James 4:11-12 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
I don’t imagine I’ll ever forget hearing a voicemail left for a pastor friend of mine. It was from one of his elders who believed he’d witnessed my friend act wrongly toward another elder. The shocking thing for me wasn’t that he was accusing his pastor of wrongdoing, but the manner in which he was doing it. The voicemail was filled with what sounded to me like contemptuous rage. The elder hurled accusations, swear words, and threats. If anything could rightly be described as a brother speaking evil against another brother, this was it. In other words, if ever I’ve experienced a version of what James was forbidding in this passage, it was in that voicemail.
In simplest terms, in James 4:11-12, James commanded his readers to stop talking trash to one another. Unpacked a bit more, James did so in the form of a three-part argument. (1) He restated his larger charge to be doers of the Word of God, not merely hearers of it. (2) Under that banner, he gave the specific charge to be doers of the word by not speaking evil against one another. (3) He gave specific reasons why God forbids this kind of speech.
In this sermon I’ll restate each point of James’s argument and unpack them for you. My goal in doing so is to call us all away from speaking evil and toward speaking good. Let’s pray that God would be pleased to open our eyes to the truth of His Word and incline our hearts toward obedience to it.
BE DOERS OF THE WORD OF GOD, NOT HEARERS ONLY (11C)
At the very end of 4:11, James spoke of being a “doer of the law”. This is an extension of his earlier and primary charge in this letter. In 1:22, James commanded his readers, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” His main point, you may remember, was that Christians obey Jesus. If you claim to be a Christian, but are not characterized by growing obedience to Jesus, you are deceiving yourself. In other words, James wants his readers to understand in no uncertain terms that the claim to have faith in Jesus is always vindicated by obedience to Jesus.
Grace, and this is critical, it’s good to remind ourselves here of why James could say such a thing with such confidence. How could he say definitively that those who hear God’s word, but don’t do it, cannot be saved? The simplest form of the answer is that the grace of God that leads to the forgiveness of sins also, always, leads to repentance of sins. The grace that justifies also, necessarily, sanctifies.
Finally, most of James’s letter describes the kind of specific salvation-proving “doing” James has in mind. And the specific charge in v.11 is just one more description of the kind of grace-of-God-enabled works that must and will flow out of those who are genuinely trusting in Jesus.
In one sense, all of that is a review of things we’ve already seen in James. In another sense, all of it is also embedded in James’s “doer of the law” clause in v.11 in our passage.
With all of that in mind, then, let’s look more closely at the new command, which is the new expression of saving faith, which is the new charge that James’s readers are intended to hear and do.
DO THE GOOD WORK OF NOT SPEAKING EVIL (11A)
What, then, was the specific charge and what did it mean?
James’s Main Charge
Simply and clearly, James commanded, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.”
As has been the case in every previous example, James’s command at the beginning of v.11 wasn’t a theoretical charge. James wasn’t simply filling his readers minds with good things to do and bad things to avoid should the situations ever present themselves.
Rather, James’s commands were rooted in things his readers were actually dealing with. In this, therefore, James was ultimately drawing a line in the sand for his readers. As we just saw, in James’s understanding of the nature of salvation, either they would continue on in disobedience to the will of God and show themselves to be imposters of the faith, or they would repent and demonstrate the authenticity of their faith. Again, either way, this was not a hypothetical situation or a potential command.
What’s more, this command was also a more specific application of James’s charges for his readers to be slow to speak (1:19) and to bridle their tongues (1:26) and to guard their speech in general (chapter 3). This further command concerning the need to speak in godly ways was “do not speak evil against one another.” But what exactly did James mean by this?
The Meaning of James’s Charge
What does it mean to “not speak evil against one another”? Simply, it was a charge against slander. Slander carries the basic meaning of negative speech intended to do harm to someone. It usually involves lying and always involves malice. “It refers to mindless, thoughtless, careless, critical, derogatory, untrue speech directed at others” (MacArthur, James, 221).
Far from unique to James, the entire Bible prohibits and warns of the consequences of this kind of speech from the people of God. One pastor (MacArthur) notes that the God speaks against slander more than any other sin.
First and simplest, the Bible outright forbids slander (Leviticus 19:16). In addition, the kind of person who can be in God’s presence in described as one who does not slander (Psalm 15:1-3). The Bible promises divine destruction (similar to what we see in James) to the slanderer (Psalm 101:5). Those who slander are called fools (Proverbs 10:18). The Bible says that it is unwise to even associate with those who slander (Proverbs 20:19). Slander is the result of God’s judgment (Romans 1:29). Paul and Peter join James in repeatedly commanding Christians to repent of slander (Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8; 2 Peter 2:1). Slander is so serious that having a slanderous wife is a disqualification for leadership in the Church (1 Timothy 3:11).
I imagine that you get the idea. Slander is bad. It has always been bad. It will always be bad. It is not to be tolerated among the people of God.
