James: Worldly Speaking and Christian Speaking

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on October 13, 2002

James 4:11-17

James 4:11-17
Worldly Speaking and Christian Speaking

If you have your bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to
James chapter 4.As we’ve worked through this very practical book, we noted that
in James 1: 26 & 27 James actually gives us a three-point key to some of the
important topics that he addresses for the rest of the book. He deals with the
issue of worldliness in that passage he also talks about our speech and about
our care for those who are in need…Let’s hear God’s Word:

11Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone
who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges
it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on
it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and
destroy. But you–who are you to judge your neighbor? Now listen, you who say,
“Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on
business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.
What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then
vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and
do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.
Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.

Let’s pray.

“Our Lord and our God we ask that You would show us
through the instrument of our speech a window into our hearts. That You would
reveal what is there and if it is worldliness, we pray that by the grace of Your
Spirit that You would root it out and that you would establish Christ in our
hearts. We ask O God that You would help us to understand Your word this day,
and to see its application first to ourselves, rather than to others, lest we
seeking to instruct them in the removal of a speck in their eye, might miss the
log in our own. We ask these things, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

James has been talking about worldliness and we’ve
said that very subject hits home to us. We are bombarded with every temptation
to worldliness on all sides in our culture and our own hearts are infected with
worldly desires. And in this passage today James is going to point to two
indications of speech that there is a worldly self-centeredness, a worldly lack
of humility in us. And I’d like you to see two or three things that James makes
very clear to us in this passage today.

I. Christians are not to slander,
defame or denigrate a Christian brother.
First, if you look at verses 11 & 12. You will see James
addressing the issue of speech that is destructive of our brethren or our
neighbor. He sees that kind of speech which tears down fellow believers, or
which tears down our neighbors, to be a mark of both worldliness and a lack of
humility. His point of course is that Christians are not to slander or defame
or denigrate a Christian brother in speech. And when we hear verses 11 & 12, of
course, behind them we hear Jesus’ words echoing from Matthew chapter 7:1, “Do
not judge lest you be judged.” And we need to pause here before we give a
positive exposition of this passage to say what this passage does not mean,
because that praise of Jesus and this statement of James has often been used
wrongly when James says that we are not to speak against one another. He does
not mean that believers are not to exercise discretion or judgment about the
things that they hear other people saying. He does not mean that we are not to
evaluate a person or that person’s actions biblically. He doesn’t mean that
we’re to go into judgment autopilot and never evaluate anyone or their actions
from a biblical point of view. Nor does he even mean that we are never to say
anything negative about another person.

If he meant those three things, I want to point out
that James would have already violated those things in this book. He’s had some
fairly hard things to say about people who claim to have faith and yet don’t
show it in their life. Even in this passage, if you look at the second half of
verse 11, James passes a judgment on people who judge. James himself is willing
to exercise discretion and make evaluations.

So, what does James mean when he says, “Do not speak
against one another?” Well, he is speaking about speech that tears down a
fellow believer or a neighbor. He is talking about backbiting. That’s actually
a good translation which William Tyndale gave us many years ago. He’s talking
about speech that is often not in the presence of a fellow Christian, which
tears them down. It builds us up at there expense.

So, how do we check that kind of speech, because we
all struggle with it. Even Isaiah had to pray, “I am a man of unclean lips.”
We all struggle with these kinds of sins of speech. How do we check them? How
do we check hurtful, divisive, destructive speech? That’s a particularly
poignant question to ask as we come to the Lords Table, because at the Lords
Table we’re not only celebrating our communion with Christ, but our communion
with one another. And destructive speech disrupts that communion. It is one of
the great sins that brings disunity in the Christian church. So, how do we
check that kind of speech? Well, in this passage James offers five hints in
verses 11 & 12. Take a look at them with me.

The very first phrase of verse 11, James says in
order to check destructive speech, remember about whom you are speaking. Who is
it that you are about to tear down? Listen to James’ language, “Do not speak
against one another, brethren.” In the next phrase he twice calls us,
And then, if you look at the end of verse 12, you’ll see him
speak about neighbors. Now James is reminding you of this simply to point out
that brethren ought not to be hurting brothers and sisters and neighbors. We
ought to be cultivating close and friendly and encouraging and mutually helping
relationships in our speech. So, he say’s when you’re getting ready to tear
down someone, remember about whom you are speaking. It’s a brother, it’s a
sister, and it’s a neighbor.

Secondly, he says in verse 11, remember against what
you are speaking. James was speaking to people who had a high view of God’s
word, and they had a high view of God’s law. They wanted to obey God’s law.
And he says, when you speak against a brother, you are actually speaking
against God’s law. It’s not just your brother’s reputation that you’re
breaking. It is God’s law that you’re breaking. He who speaks against a
brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law, and judges or condemns
the law. When you speak against the brother you are condemning the law.

