In our previous post, we talked about the symptoms of spiritual halitosis—that is, ungodly speech that corrupts by tearing down instead of building up. In this post, I want to pick up on this theme and show. First, I want to briefly show what Christians speech is supposed to look like. Then, spend some time thinking about how we actually grow to have that kind of speech.
Speak for Intentional Edification
Paul gives the Ephesians a negative command—a prohibition. But he also gives a positive command—an exhortation. He says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up” (4:29). As we think about edifying others with our speech, we need to first understand that we are meant to build up with our words. Don’t miss the striking directness of Paul’s words here. He says, don’t speak with corrupting words. Then he says, only—only!—speak with words that are good for building up the body. Do you understand the weight of that exhortation? Paul isn’t simply concerned with up chewing a stick of Orbitz to clean up our dirty mouth. He’s not talking about making a New Year’s Resolution or trying to do better. It is not enough to simply stop swearing, or stop gossiping, or stop lying. No, that’s not sufficient. Paul is calling the Ephesians—and as Christians, us today—to a complete reorientation of the way they talk. Every time we go to speak, we should have the intention of building up the person we are taking to.
More than that, we are to edify in wisdom. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion” (4:29). Notice that there is an appropriate time for our words. In other words, when you are seeking to build up another person, it is important to know what they need at the moment. Remember Paul’s word in his letter to the Thessalonians? He says, “we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess 5:14). What happens if you get those commands wrong? Very little building up; very little edification. Each person needs something different. They need appropriate words at the right time if they are to be built up.
Finally, Paul says we edify as grace. Paul says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (4:29). Paul says, it’s important to get this because God desires us—specifically, our words—to be a means of grace in the lives of others. God’s grace is the means by which we grow as Christians. It is his grace operating in our life through is word and his Spirit, and here, through our words, that he causes his people to grow in their faith and become more Christlike. Let that sink. Through your words, God intends your spouse, your children, your friends, your family, your church—he intends them all to grow in their godliness and walk with him. Your speech is meant to be a means of making disciples, as God’s grace comes through you.
But the key question is how do we do this? What is the cure of spiritual halitosis? How do stop using corrupting speech and use words for the edification of others? Paul offers a three-fold cure in Ephesians 4.
1. The Spirit’s Fellowship
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Isn’t that an amazing verse? So often we tend to unintentionally depersonalize the Spirit of God. He becomes something less than person. But Paul brings us back to reality. Think about who the Holy Spirit is for a minute. He is the one who calls us out of our sin to believe the gospel and trust Christ for salvation. He is the one who gives us spiritual life that we might put our faith in Christ. He is the one who applies to our lives the salvation Christ secured on the cross. He is the one who raises us from spiritual death and sets us with Christ in the heavenly places. He is the one who guides us and empowers us as we seek to live the Christian life. He is the one who lifts our prayers to the Father in heaven. He is the one who illumines our minds to comprehend God’s word. He is the one who desires our holiness, moving us and guiding us toward that in every area of our lives. And He is the one who grieves when we sin. The Spirit’s purpose in our life is to shape and guide us into the image of Christ for the glory of God. Imagine the indignity and grief caused when we thwart his desire and casually rebel against our Father’s will? Paul is showing that the use of our words does not just harm or build up people. But that through the harming or building up of people, there is a spiritual reality as well. We are either delighting or grieving God’s himself.
2. The Father’s Holiness
Notice again what he says at the beginning of chapter 5: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (5:1). For better or worse, children reflect their parents. I was somewhere the other day—at a store—and it was just me and I had all four kids with me. And before the lady helping us said ‘Hi’ or ‘Good morning’ or anything, she scans the four faces of my children, then looks and me and says, “Boy, you could never deny them, even if you tried!” Well, that’s true but Paul has something deeper in mind. Save Christ himself, all of God’s children are adopted. Yet, it’s by learning more and more about our heavenly Father living in presence more and more that we are to begin to more and more reflect his character. That is certainly true in our speech as well. The way we talk should reflect God himself. That should motivate to think twice about what we see and how we say and what we pray for at night.
3. The Son’s Love
Paul completes the very Trinitarian description of our way of life in verse 2. “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God . . . be imitators of God . . . And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (4:29; 5:1-2). This brings together, not only the previous prohibition and exhortation, but also our motivation to be godly in our speech. We are motivated by the Son’s love. Think about what Paul is saying here. We’re tempted to get a little on edge anytime someone tells us how to live, especially if we don’t want to change or we think the issue is no big deal. But notice how Christ lived. He loved his Father and he loved us. Therefore, he “gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:2). On one level, Christ displays his love by the way he himself spoke to those around him. Christ stands as the perfect example of one who knew how to build up and encourage and use words as a means of grace in the lives of people. Think of the way he speaks to Nicodemus and the woman at the well and Zacchaeus and the disciples, even when they display a complete lack of understanding as to what he’s about. Yet, there he is patiently, wisely bringing words of grace. But Paul points to something else here. He says Christ shows his love for God and for us by willingly going to the cross, offering up his life for us that we might be brought into fellowship with God. In other words, love motivated Christ to sacrifice everything for others. As the recipients of that divine love, of that sacrifice that brings forgiveness and life, we should motivated to love as well. We should so love God that we desire to honor him with our words. We should so love others, that we desire to build them up with our words. Rather than being driven by what we like and what we know, we should desire to be transformed in our speech, letting loving motivate how we talk.
When we are little, our parents often try to comfort us by saying, ‘sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.’ I don’t know who ever came up with that, but they’d obviously never had an unkind word said to them. I can tell you from experience—as a little kid who got made fun of a lot, to a pastor who has been on the receiving end of some nasty comments and letters—words can hurt. In fact, they sometimes hurt far worse than any stick or stone ever will.
But words can also build up. Words can encourage and edify. Words can be the means by which God’s grace comes into the lives of his people. As we seek to edify and build up one another, let us consider our words. Let us consider how we speak. Are we moving people closer to God or grieving his Spirit among us? Are we talking in line with God’s purposes as evidence of our love for him and his people or simply seeking our pleasure?
May God be glorified and his church edified in our words.