And yet, to be clear, the command not to speak evil, was not a charge to refrain from calling out sin in each other; which is what James was doing in his charge and it what Jesus explicitly commanded in Matthew 18.
Matthew 18:15-17 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.
In grace and love (which we see in James’s return to addressing his readers as “brothers”), Christians must not speak evil against one another, even as we must speak against evil in one another. Christians must not speak about Christians in ways that are evil, but at the same time we must speak whenever we find evil within the Church.
Perhaps the easiest way to tell the difference between godly discernment and sinful condemnation in our own hearts is by examining our motives. Sinful condemnation is always horizontal first and most, while godly discernment is always first and most vertical. That is, sinful condemnation flows from concern over how someone else’s sins are negatively affecting our lives, while godly judgment flows from concern over how someone’s sin is falling short of the glory of God harming His people. We must use godly discernment, but we cannot sinfully condemn.
In short, then, the basic meaning of James’s command was to stop slandering one another.
THE REASONS BEHIND JAMES’S COMMAND (11B – 12)
Having clearly commanded his readers to stop slandering one another, James then gave a small handful of reasons for his command. As I’ve pointed out before, this was not necessary. The simple fact that God commands us to do something is all by itself an entirely sufficient reason for us to obey. God is not required to give us anything beyond that. It is like that which every parent of a three-year-old son has experienced countless times.
Son: Can I have a bag of Skittles and some dirt for dinner?
At this point, the parent has the God-given authority to say, “Because I said ‘no’.” The child does not deserve any answer beyond what the parent has given. At times, that is the answer good parents will give. (Sometimes, when I sense an especially foolish heart, I’ll say, “Because of pickles.”)
However, there are also times when a good parent will explain their reasoning. In a humble child, a parent might share their reasoning to help build wisdom in their child, establish trust, or even simply to try to keep them alive longer. Whenever a parent chooses to do so, it is not required, but an added measure of love and grace.
Again, the same thing is true here. James could have stopped after the command. Truly, the reason Christians ought not speak evil against other Christians is because God forbids it. For their good and ours, however, James went a few layers deeper still. In love (“brothers) and in a desire to make it easier to obey, James unnecessarily (that is, graciously) gave five reasons why slander must have no place in the Church..
1. Speaking Evil Against Another Is the Product of Sinful Condemnation
Subtly embedded in the first clause after the command is the first of James’s five reasons why his readers needed to stop slandering one another. James wrote, “The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother…” The type of judgment James was referring to in that clause was not discerning judgment, but (as I mentioned above) condemning judgment. The idea is that James’s readers felt they possessed the wisdom and authority to decide on a fellow Christian’s guilt and ultimately how they deserved to be treated in light of it.
Of course, as will become even clearer shortly, they did not have that wisdom or authority, and it was evil of them to think they did. James’s point, then, is that evil words are always preceded by evil thoughts. James, likely would have heard this directly from his brother, Jesus, who said, (in Matthew 15:19), “out of the heart come evil thoughts [and] … slander.”
In other words, “Stop slandering one another because slander is evil all by itself, but it is never all by itself. You slander is bad, but the wickedness in your hearts that precedes and produces it is worse still. Therefore, your actions are even worse and ungodly than they seem on the surface—and they seem bad enough on the surface.”
It is the same thing whenever someone apologizes to you for saying something mean like this, “I’m sorry I said that. I didn’t really mean it.” Almost 100% of the time that’s a lie. They might not have meant to say it out loud, but they did mean it. That kind of talk doesn’t spring from nowhere. Words always exist first in our hearts before they can ever come out of our mouths.
Given the fact that James’s readers struggled to see the seriousness of their slander (which they obviously did since they were still doing it), James’s wanted to help them see that such behavior stemmed from a deeper problem of the heart, in the hope that in recognizing the true nature of their sin, they’d be more inclined to turn from it and obey.
2. Evil Words and Sinful Condemnations Violate the Heart of the Law
The second and more serious reason James gave for his command to stop slandering was that it was a violation of the very heart of the law of God.
The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law …
How was that a violation of the heart of the law? Grace, as we just saw, the heart of slander is evil intentions toward another, but the heart of the law of God is love; love for God first and love for neighbor second. James already said this in 2:8, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.”
The law can never be fulfilled in anger or hate.
Slander isn’t merely an internal and external affront against other Christians, it is an internal and external affront against the very law of God, the law of love. Again, to increase his reader’s understanding of how serious of a matter this was, in order to increase their motivation to obey, James helped them to see their slander for what it was.
Grace, pray that the Holy Spirit of God would draw this to mind every time you are tempted to talk trash about someone else, and especially other children of God. Pray that you’d be able to see it as a serious indication of a heart issue in yourself, far more than the person you’re inclined to slander.
3. Persisting in Evil Words and Sinful Condemnations Is to Condemn the Law of God
It gets worse still. Not only did their slander come from their hearts and violate the most important part of the law of God, but it is an effective condemnation of the law of God.
