Summary: If we want to pursue true holiness, we must begin with our tongue.


Text: James 3:1-12


1. Illustration: A man working in the produce department was asked by a lady if she could buy half a head of lettuce. He replied, "Half a head? Are you serious? God grows these in whole heads and that’s how we sell them!"

"You mean," she persisted, "that after all the years I’ve shopped here, you won’t sell me half-a-head of lettuce?"

"Look," he said, "If you like I’ll ask the manager."

She indicated that would be appreciated, so the young man marched to the front of the store. "You won’t believe this, but there’s a lame-braided idiot of a lady back there who wants to know if she can buy half-a-head of lettuce."

2. No other part of the body can get us in as much trouble as our tongues. Listen to what James has to say about the tongue.

3. Read James 3:1-12

Proposition: According to James, if we want to pursue true holiness, we must begin with our tongues.

Transition: James tells us that...

I. Holiness Begins With the Tongue (1-4)

A. We All Stumble

1. In verse 2, James says, "For in many things we offend all."

a. What he is saying is that we all stumble in many ways.

b. The word translated "offend" means "to stumble, to err, to sin.—Louw & Nida: NT Greek-English Lexicon

c. Rm. 3:23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

2. However, even though we agree that we all stumble and fall, that doesn’t mean that we just give up and stop trying. Holiness is our goal.

3. He tells us "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body."

a. If we want to pursue holiness with God, we must start with our tongues.

b. A perfect control of the tongue would mean a perfect life. - New International Bible Commentary, Pradis CD-ROM

c. If we can get control over our tongues then we can get control over our whole bodies.

d. Spiritual maturity requires a tamed tongue.

4. In his commentary on James, John Calvin warns us to beware of those who try to act spiritually mature and yet are constantly running others down with their tongue (Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 22, 319).

5. 1 Pt. 3:10 For "He who would love life And see good days, Let him refrain his tongue from evil, And his lips from speaking deceit.

B. Two Illustrations

1. To illustrate his point James uses two examples. The first one is that of a horse and bridle.

2. In verse 3, he says, "Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body."

a. Illustration: A few weeks ago, I was visiting with Bill Crow and we were talking about a horse that was in his yard. He told me to watch out for his because he was still unbroken.

b. Now one of the most important steps in breaking a horse is getting him to accept the bit in his mouth, because once you have the bit in his mouth it is possible to control him.

c. A horse is a powerful animal, but once you have the bit in his mouth you are in control of his power.

d. Likewise, once we get control of our tongues we are able to control the rest of our bodies.

3. The next illustration that James uses is that of a ships rudder.

a. Three factors made ships of that day difficult to control: they were "so large"; they were "driven by strong winds"; and they were "steered by a very small rudder."

b. The rudder was a small blade on the end of a tiller, extending through a form of oarlock from the rear of the ship. - Expositor’s Bible Commentary, The, Pradis CD-ROM

c. Compared to the size of the vessel and the power of the gale, the rudder was but a minute part; yet it guided the ship "wherever the pilot [wanted] to go."

4. James’ point seems clear: little things can control big things. If we control our tongues, we can control the whole body.

Transition: However, there is one problem...

II. The Tongue is Powerful (5-6)

A. The Tongue Boast Great Things

1. In verse 5, James proclaims, "Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things."

a. His point here is that the tongue is small but powerful.

b. The tongue "can do great things, whether of a good or evil kind." —Adam Clarke’s Commentary

c. We can use our tongues to proclaim the goodness of God, or we can use our tongues to run someone else down.

d. We can encourage or we can discourage.

2. In the latter half of verse 5 he shows the destructive power of the tongue - "See how great a forest a little fire kindles!"

a. It only takes a small spark to start a ragging forest fire.

b. Just a small word or an off-handed comment can cause tremendous damage.

c. A negative word spoken to someone or about someone can cause damage that will last a lifetime.

d. Illustration: A hotheaded woman told John Wesley, ’My talent is to speak my mind.’ Replied Mr. Wesley, ’Woman, God wouldn’t care a bit if you would bury that talent.’

B. The Tongue is a Fire

1. In verse 6, James says "And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body."

a. The inflammatory tongue has turned brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, nation against nation. - Expositor’s Bible Commentary, The, Pradis CD-ROM

b. The tongue has split more churches than chain saw.

c. It can defile the whole body, spirit, and soul.

2. The uncontrolled tongue can turn one’s life into a blazing flame of destruction.

3. This means that the tongue can destroy all the good that we’ve built up over a lifetime.

4. Our speech has a power that few other capabilities possess, for our tongue can be set on fire by hell itself.

5. Flames of hate, prejudice, slander, jealousy, and envy seem to come from the very lake of fire where Satan will be punished.

6. "A bad tongue is the organ of the Devil" - Estius (Calvin’s’ Commentaries, vol. 22, 319).

Transition: There is another problem with the tongue.

III. The Tongue Can Be a Contradiction (7-12)

A. No Man Can Tame the Tongue

1. In verse 7, James indicates that we can tame all kinds of animals.

a. Illustration: Jeff Corwin has a TV program called "Crocodile Hunter."

b. We can tame crocodiles, snakes, birds, sharks, whales, and host of other animals.

2. However, in verse 8, he says "But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison."

a. Although people can tame all kinds of animals . . . no one can tame the tongue. Why? Because it is an uncontrollable evil, full of deadly poison.

b. The tongue is always capable of evil; it remains untamed throughout life. With our tongues, we can lash out and destroy.

B. Blessing and Cursing

1. In verses 9-10 James says, "With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so."

a. How strange that the tongue is able to speak praises to our Lord and Father at one time, and then it breaks out into curses against other people.

b. We should have the same attitude of respect for fellow human beings as we have for God, because they are created in his image.

c. Yet we have this horrible, double-sided tongue, so that blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth.

2. A spring cannot have both fresh and bitter water. Although different kinds of water won’t bubble from the same opening, Christians’ speech can be very inconsistent.

• One time we may speak in a way that honors God and another time in a way, that gives Satan power to operate.

• We can choose how we will respond. If we do not, we give Satan an opening to control us.

Transition: So what can we do about it?


1. The bad news is that we cannot control our tongues, but good news is that God can.

2. One thing that we can do to control our tongues is to know the word.

a. Ps. 119:11 Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You!

b. Ps. 51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.

3. Another thing that we can do is continually rely on the Holy Spirit to control our tongues.

a. He will give us increasing power to monitor and control what we say.

b. For when we feel offended or unjustly criticized, the Spirit will remind us of God’s love and keep us from reacting.

c. The Holy Spirit will heal the hurt and keep us from lashing out. We can make sure we are in the Spirit’s control by incorporating Scripture into our lives and by asking the Spirit to direct our thoughts and actions each day.

4. One thing is for certain, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."