The Tongue as Either a Verbum Efficax or Verbum Inefficax

According to the SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms,[1] a “speech act” involves a “speaker” who makes an “utterance.” This includes articulating general declarations, as well as specific hypotheses, explanations, and warrants. Also included in a “speech act” is the “production of a particular effect in the addressee.”


The British philosopher and linguistic analyst, J.L. Austin, was seminal in the development of speech-act theory. This is especially so with the posthumous publication of his lectures titled, How to do things with words.[2] Austin presented the latter at Harvard University in 1955.


Later, Oswald Bayer applied speech-act theory to the proclamation of the gospel.[3] He observed that when viewed through the prism of speech-act theory (2003:50–5; 2007:126–34), the good news that early Christians such as Paul and associates heralded could be understood as a performative utterance, which conveys a specific promise or assurance.[4]


Furthermore, the declaration of the gospel is efficacious, in that it actualizes for the first time a reality that did not previously exist. To be precise, the Creator uses the heralding of the good news to initiate, establish, and preserve a relationship between Himself and the unsaved. Indeed, the declaration of the gospel makes the presence of faith operative within addressees, whereas before unbelief prevailed.[5]


According to Bayer (2003:258), “God’s Word is a verbum efficax, an efficacious Word. It never returns void, but does what it says.” Bayer (2007:63) also notes that the “Scriptures are not simply printed words to be read off a page.” More importantly, they are “life-giving words that stimulate our senses and emotions, our memory and imagination, our heart and desires.”


According to John 3:3–8, the Spirit is the author and agent of the preceding “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) within individual repentant, believing sinners. This observation recalls the creation narrative recorded in Genesis 1:1–2:3. Regardless of whether the focus is on the original act of creation or the new creation, against the backdrop of speech-act theory, both signify a verbum efficax.


For instance, concerning the original act of creation, Hebrews 11:3 reveals that it was by “God’s command” that the cosmos and its intervening ages were made. Walter Brueggemann, in his Theology of the Old Testament,[6] clarifies that the “imagery is of a powerful sovereign who utters a decree from the throne” and in doing so actualizes His edict.


Moreover, in terms of the new creation, when it comes to the proclamation of the gospel, the Spirit uses the promise of salvation to bring about the redemptive reality being articulated. As J.I. Packer observes, previously unregenerate hearers are enabled to believe the good news about Jesus of Nazareth and experience the “inner” recreation of their “fallen human nature.”[7]


The implication is that through the heralding of the good news, the Father produces the new birth. He does so in such a way that He remains supreme, unconditional, and gracious in bringing it about. Likewise, the revivification signifies a momentous and extraordinary fresh start for repentant, believing sinners, who are transformed by the Spirit in their volitions, emotions, and actions (Rom 12:1–2).


The preceding observations delineate the ways in which the declaration of the gospel is a speech-act that produces an eternally worthwhile outcome; yet, what about the reverse? Expressed differently, what form of speech-act might bring about a harmful result, namely, one that is verbum inefficax? James 3:1–12 provides needed insight concerning this question.


By way of background, perhaps there was great eagerness among many early Christians to teach. After all, it was a ministry that carried considerable rank and honor, like that of a rabbi in Jewish circles. 


Nonetheless, when considering verse 1, readers discover that knowing divine truth is not necessarily the same as living it. Put another way, even though having an intellectual grasp of Scripture is commendable, it is quite another matter to practice what it teaches. 


Furthermore, while it is noble to aspire to a teaching ministry, believers are liable to receive a “stricter judgment” (or harsher condemnation). This means God would evaluate their lives more rigorously and stringently based on their increased awareness of the truth and influence over the lives of others. 


Such a sobering observation is not intended to discourage teachers in the church who are gifted and called by God. After all, providing biblical instruction continues to be an essential part of carrying out Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples (Matt 28:19–20). 


Even so, the responsibility of teaching carries with it a degree of power and authority. Regrettably, this circumstance often attracts people whom God has not called to instruct others in Scripture, but rather who desire the esteem and influence the position seems to offer.


