The greeting.

Greeting to you beloved in the name of Christ. I pray that you are growing in your love of Him and in your knowledge of Him and in your service to Him. Someday very soon we will be with Him. Even so Lord, come quickly. (Rev.22:20, Lk.21:28-33) 

The Scripture.

The Scripture passage we are going to study today is James 3:1-12. Please take out your Bibles and read along with me. Hear the holy Word of God. Pray. 

James 3:1. Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. 

The prayer.

Jesus says if we lack anything that we should go to our heavenly Father and ask Him for what we need. God is such a loving Father we know that He will give us what we need. And we need His help to understand and especially to obey His word. Beloved, let’s pray to our heavenly Father and remember we are praying in the name of Christ Jesus His beloved Son our beloved Mediator. (Jn.14:13-14, Mt.21:22, Jn.16:24, I Jn.5:14-16, Rom.8:32) Pray. 

The living faith.

Our last study in James 2:14-26 provides the context for our passage today. Last time together we considered faith and works. More accurately God tells us that true saving faith produces good works. Whereas mere profession of faith does not produce good works. To use the language of Galatians 2:20, Christ in us will come out of us.

Again, if there are “no” holy fruits in our life it testifies we have no holy root in Jesus. (Jn.15:1-10) I stress the word “no”. Jesus does say that those with saving faith, we have different measures of faith and we will produce different quantities and qualities of good works or good fruits. (Mt.7:15-20, Mt.13:8, Mk.4:20, Rom.12:13, Mt.17:20, Eph.4:7)

So, if we if have faith the size of a mustard seed and we produce mustard seed size good works we rejoice because we are in the Lord and He reveals His life changing power in and through us. (WCF 16.2)

The tongue.

Now with our passage James 3:1-12 James is going to speak about one of the areas of our life wherein our saving faith is manifested or not. And I will say that his first example is quite convicting. James is inspired by God to speak about our speech.

Our words are part of those good works that James just wrote about. Remember the subtitle of our James Bible study is “Living to Honor Christ”. Holy speech is one way that we do that.

He is saying those with true saving faith in Jesus will produce holy words. And those who are not savingly united to Jesus by true faith will produce unholy words and will not produce holy words. Remember true faith in Jesus is not merely seen in negatives, not doing sin. It is also seen in positives, showing love in word and deed. Think Matthew chapter twenty-five with the cups of cold water and so on. (Mt.25:14-46)

It is a very simple passage. What makes it so convicting is that we often treat words and deeds as markedly different things. Along the lines of, oh saying bad words is not like doing bad deeds. That may be true in a certain sense. But in another sense, God still considers the bad words bad.

Saving faith increasingly dies to those things that displease God and increasingly lives to those things that please God – even in our words. That is progressive sanctification, which does and must flow out of true justification. (WLC 77) And this includes the words we choose to use. Yes, as a Presbyterian I did say “choose”. (WCF 9.4-5) 😊

Thomas Manton makes this interesting connection between dead faith and evil speech. He says, those professing Christians that have only dead faith, these are the very same people that often the harshest with their words, pretend Christians, hypocrites, are often the quickest to point out the faults and sins of others. (On James, p.270)

The repetition.

If we could back up a bit in the letter. This is not a new subject for James. He has already introduced proper or holy speech in chapter one.

James 1:19  This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger;

James 1:26   If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 

James further goes on to show the importance of holy speech by the fact that he repeats the subject again and takes three quarters of chapter three on the matter indicates to us that this is an important matter to God.

Later in chapter four James brings up speech again. God forbids gossip and slander, words that put our fellow man in a bad light. I would add, even if those words are true.

James 4:9. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. 11 Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it.

For a further study on how our Westminster Larger Catechism explains the ninth commandment to uphold the good name of our neighbor look at WLC 143-145.

Lastly, in the final chapter James brings up holy speaking one more time. This time God tells us not to grumble and judge others with our speech and positively to tell the truth. God who is the personification of truth requires His children to tell the truth. (Jn.14:6, Jn.16:13, Jn.17:17, Jn.1:14, Jn.8:32)

James 5:9. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door. 10 As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful. 12 But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.

To the spiritual brothers.

My sense is that James writes against Christians sinning with their words because he knows that these particular Christians that he is writing to in some particular way are sinning in their speech. So, he has received some correspondence about their sins. We see that the apostle Paul will receive letters about ongoing sin in a church and then he writes an epistle to correct that sin or sins. (I Cor.5:1, Phil.4:2) Or James in general knows that all Christians still struggle with speech sins.

Just as an aside. The Bible does say, be sure your sins will find you out. (Num.32:23) It is better that we are confronted with our sins here and now so that we can repent of them and reform our lives in reliance upon the grace of God in Christ. For those that never face their sin in this life, God will bring their sin to their remembrance in the next life.

