You are what you speak.
Lists help me understand big concepts. Maybe James had folks like me in mind when he composed the first chapter of the book that bears his name. He offers readers a checklist of righteous behaviors. One of which is learning to tame the tongue. “If anyone thinks himself to be religious and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.” James 1:26
James is like a coach and here's his counsel to us athletes:
There's a whole devotional there but let's talk about the tongue because if we don't learn to manage our words--our religion is futile.
According to Google, the tongue is a muscular organ in the mouth of a mammal used for tasting, licking, swallowing and (in humans) articulating speech. The Bible puts it this way: though small it’s massively boastful. It’s a world of iniquity and it defiles the whole body. It is restless evil, deadly poison and it sets fire to your life—a fire started and stoked by Hell. (James 3:5-8)
Bible commentator Matthew Henry, writing two and a half centuries ago said it like this, “The whole body is often drawn into sin and guilt by the tongue. The affairs of mankind and of societies are often thrown into confusion…by the tongues of men. Hell has more to do in promoting the fire of the tongue then men are generally aware of.”
James Chapter 3 was written for me and anyone else who would cast their hope exclusively on Christ. It offers the dumb, the illiterate and the scoffer the opportunity to repent and turn from a native language of death—to one of life. Just as a horse in a bridle is mastered by its rider or ship’s rudder is directed by its captain, we as Christians are commanded to control our tongue.
The problem is—it’s impossible.
“For every species of beast and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is restless evil and full of deadly poison.” (James 3:7-8)
Fierce animals may have human masters—but the tongue is different, apt to break its bearer’s bonds in moments of passion, rage, laziness, levity—exhaustion. In other words, it would be easy to watch what we say—if life stopped getting in the way.
The power Christ offers His believers to overcome habitual sin, particularly in matters of speech, is so wonderful that it must inspire love and devotion in our hearts. Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection supply us with supernatural strength to overcome our natural, demonic and disordered tendencies.
So specific and sharp an instrument is the Bible—the inspired Word of God, that it will literally change the way we speak—which means it’s changing the way we think, which means it’s changing what we fundamentally believe. This is the excruciatingly beautiful process of sanctification—becoming more like Jesus, less like that reflection in the mirror. And it’s real evidence of justification—proof that we believed in the first place. But it’s not God who needs evidence of our salvation—it’s us.
Satan believes in Jesus.
“You believe God is one. You do well; the demons also believe and shudder.” (James 2:19)
Note James’ sarcasm—and his bite. The demons believe and shudder. They shudder because they believe! Shuddering means to tremble in fear yet despite their belief, they are not justified, cannot be sanctified and will never be glorified. Jesus Christ did not come to redeem fallen angels. “For assuredly He does not give help to the angels, but He gives help to the descendants of Abraham.” (Hebrews 2:16)
Practicing good works in the name of Christ—like submitting to the Word of God in manners of speech by learning the fine art of tongue-taming (for example), takes our witness of Christ’s resurrection and its soul-transforming power beyond impotent acknowledgement to a life wholly devoted to its savior. A polite head nod in the direction of the Creator does not merit eternal life in heaven with Him. James says it point-blank, “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26)
James said it like this:
---->But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God.
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:18-26)
Wait...are we saved by faith in Christ alone or good works, like bridling our tongue?
Good works don’t save souls--though our pride begs to differ. There isn't enough time in the day, enough selfless motivation in our hearts or a drop of infallible wisdom we possess that definitively discerns all good from all bad. We're just humans after all. Plus, didn't we receive everything we've got from God anyway? Can't we do everything we can do because He sustains us?
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24)
So how would the biblical writers James and Paul (the writer of Romans) reconcile their seemingly contradictory teachings? Easily. You can't have one without the other.
Justification comes through faith in Christ alone but faith that is alive will show itself in good works—by bearing good fruit. One banana in the basket—so to speak, is a bridled tongue evidenced by “good behavior in the gentleness of wisdom” (James 3:13).
Truly, as a believer who by the grace of God, longs to be a fountain of fresh water sowing righteousness in peace—habitually repenting and frightfully aware of shortcomings too numerous to name yet rejoicing in the all-sufficiency of Christ, my religion (and yours too) isn’t worthless but infinitely valuable!
"Lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily entangles and run with endurance the race set before you. "