Sermon preached on James 3:1-12 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 03/28/2021 in Novato, CA.
Today’s passage develops what James introduced in chapter 1, verse 26, when he said that a person’s professed religion is worthless if someone doesn’t bridle his tongue. Here James expands on this idea of bridling our tongues. He teaches on the seriousness of sins of the tongue. And he teaches how as Christians we should be seeking to have sanctified speech. And so, our passage for today challenges us to put our faith to work in the area of our speech. Our orthopraxy means we need to be serious about controlling our tongues.
Let’s begin in our first point with considering in general the sins of the tongue. This will allow us to define the problem in general and also appreciate its seriousness. In terms of defining the sins of the tongue, James gives us two specific types here. In verse 1, we see this regarding teachers. He warns those who would aspire to be teachers to remember that teachers will be judged with greater strictness. In the context of taming the tongue, we can appreciate that his concern here for teachers is about their speech as teachers. We should all be concerned about what we say and how was say it, but teachers due to their role in shepherding the saints are especially accountable because of its power to affect and direct God’s people. As a pastor, a verse like this is so humbling and hopefully promoting godly fear within me, because I recognize my weaknesses and desire to be faithful in my charge as a teacher and preacher. I pray that in God’s grace he might use my speech to bless and build up and never lead astray in any way.
But James’ point here is clear. One way we can sin with our tongues is in teaching things we shouldn’t be. This point makes a helpful transition from last chapter where James was speaking against those who would teach that our faith has no obligation to seek godly works. I speculated last time if maybe some people had been taking Paul’s teachings on justification by faith alone and misrepresenting in some antinomian way. Remember that being antinomian refers to the error that says that a Christian has no obligation to keep God’s law anymore. But this is a problem people can do today with their speech. They can parrot faithful teachers they appreciate but do so in a defective way. Social media is ripe with examples of such. This is not said to discourage us from sharing our faith and pointing people to sound doctrine. But it is an admonition to great care when doing so. One should certainly not be speaking if they don’t really know what they are saying.
A second type of sin of the tongue that James highlights here is in verse 9 when he mentions people cursing others. Literally, that is the language of calling down divine judgment on someone. But it seems what James is addressing is the idea of sinfully speaking against someone. We could call this most generally as slander. Examples abound of how we could speak in an evil way to someone. I think of how Jesus spoke in the sermon on the mount of how our words could be murderous when we insult people by calling them fools. We should remember here that James addresses quarreling at several points in this book. Quarreling can have several dimensions but almost always it involves using our tongues to sin against another. James will raise the concern that such quarreling even happens among Christians. Again, social media is ripe with examples of such.
These are two types of sins we can do with our tongue: bad teaching and speaking in evil ways against each other. Certainly, we could brainstorm other sorts of sins of the tongue that we find addressed elsewhere in Scripture. As James says in verse 6, a sinful tongue is a world of unrighteousness. And in verse 2 James speaks of how our whole body can be properly bridled and controlled if we would but control our tongues. Otherwise, so much destruction can be caused by such a small thing. So that’s why both wisdom and righteousness say we need to restrain our tongues unto godliness. Proverbs 10:19 says, “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” Or Proverbs 13:3, “He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction.” James indeed calls us to look to bridle and tame our tongues as part of God’s sanctification in our whole lives.
So then, in our second point for today, let’s look at the several analogies James gives here about controlling our tongue. This passage has several colorful illustrations that unfortunately speak to our shame of how we humans can really struggle to control our own tongues. The first two are in verses 4 and 5 dealing with horses and ships. These two analogies speak to the same point that James is making. Both analogies speak of how humans have found a way to control some big things with little things. James describes how we can put powerful horses under our control with a little bit in their mouths. He then describes a large ship, that despite the fact that they can be tossed around by powerful winds, nonetheless a pilot can subdue that ship to his own will through the use of a small rudder to guide its path. Humans know how to do this. They can control what otherwise might seem impossible to control, and they accomplish this with something that seems so small in comparison.
