Practical Christianity: Controlling the Tongue | James 1:26-27; 3:1-12
Brian Hedges | July 2, 2018
Well, turn this morning in your Bibles James, the third chapter. For the past several weeks we have been looking through the letter of James. This letter is wisdom literature; that is, it’s literature that gives us wisdom for living, and it’s all about the authenticity and practicality of our Christian faith. James is concerned that there is an integrity, that there is an authenticity, that there’s a wholeness to our faith, and as we’ve worked through this letter we’ve seen that he targets a number of very practical issues that have to do with our walk with Jesus.
This morning, we’re going to see how James speaks specifically about the use of our tongues. Now, we all know that words are a large part of life, and, according to some statistics, the average person spends about one fifth of his or her life talking. Now, that’s a lot of words. Did you know that in a single day many of us use enough words to fill up a 50-page book, and in one year the average person’s words would fill 132 books, each of which contained 400 pages? That would be about 10,400,000 words per year. Now, if you multiply that by 70, that means that in the average lifetime the average person speaks some 728 million words.
Those are staggering amounts of words, but the fact becomes all the more stunning when we remember that Jesus said this, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.”
We use a lot of words, and a lot of our words end up being unhelpful or even harmful to others, dishonoring to God or to others; and, as we’re going to learn from James this morning, such should not be the case for those who claim a faith in Christ. We should not praise God with our mouths while we are cursing our fellow man, those who are made in the image of God. So there’s work for us to do this morning on our speech, on our words, on our tongues, the way we talk to one another. Words are a huge part of life.
We see this, really, throughout the letter of James, and I want to highlight a number of different places where we see that this morning. First of all, I just want you to see it in James 1:26-27, which in some ways gives us something of a blueprint for much of what James considers in this letter, and then we’ll dig into the main passage of Scripture in James chapter 3. Look at verses 26 and 27 in James chapter 1.
James here says that “if anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
Several weeks ago I showed you a chart (this is adapted from one of the commentaries) that shows how these two verses kind of give us a blueprint for the letter, where James is concerned with these three evidences of a practical, authentic, whole faith. There is care for the needy, there is the controlled tongue, and there is personal purity of life. All three of those things are dealt with in those two verses and then expanded on later in the letter. So, for the next three weeks we’re going to look at these three things, and today we’re looking at the controlled tongue.
James says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” Those are very strong words, and then James really expands upon that statement in chapter 3:1-12, which is our main text for this morning. So let’s look at that passage, James 3:1-12.
James says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”
This is God’s word.
So these are very strong words that have a lot to teach us about how we use our words. I want to take a threefold approach this morning to thinking about our words, and this is the way I want to do it. I want us to, first of all, take an inventory of our tongue-related sins; secondly, I want us to look at James’s picture gallery that shows us, illustrates for us the power of the tongue; and then thirdly, I want us to consider a regimen for restoring health to our uses of words. Okay? So:
I. An Inventory
II. A Picture Gallery
III. A Regimen
We’ll move through these first two points fairly quickly.
I. An Inventory
First of all, an inventory of tongue-related sins. Before digging into James 3 exclusively, I want to just kind of survey what James has to say about our use of the tongue. Again, I have mentioned a number of times that James is giving us wisdom literature, so the themes that James is developing are kind of scattered throughout his letter in proverbial-type statements. Just as in the book of Proverbs, you have a lot of statements, a lot of proverbs about the right and wrong use of the tongue, so you have it in James. I want you to just see a number of these.
(1) First of all, in James chapter 1 James reminds us of the danger of swift and angry words. You see this in chapter 1:19-20. We’ve already looked at these verses briefly a few weeks ago. James says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
So James here is concerned not only with our hearing rightly, and especially hearing the word of God, as is so in that context, but that we be slow to speak and slow to anger. So he’s concerned that we not be too quick to fire off the impulsive statements towards another person.
By the way, let’s just make this clear: this includes both our spoken words and, in our day today, our written words. How many of you have ever sent an email that, as soon as you press “send,” you felt regret, right? Or a Facebook post or something like that. All of us have done that. We are too quick to speak, and we are especially too quick to anger. So James is correcting that. He’s reminding us of that.
In fact, I’ll just confess (okay, confession is good for the soul); I’m not a perfect pastor, and yesterday I was riding in the car with one of my kids and we got to talking and I got frustrated, and I just kind of exploded in a moment of anger. As soon as I did, I thought, “I’m preaching on the use of my tongue tomorrow.” So I had to go back to him and apologize and confess that to the Lord and seek forgiveness.
