The author of Hebrews admonishes his readers in the last chapter of his epistle to “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” The apostle James admonishes his readers in the third chapter of his epistle that “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways.”
These verses have bearing in two ways on our passage tonight. First, as the word is being preached tonight, I want to admonish you to obey it and submit to it. Secondly, I, as the one bringing it, am frightened to speak because of my own stumbling and poor example in doing what the Holy Spirit tells us in our passage through the apostle Paul. My assessment of my account is miserably inadequate with regards to these issues of the tongue. So, I will have to plead with you to “do as the Word says, and not as I do,” and pray that the HS will convict us all as His Word illumines our darkened hearts, and that we will seek to follow Christ through the aid of His Spirit as a result.
I have to make this disclaimer because the very thing that in many ways shows me to be more in God’s image than the rest of the created order, is the very thing that I use to bring dishonor to Him and His mission.
From the very beginning, God used words for His good purposes. It is God who first spoke. And what happened when He spoke? The heavens and the earth were formed, and it was declared good. He even leads Adam to take part in this speaking goodness by giving Adam the privilege of naming every creature that God had created. Here we see one of the many ways that God created us in His image. We can rationally speak, and we were given this gift to do the same kind of good that God does when He speaks.
But soon, man turned from using his gift of speech for the sake of the good purposes of his Creator, to using it to deceive, manipulate, and hurt. How many of us can say we are unaffected by the hateful use of language in our places of work? Our schools? Our homes? Even at church? As the apostle James observantly wrote, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (3:5b-6).
In our passage tonight, Paul will be warning us against the ancient, fiery sins of the tongue, continuing to exhort us to “Put off the old man,” by not speaking with corrupting words, and at the same time he tells us what to “Put on” - Speaking whatever is good. Finally, Paul will give us two motivations for using our words in these good ways.
Paul begins by telling us, as has been his pattern in this section of his epistle, what we are to put off as those who have learned Christ. Here, he tells us to “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.” Woodenly translated to see Paul’s emphasis: “Every corrupt word from your mouth - do not let it come out.”
This is a devastating verse to our own account of our sanctification. Think of all the snide comments we’ve made, whether in public or under our breaths. All of the sarcastic jokes we’ve made at someone else’s expense. All of the less than pure words or jokes or Facebook messages that we’ve spoken or written. All of us are overwhelmingly guilty of not heeding Paul’s command here. We all say things that are corrupt and that do the work of corrupting.
What does Paul mean here by “corrupting talk?” The word that Paul uses here carries two ideas, those of words that are both rotten and those that are harmful, that is, these words are corrupt in themselves, and when spoken, they corrupt the hearers. With regards to the first idea, those who know Christ should never speak words that are rotten. These words that are not pure. Like worm infested, putrid peaches, these words that do not represent the best that should be spoken. They should be trashed before they are served, or they will make those who take them in sin-sick. Paul give us examples of these words in 5:4 when he says, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk, nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” And in Colossians 3:8, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”
With regards to the second idea, Christians should not use words that are harmful or corrosive. Like rust, these kinds of words have a tendency to corrode and wear down those around us, making them weaker than they were before we spoke. Our words are not to be without thought, as those in Proverbs 12:18 “there is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts;” or as Jesus says in our passage we read earlier in Matt. 12:36, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” Corrupting speech often happens when we aren’t “thinking.” We can call them Freudian slips if we wan’t, but we must remember what Jesus also said in Matt. 12, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” What is inside, comes out. Those words that cut like sword thrusts, that we don’t give a second thought about, can do sever damage to the one receiving them, and they are out of the abundance of our hearts.
Whether in person or online, we say all kinds of things that do damage. You may counter, “Oh, I was just joking. That’s just the way my friends and I talk. Where’s your sense of humor?” It is no joke. When you speak corruptly, you are speaking out of the abundance of your heart, and what comes out is rotten. In speaking “off the cuff,” what is said is not a mistaken expression that we don’t mean, but ourselves as we truly are.
This is why we need to be made new. Our old hearts need to be taken out and new, spiritual hearts put in. Remember the context - Paul is not speaking to unbelievers. If you are listening to me tonight and you are not trusting Christ to be saved from God’s wrath towards you because of your breaking His Law, then don’t start trying to clean up your speech. That will not help you! You need Christ’s righteousness, not your own feeble attempt to suppress your corrupt language!
