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Lesson Seven: The Acid Test of Spiritual Maturity

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If we were to ask you to tell me the number one mark of a spiritual man or woman, how would you respond? When I first considered this question, a number of things came to mind. Humility. Sacrifice. Prayer. Wisdom. Involvement in ministry. It was hard for me to narrow it down to one thing.

Spiritual men and women exhibit many qualities, but James draws our attention to one thing: their use of the tongue. He makes it the acid test of spiritual maturity. He writes, "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and also able to bridle the whole body." If a man is spiritually mature, he can control his tongue. If he cannot control his tongue, he is not spiritually mature. "Oh, but he prays such wonderful prayers." It doesn’t matter. "He’s a leader in the church." It doesn’t matter. "He’s a loving, generous person." It doesn’t matter. The real test of maturity is whether he can control his tongue.

Of course, James also writes, "The tongue can no man tame." That doesn’t mean that the tongue is untamable. It means it is untamable by man. Only the spirit of God can tame a man’s tongue. That is why James makes the control of the tongue the acid test of maturity. If the Spirit of God does not have control of a man’s tongue, He probably doesn’t have control of much else. J.N. Darby writes,

"… the tongue [is] the most ready index to the heart, the proof whether the new man is in action, whether nature and self-will are under restraint."

James wrote, In many things we offend all. Every Christian stumbles as he progresses towards maturity. We are being conformed to the image of Christ, but no believer is a finished product. However, the way we use our tongue is a good indicator of how far we have progressed on the path to maturity.

I. The Tongue Reveals Our Direction – Verses 1-4

A. Counsel to prospective teachers - Verse 1

  1. The word translated master was used primarily of religious teachers.
  2. Matthew 10:24 speaks of a master and his disciples (a teacher and his students).
  3. When the Jews called Jesus "Master," they were recognizing him as one who taught spiritual things. See Matthew 22:16, also John 3:2 (the same word is translated teacher)
  4. James cautions us not to rush into a teaching ministry.
  5. Teaching is vital to any church ministry. Sound doctrine must be taught. Titus 2:1
  6. James is not forbidding believers from becoming teachers, only from seeking to teach without considering that God will hold them accountable.
  • God holds teachers to a higher standard because they influence others with their lives and teaching.
  • Before you accept the responsibility of teaching, you had better understand that you will be subject to "greater condemnation,"- a stricter judgment.

B. Comparing the tongue to other small, but powerful instruments – Verses 2-4

  1. In the process of spiritual growth, everyone stumbles.
  2. James says we all offend, or stumble, in many things.
  3. Spiritual growth is a process of walking, stumbling, getting back up, and going on.
  4. A mature believer is one who no longer stumbles over his tongue.
  5. If he can bridle his tongue, he can control his whole body.
  6. Thus, the tongue indicates which direction your spiritual life is moving.
  • When a firm hand holds the reigns, a horse goes where it should.
  • When a steady hand holds the rudder, a ship goes where it should.
  • Unless the Spirit of God controls the tongue, your spiritual life will resemble a rudderless ship or an unbridled horse – moving without purpose or direction.

Of course, James is not talking about simply "Christianizing" our vocabulary. He is telling us to examine our speaking habits. Do our words hurt, or do they heal? Do they inspire, or do they injure? Do we seem harsh and unloving, or compassionate and caring? Does pressure make me unkind and irritable, or is the fruit of the spirit still evident in my life?

The Spirit of God does not change because of circumstances. No matter what is happening in our lives, He will always respond the same. Although people who irritate us or circumstances that pressure us may surround us, His control of our lives (or lack of it) will be evident in what we say. That is why James makes the use of the tongue the acid test of spiritual maturity.

II. The Tongue Reveals Our Desperation – Verses 5-8

A. The tongue is small, but it has the potential to cause great destruction – Verse 5

  1. James compares the destructive power of the tongue to that of a raging forest fire.
  2. Like fire, when the tongue is controlled, it is a useful, beneficial instrument.
  3. Out of control, it damages lives and leaves scars that often take years to heal.
  4. When James cites the ability of the tongue to boast great things, he is reminding us that careless words can create great conflicts and inflict terrible wounds.
  5. Proverbs 12:18 – There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise is health.
  6. Proverbs 15:1 – A soft answer turns away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.
  7. Proverbs 18:21 – Death and life are in the power of the tongue
  8. Proverbs 26:22 – The words of a talebearer [a gossip] are as wounds.