We offend in many ways, as James says, so maybe that’s what you have to do today. Maybe you recognize that within the last 24, 48 hours you’ve spoken angrily to a member of your family, and if so repent and seek forgiveness for that.
(2) Here’s another kind of speech. This one is dealt with in chapter 3; that is cursing fellow human beings. James says, verses 9-10, “The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison, and with it we bless our Lord and Father and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”
Now, within Scripture words carry great power, the power to bless and the power to curse. All you have to do is read the Old Testament and you see from the very beginning - I mean, in Genesis chapter 1 the power of God’s blessing, and then in chapter 3 man falling under the curse, and then that being a thread that kind of runs throughout the Old Testament, the blessing and the curse.
This means that even with our words we can do great good or we can do great harm. We can bless and we can curse. James is concerned here that there’s a lack of integrity in our speech, that we bless God, we’re here on Sunday morning and we’re praising God and we’re praying and we’re singing our songs and we’re blessing God, but then in our day to day life we are cursing others.
Now, this would, of course, include saying a curse word in an angry way towards another person, like, “Go to hell,” or something like that. It would include that. But it would include less severe kinds of speech that is fundamentally hostile towards other people. So, if you yell at someone when they cut you off in traffic or if you bawl out someone at a restaurant who is not coming back to your table fast enough or if you’re railing against someone in social media; any of those kinds of speech would fall under this category here. James is telling us that this should not be the case. We should not be praising God on Sunday and then cursing, speaking in hostile ways, to people who are made in the image of God the rest of the week.
Now, right along with that comes another verse, chapter 4:11, where James says, “Do not speak evil against another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are a doer of the law but a judge.” So here the phrase [is] “speak evil.” It’s kind of a broad phrase, it covers many kinds of harmful speech. It would cover, for example, slandering someone, that is, where we say something falsely, some kind of an evil, false report or accusation against someone so that we slander their name; but it would also cover gossip, when we are saying something that may be true, but we’re saying it in an inappropriate situation or we’re saying it with impure motives, so that we effectively bring harm to another person. Speaking evil of others. All of that would be included.
We should be very careful with our words, that we are not unduly critical, that we are not gossiping, that we are not slandering, that we are not speaking evil of others. Be careful that you don’t speak something behind someone’s back that you would not say lovingly to their face. Speaking evil of others.
(3) And then, just a couple of verses later, James 4:13-16, I won’t read the whole paragraph here, but James here talks about boasting. Here’s the person who is boasting in their plans, they’re boasting in what they’re going to do this day and the next day and the day after that, and they’re not speaking with regard to the sovereignty of God and to the providence of God. So this is the boastful, arrogant kind of speech. “You boast in your arrogance,” James says. “All such boasting is evil.”
There are two more that are found in chapter 5.
(4) Chapter 5:9 says, “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.” This word means to groan or to complain. In this context, it seems to refer to groaning or complaining against one another when facing trials.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you face trials the impulse, when you start to feel stressed, is that you start to take out that stress on other people, right? Have you ever done that? You’re feeling stressed at work and you take it out at home, right, in your marriage or on your children or whatever. This is what James is warning us against. We are not to grumble against one another. Instead we are to be patient, we are to be longsuffering in our trials, we are to exercise steadfastness; we need endurance, not groaning and complaining.
(5) And then there’s one more, chapter 5:12 (this is the last thing in our inventory). Chapter 5:12 says, “But above all, my brother, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”
Now here James is very clearly quoting and echoing the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:33-37, where Jesus says much the same thing. The idea here seems to be a correction to people who were treating some of their words seriously. So they would speak truth when they took an oath, but there were times when they’re not speaking under oath and they’re much more loose with their language and not speaking truly. That’s why Jesus says, “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no.” Every time you speak, you should speak as under the eyes of God, every time you speak you should speak with integrity, every time you speak you should speak truly.
Now, does this text mean that Christians should never take an oath in court? That’s a natural question to ask when you read a verse like this, and certainly Anabaptists and Quakers and other believers throughout history have thought that. That’s probably an overreading of the text here, and to paraphrase John Stott, we can commend the zeal for obedience to this passage, but we might question an excessively literalistic interpretation, because even Jesus himself, when asked to speak under oath in Matthew 26, does not refuse to answer a high priest.