It is within this context that James 3 conveys incisive observations about toxic forms of human speech that prove to be verbum inefficax. For instance, a primary way to convey the truth of God’s Word is by means of the tongue. The downside is that hurtful remarks can greatly offend others, who in turn might refuse to offer their forgiveness.


Verse 2 acknowledges that the human struggle with sin plagues everyone—including believers—in numerous and varied ways. Despite that, the tongue is the part of the body that most reveals a person’s wayward tendencies. Not even those who teach Scripture are exempt from this reality.


Human speech is the gateway from the inner to the outer world. The words a person uses disclose to others what is inside of oneself. While it is true that some individuals talk more than others, the issue here is not how much they say, but rather the statements that are uttered when they speak.


The Greek verb translated “stumble” refers to intentional ethical missteps, not simply inadvertent human error. According to the context, much of this stumbling occurs because of destructive forms of speech (including lying, slander, and gossip, to name a few examples). 


The writer disclosed that if people could curb their tongue, they likewise could restrain their entire body. Indeed, they would be perfectly self-controlled people. 


The Greek adjective rendered “perfect” denotes those who are fully developed in a moral sense and meet the highest ethical standards in their conduct (see Matt 5:48). The emphasis is on the maturity of one’s behavior. 


The idea is that believers who never sin with their tongues probably show themselves flawlessly developed in other areas of their lives. Regardless of how accurate one’s personal assessment is in this area, the unvarnished truth is that there can be no spiritual maturity while the tongue remains untamed and out of control.


James 3:3–4 offers two illustrations to demonstrate how a small device can positively or negatively control the destiny of a much larger entity. First, an eight-ounce metal bar (possibly iron) placed in the mouth of a draft horse (weighing between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds) allows the rider to dictate where the huge animal travels. 


Second, a ship’s rudder (a wooden blade about the size of a person's arm) determines the course of its many-times-larger vessel. The pilot steering the merchant ship (up to 150 feet in length) needs only to change the direction of the rudder and, despite powerful winds, can keep the vessel on course.


Verse 5 says that though the tongue is a small member of the human body, it can do a great deal of good or evil. Also, despite the tongue’s exaggerated claims, it can wreck untold havoc in the lives of its victims. 


To illustrate his point, James noted how a tiny flame, which by itself is extinguished in the blinking of an eye, can reduce acres of forest to charred rubble. In a sense, the tongue is comparable to an inferno, because a few ill-chosen words can do a vast amount of damage in little time. 


Moreover, like an incendiary device, the tongue can set a person’s entire life on fire. Specifically, toxic forms of speech originate from a corrupt heart. Perhaps the writer had in mind Jesus’ teaching that a person’s words reflect what is really in his or her inner most being (Luke 6:45).


James 3:6 reveals that the tongue is a source of wickedness. This is particularly evident when the instrument of human speech operates unchecked, spewing forth iniquities that spiritually defile a person’s entire body.


Even worse, the tongue can set ablaze the complete arc of one’s temporal and eternal existence. Human speech exerts such a destructive force because it is inflamed by hell’s fiery abyss.


“Hell” renders the Greek noun, gehenna. It is a transliteration of the Hebrew phrase, hinnōm, which refers to valley of Hinnom. The latter was the lower area of land along the southwest corner of Jerusalem. 


The valley formed part of the dividing line between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The locale is also where Ahaz and Manasseh, two of Judah’s kings, offered their sons in fiery sacrifice to the Ammonite god, Molech (Jos 15:8; 18:16; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chr 33:6; Jer. 7:31–32; 19:5–7; 32:35).


Following the period of the Old Testament, Jewish apocalyptic (doomsday) writers first called the Valley of Hinnom the gateway to hell, and later referred to it as hell itself (1 En 54:1; 56:3). In first-century A.D. Jerusalem, inhabitants continuously used the spot to dump and burn garbage and bodily waste, so that smoke could be seen rising virtually nonstop. For that reason, it provided an apt illustration of everlasting torment. 