B. The tongue is small, but it reveals great defilement – Verse 6

  1. James calls the tongue a "world of iniquity," able to express every kind of evil.
  2. Hatred, envy, malice, lust, jealousy, resentment, bitterness, prejudice, violence, anger, greed, lies – all these sins, and more, find expression in the tongue.
  3. The words we speak can defile our whole body, making us feel dirty all over, and leading us into every kind of sin of the flesh.
  4. James declares that the tongue burns with the fires of hell – manifesting all the corruption that Satan has unleashed in the world.
  5. Of the two words for hell in the New Testament, James chose "Gehenna" – a reference to the dump outside Jerusalem where all the filth of that city continually burned.
  6. James compares the tongue to that burning garbage dump, constantly aflame with the stinking refuse of this world.

C. The tongue is small, but displays a great defiance – Verse 7-8

  1. James’ final remark is that although man has been able to domesticate all kinds of creatures – from small birds to giant whales – man cannot tame his tongue.
  2. This fact reminds us that when Adam sinned, mankind became enslaved to sin and lost the power to govern itself.

The Christian who has repeatedly gone down in defeat under the poisonous influence of the tongue realizes that there is a power within him that cannot be tamed by man. More dedication, resolve, or devotion cannot conquer it. In time, he must come to realize that the Holy Spirit alone is capable of dealing with the problem of indwelling sin. Only the Spirit can end sin’s control of a man’s life that is so apparent in an untamed tongue. Thus, the tongue reveals our desperate need to walk in the Spirit as our only hope to escape the lusts of the flesh. (Galatians 5:16)

III. The Tongue Reveals Our Dependency – Verses 9-12

A. An inconsistency – Verses 9-10

James has written to believers. He is reminding us that salvation does not automatically change the way we live. We may now employ our tongues in singing spiritual songs and praising our Heavenly Father, but that doesn’t mean that we have stopped cursing our neighbor. In the morning worship we may use our tongue to pray, then spend the afternoon using it to rip apart our family. Such inconsistency causes James to cry out, "My brethren, these things ought not to be so!" We may not be capable of taming the tongue, but it is not God’s will that the tongue remained untamed. Thus, James suggests that we can receive help from another source.

B. An illustration – Verses 11-12

  1. The illustration of the fountain - Verse 11
  2. A fountain (spring) cannot give good water one minute and bitter water the next because it only has one source of supply.
  3. Bad water comes from a bad source and good water comes from a good source.
  4. The illustration of the fruit – Verse 12
  5. The fig tree cannot bear olives because it is not in its nature. For the same reason, the olive tree cannot yield figs.
  6. Fruit is determined by the nature of tree on which it is found.

How is it that our tongues can be used to bless God one minute and curse our neighbor the next? Because the activities of the Believer can be controlled by one of two sources – indwelling sin or the Indwelling Holy Spirit. The tongue merely expresses the nature of the one that is in control.

The believer is by nature a new creature in Christ Jesus. He should be a fountain of life-giving water (John 8:38-39). He should be a fruitful vine (John 15:5, 8). That is his true nature. When a Christian walks in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, he will bear the fruit of the spirit. He will be true to his nature, demonstrating to others that he finds the source of his life in the Holy Spirit. But when he walks carnally, he will bear the fruits of sin. What comes out of his mouth will reveal that he has yielded to indwelling sin.

The believer who has this kind of on-again off-again Christian experience is not a mature Christian. His untamed tongue proves it. A carnal man can at times employ a spiritual vocabulary, but a spiritual man can never employ carnal speech.

Luke 6:45 states that a man speaks out of the abundance of his heart. Before the tongue can be tamed, the inner man must be under control. When the Spirit reigns in the heart, the fountain of a man’s mouth will be sweet and the fruit of his lips will be edifying.


Once again, James makes us face a tough issue. He doesn’t want to know how active we are in the church. He doesn’t want to know how firm we are in our beliefs. He doesn’t ask how much time we spend in prayer. He doesn’t question our attitudes, motives, or convictions. These things are important, but they can easily become substitutes we cling to in place of real maturity. The real question is "How’s your tongue?" It’s the acid test of spiritual maturity.

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