Words that edify
Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. Eph. 4:29
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 understanding 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 and 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. 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. 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 sound doctrine and theology.
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).
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.