Slow to Speak


The description of a faith that works through changed affections dealt with in chapter 2 was occasioned by the mention of “pure and undefiled religion” in 1:27. Now James expands the warning of 1:26 in which he affirms that one who has true religion will “bridle his tongue.” An unbridled tongue manifests a deceived heart and thus a “worthless” religion. This interweaving of themes also serves to expand the caution that we should be “slow to speak” (1:19).


I. Verses 1 – 12 – The ministry of teaching should be a rare calling because of the intrinsic dangers of its chief method of fulfillment.

A. (Verse 1) Teachers will be judged with greater strictness. This is an ironically serious warning because of the God-ordained method of propagating the revealed truth of the gospel by means of teaching. The spoken word is central to the expansion of the gospel in the world and was the primary means that the apostles initiated knowledge of the gospel into both Jewish and Gentile communities (Romans 10: 8, 14 – “The word of faith that we proclaim … and how are they to hear without someone preaching?” 1 Corinthians 1:17, 23, 2:4 – “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel … it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe…. We preach Christ crucified … and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” 2 Corinthians 4:2, 5, 13 –“By the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God…. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, … we also believe and so we speak;” Ephesians 3:8, 6:19) “To me, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, … and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.”

B. (Verses 2 – 5) The tongue is the chief way in which the will, and thus the affections of a person are expressed.

  1. “We stumble in many ways.” James agrees with Paul that the corruption of sin extends to every aspect of human nature “–the mind—“No one understands” (Romans 3:11) “We ourselves once were foolish” (Titus 3:3); the will,which is a reflection of the affections –“They refused to love the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:10) “No one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11) “Slaves to various passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3) “Hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3); the actions of the body—“All have turned aside, . . . their feet are swift to shed blood” (Romans 3:12, 15) “We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Ephesians 2:3) “Passing our days in malice and envy” (Titus 3:3);worship—“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:23) “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18).
  2. “If anyone does not stumble in what he says” indicates that the work of the tongue is more easily infected with the poison of our sin than any other aspect of our being.
  • Control of the tongue indicates a high level of maturity (perfect). This would include two realities that must interact with each other in an ongoing and increasingly effectual way. The Christian has and must nurture a knowledge of oneself and the deeply-seated fountain of sin that has subtle powers to energize our language. In addition, he must nurture a corresponding knowledge of the word of God placed in the heart by the holy influence of the Spirit. The mature person will recognize how to mortify the one while giving expression to the other.
  • If a person can control his tongue, given all the distressing ways in which it betrays our moral fissures, then he can control the use of the body in an even more disciplined way. Paul has an intense discussion of the place of the body in sanctification in 1 Corinthians 6:9-20 that includes these pithy and penetrating conclusions: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” . . . For you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” He encourages the godly use of the body in being productive in labor: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28).
  • Paul also joins James in warning about the susceptibility of the tongue to transgression through indwelling sin: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:28-32). Our tongues can be under the direction of the Spirit of God through his revealed truth and his yearning for our sanctification or they can be an outlet for bitterness and malice as well as other evils. We can be vindictive and vengeful with our tongues or we can express forgiveness and kindness.
  1. James reminds his readers that we have learned to control large, powerful, imposing things in order to put them under the will of man (Verses 3, 4).
  • A horse is much more powerful than a man, but with determined ingenuity we have learned how to make a horse respond to our will. Who would have thought that the entire horse can be directed through a small device placed in his mouth to direct his entire body and all his strength in a direction of our own choosing? How beneficial it is that such strength can be harnessed for the progress of mankind?
  • In addition, machines of our own making that have the potential of using the massive energies of the earth, such as the sails of a ship under the full force of winds, submit to the will of a pilot by means of a rudder. That bit of human endeavor, ingenuity, inventiveness, and technological application allows the will of a single man to control the motions of a mighty vessel specifically for the purposes intended.
  1. He then makes a double application of this reality as it concerns the tongue.
  • First, if we have learned to control such mighty forces in nature so that they respond to our will, why is a little thing like the tongue, that is connected to the muscle structure of our own bodies and will be put into use only upon our permission, so out of control in relation to purposes of edification and godliness?
  • Second, instead of our being able to control it, like the bit in the mouth of a horse or the rudder on a ship, it seems to control us and give vent to perversities and corruptions that should be put to death. In fact, it is like a single spark that sets ablaze an entire forest. When such a little fire finds combustible material there is no end to the conflagration.

