The Lord's Day Morning
May 21, 2006
“Talk, Edification, the Holy Spirit, and the Glory of God”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians 4. In this whole passage from Ephesians 4:17, running all the way to Ephesians 5:4, Paul is calling us to live like Christians: to live out the grace of God in our lives, and, in so doing, to promote the unity that God has created in the body, and indeed, to promote His glory in our witness to the world.
And the Apostle Paul has made much in this book, especially in chapter two, of the fact that God has brought a very diverse people into His church. In the Ephesian church there were Jews and Gentiles; there were slave and former slave, and free; there were barbarians and Scythians; there were people from various backgrounds, both citizens of the Roman Empire and non-citizens; from different socio-economic classes. And they’d all been brought into one local church, and the thing that they had in common was the gospel. The thing that they had in common was the worship of the one true God, by Jesus Christ.
And the Apostle Paul said ‘Do you see what a tremendous witness it is to the world that you, who are so different, are bound together by this one thing, by this one Lord Jesus Christ, by this one gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, that you love one another and care for one another despite the fact that you’re so different and you come from a dazzling variety of backgrounds and experiences?’ And Paul makes it clear in Ephesians that this is a display of God's glory. This is proof positive that God is saying to the world that ‘My grace is at work in these people; these people would never be gathered into the same family were it not for My grace; these people would never love one another were it not for My grace.’
Think how true that would have been for the Jews and the Gentiles. The very law that the Jews had to follow out of the ceremonial code kept them from being able to fellowship with Gentiles. They couldn't eat the foods that Gentiles ate, they couldn't wear the clothes that Gentiles wear. They had to observe different days and seasons that the Gentiles didn't observe. The very lifestyle commanded by the ceremonial law kept them from fraternizing with the Gentiles: but now, in Jesus Christ, believing Jew and believing Gentile could be brought into the same family, the same local church, and love one another and care for one another, and look out for one another, and edify one another, and the Apostle Paul says that's a display of God's glory. It's God saying to the world ‘Look at My grace at work in the lives of these people.’
And so the Apostle Paul throughout this chapter is very interested in our being different from the world, so that the world can see the difference that is in us and say ‘Ah! That could only come from God. Only God could have created that in these people.’
But he's also interested in our walking differently from the world, because it actually promotes the unity of the body. As we are unified in a commitment to leading a life of grace, it will have specific particular effects on how we live in certain areas of our individual and corporate lives, and we've already seen Paul in this passage listing some of those differences. For instance, if you look back at verse 25, he starts off by saying your truth-telling is both going to promote unity in the body, and it's going to set you apart from the world; by putting away lying and practicing the telling of the truth, it's going to unify the body. And then he goes on in verses 26-27 and emphasizes that our managing and expressing anger appropriately and our refraining from sinful anger and expression are going to promote the unity of the body and be a display of God's glory in the world.
And then, in verse 28 he tackles the issue of stealing. And it's obvious to us, isn't it, how any of those wins would tend to break down unity in the body? If we're lying to one another, and if we're sinfully angry with one another, and if we're stealing from one another, that does not tend to promote unity in our body, in our family. And so, the Apostle Paul says don't do those things. Those things break down the unity of the family, and they rob God of glory in this display of His glory in the church, which is to be to the world a witness that God's power is at work in us. The world is able to look at us and say ‘Well, you’re no different from us, if you do those things.’ And so the Apostle Paul wants us to be different.
I want to say again, the Apostle Paul is not telling us how to be saved here. He is not telling us how to become Christians. Paul's words for how to be saved are not ‘make sure you do this, do this, do this, and don't do this, and don't do this, and don't do this.’ These are not Paul's words about how to be saved. Paul will give you his words on how to be saved in various places. In II Timothy 3, he’ll tell you that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ – that's how you’re saved. But now he's speaking to Christians, and he's saying to them ‘This is how you live as those who are trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation, and, if you live this way, it will build up the unity of the body, it will make you distinct from the world — so that the world knows that God is at work in you.’
And that brings us to the fourth particular example that the Apostle Paul gives in this passage, and notice again how it comes back to speech. We’re not done with speech yet. He’ll yet again come to it before we're done with this list, and that lets us know how important the mouth, the tongue, the speech, our talk, is to our Christian witness and to our growth in grace. Before we read God's word, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Lord, this is Your word, it is Your truth. We ask that You would open our eyes first to see our sin in this area. Lord, if we're not trusting in Jesus Christ today and we see a sin in this area, help us not to try and patch it up by pledging to do better, but help us to run to Jesus Christ and say, “Lord Jesus, I can't do this without You. I need to be changed. I need to be saved.” And then, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we can endeavor to live as a Christian.
