First Test of True Religion

An unbridled tongue

The verse preceding this one is a strong plea to live in obedience to the Word of God. James has said that a man who not only hears the Word, but who also performs what he has heard, will enjoy divine blessing. Now he goes on to give three tests of whether the Word is truly a man’s rule of life. The first test, found in verse 26, is negative, for it identifies a common sin that he will cast aside. The last two, which will be the subject of the next lessons, are positive, for they identify two key virtues that he will cultivate.

The sin that will be missing in a godly life is the loose speech of an unbridled tongue. James says, "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue," he "deceiveth his own heart." The underlying Greek for "seem" does not actually speak of a man who looks religious to others. Rather, it refers to how a man thinks about himself. The opening phrase could be translated, "If any man thinks he is religious." How could a man imagine himself religious if he is not? Because he might be satisfied with practicing only the external side of religion, including all pious observances that are on public display. What James is saying, therefore, is that a man with a loose tongue is deceiving himself if he thinks that going through the motions of religion will make him right with God. Although he puts himself through all the trouble of going to church and posing as a good church member, he has not gained a clean heart. His heart is still black with sin. Why? Because his tongue is out of control.

Since speech can be as broad in content as thought itself, there are no limits on the sins the tongue might commit. To catalog them is impossible within a short space. Yet it will be profitable to consider some of the more common sins.

Using the tongue to manipulate

The chief method of manipulation is flattery, which the Bible roundly condemns (Ps. 12:1–4; Prov. 26:28). The purpose of flattery is to overcome opposition to some proposal advancing the flatterer’s selfish interests, as when a salesman flatters a customer to secure a sale, or a man flatters a woman to seduce her, or people praise you to keep you from noticing that they are stabbing you in the back. It is, of course, never wrong to pay compliments to people if your motive is to encourage them or build them up. Whether your nice words are right depends solely on your motive. As an expression of love, you may even tell people that they look good when they do not, according to general opinion. If, for example, a little old man totters into church with his clothes rumpled and unwashed, his face poorly shaven, his skin mottled with age, and his hair unkempt, it is an act of pure kindness to say, "Hi, Mr. Jones! Happy to see you! You’re looking good today!" Is that flattery? No. Is that a lie? No. It is looking at Mr. Jones from God’s perspective, not from a warped human perspective. Because the man has done his best to dress up and go to church, he looks good in God’s eyes.

Using the tongue to deceive

Lying is an abomination to God (Prov. 12:22; 6:16-19). The Lord commands that we as brothers and sisters in Christ should altogether renounce lying in our dealings with each other (Col. 3:9). One reason God hates lying is that it is the invention of His chief enemy, Satan (John 8:44). Lying is another instrument of selfishness, always employed in pursuit of some advantage over others. But as the saying goes, "the truth will out." In other words, the advantage gained by lying is never more than temporary. Sooner or later it will be exposed for what it is. But a liar is generally blind to the certain consequences of his lying. The ultimate consequence is, of course, damnation (Rev. 21:8, 27; 22:15). Lying comes natural to children, as they try out the many ways of getting their own way, and adults must take firm measures to teach them not to lie. A grown-up liar is someone who was deprived of good training when he was a child. He is mired in an especially juvenile form of sin.

Using the tongue to attack

In a previous lesson, to display the many sins proceeding from wrath, we examined Galatians 5:20-21. A large portion of the list, "variance" as well as "strife," "seditions," and "heresies," may be considered sins of the tongue. Wrathful speech is a terrible sin because it arises from hatred and, if unrestrained, leads finally to wrathful deeds, even murder. Jesus held hatred in any form to be a violation of the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" (Matt. 5:21-22). The weapon that wrath most often uses is the tongue. Although the tongue cannot tear flesh, it can shred another’s reputation, wound deeply his self-respect, brutalize discussion, and decimate bonds of love. There is never any excuse or extenuating circumstance or measurable benefit to justify hateful speech (Eph. 4:31-32).

Yet sometimes the motive for attack is not exactly hatred, but only a desire to look superior, a manifestation of pride. Then the tongue resorts to ridicule or sarcasm or put-downs of one kind or another. Much of this may masquerade as good fun, even though God sees it as unacceptable because it destroys the atmosphere of sweetness and love that He desires to fill the church (Eph. 5:4).

