Taming the Tongue Requires a New Heart
Passage: James 3:1–12
Sermon on James 3:1-12 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word
Delivered on June 26, 2016
James 3, verses 1-12 today. It’s the longest discussion in the New Testament on the use of our tongue. Let’s read it together…
1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4Look 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. 5So 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! 6And 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. 7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
Created to Talk, But Sin Distorts the Use of Our Tongue
If there’s one thing we do a whole lot, it’s talk. It’s part of being human. We communicate using words. God created us this way. He created us unique among his creatures, made in his own image. And just like God communicates to us using words to reveal himself and his purposes for the world, so we communicate using words.
Talk fills our days. We get up in the morning and we talk to ourselves, planning out the day. We might turn on the news or check email and people are talking to us about what’s going on. We talk to our employer and fellow employees. We talk to our spouse if married. We talk to our children. We talk to our friends. We talk to buy food, to buy clothes. We talk about problems and family and art and literature and politics and recreation and woodworking. We talk through song and social media. Our lives are full of words, the use of our tongue.
But James, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, observes a huge problem. The tongue that God gave his image bearers to reflect his glory and accomplish his purposes for the world—image bearers are using that tongue instead to cause serious damage. The tongue, when ruled by the sinful heart, is a reckless evil. It wreaks havoc in God’s created order. James addresses this evil. But the way he frames it within his letter will give us great hope that our tongues—indeed, our entire person—can find redemption through God’s gracious work in Jesus Christ.
The Perfect: Christ-likeness in Word
But first things first, James holds out for us the perfect. Christ-likeness in word is the perfect. He begins somewhat abruptly with a word of caution for those aspiring 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.” Why is this so? James tells us in verse 2: “For we all stumble in many ways.”
What’s the logic here? It’s not that some stumble and others don’t; and the ones who don’t stumble get to be the teachers. No way. I’m all too familiar with my own sin every week I get up here. Even the apostle James includes himself in the picture—we all stumble in many ways. The point is that even the most mature Christian still stumbles in many ways, and we will give an account for all of it at the judgment.
That’s especially true for teachers whose primary ministry is carried out with the use of their tongue. Their words have incredible influence on the church for good or bad. That should produce some level of soberness when considering the role of a teacher. That’s not to say that those the Spirit gifts for the role shouldn’t pursue it—Paul says it’s a good thing (1 Tim 3:1). It’s only to say, that such a pursuit will humbly recognize the pervasiveness of sin in their own life and the reality of being held accountable for it.
If there’s haste to become a teacher, it’s likely a sign that such humility is lacking in that individual. James will go on to ask the church in verse 13, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” His concern is humility in the church, especially in the teachers.
But what does that have to do with where he’s going with the tongue? Why kick it off with the humility of teachers? Because they’re the ones the church must imitate (e.g., Heb 13:7, 17). And insofar as they imitate Jesus, it will be to the church’s benefit. But insofar as they do not, it will be to the church’s detriment. And that’s certainly true when it comes to the way they use their tongues.
In the rest of verse 2, James then points the teachers as well as the whole congregation to the perfect. He says, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says [literally, in word], he’s a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” We’ve seen him use this word, “perfect,” before. It’s the goal of being steadfast through trial in 1:4. Chapter 1:17 speaks of God’s perfect gifts. And then again 1:25 speaks of God’s perfect law. His point is that the man who doesn’t stumble in word reflects God’s character.
It’s here that we observe James’ goal in addressing the use of our tongues. His goal isn’t a mere beating. His goal is to make us more like Jesus in word, so that others know God’s character more truly through us. Jesus Christ is the only man who is perfect in word. He’s the very embodiment of God’s word. And James is pressing us onward as a church toward maturity in Christ-like speech that reflects God’s character.
Sometimes Christians brush aside the pursuit of the perfect, because, after all, we’ll never really be that way in this life. But while perfection is certainly held out as the way we will live in the end; it also refers to the consistent Christ-like behavior we should want to practice in the present. We should want to be like Christ in the use of our tongue.
