Christians are called to a particular way of life. There is a code of conduct for which we are responsible. It is a commanded code—and, equally important, it is an inspired code. There is not the option to do as we please or to live by our own defined way. We don’t have permission to live like we choose. We don’t have the go ahead to pursue a manner of life of our own choosing
We are called to conformity. Individualism gets a kick in the pants. For those who want to plant the flag of “my way,” the only option is the highway.
We see this in the short, yet deep, passage before us. Paul is saying that there is an expectation that is the same for every Christian.
As we have seen previously, every Christian is created by God, in Christ, to display these characteristics: (1) We must mind our mouths by speaking the truth (v. 25); We must mind our tempers by avoiding sinful anger (vv. 26–27); and (3) we are to mind our business by labouring hard (v. 28).
In this study, we will begin to delve into the final section of this passage: vv. 29–32. We will see, once again, that we are to mind something. There is something else for which we must assume personal responsibility; there is something else that we are to think on—to consider as a Christian. In this case, we are to mind our manners: our manner of speech, and the manner of our spirit; what we might call our disposition. We are to be exemplary in our speech and in our interactions with one another.
This is an important theme in Scripture, and one that Paul was quite concerned about (see Acts 20:18; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; 2 Timothy 3:10).
You see, Paul knew that his manner of life would be a huge determining factor as to whether people would listen to him. He wanted to so live that people would hear him so that he could help them. This too should be our goal.
Paul here identifies two areas on which we should set our minds if our manner of life will be helpful rather than harmful. Namely, we must mind our speech (vv. 29–30), and we must mind our spirit (vv. 31–32).
There is much overlap of these subjects; in fact, within this larger passage, there is a repetition of these themes. But this should not surprise us, for things that are urgent and important and necessary often warrant repeating.
In this case, the concern is that our relationships with one another in the body of Christ are so important that we must constantly mind our manners.
We do this by being mindful of the value of one another. Therefore, we are careful how we speak both to and about one another (vv. 29–30). Further, we are also responsible to guard how we “feel” about one another (vv. 31–32).
I suppose we can summarise this by observing that we are to guard our hearts and our mouths so that we kind to one another. This is easier said than done, but it must be done. As Solomon wrote, “What is desired in man is kindness” (Proverbs 19:22).
If we develop a kind disposition, we will be kind in our declarations. By minding our spirit, we will mind our speech. Such is a beautiful and beneficial life. So, let’s learn how to mind our manners
Minding Our Speech
The fires in the Western Cape have been horrible, and those who started them should be brought to book. Several weeks ago, in the United States, the resort town of Gatlinburg (where my wife and I spent some time both on our honeymoon as well as on our 25th wedding anniversary) was devastated by fires, with some seven hundred buildings, including businesses and homes, destroyed. Tragically, several people lost their lives. Buildings can be replaced, and terrestrial scars can be covered with new growth, but lives are irreplaceable. As it turns out, a couple of older teenagers were responsible for this destruction. They are rightfully being tried for homicide.
But as devastating as fire can be, there is something far more destructive. It is a small thing, and, thankfully—because it is very unattractive—it is usually quite invisible. I am speaking, of course, of the tongue (James 3:1–8).
James tells us that the tongue is powerful enough to set the whole course of the world on fire. He says that it is the only thing that cannot be tamed—at least, not by mere man.
These two verses aim to help us to avoid such destructive living, to avoid such a destructive manner. As in v. 25, we are to guard our mouths. Or as Simon Austen comments, “just as people are to do good with their hands (4:28), so also they are to do good with their lips (4:29).”1
But first, a word of warning.
I recently made the statement in a sermon that you do not have to feel conviction every time that you come to church. That is normally true. However, there are exceptions—and a text like this one is probably one of those exceptions. I seriously doubt that any of us will escape unscathed by the Sword of the Spirit. These exhortations are relevant to each of us. No doubt, they are more applicable to some than to others, but they are applicable to all. Our speech is often far below the expectation for a Christian. Yet there is hope.