Using the tongue to gossip

Gossip has always been one of the most prevalent sins in churches. Yet God hates gossip (Prov. 11:13; 18:8; 26:20). A few of the many reasons that gossip is wrong are discussed in Appendix 2.

To relay the good news that someone is getting married or the bad news that someone has died is not gossip, because no one is unjustly hurt by it. Real gossip has two characteristics. It tells something the subject would not wish to be said, and it violates Jesus’ guidelines for handling any complaint against a brother (Matt. 18:15-17).

Jesus' guidelines

If you feel that a brother has transgressed against you, the right first step is to talk with him privately in an effort to resolve the issue. If you fail to make progress, then you can bring one or two more parties into the discussion. If the matter still cannot be settled, you can ask the church to get involved, presumably the leaders first, then the whole church if the leaders do not succeed in restoring harmony. Finally, if the offender will not listen to the church, he must be removed from fellowship.

What faults in a brother call for this procedure? Its scope is not limited to personal frictions and grievances. Even if you do not feel that your brother has wronged you personally, you have an obligation to confront him when you see a sin in his life that is hampering his spiritual walk or endangering the testimony of the church. Any sin a brother commits hurts the whole body and is therefore an offense against you. In such cases, Jesus' guidelines demand that you approach him and discuss your concerns face to face rather than make his sin a subject of gossip.

There are some exclusions from these guidelines.

  1. One is whenever you have truly good reason to believe that someone has committed a criminal offense. Such matters lie outside the jurisdiction of the church and fall within the jurisdiction of the state.
  2. Another exclusion is whenever the source of the complaint is a minor under parental authority. His parents have the right to stand in his place in any discussions seeking to resolve the matter.
  3. There is also a third important exclusion. If you have a complaint against Mr. Smith, you need not talk to him before you talk to your wife. Your one-flesh relationship with her supersedes any obligation you may have to Mr. Smith. Indeed, talking with her first is probably a good idea. She might tell you that Mr. Smith is right, and that you will make a fool of yourself if you confront him. Generally speaking, Jesus’ guidelines for resolving complaints within the church were not intended to restrict communication within families.

But there is no other exclusion from these guidelines. There is none, for example, based on rank or role in the church. The guidelines apply equally to pastors, deacons, and laymen, to men and women, and to children and adults. Even a pastor has no right either to hear or to spread a negative report about a member or former member of his congregation if he has never confronted the accused himself with the same complaint. It does not matter whether the pastor is talking to other pastors, or to leaders in his own church, or to others who also have complaints against the accused. He has no right to wag his tongue in disregard of Jesus’ guidelines. In general, no one—leader or layman—has a right to engage in any behind-the-scenes discussions or maneuvers that set these guidelines aside.

It should now be obvious that much of the talk that passes between people is really gossip, in violation of Matthew 18. Why do we all find it so hard to to handle complaints the proper way, according to Jesus’ guidelines? Because when we feel offended by someone, they require us to confront the offender. Yet confrontation is often unpleasant and often does not come to a satisfactory resolution of the problem. So we are afraid to embark on it. To put it bluntly, we do not have the courage to do right. But we dare not allow our cowardice to hinder the work of God. Let us be men of courage and women of courage.

Christian forbearance

I do not wish to leave the impression that we should always be confronting people. In Matthew 18, Jesus is merely giving us a procedure to follow if we wish to deal with another person’s sins. But if we are the sole victim and the sins are not of a grievous or criminal nature, we always have the option to overlook them and get on with life. Indeed, the course of wisdom is generally to overlook the minor faults of others, and also to accept their petty slights without resentment or comment. This is known as Christian forbearance (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13). Nevertheless, if you elect not to deal with a problem directly, through confrontation, make sure that you are truly forbearing. Do not dig at the offender behind his back. Do not give him the cold shoulder. Do not cast innuendos in his direction. Either confront him, or grin and bear it. If the matter is serious, however, the best strategy is generally to sit down with the offender and talk. If you choose to remain silent, the complaint will probably rankle in your heart and poison your relationship with him.