The high priest says, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” And Jesus says, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” So he speaks in a context where he is under oath, it seems; so I don’t think it’s wrong for Christians to do that. The idea here, rather, is that there should be a wholeness, an integrity to your speech, so that you always speak as if you were under oath. You always speak, and there’s no need, then, to call upon God or to swear, to make an oath to verify the truthfulness of your speech. We don’t need to prove to people that we’re speaking the truth by saying, “I swear it,” “I swear it on my mother’s grave,” or, “I swear it on the Bible,” or whatever. You should always speak with integrity and with truth.
So, here is a running inventory that James gives us of sins related to the tongue, sins of speech. Now, if we expanded this to other parts of Scripture we could include other things, such as crude kinds of speaking (Ephesians chapter 5 corrects us on that), and there are other kinds of speech as well; lying, of course, and deceit. But here we see that there is a broad range of tongue-related sins, and we need to take inventory of those.
II. A Picture Gallery
Now, here’s the second thing I want us to notice: that James gives us a picture gallery illustrating for us the power of the tongue. You see this especially in James chapter 3, where James gives us a number of very powerful, striking images or pictures or metaphors to show us the power of our words.
(1) First of all, he compares our words or the tongue to a bit and bridle. He does this in chapter 1, where he says that if someone does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is worthless. And then he picks up the same language in chapter 3:2-3, “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.”
Now, this is an easy illustration to get. We know that the rider of a horse has no control over the horse if he doesn’t have a bit and a bridle. I grew up with horses. I used to enjoy riding horses a lot on the farm and the ranch on which we grew up, and I remember one time getting on one of our old horses bareback, without a bit, without a bridle, just to ride. What this horse did was he headed straight for the tree, so that he would go under a branch or something that I think was laid across the tree, a pole or something. He wasn’t running, so it didn’t hurt, but I wasn’t on that horse very long, because there was no bit and bridle to control the horse.
Well, James is using this as a metaphor, a word picture, to show us the power of the tongue, and he’s telling us that if someone has control over the tongue it really has an effective control over the whole of their life.
(2) The same point is made with a second metaphor, verses 4 and 5, “Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” Again, this doesn’t take much explanation. The rudder guides the ship, and in the same way the tongue, when it is controlled, guides the life.
So those two pictures illustrate for us the directional power of the tongue, how the tongue has power to direct the life.
(3) Then we have a slightly different image in verses 5 and 6, and here it’s the picture of a fire, a blazing fire. This illustrates for us the destructive power of the tongue. Alright, look at what James says: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” Of course, I read that and I think of the forest fires in California, right? It all just started with a spark, right? It started with perhaps a match or a dropped cigarette or maybe a campfire that was left untended. It all started with something very small, and yet a forest set ablaze.
Verse 6, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”
So, James is showing us here the very roots of our destructive speech are demonic, satanic kinds of roots. Our tongues set on fire by hell, and like a fire our words have the power to burn and to blaze and to spread. Great destructive power in the tongue.
(4) The next image that James gives us in verses 7 and 8, and here it’s the image of an untamable poisonous beast. In fact, James says that “every kind of beast and bird, reptile and sea creature, can be tamed by mankind.” You think of “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” “But no human being,” he says, “can tame the tongue.”
The emphasis here is on the word “man” or “human being.” No man can tame the tongue. I think it’s implicit that God can tame the tongue, but man himself cannot do that. “It is a restless, evil, full of deadly poison.” So, just as an untamable beast, or a beast that maybe is tamed but then returns to its ferocious nature… We’ve heard stories of tigers that have been tamed but then turned on their owners, or things like that. In the same way, the tongue is untamable. It’s a restless evil, and it’s full of poison, and it has the capacity to defile and to poison and to bring destruction into our lives.
(5) Then there are two more metaphors; we can really take these two together, water from a spring, fruit from a tree, verses 11 and 12. James says, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”
Here the emphasis seems to be on how our words spring from a deeper source. Our words are the overflow of our hearts. We’ll see in a moment the words of Jesus, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” That seems to be the idea here. Defiling words come from a defiled heart. You don’t get fresh water from a corrupt spring, and you don’t get corrupt water or salt water from a fresh spring. A tree bears fruit according to its nature, and so it is with our words.
III. A Regimen
Okay, so we’ve seen both an inventory of our words, we’ve seen a picture gallery of the power of our words, illustrating the power of our words. Now, here’s the last thing for us, and this is really the main thing this morning. I want us to see how James gives us a regimen for restoring health to our words.
