What Saith the Scripture?
Governing the Tongue
by Charles Grandison Finney
President of Oberlin College
Oberlin Evangelist" Publication of Oberlin College
January 29, 1845
Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart
"If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue,
but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain."
In remarking upon these words, I will notice:
I. The rule by which the tongue is to be governed.
II. The conditions upon which it is to be governed.
III. Show that where the tongue is not governed, there is and can be no true religion.
I. The rule by which the tongue is to be governed.
- 1. The rule is that of perfect, disinterested, and universal benevolence or love.
This is the unalterable law of right. Whatever responsible act of a moral agent is
not conformed to this, is wrong; whatever is conformed to this, is right. Love, or
benevolence is the fulfilling of the law. This is the one and only rule to which
all responsible actions of all moral beings are always and universally to be conformed.
This is the rule by which the tongue is to be governed. The tongue is directly and
by a law of necessity governed by the heart or will. It cannot move unless moved
by the will. It cannot be either good or bad without the will's consent and impulse.
No other power can govern it, nor can any other power prevent its being used in conformity
with the action of the will.
- 2. The same rule stated in other language is, that of entire consecration to
God and the good of being. This is only good willing or benevolence expressed in
other language. Entire consecration to God and to the good of being, is an act or
state of the will. It is the will in the attitude of devoting, consecrating, offering
up the whole being to the promotion of universal good. Entire consecration is the
rule by which the tongue is to be governed. It should be consecrated by the heart
to the glory of God and the good of being, and used for no other purpose whatever.
- 3. The Scriptures recognize this truth. "But I say unto you, that every
idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment."
Idle words in the sense of this text are useless words, words not spoken to edification,
nor with a design to glorify God and benefit man. Some commentators over-looking
the rule by which the tongue is to be governed, have supposed by idle words in this
passage, are meant slanderous, or false, or censorious, or bitter words. But the
language is plain, and should be understood in its plain natural sense; for then
and only then does it come up to the manifest rule by which the tongue is to be governed.
That the tongue is to be governed by the rule of universal love, or entire consecration
to God, none can rationally doubt. All words then spoken for any other end than to
promote the good of being are idle words, and are sin against God. To bridle the
tongue then is to so check and rein it in, and control it, as that its use shall
be wholly conformed to the law of God.
II. The conditions upon which it may be governed.
- 1. The first condition indispensable to the government of the tongue in accordance
with the rule as above stated, is perfect love in the heart, or in other words, that
the will should be in a benevolent attitude--that the glory of God and the good of
being should be its supreme aim, design, or choice. I have said that the tongue is
governed by the will, by a law of necessity. The will is free, but the tongue is
not free. It is connected by a physical or necessary law, with the action of the
will. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth not only does but must speak,
if it speaks at all. All our physical powers so far as they are directly under our
control at all, are connected with the action of the will, by a law of necessity.
At the bidding of the will they move, or cease to move. Now where there is perfect
benevolence of heart, no power that is under the control of the will can be used
in any other than a benevolent manner. When the heart is in the attitude of supreme,
disinterested benevolence, the tongue is used and cannot but be used for the glory
of God and the good of being. But if this be not the state of the heart, the tongue
cannot be used benevolently. All use of the tongue is idle and sinful when the heart
is not in a benevolent state. No matter how much the tongue might edify men or glorify
God, its use is an idle use so far as the speaker is concerned, if his aim be not
benevolent. A man might teach mathematics, philosophy, or theology with a selfish
heart, in which case the use of his tongue is sin, because his intention is sin.
It is not conformed to the law of love, but is under the influence of selfishness.
If God overrules this selfish use of the tongue to promote His won glory, no thanks
to him who thus uses his tongue, for he means no such thing. His object is to glorify
himself, to get a good name or a piece of bread. It should always be understood that
any use of the tongue is sinful when the heart is not in a perfectly benevolent state.
- 2. The spirit of entire consecration is an indispensable condition to the government
of the tongue. As I have already said, this is only another way of stating the same
rule, and this condition is only another form of stating the spirit of the same condition.
If the heart be entirely consecrated to God, the tongue will be, and must be, and
cannot but be consecrated also; but when ever the heart is not entirely consecrated,
the tongue if used at all, is used idly, with selfish intentions and not for the
glory of God.
- 3. It is an important and often indispensable condition of governing the tongue
that we abstain from very strong excitement. If the feelings become very strongly
excited, they are very apt to control the will. At this point all virtue ceases of
course. The will acts virtuously, only when it obeys the law of the intelligence,
or in other words, the commandments of God as they are revealed in the intelligence.