But as is his custom he writes his correction in such a warm tone; he calls them again and again “my brethren” my brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. In fact, James refers to fellow Christians as “my brothers” eleven times in this brief letter. (Jas.1:2,16,19, 2:1,5,14, 3:1,10,12, 5:12,19)

Any kind of instruction is better when it is kind and gentle, but especially in religious and biblical instruction we should be loving and tender. (I Tim.1:5-7) The Bible says sweetness of speech increases our persuasiveness. (Prov.16:21)

Remember the speech of Christ. He did not yell and scream out in the streets. (Mt.12:20, Isa. 42:3) His speech was seasoned with salt or with grace. (Col.4:6) He was loving and kind. Yes, there were times when He was severe in His speech especially with religious hypocrites. (Mt.23:1-39)

What we have here then is the apostle James imitating Jesus Christ in his speech and in his words for teaching. In other words, James is practicing what he is preaching. He is doing what he tells others to do. (I Tim.2:21, Phil.2:1-11, I Jn.2:6, Col.3:13)

We improve our teaching when we say correct doctrine and then we practice holy living. We learn both by listening and by watching. 

To the religious teacher.

James begins his teaching on the importance of sanctified speech with one class of Christian first and that is the religious teacher in the church.

Of course, this makes perfect sense. Of all people, the Bible teacher, the Bible preacher must rightly divide the word of truth. Since we are brought into a saving relationship with God and built up in the relationship by the effectual application of the truth of God’s word therefore the teacher must be truthful. (2 Tim.2:15)

James 3:1. Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.

This may apply, at least in part, to all kinds of teachers, but the context is in the church.  James sets the stage for addressing the subject of speech by introducing the pastor teacher, those elders that devote themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer. (Acts 6:4, Eph.4:11, I Tim.3:2, 4:13, 2 Tim.4:2)

The ministry of the Word requires speaking, preaching, teaching in the church and in the home, and praying.  This is one of the reasons why presbyteries and seminaries require their men to take oral exams as well as written exams.

We know that Paul has said that if a person desires to be an elder-teacher, pastor-teacher, that it is a good or fine work he seeks to do. (I Tim.3:1)

Yet, it appears as if James is discouraging his readership from seeking the office of elder teacher.  The answer lies in the context.  James is saying that people without sufficient control over their speech ought not to seek a speaking ministry.  The idea is that the pastor-teacher has to have sufficient gifts from God. One such gift is sanctified government of his speech.

The divine judgment of our speech.

(Mt.5:19, 18:6) The pastor-teacher will give an account of his teaching ministry to God. (Rom.14:10-12)

Hebrews 13:17   Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

The teacher has to be on special guard against being severe with the sins of others and expecting mercy for his own sins. (Rom.2:1, 12:10, 2 Sam.12, I Kg.20:39) This is the sin of pride in the teacher. (I Jn.2:16, Heb.13:22)

The teacher-elder should correct with humble words, gentle words but true words.  Even our tone is part of proper speech.

The standard for our speech.

I could say there are two standards for our speech. One is the written word of God. And two is the Living Word of God in the Flesh – Christ Jesus.

Galatians 6:1. Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.  2 Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.

Philippians 3:18   For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ,

When James mentions the judgment of God by this we are taught to think before we speak. The idea is to think if what we intend to say is pleasing or displeasing of God. 

Labor to believe that God will judge you for your words. (Prov.14:3) Labor to get a sense of the evil of evil speech and the good of good speech.

Avoid sins of omission. Practice using required speech.

Avoid sins of commission. Practice stopping prohibited speech. 

2 Timothy 2:14. Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers.  15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.  16 But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness,  17 and their talk will spread like gangrene.

Ephesians 4:29. Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.

Ephesians 5:4. and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.

Matthew 12:33. Either make the tree good and its fruit good or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.  34 “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.  35 “The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.  36 “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.  37 “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

The remaining corruption of our nature.

Next James speaks to all Christians. He says that while we remain in this life, we will daily struggle against sin. Our sin nature is never fully mortified in this life. Our progressive holiness, which is our sanctification, it goes up and down in this life. Our desire and our goal are to increasingly die to sin and increasingly live to righteousness. But it is a daily irreconcilable war between our flesh and the desires of the Holy Spirit. (Rom.7:1-25, James 4:1-10, I Pt.2:11-12, Gal.5:17, WCF 13.2-3) 

James 3:2. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.

All Christians have common faults and sins.

I Kings 8:46. When they sin against You (for there is no man who does not sin) and You are angry with them and deliver them to an enemy, so that they take them away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near.