Now, what is a regimen? Here would be a definition: “A regimen is a prescribed course of medical treatment or way of life or diet for the promotion or the restoration of health.” Okay, so if you’ve had some kind of a health problem and you go to the doctor and the doctor says, “You need to take these vitamins and minerals, you need to get on this medicine for a period of time, you need to follow this diet, you need to go through this kind of physical therapy,” or what have you; he’s giving a regimen, and he’s saying, “If you follow this regimen, health will be restored.”
Well, James doesn’t use that metaphor, but I think we can use the metaphor to describe what James does throughout his letter in helping us to bring our words into alignment with the claims of our faith. That’s what James is doing here. He wants an integrity, he wants an authenticity to our faith. He wants our talk to manifest the reality of a heart that has been changed by faith in Jesus Christ.
I want to suggest to you four things that kind of make up this regimen, okay? Four things, and these are going to range from I would say probably the sternest, most severe thing that he says, so you might think of this as almost the chemotherapy or the radiation for the cancer of our words, it’s something that James wants to press hard into our minds and our hearts, he emphasizes it so much; and then move towards the more encouraging, hope-filled kinds of things that he says in his letter. So, here they are.
(1) Number one, part of the regimen for restoring health to our words, is remember the judgment. Remember the judgment.
Now, one reason I feel that I must emphasize this is because James emphasizes it so strongly, and it just struck me. Over and over again in this letter, when James is talking about our words, he’s connecting it to divine judgment. I want you to see what he says, and then draw the point I think we need to get from this.
Look at chapter 3:1, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Now, here he’s addressing especially those who teach in the church, and he’s reminding teachers in the church, or reminding everyone, “Don’t be too zealous to have this role, because you’re going to be held accountable for your words. You’re going to be judged with greater strictness.”
He goes on to talk about how we all stumble in many ways and then uses that as an occasion to talk about how we stumble with the tongue, so everything that we study this morning. But again, he’s just reminding us here that there is judgment for our words.
Look at chapter 4:11-12. “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”
So here he’s connecting both speaking evil and judging others with God’s judgment, and he’s reminding us that God is the ultimate and the final judge.
Chapter 5:9: “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door.” It’s just significant, isn’t it, that over and again he makes this point of emphasis. He connects speech to judgment.
Here’s, perhaps, the strongest one, James 2:12-13. He says, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
Now, I recognize that the way James speaks about judgment raises all kinds of questions about justification, it raises questions about how do our works, our deeds, and our words relate to the day of judgment; and I’m not going to answer those questions this morning. We are going to talk about that here in a few weeks when we look at the second half of James chapter 2.
However, I think the least that we can is this: that there is some correlation between our words, the words that we speak in this life, and the verdict that we will hear on the day of judgment. There is some correlation. We are to speak mindful of judgment, recognizing that our words somehow correlate to the final verdict that is given. Ultimately, I don’t believe that we are justified by our works, but I do believe that our works validate and authenticate and show the reality of a changed heart and a changed life, and again, we’ll look at that in more detail in a few weeks.
But let’s not miss the point, and let’s not blunt the point, that your words matter! James emphasizes it again and again and again, and he does so echoing the words of his brother and his Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ, who says much the same thing, as we’ll see in just a moment.
So, this is just the first thing. You need to reckon with this and I need to reckon with this, that your words matter and that you will give an account for your use of speech. This should shock us, it should wake us up, that someday, if we live for 70 years, we will give an account for 728 million things that came out of our mouths. That should cause us to stop and think and tremble, it should produce fear of God within us, and it should make us recognize our need for divine grace and for transformation in our talk.
(2) That leads us to the second thing: we need to recognize the need for a change of heart. We need to recognize that. As I’ve already mentioned, the metaphor that’s used in verses 11 and 12, the two metaphors of a spring and its water and a tree and its fruit, I think it meant to show us that our words are the fruit of our hearts. James will go on to say in chapter 4 that the reason that there is quarreling and fighting in the church, in the community of faith, is because their desires are at war with one another. So the quarreling manifests something that’s going on in the heart, there’s a conflict in the heart. This is always the case in Scripture, that our actions and our words are the overflow of what’s going on deeper inside.
I have a friend who used to say, “The tongue is the dipstick to the heart.” You know what a dipstick is? How you check your oil? I have an old car, so I have to check the oil pretty often. Check the dipstick. Well, the tongue is a dipstick to the heart. What’s coming out of the tongue is showing what’s down inside your heart. So, we have to recognize that and then recognize that when our speech is sinful it is a symptom of a deeper heart problem.
Okay, so now listen to what Jesus says. This is the one other passage outside of James that I want to reference. This Matthew 12:33-37, and I think it was significant for James. I think this is probably one reason why James says so much about judgment in connection with speech. These are the words of Jesus; listen to Jesus.
