Our world is awash in words. About one million books are published each year, about 2700 books per day. Even more breathtaking is the fact that with the advent of the internet, this torrent of verbal effusion has increased with blogs: we are told that about two million blog posts are published every day! Add to this the fact that each one of the approximately seven billion people on earth speaks on average about 370,000,000 words during their lifetime, and it is easy to see just how important words are to the human race.
It is this ability to speak that is one of the preeminent ways that humans are separated from the animals. Language is tool that we take for granted, and yet it is something so profound that it is simply cannot adequately be described with a “bottom-up” explanation in terms of chemistry and physics. Oxford mathematician John Lennox tells a story of a conversation he had with another scientist at the university. This man was a chemist who subscribed to the idea that everything can be explained entirely in terms of scientific data. Lennox pointed to the words on the menu at their table and asked him if he could explain the meaning (semiotics) of the words in terms of chemistry and physics. The chemist immediately saw that he couldn’t – and not because of an inability on his part to explain it in those terms but because he saw that there is an intrinsic impossibility to explaining the meaning of language in terms merely of physics and chemistry. Words and language and speech point to our wise and communicating Maker.
In other words, language is one of the ways we reflect the image of God. And it is therefore a wonderful gift that we have been given and it behooves us to reflect this aspect of God’s image in ways that are appropriate and befitting. It makes total sense, therefore, that having spoken of “the new man, which after God [in God’s image] is created in righteousness and true holiness” (ver. 24), he should then go on to remind us to “let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers” (ver. 29). In fact, if we look through this section of the epistle, we see that this emphasis on proper language is interspersed throughout these verses. Verse 25, a proscription against lying and an exhortation to truth-telling, is a verse that deals with speech. Then, in verse 31, Paul writes, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, but put away from you, with all malice.” In 5:3-4, Paul goes on to say, “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.” Again, you see this emphasis upon proper speech. It is clearly important.
Our Lord himself taught the importance of words, when he said, “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy word thou shalt be condemned” (Mt. 12:36-37). This a strong warning. We tend to minimize the impact of our words, but our Lord warns us that we will have to give an account for the words we have spoken to God himself. That is no light thing. The reason he gives for this is that our words reveal who we really are: “A good man out the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Mt. 12:35). You’ve heard the adage, “You are what you eat.” Well, our Lord might have said, “You are what you speak.” If you are bad, your words will reveal it and if you are good, your words will reveal that, too. But the point here is that we need to watch our words because we will give stand before God in judgment over the words we speak. Let us therefore make the prayer of the psalmist our own: “Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3).
However, not only are our words important in terms of our own accountability, but also because of what our words can do to others. I think this is clearly one of the reasons the apostle introduces this injunction as this point. Remember that chapter 4 begins with this emphasis upon the unity of the church. Then the apostle goes on to say how our Lord has ordained the gifts in order that the church might grow in this unity. And as the apostle goes on to develop the idea of the purity of the church in the verses we are considering, he has not forgotten the reality of the unity of the church. Holiness is meant to serve the unity of the church, not fight against it. Unity is best served by people who tell the truth, who aren’t ruled by their anger, who don’t take from others but who labor to give to those who need. And unity is helped by those who watch what they say; who communicate is ways that are helpful, nor hurtful. They don’t speak corrupt words, but words that minister grace to the hearers.
The apostle James also reminds us how important word are in this connection, especially in terms of the harm they can do to others. He tells us that our words are like little matches that can burn down whole forests of trees (Jam. 3:5-6). He tells us that the tongue is like poison; in fact, that they are full of poison (ver. 8). Our tongues may be little and seemingly insignificant, but like a small rudder on a big ship, they can steer our lives in good or bad directions (ver. 4). The great German battleship Bismarck was sunk because its rudder got stuck. And we can absolutely destroy the lives of others when our tongues get stuck in the hateful and ugly and sarcastic position.
In fact, our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount warns us against murdering people with our words: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Mt. 5:21-22). You can see this worked out in terrible ways in schools when kids bully other kids and those who are bullied end up isolated and alone and hurt, or worse. Our Lord would have no problem calling this verbal murder. It is wicked. It happens not only on the playground; it happens every time any of us strike out in hateful anger with our words at someone else. Note again, we see how our Lord reminds us not only of the terrible effect our words can have on others; he also reminds us of the judgment that is coming on us if we do not repent.
However, our words are not just important because of the damage they can do. Thank God, our words can also be good words, helping words, healing words. The word Paul uses here is the word, “edifying,” which, as we know, means to build up. We can tear down with our words, but we can also build up. Remember what the apostle said back in verse 15: “But speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.” The letter to the Hebrews encourages us to “exhort one another daily, while it is called today, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13). Exhorting, of course, happens as we speak to one another.