C. (Verses 6 – 12) Through the tongue the destructive corruptions indwelling a person are spread into the world around him.

  1. When he calls the tongue a fire, James is not suggesting the comforting and warming aspects of conversation and encouragement from friendship but the totally destructive power of the tongue, for he defines his meaning by adding “a world of iniquity (unrighteousness).” The tongue’s place in the body gives it dominance in face to face conversation simply from a visual standpoint, but, beyond that, its place in expressing the perceptions, affections, and moral commitments of a person indicating his spiritual condition define the whole person.
  2. Its words exude an energy that affects the world. First, the tongue pollutes the entire body. What a person does with his body involves his inner man also as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 6; and how one expresses the affections of the inner man through the tongue defines the person. When a person is spewing hatred and vile language one hardly thinks about the beautiful symmetry of his or her eyebrows. Vileness of speech, critical words, murmuring, and complaining poison the very atmosphere around the speaker thus setting on fire the “course of nature.” The world around him is in a more woeful condition because of his tongue. One need not look far in the history of war to find that the tongue may be used to start a conflagration or may be used to inspire and encourage. Compare Adolph Hitler in his inflammatory speech with Winston Churchill’s formidable gift at using language to give nerve to England and the Allied forces in World War II. We must consider how our own propensity for insult has often cooled a helpful conversation and put a blanket of reserve and resentment on a friendship.
  3. When the tongue is used destructively, it is set on fire by hell. Satan has come to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10) and he is both a murderer (John 8:44) and a liar (John 8:44). He takes advantage of the moral and spiritual contortions within us. As unregenerate persons we followed the “prince of the power of the air,” and as regenerate persons we still must train ourselves to be wise to Satan’s schemes and make provision to avoid his fiery darts (Ephesians 6:16). We cannot be “outwitted by Satan” and, therefore, must not be “ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:11). The power of hellish principles has been broken but their heat still can cause fire through the undisciplined use of the tongue. Peter saw the discipline of the tongue as contributing to a more beautiful life. Referring to Psalm 32, Peter wrote, “He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit.” He also referred to Jesus as the example of such discipline of tongue during the hours before his crucifixion: “Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth; who, when he was reviled, did not revile in return” (1 Peter 2:22, 23).
  4. (Verses 7, 8) James reasserts how human ingenuity has operated to tame beasts and birds and use them to our benefit. Humans have made wild animals yield to their will as they have made horses and ships. These have been put into our service for good. The tongue, however, will not yield to this kind of training. It is restless and cannot be broken; it is connected to a source of destruction that will never yield its noxious and toxic effects until death. It is “full of deadly poison.” These are stern and radical representations of the tendency of our patterns of speech. We tend to underestimate the power of indwelling sin, but Paul, as well as James, was fully aware of the restless and ever-present corrupting power of the sins that dwell within (Romans 7:18-23). The deeper and more pervasive the process of mortification of sin goes, the more veins of corruption are uncovered and found to be yet dangerous sources of trouble.
  5. Note how contradictory are the activities of the tongue. It is employed by Christians in the praise of God. This is according to a wide range of commands and examples and is acclaimed in Scripture to be a good thing. “I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 89:1). “It is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night” (Psalm 92:1, 2). “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise: “Psalm 51:15). At the same time the tongue and mouth can curse men: “There is no truth in their mouth, their inmost self is destruction” (Psalm 5: 9). “With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor” (Proverbs 11:9). “They close their hearts to pity; with their mouths they speak arrogantly” (Psalm 17:10). James points to the common origin that all have as creatures made in the image of God. If we bless God, we should not curse men. Moreover, if we share a common redemption in Christ, we should always aim at edification in our speech, not tearing down: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
  6. The great mystery, however, a sad mystery indeed, is that from the tongue we do in fact find both of these phenomena—blessing and cursing. James cannot point to anything else that presents such a mystery. Does a fountain send from the same opening both sweetly fresh and bitterly murky water? No. Does a fig tree produce olives, or does one find figs adorning a grape vine? No. Both fountains and trees are single in their substance and thus produce an effluence in accord with the nature of the source. When James makes the statement, “These things ought not be,” he recognizes that in the case of the tongue the seeming impossibility does exist, but it ought not if there were a single unmixed source for its language.
  7. This is the dilemma, is it not. Jesus asked, “Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?” As he applied this principle, he stated, “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16 ff). If the tongue, therefore, does send forth that which is praiseworthy, true, edifying, loving, and worshipful then there must be a true principle of godliness that operates in those instances. Even so, when that same tongue produces bitterness, we must think that another principle exists that gives rise to such evil. The same ultimate source does not produce both of these effects even though both sources employ the same instrument and flow through the same mouth. “The Spirit lusts against the flesh and the flesh against the Spirit and these are opposed to each other so that you cannot do the things that you would” (Galatian 5:17)).