James 3:6, in making reference to “hell,” drew attention to forms of human speech that are the epitome of verbum inefficax. For instance, when the tongue is left uncontrolled, it becomes a tool for vice, rather than virtue. Indeed, under the influence of the devil, people say things that are destructive in nature.


In verses 7 through 12, the writer compared the tongue to an untamed animal. He noted that throughout human existence, people subdued various species of creatures. Even in his day, clever people figured out ways to domesticate wild beasts and birds, along with reptiles and denizens of the sea.


The above stood in sharp contrast with subduing the tongue. Throughout human history, people had utterly failed to tame their speech. The writer indicated that to subdue this entity, nothing less than God’s power is required.


So, on the one hand, humankind succeeded in carrying out the divine mandate to rule over virtually every aspect of creation (Gen 1:26; 9:2; Ps 8:6–8). Yet, on the other hand, the tongue remained feral. Likewise, is showed no sign of ever capitulating to human control.


James 3:8 bluntly states the reason for humankind’s failure rate. The human instrument of speech is not only “evil,” but also “restless.”[8]


The Greek adjective translated “restless” suggests a staggering, unsteady, and disorderly form of wickedness. The implication is that the tongue could strike anytime, without warning or even rational cause, with the outcome being chaos and confusion.


The Greek phrase rendered, “full of deadly poison,” brings to mind Psalm 140:3. The poet compared the speech of his antagonists to the sharp, poisonous bite of a viper. Though the viper is a small snake, it has a particularly mean disposition. It attacks swiftly and holds fast to its victim with deadly tenacity. 


Like a venomous snake concealed in the brush beside a trail, the tongue is loaded with lethal toxin and poised to strike. Not surprisingly, James 1:19 admonishes Jesus’ followers to “be quick to listen” and “slow to speak.”


The preceding comparison reinforces the notion that what the tongue utters can constitute a form of speech-act that brings about a harmful result, namely, one that is verbum inefficax. Human speech especially shows its destructive nature by its erratic and contradictory behavior. 


For example, on one occasion, believers might use their mouths to praise their “Lord and Father” (3:9).[9] Then, in another instance, they might deploy their tongues to pronounce a curse (or invoke evil) on their fellow human beings. 


The enormity of the preceding hypocrisy is intensified by the realization that the same sovereign Creator made every person in His “likeness.” Admittedly, within fallen humanity, the image of God has been defaced through sin. Nonetheless, people still bear the divine likeness to some degree (Gen 1:26–27; 5:1–2; 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7), and this reality sets them apart from the rest of earth’s creatures.


In James 3:10, the writer despaired that the same mouth could pronounce blessings and spout expletives in almost the same breath. Certainly, out of a pastoral concern for his readers, he declared that such an inconsistency was unacceptable for Jesus’ followers to tolerate.


The writer illustrated his point by drawing attention to the natural world. The ground water flowing abundantly from the opening of a spring is either fresh or brackish, not delectable one moment and acrid shortly thereafter (v. 11). Likewise, one would not expect to draw fresh water out of a pond suffused with salt (v. 12).


Moreover, fig trees never produced a crop of olives. Similarly, grape vines did not yield a batch of figs. Each kind of plant—regardless of whether it was a tree, shrub, or herb (to name a few representative categories)—only bore their natural harvests.


The tongue, by contrast, has the potential to be perverse. As verses 13 through 16 reveal, apart from God's wisdom, believers are helpless to counter the destructive effects of their speech, whether in their relationship with God and with other people.


Some final thoughts: The major premise of this blogpost is that human speech is either categorized as verbum efficax or verbum inefficax. Put differently, the tongue utters words that are either efficacious or inefficacious. The first option promotes human flourishing in all areas of life, while the second option fosters the atrophying of the humanity’s existence.


Speech-act theory provides the philosophical basis for the preceding delineations. General declarations, along with particular explanations, warrants, and hypotheses, fall under the rubric of being utterances made by people. These articulations can either being helpful or harmful, as well as beneficial or deleterious. 


