What Are Words For?

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” —Proverbs 18:21

Years ago I heard about a woman in Los Angeles who took her life. Her suicide note was just two words: “They said.” When Adam and Eve turned from God so long ago, one of the first signs that something had gone wrong was their destructive use of words. And by now we live in a world where every night we can watch people yelling at each other and interrupting each other and fighting for verbal advantage on cable news talk shows, a world where people use argumentation not honestly but to spin the outcome, a world where people destroy each other with false testimony in court, a world where people exaggerate and tell half-truths and spread rumors, a world where children are belittled with cruel words and marriages turn into a war zone by verbal bombshells, a world where one single word can rob someone of their peace and their sleep at night and their reputation and employability and creative energies and confidence and productivity, a world of insults and name-calling and “How dare you” and threats and cornering people and embarrassing people and other hellish uses of words, and all this, without any feeling in people’s hearts that something’s wrong – in a world like this, God is speaking peace. Through the gospel God is creating a counterculture in his church. The church is where we learn from Christ that words matter, the verbal violence stops and words start giving life. The gospel of our new King teaches us to stop thinking, “Hey, this is America. I have a right to blurt out whatever I’m thinking and feeling. And when I do, it’s just words anyway. I’m not doing anything bad. In fact, if I stifle my thoughts and feelings, it’s harmful. It’s healthy to let it all out, isn’t it?” Christ teaches us a totally different way to live, because he is a totally different kind of person.

Last week we thought about what it means for Immanuel Church to be a gospel culture. That’s a winning play in our playbook as a team. Last week we saw from John 8 that a gospel culture is when Jesus ends one conversation with us (“Neither do I condemn you” in justification) and begins another conversation with us (“Go and from now on sin no more”) in sanctification. A gospel culture is a zero-condemnation place where anyone can grow and learn and change in complete safety. That was the theology of a gospel culture last week. Today’s sermon is really Part 2 about this play in our playbook. Preaching the gospel is not enough. Our quality of life together is what makes the gospel real to people. Establishing our own gospel culture will stand out in the angry shouting match of this world. Now today, in James chapter 3, we learn not so much the theology of a gospel culture but more the behavior of a gospel culture. It matters. If life and death are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21), then how we use our tongues is a matter of life and death. A church can be death for people, or a church can use words to breathe new life into people, so that they walk out of that church with a spring in their step and sparkle in their eye from Jesus. We want that. That kind of church is worth risk and sacrifice and prayer and effort. It’s a matter of life and death.

Here’s the challenge we face. A churchgoer invited a friend to church: “Won’t you come to church with me?” His friend replied, “No way. I’ve got enough troubles already.” The challenge we face is the widespread perception in our city that churches are not the remedy, the perception that if you get involved in a church it only complicates your already difficult life. And who can blame people for that perception? We Christians have earned that reputation. We have not displayed the loveliness of the Lord Jesus Christ before our city. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. God doesn’t want it to stay that way. We can humble ourselves, pray and dare to change, by God’s grace, and build up a church that gives life. God wants to bless this city through his churches, and that new blessing starts in a surprisingly simple way. We earn a new reputation by the beauty with which we use words. That alone will go a long way in persuading our city that Immanuel Church, for one, offers a remedy that works for us and is available to everyone. Let me put it this way. If we fail to establish a gospel culture of life-giving words, we will fail absolutely. It doesn’t matter what else we do, we will fail. But if by God’s grace we display the beauty of Christ through our words alone, even if we’re only mediocre in other ways, we will succeed, because our words are a life-and-death issue. A church where the beautiful Lord Jesus reigns over our tongues – there will be a traffic jam on Granny White Pike from the people trying to be a part of it. Life and death are in the power of the tongue. That’s what God says.

Our passage today is a practical view of a gospel culture. James 3 gives us three reasons why our words matter so much. One, God is listening. Two, your next spiritual breakthrough begins with your tongue. Three, how we speak to people reveals the true worth of how we worship God. That’s what James is saying. Let me show you.

God is listening (verse 1)

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” —James 3:1

James does not say, “We who teach will be judged with strictness.” It isn’t just the words of preachers that will be reviewed and evaluated by the Lord; it’s the words of all of us. We’re all on a continuum, with strict judgment on one end, where you are, and stricter< /em> judgment on the other end, where I am. God is listening to all of us.