If we're Christians hearing this word today, help us again to run to grace, because we recognize that our behavior in this area will never, ever, attain to what You would have us attain, if we are relying upon our own strength. Lord, we need Your grace. We need Your grace to live like this. Our Lord and our God, if we're complacent about this area, convict us. If we're discouraged about this area, encourage us in Jesus Christ. But speak to us clearly by Your word, and by Your Spirit apply its truth to our hearts. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, 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.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
In this passage the Apostle Paul is challenging patterns of corrupt communication amongst the Ephesian Christians. Just as he has challenged them in the area of telling the truth, just as he has challenged them in the area of sinful expressions of anger, just as he has challenged them in the area of stealing and respecting other people's property, he challenges them in their patterns of talking and their patterns of speech, and he challenges them about corrupt communication, about unwholesome talk. And he not only challenges them about their sins in that area, he commends and commands them to be edifying in their speech; that is, to approach their talk with the express goal of edifying their fellow believers, so that the one aim of all their conversation is always to edify and to build up and to encourage fellow believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, he also in this passage bids them to take care not to grieve the Holy Spirit with their talk. That is a stunning statement that we come across in verse 30. I'm not sure that we can adequately express all that it means, but Paul is very concerned…and, by the way, it's not just our talking. That expression that he gives us in verse 30 that we not grieve the Holy Spirit has to do with the whole of our conduct as Christians. It applies to all six of the particular examples that Paul gives in this passage about distinctive Christian living. It applies to the whole of the Christian life, and I want to look at those three things with you today.
I. Christians must, in reliance on God's grace refuse to speak harmfully.
First, the prohibition: the warning against corrupt speech. You see it in verse 29, in the very first words: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.”
What the Apostle Paul is saying there is that Christians must, in reliance upon God's grace, refuse to speak harmfully. That's what unwholesome speech is. Unwholesome speech is speech which harms our neighbor, harms our brothers and sisters in Christ, does not promote their wholeness and holiness before the Lord. And he says ‘Christian, you must not give way to speaking harmfully. Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.’
Now, harmful speech (or unwholesome speech) comes in a variety of forms. It can come in the form of foul or vulgar language. I was remembering just over the last couple of days a coach that I had in high school. He clearly loved coaching; it gave him great meaning in his life. He was not a full-time school teacher. He was a part-time school teacher, and he drove a Coke® truck in order to make ends meet, in order to earn income to supplement what he did as a part-time teacher and a coach. And he showed up early and he always left late for football practices. He really cared about it a great deal. But as I look back remembering him, I can remember only one thing that he taught me with regard to the skill position that I played, in terms of the technique that I was supposed to employ in playing the sport, and apart from that, almost the only thing that I can remember about him was the ridiculously foul and vulgar language that he consistently used, practice after practice, game after game. In fact, when his name is called to my mind, I can immediately remember seven or eight phrases that he used constantly that were vulgar and foul, and I cannot remember a single other word that the man ever said to me.
And the Apostle Paul is saying that is not the kind of speech that edifies, and that is not the kind of speech that a Christian ought to use. And so foul and vulgar language falls into this category of unwholesome speech. Think of it! That's all that I can remember of that man's character now…just about all that I can remember of that man's character. And his speech so much characterized that character to my heart and mind. Is that the impression that you want to leave on people years and years from now? The impression of foul or vulgar speech?
But it doesn't just mean foul and vulgar speech. Paul is actually going to come back to that issue later in this passage. But it also speaks, of course, of dishonest words, of gossip, of slanderous words that undermine a person's reputation and their character in the eyes of other people. It refers to unkind talk that we may use.
And, you know, Paul's words here not only have to do with the words that we literally speak, they also have to do with the words that we type. You know we live in a world of the internet today, and it is amazing what some people will say on the internet that they would never, ever, say in public, speaking face to face to a person…either words that are unkind or untrue, or unwholesome. How are you using the internet when you blog? When you enter into chat rooms? When you will a place out on MySpace or Facebook? Are the things that you do in that sphere wholesome? Are they edifying to other people? Are they things that you would be proud to have flashed up on a screen before your dearest friends in Christ and let them see and contemplate, maybe on a Sunday morning during Sunday School? Is your language — whether you’re speaking it or on the internet — of the variety of unwholesomeness, or is it pure and wholesome and edifying? Well, the Apostle Paul is challenging you to take responsibility for your talk, for your communication, and to see the importance of it. As far as the Apostle Paul is concerned, unwholesome language does two things: It breaks down the unity of the body; and, it mars our witness to the world.