Jesus says, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
So, the principle is clear. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Evil words are the rotten fruit of a corrupt heart. That means that if streams of profanity and slander and boasting and grumbling and deceit and criticism flow from your mouth, the change that you need is more than just a restraining order on the tongue; the change you need is a cleansing of the heart. You have to recognize the need for heart change. We need new hearts. For the stream of our words to be pure, the fountain of our hearts must be cleansed.
So this is casting us onto God’s grace and our need for profound transformation in our hearts of hearts.
(3) That leads us to the third part of this regimen. It’s this: receive the seed of God’s saving word. Receive the seed of God’s saving word. If I could just put it in a statement, the only way that your words will be transformed is if you deeply imbibe the word of God’s grace, the word of God, the word of the gospel.
You see this all the way back in James chapter 1. Let me give you two verses. Verse 18, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The word of truth is the gospel of Jesus Christ. James tells us that we are brought forth; that is, we are converted, or we might even say we are regenerated. We are transformed, we are changed by the word of truth, by this gospel word, so that we become a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. So there is new creation language here, right?
If what we need is a change of heart, that means we need a new heart. It means we need new creation in our hearts. We need transformation in our hearts, and the way that happens is through the word of truth, the gospel. It’s the gospel that begets the changed heart, and it’s the changed heart that produces changed speech. So we need this word.
But we don’t need it only initially. It’s not just that we need this word so that we’re saved by the word, but we need this word continually so that we are sanctified by the word. Look at verse 21. “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness,” not least the filthiness and rampant wickedness of defiled speech, put it away, “and receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls.”
We’ve already looked at that passage in detail. The word is a seed, and as the seed is deeply planted in the heart it produces change, it produces transformation. James says this word is able to save your souls.
Now, let me give you an illustration of how I think this works, maybe a couple of illustrations. Some of you have probably heard the statement that Charles Spurgeon made about John Bunyan. John Bunyan was the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, okay, probably the most-read book in the English language, second to the Bible and maybe Harry Potter. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Spurgeon himself read it once a year. I think he read it over a hundred times over the course of his life, and he loved Bunyan.
He made a comment about Bunyan that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “If you read Bunyan, prick him anywhere and he bleeds Bible.” He said, “His blood is bibline.” I think he coined that word. “His blood is bibline. Prick him anywhere and he bleeds Bible.” He said that because when you read Bunyan he’s just quoting Scripture right and left, and he’s not only quoting, but he’s so deeply immersed in Scripture that Scripture just poured forth from him.
Well, that’s a picture of what has to happen for actually every one of us. It’s as we receive the implanted word, we deeply drink from that word, that word dwells richly within us, that it produces change in the way we talk. Our words are changed and transformed and reordered and reorganized by the word, by the word of God, by the word of truth, and the gospel within that word.
Here’s another illustration. Have you ever noticed that when you spend a lot of time around certain people you begin to talk like them? Maybe you pick up their accent or maybe you pick up their vocabulary. So, here’s just a couple of examples of this.
I’m from Texas; I don’t know if you can tell by my accent, I’ve worked really hard for 15 years to start sounding more like a mid-Westerner and to eliminate the Texas twang. But every time I get on the phone with my dad, who has a very strong Texas twang, I just kind of start to sound like that again. Even worse, I married a southern belle, alright? She is from the deep, deep, deep part of the deep South, and I mean, everyone speaks with an accent there, and Holly has not successfully eliminated the southern accent. Everybody knows she’s from the south. But I want to tell you, it gets really thick when we spend two or three weeks in Georgia, because we pick up the accent of the people we hang out with, right?
What we are learning to do as believers in Christ is we’re learning to speak with a new accent, alright, the accent of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of grace, and we do that as we spend time with Jesus, who speaks purely and truly with this heavenly accent. So we need the word to reorder our words.
Let me give you a quotation from Sinclair Ferguson, who has helped me in thinking through this and has said things similar to what I’ve just said. Sinclair Ferguson speaks with a Scottish accent, which I will not unsuccessfully try to imitate — although it would be entertaining for you! Listen to what Ferguson says.
