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Words with purpose (Ephesians 4:29–30)

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

Words are fundamental to our lives. We use words to share, to create, to love, to define ourselves, and to build societies and worlds. We live through words. That’s why one of the most powerful things you can do for someone is to help them give a voice to their own words. When one of our children reached the age at which she should have been speaking words but hadn’t said anything yet, the health professionals took it very seriously. They worked with us and with her preschool teachers to encourage her to speak, and we’re so grateful they did. It’s now a joy to listen to her words and speak words of our own to her. That experience drove home to us how precious and indeed how powerful words are. Words don’t come easily to everyone; when they do come, they are something we should never take for granted.

Yet because words are so powerful, they also have the potential for great harm. Social media technologies show us that, don’t they? Social media gives a far-reaching voice to our words, and yet it also distorts our voice. Social media magnifies our words and diminishes them at the same time. It broadcasts our conversations, and so turns personal relationships into news stories. It makes us both hyper-connected and at the same time misconnected; in our rush to have our voice heard, we leave behind the normal cues of face-to-face communication, and so motives are easily presumed and anger flares. Social media brings us together, but often makes us feel even more alone. It filters and tailors the words we see and hear to suit our own individual likes and preferences; so we lose the art of listening to others. It processes and nudges and prioritises every word to fit the favoured narrative of the powerful interests with money to pay to the providers; so we lose the art of true criticism. Yet social media is the place where so many of us now use our words. And so, social media is the place where so many of us now, in a sense, live.

In these verses in Ephesians, the apostle Paul writes to believers in Christ about how to use our words:

Make sure no rotten word goes out of your mouth, but only what is good for building, as needed, so that you might give grace to those who hear; don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

Ephesians 4:29–30
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Of course, since Paul is writing at a time before social media technology existed, he’s assuming that words are normally communicated through our mouths, in personal, face-to-face speech. And personal speech is still basic to the way we communicate. So what Paul says here is highly relevant to the way we use our own mouths. But today, as we’ve just seen, social media is also a place where we live and speak. So these verses are also relevant to the way we use our fingers to create words online. You could swap “mouths” for “fingers” in this verse, and it would be just as applicable.

The main thing that Paul is interested in here is the purpose behind our words. Paul isn’t telling us precisely what to say. It’s more fundamental than that: he’s telling us why to say what we say. Why do you speak? When you are using your mouth or your fingers to create words, what are those words for? So often, our words are for ourselves, aren’t they? Deliberately or subconsciously, we design our words to make ourselves feel better or look better or gain something for ourselves. But here, Paul tells us that our mouths and our fingers aren’t just for us, to use for our own purposes. The gospel of Jesus Christ has given us a whole new reason to live, to walk, and to speak. So, Paul says here, our words are to be used for good, for building, and for grace.

Good words

“Make sure no rotten word goes out of your mouth, but only what is good”, says Paul. Paul is talking about the purpose and effect of our words. The term “rotten” was used in documents from Paul’s time to describe putrid fish, fruit full of maggots, diseased trees, and cracked or defective stones that are useless for building. A “rotten word” is a word that is bad and so good for nothing. Too often, when we speak (or type), we don’t think about how the words that come out of our mouths (or our fingers) affect others. Too often, we produce rotten words. What kind of words? Paul isn’t just talking here about foul language, though foul language is one example. He’s also talking about words that thoughtlessly discourage people, words that deliberately tear people down, words of slander and gossip, words of bragging, words of humblebragging, sniping words, words that are false or bitter, and more (see Ephesians 4:31).

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Instead of these rotten words, we should be producing “good” words. The word “good” reminds us of what Paul has already said about the shape of our Christian lives. In chapter 2, Paul said that we are saved by God’s grace, which makes us God’s “product, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God pre-prepared for us to walk in” (Ephesians 2:10). God loves us, he’s forgiven us and rescued us through Jesus Christ, and he’s given us a new life to live. That new life involves doing “good works”. And here, we see that a very important element of doing good works is speaking good words.

