James: Talk Burns

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on September 15, 2002

James 3:3-12

James 3:3-12

Talk Burns

If you have your
Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to James chapter 3 as we continue our
studies in the book of James. James 1 verses 1-18 deals with the subject of
trials, and especially how the Christian is to respond to trials. James 1:19-27
identifies for us true Christianity, distinguishing it from false or simply
claimed Christianity. And, in fact, James gives us several tests to look for in
that passage which we’ll consider a little bit later on.

In James chapter 2 we
see evidence of true faith. True faith is joined with loving obedience in the
Christian’s life.

And then in James
chapter 3 we see the subject of the tongue or our speech taken up. And so the
structure of James’ letter is clear and logical and connected. The connection is
this: if you look at James 1 verses 26 and 27, you will see that James has given
three areas of indication of true faith. In other words, “How do you identify
someone who is really a Christian?” How do you
make the distinction between someone who claims to be a Christian and who really
is a Christian. James gives three test cases or areas of indication of how
Christianity impacts a person’s life. The first area that he lists is the
tongue. The second area is in our care, love and concern for the needy. And
thirdly, there is the area of our resisting worldliness. Each of those areas he
takes up in this letter. The second area, that is love and care and concern for
the needy, he deals primarily with in chapter 2, a passage we’ve already looked
at. He’ll deal with the tongue, the first area he that he mentioned in verse 26
of chapter 1 here in chapter 3, and from the end of chapter 3 really to the end
of the book he will tackle the subject of worldliness and our being separate
from the world as believers in such a way that we love the world in the sense of
having a concern and desire for its best interest and at the same time that we
do not love the world in the sense that we don’t get caught up in the
worldliness and the temporal and the ungodly thinking of the world around us. So
that gives you an outline of James so far.

James in the passage
we studied last time applied his teaching about the tongue especially to
teachers. But we said, even then, that James’ words about speech were not only
for teachers but also for all Christians. That becomes very obvious in the
passage that we’re going to look at today, James chapter 3 beginning in verse 3
down to verse 12. Let us hear God’s holy word.

“Now if we put the bits
into the horses’ mouths so that they may obey us, we direct their entire body as
well. Behold, 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. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it
boasts of great things. Behold, how great a forest is set aflame by such a small
fire! 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. For every species of beasts and
birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed by the
human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of
deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men,
who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both
blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a
fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig
tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Neither can salt
water produce fresh.”

Amen. This is God’s word.
May He add His blessing to it. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our
God, we ask that You would teach us from Your word. We ask that Your word would
be used as a mirror by the Spirit to show us our own hearts, to search us out
and find if there be any unclean thing in us. And then also that Your word would
be used as a lamp to guide us on our way. But above all we pray that Your word
would be used as a teacher to lead us to Christ. This we ask in Jesus’ name.

James 3: 3-12 is a
gigantic illustration of, and application of, the point that James made in James
3:2. So you better allow your eyes to fall on 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.” Now, as we said, this picks up on what James had already said in James
1:26. Look there as well where he says, “If anyone thinks himself to be
religious, yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s
religion is worthless.” So James has already inaugurated the principle that the
tongue is of central concern to our growth in grace, to our living of the
Christian life. And what he does in James 3:3-12 illustrates that and applies
that over and over in different ways.

In fact, James is
going to show us five things here, five ways in which the tongue is important.
Why is the tongue so important? Why is our speech so important? James tells us
five things to explain that.

The tongue holds a key place in holy living, its control is a prime component of

And the first thing is this. Look at verses 3-5. Here, James explains to
us that the tongue is important because the tongue holds a key place in holy
living. Its control is a prime component in our sanctification. James argues in
verses 3-5 that the tongue is disproportionately influential as a member of our
body, and he gives two illustrations, which you’ll see in verses 3 and 4. In
verse 3 his first illustration is that of a horse and bit or a horse and bridle,
and he points out how this relatively small instrument used by a skilled rider
can guide a large and powerful animal with some ease. James says it’s the same
thing with the tongue. The tongue, though disproportionately small, has a
disproportionately large influence on us as persons. It has a greater impact on
our lives. In verse 2 he says, “even as the horse’s bit guides its entire body,
so also the tongue is something which impacts the whole body as well.” And so
he uses the first illustration to emphasize the relative importance of what we

And then the second
illustration in verse 4 of a ship is like to it. Of course this is from the day
of great sailing vessels which would have been driven by sails and wind, and he
says even a large ship in a big storm where the wind is howling and blowing in
all directions is guided by a pilot through a very small instrument, the rudder.
And so again he shows the disproportionate influence of the tongue through the
illustration of the rudder.