Proper confrontation

What is the right way to confront someone? Profitable confrontation, including all forms of Christian counseling, requires attention to six rules.

  1. As we have already said, you must engage the other person privately, one-on-one.
  2. You must approach the other person with a desire to be just. You must assume he is innocent until proven guilty, you must patiently hear his defense, and while hearing it you must do your best to factor personal bias and self-interest out of your judgment.
  3. Do not be a Pharisee. Do not feel proud of your own righteousness compared with his black deeds. What did Jesus say to the accusers of the woman taken in adultery? "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her" (John 8:7). View your conversation as between two sinners saved by grace.
  4. If you are rebuking him for a sin that also troubles you, deal with your problem first before trying to help him (Matt. 7:1–5).
  5. Be careful that the sinner does not recruit you to his sin (Gal. 6:1). Do not accept any of his excuses, lest they lead you astray.
  6. Be nice. The Bible commands gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24–25; Titus 3:2).


The questions we must ask follow directly from our discussion.

1. Do I use my tongue to manipulate?

Do you use flattery to get ahead in your job or to boost your success in selling a product or service? Do you use it to gain the attention of important people? Do you use it to escape the consequences when you have done wrong? For example, if your boss sees you coming in late, it is tempting to shower him with compliments to avoid his wrath. But again, it is never wrong to say nice things if they are motivated by a desire to be a blessing, as when you praise someone on the margins of the church, or if they are sincere, as when a husband tells his wife how wonderful she is.

2. Do I use my tongue to deceive?

The temptation to lie is always greatest when you are caught in a sin. Scripture furnishes us the example of Saul. The Lord through Samuel had instructed Saul that when he defeated the Amalekites, he should destroy their flocks and herds. Perhaps the Lord knew that they carried diseases He did not wish to be introduced to the livestock of Israel, but Saul paid no heed. Upon his return, to hide his decision to spare the beasts of Amalek, he lied to Samuel, saying he had fully obeyed the Lord's commands (1 Sam. 15:12-14). Since Samuel was God's spokesman, Saul was in essence lying to God. Also, whenever you refuse to repent of sin, you are lying to God. But it is folly to compound sin with cover-up. Then, sin lodges more firmly in your heart and exerts greater control over your desires and decisions. It drives you away from God and makes the punishment much worse when He finally deals with you.

3. Do I use my tongue to attack?

Every ounce of negativism in your speech is, when stripped clean of all pious pretexts, a form of attack. It may be aimed at something impersonal like a policy or duty, but the true target is the person who made the policy or prescribed the duty. It may be aimed at a simple circumstance of life like the weather, but the true target is God, who made the weather. Complaining is so common because it quickly becomes a habit. It even becomes a frame of mind that we continually express first to our family, then to our friends, then to others around us. How much of your speech is complaining? How much negativism is there in what you say? You may use your tongue for accomplishing worthwhile tasks, dealing with problems, expressing inner virtues (Gal. 5:22-23), edifying others (Eph. 4:29), and praising God (Eph. 5:19). But any use that strays into sour criticism is wrong and comes under the heading of attack.

4. Do I use my tongue to gossip?

You know perfectly well whether you gossip. Just reexamine your recent conversations with other people. Did you ever place an absent person in an unfavorable light? Did you pass on juicy tidbits that you had no right to share? Did you consciously seek to run somebody down to advance your own prospects or interests?

5. Have the social media, such as Facebook, drawn me into improper speech?

All four kinds—flattery, lying, complaining, gossip—are rife in today’s digital world.

Study Questions

  1. If a man is a doer of the Word, what common sin will he put out of his life?
  2. What manipulative speech does Scripture especially condemn?
  3. What misuse of the tongue is an abomination because it derives from God’s enemy?
  4. What form of speech violates the commandment against murder?
  5. How may gossip be defined?
  6. How did Jesus direct us to handle complaints?
  7. What are the three exclusions from His guidelines?
  8. What often keeps us from following His guidelines?
  9. What is sometimes a legitimate alternative to confrontation?
  10. What six rules govern confrontation?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.