The gospel of grace includes accountability. The Bible is clear. God rejoices over us through Christ on terms of total grace. His love is one-way love. But it is also true that very soon you and I will report in. The Bible says, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Are you aware that you will stand before Christ and give an account of what you’ve done with the opportunity of this life? Right now people might applaud you or they might boo you. But who cares, as long you please Christ? That’s what Paul says there: “We make it our aim to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:9). At that judgment, the Lord will not decide whether we get into heaven. If you are in Christ, that’s already settled in your favor. He is preparing a place for you. But on that day, when we will have completed our mission in this life and there remains no further possibility for self-correction, we will stand before him and he will decide our eternal rewards. It will still be all of grace, but how we live right now will matter forever. To spend this life under God’s grace is a privilege and responsibility. Are we deploying our lives fully for him? On that day the Lord Jesus will be absolutely fair, but he will not flatter. He will tell us the truth about how we lived this life, including our very words. In fact, 2000 years ago Jesus said, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). We cannot unleash out of our mouths careless words and then dismiss it with, “Oh, I didn’t mean that.” The truth is, our hearts mean every word we say.

James 1:26 says, “If anyone thinks he is religious [that is, spiritual or Christian] and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” What is he saying? He’s saying that we can believe the Bible and do a lot of good, but if we don’t bridle our tongues our Christianity is worthless. Not just sub-par. Worthless. If we do not control our tongues, we are deceiving ourselves. Unbridled tongues not only reveal the heart, they impact the heart.

Jesus makes “every careless word” a big deal. We need him to tell us that. It’s a mercy that he tells us that. We tell ourselves that God cares only about the big, dramatic moments of life, when everything’s on the line. He does. But those moments are rare. What matters more to God are the little, undramatic, everyday moments when we’re more relaxed and we show what we’re really made of.

The doggone thing about it is that sin doesn’t walk up to us and announce itself to us as sin and danger and poison and death. Sin isn’t honest with us. It dresses itself up in warm feelings, feelings of entitlement, feelings of normalcy. We don’t see sin as sin when it gets into our thoughts and feelings. So we yell at someone, and sin tells us they needed it. We gossip, and sin tells us we were sharing a prayer request. We don’t say the positive things people deserve to hear, and sin tells us it’s okay because we’re shy. Sin isn’t telling us the truth. So we need Jesus to look us right in the eye and say, “Don’t be deceived. God is listening to every word. It matters.”
Your next spiritual breakthrough begins with your tongue (verses 2-8)

“If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect [not sinless but mature, complete, well put together] man, able also to bridle his whole body.” —James 3:2

I never saw the power of these verses until this week. I thought James was saying, “Your tongue reveals your heart.” It does. But that isn’t his point here. He’s saying, “Your tongue controls and influences and changes your heart – and everything else about you.” Do you see it? “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is . . . able also to bridle his whole body.” Then James paints the picture with a great big strong horse guided by a bit in its mouth. That’s the tongue. If the mouth is under control, everything else follows. He paints another picture, a big ship, “so large” with its own bulk and momentum, like our personalities, our bent within, and also “driven by strong winds,” the pressures and demands coming at us. But the ship has an expert at the helm – “the pilot” – who directs that momentum and charts a course through the winds by a little tiny rudder. That’s the tongue. The tongue is in control. It’s a small part of us. We underestimate it. But if the mouth is under control, everything else follows.

So here’s the insight. When we want to solve a problem in our lives, the last strategy we think of is to regain control of our tongues; but that’s exactly where James starts. If I have a problem with, say, a strained relationship, the place to begin is not the relationship itself. The place to begin is not trying to reestablish better understanding with the other person. That’s important, and I’ll need to get around to that. But even if it succeeded, the whole thing could unravel again if my tongue isn’t under control. So, is the bit in the horse’s mouth? If it is, then the whole horse will learn to obey. That’s the point James is making. He wants to give us a practical realism that works. Whatever your next step might be in your spiritual growth, begin by asking yourself if your tongue is under the control of Christ.

Here is why you cannot overlook the tongue. James says that your tongue, my tongue, is the most dangerous part of us. Here’s how he describes it:

A world of unrighteousness

Staining the whole body

on fire the entire course of life

Set on fire by hell

A restless evil

Full of deadly poison.

Until that comes under the strong control of the Lord Jesus Christ, what’s the point of anything else?

