Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 07/18/1999
"Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear."
In teaching us the specifics of the worthy walk, Paul has more to say about our speech than any other single area. We are to speak truth in 4:25, avoid unwholesome words in favor of edifying ones in 4:29, forego slander in 4:31, eschew filthiness and coarse jesting in 5:4, and be always giving thanks in 5:19-20, etc. And this should not be surprising, for the ability, yea, the drive to use language is at the very heart of our uniqueness, our identity as created in the image of the articulate God who spoke the world into existence and communicates with us through his Word. The tongue is a small organ, but a pivotal one (James 3:2-12). As often, Paul gives us in v. 29 three things: what not to do, what to do, why to do it.
Let us start with some Definitions. The word translated "unwholesome" is SAPROS, which means "rotten." It is used of fruit or meat which has spoiled and of clothing that is patched or falling apart. "Word" is LOGOS, which means word, speech, or reason, the ordered expression of that which is within. So unwholesome words would be not nourishing, unhealthful or even poisonous, words indecently clothed or without decorum.
We can now proceed to Delineate some different kinds of words that could be unwholesome by this definition. One thing that comes to mind is words that are Off-Color, lewd, or lascivious. Most of the commentaries on this passage are interestingly focused here. My point is not that they are wrong but that they are imbalanced, neglecting other areas that are just as important. Are we as a movement perhaps a bit over-sensitive in this area? Sex is indeed a part of life, and Scripture is itself very frank about it. If it were not in the Bible, some of us would accuse the Song of Solomon of stepping over the line here! Well, even if Evangelical sensibilities are overdeveloped in this area to the neglect of others, that does not excuse real lewdness. Our language should indeed express a commitment to purity on our part that encourages others to purity.
A second area would be Vulgarity. As opposed to lewdness, which specifically has inappropriately suggestive sexual content, vulgarity is simply a reference to bodily parts or functions in general in ways that are considered impolite. Is this just a matter of taste? Is it really a moral issue? Yes, it is a moral issue in so far as vulgarity can be uncharitable to sensitive ears. Christians should not be up-tight, but they should remember that whenever they speak they are representing Christ. So they should hold themselves to a higher standard.
Third comes Profanity. This is language that is disrespectful to God. It is not an encouraging sign of clear thinking that we tend to conflate these first three forms of potentially unwholesome speech as if they were all the same thing. I am not recommending vulgarity, but think about it. If I as a pastor hit my thumb with a hammer and loudly requested God to consign the hammer to eternal perdition (profanity), people might be offended. But how much more offended would they be if I used the "F" word (vulgarity)? I am not suggesting that we should not be offended by such gross vulgarity, but are our values not somewhat reversed here? Biblically, taking the Lord's name in vain is the much more serious problem. Yet we find it much easier to forgive. There is something drastically wrong with the set of sensitivities revealed by this fact.
And now we move on to forms of "rottenness" which most of us do not think of at all. The worst of these is Gossip. Nothing is more "rotten" in its effects on the Body of Christ. But as we have already dealt with it under v. 25, I will say no more about it here.
Yet another form of rotten speech is Complaining. Really? Really. It is one of God's chief grievances against the Old-Testament Israelites, for it is not constructive but rather the evidence of a bad attitude toward God and his Providence.
Finally, we could mention Opinionated Pontification. I refer here not so much to the content as to the manner of what is said. What all these forms of rotten speech have in common is that they not only do not, they cannot build up the Body of Christ.
Having seen the Definition and the Delineation of rotten speech, we should also think for a moment about its Derivation. It comes from and is therefore evidence of a rottenness in the human heart. For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he; and out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh. They may fool us for awhile, but sooner or later people will show us what they truly are in the way they use words--both the content and the manner of them. Therefore, "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear."
"Edification" is of course OIKODOME, which means "building up." It was literally the word used for erecting buildings, for the process of construction. Because Paul presents the Church as a Temple, it is an obviously appropriate metaphor for the growth of the Body of Christ. But there is something curious about our use of the word. We almost always talk of edifying individuals, whereas Scripture almost always talks about edifying the Body. And even when Scripture does speak of edifying the individual, we usually think of encouraging him or shoring up his self worth, while Scripture is more likely speaking of enhancing his ability to serve the Lord and leading him to spiritual maturity.
In other words, we are to talk in such a way that the Church is edified, which means that the Temple to the glory of Jesus Christ consisting of believers as living stones is built. After we talk, people should be stronger, bolder, and more confident in faith, hope, and love, stronger to serve their fellow believers and witness to the truth of the Gospel. The ultimate end of our talk as of every aspect of our walking worthily is ultimately a stronger church. Everything we say should be evaluated in terms of its conduciveness to that. So it is not enough just to avoid rotten speech; everything we say should bring glory to our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are to do this "according to the need of the moment." In other words, our speech must not only be courteous and true, it must also be appropriate. This means that the first step to edifying talk is good listening. What does this person need from us at this moment? As Prvb. 18:13 reminds us, "He who gives an answer before he hears, it is a folly and a shame to him." Sermons, rebukes, advice, lectures, jokes, and stories are all good--at the right time. The question is, where is our focus? It is too easy for it to be on what I need to say instead of what my neighbor needs to hear.
This is the key to everything: Remember who you are! We are living stones in a Temple being built to the eternal glory of Jesus Christ. We are ambassadors of Christ, empowered to speak for him. Therefore, everything we do should bring glory to God and grace to others. And this is especially true of our speech.
Since in nothing do we more resemble our Creator than in our capacity for speech, and in nothing do we more clearly represent our Savior than in our speaking for him, let us therefore "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear."
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams