Cary Cox, from James 1:26-27. Worthless Religion Vs. Pure Religion. James gives helpful and practical examples of what hearing and doing the word looks like in everyday life.
Speech is important. God is a speaking God, and he has made humans in his image. We are creative, moral, emotional, rational, and spiritual beings who communicate with language. When sin came into the world, it affected every part of us, including the way we speak. Many Christians today seem to downplay the importance of our speech, but a quick survey of Scripture shows that this is something God takes very seriously.
Our speech is really a heart issue. When someone becomes a Christian, something truly miraculous and life-changing happens to them. The Bible calls it being “born again.” Through the gospel of Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, we are changed from the inside out (2 Cor 5:17). The Spirit begins a transforming work in us that will ultimately affect all areas of our lives. This transformation will not occur overnight, but there will be progress, day by day, little by little, as we begin to look more and more like Christ. It is impossible to be a Christian and fail to experience this transformation process (Romans 6:1-4).
The change will be seen outwardly as fruit, or evidence, of our transformation. One of the ways this saving work will be seen is in the fruit of our speech. Jesus made this clear in Luke 6:43-45. A good tree (one that has been born again) will always produce good fruit, but the evil tree will continue to produce only bad fruit. Jesus then mentioned our speech: “for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (v45). What is in the heart will always reveal itself out of our mouth! We can fake it for awhile. Many people go to church and say the right words, sing the songs, talk about Jesus, but their heart is far from God. Eventually the truth will come out. People will know who we are, and what we love, by what we talk about. The heart is seen in the words. So, if we are a Christian, our speech should increasingly reflect the new nature within.
Christ has called his followers to be different from the world. God is holy, and he demands that his people also be holy. “Holy” means to be set apart from the world to God, as his special people. He calls his people “saints,” or “holy ones.” We are his. Jesus instructed us to act as salt and light in this sinful world (Mat 5:13). Being holy, acting as salt and light, does not mean we physically separate from the world. But it does mean that our identification with Christ will be a visible, and even audible thing! Our speech should increasingly be different from the way the world talks (2 Cor 6:7; 1 Tim 4:12; Titus 2:7-8). Part of our walk as disciples of Jesus is the replacement of sinful speech with speech that glorifies God and builds up others (Heb 13:15). Our speech is an important part of our witness and our identification with Jesus.
The Scriptures contain clear commands about how God’s people use their speech. Christians are instructed to avoid sinful, hurtful, and filthy speech:
“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. …But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” Ephesians 4:29; 5:3-4 ESV
These Scriptures are very clear. “Corrupting talk” is speech that is rotten, foul, profane. Twice this passage refers to this kind of speech as not “proper,” “out of place” for God’s saints. There is a kind of speaking that is just not right for the people of God. And God takes it very seriously. In the context of these instructions, Scripture mentions grieving the Spirit of God, and warns of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (4:30; 5:5).
The power of our speech is strong, to affect people for good or bad. James warns us of the destructive power of the tongue, and how out of place it is for both blessing and cursing to come from the same mouth (James 3:2-12). It is not right to praise God on Sunday, and insult and curse others on Monday, who are made in God’s image! Our speech is not a gray area, or a small thing in the eyes of God. It is part of our break with the old man and our continual transformation into the likeness of Christ (1 Cor 1:5; 2 Cor 8:7).
It is a bit overwhelming how much the Bible says about our speech. Below is a list of specific types of speech the Scripture forbids the people of God to use. The list includes sixteen kinds of forbidden speech, and it’s not even an exhaustive list!
The Negative: Scripture Calls God’s People to Avoid Certain Kinds of Speech
- Lies/deceit: Col 3:9; Hos 4:2; Prv6:17; 12:22; 1 Pet 3:10
- Flattery/Smooth, flirty speech that leads to sexual sin: Ps 55:21; Prov 2:16; 5:3; 7:21
- Crooked/Perverted Speech: Prv 2:12-13; 4:24; 6:12; 8:13;
- Destructive that Destroys: Prv16:27; Jms 3:5-6
- Dirty Jokes: Eph 5:3-4
- Cursing/Profanity: Eph 4:29; Jms 3:9-11; Hos 4:2
- Sarcasm/Insults (sarcastic daggers linger in the heart of others long after we have spoken them): Eph 4:29; Mat 5:22
- Tearing Down: Eph 4:29; Prv18:21
- Slander (speak critically with intent to hurt): Ps 101:5; Mk 7:22; Rom 1:30; Eph 4:31; Col 3:8; 1 Pet 2:1
- Talking too much: Prv 10:19; 29:11
- Gossip: Rom 1:29; 2 Cor 12:20; 1 Tim 5:13
- Arguing: 1 Tim 6:4; 2 Cor 12:20
- Blasphemy: Ex 20:7; Lev19:12; 22:31-33 (“Profanity” connected to blasphemy in ancient times, to treat the holy as common; defile)
- Speaking Evil of Someone (insult, mock, ridicule, in general): Titus 3:2; Jms 4:11; 1 Pet 3:10
- Revile (criticize in an angry manner): 1 Cor 5:11; 6:10
- Grumbling/Complaining: Phil 2:14; Num 11:1
It should be noted that on occasion, prophets of God used strong language to denounce sin – even sexual language (describing Israel’s idol worship as a kind of spiritual adultery – “whoring” after other gods). But this not the same as laughing with friends while dropping some choice words.
But the Scripture is not just negative on this subject! There are also commands for specific types of speech that God’s people must use! This is part of the idea of replacement as we grow in Christ; replacing the old habits of speech with God-glorifying ones. What is in the heart must come out of the mouth!
The Positive: Scripture Calls God’s People to Adopt Certain Kinds of Speech
- Building Up Others: Col 4:5-6; Eph 4:29; Prv16:24
- Honesty: Eph 4:25; Mat 5:37
- Restraint (not talking too much): Prv 10:19; 29:11
- Blessing Others: 1 Pet 3:9
- Singing to God and the Church: Eph 5:19; Col 3:16
- Teaching Each Other: Col 3:16
- Prayer: Lk 11:2
- Exhortation/Encouragement: 1 Thes 5:11; Heb 3:13
- Preaching: 2 Tim 4:2
- Witness/Evangelism: Acts 1:8
- All Speech for the Glory of God: Col 3:17
The focus here is not on rules, or approaching God in a legalistic, “I’ve got to control my speech to earn his love” way. It is a heart of obedience and thankfulness to the Lord that wants to grow in Christlikeness. If you have failed in this area (and we all have), know that Christ died for these sins, too! Let us repent of sinful speech, receive the Lord’s forgiveness, and lean on the power of the Spirit of God to speak in a way that glorifies God and builds people up!
Article by Cary Cox