But you see James is contrasting these horses and ships with the human body and tongue from what he said in verse 2. There James spoke hypothetically that one could put our whole bodies under our control if we didn’t sin with our tongues. He said our whole bodies could be bridled if we but used our tongue properly. Hopefully you see his point. Our tongue could be like a bit in a horse’s mouth or a rudder on a large ship. Our tongues can direct our whole selves toward good ends or bad ends. Unfortunately, we know that even as Christians too often we use our tongues to chart a bad direction. This is part of James’ point too. It’s to our shame that we can be so good at controlling ships and horses but still struggle with our own bodies. As a side note, I wouldn’t want to so run with James’ point here to miss that our hearts are what ultimately control both our words and our actions. Like in verse 5 it speaks of how the tongue can boast of great things but surely what underlies boasting is the pride in a man’s heart. So ultimately, we know that all sin is a heart issue. While that is true, James’ point is how what we say can put our lives on our good path or a ruinous one. Surely our experience in our own life can remember ways that you’ve seen that true in your own life when you said something you shouldn’t have.
James’ next illustration and analogy is in verses 5-6 with fire. There, James notes the reality that one little spark can set a whole forest ablaze. A small fire can quickly make a big fire. With our continued problems with fires in California, surely this is an analogy that we can relate to. This fire analogy is to say that little things bring big problems. A small thing can cause great destruction. This analogy is very much the corollary to the imagery of horses and ships. With horses and ships James showed that a little thing can wield a great positive good. But with the fire analogy he shows how the opposite is also true – a little thing can also wield gross destruction. James then equates the tongue and fire. He says in verse 6 that the tongue is a fire. We may wish it were not the case, but this is a truth that is so common to man. Our little, tiny tongues can be the spark that undoes so many good things you’ve otherwise done in your life. Just a few words can end a friendship, break trust with someone, tarnish your good name, or wreak all sorts of other havoc in your life.
James next illustration is in verses 7-8 when he speaks of taming creatures. Humans have found ways to tame all kinds of wild beasts, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures. Just go to Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo to see this in action! Such wild creatures are not naturally tame. For fallen sinful humans, the same is true of our tongue – by nature it is not tamed. But when it comes to wild animals, humans have devoted energy to figure out how to tame the wild. But James laments that humans have failed to do this with our tongues. Instead, in verse 8 he says it is a restless evil and full of a deadly poison. Think of a venomous cobra that is not tamed that is wildly approaching you. That’s a picture of the threat our tongues pose to ourselves and others.
So then, James has used these different analogies to speak of how the tongue could theoretically be a good thing for our godliness, but instead we struggle to properly control and it in turn causes great problems in our lives. In our last point for today, I’d like to think about all this in light of being born-again Christian. What difference does our new birth in Christ have for us in this area of controlling our tongue? James alerts us to the sobering reality in verses 9-12 that we still struggle with using our tongue. He exposes a sort of internal contradiction that we have where aspects of our new birth are seen alongside remaining expressions of our old sinful natures.
Verse 9 speaks of this by noting that we can bless and praise God in one moment, while the next moment we curse our fellow man who is made in God’s image. The point is to see that man is made in God’s image so its contradictory to praise God but curse man. And even more generally, it’s an example of doing something good with our speech but then something evil with our speech.
I’m really glad James notes this tension. He had just got done saying how we can’t tame our tongues and the way he described it could leave us with a false impression that our tongues just are utterly depraved. The reality is much more nuanced than that, really for everyone, and surely especially for the born-again Christian. As Christians we do in fact at times use our tongues in good, godly ways. We do use them at times to praise our God. We surely also use them at times to speak gracious words to other humans that edify and build them up in Christ. James acknowledges this and that is so helpful because otherwise someone might try to dismiss his point today that it didn’t apply to them, because their tongue isn’t just always and forever some fiery evil-spewing untamed beast. But James won’t allow you to dismiss his point like this. James doesn’t say that we never control our tongues. But James does acknowledge that each one of us stumble into sin in many ways, verse 2.