Paul seems to follow the same template that he laid down in vv. 22–24: We must put off destructive speech, put on constructive speech, and put in awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
There are various ways that we can approach and apply this text! I have chosen to do so under three main headings.
We Must Mind God’s Purpose for Our Speech
First, according to v. 29, we must mind God’s purpose for our speech: “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”
It has often been noted that one major distinguishing characteristic between man and animals is our ability for speech. The ability for meaningful, relationship-building communication is a gift from God. Unfortunately, we are all at times guilty of misusing, even abusing, this gift. But this verse reminds us of the purpose of this gift.
This verse clearly reveals the purpose for our speech: to build and to maintain healthy relationships—particularly in the body of Christ. Words matter. They can usher in life or death (see Proverbs 4:20; 5:7; 16:24; 18:21; etc.).
We Must Mind the Content of Our Speech
Paul assumes that we are going to be speaking to, and of one another, so he reminds us of the rules that we must follow: “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth.”
This verse is not difficult to understand, but it is difficult to obey. Rather than our speech being characterised as corrupt, it is to be Christian; rather than it being rotten, it is to be regenerate; rather than being common, it is to be holy; rather than being destructive, it is to be constructive.
The word translated “corrupt” means rotten, worthless or unfit for use. It can, for example, speak of rotten (and therefore useless) fruit (Matthew 7:17–18). “Word” translates the Greek word logos, which speaks of a message, of communication, of words.
When he speaks of the “mouth,” Paul clearly has in mind speech as a major thought. However, we can no doubt also include the written word in this.
Rotten speech, like rotten fruit, is distasteful, harmful (sickening), and not beneficial. This includes vulgur language (language that perverts God’s beauty)—language that causes a cringe. Locker room talk is not permissible.
The context, however, would seem to indicate that Paul is concerned with speech that is harmful or destructive—speech that is hurtful. Hughes sums up well: “This includes obscene language, but the emphasis is on decay-spreading conversation that runs others down and delights in their weaknesses.”2
Practically, what does this “corrupt” talk look like? It includes things like backbiting, slander, malevolent talk, gossip, and unnecessary speech. Augustine’s, who was a very hospitable pastor, had the following dinner table rule: “He who speaks evil of an absent man or woman is not welcome at this table.”3
It would also include prejudicial speech, hate speech, defamatory and derogatory speech. It would include even the tone of what is said.It would include lies and falsehood, and possibly even pessimistic, unbelieving and hateful speech.
As you reflect on this verse, think about the stories you share, the things you boast about and even the jokes that we tell (and the jokes by which you are entertained). I recently heard Trevor Noah offering, by means of a highly distasteful joke, horrific support of abortion, while vilifying the sanctity of life. I immediately thought that, as far as it lies within my control, I will not listen to Noah again.
Speech can be a powerful force, either for good or for bad. For example, think of the words of Hitler, whose words stirred up hateful change, compared to the words of say, Martin Luther King Jr., whose words incited peaceful change. Better yet, consider the speech of the devil who brought about rebellion and the words of Jesus that led to reconciliation with God (John 10:32, etc.). The content of our speech matters, for content has consequences. Examine yours.
I recently saw a video of cheetahs stalking a young impala while bystanders filmed it with great interest and even delight. Sometimes we are like that. As bystanders, we watch while others take the lives of the often unsuspecting by a vicious tongue.
But Paul’s exhortation is that we are to deliberately put off any and all speech that is destructive. Our speech is to be radically different once we are saved.
It’s Your Responsibility!
Note the assumption of responsibility: “Let.” It’s your responsibility. You can’t blame the devil, though he may be very much a part of the problem due to your failure to handle anger (see v. 27). Angry hearts are revealed in angry words (see Matthew 15:19).
