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James 3:1-4:10, Part 1 (of 2 Parts)

by Karl Kemp  
5/19/2012 / Bible Studies

These two articles were taken from my paper titled "1 Corinthians Chapters 10-14; Philippians Chapter 3; and James 3:1-4:10" that is on my internet site (Google to Karl Kemp Teaching). The original paper was published in March, 2000. I was able to use bold, italics, underlining, and footnote in the original paper and in the version on my internet site. I always use the New American Standard Bible, 1995 edition, unless otherwise noted. Sometimes I will use double brackets [[ ]] or quotation marks (( )) to make them more obvious.

This entire passage is important, but the main reason I wanted to discuss these verses is that James 3:2 is frequently cited as a verse that supposedly proves that all Christians will necessarily continue to sin. If we limit ourselves to the first words of James 3:2 ("For we all stumble in many ways"), James seems to be saying that all Christians will necessarily continue to sin. However, when we consider what James went on to say in the rest of this verse and some of the things he said in other parts of this epistle, and when we consider the writing style of James, I don't believe he meant to say that all Christians will necessarily continue to sin.

If James was saying that all Christians will necessarily continue to sin, he was making a statement out of sync with the rest of the New Testament. Also, even if James actually meant to say that all Christians will necessarily continue to sin, his words ("For we all stumble in many ways") would not have the power to modify to any appreciable extent what the New Testament so clearly teaches in so many places about Christians being called, and enabled, to walk in the righteousness and holiness of God, with the victory over all sin.

Admittedly, many Christians think that there are quite a few other verses in the New Testament, besides James 3:2, that prove that Christians are not able to stop sinning in this life. As I have discussed in my previous writings, I don't believe that any of these verses actually teach that Christians cannot live above sin. ((I had a footnote here in the original article: For a start see the section titled "A Discussion of the Three Most Important Passages Often Used to Try to Prove that Christians Cannot Walk in Victory Over Sin During this Present Age," which starts on page 194 of my book, "Holiness and Victory Over Sin." The three passages are Rom. 7:14-25; 1 John 1:8; and Gal. 5:17. Also see the section titled "What is Sin?" starting on page 214 of my book. There I discussed 1 Tim. 1:15 (with 1:12-16), which is another verse frequently used (see page 219). I also discussed Rom. 14:23 there (page 215). (For a verse-by-verse discussion of Rom. 14:1-23 see pages 91-95 of my "A Paper on Faith" on my internet site.) Philippians 3:12, which is another verse frequently used to try to prove that we cannot stop sinning during this age, is discussed in an article on Philippians chapter 3 that is available on this Christian article site.)) From my point of view, these verses are being misinterpreted. Although I don't believe that James meant to say that all Christians will necessarily continue to sin in 3:2a, I acknowledge that it is not totally impossible that he meant to say that. Even if James did mean to say that (and, again, I don't believe he did), the other things that he said in this epistle would greatly qualify how far he would go with that idea.

The most common view is that this epistle was written by the apostle James (cf. Mark 6:3; Acts 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18; 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19; and 2:9, 12), not one of the twelve apostles, a (half) brother of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that it was probably written in the mid 40s (though it could have been written as late as AD 60, or so).

"Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment." [[Ultimately it is up to God who should become teachers (and in what capacity they should be teaching) in the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 14:12, 28; Eph. 4:11). If God is calling a person to become a teacher, they must answer the call, but James' warning here is appropriate. James undoubtedly knew that some were becoming "teachers" who had not been called by God to teach. It is hazardous to call ourselves into the ministry. If God has not called and equipped us, we are going to be ministering in the flesh, and we are certain to mess things up to one degree or another. (Things like a high IQ or a good education are not sufficient to qualify a person to become a teacher in the body of Christ.) We are all going to have to answer to God.

The more authority we have in the body of Christ in areas like teaching, the more potential we have to harm (or to bless) God's people. With authority comes responsibility! This is serious business! And we certainly must refrain from teaching in the body of Christ from any motive of self-glory (which we must all carefully guard against since it is relatively easy for Christians to walk after the flesh instead of the Spirit).]] (2) For we all stumble in many ways. [[(This double bracket continues for more than two pages.) These words deserve our careful attention. Stumbling need not involve sin (there can, for example, be innocent mistakes), but when James says here that "we all stumble in many ways" right after the words "we will incur a stricter judgment," he is speaking, at least for the most part, of sin. This point is also confirmed by the use of the verb stumble in James 2:10.