How much do your words reflect God’s character? What impression does your speech leave on the people you interact with? And is it the impression of one who belongs to Jesus? If James assessed your Facebook comments, how mature in Christ would he find you? Our speech tells the truth about the state of our soul. Jesus said that it’s “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:32; cf. Jas 1:26). Wherever we cannot bridle our tongue, there we will find spiritual immaturity.
So when I walk in my room late at night after tucking my daughter in bed for the eighth time in 30 minutes and mumble to myself, “Ridiculous!” my tongue just exposed my immaturity in Christ-like patience. When I’m quick to vomit my opinion without giving due consideration to Scripture, my tongue exposes my immaturity in Christ-like submission to God’s revealed will. When I remain silent in times that love would demand I speak, even then, my tongue’s silence evidences immaturity in Christ-like love and boldness. Spiritual maturity is measured by the way we use our words. Are we growing and maturing toward the perfect, Jesus Christ, in word?
The Problem: The Tongue Ruled by Sin
It’s not enough simply to hold out the perfect. James also humbles us with the problem. The problem is that our tongue is rather destructive when ruled by sin. The further we are from the perfect, the more damage it causes.
The tongue has disproportionate power (for good/evil)
In verses 3 and 4, we run into a couple of illustrations that show the disproportionate power of the tongue. He compares the tongue to a bit in a horse’s mouth that the rider uses to steer the horse. I remember being fascinated by this when my parents took me on a trail ride as a kid—a little 8 year old steering this massive beast. He also mentions a rudder at the stern of a ship. Just a small piece of equipment in proportion to the rest of the massive vessel. But it directs the ship wherever the pilot wills.
James then explains his point in verse 5, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” The tongue represents all we do “in word” (cf. 1:19, 26; 3:2). Talk is so familiar to us, it comes so easily, that oftentimes we haven’t given proper consideration to its powerful influence for good or evil, for life or death.
Our tongue is all of 60-70 grams of skeletal muscle, and yet it boasts of this great power to direct life. Of course, we know from 1:26 that the tongue is ultimately wed to our hearts. Also these illustrations include the rider steering the horse and the pilot steering the ship. So even the illustrations connect the “means of control” to the “guiding desires.”[i] James is now applying that to the tongue. Our hearts desires guide our tongue which then has massive impact on everything else—for good or bad.
When the tongue is constrained by gracious desires flowing from a love of God’s glory, our lives will move in the course that God set out for us. For example, the woman in Proverbs 31:26—“She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” But when the tongue is controlled by our sinful nature, when we’ve lost sight of the perfect, our lives will rebel against the course God set out for us. And where there’s rebellion in word, devastation occurs.
The tongue devastates our humanity
The tongue can be powerful to accomplish very good things, but when ruled by sin it devastates our humanity. He says in verse 5, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the world of unrighteousness.”
How many times do we hear reports of a small campfire or a smoldering cigarette setting on fire acres and acres of property? The tongue may be small, but when it’s ruled by sin, it becomes a destructive fire. James even calls it, “the world of unrighteousness.” Apart from grace, the tongue rambles with the system of evil and rebellion against God (cf. Jas 1:27; 4:4). It’s morally destitute.
You ever had a doctor tell you to stick out your tongue? He can tell a great deal about your physical state by looking at your tongue. The same here in terms of our spiritual state. Only, when God looks at our tongues, he finds “the world of unrighteousness.” And when the tongue proves to be the world of unrighteousness, it has devastating consequences.
Verse 6 says that it defiles us: “The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body.” Chapter 1:27 said that true religion is to keep oneself unstained from the world. We’re not to participate in its moral rebellion. But here the world’s moral rebellion is found on our tongues and it leaves its stain on us. It’s a stain we cannot hide from God either. It just proves us guilty again and again. James sounds a lot like Jesus: “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matt 15:11).
He also says that it destroys life. It “sets on fire the entire course of life.” You may have heard the expression—maybe referring to a rumor or gossip—that it “spread like wildfire.” James makes a similar point about the tongue’s potential for spreading evil. We’ve been hearing of wildfires consuming land in California. James turns such fires into a picture of our tongue’s capabilities the further they are from Christ.