The point is that the
tongue is capable of tremendous influence. And we all know that experientially.
That’s in some ways a common sense or common grace truth. Perhaps, you’ve been
inspired at some point in your life to go on by the words of another. Sometimes
there are words in great crisis. I suspect that many of you have treasured up at
least a few words from statements and comments and speeches that you have heard
in the last year since September 11, 2001. I for one, will never forget some of
the words that president bush spoke during his address to congress in the wake
of September 11th. “We will not tire. We will not falter. We will
not fail.” Those things are engrained in me and they are part of the things
that have encouraged me to go on and to be faithful and to be resolute in the
wake of this tremendous attack on our nation.

I remember a visit to
the Imperial War Rooms in London where the speeches of Churchill during some of
the darkest days of the Second World War are played. You move from one room,
where you hear Hitler giving his mesmerizing speeches at Nuremberg and rallying
thousands and thousands of Nazis, and then you go into the next room and you
hear Churchill’s reply as he speaks to his nation, and he calls them to resolute
opposition to those who would invade them and end their way of life. One of the
speeches has a phrase that goes like this, “We gave you the choice between honor
and war. You chose dishonor, and you shall have war.” I was ready to go out and
sign up for the British army myself after hearing that speech. It moves us.

Words can be used
powerfully in our life. There are people in this room who remember Roosevelt’s
fireside chats. And you’ll remember, perhaps, how they encouraged you in dark
days of our nation. And even the sound bits that we hear played over and over
perhaps on the news channels or on the radio, have perhaps an encouraging impact
upon us.

But we don’t have to
look to things quite so grand as speeches by leaders to prove the point that the
tongue is disproportionally influential. Fathers in here will recognize this
experience. Something’s going wrong in the parenting scheme. And the child is
doing something that he shouldn’t being doing or that she shouldn’t being doing,
and as the father sits down to talk with that child, you start conjuring up in
your own mind, “What did dad tell me when I was doing this?” Or, “What did mom
tell me when I was doing this?” And you’re searching for some bit of wisdom to
share. And then, sure enough, something that your own parent said to you just
comes out of your mouth involuntarily and you find those phrases that your
parents have emblazoned on your mind coming out in your speech as you deal with
your own children. And we see how the power of speech can impact us. Most of us
can remember times that were very difficult where words of encouragement from
friends were the difference between absolute despair and hope that there was
some light at the end of the tunnel. James is stressing just how powerful, how
disproportionately powerful, an instrument the tongue is. The control of the
tongue leads to a master control over our lives and ourselves.

And so the first
thing he says about the tongue is that it has a key place in holy living. If we
are paying attention at all to the desire to be like Christ, if we are paying
attention at all to the desire to live what we say we believe, if we are paying
attention at all to wanting to grow in holiness, then James is saying one area
that you can’t leave out is the tongue. You’ve got to think about your speech
and what your speech says about your holiness or your growth in grace. What does
that mean for us as Christians? Have you realized, Christian, how powerful, how
central, how influential the tongue is? Do you realize how important it is in
your sanctification? And, if so, what are you doing about it?

Well, maybe you’re
here today maybe you’re here this morning and you’re not a Christian. You may
publicly profess to be a Christian and you’re not a Christian. And you may be
secretly thinking to yourself that you don’t need God’s grace to be saved. Well,
let me plant a seed of thought with you. What about your tongue? What does your
tongue tell you about your need for grace? We’ll come back to that thought in
just a few moments. But think on those things. James is first and foremost
pressing home to us that the tongue is a key to holy living.

The tongue has enormous power for actual harm, and so we dare not neglect the
discipline of it.

The second thing he says you’ll see at the end of verse 5 and in verse 6.
And that is simply this: that the tongue, is not only enormously influential, it
has great power to harm. It has enormous power for actual harm, and so we dare
not neglect the discipline of it. Because of the very capacities of the tongue
for influence, it is capable of doing enormous harm.