We must set a guard over our mouths (see Psalm 141:3; Proverbs 13:3; 21:23). When Nehemiah’s enemies sought to discourage God’s people with their harsh words, Nehemiah “set a watch against them day and night” (Nehemiah 4:9).
We must take the necessary steps to stop it! These steps may include memorising relevant Scriptures or asking others to hold us accountable. It may mean, quite literally, counting to ten before counting! It will require us to practise righteous talk. Ask someone to evaluate the content and the tone of your speech. Avoid exposure to speech that is corrupt (therefore avoiding learning corrupt speech)—for example, TV shows, movies, books, blogs that use crude and corrupt speech. Avoid those who are characterised by corrupt speech, for those who do not know God make for unhealthy companions (1 Corinthians 15:33–34). Rather, follow a godly role model. In short, cultivate the ground of your heart for a harvest of the fruit of the Spirit.
It’s an Absolute Command
But it is also worth noting that this exhortation forbids the speaking of even one corrupt word: “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth.” “No corrupt word”—not any, not even one. Let us seek God to asking Him for help to guard our mouths.
We Must Mind the Cause of Our Speech
Jesus made it clear that our words reveal what is in our heart (Matthew 15:18–19). James made the same point, arguing that harmful words (James 3:1–12) come from within (4:1ff). He shows the power of the tongue for evil. He says that no man can tame it. The reason is because, unlike a horse, our tongues are motivated by evil hearts. The problem is not with the small organ attached to our throats. The problem is in our fallen hearts. That which drives our lives is sinful, and this empowers our speech. The sooner we realise this, the sooner we will call upon God for help. For, thankfully, James does not say that the no one can tame the tongue, but only that no man can tame it. The God-Man can!
At the same time, the Scriptures do command believers to guard their hearts with all diligence, “for out of it flows the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23). So, what can we do? What shall we do?
First, all upon the name of the Lord and be saved from this crooked generation. Then, feed your new heart with the sweet speech of God’s Word—and don’t hang around fools (see Proverbs 13:20).
We Must Mind God’s People in Our Speech
It is worth repeating, but if we will keep in mind that the people to whom and of whom we are speaking are brothers/sisters in Christ, we will temper our speech. Rather than offering them rotten fruit, we will give to them healthy fruit that contributes to their welfare.
Some years ago, a couple in our church had opportunity to travel to Ireland. They checked into their hotel room, and found a complementary basket of fruit awaiting them. Over the next few days, they enjoyed what they said was the best fruit they had ever tasted. When they finished the basket, they enquired at the information desk where they might acquire more such fruit. The answer both surprised and amused them: It was imported from South Africa. The best fruit grown in South Africa is exported, while South Africans receive the leftovers.
If we are not careful, we can treat brothers and sisters in Christ in the same way with our words: We can be guilty of exporting our best words to those outside of the fold while dumping our less than quality fruit on those closest to us.
We need to consider that God’s people are the apple of His eye (Zechariah 2:8). I assume, therefore, that each believer can rest in the same affectionate assurance. So let’s be careful about how we speak of them and let’s be careful what we speak to them. Let us look out for their welfare.
I know that this is easier said than done. I understand the tension between what we know to be true and our actual practice of it. I received an email this week from a brother pastor lamenting that, though he loves to preach God’s Word, so often he feels like a hypocrite. I can relate. I have offended far too often and far too many. Yet there is hope. And one reason I know that is through the speech of others.
As my brothers and sisters speak gospel truth to me, I am encouraged—“built up”—as I am reminded that I can be forgiven and cleansed. I hope that my “speech” in this study will have the same effect upon you.
This is not a matter of what Christian Smith dubbed moralistic therapeutic deism. It is not merely a “rah, rah” cheer to “do better.” Paul sets this exhortation in a theological setting. We will see this in the next verse.
Now, since we are considering God’s people as we speak, we need to pay close attention to the directives in the latter part of this verse. That is, while we are to put off the ugly and destructive speech of the old man, we at the same time are to put on the beautiful and constructive speech of the new man. The latter part of v. 29 highlights several aspects of such speech: It is helpful, not harmful, and hopeful.