On the plane coming back from a pastors’ meeting in Chicago on Thursday of this week, I had a long conversation with a very interesting man. He had gone to Bible college as a young man, served in the U.S. Navy, and been an involved member of a local church. He had moved to another city, and I asked him, “Well, what church do you go to?” And he said, “I don't. I haven't in ten years.” (He had seen me reading my commentaries on Ephesians and asked what I was doing.) He said, “I haven't been to church in ten years.” Why?
Well, it was a long story, but one of the big reasons why was because of what he perceived and what probably was hypocrisy in the people who populated the church in which he was involved.
The Apostle Paul says unwholesome talk allows the world to say ‘They’re just a bunch of hypocrites. There's no difference in them from us, because we're able to do that kind of unwholesome talk, too. There's no reality to the power of God's grace in their lives.’ So Paul is concerned that we understand the responsibility for our talk, that we see the importance of it, and that we refuse to speak harmfully.
II. Christians must aim in talk to edify.
But he's not content simply to say don't do something; he wants to tell us ‘Do something.’ And so I want you to look again in verse 29 at the exhortation that he brings. He says,
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
You see what Paul is saying there. He's saying that Christians must aim in their talk to edify and to bless their hearers. Paul is saying to you ‘When you speak, Christian, you must have as your deliberate aim to edify and to bless your neighbor, and especially fellow believers.’
The Apostle Paul knows that edifying, wholesome, conversation does — what? It builds up the unity of the body, and it gives a beautiful expression to the world that God's grace is at work in us. It's an extraordinary thing, isn't it? Paul is saying ‘In your talk you must always have the aim, the goal, the desire, for edifying. You want to speak to people in such a way that when they go away from that conversation they think ‘You know, I love Christ more because of that conversation with that believer. I love God more. I want to be a better Christian. I want to use my mouth for edification, after that conversation.’
Have you ever been with somebody who…after the conversation, either because of the content of the conversation or because of the way that the conversation was had, that you felt greasy when you left the conversation? And you felt like you needed to go take a shower to cleanse off? That's not what you want to do! You do not want to leave people feeling like they need to go take a shower after conversation with you! They need to feel edified. We are to edify our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ with our talk.
And furthermore, Paul says that we want our speech to be a blessing. Look what he says:
“Such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
You want your speech to give grace; you want your speech to be a gift to other people; you want your speech to be a blessing to those who are hearing. And so the Apostle Paul is emphasizing to us that Christians must aim in our talk to edify and bless our hearers.
I have a dear friend…and every time I'm in a conversation with him, he edifies me. I come out of those conversations thinking first of all, “Lord, help me to use my tongue, my talk, to edify people like my friend edifies me.” I always walk away from those conversations wanting to be a better pastor, or a better husband, a better dad, be a better friend, use my tongue in such a way as to encourage and edify; and the Apostle Paul is saying that's what the Christian community ought to be characterized by.
Our speech is to be radically different from the speech of the world. Think of it: in the world, much speech is simply about getting what we want. It's about getting our needs met. But for the Christian, speech is about edifying others. Do you see the radically different direction that Paul charts out in all four of these areas that we've studied so far? Lying — does that edify a neighbor? No. Truth-telling — does that edify a neighbor? Yes, it does. Sinful anger expressed — does that edify a neighbor? No. Is it unwholesome? Yes. So, does a right display of anger and a management of sinful anger edify the neighbor? Yes, it does. Stealing — does that edify your neighbor? No. Does respecting your neighbor's property edify your neighbor? Yes. Wholesome talk — does that edify your neighbor? Yes, it does. Does unwholesome talk edify your neighbor? No.
Notice, all of these things are designed for — what? To express a life that is determined to do the best towards our neighbor, towards our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. It's a radically different view of life and of the world as Paul is expressing it for us here today.
III. Christians must aim to speak so as not to grieve the Holy Spirit.
But then, thirdly, Paul speaks about our motivation for this. In verse 30, he says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
The Apostle Paul says here that Christians must aim to speak so as not to grieve the Holy Spirit.