The creation narrative in Genesis 1:1–2:3 is a grand example of a verbum efficax. At the dawn of time, the Triune God commanded the entire universe into existence. Another case in point would be the Spirit of God bring about the new creation with the hearts of believers when they hear the proclamation of the gospel. Whereas before the announcement of the good news, there was spiritual death, after the utterance of the euangelion, there is the manifestation of faith and with it the revivification of one’s soul. 


The extended discourse in James 3:1–12 provides a trenchant expose of a verbum inefficax. The teaching ministry of God’s Word forms the gateway to the writer’s diatribe against harmful, toxic forms of human speech. He is unsparing in spotlighting the truth that those who fancy themselves as dispensers of divine truth face the prospect of being judged more strictly by the Creator for the motivation, nature, scope, and outcomes of their teaching ministries.


Next, the writer broadens the scope of his critique against all forms of verbum inefficax, as symbolized by the tongue. On one level, it declares pretentious aspirations; yet, on another level, its utterances lead to death and destruction. Human speech is comparable to a tiny spark that sets ablaze an entire forest. Ultimately, inequity and injustice form the ingredients of its toxic hellstew.


In the preceding way, the tongue is the archetype of a verbum inefficax. From an individual point of view, human speech has the ability to spiritually sully a person’s entire body. Moreover, from an interpersonal perspective, the instrument of articulation can exert a destructive force that engulfs entire human communities, from those that only involve two people to those that encompass entire nation-states.


The writer convincingly argues that no human power is able to exercise lasting control over the tongue. Indeed, as the embodiment of a verbum inefficax, thoughtless or malicious speech lays waste to lives, reputations, and careers like a fire consuming a forest and leaving it a charred, smoldering wasteland. 


There is, then, a dynamic tension between utterances that are either a verbum efficax or a verbum inefficax. Conveyed differently, the tongue can alternately bless and curse, build up and tear down. Its potential for good is seemingly limitless, and so is its power for evil. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of human speech is unparalleled in the natural world. 


To recap, the tongue, as a verbum inefficax, is frightening in its power, destructive in its capacity, and unpredictable in its character. Taming the tongue is a discipline rarely achieved, even by Jesus’ followers. Indeed, apart from the Savior’s grace, even believers are helpless to counter the devastating effects of their speech in their relationships with God and other people.




[1] Dallas: SIL International (2017). Website:

[2] Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1975; J.O. Urmson and M. Sbisa, eds.).

[3] Noteworthy are two of Bayer’s publications: (1) Martin Luther’s theology: a contemporary interpretation (2003; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; T.H. Trapp, trans.); and, (2) Theology the Lutheran way (2007; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; J.G. Silcock and M.C. Mattes, trans. and eds.).

[4] What follows is an adaptation of observations I make in my monograph titled, Facets of Pauline Discourse (New York: Peter Lang, 2016, pgs. 18, 89–90).

[5] In this context, faith is not considered a work, but merely a response of the sinner’s broken heart to the saving activity of God.

[6] Minneapolis: Fortress (1997; pg. 146).

[7] “Regeneration” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2001; Grand Rapids: Baker; W.A. Elwell, ed.; pg. 1000). The paragraph that follows is a reformulation of information appearing in Packer’s seminal article.

[8] The Greek text of James 3:8 contains a minor textual discrepancy. The most highly regarded manuscripts use the adjective, ἀκατάστατον (“restless”; NASB; ESV; Lexham; NRSV; NIV; NET; CSB; NLT). However, a larger number of lesser regarded manuscripts use the variant reading, ἀκατασχετόν (“uncontrollable”; KJV; NKJV).

[9] The Greek text of James 3:9 contains a minor textual discrepancy. A number of later manuscripts use the noun, θεόν (“God”), which in turn influenced an assortment of translations of the verse. Even so, the most highly regarded earlier manuscripts use the noun, κύριον (“Lord”), which is also attested in differing translations of the same verse.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.