We see it spreading from Adam to Eve—Adam blaming his wife and then Eve blaming the Serpent. We see it with Israel—false prophets lying about God’s will and the people following suit. We see it in our own lives when a harsh word to your spouse shatters trust. When an overbearing tone crushes your child’s spirit. When an impatient shout damages a friendship. When a clever joke makes people laugh at evil. When a revengeful remark ruins your gospel witness. Everything in our lives is affected.
Such a tongue is also “set on fire by hell.” I don’t take that to mean that the tongue is Satanic, which is a pretty common interpretation. No, that point is plenty clear in verse 8. The tongue is “full of deadly poison.” It’s characteristic of our fork-tongued Enemy, the Serpent of old. The point here is that the tongue deserves punishment in hell, just like the Serpent of old. It’s Gehenna, the same metaphor that Jesus uses to speak of the destiny of the wicked—the place of eternal, conscience torment prepared by God for his enemies.
The tongue defies human restraint
So the solution is just to get our acts together, right? We know the perfect; we see the problem is pretty bad. Let’s just stop using our tongue that way. That’s all there is to it, right? Wrong. James’ says next that the tongue defies human restraint.
Verse 7, “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.”
He depicts the tongue as a restless beast. And its restlessness is evident in that it blesses God and curses people made in God’s image. This is the double-mindedness that James has been talking about all along. People pretending to have one foot in the kingdom and one foot in the world (1:5-8). People who say they have faith but don’t have works (2:1-26). Now we see people who sing on Sunday and drive away grumbling about a brother or sister, belittling them.
Countless times I remember in Seminary being part of conversations where vibrant discussions in theology quickly turned into demeaning attacks on other brothers for whom Christ died. The tongue has this restless, wavering-back-and-forth nature about it. And no human being can bring it under control. That’s how bad the problem is. The perfect Christ is there in all his glory. And now we see how far short we fall. Our tongue stains us guilty. It deserves eternal damnation. And we can’t do anything about it…
The Provision: God’s Grace in Jesus Christ & in A New Heart
What, then, is our only hope? Our only hope is in God’s provision, in God’s grace coming to our rescue. God’s grace comes to our rescue in sending his own Son, Jesus Christ. We needed a perfect, human substitute who could take away all our sins, even our sins in word. God sent his Son to become that perfect, human substitute.
Listen to 1 Peter 2:22-24, and I want you to listen to it in light of what we’ve been discussing about our tongue. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 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.”
Everywhere that we’ve rebelled against God with our tongue, Jesus proved faithful with his tongue. Even in the moment when he had every right to threaten great judgment, he remained quiet to atone for all the ways we’ve abused our tongue. By his death alone, our guilty stains are washed away. By his death alone, the punishment we deserved in hell was spent on him. And by his death alone, we’re also freed to live to righteousness, even righteousness with our tongues. Before Jesus is our perfect example in word, he’s our perfect substitute for our words.
But if we’re going to experience all of Jesus’ saving benefits, and actually live to righteousness with our tongue, God’s grace must also come to our rescue in giving us a new heart. And I believe James is hinting at this in verses 10-12, where he’s shocked by the inconsistency of the way God’s new people are using their tongues. He says, “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.”
What’s he getting at? He’s getting down to the source of the tongue’s problem, namely, the heart—the very core of our person. A salt pond can’t yield fresh water. A fig tree can’t bear olives. A grapevine can’t produce figs. Why? Because it’s contrary to their nature. In the same way, using our tongues for evil is contrary to our new nature given by God. Chapter 1:18 says, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
How does somebody tame the tongue? God must give us a new heart, a new nature. He must create a new humanity. And he does this through regeneration, the new birth. He puts his DNA in us by bringing us into union with Christ. He summons us to life from the dead. And when he does, he starts a work inside that enables change!
That enables us to bring our tongue into humble submission to the lordship of Jesus. That enables us to take every thought captive for Christ’s sake. That enables us to speak the truth in love and edify our brothers with gracious and fitting words and preach the good news to those who have never heard. In other words, God’s grace enables us to use our tongues as his image bearers now free in Christ.