And he gives another
illustration. Do you notice that he gives each of these illustrations the
introductory word, behold. It’s translated in verse 3 as now but
in each of the other illustrations it’s translated behold perhaps in your
English Bible. But the third illustration that he gives right here in verse 5
after the illustration of the horse and of the ship is one that is a little bit
close to home in dry parts of our nation. There is a woman in Arizona who really
understands what James means when he says that a small fire can burn down a
large forest. A small fire burned down a forest larger than the state of Rhode
Island this year. The woman who started it knows how much damage a small fire
can do. She almost wound up in jail for starting that fire. And that is
precisely the illustration that James gives. He says in verse 6 that the tongue
is just like that. It has the power to defile the entire body and the whole
course of life.

I remember a friend
starting a rumor that went all the way to Britain and came back again and caused
a major controversy. And he learned what rumors and gossiping could do. The
tongue has the power to defile the entire body and the whole course of life.
And, in fact, he says in verse 6 that the source of that kind of use of the
tongue is hell. James is simply pointing out the fact that though the tongue can
be used greatly for encouragement, it correspondingly can be used for damage,
for harm. It can destroy. Talk burns. It can redirect the course of life. It can
disrupt a family. It can divide a congregation. We always knew that when our
mother said “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never harm
you” that they were just trying to say something to make us feel better. Because
those words often hurt more that we heard, than any stick or stone that we had
ever felt. Parents who watch children, it doesn’t matter whether they’re young
or whether they’re adolescent, know the power of harm that words can do. How
many parents in this room have had their hearts break as they have seen
something that another child has said to their child or that their child has
said to another child? Children can be incredibly cruel in the words that they
use against one another. And those words can cause divisions and damage that are
never, ever repaired. James is saying the tongue is important not only because
it’s influential, because it can do huge damage.

III. The tongue is humanly
uncontrollable, and so we have to turn to some help outside of ourselves to tame

Thirdly, James goes on to say in verses 7 and 8 that the tongue is,
humanly speaking, uncontrollable. The tongue is humanly uncontrollable and so we
have to turn to some help outside of ourselves in order to tame them. The tongue
is an indisputable evidence of the need for divine grace. And again, he takes a
very common illustration. In verse 7 he says humans can train animals, but they
can’t tame tongues. Go to the circus. Go to Sea World. Go to the gulf aquarium
and you will see humans show an incredible ability to train animals who are not
normally domestic animals to do incredible tricks. Dolphins and otters, lions
and elephants are amazingly taught by humans to do amazing behaviors. And yet
James says, though humans can teach beasts to do tricks, they can’t tame their
own tongue. It’s an ongoing, unavoidable evidence of the power of sin.

You remember when the
Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 3:14-15 wants to convince you that you really are
a sinner and that you need grace, one of the things he does is that he goes to
the tongue, and he says your tongue shows you that you need forgiveness of sins.
If somebody responds to Paul, “Paul, I’m not a sinner. I don’t need this Jesus.
I don’t need this grace that you’re talking about from God.” Paul’s response
is, “O.K., well, let’s talk about your speech. What does your speech say about
you?” And that speech shows us all our need for grace.

But it also shows us
our powerlessness to change ourselves. James says “The tongue no one can tame.”
James is indicating that we have to go to outside help to change our speech,
because our tongue reveals our heart. Our heart is not the solution to our
tongue. So the people who tell us that we need to look within and find the
goodness within have no solution for the tongue. Because the tongue is a heart
problem. The tongue problem is a heart problem. So if you’re going to solve the
tongue problem, which is a heart problem, you can’t look at the heart. You have
to look somewhere else. And, of course, James is pointing us there to the grace
of God which is in Jesus Christ.

Maybe you’re
struggling with the tongue this morning. Maybe you’re struggling with gossip or
with nagging. Maybe you’re struggling with lying. Maybe you’re struggling with
boasting. You so desire the esteem of your classmates that you’ll say anything
to get them to think that you are with it, that you’re cutting edge, that you’re
part of the in crowd. Maybe, maybe you are building yourself up by cutting other
people down. Maybe you are sharing rumors which are causing division in a family
or in the church. All of these things point to a sin problem, a heart problem
that can’t be solved by ourselves. It can only be solved by the grace of god in
Jesus Christ. And so, whether we are Christians struggling with this sin or
whether we are nonChristians struggling with this sin, we need to run to the
grace of the Lord Jesus Christ for the answer.

If we are a
nonChristian, we need to run to the Lord Jesus Christ to be changed, to be
transformed, not to turn over a new leaf, but to be changed from the inside out
by the grace of God.

