God’s Word for You
James 3:2 Keep a tight rein
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, July 31, 2020
2 Certainly, we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not keep stumbling in what he says, he is a fully mature man, able to keep a tight rein on his whole body as well.
What is James teaching us in this passage? Is our coach raising the bar to a point that we might possibly aspire to, if only we have enough Christian training, talent, practice, and endurance? Is a man or woman who no longer stumbles “a fully mature” Christian, having reached a level of holy perfection? The problem with this possibility is that Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins” (Matthew 6:12). What are these sins? They are the daily sins all Christians commit, the “stumbles” that James confesses.
The proof of this is so obvious that it hardly needs to be stated. “For who loves or fears God enough? Who endures patiently enough the afflictions that God sends? Who does not often wonder whether history is governed by God’s counsels or by chance? Who does not often doubt whether God hears him? Who does not often complain because the wicked have better luck than the devout, because the wicked persecute the devout? Who lives up to the requirements of his calling? Who loves his neighbor as himself? Who is not tempted by lust?” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession IV,167). Paul said, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). Sins that are slips of the tongue are especially common, and “we all stumble” in this way. “When words are many, sin is not absent” (Proverbs 10:19); “the mouth of the fool gushes folly” (Proverbs 15:2).
The Christian, no matter how mature, how well-grounded, still suffers from the One Great Sin. This is the bitter root of all our sins: original sin. This is the sin that does not just stick to us like a burr from a thistle, but it makes up a part of who we are. Theologian August Pieper wrote: “Sin as an entity is self-deification and unrestrained, immeasurable selfishness. As such, it draws every creature and every aspect of human life into its service.” And again, “Selfishness seeks and strives after satisfaction and seizes it where it finds it. And selfishness finds satisfaction mainly in the realm of the material—in the area of sensual delights. This corruption does not dwell only in the soul. Soul and body are in unity. Sin begins in the soul and also permeates every member of the body and holds every member captive. So one notices sin mostly as sensuality, as excessive, distorted amusement of the senses, a stimulation of the senses, which searches for its gratification in external works. For this reason, the most commonly used name for sin in Scripture is ‘flesh.’” (The One Great Sin).
Knowing just how thoroughly infected we are by this sin, and how unriddable it is (can a man exist apart from his flesh?), we see that James’ “fully mature” Christian is one who is still subject to sin, still stumbling at times, but not falling from faith. If we continue the language of a coach, James has not set the bar, but he has set a goal. Keep looking ahead at the path. Recognize the dangers as you run your race around this course. You can see the curves up ahead; be ready for them. You can see the stone in the way; beware of it. Christ has forgiven your stumbles in the past; don’t give up because of them!
With regard to the Christian life and the tongue, if you keep a tight rein on your tongue, you will keep a tight rein on your whole body, on your sinful flesh; on your whole life. But this isn’t possible apart from Christ. When the word of God, the intense noonday light of the law has exposed our sin for what it really is, rebellion against God, we despair of any claim on righteousness in our regret and shame. “But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” And then God sends his representative with outstretched hands who says, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die” (2 Samuel 12:13).
Coach James shouts to us from the sidelines: Get up! You’re still in the race! Jesus has rescued you and set you free! Now notice those obstacles up ahead, watch your mouth, and get going!
How can we help but be moved to action by our good coach? We’re still in the race, thanks to Jesus. Get running your race again! When you stumble, he forgives. And watch out: there will be another obstacle today, and tomorrow, and the day after that.
“Forgive our sins as we forgive,”
You taught us, Lord, to pray,
But you alone can grant us grace
To live the words we say.
How can your pardon reach and bless
The unforgiving heart
That broods on wrongs and will not let
Old bitterness depart?
In blazing light your cross reveals
The truth we dimly knew:
What trivial debts are owed to us;
How great our debt to you!
Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls
And bid resentment cease;
Then, bound to all in bonds of love
Our lives will spread your peace. (Christian Worship 493:1-4)
Pastor Timothy Smith