II. Verses 12 – 18 – The teacher must be a person who recognizes the only source of true wisdom.

A. James sets up a consideration of how the tongue can be rescued from its tendency to destroy, by asking, “Who is wise and understanding among you?”

  1. James uses the word “wise” in a positive sense here, though in his later explanation he points to a kind of wisdom celebrated and induced by the world which clearly is evil and destructive. Proverbs made fear of God as the beginning of both knowledge and wisdom (Proverbs 1:1-7; 9:10). The interplay between instruction, knowledge, and wisdom as culminating in the fear of God is behind James’s contrasting two kinds of wisdom. One of these is temporal earthly wisdom and the other is wisdom that comes for above.
  2. There are three incremental elements of the person who is “wise and understanding.”
  • Fundamental to his life, and from which flow all other traits of character, is the “meekness (or gentleness) of wisdom.” True wisdom is manifest in meekness. Meekness is a character trait filled with confidence and clarity but tamed, under discipline, and subservient to a higher authority. Those who live from the standpoint of meekness will “inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). The meek know that at any time they may be tripped up by their own ineptness. John Gill comments that the wise man “has learned to know his own ignorance, folly, and stupidity; for the first lesson in the school of spiritual wisdom is for a man to know that he is a fool.”
  • The wisdom of meekness generates a life that is described in the words “good conduct.” This refers to a steady flow of life characterized by godly moral quality. He has learned to consider his future state and to value the bread that endures to eternal life over that which perishes. Note how qualitatively different this is from the “actions” mentioned in I.B.1 above.
  • The works, the individual actions, therefore, that such a person does are discreet parts of a general manner of life driven by meekness that is the natural result of the proper kind of wisdom.
  1. Others, however, manifest “jealousy and selfish ambition.”
  • These traits dominate the unsaved and, indeed, form the world view of the unregenerate person. He may hide it behind civic goodness and a variety of attempts to gain a trustworthy reputation but is driven by a selfish spirit in so doing. He has no fear of God before his eyes, but, in the final motive that drives him, he is a seeker of personal advantage rather than the glory of God.
  • At the same time, these passions often operate on a scale from blatant to subtle in true Christians. As the discourse on the tongue makes clear, two opposing principles are in a contest in the Christian (Galatians 5:16, 17). They arise suddenly, sometimes with the protection of our own permission. We may seek ways to justify these egocentric assaults on others, but if the Spirit indwells us, we soon will recognize this as from the Father of lies. When detected, therefore, we must confess and change from the attitude and direction these flashes of sin have moved us. Thus the command, “Do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth” (14). James insists strongly on the Christian’s dealing with this with the recognition that it is a peculiarly insidious and perverse “wisdom.”
  • It is “earthly, natural, and demonic.” James spares no language in depicting the horrid and destructive spectacle of following the wisdom generated by this age. It is earthly—that is, the product of this fallen rebellious age such as the wisdom that recommended the business of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-4). It looks for human grandeur in disregard for the purpose of God. It is earthly as opposed to having any of the influence and revelatory truth from heaven (See John 3:12). It is “natural” or “soulish”—that is, it arises from the mental operations and desires of human philosophy, psychology, worldview assumptions apart from a changed heart and the reception of revealed truth. That word is used of the unregenerate person in 1 Corinthians 2:14. It is demonic for it comes from those who walk according to the “course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2).
  • Verse 16 – Disorder and every evil thing arise from jealousy and selfish ambition. It is interesting, and should be alarming, as to how much evil James attributes to jealousy and selfish ambition. He has isolated the social manifestation of original sin and its consequent hatred of the law of God. James has been focused on the second table of the Law—commandments 6-10—summarized as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8; Mark 12:31). This is impossible to regard in the right way if pursued in isolation from the first table summarized as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Jealousy and selfish ambition are set forth by James, therefore, as antithetical to God’s law. These sinful dispositions put oneself at the center of all concerns instead of the greatest and best of beings, the one who is infinitely excellent and perfect in every beauty and every aspect of goodness, the one who created and sustains the world and shows infinite lovingkindness in his redemptive operations, all to culminate in the manifestation of his own glory (Ephesians 1:3-14; Philippians 1:9-11; 2:10-11; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12). These selfish affections have the intrinsic tendency to create instability and disorder for they make a mere finite creature the center of meaning. Every evil thing—every violation of both tables of the Law—spring from the insuperable egocentricity of jealousy and selfish ambition.