In Romans 3, when Paul strings together some Old Testament quotations to sum up what’s wrong with the whole human race, he highlights how we use our tongues: “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness” (Romans 3:13-14). Then he goes on to tell us about the cross. The tongue is why Christ came to die. The tongue is why he sent the Holy Spirit in saving power. And this is why your next spiritual breakthrough begins by surrendering your tongue to his control.

Moment by moment you and I are creating the reality we’re going to live with five minutes from now. And the biggest impact we have on our real world of five minutes from now is the words coming out of our mouths – or not coming out. In churches, my observation over the years has been that formal church discipline can send the wrong signals. It can communicate that some sins are a big deal and other sins are no big deal. For example, if you commit adultery, that’s big. Your church will discipline you. But I’ve never seen a church discipline a gossip. James would say that’s all turned around. In the nature of the case, the impact of adultery is deep but often limited to the few people directly involved. But gossip – it doesn’t seem as bad as adultery, but its actual impact is widely destructive: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire.” A small fire, a no-big-deal sin, can scorch families and businesses and churches and whole nations. And those same families and businesses and churches and nations can be healed through gospel words spoken again in the power of God.

He is the one who made us speaking beings. Word-making comes from God. That’s why our words pack such a wallop. Speech is a power no one less than God gave us. I know you can train a dolphin to say a few words. But a three-year-old child – you can’t shut him up! Speech is one of the glories of being human. Speaking is a God-like thing to do. The Bible says, “The universe was created by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3). God says, “Let there be a super-nova” and whoosh – there it is! The Bible also says, “He upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Right now I am speaking and you are listening and little electrical flashes are bursting inside our brains to keep this going because one nanosecond before each word and each thought the Lord Jesus Christ speaks an upholding word. And if he hesitated for one instant, we would utterly vanish. And for us, words are how we shape the reality we are continually receiving. When God himself became man to give us a new reality, the Bible called him the Word. He speaks, and we live again. But the moment we forsake his control, our words can be “set on fire by hell.” We’ve all experienced it, haven’t we? We’ve all spit out of our own foolish mouths verbal sparks that landed on the dry tinder of insecure, angry, touchy people, and oh, the result! Without the Holy Spirit continually watering and refreshing our hearts, we’re always five minutes away from the combustion that explodes into a forest fire.
God is at work in your life. It’s why you’re here today. God is doing something new in you. James wants you to understand what your next step is. You must not overlook this crucial first step. It controls everything else. God wants to tame your tongue. He wants to make your words into life-givers for the people around you.

How we speak of people reveals the true worth of how we worship God (verses 9-12)

“With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with the tongue we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” —James 3:9

Just a brief point. We might think, as we stand in church and sing our praises to God, we’re offsetting the bad things we’ve said this past week to our spouses or children or employees, the grumbling and complaining and all that. James wants us to know it works the other way around. He points to the obvious. How can one spring pour out both fresh water in worship and bitter water in relationships? We know it can’t. So if we want our praises to mean something to God, let’s freshen and sweeten what we say to the people who are in God’s image – which is everyone.

Okay, there’s James 3. Now you know it, so go do it. No, God is better than that. We are all thinking right now, “I have sinned. How on earth do I change?” Let’s hear the gospel again. When the prophet Isaiah saw the all-holy God, he saw himself for the first time and he despaired. He said, “I am a man of unclean lips in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” In other words, “I have said so many foolish, glib, stupid, ugly things. I’m no better than anyone else.” But then God touched his mouth with a coal from the heavenly altar, the place of sacrifice, and said to him, “This has touched your lips. Your guilt is taken away. Your sin is atoned for.” Jesus went to that place of sacrifice for you. And he comes to you today through the Holy Spirit to touch your mouth and say to you too, “Your guilt is taken away. Your sin is atoned for.” And when he said that to Isaiah, the prophet said back to him, “Here I am. Send me.” When your heart says, “I am a person of unclean lips,” God says to your heart, “My grace forgives. Believe it. Receive it. And from now on consecrate every word to me and to me alone.”

James says that “no human being can tame the tongue.” But God can. Give yourself to him today. Hand yourself over to him. Say to him, “Lord, my tongue is beyond my control. But I come to you.” He will receive you and bring you under his gracious control, according to the gospel. Will you give yourself to him today?