Did you know the average person speaks between 10,000-25,000 words a day? Think of all the conversations you have with your spouse, your children, friends, coworkers, strangers, and the list goes on and on. And I wonder, if you were to measure the quality of those words, how many of them were really worth saying?
In his Epistle James reminds us that faith, if not accompanied by good works, is a dead faith and unable to save a man. Some have made a big deal out of this so as to put James and Paul in opposition. The Reformed answer has always been that man is justified by faith alone, but that faith which justifies is never alone. That is, saving faith compels men to obey the “royal law” (2:8), that “law of liberty” (2:12) by which we will be judged. Faith is a powerful and an active thing.
But James never imagined that one could fulfill the law apart from divine grace. In fact, right after saying a man is justified by what he does, he says “For in many things we offend all” (3:2). No one is perfect. And the example James uses to support his thesis is the way in which a man uses his words–or rather, his tongue. The tongue is one of the smallest parts of the body, and yet it sins in great ways. Using four very vivid pictures to get his point across (James is one of the most creative New Testament authors!) he demonstrates just how unruly the tongue is.
And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. (3:6)
His point is clear. The sinfulness of our speech is that when we have a forked tongue, blessing God and yet cursing man, hell itself ascends and manifests itself throughout the world. As Christians our prayer is to be “Thy Kingdom come” but by our sinful words we would work against that Kingdom and set the world ablaze. Thomas Manton wrote, “A man would think that words, that pass away with the breath in which they are uttered, had not such a weight and deadly influence; but, saith the apostle, a little fire kindleth much wood.” You see, according to James, we are all that “double minded man who is unstable in all his ways” (1:8). We have, as one person said, a “pyromaniac tendency” in the use of our tongue.
What we need is something that descends from heaven, even the wisdom of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. James writes, “The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (3:17). It is to this reality that we have born again by the Spirit and the Word, and it’s in this reality that we need to live. James is giving us covenantal wisdom, for covenantal living. Our tongue is part of our glory (see Proverbs 10:20, 11:30, 12:18), it being a redeemed instrument of grace, and a means by which we may speak of the mercies and triumphs of our King–to our spouses, our children, our coworkers, our friends, and strangers on the street.