Good for what? What is the purpose that our words should be directed towards?

Words that build

The words that come out of our mouths should be good “for building”, says Paul. In Ephesians, Paul uses the word “building” to refer to gospel mission and ministry. God’s great plan for his world is “to sum up all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). And preaching the gospel—that is, the activity of “building”—is central to this plan. In chapter 2, Paul gives a broad perspective on this building work: In Christ “every act of building, being connected together, causes growth into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21). In chapter 4, Paul describes how the early apostolic community was equipped for “building the body of Christ” as the gospel went out to the world (Ephesians 4:12). And as people in the world hear and believe the gospel, it leads to a body that “builds itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16). So “building” is something the entire body of Christ is to do, with each part of the body acting in a different way but for a common goal. At the core of this “building” work is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s why our words matter so much. Our words are to be “good for building”. Each of our words is like a brick in the building; a good brick that should play a part in God’s purposes of building his people, in love, through the gospel of Jesus Christ. When it comes to this building work, we can either contribute rotten, useless words that undermine the gospel and tear down people, or we can contribute good words that help the process of building, as we lovingly point people to Jesus and build them up in him.

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So Paul is saying that our words must be directed towards God’s gospel purposes, for the sake of people. But that doesn’t mean that we all have to parrot a gospel outline constantly, or that every sentence we utter has to have the word “Jesus” in it. Rather, Paul says, our words are to be good for building “as needed”. Our words need to be fitting for each individual occasion in which we have the opportunity to speak. And what we say will depend on what’s needed on that occasion. Sometimes, what’s needed is a clear statement about Jesus. Sometimes, what’s needed is a simple word of encouragement. Sometimes, what’s needed is an appropriate word of rebuke. Most of the time, what’s needed are just those regular, everyday words that affirm relationships and share thoughts and joys and fun and feelings and ideas and truth—the stuff of everyday speech. And the point is this: even those ordinary words matter when it comes to God’s purposes. We’ll all speak these words differently. But we mustn’t speak our words randomly, or rottenly. We should always speak them with the purpose of building in mind. Every word we speak is to be spoken for the sake of God’s gospel purposes for his world and his people.

Words that give grace

Paul then adds something more: we should speak so as to “give grace to those who hear”. This adds another dimension to our speech. Earlier in his letter, Paul spoke about the grace God showed to us through his Son Jesus Christ, forgiving us and raising us up with him. Now, he says that we should give grace to others through our words. In the previous verse, Paul talked about hands that give grace. Now, he speaks about mouths that give grace (which we can translate into fingers that give grace). We are to be instruments of grace to others through what we say.

What does it mean to “give grace”? Most directly, it means doing what Paul has just mentioned: “building”, i.e. using our words to share the grace of the gospel and to build others up in the grace of the gospel. But it also points to a broader principle: when we speak, our focus should be what is good and helpful for others, not what is good for ourselves. This principle of grace should drive what we say and what we don’t say. This is the exact opposite to the way that we naturally think about speech, isn’t it? We tend to speak (or type) so as to do things for ourselves: to express ourselves, to let off steam, to show people how good we are, to make people like us or pity us or do something for us. This is what 99.9% of words on the internet are designed to do. Sadly, Christians so often follow exactly the same path. We speak with our own good in mind. But Christians are to be people who speak primarily with the good of other people in mind. We are to speak so as to “give grace”.