When the feelings instead of God through the intelligence give law to the will, there
is no virtue. People are very apt to imagine that they are virtuous in proportion
as they are governed by strong feelings; whereas exactly the reverse of this is true.
I have said that when feeling becomes very strong, it is very apt to control the
will. The will then acts purely in obedience to the impulses of feeling, under no
other law than that of obeying the most strongly excited emotions. Now if the will
in obedience to feeling governs the tongue, it is not governed by the law of love
or benevolence. Be sure there is always feeling and sometimes strong feeling when
there is true benevolence, and as the result of true benevolence. But the law of
benevolence and not of feeling, should control the will and consequently the tongue.
Farther, when the mind is strongly excited we are apt to speak extravagantly and
often falsely in fact, without ourselves at the time realizing it. We behold things
through a medium which magnifies greatly. We almost of course represent them as they
appear to us, which is usually a misrepresentation. For my own part, I can say that
I seldom get strongly excited on any subject without having occasion afterward to
repent of something that I said during my excitement.
- 4. A deeply considerate or reflective state of mind is indispensable to the proper
government of the tongue. The man who speaks without consideration and without thinking,
speaks idly and at random. Surely if he would speak for the edification of men and
the glory of God, he needs to have his thoughts about him and to think well before
- 5. Another condition is a sense of the divine presence. Let a man set God always
before him, and realize that he is speaking in the presence of God, and he will bridle
his tongue. His words will be few and well chosen. He cannot trifle, realizing that
he is in the presence of the great, heart-searching God, nor will he speak falsely,
censoriously, bitterly, or unnecessarily. Only let his heart be full of love, and
let him have a conscious realization of the divine presence, and the law of love
shall ever dwell upon his tongue.
- 6. Another condition of governing the tongue is the appropriate grace and strength
of Christ. Indeed Christ must be in him, working in him to will, to say, and to do,
or he will never govern his tongue. He must put off the old man which is corrupt
according to the deceitful lusts, and put on the new man. He must abide in Christ
and Christ must abide in him. He must live a life of faith in Christ Jesus. He must
walk in the Spirit and entirely mortify the deeds of the flesh. He must know what
it is to yield up his whole body, "a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to
- 7. He must have faith to lay hold of and appropriate the grace, strength, and
promises of Christ for the complete subjugation of his tongue to the law of love.
He must believe in Christ and receive Christ as the keeper of his tongue as well
as of all his other powers. He will never govern his own tongue: he will never in
this respect keep himself. He must have faith to lay hold of that class of promises
which pledge sufficient grace to secure the entire consecration of all his powers
- 8. He must have moral courage to dare to keep silence when he ought to keep silence.
It is generally considered very odd and uncouth, unsociable and hateful for a man
to keep silence when he has nothing important to say. The state of society seems
to demand that to be good company, he must discharge from his tongue a perpetual
stream of words. Volley after volley of sense or nonsense must be poured forth, or
people will inquire, What ails you? You seem to be very silent, very unsociable;
you seem to be brooding over some distressing subject; you need cheerful society
and recreation, amusement or light-reading--something to give your tongue an impulse.
Now in these days of incessant babble when the world is full of talk about beaux
and belles, and novels and politics and every thing else, who does not know that
it requires a good deal of moral courage to be silent when not called to speak for
the glory of God and the good of man?
- (a.) You must have moral courage to dare to speak when you ought, and what you
ought. Men are often placed in circumstances where it is no small trial for them
to speak what the circumstances demand--to reprove sin and hold up the truth in love.
Now the proper government of the tongue, demands not only that we should abstain
from speaking what we ought not, but that we should always speak when and what we
ought. But to dare to do this, often requires no small amount of courage.
- (b.) Again, you need moral courage to be as singular in all places, and at all
times, as conformity to the law of love would make you. How eccentric a man would
be called in these days, who should use his tongue neither more nor less nor for
any other purpose than the glory of God and the good of man demand.
III. Where the tongue is not governed, there is and can be no true religion.
- 1. In proof of this position I cite the text. "If any man among you seem
to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's
religion is vain."
