God created humanity not merely in, but as His image—to rightly represent, relate to, and rule for Him over the world He had made. This image is the opportunity and divine intention to exercise His authority over His world for the furtherance of His program. With the fall into depravity, our ability to function as God’s image was severely corrupted, though not entirely lost. When God saves sinners, He begins transforming their character to once again reflect His image, that His authority might be restored to them to properly rule His world and fulfill His program. While this intention will not be completed until the future kingdom, the more we reflect our Lord’s perfect character the more we will be able to cooperate with Him effectively for the furtherance of His purposes and the recovery of our lost destiny.
This sanctification must extend to every part of us—and one of the most difficult places for us to reflect holy character is in the use of the tongue. Verbal sins are among the most reflexive and reactionary—unthinking, unpremeditated, and easy to justify, excuse, and habitually commit. But if God’s purposes for us as His emissaries are to be fulfilled, we must exhibit consistently sanctified speech. The little letter of James is a treasure trove of evidences of God’s saving and transforming grace. In 3:1-12, he gives us four reasons why our speech ought to reflect God’s devastating purity.
A. It Determines Direction (vv. 1-4)
James begins his counsel on the tongue by addressing what might seem an initially irrelevant subject: teaching. After all, shouldn’t James go after slander, cursing, suggestive talk, crude joking? He will. But James goes for the heart, refusing to allow even the tatters of self-righteousness cover wicked motives—and many a wicked tongue has been exercised in seemingly pious teaching!
James highlights the fact that those who use their tongues for teaching the Word of God do so in the face of great accountability and responsibility. As such, one must carefully examine motives and intents behind a desire for public proclamation. (This means loss of reward at the Last Day for those Christian who teach, and damnation for the false converts.) It is noteworthy that James here condemns the most obvious facet of bad teaching: Wrong doctrine. Use of the tongue to teach what God has not is no small issue worthy of overlooking. It is a serious thing for we teach in the manifest presence of the One who will judge all men.
James does not write to discourage those genuinely called to minister the Word, but reminds them of the true weight it has. He says that this weight is rooted in our common fallen humanity—note the “for” that begins verse 2; our innate propensity to stumble in a variety of ways ought to make us cautious in stepping behind a scared desk and claiming to speak for God! James builds on this point by contrast: But if someone does not stumble in speech—if he can control his tongue and use it for God-centered speech flowing from a Spirit-filled heart—then he is a perfect or mature man able to control his whole person. Spiritual maturity shows up in the mouth!
James uses two illustrations to show how the tongue determines the direction of life. He compares it to a bit which easily directs the horse by the will of its rider, or the tiny rudder of a great ship that wields immeasurable power over the ship’s trajectory. In both cases, something small is powerfully effective in telling a much larger thing where to go and how to conduct itself. So it is with the tongue. How we use our tongues reveals where we are going—either forward to greater Christlikeness and its outcome, eternal life and great reward in it; or deeper into carnality, sinfulness, and ungodliness, and into chastening by our Father or worse, eternal condemnation on the Last Day.
What you say and how you say it matters for time and eternity!
B. It Inflames Immorality (vv. 5-6)
Having shown two ways in which the use of the tongue matters (right teaching and as a revealer of spiritual direction), James moves on to another powerful expression: Wrong use of the tongue inflames immorality. Here, he uses the illustration of a fire to show the lasting damage wicked speech can cause.
A massive forest needs only one spark to go up in flames. So also will wicked use of the tongue set an entire life, marriage, relationship, church, workplace, ministry, aflame, leaving only charred feelings, burnt-over intimacy, blackened trust, and stubble where usefulness and fruitfulness once were. What is most threatening about the tongue is that we never know what will set the forest ablaze. It could be one simple thing that is said. Or, it could be the piling up of many things—many words rooted in many attitudes that have gone unchallenged, unconfronted, blindly drying out wood until the match is lit. That other people are often polite, timid, or otherwise unwilling to confront us may lull us into a false sense of the rightness of our speech, when in reality we’re merely stockpiling kindling! (Do you see now why the tongue is so profoundly in need of sanctification?!)
James goes on to a vivid elaboration of the tongue’s fallenness. The tongue has within it a vast vista of unbelief and wickedness, connected as it is to a heart that still contains untold remnants—caverns—of ungodliness and carnality! It defiles the whole body because it is tied to a fallen heart; moreover, we often say wicked things because we have nursed or justified them—become desensitized to them—in the depths of our hearts, so that our whole inner man is turned towards the fleshliness, whatever it might be. The Greek for “course” refers to the whole network or system of life. The wrong use of the tongue affects every aspect of life; it touches what you touch—and it burns it to the ground with the very fire of hell.
C. It Reveals a Rebellious Nature (vv. 7-8)
Reaching back to God’s original creation intent, James speaks of His giving humans dominion over the animal world. (It is important to note that God did not intend human dominion to stop here; those animals are listed because they were the only other creatures in existence at the time. As civilization grew and culture became established, God expected man to rule for Him in very area and facet of life and relationships.) James says that these animals have been tamed by man—a vestige of the image of God! Yet, he says, no one alive has been able to tame the tongue! He illustrates this by saying the tongue is a restless (Gr. “fickle, untrustworthy”) evil and tinged with deadly poison. If that kind of thing isn’t tamed, what hope to we have? Elsewhere, James will write of the conquering, sanctifying grace of God (4:4-10). But for now, he leaves us weighed down with the deadly potential of an unsanctified tongue.
D. It Compromises Your Confession (vv. 9-12)
James elaborates on his previous point thusly. Recall how he said the tongue is unstable, fickle, untrustworthy. Here, he highlights that inconsistency. Christian people have above all confessed that Jesus is Lord; He is God incarnate and is the anointed king over the new humanity. Obviously, if all that is true, then we ought to use our tongues in a way commensurate to His revealed will, character, and purposes! But no: with the same tongue we use to bless God, we curse men made as His very image (O what honor and deference we ought to have for the human person!). James tells us this ought not to be. Verse 12 closes with a sobering commentary: Like produces like. If you hear echoes of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, you’re right. We speak according to what is in our hearts. This does not mean that every instance of wrong speech, even a frequent engaging in it, automatically invalidates a person’s claim to know Christ and means they’re a false convert. But it does mean that speech is an unerring indicator of the heart. And if you communicate in a way that reveals your treasure is something other than God, then deal with Him decisively and quickly! Wrong speech reveals a disordered heart. But a heart of proper trust in and surrender to the Lord, when the spirit is entirely turned towards Him in devotion and love, will pour forth speech of a very different kind.
God longs to have a holy, consecrated people. How many Christians have stumbled along the pathway of sanctification, making common cause with the world, adopting the mindset and values and perspective of a fleshly, base culture, justifying small and large sins, and refusing to bring all of the life under the authority of Jesus Christ! Though saved, they poorly reflect the image of their Father and miss out on the blessings in time and eternity of being “workers together” with Him for the extending of His rule in the earth. Of course, many who profess to know Christ do not really know Him, and one day will be in for a rude awakening when on the Last Day they are condemned, not acquitted, at the judgment and are hurled into eternal hell! In both cases, ungodly speech is a mark of a heart in some way nit rightly related to our sovereign Lord, who even now rules over all things and is the One to whom we are covenantally and personally accountable. May the Lord have the prize of our whole hearts, and may we know the joy of His holiness in every part of us, that we might rightly image Him and demonstrate to the world the glory of the One who rules all things and the reality of the earth-transforming kingdom that is soon to come.