He says, “The work of the word inaugurates the Christian life, but it also sustains its progress. My tongue is ongoingly cleansed and transformed by, if I may so express it, what comes from God’s tongue. As the heart hears with open ears the word of God again and again, it is renewed and begins to produce a transformed tongue. The principle is this: what comes out of our mouths is more and more determined by what has come out of the mouth of God. The sanctification of the tongue is a work in us that is driven by the word of God coming to us as we hear it and indwelling us as we receive it. The most important single aid to my ability to use my tongue for the glory of Jesus is allowing the word of God to dwell in me so richly that I cannot speak with any other accent. When I do, the result is 'teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing…and in word and deed doing everything in the name of our Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father' (Colossians 3:16)."
So what accent are you speaking with? Are you learning to speak with the heavenly accent? The way you do that – and we’re all in process here, alright; like I said, I had to confess yesterday for speaking with the accent of hell instead of the accent of heaven. We’re all in process here, but the way we do this is by letting the word dwell in us richly, so that it reforms, reshapes, transforms our words.
(4) One more thing, number four: we must then, having received this seed of the word, we must then retrain our tongues in the rhythms of praise, confession, and prayer. Look at James chapter 5. It’s so interesting here that James gives us several scenarios and how we are to respond with sanctified kind of speech. If you want to know what the accent of heaven is, it’s this kind of speech. It’s a rhythm of speaking that is Godward in its orientation.
James says, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray,” not complain. Let him pray. “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” Not boast, not speak in frivolity, although there’s nothing wrong with good clean humor, but let him sing praise.
And then he addresses those who are sick and who need healing, and presumably those who are sick because of sin, and he says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
So just take that – I mean, you have three statements here of how we are to use words. These are three godly ways to use words. Use your words to pray, use your words to sing praise (I think that would include all the elements of thanksgiving, right), and use your words to confess your sin. So here’s provision. If you do sin, if you blow it with your tongue, if you blow it with your speech, don’t just keep on doing that, confess it and repent, move on.
That’s three rhythms. These are, incidentally (have you noticed?), three rhythms to our worship every week. Every week we’re coming together to pray, we’re coming together to sing praise, we’re coming together to confess our sins; because part of what we need for the rehabilitation of the way we talk is a community that is doing therapy together every week under the word of God, under the governance of the word of God, that is retraining us in the wholesome, healthy ways of speaking to one another and speaking to God.
So this is what we need. We need this regimen, and it is a regimen of grace, it is a regimen that sanctifies us, and it is a regimen that is rooted in all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
As we close this morning, let me just encourage you to do something this week. Let me encourage you to take an inventory personally of your speech. Just think through, maybe pray through. Maybe pray that prayer of Psalm 141 that we’ve already read together this morning: “Set a watch, O Lord, on my mouth. Set a guard on my mouth.” Ask God to do that. Ask him to show you where you’re sinning with your tongue, and then don’t grovel in guilt. Confess it to the Lord, confess to whomever you need to confess it to if you’ve wounded others with your tongue; confess it, and then in grace move on and move on with a heart oriented towards the Lord, living under the discipline of God’s grace, grace that saves us freely, but grace that transforms us powerfully as we submit our lives and our tongues to it. May we do this, and may God then be glorified in the collective speech of this church, this body of believers. Let’s pray.
Gracious Father, we thank you for the forthrightness of your word, we thank you for how your word confronts us and corrects us and challenges us as it has done this morning. We confess this morning that we too often betray hearts that have not been as deeply transformed and cleansed as they need to be. For many of us, there is a mixture in our speech, where sometimes, perhaps often, we are speaking with a heavenly accent, and yet we slip into patterns of speaking and behavior.
We ask you to forgive us for that. We ask you to convict us of that, show us specifically where change is needed, show us where we have been dishonest and untruthful, where we have been harsh and critical, where we have been slanderous towards others or we’ve spoken evil of others. Show us where we have been dishonorable, dishonoring to you. Show us where there’s a lack of integrity in our words, and then give us the grace to change, give us the grace to repent, and give us the grace of your forgiveness that is given to us freely through your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Father, as we come to the table this morning we come remembering the words of our Lord Jesus, that he gave himself for us, he gave his body for us. As we take this bread and this juice with our mouths, and as we do so with faith set on Jesus Christ, the Bread of life, who gave himself for us, may this act of faith have a sanctifying effect in our hearts and lives. May the remembrance of the great sacrifice that Jesus made for us, giving himself for our sins, may that have sanctifying effect, so that we would remember that Jesus was crucified for these sinful words that we speak. May it cause us to mourn appropriately over those words, turn from them, and embrace a new way of speaking.
So Lord, do the work that needs to be done in our hearts this morning, do it this week, and be glorified in us. We pray it in Jesus’s name, Amen.