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Giving grace doesn’t mean that we should simply flatter people to make them feel good. And it doesn’t mean we should tone down the hard or unpopular parts of the gospel to avoid making people feel bad. Grace is not just a media savvy public relations technique. In fact, giving grace means we sometimes need to say things that risk us looking bad or unpopular, for the sake of people hearing the gospel of God’s grace. That’s because what’s best for people is not necessarily to feel good or nice towards us; it is to know Jesus Christ and so be forgiven and saved. On the other hand, giving grace doesn’t mean that we should pretend to be something that we’re not. And it doesn’t mean we should never truly or authentically express ourselves. In fact, some of the most gracious words in the world come from people who are willing to be vulnerable and share something of themselves and their hardships and struggles. When they do, it helps people see how the gospel works in the messy lives of real people, and so it gives grace. That can be a powerful thing to do on social media, can’t it? But there’s a difference between expressing ourselves online just to vent or let off steam, and expressing ourselves online to give grace. The question we should always ask is: am I doing this simply for myself, or am I doing it so as to give grace to those who hear (or read)?

Words that grieve God’s Spirit

This all sounds like a hard ask, doesn’t it? Surely it’s impossible to consider every word we speak in light of building others in the gospel of God’s grace? Well yes: humanly speaking, it is impossible. That’s why we need to lift our eyes and remember who we are. In Christ, we are a new creation. We have been forgiven our sins, saved from God’s judgment, and lifted up from death to life. By God’s own Holy Spirit, we have been “sealed for the day of redemption”. God is with us, and we are looking forward to a glorious future. As Paul has already said in chapter 1, “The Holy Spirit is the first instalment of our inheritance, guaranteeing that God will redeem his possession, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14). This is who we are.

That’s why words of grace and words that build are so important. If we don’t use our words for God’s purposes, we “grieve God’s Holy Spirit”. Paul is here referring back to the Old Testament, to Isaiah 63:10. Isaiah describes how God’s people, whom he rescued at the time of the Exodus, rebelled against him and grieved his Holy Spirit. But Isaiah goes on to talk about a glorious future, a future when God himself will bring a new creation and will be with his people forever. And through Christ, those promises are fulfilled. We have God’s Holy Spirit, we have been sealed for the day of redemption. We have God’s grace poured out on us, which gives us a reason to use our words for building, to give grace to those who hear.

But we can’t do it without coming back to the gospel of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. When we feel weak, we need to remember that Christ is strong. When we fail and sin, we need to keep asking for forgiveness, which is always ours through Jesus Christ. When we fear people and what they think, we need to keep remembering that we are raised with Christ, above all the powers. When we feel insecure, we need to come back to Christ’s death and resurrection and remember that we are objectively secure in God’s love. The gospel of God’s grace enables us to build others in the gospel. We can only give grace to our hearers because we have first been given grace in Christ.

Durham Cathedral under construction

Our words

So if you have come to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, you have a whole new reason to speak. Instead of rotten words, you are to speak good words, words that build, and words that give grace. How might you do that? I’ve suggested some ideas in my brief books Gospel Speech and Gospel Speech Online.[1] Here’s a few to think about, particularly related to our words online:

Don’t let the medium master you. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by social media, leave it, at least for a while. You could disable your notifications: why do you need to be told every time somebody does something online?

Maybe before you say anything online, you should run it by a trusted friend. They can give you a second opinion about whether they think the words will build and give grace. A habit like this will probably slow you down and make you post much less. That’s not a bad thing. It’s bad for the business model of the social media companies, of course, but it’s good for your soul and for your hearers.

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Think of different ways you can build people in light of the gospel. Sometimes, you could speak the gospel directly. Sometimes, you could speak about your life in light of the gospel: grieve your own sin, talk about the joy of forgiveness, express your security in Jesus. You can raise ideas. And you can have fun, because Christ has made you free. But in all of these things, keep remembering that our words have purpose. Speak for good, speak for building, and speak for grace.

For reflection

Think of a particular situation in which you use words. How can you use your words to build?

How does the gospel of God’s grace help you to give grace to those who hear (or read) you?

[1] Lionel Windsor, Gospel Speech: A Fresh Look at the Relationship between Every Christian and Evangelism (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2015); Gospel Speech Online: Speaking the Truth in Love in a Digital World (Sydney: Matthias Media: 2017).

Audio podcast

Want more?

This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.