The Process: Moving Toward the Perfect Day by Day
So, where does that leave us today after seeing how much of a restless evil our tongue truly is? It leaves us in a place of hope for change. If God has forgiven us through the cross and freed us to live to righteousness and given us new hearts, it gives us hope that we can change the way we use our tongues and compels us into that change. Perhaps it’d be helpful to close with just a few ways we can move toward the perfect day by day.
First, confess where you fall short of the perfect. One of my favorite scenes in Scripture is the vision of God’s glory in Isaiah 6. The Lord pulls back the curtain, so to speak, and Isaiah sees the Lord of hosts, seated on his throne in all his splendor and holiness. But the effect it has on Isaiah is very much the same effect that James 3 has had on me—“Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips…for my eyes have seen the King.”
Only when we see the perfect as he truly is will we see our sin for what it truly is, and how much we need God’s saving grace. If the tongue is the barometer of our spiritual maturity, where does that leave you this morning? Perhaps it’s left you in a very desperate place; it has me. When we see the depth our depravity, let us humble ourselves before the Lord and confess our desperate need for his grace. James 4:6 says that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
Second, ask God for wisdom. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” As we’ve already seen, the tongue is impossible to tame by human means. It’s a restless evil apart from grace. So ask God for divine assistance—weekly, daily, hourly.
Third, remember who you are in Christ. James begins this letter with, “slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” You’re no longer a slave to your own passions (cf. Rom 6:16; 2 Pet 2:19). You belong to God. You’re purchased and owned by Christ. When he purchased you with his blood, your tongue was included. Give it to him daily. Pray in the morning that he would become Master over every use of it.
Fourth, get to know your heavenly Father’s character. James 1:18 says that he is the one that caused us to be born again. And it’s through the new birth that he enables us to reflect his character in compassion, holy living, and speech ethics. Jesus also said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Why will they be called sons of God? Because they reflect the character of their Father in making peace.
Many of us have run into people whose accent is quite different from our own. We might even ask them, “Where are you from?” Is the speech of our heavenly Father so prevalent in our lives that people ask us, “Where are you from anyway?” Would people know by the way you speak at work and by reading your Facebook comments that you belong to a new creation? We won’t really know how to speak unless we know God, unless we know what he’s like, and so love what he’s like that we can’t help but pass it along to others in our daily talk. So open the Bible often. Make the most of Sunday mornings. Make his holy and loving character your meditation.
Fifth, be slow to speak. James 1:19, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” One way to pursue conformity to Christ in word is by slowing down this little mechanism. Isaiah 53:7 says that Jesus “was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” He knew when to speak and when to be silent, and all for our salvation. Consider God’s will and God’s word first, that it may transform how you speak in every situation.
Sixth, speak only to build up your neighbor in love. In the church James is writing to, some are speaking harshly to the poor (2:1-7), some are fighting and quarreling (4:1), some are speaking evil against each other (4:11), some are grumbling about each other (5:9). The reason James is addressing this issue is because he wants them to be a community where God’s love is evident both in our deeds and in our words (2:8, 12). Jonathan Edwards once put it this way:
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…[ii]
Seventh, stay mindful of final judgment. James began his discussion on the tongue with the sobering reality of judgment (3:1). He spoke of hell in verse 6. He echoes the heart of Jesus: “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” Let the judgment of Christ restrain your lips from speaking evil.
Finally, sing often of glory. James says that already God has made us the firstfruits of his new creation glory. And his grace is powerful and sufficient to fit us for that new creation glory. First John 3:2 says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” If you belong to Jesus Christ, God will make your tongue to be fully like Jesus’ tongue.
When you see him face to face, you will be like him. All of his children will be like him. Never again will we use our tongue for evil. With every utterance, our words will spread the glory of Christ and build up our brothers and sisters in Christ. Every thought and every desire will produce syllables and communication that only promote love, that only increase the other person’s ability to enjoy more of Jesus. And God will be all in all. That day couldn’t come soon enough.
[i]Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 258.
[ii]Jonathan Edwards, “Resolutions,” in Letters and Personal Writings (WJE Online Vol. 16), ed. George S. Claghorn, 755.
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