The danger we face when we realize just how dangerous our words can be is to talk as little as possible, or not at all. There is a whole order of monks who take a vow of silence. You will note that the apostle does not follow up the prohibition to speak corrupt words with an exhortation to silence. No, the solution to evil speaking is not refusing to speak; the solution is to speak, but to speak “that which is good to the use of edifying.” Silence may be golden at times but silence all the time is not only not good, it can be just as harmful as saying the wrong thing.
This then leads to the question: how are we to order our speech? Let us follow the apostle’s order here and consider first the negative prohibition and then the positive exhortation.
First of all, the apostle writes, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouths.” The word for “corrupt” means rotten, harmful, unhealthy, diseased. It refers to the kind of speech that characterizes those who are yet in the flesh, who are still walking in the vanity of their mind, whose understand is still darkened, who are alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them because of the blindness of their hearts (Eph. 4:17-18).
What characterizes such speech? Well, I would say the first thing that characterizes it is that it is centered on the self. The thing that Christ redeems us from is ourselves. We are by nature consumed with ourselves, we are selfish creatures, and no where does this manifest itself more clearly than in our speech. You hear it in those who always want to talk about themselves or want to direct the conversation to their own interests or towards themselves. And when others talk, they are always wanting to butt in grab the attention of everyone. They can’t wait until someone else has stopped talking so they can dominate the conversation. It is perfectly ugly. We all recognize how awful it is. There is a comedian, Brian Regan, who has made a whole skit around this. Look it up on YouTube under “the ME monster.” “Me monsters” are every where and if we have been redeemed by Christ, one of the ways this should manifest itself is in selfless speech. We should recognize that we are not what people need. Christ is what people need, and our words and speech need to be such that people are not pointed to ourselves but away from ourselves to Christ.
Another thing that corrupts our speech is making light of sin. The apostle will go on to say that “it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret” (Eph. 5:12), by which he is referring to “the unfruitful works of darkness” which we are to reprove, not repeat (ver. 11). Joking about wickedness is not harmless. To celebrate sin is to indoctrinate our hearts into thinking that sin is not really that big of a deal and to deceive ourselves into thinking that God doesn’t think anything of it, either. It is to make ourselves think that sin is not really that bad. It inevitably leads people, whether ourselves or others, to indulge in behaviors that God hates. More than that, it will cause us to belittle the cross. You cannot value the gospel and snicker over sin. It’s why the hymn says, “Ye who think of sin but lightly, nor suppose the evil great, here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate. Mark the Sacrifice appointed! See who bears the awful load! ‘Tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed, Son of man and Son of God.” How can we look at Jesus upon the cross, bearing our sin, and then joke about it? It just shows that we do not really appreciate what he has done for us.
Another characteristic of corrupt speech is thoughtless speech. Talking without thinking about what we are saying. It’s like pointing a gun in someone’s face without any appreciation that it could go off. Though total silence is not the appropriate solution to sinful speech, yet we ought always to weigh our words before we speak. Contrast this to what the apostle exhorts us to do: “But that which is good to the use of edifying.” Now the Greek literally says here, “but if there be any good [word] for the building up of the need.” In other words, in contrast to thoughtless speech, we are to think of the need that exists in front of us and speak so as to meet that need. Or, as the ESV puts it, we are speak “as fits the occasion.” Again, when we are speaking in appropriate ways, we are thinking of others. We are not just talking to hear ourselves speak.
I know that when most people think of filthy or corrupt speech, they think of certain words. And certainly, we don’t want to use words that our culture views as “foul.” That is corrupt speech. As believers, we should avoid using these words. I know some Christians have no problem using foul language, but in light of what the apostle says here and in 5:4, I don’t see why they don’t see a problem with this. But hopefully you can see that this is a greater problem than what usually falls under the category of cussing. Corrupt language is any way of talking that is inappropriate for image bearers of God.
How then are we to speak? Paul writes, “But that which is good to the use of edifying.” As we have already noted, Paul is saying that when we speak, we are to think of the needs of others. So the first thing is that we are not to use our speech as a way to put ourselves on display. We are to be thinking of others.
This means that often before we speak we need to listen. The proverb tells us that, “If one gives answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13, ESV). Too often we do just that. We jump to conclusions, and often the wrong ones, because we didn’t hear the other person out. It is again a manifestation of our selfishness. We are not interested in hearing someone out; we want to do all the talking. And as a result, we end up making things worse instead of better. We don’t consider the need and so we aren’t in a position to meet the need.
It also means that we are to apply wisdom to the situation to which we speak. Again, to quote the Proverbs, “The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness” (Prov. 15:2). In other words, it is not only that we need to use the right words and say the right things, but that we need to say the right things at the right time and to the right people. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Prov. 25:11).