Ecclesiastes 7:20. Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins. 21 Also, do not take seriously all words which are spoken, so that you will not hear your servant cursing you. 22 For you also have realized that you likewise have many times cursed others. (I Jn.1:8, Prov.20:9)

And the common sin in view is evil speech.

Notice James includes himself “we” all stumble.  The prophet Isaiah does the same thing.

Isaiah 6:5 Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”

This is meant to humble all professing Believers.  And in being humbled to make us kinder and wiser when we deal with other sinning Christians, especially in our speech which again is a by-product of our heart.

The gradual mortification of our sin nature – the gradual increase in our holiness.

Next, James holds out the idea of progress in sanctification.  That it is possible to grow in grace and increase in one’s control over one’s speech.  The greater we are conformed into Christ’s image the more holy our speech will be because our thoughts and affections will also be more holy. 

James 3:2. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 

Consider these passages in God’s word.

Colossians 4:6   Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.

Proverbs 13:3 The one who guards his mouth preserves his life; The one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.

Proverbs 10:19   When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise.

1 Peter 3:10. For, “Let him who means to love life and see good days Refrain his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile.  11 “And let him turn away from evil and do good; Let him seek peace and pursue it.

The danger and the difficulties of governing our words.

In James 3:3-8 James goes on to show the great harm and damage that the tiny tongue can do. He uses various illustrations to prove his point.

A small metal bit can move a large horse. A small wooden rudder can guide a huge ship through violent waters. All manner of beasts can be tamed by the skill of man. Then he says, that the tongue is tiny but it cannot be governed or tamed. The idea is without the help of God in Christ. 

Christian maturity or our sanctification is no easy thing.  It does not come at once, unlike our justification.  And it does not come without concerted thought and effort and active faith in Christ.

Listen to the words of Christ.

Luke 13:24  Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.  (Mt.11:12)

The benefit of our holy words.

James does indicate that with the tongue we can bless God. 

James 3:9. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.

So, we are capable of doing great good with our words. God gave man the ability to speak I am sure for the main reason of glorifying God in our speech, namely our praises of Him.

Our tongue like a metal bit making the horse useful, like a rudder make the ship sail to the desired destination, can guide us and others to the Lord. For the preacher think of his holy preaching, teaching, blessing, and praying. (Isa.6:6, Acts 2:3)

The harm of our sinful words.

But because this is a correction passage mostly James has in mind the negative or sinful use of the tongue.

Sinful speech boasts in self.

The small tongue can and does make great boasts.  Like a spark that starts small our words can sinfully grow like a forest fire.

James 3:5. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!

Our speech can and often does display our remaining pride. (Ps.12:3, Prov.6:17, 14:3, Isa.14:13)

Our little sinful member can lead us to more sins and to a greater aggravation of our sins.

Ecclesiastes 5:6   Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands?

Psalm 2:2. The kings of the earth take their stand And the rulers take counsel together Against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us tear their fetters apart And cast away their cords from us!”

Luke 19:14  But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.

James 4:13  Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”

Sinful speech destroys others.

Think of the value of one match – five cents?  And then calculate the worth of an entire forest destroyed by something so seemingly insignificant but used in a careless way.  Millions and millions of dollars destroyed by five cents.

Likewise, how many precious homes have been destroyed by careless, thoughtless, sinful words?  How many churches have been destroyed because of sinful words?  How many souls have been destroyed by words?  Think of this, most fistfights start with words.

Let me apply this in marriages. I advise spouses not to share everything they are thinking or feeling with their spouse.  I am not counseling people to lie. But I am counseling people to think before they speak.

Truthful words can sometimes be used sinfully.  Often we need a lot more prayer before share many things. Also remember, sometimes people can say things that we never get over, certainly never forget.  There is power in words.

The tongue has the power to deceive, to tell lies, to slander, to gossip, create strife and division, incite hatred, incite lust, tempt to steal, to covet, spread heresy, and so on. (Ps.120:3-4, Prov.16:27-28)

Sinful speech defiles ourselves and others.

It is our disgrace.  It is an awful spot on our character.  And not only does our evil speech defile us but it defiles and corrupts others.  Thomas Manton says some sins decay with age but evil speech in the unconverted often increases with age. Such as foolish talk, gossip, slander, and carnal talk.

Part of that defiling power of sinful words is also that sinful words act like poison to the mind and to the heart.

V.7-8.  Not only is the tongue set on fire from hell but it is FULL of poison. 

Psalm 58:3. The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth. 4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent; Like a deaf cobra that stops up its ear, 5 So that it does not hear the voice of charmers, Or a skillful caster of spells. 6 O God, shatter their teeth in their mouth; Break out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD.

Psalm 140:1. For the choir director. A Psalm of David. Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men; Preserve me from violent men 2 Who devise evil things in their hearts; They continually stir up wars. 3 They sharpen their tongues as a serpent; Poison of a viper is under their lips. (Rom.3:9-18)

The call to speak according to our new nature.