B. James isolates the sources of both of these scenarios. He responds immediately to the last description and then contrasts it to the first.

  1. The second state of being, jealousy and selfish ambition, comes from earthly wisdom. It has been described above.
  2. The first state, “wise and understanding,” comes from the “wisdom from above.” This wisdom does not grow in the depraved human heart but is the gift of the Spirit deployed through special revelation, illumination, and mortification.
  • For Paul, special revelation was immediate (“These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:10); “The Mystery was made known to me by revelation, . . .The mystery of Christ . . . has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:3-5). This revelation has been committed to the written Scriptures and they presently have the place of exclusivity and sufficiency in opening to our minds the revealed will of God (2 Peter 1:19-21). Scripture holds for us the “wisdom from above.”
  • The truths of Scripture and its holy tendency becomes effectual in our hearts by the illumining work of the Holy Spirit. Left to ourselves we cannot embrace the holy influence of Scripture truth, but the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit changes our disposition and illumines our minds that we might both see and love what God has revealed (1 Corinthians 2:14-16).
  • The same Spirit who granted the new birth and an illumined mind continues his operations in subduing the remaining power of indwelling sin. This chapter in James is written under the assumption of the continued presence of the flesh principle in our lives. We are an unnatural phenomenon, having both salt water and fresh water arising apparently from the same fountain. But the Christian will without fail have such an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit that he/she will recognize the unholy influence of the flesh and will be putting it to death in thought, affections, and actions (Romans 8:12-17).
  1. Several traits are indicated as constituting the wisdom from above. Since it is from above and is revealed as characteristic of the heavenly state, these words contain those holy traits of God that can be reflected in the holy pursuits of his image-bearers.
  • Pure – “First in rank and time” – A. T. Robertson. This word is from the same root as holy and means free from defect.It refers both to spiritual life and to commitment of understanding. The one who is pure has no tolerance of sin in his life nor untruth in his faith. It is the presupposition for the virtues that follow in its train.
  • Peaceable – Though unrelenting in the battle for unity of heart, mind, and soul in oneself, the wisdom from above, while seeking that for others, imitates the great patience of God in the way he pursues the salvation of his elect. The pursuit of the salvation and sanctification of others does not put us at war with them or generate a spirit of impatience, but as Paul admonished, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another, . . . and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body” (Colossians 3:12 ff). Since the first aspect of wisdom is purity, this peace is not, as Robertson notes, “the peace of surrender,” but the peace that steadily moves toward righteousness and truth.
  • Rather than by brute force, anesthetized against the personhood of others and only seeking dominance, this wisdom continues its pursuit of purity through peaceableness by means that are gentle, reasonable (easily approached, compliant in conversation, appealing to reason rather than using coercive measures), full of mercy and good fruits (not a mercy that forgets moral goodness but that always manifests tenderness while pressing for spiritual uprightness), unwavering (unhesitating, not doubting, not having lost sight of God’s promises and purpose but fully committed to the truth of God’s word), and thus “without hypocrisy.”
  • James has returned to his original admonition (1:5, 6), that if any lacks wisdom, “Let him ask of God,” but “he must ask in faith without doubting.” This is the “wisdom from above.”
  1. (Verse 18) James summarizes this principle of the pursuit of purity and righteousness through peaceable interaction. “The seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” If we sincerely pursue righteousness and are seeking it as the defining feature of our lives and our believing community, then the methods we use, the seed we sow, will be sown in peace, along with its accompanying traits, by those who make peace. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Peacemaking is a work of reconciliation: Jesus is the only true source of reconciliation (Colossians 1:19-23).


Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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