Holy Speech: A Measure of Sanctification

Friday, February 23, 2007

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.
And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,
a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
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.
For you may be sure of this, that
who is sexually immoral or impure,
or who is covetous (that is, an idolater),
has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

Ephesians 5:1-5

In the midst of our congregations, we have a cacophony drowning out the righteousness of Christ. Much to the relief of some readers (and this writer), I am not speaking of those who sing along in church poorly (and loudly). Instead, we have a tumor in our tongues. We are in great need of a spiritual biopsy of our tongues. We wonder why there are so many congregations splitting over the insignificant issues of carpet color and percussion, but we never pause to contemplate the spiritual health of those in debate. How can we gauge the progress of our sanctification? Let us look at several key points in this passage:

  1. The Children of God,
  2. Wielding our Tongues as an Instrument of Righteousness, and
  3. Guarding against Legalism

The Children of God
At one time, it was understood that a son would do what his father does. If you were a carpenter, then you would teach your son the trade, and he would become a carpenter. Therefore, if we are to be called children of God, then it would be of grave importance to know what God does. We must make it our lifestyle to imitate God. The basis of our sanctification is an understanding of our adoption, i.e. being declared sons of God. For example, Romans 8 is a great exposition on sanctification, and it is saturated with the work of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 8:14-17, we see Paul give this encouragement:

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

We are children of God, and therefore we have been given the Spirit of adoption. However, this inheritance is contingent upon suffering, but we know that suffering is not relegated to just physical suffering. Suffering could also be the spiritual battles we face as Christians.[1] Noting this, we see that suffering, adoption, and sanctification are inseparable experiences of Christianity.

Wielding Your Tongue as an Instrument of Righteousness
In this passage from Ephesians, Paul states that there are three things that should not enter into our speech. Now let us note that the phrase "which are out of place" has a plural verb. Therefore, these elements of speech are each out of place. For the same reason, we see that

  1. Filthiness,
  2. Foolish talk, and
  3. Crude joking

should have not residence in our conversations. What is this reason? It is because we should be “imitators of God, as beloved children.” What does this entail? We should look to the obedience of Christ, and we “ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6).

Understanding our union with Christ provides the lens through which we see that there is absolutely never a place for filthiness, foolish talk, or crude joking. Indeed, to give place to these things would be to show Christ as filthy, foolish, and crude. Instead, we should “present our bodies [including tongues] as a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). James exhorts us to bring our tongue under control:

“For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” (James 3:7-11).

The difference between the righteous person’s mouth and the wicked person’s mouth is devastatingly apparent in Proverbs 10:11: “The mouth of the righteous man is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.” One of the marks of a Christian is his ability to encourage wisely and exhort compassionately, bringing the living words of Christ in Scripture to a person. In fact, if a Christian uses his mouth in filthiness, foolish talking, and crude joking, then he profanes the Name of the Lord. In addition, we should not give approval to those who practice such things.[2] This has far reaching implications for what we watch on television or listen to on the radio.

Guarding against Legalism
To drive home the point even further, we see that thanksgiving is to replace these actions. To say that there is ever a time when place for filthiness, foolish talk, or crude joking has a place is to say that there is a time when thanksgiving does not have a place. The exchange of thanksgiving for coarse language is not acceptable for the Christian and is on the pathway of sexual immorality and idolatry. When fighting sin, it can be dangerous to view the defeat of sin as a means of gaining favor before God. If we do this, we confuse our sanctification with our justification, and we become legalists. Woe to us if we view our spiritual battle as having any foundation other than the unmerited favor of God. We rob the cross of its glory, and we will never defeat any sin. We become no better than the Scribes and Pharisees that Jesus rebukes for their self-righteous behavior.

How do we know if we are legalists?

We should see an attitude of thanksgiving radiating from our lives. Are we doing this to draw attention to our own efforts, or is our light shining “before men in such a way that they may see [our] good works, and glorify [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). We should be “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19). Our actions should be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Our fight must be fought with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).
[4] Our putting “to death the deeds of the body” must be done “by the Spirit” (Romans 8:13).

Our Christian lives must be lived out in the fellowship of a local body of believers, so that we “stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). As believers, we should be accountable to one another, sharpening one another (Proverbs 27:17). Suffering with one another helps dispel our sinful pride. We must confess our sins to each other and travail in prayer for each other (James 5:16). We should “[address] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all [our] heart” and “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:19,21).

These three are essential elements in the way of holiness for the believer. It provides the God-ordained matrix of sanctifying the bride of Christ. To neglect any of these three will produce failure in the battle of sin. However, we must always be aware of being overconfident in our battle; we must remember that “the victory belongs to the LORD” (Proverbs 21:31). We should be quick to repent of our failings—we will have many—but we hope in Christ who is the “founder and perfecter of our faith,”
[5] knowing that “he who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion”[6].

Therefore, we must learn to control our tongues, examining our conversations to see if they are cross-centered, God-honoring, and Christ-exalting.

[1] Cf. Eph. 6:10ff, 1 Co. 9:27, Rom. 6:12-14
[2] Rom. 1:32, Is. 5:20
[3] Matt. 23
[4] For a greater understanding of the spiritual warfare of sanctification, the reader is advised to study in Ephesians 6:10ff. It would also be advantageous to spend a great deal of study in Job.
[5] Hebrews 12:2
[6] Philippians 1:6