Our Lord is the great example here. We are told in the prophesy of Isaiah, in speaking of the Messiah: “The Lord GOD hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary” (Isa. 50:4). He not only spoke the truth, he spoke the truth in such a way that it would minister grace to the hearers. To Nicodemus, he speaks of new birth and argues from Old Testament metaphors of being born of water and Spirit. To the woman at the well, he speaks of living water. He knew exactly how to speak to them so that the truth would find a lodging place in their hearts. Some people have the idea that as long as they speak the truth, they are in the right. Such people often end up doing enormous damage. It’s not that we should lie (see verse 25!), but that we should apply wisdom to the truth we share.
We don’t want to be insensitive to the people to whom we speak. For example, the first thing to do when someone is suffering from the loss of a loved one may not be to remind them that all things work together for good for those who love God. It is of course true; but they may not be in an emotional frame to receive it. The best thing to do in cases like that is just to love on that person. Sometimes weeping with those who weep is far more eloquent and edifying than the most profound theology. And then later, when they are able to receive it, rejoice with them in the amazing truth of Romans 8:28.
You also see this in the way the apostle Paul himself dealt with people. To the Corinthians, he writes, “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1). He spoke to them as was appropriate for believers at their level of maturity. To do otherwise would have been counterproductive.
Don’t use truth as a bulldozer. Be like Jesus and speak as fits the need and the occasion. As the Scriptures prophesied of him, “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench” (Mt. 12:20).
One more point: if we are to edify others, that means that we need to speak truth, and that means that our words need to be informed by Biblical doctrine and theology. Let me draw an analogy between theology and history. Why does history repeat itself? Why do people keep doing the same stupid things over and over again? Because they do not know their history. Pharaoh wanted to kill the Hebrew children because he knew not Joseph. People say all sorts of dumb things about war and economics and many other things because they aren’t aware of even recent history. In the same way, people say all sorts of stupid things and give all sorts of dumb advice because they don’t have a Biblical framework for applying truth to people. And this is because they’ve never appreciated the importance of sound doctrine.
Sound doctrine! Do you appreciate the meaning of that phrase? The apostle talked about those things which are contrary to “sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:10) and commanded Timothy: “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13). “Sound” is the Greek word from which we get the word “hygiene.” It means “healthy.” Sound doctrine, sound words, are healthy words as opposed to rotten and corrupt words. And they are rooted in correct and Biblical doctrine and theology. You want to be healthy? Then you need to live your life in accordance with sound doctrine. It’s why the apostle would also tell Timothy about the false teachers, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker” (2 Tim. 2:14-17).
It’s why the apostle John wrote: “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not the doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed: for he that biddeth him Godspeed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2 Jn. 9-11). There are a lot of people, even in the church today, who think that where you come down on doctrine is unimportant. These verses tell a different story. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we have to fight about every difference of opinion. Paul and John were opposing false teachers whose teaching was overthrowing the faith of some in the churches.
But even with these allowances, we need to understand that the reality is that all Biblical doctrine is important, and your spiritual health is to a large extent dependent upon how you are living in accordance with sound doctrine. You are not going to edify yourself or others if you are not speaking in accordance with sound doctrine.
Now, why are we to do this? “That it may minister grace to the hearers.” To link this up with the previous point we were just making, I want to point out that the grace that is being ministered here is God’s grace, and God will not send his grace down channels of false doctrine.
But this underlines the reason why our words are so important. If you are a believer, your words can become conduits of grace, God’s grace. God works through his people, we are his instruments. And one of the primary ways he ministers through us to others is through our words. This is a wonderful motivation. Think of it: to be a co-worker with God. To help him advance his kingdom and cause. It doesn’t take a lot of education to do this. It doesn’t take a lot of time or money. All it takes is a willingness to speak truth wisely, discerningly, lovingly, carefully, evangelistically.
And as believers, we should want to do this, since it was probably someone’s word that opened our eyes and hearts to the life-giving gospel. The man God used to bring truth to me was Arthur Pink, through his book The Sovereignty of God. Pink’s own story is instructive. Raised in a Christian home in Victorian England, Pink abandoned the faith of his parents for a cult. But his father never gave up speaking truth to him. One evening, as Pink came home to prepare for a speech he was to give at a meeting of spiritists, his father was waiting for him. Pink rushed by him as quickly as possible, but his dad was able to get in the words, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof is the way of death.” Pink was not able to get these words out of his mind, no matter how hard he tried. For three days he wrestled with them, but in the end, he was converted to Christ. One verse from a father’s lips led to the conversion of his son, who in turn has influenced untold thousands of others, including myself.
But, of course the greatest reason we have for speaking truth is that God has himself spoken truth to us; preeminently in his Son, who is the Word of God, and these words are saving and life-giving. He has spoken to us the gospel, the news that God sent his Son into the world to do for us what we could not do for ourselves: take our sins and atone for them, every single one of them, and to give us righteousness, and ultimately to bring us to God in the closest friendship forever. May the Lord bless us to speak to others in such a way, that we show ourselves to be recipients of the gospel, and then to invite others to join with us in our journey to eternal joy and glory.