The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.
James accused them of having the same condemning judgment toward the law as they had toward one another. Again, we must grasp this, Grace. James’s readers were slandering one another with their words because they harbored condemnation for one another in their hearts. Insodoing, they were breaking the law of God and therein revealing that they despised it as well.
That’s what we’re doing in effect every time we sin. We are taking what God has said and deciding we don’t like it as much as what we want. That is, when we sin, we are condemning the commands of God as less that than perfect, less than trustworthy, less than satisfying, less than essential, less than the words of the King, less than good, and less than even our petty desires.
When God commands His people to do anything, it is always His right as God, it always flows from love, it is always in line with our true nature and ordering, and it is always a description of one path to genuine satisfaction. To disobey, then, is to reject and condemn all of that.
That James’s readers (then and now) were willing to cast aside the word of God in order to follow the lusts of their flesh was not only to disobey the law of God, it was also to condemn it. By helping them (and us) to come to recognize this, the hope is that the splash of cold water to the face would sober them up that they might obey and find true life and joy.
4. Condemning the Law of God is to Place Yourself Above God
Worse yet, a slanderer, in violating and condemning the law of God, is attempting to place themselves above God; they are attempting to be God.
12 There is only one lawgiver and judge…But who are you to judge your neighbor?
It’s one kind of evil to disobey the law of God. It’s another kind to disobey it because we despise it. And it’s another kind of evil still to seek to replace it. There is only one lawgiver and judge, and it is not you. It is God Himself. Who are you to judge your neighbor against a new, self-made law? You are no one.
Setting themselves up as God, however, describes much of what James was trying to address with his readers and it describes so much of what we’re experiencing today. Not only do we sin, but we have stopped calling it sin. And not only have we stopped calling it sin, but we have created an entirely new self-made faux morality to replace it.
Abortion isn’t wrong, it’s a woman’s right to chose, and the sin is getting in her way of choosing to have one.
Sexual relations outside of a covenant union between a man and a woman isn’t sin, it’s celebrated in an ever-increasing number of forms, and sin is suggesting that there are limits to be placed on sexual appetites.
Worldliness isn’t wrong, it’s progress and liberation, and sin is making someone feel guilty for pursuing their desires.
All of these things are to place ourselves above God as the one who has the right to define and order and judge. Again, whether they recognized it or not, in their slander, this is what James’s readers were doing, even as it is what so many among us are doing.
By presenting it like this, James hoped the obvious folly of such a position would cause his readers to turn from it.
5. Placing Yourself Above God Leads to Destruction
Finally, and worst of all, to continue in unrepentant slander, which is to continue in unrepentant condemnation of a child of God as well as the law of God, which is to place ourselves above God, always leads to destruction.
12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy.
The consequences of their actions, should they continue in them, were not mere hostility toward one another or inconvenience or discomfort at church. The consequences were everlasting destruction. As we saw in the very first point of the sermon, this was not destruction that resulted from losing their faith, but from revealing the fakeness of the faith they claimed to have. Having heard the word of God concerning slander, but continually refusing to submit to it, refusing to be a doer of the royal law, showed that they were deceiving themselves about ever having been a child of God to begin with. And that meant they remained condemned in their sin and under God’s wrath.
Not to put too fine of a point on it, Grace, but by condemning each other and the law of God, then, they were actually testifying to their own condemnation. Unrepentant sin in general, and unrepentant slander specifically, always ends in destruction. Destruction of the soul of the unrepentant, and destruction of things touched by their sin; warmth in their homes, unity in their churches, encouragement in their friendships, integrity in their ministries, and on and on. We cannot continue in sin and walk in flourishing; it will always, eventually lead to destruction.
I want to conclude by calling you all to heed James’s command for James’s reasons. Stop slandering others because speaking evil against another is the product of sinful condemnation, because evil words and sinful condemnations violate the heart of the law, because persisting in evil words and sinful condemnations is to condemn the law of God, because condemning the law of God is to place yourself above God, and because all of these things lead to destruction.
More than that, however, I want to call you to not speak evil against, but good toward one another. It is true that the Bible is filled with all kinds of disincentives to slander, but it is also filled with incentives to speak words of encouragement and life.
Rather than by slander, let us be a church characterized by our words of encouragement. Let’s commit ourselves to identify evidences of grace in those we might otherwise be tempted to speak against and speak them instead. Let’s work to recognize the manifestations of the image and goodness of God in one another and talk continually about those things, rather than whatever lingering effects of the fall remain in us.
And let us do all of this ultimately because God sees us, not in our sin, but in Christ. Because of Jesus’ sacrificial death, victorious resurrection, and as Pastor Mike pointed out last week, glorious ascension, we have been united with Jesus in each of those when we place our faith in Him. Our identity is no longer in our sin, but in Christ’s righteousness. And if that’s what God sees when He looks at us, let it be what we see when we look at one another.