Did James really mean to say that all Christians (including the twelve apostles, Paul, James himself, and all those in leadership in the church) will necessarily continue to sin in many ways? I don't believe he did. I'll list several factors that lead me to the viewpoint that James did not intend to communicate the idea that all Christians will continue to sin in many ways:

1. James says a lot in this epistle about the need for Christians to walk in faith and live in righteousness, including the need to persevere in righteousness during difficult times, and he says these things in very strong ways - he takes a very strong stand against Christians having any sin - the epistle is literally packed with such teaching and exhortation (see James 1:2-8, 12-27; 2:1-26; 3:9-18; 4:1-17; 5:7-12, 16, 19, 20). ((I had a footnote: James 1:2-8 are discussed on pages 56-68 of my "A Paper on Faith." James 1:12-15, 21, 22; and 5:19, 20 are discussed on pages 8, 9 of "Once Saved, Always Saved?" James 2:14-26 are discussed on pages 58, 59 of "A Paper on Faith." James 1:18-2:13 are discussed on pages 17-19 of "The Christian, the Law, and Legalism," and James 4:11, 12 are discussed on pages 19, 20 of that paper. All of these papers are available on my internet site. James 3:9-4:10 are discussed later in this present paper.)) Many of these verses are quite powerful regarding the need for Christians to live in the center of God's will with total devotion and total loyalty to Him. Such teaching/exhortation by James is very relevant to the question as to whether he meant to communicate the idea (in the first words of 3:2) that all Christians will necessarily continue to sin in many ways.

2. It is very significant that James goes on with his very next words (in James 3:2) to speak of those who do not stumble in what they say. (Compare Matt. 12:33-37.) It seems that James intended these following words to greatly qualify what he had just written. He says that such Christians are (relatively) perfect, able to control the whole body (in other words, they are able to always live in righteousness, in the will of God) in that they are able to control the tongue, which, according to James, is the hardest to control. ((I had a footnote: In 1:4 James speaks of Christians becoming "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." On being relatively perfect, see under Phil. 3:12, 15 in my paper on Philippians chapter 3 on this site. The word "perfect" in James 1:4 and 3:2 (as in quite a few other verses of the New Testament [see under Phil. 3:12, 15 in my paper on Philippians chapter 3]), includes walking in righteousness and holiness (by the grace/Spirit of God) with the victory over sin.)) It is very significant that the statement "If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is able to bridle the whole body as well" is a class-1 condition in the Greek. That is, the if clause ("If anyone does not stumble in what he says") is assumed to be true by James. (See, for example, A. T. Robertson, "Word Pictures in the New Testament," Vol. 6 [Broadman, 1933], page 39.) But how could James seriously say here in 3:2 that Christians can refrain from stumbling (in any sinful ways) in what they say? In James 3:8, for example, he says that no one is able to tame the tongue. The all-important answer, the new-covenant answer, is that what man in the flesh cannot do, he can do by the "greater grace" (spoken of in James 4:6) which God makes available to His born-again children. It is very significant that James has already informed us in 1:26 that Christians are able to control/bridle their tongues: "If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle [control] his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless." On bridle/control, see below, still under James 3:2. In 1:19 James said "But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger."

3. It fits a pattern found elsewhere in the New Testament for a writer to make a sweeping generalization (like "we all stumble in many ways"), then to follow with a statement that greatly qualifies what he just said (like "if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well"). Let's consider John 1:11, 12a: "He [the Word/Logos, the Son of God, by and through whom all things (including all persons/beings) had been created (cf. John 1:1-4)] came to His own [He came to His own when He came to the earth (cf. John 1:9, 14) through the virgin birth.], and those who were His own did not receive Him. [[The Son of God came to His own (mankind), which was part of that which had been created by and through Him; they owed Him everything; nevertheless, they rejected Him. The Greek rather strongly supports the idea that the Son of God came to those who had been created by and through Him, in that the Greek words translated "His own" are neuter plural, viewing mankind as part of that which had been created by and through Him. Some think "His own" refers to the Jews. Even if "His own" did refer to the Jews, John 1:11, 12a would still serve well as an example of making a sweeping statement and then greatly qualifying it, but John 1:11 says so much more, and fits the overall context of John 1:1-18 so much better, if we see mankind, not just the Jews, rejecting Christ. For one thing, there is widespread agreement that John wrote his Gospel especially for Gentile Christians.]] (12) But as many as received Him...." After just being told that His own/mankind did not receive Him, we now learn (thank God!) that some (even many) did receive Him. They submitted to Him in faith. They became born-again Christians (John 1:12, 13).