And Christian, feel what Lloyd-Jones said: “The Christian man is not a man who is always repressing himself; there is something different at the centre, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh; it is what slips out that really tells us the truth about one another” (pg. 255).
That hurts. Think of all the hurtful, cutting, inappropriate, and all-in-all unloving things you’ve said in the past few days. Speaking to your children, your parents, your co-workers, your siblings, your friends...you were speaking out of the abundance of your heart. In fact, this is a scientific observation of what is in your heart. If you kept a log of all of your words, just the ones you let come out of your mouth, you have a good barometer of your heart.
If you are like me, this should drive us to deep sorrow and repentance for the sinful, hateful use of our words. We must do what Paul tells us to do - put off the old man that is corrupt through deceitful desires.
But if we stop there, then we are not yet living as a Christian. We may be moral, but we are not Christian. Even a pagan can keep his tongue in check at some points. What that person cannot do is speak from a heart influenced by the Holy Spirit. So Paul goes further and says not only are we to not let any rotten word come from our mouth, but we are to “[let out of our mouth] whatever is good for building up, as fits the occasion.”
We are to at all times say things that are good. Literally, “whatever is good.” Does this mean that we’ll always speak about lollipops, puppies, and pretty flowers? No. Paul says “whatever is good for building up.” The words we used when we did not know Christ were corrosive. Like rust, they slowly ate away at those around us until they were weak and falling apart. But the new self, empowered by the Holy Spirit, uses words that build up. When finished speaking with us, another person should feel stronger than he or she did before. Not simply having a stronger self-esteem. Paul’s not advocating sweet-talking others so that they have a good opinion about themselves. In fact, the person may come away from the immediate conversation upset by what was said. But if it was true, and said with love with the purpose of building up, and “fits the occasion,” then eventually building up will happen.
Lloyd-Jones had some helpful advice here:
1. Our words should always be under control. A builder does not haphazardly throw materials together and hope that a house is built when he is finished. No, he plans. He gathers the resources he needs to do the job, and if he doesn’t have the skill to do it, he learns how, or doesn’t do it. He doesn’t want to be liable for the house crashing in on the owners. We, too, should seek to control our words in such a way as to build a good house for the people we are talking to, and if we find that we can’t speak to them in this way, we don’t speak at all.
2. Our words should not be self-centered. How can we expect to build others up if we constantly are talking about ourselves? It is often easier to focus on ourselves when we speak because we know us. But rather than defaulting to “easy” and waiting impatiently until the other person has finished his sentence so that we can blurt out what we’ve been waiting to say about ourselves, we need to do the hard work of thinking about the other person, what they need, what would be helpful to them. This may entail a few things from your life, but if you is all they hear, then where is Christ? As Paul reminds us in Philippians 2, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
And, as we use words that build up, under control and are not self-centered, we should use words that “fit the occasion.” Literally, “for the building up of the need.” What is the need? You’re speaking to that person for a reason, right? What is their need? It may be apparent, like when your friend calls grieving because of the messed up situation going on at home. Or, they may not have an apparent need. It may simply be a conversation in passing, or a response to something online. Either way, we need to do the hard work of assessing the actual need. This may not be readily apparent. We may initially think they need one thing, when they actually need to hear something else at that time in order to be built up.
Consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians in Ch. 3. “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.” Did they need to hear the “solid food” regarding Christ and His Church? Yes! Did it fit their need at the time? No!
Some of us think we have the spiritual gift of making correct statements. We are truth tellers. We like to preach to people. Sometimes you may want to deliver a sermon, when what the person needs is a shoulder to cry on. Or, you may want to offer a shoulder, and what they need is a sermon! We have to take time to assess the need, and then use words that build up the person in that occasion.
As with the other elements of the old life we are to put off, paired with the elements of the new life we are to put on, Paul again gives us a motivation. In fact, here he gives us two, both a positive and a negative.
First, Paul tells us to speak whatever is good for the building up of the need “so that you might give grace to those who hear.” Each word that comes out of our mouths are opportunities for giving grace to all who hear. We have the privilege of becoming co-workers with God by using our words!