It is Helpful
First, constructive speech is helpful, edifying speech. We are to speak “what is good for edification.” The word translated “edification” means to build up and is related to a term used for building a house or a building. Paul chose his words carefully, for he had earlier described the church as the household of God (2:19–22).
Our conversation is to be characterised as constructive. We dare not use our speech in such a way that it tears down. As the church of God, we are called—commanded—to build up one another. This should always be our goal. In all our interactions with one another, the spiritual welfare of the other is to be our goal. What a wonderful combination to get two people together with the same goal!
All our interactions, and therefore our conversations, should be motivated by the desire to move the other person more towards God—from the kingdom of darkness towards the kingdom of God’s dear Son. This should serve as a check and balance on our speech: Is what I am saying, and how I am saying it, moving people to the right or to the left, towards God’s Son or away from God’s Son?
Consider when you are in a group. Is what you are saying helping others to grow in Christ? Is what you are saying helping the person of whom you are speaking—especially when they are not present?
It is Not Harmful
Second, constructive speech is not harmful—it is fitting speech. We are to speak “as fits the occasion.” This means that our words are to be appropriate to the situation. Timing and tone are important. We must think before we speak. Only release the accelerator of your tongue once you have properly engaged the clutch of your brain! Otherwise, a wreck may occur.
You may have witnessed, as I have, politicians hijacking funerals for personal advantage. It is sickening to watch such flagrant abuse of a platform. But we too need to be careful.
Is what we are going to say fitting in the context? For example, is the rebuke well timed? Is the humour appropriately placed? Is the criticism necessary at that moment? Will the disagreement sit well at this point? Is the argument necessary now? Is sharing the burden at this time good timing?
Is the person we are speaking about going to benefit? Is this going to be gossip? When you sit around the lunch table on Sunday afternoon, are your comments about the body of Christ helpful?
We should be careful about a very important, and yet perhaps subtle, distinction: Speech might be hurtful and yet not harmful. In fact, in the right context, hurtful speech can be helpful speech. Solomon wrote, “There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword; but the tongue of the wise promotes health” (Proverbs 12:18). Again, he wrote, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). Being “hurtful” is sometimes very fitting.
Take, for example, a funeral service. Far too often, funeral services and bulletins are filled with sentimental nonsense, which is helpful to no one. But truth proclaimed at a funeral service, while it may be hurtful immediately, is ultimately the only helpful kind of speech there is. There may be people in attendance who need to hear some direct talk, which may be hurtful in the short term, but will prove helpful ultimately.
It is Hopeful
Third, constructive speech is hopeful—it is gracious. Such speech will “impart grace to the hearers.” As Paul wrote elsewhere, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). That is, our speech is to be characterises as conserving and preserving rather than as destructive.
Let me put it this way, our speech is to be as hopeful as God’s speech is to us. It is to be winsome. Our speech should provide hope for others—even when we are called upon to rebuke. “Even telling men of their sin is a gracious thing to do, if it is done for the right purpose and in the right spirit, because until a person faces up to and repents of his sin he cannot experience the grace of salvation.”4
Gracious does not mean grovelling. Jesus was gracious in his speech, and yet He was characterised as being full of grace and truth (John 1:14). After His first public sermon, “all bore witness to Him, and marvelled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth” (Luke 4:22). And immediately they tried to kill Him!
Our words are to be informed and empowered by the gospel. When they are, grace will ooze helpfully into the lives of others. As MacArthur puts it, “The gracious words of Christians help retard the moral and spiritual spoilage in the world around them. They also provide strength and comfort to those in need. Our graciousness reflects the grace of Christ, who uses our graciousness to draw others to His grace.”5
May God grant us grace that our speech will be holy, harmless, hopeful and helpful.