4. In this epistle James sometimes makes sweeping negative statements that at first seem to be spoken to (or apply to) all his readers but which clearly do not refer to all his readers (see James 4:1-10; 3:5-12; these verses will be discussed as we continue). Furthermore, James makes sweeping statements that lump together and condemn all the rich, which undoubtedly need substantial qualification (see James 1:10, 11; 2:6, 7; and 5:1-6).

5. Even if James intended to communicate the idea that all Christians will continue to stumble/sin in many ways with the first words of 3:2 (and I don't believe that he did), he made it very clear in the verses we are discussing (3:1-4:10), and in other verses of this epistle (see numbers 1, 2 above), that this ought not (must not) be. Especially relevant is what James said about God's "greater grace" in 4:6. Many commentators agree that James was speaking of the enabling grace of God that would meet the need to rise above the sinful state pictured in 4:1-5, and they agree that James was saying that God demands a whole-hearted, one-hundred percent, total allegiance from His people. I have included quite a few excerpts from commentators under James 4:4-6 in this paper to help demonstrate these points.

Based on what many commentators say under James 4:1-6 you wouldn't expect them to understand James 3:2 in a way that proves that Christians will continue to sin in many ways, but some of them do. I am sure that one of the main reasons they have no difficulty understanding James 3:2 that way is that they believe that other verses (especially 1 John 1:8 and Rom. 7:14-25) have already proved once for all that all Christians will necessarily continue to sin as long as they live in this world. Many commentators mention 1 John 1:8 when they discuss the words "for we all stumble in many ways" of James 3:2. On 1 John 1:8 see the footnote that I included in the fourth paragraph of this article.

I'll quote part of what Adam Clarke (AD1760-1832), an associate of John Wesley, said under James 3:2 ("Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible," abridged by Ralph Earle [Baker, 1967], page 1293): "In many things we offend all [KJV]. 'We all stumble or trip.' Some have produced these words as a proof that 'no man can live without sinning against God; for James himself, a holy apostle, speaking of himself, all the apostles, and the whole Church of Christ, says, In many things we offend all [we all stumble in many ways].' This is a very bad and dangerous doctrine; and pushed to its consequences, would greatly affect the credibility of the whole gospel system." Clarke (in agreement with the early Methodists and many others) believed that Christians can and should live above sin by the grace of God in Christ. (We continue now with James 3:2b.)]] If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. [The meaning of these important words is discussed above (under number 2). The Greek behind "to bridle" is an infinitive of the verb chalinagogeo. This infinitive could also be translated "to control," or "to keep in check." A participle of this same Greek verb was used in James 1:26, which is an important cross-reference that is quoted above (under number 2). The reader should also know that this Greek verb was derived from the Greek noun chalinos, which is the noun translated "bits" in James 3:3. (A plural form of the noun is used in James 3:3.) This noun can also be translated bridle.] (3) Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. [Compare Psalm 32:9. In the Greek this is another class-1 condition (the if clause in assumed to be true). By this illustration, James backs up the point that if we can control the tongue (control what we say) - which we can by the grace/Spirit of God in Christ - we can control our entire being.] (4) Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. (5) So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. [James compares the tongue with the rudder on a ship. Even though the tongue is small compared with the body, as the rudder is small compared with the ship, the tongue has great power to work for evil (or for good), even as the rudder has power to control the direction of the ship.] See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! (6) And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. [Compare Prov. 16:27; Matt. 15:18-20. Even as a very small flame can set the entire forest on fire, so too the tongue, though it is quite small, can set the course of our life on fire (and the fire typically spreads to damage other lives, sometimes many other lives). This evil fire certainly does not originate with God; it is inspired by hell (that is, it comes from Satan and his kingdom [cf. James 3:15, 16]).] (7) For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. (8) But no one can tame the tongue [Fallen man (man in spiritual death and in bondage to sin), cannot tame the tongue. That is why all men need the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. I'll quote from Walter W. Wessel ("Wycliffe Bible Commentary" [Moody Press, 1962], page 1436): "But certainly God can tame it! ...the Lord has controlled it in the lives of many to bring great blessing to mankind."]; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison [cf. Psalm 140:3; Rom. 3:13]. (9) With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God [cf. Gen. 1:26; 9:6]; (10) from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. [[James doesn't mean to say, I don't believe, that all Christians "curse men" (or continue in other sinful behavior). "These things ought not to be [they must not be] this way," and they will not be this way for those who have been given birth/been born again ((James 1:18 [I had a footnote: The NASB has, "In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures." The Greek verb translated "He brought [us] forth" in James 1:18 could just as well be translated "to give [us] birth" with the NIV.])) and who walk in the wisdom of God (James 3:13-18), fully appropriating the "greater grace" that God gives to the humble (James 4:6). (I had a footnote: It isn't enough to be born of the Spirit, we must walk in/by/after the Spirit by faith - which we can do [cf., e.g., Gal. 5:16-25; Rom. 8:12-14]. These passages are discussed in my book, "Holiness and Victory Over Sin.") They bridle their tongues (James 1:26), and "PURE AND UNDEFILED RELIGION IN THE SIGHT OF OUR GOD AND FATHER IS THIS: TO VISIT ORPHANS AND WIDOWS IN THEIR DISTRESS, and TO KEEP ONESELF UNSTAINED BY [the sin of] THE WORLD" (James 1:27).

