We sat in stunned incredulity at the dinner table as the two words that our 10-year-old son had just uttered hung in the air like that stale fried food smell in a Southern luncheonette. Did my sweet little boy just answer his mother’s inquiry—“Would you like another piece of chicken?”—with the words, “Hell, yes”? My wife confirmed what I hoped had merely been a product of my hereditary hearing loss: yes, he did say that. Gathering myself, I asked the obvious question: “Where did you hear that?” From my son’s demeanor, it was clear that he did not understand the derogatory nature of the phrase: “I don’t remember, but I think it was from a boy on the playground at McDonald’s.” What he said next made my inner Pharisee feel a bit better: “Is that a bad word, daddy? I didn’t think so because hell is in the Bible and you use that word in your sermons.”
Indeed. He had heard me use that word many times in the context of teaching the biblical doctrine it describes. I took the opportunity to teach him about the use of words and their importance because the Bible, itself God’s Word, talks to us about how we talk to others.
We are a talking culture. TV news channels prattle ceaselessly, analyzing the day’s events and issues, many of them mundane. Enough books are published each year to sink Noah’s ark. And we talk. We talk to our spouses, our children, our co-workers, and in our worst moments, we talk to ourselves. The conversation is endless. It has been estimated that the average human being utters between 10,000 and 20,000 words per day. Consider that fact in light of Solomon’s words in Proverbs 10:19: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” If the average person speaks between 10,000 and 20,000 words each day, then we are looking at 10,000 to 20,000 opportunities to sin.
The timeline of history is dotted with seismic words. Adam and Eve, our first parents, spoke in the garden. The serpent spoke. God spoke. Our Lord’s opponents spoke (“Crucify him!”). Think of history outside the Bible. Think of Luther (“Here I stand…”), Lincoln (“Four score and seven years ago…”), MLK (“I have a dream…”), Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.”). Encouraging words. Inspiring words. Revolutionary words. And, thanks to the words “Did God really say?” there are also terrible, destructive words.
In the world after Genesis 3, there is trouble in our talk, so how should we use words? Is it okay to vent? To rage? To “tell it like it is”? To use profanity? In our evangelical sub-culture, these questions sometimes spawn debate, but this much is certain: Words wield incredible power, and the proper/improper deployment of them gets a lot of ink in Scripture. Our God is a speaking God who inspired a book to tell us about himself and our relationship to him. Thus, it is important that we develop a biblical theology of words for the sake of our sanctification, for the sake of the church, for the sake of my son’s vocabulary, for the sake of the glory of God.
- We will give an account to God for every sinful word we speak (Matt. 12:36). “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” Every single one of them. That defies imagination. Twenty-thousand words per day for 60, 70, 80 years is staggering. What Jesus said next is more daunting yet.
- God will use our words to justify or condemn us (Matt. 12:37). “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” We are justified by faith alone, but our talk seems to have some connection to that central doctrine, perhaps revealing whether or not it has truly taken root in our hearts, as Jesus indicates three verses earlier.
- Our words reveal the condition of our hearts (Matt. 12:34-35). In the context of expounding upon the vital truth “by its fruit shall a tree be known,” Jesus uttered these stunning words: “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” This passage helps us with the question of profanity. Yes, I am aware that Paul used off-color language in Phil. 3:8 (“I count everything manure . . .”) to shock the Philippians. But we do not typically use salty language that way. As I have heard Paul Tripp say, the vile things a drunk says were already hidden in his heart. Once the tongue is lubricated by alcohol, the contents of the heart pour out of him. Such is true of us all: what comes out of our mouths originated in the heart. Our words serve as a CAT scan of our hearts.
- Corrupt talk is the opposite of gospel talk (Eph. 4:29). Paul seems to have such unbridled talk in view: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, so that it might give grace to those who hear.” Thus, we ask: Are our words gospel words? Do they convey grace? Are they consistent with the gospel? Profanity, slander, gossip, quarrelsome words, “zingers” that garner laughs at the expense of another, fail the test of “gospel talk.” Paul seems to be saying the profession of our mouths should reflect our confession of the savior.
- Foolish words are the opposite of thanksgiving (Eph. 5:4). “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving is the antidote for foolish talk. It stands to reason that a heart grateful for God’s grace will not spew forth crude talk.
- Our words have the power to destroy another person (Prov. 18:21). “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Our tongues can be used as a sword. Our tongues can be used as a salve. In Scripture, words range from “Father, forgive them” to “What is truth?” and from “Did God really say?” to “It is finished!” Words affect both time and eternity.
- Our words have the power to build up another person (Prov. 18:21). Think of the last time you were downcast or anxious and a fit word from a dear brother or sister in Christ injected a measure of spiritual energy into your walk.
- The more we talk the more we are prone to sin (Prov. 10:19). I need to hear Solomon’s words every hour on the hour: “When words are many, sin is not lacking. But he who restrains his lips is prudent.” Because the raw materials used to execute my calling are words, both in their written and spoken forms, I must keep this truth unsheathed.
- It is wise to talk less and listen more (James 1:19-20). Or, as people in the hills of north Georgia where I come from often say, “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Indeed. Listening tends to be others-centered. Talking tends to be me-centered due to proposition number eight.
Pray for daily grace in all your talk. And before speaking, ask yourself, Do my words reflect the redemptive nature of the gospel? Do they build up, or do they tear down? Remember, Paul told us to speak only words that are fit for building up. These are what the writer of Proverbs in 25:11 calls “fit words” that are pleasing to the listener in the same way “apples of gold in settings of silver” are beautiful to the beholder. God is listening. And so is my son.
Jeff Robinson (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor for The Gospel Coalition. He serves as senior research assistant for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and adjunct professor of church history at Southern Seminary. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children. They live in Louisville.
Note: I had been away on an intense overseas’ crisis intervention assignment in the last few days. In place of my devotional study this week, I have posted Jeff Robinson’s thoughts for your meditation.