And so, what James points out is that we Christian sometimes fail to control our tongue. But the point he is developing here is that such should not be the case. He is describing a form of contradiction that comes out like hypocrisy to our professed faith. He makes this point with another analogy. He uses the imagery of several things in nature that shows our nature is consistent. What comes from something in nature is consistent with the nature of the source. Look at verse 11. He points to a spring. Springs are either a source of fresh water or salt water. They don’t, can’t, give both from the same spring. The nature of the source results in what comes forth from that source. Then he uses the example of trees. Like the spring, the type of tree determines what fruit comes from it. Fig trees bear fig trees. Olive trees bear olives. Again, he presents a pond. If you draw water out of a salt pond, you will get salty water. You won’t ever get fresh water. Likewise, if it’s a fresh water pond, you will never draw out salty water.
Hopefully you understand his point. The fruit of something comes from the nature of the source. This makes the point, by the way, that I mentioned earlier, that what underlies what our tongues do is our heart. James shows there is a consistency of nature that is missing in us born-again Christians when it comes to our heart-mouth connection. James says our tongues are being used for both good and evil. This is why he says in verse 10 that these things ought not to be! Even nature is better ordered than us! It would be ludicrous to expect some natural thing to behave contrary to its nature. We would never expect a fig tree to produce olives. Yet, we can be so at ease with this contradiction in our lives. And when we are reminded here that us humans have been created in God’s image, we realize all the more there should be no place for such evil to come from our tongues. And when we remember that we’ve even been born again by God as Christians then there certainly should no longer be a place for such evil to come from our mouths.
And yet James has reminded us that such an internal contradiction does exist for us. What are we to make of this? This drives me to remember Paul’s exclamation along these lines in Romans 7:24 when he says, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul spoke there in Romans 7 of the inner conflict that exists for the born-again Christian. All this brings out an important teaching we find in the Bible. We have this already, not-yet, dynamic of our salvation. Yes, as Christians whom God has brought to faith in him, we have experienced a new birth. Before that we could say our hearts were evil and should not be surprised when evil comes forth. In our new birth, we know that our hearts have been created anew. As Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passage away; behold the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). This is what we are in Christ: people whose hearts have been made good. But James’ has reminded us that this work of heart renovation has not yet been finished within us. So, then we have this inner war that does present itself as a sort of contradiction. The old man versus the new man war within us. Our defeated evil heart still tries to show itself as it wars against our new heart given by the Holy Spirit.
The encouragement for us is that God will finish this work. I point us to that hope by thinking about the statement here in verse 2. It says there that we all stumble but if someone doesn’t stumble in what he says, then he’ll be a perfect man. That’s an interesting verse because it seems to present this idea that one could be perfect while acknowledging that none of us are perfect. Yet when we reflect again on this verse 2 in light of everything we’ve considered today, surely we are directed to Jesus.
Jesus is in fact the only perfect man. He’s the perfect man who has never stumbled in any way. Likewise he has also bridled his tongue, and in so doing has controlled and directed his whole body in righteousness all the time and in every way. Never has his tongue expressed any inner contradiction. His heart was and is fully and wholly good and so his speech was and is fully and wholly good. And that set the entire course of his life on this earth. So, when faced with the temptations of the devil in the wilderness, he used his tongue to speak the truth of God’s Word to counter all the temptations of the father of lies. And when faced with the temptation of the Garden of Gethsemane to forgo the cross, he entrusted himself to his heavenly father in his words of prayer, saying, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
And it is in this perfect man that we have hope for our own perfection. For this perfect one has now taken up residence in our hearts. While his sanctifying work has not yet finished its work, it is at work. We are not yet a perfect man. We do not yet fully bridle either our tongues or our bodies. We are not yet a perfect man, but we will be. What Christ is already is what he is making us to be – a human perfected in righteousness. In heaven, we will no longer stumble in what we say. We will no longer stumble in any way. In light of this future, may we look even now to use our tongues for good. May our tongues be a spark of righteousness that lights a whole world of righteousness in our hearts.
While we have not yet arrived in such perfection, may our faith be encouraged that this will be the outcome. No mere human can tame our tongue or make our hearts fully good. But the perfect man Jesus can and is. Trust in his work. And because you have faith in his work, may your faith look to use your tongue for good. Because your faith believes Jesus is sanctifying you, let us pursue sanctified speech.
It may seem like such a small thing – the cross of Jesus Christ. But through his victory on the cross, Jesus is directing the whole of human history unto his glorious will to save a people unto himself. Let us be encouraged in our faith and living again today. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.