The problem of Christians having a double tongue (speaking both good and bad) relates directly to the problem mentioned in James 1:8 and 4:8, the problem of being "double-minded." The Greek adjective ("dipsuchos") translated "double-minded" was formed from a word meaning twice/double and the word for soul. The double-minded man is divided in his heart/soul/spirit/mind/inner man instead of having the heart fixed on God. Christ came to renew the hearts/souls/spirits/minds/inner man of men, and when Christians walk after the Spirit through faith, a faith that is based on what the Word of God actually says (which is far from automatic), their hearts will be right, and their speech will be right (Matt. 12:33-37).]] (11) Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? (12) Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. [[These two verses expand on the fact that blessing and cursing (sin and righteousness) ought not (and in some ways and to some extent must not and cannot) come from the same person/heart (cf., e.g., Matt. 7:15-20; 12:33-37).

I'll quote part of what John MacArthur said under James 3:2-12 ("James" [Moody Press, 1998]). First I'll quote part of what he said under James 3:2b-5a. This first excerpt deals with the very important words of James 3:2b ("If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well"). "But the term [perfect] can also mean complete, or mature [we could say relatively perfect]. If that is the sense intended here, the idea is that a person who does not stumble in what he says gives evidence of a purified and mature heart, which is the source of his righteous speech. ... We could never be perfect in the sense that Jesus is perfect, in speech or in any other way, but we can, in the Holy Spirit's power, have a spiritually mature and sanctified heart that is expressed through mature, sanctified, God-honoring speaking and teaching. ...

James then makes a remarkable claim, declaring that a Christian who can bridle his tongue is able to bridle the whole body as well. In this context, body seems to refer to the person in general, to his whole being. In other words, if we can control our tongues - which respond so readily and limitlessly to sin - then controlling everything else will follow. If the Holy Spirit has control of this most volatile and intractable part of our being, how much more susceptible to His control will the rest of our lives be" (pages 151, 152).

I'll also quote part of what MacArthur said under James 3:10, "... The idea is that there should be no place in a Christian's life for duplicitous speech. It is an unacceptable and intolerable compromise of righteous, holy living. When God transformed us, He gave us the capacity for new, redeemed, holy speech, and He expects us, as His children, to speak only that which is holy and right. ...." (page 161).