Thirdly, if you look at verse 11, he says, if you
judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it. And so he’s
saying to remember what you are contradicting or deeming deficient when you
speak against a brother. You’re saying, well God’s law is wrong. I’m going to
do that anyway, even though that God’s law tells me to not speak about a brother
that way, I’m going to do it anyway. Therefore, God’s law is wrong. Or maybe
you’re simply putting yourself above obeying God’s law and thus becoming a judge
of God law. Remember whom you are contradicting and becoming and deeming
deficient. Imagine a defendant in a courtroom that’s been accused of a serious
crime, standing up and claiming to be above the above the law. Imagine his
attorney cringing as he does this before judge and jury. I think all of us have
been shocked in the last days about the card that has been left by this sniper
in Maryland and Virginia, proclaiming himself to be God. Well, James is saying,
that’s exactly you’re doing, when you decide to go right ahead and hurt a
brother with words. You are pronouncing yourself to be above the law. You’re
pronouncing yourself to be God who is the judge and lawgiver.

And that leads us to the forth thing that I want to
say. He also, if you look at verse 12 says that we need to remember who we are
claiming to be and who we are claiming to displace. There is only one lawgiver
and judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. God Himself is the judge.
And when we set ourselves up in his place in tearing down and condemning
another, then we are claiming to take his place.

And then finally, James in verse 12 says, remember
who you are. Who are you to judge your neighbor? Humility is the prime
Christian grace.

Now what’s James been saying? He’s saying that your
words can reveal a self focus, self centered pride and lack of humility, a
worldliness and this is exactly what he does in this diagnosis here in verses 11
and 12. He shows how destructive speech is actually a sign of self centered,
self-focused, un-humble worldliness. When we see that kind of speech, James
say’s trace it back to its origin, the heart and realize that you need God’s
grace to change you in that area.

II. Christians are not to think
and speak presumptuously.

The second thing he says, and you’ll see it in verses 13 through 17,
is that it is not just destructive speech that shows a self-centered worldliness
that lacks humility. It is presumption in speech. Actually, even before the
speech, presumption in attitude, presumption in attitude and speech is a mark of
worldliness and lack of humility. Now, let me quickly say that verses 13 — 17
belong together. If you notice the opening words of verse 17, it begins with a
therefore. James is drawing a deduction at least from verses 13 — 16, in
verse 17, in fact he may even be going back further in that therefore. But I’m
going to separate them for our consideration in order to bring out a point that
James makes.

But, in verses 13 — 16, James is pointing at the
problem of presumption in speech and he’s saying that just like destructive
speech about our brothers and sisters and neighbors shows the problem of
worldliness, so also does presumption in speech. Christians are not to think
and speak presumptuously. We are to think and speak, mindful of the providence
of God.

James says that presumption in speech betrays a
worldliness in heart, and he uses a business illustration to make his point.
That is very important for us. We live in a day of personal digital assistants,
futurist conferences, and planning mania. And the very mindset of the culture
around us encourages us to be presumptuous in our approach to life and even to
planning. Now, James is not assaulting planning. James is not saying, “Don’t
plan.” James is not saying, “Don’t be good stewards of the resources that God
has given you.” He’s not saying, “Don’t budget.” He’s not saying any of that,
but he is talking about a worldliness that can invade our own thinking and can
manifest itself in our speech if we are not careful. The cultural mind set can
influence Christians without our even realizing it.

And he points our several things in verse 13 that
show a worldly presumption and lack of humility. In verse 13 he speaks about a
presumption of time. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow.’” James
reminds us that our time is in God’s hands. We can’t say today or
Our times are in God’s hands. He speaks of a presumption about
place. We will go to such and such a city. You know, you can see the
businessman doing the demographics and saying a restaurant will work there, a
bank will work there, a service business will work there. They need this or
they need that, the demographics have been done such and such a place. And, yet
James says a favorable situation does not insure success. He speaks of
presumption about duration, “We will spend a year there.”

We can think to ourselves, “We’ve got all the time in
the world,” but how much time does the world have? Many of us have heard people
speak in the last year or so about the people who were on their way to work in
the World Trade Centers on September 11th, 2001, not realizing that
it would be their last day on this earth. You didn’t have to work at the World
Trade Center to be liable to thinking about life as if another day is going to
follow another day. We all can slip into that mind set. James indicates a
presumption about the program of effort that theses people are going to engage
in, “We will engage in business.” And he speaks about presumption of the
results, “We will make a profit.”

Now, what is noticeable in this very short one
sentence illustration is God doesn’t factor in it at all. And that’s James’
point. Understand that James is not talking to pagans. James expects pagans
not to factor the one true God into their planning. James is talking to
Christians who are not factoring God into the stuff of their lives. God is
isolated on Sunday morning for an hour, but, in the business of life He doesn’t
factor. There’s no mention of God. There’s no mention of His providence.
There’s no indication of prayer. There’s no humility about what might or might
not happen tomorrow. James is indicating a person who is not factoring a very
important factor into all of life, God.

And, James in verses 14 and 15 gives an antidote to
this. Instead of speaking and thinking presumptuously he says, we need to
remember four things:

First, of all in verse 14, he says we need to
remember that we are ignorant of the future. “You do not know what your life
will be like tomorrow.” We don’t know the future. We may work hard at it, but
we don’t know the future. And that’s James’ first word to us in showing the
proper wisdom and humility.

