Sanctification: Our Speech
My wife and I had the opportunity this summer of visiting Normandy, France. A highlight of our trip was a day spent touring a small section of the D-Day landing beaches as well as the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. It was a moving and somber experience as we reflected on the thousands of young soldiers whose lives were cut short in the chaos and fury of battle to rid the evil holding Europe hostage. In preparation for our visit, we read portions of Stephen Ambrose’s book, D-Day. After returning home, we watched several movies retelling the story of the war. What was striking was the shift in language between movies made several years apart. The newer the film, the greater the frequency of expletives. It seemed to me we could make a transcript of the dialogue that might look like a textbook of symbolic logic @#$%^&! While it was clear from a number of the direct quotations of soldiers and sailors in Ambrose’s book that they used “colorful” language, some of the films we watched took it a bit far. The films reflected what appears to be an increased usage of “bad” language all around us. We hear it from our political leaders, celebrities, and people very much like ourselves. Perhaps you have a colleague, neighbor, or friend who favors such words. We even have had examples in the last ten or fifteen years of ministers of the gospel dropping strongly colorful words in sermons! And, who among us would dare deny ever having used one or another indiscreet term. Our denial itself would be a misuse of the tongue.
What does it say about us and reveal about our society when we choose to use foul language with such frequency, when it seems to have become something of a norm? On the one hand, we might attribute it to conditioning and habit. We use these words mindlessly. On the other hand, I suspect most of us know full well that there is rarely a circumstance in which expletives are appropriately used. We do well to heed Jesus’ warning in Matthew 12:36-37, “36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
What ought our speech to look and sound like? In Ephesians 4:29, the Apostle Paul writes, “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” (ESV). The expression “no corrupting” translates a term that means rotten or putrid. Here, the NAS is helpful with its translation, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth” (emphasis mine). Certainly, something rotten or putrid is not wholesome! Although I am raising a concern through my comments on the use of words we regard as bad language, the ESV’s phraseology helps us see that Paul’s concern is not simply for individual words but what we communicate more broadly. Everything that exits our mouths by way of speech ought to have as its goal the good of those around us even when we must speak boldly or in rebuke. We can’t escape the fact that the super majority of uses of expletives is far less than wholesome or useful for building up anyone. On the contrary, their use reveals the corruption of our own hearts. As Jesus explains in Mark 7:21-23, “21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (ESV). Our use of colorful language, more often than not, reveals an ungodly stain that needs cleansing and removal from the inside whether that be impatience or bitterness or arrogance or any other sinful blemish. Rather than allow ourselves to be dominated by the uncouthness of expletives and our utterances full of the sharpness of daggers, in our pursuit of holiness, Paul’s words in Colossians 4:6 ought to guide and structure the use of our tongues, “6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” We serve a holy God and we live with people made in his image. Our words ought to reflect that dignity and honor.
Michael J. Matossian was ordained to gospel ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1998. He has served since 2009 as Senior Pastor at Emmanuel OPC in Wilmington, Delaware. He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Marquette University. He and his wife, Judy, and their Son, Matthew, are all natives of southern California.