This article is a Bible study on James 3. It explains how Christians are called to use their tongue.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2008. 3 pages.

The Tongue, between Hell and Heaven James 3

The Test🔗

During the physical exam of a patient, a physician uses small indicators to test for larger issues. The speed at which blood pumps through the arteries or the cholesterol count from a small blood sample can reveal a lot about how healthy the heart is.

Like a skillful physician, James has been subjecting professing Christians to various diagnostic tests. The test in this chapter involves the tongue. Our tongue is a remarkable organ. With the help of air and the movement of the whole mouth, it produces intelli­gible sounds that allow us to communicate. We can take the thoughts formed in our minds and the emo­tions in our hearts and express them by means of our tongues.

Because of its ability to help us communicate, our tongue makes for an interesting diagnostic study. If we take stock of what our tongue produces over the course of a day or week or more, we can learn much about the health of our inner being. Are our thoughts and emotions in accord with God’s Word? Do we use our tongue only for good? Do we consistently edify each other and praise God with our tongue?

The Results🔗

Let’s follow James as he reviews the results of this test with us (vv. 3-12). First of all, he notes what a powerful thing the tongue is (vv. 3-5a). James compares it to a bit in a horse’s mouth, that steers its whole body (v. 3); or to the small helm on a large ship, which maneuvers it over a calm sea or even through the fiercest of storms (v. 4). Similarly, the tongue is small but powerful (v. 5a). It can have great influence in steering friends or family into right or wrong paths.

But secondly, the tongue is destructive (vv. 5b-6). James compares it to the match that lights a forest fire (v. 6a). Watch how one tongue stokes the next tongue, which passes the flame on to the next. Soon the world is ablaze with the fire one tongue ignited. Unrestrained, the tongue can ruin lives and cause great distress.

Thirdly, the tongue is untamable (vv. 7-8). Try to train the tongue. It’s such a small member; you would guess it wouldn’t take much effort. Take it out of a bad environment. Praise it when it does well. Punish it when it does evil. Feed it when it does what you want it to. Thrash it when it is unruly. Put in a bit and bridle. Subject it to pressure when it is wild. These are the sorts of things trainers do when they train horses, elephants, lions, and even snakes. Though men have success even with vicious animals, what do we find with the tongue? “The tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (v. 8).

Fourthly, the tongue is hypocritical (vv. 9-12). Listen to the tongue one moment and you’ll hear the most beautiful praises uttered to God. No sooner is it done blessing God, but what we do we hear next? The same tongue emitting curses (v. 9). What a contradic­tion the tongue is! We don’t see such inconsistencies in nature. What scientist has ever found a fountain that pumps out sweet water for ten seconds and then switches to salt water for the next ten? What horti­culturist has tended a fig tree that produces figs one season and olives the next? The human tongue is such a source of contradiction.

The Fire from Hell🔗

What do all these results mean? Our tongues are devi­ous and destructive. They show an inward disease of cosmic proportions. We who were created to glorify God are cursing Him, ruining ourselves, and setting the world ablaze. Our tongues bear responsibility for the charred world we see around us. How did it happen? James gives us a clue: the original spark came from hell (v. 6b). Our tongue has taken on the characteristics of the devil, who tempted us to eat of the forbidden fruit. The day that Satan came to Eve in the form of a serpent, our tongues underwent a radical transformation. We were not struck dumb; instead, our tongues turned devilish. Prior to that, Adam’s tongue only blessed God. In everything, Adam showed a knowledge and wisdom that resembled and glorified his Creator. He had been made in the image of God and his tongue moved accordingly. He lived and talked in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. His wife, Eve, also only used her tongue to glorify God. As a couple, their speech was always fitting and without malice.

Then that awful day came when the serpent opened his mouth. He promised us that we could be as wise as God; we only had to disobey the command of God, and we would instantly become like Him. We would have knowledge like God — so he promised. No wonder that Scripture calls the devil the father of lies (John 8:44)! His lying tongue has begotten as many lying tongues as there would be people, Christ alone excepted. The world over, down through the ages until our own day, tongues everywhere bear the insignia of hell (v. 6).

The Fruit of Heaven🔗

Can there be any transformation of our twisted tongue? Can the diseased tongue be cured? James unveils how we can be changed in the next verses (vv. 14-17). The cure is not found in anything from this earth. We need more than a wisdom that is from below (vv. 14-16). Such “wisdom” is born of envy, that proud ambition that lurks in the depraved soul. It is full of prejudice and hypocrisy (v. 17). That is the kind of wisdom our tongues are used to, so that cannot help us. Such wisdom can’t escape its earthly, sensual, and devilish roots (v. 15). If you have been given eyes to see it, you will recognize it by its disorderly confusion and evil practice (v. 16).

Only true wisdom which is from above can help us (vv. 17-18). In other words, we need the wisdom that descends from heaven. Such wisdom not only makes sense of our problem, but can also solve it. James explains what this wisdom is in verse 17. It is first of all pure. It is not mixed or stained, but holy and wholesome. It is next marked by peace, gentleness, and compassion. It is full of mercy and full of good fruits. It knows no favoritism or hypocrisy. Instead, it is humble and leaves in its wake a trail of righteousness like satisfying fruit (v. 18).

Considering ourselves, things don’t look good. But the question is: is heaven renewing us after Christ? Do we bear His image in principle? After all, He was the Wisdom that descended from heaven. People blessed Him one moment, saying “Never man spake like this man” (John 7:46). But when He hung on the cross, the same people reviled Him. Yet, in His life and death, He sowed a harvest of righteousness that is most perfectly suited to atone for the sins of our tongues. Through the Spirit of wisdom whom He purchased for us, He gives us all we need — namely, the fruit of righteousness.


  1. Read Psalm 12:1-4. What characteristics of the tongue are described in these verses? Are they consistent with those given by James?
  2. Contrast how Jesus used His tongue while on earth with how people used their tongues against Him.
  3. The results of physicians’ diagnostic tests can range from reassuring to alarming. Where on this scale do the results of this tongue test fall for you?
  4. What is James’s “prescription” for the disease the tongue reveals? What does this mean practically?
  5. Examine and explain the eight characteristics of true wisdom in verse 17. How can this help us?

The Twisted Tongue

The Transformed Tongue

Earthly, devilish, set on fire from hell (vv. 6, 15)

Descends from above (v. 17)

Sensual (v. 15)

Pure (v. 17)

Unruly (v. 8)

Marked by righteousness (v. 18)

Marked by every evil work (v. 16)

Marked by good conduct and good fruits

Boastful (v. 5)

Marked by meekness(v. 13)

Marked by envy (v. 16)

Easy to be entreated (v. 17)

Full of deadly poison and mixed fruits (vv. 8-10)

Full of mercy and good fruits (v. 17)

Blesses God and curses men (v. 9)

Full of mercy and good fruits (v. 17)

Marked by bitter strife (v. 14)

Peaceable, gentle (v. 17)

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