Secondly, we are finite. Our days are numbered. You
are just as “vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” We
have a ruling elder here at First Presbyterian Church, and if you’re around him
very long at all, you’ll hear him pray something to this effect:“Thank you,
Lord for giving us another day in which to serve You. Thank you for letting us
wake up this morning.” And in doing that he constantly reminds us that very act
of waking up in the morning is a mercy of God, that He didn’t have to grant that
and that we didn’t know whether he would grant that. And that is in the spirit
of James counsel here. We are finite. Our days numbered.

Thirdly, if you’ll look at verse 15, James says that
we are utterly dependant on God. “You ought to say, ‘if the Lord wills we will
live and also do this or do that.’” Now, James isn’t just saying that we need
to say Lord willing or if God wills or God willing, and
that will somehow create a spiritual mindset. But, he is saying that needs to
be profoundly our attitude of heart, and even reflected in our speech, to show
that we are humbly dependent upon the Lord, rather than worldly self-centered,
self focused and lacking humility.

And then finally in verse 16 notice that he reminds
us of the important of humility. We’re ignorant of the future, we’re finite,
and our days are numbered. We are utterly dependent on God and we ought to be
humble. “As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”
James is saying something fairly striking. He’s saying that when you plan
without factoring these truths, and without factoring in the ultimate reality of
God, then you are being arrogant and when you are being arrogant, you are
boasting, and when you’re boasting you are sinning. And so he is taking
something that is fairly mundane, the act of thinking and planning without
adequately being dependent upon God and prayer fully humble before him. And
he’s saying that is, in fact, the sin of arrogance and boasting. And that
boasting is evil. Christians are not to think and speak presumptuously like

Now, one reaction that we might have to what James
has said so for is, “Everybody I know struggles with this. Everybody I know,
from time to time, says things about brothers and sisters in Christ that they
shouldn’t say. They say things about neighbors that they shouldn’t say, and is
from time to time, not adequately humble in factoring the plans of God and the
will of God into their planning? Aren’t we kind of making too big a deal of
this?” And, James’ response to that is, “No, not at all.” In fact, James says
that the way we function in this area is an excellent indication of whether or
not we are spiritual or worldly.

III. Christians are to bear in
mind how sinful it is to fail to do what God commands.
Look at what he says in verse 17. “Therefore, to one who knows
the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin.” You see, we can
say “Everybody struggles with these things. From time to time everyone says
things about other people that they shouldn’t say. From time to time everyone
doesn’t factor God in his presumptions. Some of the best people I know commit
these sins. It couldn’t be that big a deal.”

And, James’ response in verse 17, is “On the
contrary, knowing what we ought to do and failing to do it is one of the best
indicators of worldliness, because, our failing to do it is not a matter of
ignorance, but of willful disobedience, lazy disobedience and lack of
humility.” In other words, James is saying in verse 17, that sins of omission
are particularly acute signs of worldliness and a lack of humility. And
Christians are to bear in mind how sinful it is to fail to do what God
commands. God has commanded that we not be presumptuous in our speech and
thinking. He’s commanded that we not be destructive in our speech and in our
thinking about brothers and sisters in Christ. And when we fail to do that it
is a marker of our worldliness, our need for repentance and forgiveness and

You know what the last words of Archbishop Usher were
before he was burned at the stake, right before the Lord took him into
eternity? Archbishop Usher prayed, “Lord forgive my sins especially my sins of
omission.” And it’s another reminder, my friends ,of why we need the grace of
Christ. Because, so often we think of our sins as those things that we have
done to positively contradict law, those things which we have done which go
against God’s word, those laws of God which we have broken, those things that we
have done, that we ought not to have done. And if we only think of sin in those
categories, it is possible for us to fool ourselves into thinking that we are
pretty good people.

But when we think of sins of omission, the thing that
God called us to do, but which we did not do, then we see another aspect of our
hearts. If you are here this morning and you’ve never trusted in Jesus Christ,
you haven’t repented of your sins and fled to Him for grace, you are struggling
with sins of omission, as well as sins of transgression. And you need the grace
of Christ to change, you can’t change yourself. That’s why there is this
table. Because, there was a Christ on a tree dying in your place, living in
your place, actively and passively obeying that you might fulfill the law of God
and that you might be declared righteous, not because of your fulfilling of the
law of God, but because of His fulfilling of it.

For those of you who are believers today, perhaps
even thinking about these things is convicting. You realize that these are
areas that you’re struggling in and you recognize that there is worldliness
apart. Again, there is this table that reminds you that you cannot sanctify
yourself. The Spirit, by His grace, sanctifies us. And so you need to apply
again to the Lord Jesus Christ, who not only died that you might be declared
holy, but who died that you might become more and more like Him in your speech.
Grant that in our speech to one another as believers we show a heart of
humility, of others center ness rather than a worldly heart of
self-centeredness. Let’s pray.

“Our Lord and our God, teach us the truth, search us
out with the truth, conform us to the truth by the one who is the way the truth
and the life. This we ask, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

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