What is the grace that we are giving? Grace is that which we don’t deserve. We often think of grace in the context of salvation. We sin, we earn the wage of death, and we have no way of paying our sin debt. But then, surprisingly, God gives us grace - something we don’t deserve - in sending His Son to become man, living a righteous life under the law, dying a death that He didn’t earn on the cross, all so that He might give us His righteousness and pay our sin-wage on the cross as our substitute. That is a clear picture of salvific grace. So, in many conversations, our words should be littered with echos of that grace, pointing ourselves and those with whom we’re speaking to Christ. In this way, we are using our words to build up those with whom we’re speaking and giving them the message of grace.
But this isn’t all Paul means here. Consider the times you’ve been spoken down to by a family member or friend or co-worker. At that point, our reflex is to spring back at them. We are word-punched, and we want to come back swinging. That is what they deserve, isn’t it? And before we can think about the corrosive words we are using, and that we are tearing down rather than building up, that we aren’t serving the need of the occasion, we volley a series of deserved, grace-less words back, hitting our target, and inflicting the damage those words were meant to have.
But Paul tells us we are to show grace. We are not to speak in ways that the other person deserves. We are to give them what they don’t deserve. We have Christ as our example here, who was able to breathlessly exclaim as He was dying on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We deserved the Creator of the universe, who was bodily hanging from that cross, to call forth all of the armies of heaven to annihilate all the peoples of the earth, beginning with the Israelites who hung Him there. We expect Him to simply stop upholding by the word of His power all that He created, causing atom to detach from atom, proton from neutron, leaving creation uncreated.
But instead, He showed grace. And this is what Paul says we are to do. Don’t speak to others the way they may deserve. Speak to them in ways that promote their being built up according to their need.
A second motivation to speaking in this way is that we may not “grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” This bears a few considerations on our part:
First, the Holy Spirit is a person. Do you ever consider this, Christian? When you are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, He takes up residence inside of you. And when you sin, you cause Him to grieve. We may think of Jesus as the one who was well acquainted with our sorrows, but do we ever acquaint ourselves with the sorrow over our sin that the Holy Spirit has? We must recognize that each time we speak in a way that is rotten, we bring the infinitely perfect Spirit of God to grief.
Second, consider how it is that we grieve Him. The main way is by using words that are unholy. The Holy Spirit doesn’t take well to our unholy words. The occasional off-color comment is not passing to Him. The jesting we do at the expense of another is not funny in His sight. He is God, and thus He hates perfectly what is not holy. We, then, should also grow in our hate of this kind of speech, and learn to love the kind of speech that is loving, both in regards to God and man.
We also grieve Him when we use words that bring about disunity. Remember back to 4:4 - “There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call - one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” One body, one Spirit. These two are related. We are one as a body because our one Lord was sent by the one Father to bring about the one hope that we have through our one faith, displayed publicly in our one baptism, guaranteed to us through the abiding presence and seal of this one Spirit. So, when we use our words to un-unite the body, we bring grief to the Holy Spirit because we are working against His whole purpose in our lives. Remember back to 2:22, “In Him (Jesus), you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Therefore, we should not use words that tear down what the Spirit is building up, for when we do, we cause Him grief.
Are you willing to consider that you do not use your words in a Christ-honoring way? That you bring grief upon the Holy Spirit of God by your continued body-demeaning, downward-directing, corrosion-inducing, hate-influencing, self-pleasing, rotten-smelling words that proceed from your demeaned, downward, corroded, hateful, selfish, rotten heart? Or, if you’ve been redeemed, that you still feel the influence of the flesh that lived with that demeaned, downward, corroded, hateful, selfish, rotten heart for years? Admitting the presence of this old self is the first step to putting it off. We then must systematically bring Paul’s words to mind, reminding ourselves through the aid of the Spirit that our words are either bringing grace to those who hear, or are grieving the Holy Spirit of God. We must then seek to find words that build others up in whatever circumstances we find them, with an ultimate goal of giving grace to them and bringing joy to the Spirit by whom we have been sealed.
I need this. I need to be reminded of this. And I have it on good authority that you do, too. Let us join together and do what we covenantally take upon ourselves when we partake of the Lord’s supper: “We commit to, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, walk together in Christian love...To watch over one another in brotherly love, remember one another in prayer, aid one another in sickness and distress, be sympathetic in feeling and courteous in speech, slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation and to secure it without delay.”
May we, together, “Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
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