Now, that is a tremendous phrase. I'm certain that I don't understand all of it. But you understand what Paul is saying here: The great blessing for the New Testament Christian is that, whereas in the Old Testament God manifested His presence when the cloud of glory came down on the tabernacle and on the temple, and so sent out a message to the people of God and to the whole world that “I, God, am dwelling in your midst”, the great blessing of the New Testament Christian is that the Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles have said that that Shekinah glory of God where He manifests His presence, that the Holy Spirit of God dwells in us by grace individually and collectively: that you are the temple that God is building.
You remember Jesus’ saying, “Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days.” Well, you know what He was talking about. He was talking about you. He was saying that that earthly temple…no, that's going to be torn down in My day, but the temple that I'm going to raise up in its place is a living temple, and the Holy Spirit of God is going to dwell in it. And that Holy Spirit of God dwells in you, and He is holy. He loves all that which is wholesome and which advances wholesomeness. He loves all that which is edifying, and which advances edification of one another. He delights in it when you are like Jesus; He works in you to make you more like Jesus. And the Apostle Paul is saying you must understand that when you do not speak like a Christian, when you do not speak like your Savior would speak, it grieves Him.
I can hardly take in what that means — to grieve the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, who has given us life, who has united us to Jesus Christ, who will raise us again from the dead and seat us in heavenly places with Jesus Christ — that we would grieve Him…what in the world does that mean?
Well, I think I can maybe stab in the dark and illustrate this. Think of someone now who has grieved you by the words that they have spoken to you or about you. Now think of living with that person grieving you by their words to you or about you every minute of the hour, every hour of the day, every day of the week, every week of the month, every month of the year, of every year for the rest of your life. Now think of your grieving the Spirit who dwells in you by your unwholesome and unedifying words every minute of the hour, every hour of the day, every day of the week, every week of the month, every month of the year, for every year of the rest of your life. Can you imagine grieving Him so? He delights when He sees Christ displayed in our lives, but it grieves Him when Christ is not displayed.
You know, one thing the Apostle Paul is doing here is he's reminding us that in every mundane act or word or choice or attitude in the Christian life, there is always a spiritual battle being fought. He reminded us of that back up in verse 27, didn't he? He said with regard to our anger ‘Watch out…watch out….’ He said. “Don't give the devil an opportunity.” Now the flip side: that in our speech (and of course, what Paul says applies not only to our speech but our respect to the possessions of others, and our right manifestation of anger, and for the truthfulness of our conversation)…and he says ‘Watch out, because your conversation can either delight or vex or grieve the Holy Spirit.’ And he's reminding us that in every action and word and choice and attitude of the Christian life, there is this spiritual reality in and around and underneath it. Eternal things are being dealt with day by day.
Young people, this is not just something for older people. You know you don't have to be around a playground very long to see young people using unkind speech towards one another or about someone else. And, you know, the sad thing is that doesn't get better when we grow up, it just becomes more hurtful.
You know, we tell our children “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me”–usually when they’re crying on our shoulders about something that has been said to them or about them. And we do that to remind them that there are worse things that can happen than to have someone say something mean about them…but, you know, words can kill. And the Apostle Paul knows that, and so he's saying ‘Let this be your rule, Christian: Let no unwholesome, unedifying word come out of your mouth, but aim in everything that you say to edify and bless your brothers and sisters in Christ.’ This, he says, will bring greater unity to the body. It will be a glorious witness to God in the world that He is at work in our midst, because, if you’re like me, this is not an easy command.
Those of us who talk for a living are deeply tempted in sins of talk. It is easy to excuse ourselves with gossip and wrong words towards others when we use our lips so much. You pray for me that when I speak I will edify, and I’ll pray for you that when you speak you will edify, because if we were to become a congregation who really spoke for edification, it would be patently obvious to the world around us, because we live in a world filled with gossip and slander and harmful speech. It's everywhere we turn.
You want to show that the grace of God is at work in your life? Show it with wholesome speech. Now, you’ll need the Holy Spirit of God to do this. You will not be able to do this on your own, Christian. You will not be able to do this on your own. It will take the Spirit at work in you to keep from grieving the Spirit. It will take the edifying work of the Spirit in you in order to be edifying in your speech. And it's just possible that there are those among us this morning that don't know Jesus Christ savingly, haven't trusted in Him for salvation, and perhaps you see now this sin in your life. You will not be able to deal with this sin apart from Christ and apart from Him Holy Spirit. You can't turn over another leaf on this one. It takes the grace of God to change a tongue from a harmful tongue to an edifying tongue. May God make it so in us, dear friends
O Lord God, by Your Spirit, grant that we would not grieve Him so, but would be edifying in every word that we speak. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.