We Must Mind God’s Presence as We Speak
Finally, let us be careful to mind God’s presence as we speak. In other words, we need to mind the reality of Coram Deo—that we live and speak always before the face of God: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (v. 30).
Earlier, when Paul admonished about minding our temper, he warned about giving a gap to the devil. Here, Paul warns about grieving the Holy Spirit. The two are connected. If we offend the Holy Spirit, we at the same time provide opportunity for an evil spirit to wreak havoc. Paul is therefore highlighting the seriousness of this matter. We dare not sin against God with our speech. He is in our midst, and He hears everything we say.
“Grieve” translates a word that speaks of distress, sorrow or offence. By the way, this alone proves the personhood of God the Holy Spirit: If someone can be saddened, then they have personality.
We need to consider this when we speak. Are we bringing sorrow to the Lord who is in our lives and therefore in our midst? As John Stott noted, “Because he is also the ‘Spirit of truth,’ through whom God has spoken, he is upset by all our misuse of speech.”6
I have heard Christians tell others to “go to hell.” How that must grieve the Holy Spirit! The Holy Spirit was sent to glorify the Son (John 14:26; 16:14). The Holy Spirit desires to draw people from hell to heaven through the Son. How grieved He must be to hear Christians condemn others with such corrupt speech!
The Christian is “sealed for the day of redemption” by the Holy Spirit. Why does Paul mention this? What does it add to the exhortation? It seems to me that he is reminding us that, since we are authentic (John 6:27) people of God, who one day will be perfected in fully redeemed bodies (Ephesians 1:14), we dare not behave like we are not! How dare we speak as though we are not sealed for the day of redemption. This is convicting stuff!
There is a song, whose words speak to this: “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” If so—if we are truly indwelt by the Spirit—then we are to be filled with the Spirit. When this is our personal and corporate experience, then our speech will be different. In the next chapter, Paul says that those who are Spirit-filled will be speak to one another in the church in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. We will express thankfulness to God. In a parallel passage in Colossians 3, Paul says that our Spirit-filled speech will aim at admonishing, instructing and exhorting one another (3:16).
The point is simply this: God expects our speech to be holy and helpful, and not only does He expect this, He is presently inspecting this. Let us not disappoint Him. Let us not bring Him sorrow.
James Boice observes, “The Holy Spirit blesses human words to edification. So it must grieve him particularly when the speech of Christians, rather than building up the church, as it should, is used to tear down others who are part of that body.”7
Parents will perhaps understand some of this as they sorrow when their children are fighting with one another. How much more it must grieve the Spirit to see God’s children doing the same.
Christian, remember God’s powerful regeneration and transformation of your life. Remember His possession of you (“sealed”) as His own and His promised full and final perfection of you (“day of redemption”). Minding this will provide you with perspective, and with motive, to put off corrupt speech and replace it by putting on good speech. When you do, God is blessed rather than grieved. That is motive enough to obey this injunction.
Many years ago, I read the biography of Alexander Whyte, the long-serving pastor of Free St George’s Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. He seems to have been a very gracious man, and yet at the same time he was a man of God with strong biblical convictions. He was like his Master—full of grace and truth.
I read this week that it was said of him, “All his geese became swans.”3 In other words, though he had to deal with some ugly ducklings as a pastor, nevertheless he viewed them as swans and treated and spoke of them that way. Doubtless, this response resulted in many of these geese becoming swans. His graciousness was a means to their development from ugly to beautiful.
Likewise, King David spoke of God’s dealings with him in this way: “Your gentleness has made me great” (Psalm 18:35). May God’s gentleness towards us, by the gospel of His Son, fill our minds in such a way that it will show in our manners.
- Simon Austen, Teaching Ephesians: From Text to Message (Ross-shire: Christian Focus 2012), 169. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 150. ↩
- Hughes, Ephesians, 151. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Ephesians: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 188. ↩
- MacArthur, Ephesians, 189. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 189. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 170. ↩
- Hughes, Ephesians, 151. ↩