch the puzzled faces whose expression says, “Come on! You’re not from around here . . . are you?” That is surely a parable of what it is possible for the people of God to become in the way we use our tongues, as by God’s grace we learn to speak with a Jesus-like accent.

At the end of the day, it may not be so much what people say to you when you are in a room that is the really telling thing about your speech as a Christian. Rather it may be the questions people ask when you leave the room. “Where does he come from?” “Do you know where she belongs?”

Do you speak like someone who “sounds” a little like Jesus because, born broken in your consciousness of your sinful tongue, you have found pardon and renewal in Christ, and now his Word dwells richly in you?

At the end of the day, that is what spiritual maturity looks like — or better, sounds like — because of the transformation of our use of the tongue.

May that be true of us more and more!


More Messages from Desiring God 2008 National Conference

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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