- 2. It is not intended that an occasional fall in the use of the tongue, proves
that one has never been converted and is at no time truly religious; but that when
he does not govern his tongue, he has at that time no true conformity to the law
of God, and consequently no true religion. His heart is not then in the attitude
of benevolence. It if were he could not misuse his tongue. But if he be not benevolent,
he is not at the time truly religious. Again,
- 3. When the tongue is not habitually governed in accordance with this rule, there
is no habitual benevolence--consequently no habitual true religion, which if the
Bible is true, is the same thing as to say, there is no true religion at all. For
the least that can be said of a true Christian, is that he does not habitually sin;
that holiness is the rule and sin only the exception. "And every man that hath
this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure. Whosoever committeth sin
transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. And ye know
that He was manifested to take away our sins; and in Him is no sin. Whosoever abideth
in Him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known Him. Little
children let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as
He is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from
the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy
the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for His seed
remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. In this the children
of God are manifest, and the children of the devil; whosoever doeth not righteousness
is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother."
- 4. I have already said that a benevolent heart will secure and by a law of necessity
must secure a benevolent use of the tongue; that is, in such a case the tongue will
be and must be used for the glory of God and the good of being. Where it is not so
used, it is a palpable matter of fact that the heart is not right with God. Nothing
can be more certain than that a spirit of idle talking is inconsistent with a benevolent
state of the heart.
1. The Bible represents the government of the tongue not only as indispensable to
true religion, but as its most difficult duty. Thus James, in chapter three, "If
any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole
body. Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn
about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and
are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever
the governor listeth. Even so, the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great
things. Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire,
a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole
body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For
every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea is
tamed and hath been tamed by mankind: but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly
evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith
curse we men which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth
blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be."
2. The Bible says much upon the necessity of bridling the tongue. I will only quote
two or three passages in addition to those already quoted. Eccl. 5:2-3; "Be
not rash with thy mouth, and let not they heart be hasty to utter any thing before
God; for God is in heaven and thou upon earth; therefore let thy words be few. For
a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool's voice is known by
the multitude of words." Prov. 10:19; "In the multitude of words there
wanteth not sin; but he that refraineth his lips is wise."
3. If every idle word is sin, what multitudes of professors are living in sin! Great
multitudes of professors give themselves up to unrestrained indulgence in talking,
as really and fully as the great mass of sinners who make no pretensions to religion.
Rely upon it, they will never go babbling on to heaven. Idle talkers and vain jesters
are not among the ransomed of the Lord.
4. What a world of evil would be put away if the tongue were governed by the law
of love. It is indeed "a world of iniquity; it often setteth on fire the course
of nature, and is set on fire of hell." The tongue is the great instrument of
excitement. We excite ourselves and we excite others by talking. All the busy play
of passion, and all its monstrous developments are aroused, and quickened, and thrown
into overwhelming commotion by the idle use of the tongue.
Let the tongue be governed by the law of love, and what a change would be made in
families and neighborhoods, in cities and towns, in all human society! What a change
in our halls of legislation!
5. The government of the tongue is indispensable to entire sanctification; that is,
no man is entirely sanctified unless he entirely governs his tongue by the law of
love. Let this always be understood and kept in mind by those who profess to have
attained, or who are aiming to attain to a state of entire sanctification.
6. It does not seem to be generally understood and believed, that every idle word
is sin. Many who profess to keep a conscience void of offense, and to be from day
to day not conscious of sin, seem manifestly often to use their tongues in a manner
not conformed to the law of love. Who can believe that all the needless and idle
talking that we hear among professed Christians is for the glory of God and the good
of man, or that it is even intended to be?
7. Idle words are as really sinful, as false, censorious, or profane words. I say
they are as really sinful. They may be vastly more sinful, or they may be less sinful
according to the light enjoyed. One man may be in the sight of God vastly more guilty
for levity in conversation than another for profanity. The degree of guilt depends
upon the degree of light before the mind. There is great want of consideration upon
this subject. If the most ignorant man tells a falsehood, or is profane, we cry out
against him; and if he is a member of the church, we excommunicate him. Now this
is all well; for the most ignorant man knows better than to lie or to be profane.
But others, with greater light than he, may be equally guilty and equally deserving
of excommunication, for an idle use of the tongue.
8. From this subject we see the necessity of judging our character in the light of
this test. Every day and every hour we should examine ourselves in the use of our
tongues. We are almost incessantly using them, and unless we keep the rule in view
by which they are to be governed, a world of iniquity will accumulate upon our souls
before we are aware of it.
9. This subject is of great importance to families. The necessity of governing the
tongue should be constantly inculcated in every family. Observance of this rule is
indispensable to the life and power of family religion.