If we’re Christians
then we need to realize that we’re not acting like Christians when we’re
committing these kinds of sins of the tongue, and we need to apply ourselves in
prayer to Christ for grace so that we might grow, so that we might stop this
kind of use of speech and use it for godly purposes. And so James teaches us
that the tongue is, humanly speaking, uncontrollable. And, therefore, it is
very, very important because it shows us our need for grace.

IV. The tongue reveals
deep-seated inconsistencies in spiritual life.

Fourthly, in verses 8-10, he goes on to say that the tongue is important
because it reveals deep-seated inconsistencies in spiritual life. The tongue,
though made by God to be a blessing, is used for both good and evil even by
professing believers. Have you noticed that in verse 10 and in verse 12 James
repeats the phrase “my brethren.” In other words, he’s indicating that the
people to whom he is speaking he considers to be brothers and sisters in Jesus
Christ, and yet they are struggling with inconsistency in their language. James
never specifies what that consistency is. Maybe he hints at it in the words
“the tongue is small but it boasts of great things.” Maybe he’s
speaking of prideful speech, but sins of the tongue are almost too many to list.
He could have been speaking about lying. He could have been speaking about
misleading. He could have been speaking about nagging. He could have been
speaking about gossiping. He could have been speaking about cynical, satirical,
cutting speech which is designed to cut another person down. There are numerous
things that fall under the sin of the tongue, but he characterizes them all as
“restless evil and full of deadly poison” in verse 8.

And then he observes
that the tongue is used both to worship god and to malign those who are made in
the image of God. And in verse 10, he says, “brothers, it shouldn’t be this
way.” James is saying that the tongue itself, in its use and misuse, reveals
deep-seated inconsistencies in spiritual life. You know, often times when we see
something about ourselves that we don’t like, we downplay that sin. Other sins
are big. But our sin, oh, that’s just a nice little sin. It’s not a real
problem. And what is James saying in verses 8-10? The tongue is a big problem.
It’s a real problem. It’s a real big problem. And so when we see ourselves both
using the tongue for blessing and for cursing, James is saying you’re seeing an
evidence of a deep-seated inconsistency in the Christian life that needs to be
corrected. We need to run to god for grace. And it requires us both to humble
ourselves in prayer before god, to consider the way that we’re talking and to be
vigilant monitoring the use of our tongues.

The tongue is an index of the heart.

But James isn’t finished. In verses 11 and 12 he tells us that the tongue
is an index of our heart. It not only reveals deep-seated inconsistencies, but
it really shows us what is in our heart. And again, James is following his older
brother, our master and Savior Jesus Christ, because in Matthew 15 verses 10 and
11 Jesus says to the crowd around Him, “Hear and understand, it is not what
enters into the mouth of man that defiles him, but what proceeds out of the
mouth that defiles the man.” And both of the illustrations that James uses in
verses 11 and 12 corroborate that point. A fountain cannot send out both fresh
and bitter water, and a fig tree can’t produce olives anymore than a vine can
produce figs.

The point is that
hypocrisy in speech reveals a heart problem. Inconsistency in speech reveals a
heart problem that needs a remedy. If we are Christians, that heart problem is
the remedy of sanctification. But sanctification is not only going to involve
God working in us, but our striving as well. As Paul would say in Philippians
2:12-13, “Work out your sanctification with fear and with trembling because it
is God who is at work in you.”

In other words,
Paul is stressing that God is at work in our growth and grace and we must be at
work in our growth and grace
. This is totally different from
. We don’t work at all in justification. God works by
Christ to accept us as his children
. But as we grow in grace we must
strive, too.

But if these words
are heard by the person who’s not a Christian this morning, there’s no work that
you can do. The only thing that you can do is renounce your work. Because your
work won’t save you here. If you’re not a believer, the only thing that you can
do is to apply to Christ for grace, to trust in Him that He can change you even
in the area of speech.

Now James says that
our speech says something about our heart. And because of that the tongue is
important. May God grant that we as a congregation grow in showing the mind of
Christ our Savior in the things we say. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our
God, we thank You for the searching truth of Your word. And we are humbled when
we consider our own speech in light of Your word. None of us can speak on this
subject without self-indictment for we have all stumbled here. But we do not use
this as an excuse not to grow, for we want to be like the Lord Jesus. We want to
show that we know the love of the Lord Jesus. And that the love of the Lord
Jesus is in our heart, and so, O God, may the mind of Christ our Savior so live
in us day by day that His power is displayed in us not only in all that we do
but in all that we say. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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