James concludes this section on our words by instructing us to live up to the name of Christian. He wants us to think how unnatural it is for a born-again Christian to use his or her blood-bought tongue for sin. Christ has purchased all of us for holy use.

James 3:9. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.

This is precisely why the devil, who is the father of lies, tempts people to sin with their tongues so often.  This is why we need to think before we speak.  (Jas.1:19)

And we need to think of Christ before we speak and when we speak. Our eyes fixed on Christ will purifying our hearts and thus our words. Oh beloved, it is impossible for the flesh to govern the unruly tongue. But nothing is impossible with Christ. May we use our words to glorify Him and to bless others.


Study Guide.

  1. What is the relationship of saving faith in Christ and good works. Which is the root, and which is the fruit? What kind of life will saving faith produce? What are some ways that saving faith in Christ comes out of us as Believers? What is the usefulness of good works? (Gal.2:20, Jas.2:14-26, Jn.15:1-10, Mt.7:15-20, Mt.13:8, Mk.4:20, Rom.12:13, Mt.17:20, Eph.4:7, WCF 16.2)
  1. James 3:1-12 speaks against speech sins. How can our speech testify if we are true Christians or not? What are some things we could say or not say that would indicate the reality of our profession of faith? What is the source of our words, where do they come from? What lessons do we learn by this? What lessons do we learn by James repeatedly bringing up the subject of speech sins? (Mt.15:17-19, Lk.6:45, Mt.12:34, Jas.1:19, 1:26, 3:1-12, 4:9-11, 5:9-12)
  1. What is the standard or standards for our words? How do we know what are sinful words versus holy words? What lessons do we learn by this? (2 Tim.3:14-27, Exod.20:1-17, Mt.22:37-40, Rom.13:8-13, Gal.5:14, I Pt.2:21-25, Jn.13:15, I Cor.11:1, Col.3:16, Jn.1:1-18, Phil.2:1-11)
  1. How can we break the ninth commandment with our words? Can you break the ninth commandment if you say something true? Why? Why not? What makes us sin against others with our words? (WLC 143-145)
  1. How or why is truth telling like God in Christ? How or why is lying like the devil?   (Jn.14:6, Jn.16:13, Jn.17:17, Jn.1:14, Jn.8:31-44, Jn.1:14, Gen.3:1-8, Jn.4:24, Jas.1:18, Prov.12:22, Jn.16:33)
  1. Why does James say that religious teachers must especially be mindful of their words? In what way do religious teachers have the power to help and hurt others by their words? What are religious teachers required to teach? Why does God hold religious teachers to stricter judgment? Why is a lying preacher worse than a lying car salesman? Should many Christians be religious teachers? Why? Why not? (James 3:1-2, 2 Tim.3:14-17, Acts 6:4, Eph.4:11, I Tim.3:2, 4:13, 2 Tim.4:2, Rom.14:10-12, Heb.13:17, WLC 151)
  1. Government of our words is part of our sanctification as Believers. Are we active or passive in our sanctification? How does the flesh war against the Spirit? How does this war manifest itself in our speech? What lessons do we learn by this? (Mt.16:24-26, Phil.2:12, Ps.34:13, Jas.3:1-12, Rom.7:1-25, James 4:1-10, I Pt.2:11-12, Gal.5:17, WCF 13.2-3, Eccl.7:20-22, I Jn.1:8, Prov.20:9, Isa..6:5, Col.4:6, Prov.13:3, Prov.10:19, I Pt.3:10-11)
  1. Here is a list of various speech sins. Taking God’s name in vain, not speaking of God holily, lying, profanity, coarse joking, angry words, slander, gossip, back-biting, speaking too much, speaking too loudly, not speaking when we should speak, speaking without thinking, useless or idle words, complaining or grumbling, judging others, boasting in self, lewd speech, divisive speech, flattering speech, false witnessing. Give some practical examples of how we commit these sins? What is the heart sin associated with each type of word sin? (Mt.12:34, Mt.10:32-33, 2 Tim.2:12, Rom.3:13-14, Exod.21:17, Eph.4:29-31, I Pt.2:23, Mk.10:34, Exod.20:16, Ps.34:13, Jude 1:16, Prov.26:20, Prov.15:1, I Cor.13:4)
  1. How do speech sins sinfully elevate us, destroy others like fire, and corrupt ourselves and others like poison? (Jas.3:1-12)
  1. List some positive usages of our words? List forms of speech that God approves of and are useful to others? Why are holy words in keeping with Christ’s purpose for us as His people? (Jas.3:9-12, Col.4:6, Eph.4:29, Prov.15:4, Ps.119:171-173)




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