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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Tongue Makes Us Liable to Judgment (3:9-12)
The Tongue Makes Us Liable to Judgment (3:9-12)

Judgment is not mentioned in 3:9-12, but it is the unspoken implication still being explained from the beginning of the passage in 3:1. What James does describe explicitly in 3:9-12 is the product of one's tongue: the contradictory product of praise and cursing. If we treat this as a relatively superficial matter which he wants cleared up merely for the sake of consistency, we have dodged the force of this paragraph. James's specific language drives us to the serious issue of facing divine judgment. The three phases of this paragraph make this evident.

First, the literal example he gives in 3:9 involves our relationship with God himself. If we praise God and then curse our neighbors, our praise to God is contradicted. James's logic is important to trace.

1. The one we praise is no less than our Lord and Father. This is a phrase not repeated anywhere else in the Bible; James is deliberately bringing into focus the greatness of God with respect to these two terms.

2. The one we curse is made in the likeness of that Lord and Father.

3. Therefore, to treat people with contempt is to treat God's own greatness with contempt.

This principle has huge implications in our day, requiring just and honorable treatment of the unborn, the poor, the sick and the elderly. James's application here, however, is to our speech. He refers to a praising or blessing (eulogeo) of God—a common Old Testament theme with this same verb in the Septuagint (e.g., Ps 103:1-2). He is exposing the hypocrisy of speaking praise to God with the worshiping church or in private prayer while abusing people with ridicule, insults and attacks through the rest of the week.

Second, the effect of 3:10 is to declare such inconsistency unthinkable for Christians. The tone of James's summary in the first part of the verse is amazement that such praise and cursing should come from the same mouth. This evokes immediately the negated verb in the last part of the verse, as if to say: "Praise and cursing from the same mouth? It can't be!" This also happens to be the only New Testament instance of the impersonal verb chre; it conveys the most earnest and blunt emphasis. Adamson describes James's language as "the strongest possible Greek . . . spoken with all the force of protesting condemnation" (1976:146-47). The contradictory speech of praising and cursing "makes moral and logical nonsense from James's theological standpoint" (Davids 1982:146).

Do we today have this same, intense reaction—this sense that praising God and cursing people is utterly unthinkable, abhorrent nonsense? Consider the habitual verbal abuse that occurs in our churches—how commonplace it is for us to speak of others with ridicule or with cutting remarks, how quickly we accuse others of evil motives when they do things we don't like and how easily we can have angry fights in our churches. Where is our biblical sense of shock at all of this?

Third, the examples from nature in 3:11-12 are intended to describe situations that never happen. These are not to be allegorized, and oddities of nature do not negate James's point. He is stating the obvious, normative facts that one spring does not pour forth two kinds of water; a plant of one kind does not produce fruit of another kind; a salt spring does not produce fresh water. The implication is that a true Christian will not make a practice of unchristian speech; and the practice of unchristian speech is evidence that the speaker is not a Christian and is therefore in danger of hell.

This implication is reinforced when one considers James's possible reliance on Jesus' teaching—for example, in Matthew 12:33-37, where the image of a good tree bearing good fruit and a bad tree bearing bad fruit is applied specifically to speech as the fruit of one's inner character. "For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." Jesus made the divine judgment explicit: "Men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken." Similarly in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:15-23, the trees bearing bad fruit will be "cut down and thrown into the fire" and the ones who praised Jesus saying "Lord, Lord" will be sent away as impostors who are not genuine Christians at all: "Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you.' "

James insists on purity of speech if one's faith is genuine. He recognizes that Christians fail in this; he is willing to identify himself with sinful speech—it is something "we" do. But to accept it or to tolerate it, instead of being horrified at it and repenting of it—this must not be! For we, like springs and plants, produce according to our true nature. The production of good fruit is an evidence of genuine faith and therefore salvation itself. James says to each one of us: Purify your speaking, or show yourself to be an impostor and therefore under judgment.

He will not let us avoid this issue with excuses or delays. He writes conscious that his readers worship together and then have fights and quarrels among themselves (4:1). How often do Christians sing "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" and then leave the worship service with angry complaints about others with whom they have worshiped, or fight with each other at a church committee meeting later in the week? James tells us this must not be! Remember, he is writing to Christians who are facing trials of many kinds, including unjust treatment from rich pagans. Nevertheless, James will not condone participation in worship which is contradicted by a cursing of people, even a cursing of persecutors. He would remember Jesus' saying "Bless those who curse you" (Lk 6:28). People violate this today by singing praise to God on Sunday and then complaining and attacking neighbors, coworkers or employers on Monday.

To the person who speaks praise to God in the worship service and then abuses people verbally at home or at work, James commands, "Purify your speech through the week." With the person who says, "Oh, I know I talk too much," and laughs it off, James is not amused. He insists, "Be quick to listen, slow to speak." By the person who boasts, "I always speak my mind, no matter who gets hurt," James is not impressed. He commands, "Discipline your speaking." Of the person who says, "I know I gossip too much, but I just can't help it," James still requires, "Control your tongue." Of the person who is in the habit of speaking with insults, ridicule or sarcasm, James demands, "Change your speech habits." He expects discipline to be happening in the life of a Christian. Any Christian can ask for the grace needed, for God gives good gifts (1:17) and gives them generously (1:5). There is, then, no justification for corrupt habits of speech in our churches today. We simply must repent.

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