I appreciate what MacArthur said in these excerpts, but it would not be fair to him or accurately reflect what he believes if I did not discuss further what he said under these verses. On page 151, when discussing the meaning of James' words "we all stumble in many ways," MacArthur mentioned several verses (Prov. 20:9; 2 Chron. 6:36; Rom. 3:23; and 1 John 1:8; cf. 1 John 1:10) to back up the idea that all Christians will necessarily continue to sin in many ways. On page 158 he added Rom. 7:18 and Gal. 5:17 to the list. The first two verses are not very relevant regarding whether new-covenant believers can walk in victory over sin in that they come from the Old Testament, from the days before the sin problem was solved through the atoning death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The next verse listed by MacArthur, Rom. 3:23, doesn't say that Christians will continue to sin; it only says that all have sinned and need salvation in Christ Jesus. Regarding 1 John 1:8; Rom. 7:18; and Gal. 5:17, see the footnote that I included in the fourth paragraph of this article.]] (13) [[In 3:13-4:10 James goes on to speak of the need for Christians to live right, in agreement with the wisdom that comes from God and by the enablement of His "greater grace" (James 4:6). These verses are not totally disconnected from the verses we have been discussing that deal mostly with the need for Christians to control their tongues and always speak right, as Christians can and should and must do. Our speech is part of our behavior, and the victory over all sin comes from the same source - full salvation in Christ Jesus, by God's sufficient grace through faith. In James 3:13-18 there is a strong emphasis on the need for peace, gentleness, divine order, etc. These necessary things, James says, go with (are part of) the wisdom and truth (and salvation) of God.]] Who among you is wise [Greek "sophos"] and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds [works] in the gentleness of wisdom [that is, in the gentleness that comes with (is part of) the wisdom that comes from God; the NIV translates, "the humility that comes from wisdom"]. [[The Greek noun "sophia, which is translated "wisdom," was derived from the Greek adjective ("sophos"), which was used earlier in this verse. There is a strong emphasis on wisdom in James 3:13-18. For one thing, the word wisdom is used again in verses 15 and 17. The wisdom that comes from God (James 3:13, 17; cf. James 1:5) is contrasted with the worldly, demonic "wisdom" (which is not real wisdom) that is pictured in 3:14-16. ((I had a footnote: James 1:5 says, "But if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him." In this context (James 1:2-8), James was speaking (at least for the most part) of Christians asking God for wisdom that will facilitate their knowing and living in the center of His will by His grace.)) The wisdom that comes from God goes with "the truth [of God]" that is mentioned in 3:14. Ephesians 4:24 shows that righteousness and holiness go with (are part of) the truth of God. James 3:13-18 show that righteousness and holiness (including the "good behavior" and "gentleness" of James 3:13 and all the good things that are listed in 3:17, 18) go with (are part of) the wisdom that comes from God. It should be noted that all the good things that come with (are part of) the wisdom of God can be considered fruit that is produced by the Holy Spirit. (On the fruit of the Spirit, see Gal. 5:22, 23. Note "gentleness" and "gentle" in James 3:13, 17 and "gentleness" in Gal. 5:23; "peace" and "peaceable" in James 3:17, 18 and "peace" in Gal. 5:22. Many other good things, being "pure" (James 3:17), for example, could be considered fruit of the Spirit.) Also, the wisdom of God itself comes to us through the Holy Spirit (including the wisdom contained in the Holy Scriptures) as do the righteousness and holiness of God. These things are all part of the full salvation offered to mankind in and through Christ Jesus.

I'll quote part of what Douglas J. Moo ("James" [Inter-Varsity Press, 1985], page 132) said under this verse. "... [The way we think in our hearts determines the way we will live.] ...James is true to the Old Testament conception of wisdom as a way of life, the attitude and conduct typical of a godly person. ... In the meekness [or, humility] of wisdom is to be taken as qualifying the works; they are to be done 'in meekness' that characterizes, or springs from, 'wisdom'.... ... ...Jesus, who was himself 'meek' (Matt. 11:29), pronounced a blessing on those who were meek (Matt. 5:5). This Christian meekness involves a healthy understanding of our own unworthiness before God and a corresponding humility and lack of pride in our dealings with our fellow-men."]]

We will continue this study of James 3:1-4:10 in Part 2 with James 3:14.

Copyright by Karl Kemp Karl Kemp worked as an engineer in the space field throughout the 60s. He became a born-again Christian in 1964. He received an MA in Biblical Studies in 1972. He has been a Bible teacher for 45 years. See the website for more info on his books, papers, etc.

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