10. The indispensable necessity of governing the tongue, should be urged in common
schools, and in all places where children and youth are associated together. If children
are allowed to make an unrestrained use of their tongues in respect to levity and
unrestrained talking, a most important part of their education is omitted. Why though
they are taught that they must not lie, or be profane, or vulgar, or licentious in
conversation, this is of little use, unless they are taught that their tongues are
to be governed entirely by the law of universal love.
11. This subject is of great importance to ministers of the gospel. I have heard
it said of some ministers--"When I see him in the pulpit I think he never ought
to come out; and when I see him out, I think he never ought to go in." There
are some ministers, I hope not many, who preach well and solemnly; but when out of
the pulpit, they are very much given to levity, to jesting, and trifling conversation,
insomuch that their idle talk out of the pulpit completely nullifies the spiritual
power of their preaching in it. My brother, unless you use your tongue for God's
glory out of the pulpit, you have no right to expect to be blessed in the use of
it in the pulpit. Take care what you say, always, and in all places, and be sure
you do not have the spirit of levity, and an idle gossiping state of mind; for if
you have, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth will speak, and the people
will see it. Your Christian and ministerial influence will be destroyed, and you
will become a stumbling-block to souls. O! a trifling minister--what a curse to human
society--what a dishonor to God!
12. The tongue is a great occasion of backsliding. Let a man but open his mouth and
give up the rein to the tongue in any company and at any time, and he will soon find
that when he has done talking he cannot pray. Let him try it. I have no doubt that
many professors of religion have grieved the Spirit of God an hundred and a thousand
times by idle words--have found themselves away from God and without the spirit of
prayer, with gross darkness covering them, yet do not realize the cause. Ask them
what they have done to get away from God, and they say they can't tell. If they would
but reflect upon the use they have made of their tongues, they would find cause enough.
Let them take their pens and attempt to recall and record all the idle words, and
they will soon be convinced that innumerable sins have accumulated upon their souls,
and shut out from them the light of heaven.
13. An unbridled tongue is not only a great snare to him who uses it, but is a great
temptation, a snare, and a curse to those who listen. One man or woman given to much
talking, may divert the attention of hundreds of minds from God; may engage multitudes
of tongues in replying to their incessant babble; and indeed a world or words, idle
as the wind, if not hateful and blasphemous, may be occasioned by some one great
talker. A great talker, in the common acceptation of that term is a curse to any
family, to any neighborhood, to any church, to any community, to the world. His unruly
tongue must be restrained, or he will scatter around him, fire-brands, arrows, and
14. From this subject we can see the great evil and the great sin of what are termed
social visits. Who does not know that it is almost impolite to talk otherwise than
idly on those occasions? To introduce and confine yourself to religion or any other
topic of serious import, designed for the glory of God and the general good of man,
would be considered excessively ill-timed and out of place. The fact is, that social
parties are designed for the unrestrained indulgence of the tongue. They would soon
cease to be attended if no other conversation were allowed than what is for the glory
of God and the good of man. How often, think you, would the gay and thoughtless multitude
assemble in social parties, if no other conversation were allowed but such as is
in accordance with the law of God?
It is amazing to hear professors of religion defend and plead for what they call
the cultivation of the social powers. It is manifest that they often mean by this
nothing more nor less than the cultivation of that idle gossip, that chit chat, idle,
frivolous course of conversation, pursued in what are called social parties. How
any person that even pretends to be consecrated to God can give up his tongue, his
time, and his powers to be used in that manner, has always been mysterious to me
since I have know any thing about religion.
15. Many persons never keep their tongues still long enough to be converted. They
talk so incessantly, that if at any time the Spirit of the Lord comes near and strives
with them, they grieve Him right away by their idle talk. They ought to understand
that the Spirit comes to convict and persuade; that is, to make men think, and see
things in their true light. They should know that without serious thought and deep,
intense reflection, they will never turn to the Lord. Thus the Psalmist says, "I
thought on my ways and turned my feet unto Thy testimonies." "Thus saith
the Lord, consider your ways." God complains of His professed people, that "they
will not consider." How can they consider, when they cultivate the habit of
giving incessant license to their tongues? Many impenitent sinners seem never to
have thought that they should restrain their tongues, and speak only when and what
duty calls them to speak.
16. It is a great evil to be thrown into the society of a great talker. He will neither
think himself nor suffer you to do so; but babble on incessantly, like the running
of a brook. If for a moment you try to think, some impertinent question, some trifling
thing which you neither know nor care about, is thrust into your face, and demands
a reply. O, if such men once knew the luxury of deep and silent thought, and would
sometimes retire within themselves and let others think, they would do the world
17. Great multitudes of professors of religion seem unable to grow in grace and become
established in religion, because of the idle use of their tongues. This sin must
be overcome; it must be put away. Professor, it is too hard for you to attempt it
in your unassisted strength. No man can tame the tongue, but Christ can tame it.
Christ governed His own tongue, and can govern yours if you will give it up to Him
and let Him become its keeper. Will you do it? When will you do it? Will you do it
now? Will you consecrate your tongue to Him with the full understanding that you
shall never use it any more but for the glory of God, any more than you would use
it to blaspheme His holy name? Do it, my brother, my sister: do it now!
of easily misunderstood terms as defined by Mr. Finney himself.
Compiled by Katie Stewart
- Complacency, or Esteem: "Complacency, as a state of will or heart,
is only benevolence modified by the consideration or relation of right character
in the object of it. God, prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints, in all ages, are
as virtuous in their self-denying and untiring labours to save the wicked, as they
are in their complacent love to the saints." Systematic Theology (LECTURE
VII). Also, "approbation of the character of its object. Complacency is
due only to the good and holy." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE
- Disinterested Benevolence: "By disinterested benevolence I do not
mean, that a person who is disinterested feels no interest in his object of pursuit,
but that he seeks the happiness of others for its own sake, and not for the sake
of its reaction on himself, in promoting his own happiness. He chooses to do good
because he rejoices in the happiness of others, and desires their happiness for its
own sake. God is purely and disinterestedly benevolent. He does not make His creatures
happy for the sake of thereby promoting His own happiness, but because He loves their
happiness and chooses it for its own sake. Not that He does not feel happy in promoting
the happiness of His creatures, but that He does not do it for the sake of His own
gratification." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE I).
- Divine Sovereignty: "The sovereignty of God consists in the independence
of his will, in consulting his own intelligence and discretion, in the selection
of his end, and the means of accomplishing it. In other words, the sovereignty of
God is nothing else than infinite benevolence directed by infinite knowledge."
Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXVI).
- Election: "That all of Adam's race, who are or ever will be saved,
were from eternity chosen by God to eternal salvation, through the sanctification
of their hearts by faith in Christ. In other words, they are chosen to salvation
by means of sanctification. Their salvation is the end- their sanctification is a
means. Both the end and the means are elected, appointed, chosen; the means as really
as the end, and for the sake of the end." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXIV).
- Entire Sanctification: "Sanctification may be entire in two senses:
(1.) In the sense of present, full obedience, or entire consecration to God; and,
(2.) In the sense of continued, abiding consecration or obedience to God. Entire
sanctification, when the terms are used in this sense, consists in being established,
confirmed, preserved, continued in a state of sanctification or of entire consecration
to God." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LVIII).
- Moral Agency: "Moral agency is universally a condition of moral obligation.
The attributes of moral agency are intellect, sensibility, and free will." Systematic
Theology (LECTURE III).
- Moral Depravity: "Moral depravity is the depravity of free-will,
not of the faculty itself, but of its free action. It consists in a violation of
moral law. Depravity of the will, as a faculty, is, or would be, physical, and not
moral depravity. It would be depravity of substance, and not of free, responsible
choice. Moral depravity is depravity of choice. It is a choice at variance with moral
law, moral right. It is synonymous with sin or sinfulness. It is moral depravity,
because it consists in a violation of moral law, and because it has moral character."
Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).
- Human Reason: "the intuitive faculty or function of the intellect...
it is the faculty that intuits moral relations and affirms moral obligation to act
in conformity with perceived moral relations." Systematic Theology (LECTURE
- Retributive Justice: "Retributive justice consists in treating every
subject of government according to his character. It respects the intrinsic merit
or demerit of each individual, and deals with him accordingly." Systematic
Theology (LECTURE XXXIV).
- Total Depravity: "Moral depravity of the unregenerate is without
any mixture of moral goodness or virtue, that while they remain unregenerate, they
never in any instance, nor in any degree, exercise true love to God and to man."
Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).
- Unbelief: "the soul's withholding confidence from truth and the God
of truth. The heart's rejection of evidence, and refusal to be influenced by it.
The will in the attitude of opposition to truth perceived, or evidence presented."
Systematic Theology (LECTURE LV).
Next "Oberlin Evangelist"