The other day I encouraged us to go to the Lord and ask Him to check our heart condition. It wasn’t long after I published that post that I came upon a sermon from John Piper entitled, “Make Your Mouth a Means of Grace”. Truly the Lord delivered on exposing my sin.

The battle for purity in our mouths begins with our hearts. In Paul’s epistle, he said No rotten word must proceed from your mouth, but only something good for the building up of the need, in order 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.” (Eph 4:29-30 LEB)

The Greek word (sapros) is used in only one other context in the New Testament, namely, the places in Matthew and Luke where Jesus says, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.”(Matthew 12:33). The term for “bad” fruit here is the same word for rotten, evil, unwholesome or corrupt. The image in Paul’s mind is probably one of rottenness and decay, something that is spoiled.

According to Jesus, no amount of mouthwash or soap can cleanse our mouths. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—this defiles a person.” (Matt. 15:11) In the end the battle for purity in the mouth is fought in the heart, because “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34).

This kind of rotten language is the old garment we must “take off, according to your former way of life, the old man, who is being destroyed according to deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22). The garment of a rotten mouth must be taken off and thrown into the fire, just like the Ephesians had burned their old books on magic in Acts 19:19.

What sort of talk does Paul have in mind when he says, “Let no rotten talk come out of your mouth”? Pastor Piper suggests at least four kinds of language that he thinks Paul would include as “rotten” or “decayed” or “spoiled.” Warning, you will most certainly feel an “ouch”, I know I did!

1. Taking the Name of the Lord in Vain

Taking the name of the Lord in vain is a great contradiction of who we are as Christians. If we say, “God!”, “OMG”, “My God!”, “God Almighty!”, “Christ!” or “Jesus!” because we are mad, surprised or amazed, we desecrate the name of Lord. The names of God and Jesus Christ are holy, precious and pure.

2. Trivializing Terrible Realities and God’s Holiness

Language that trivializes hell, damnation and holiness, such as “What the hell!”, “Hell, no!”, “Go to hell!”, “Damn it!”, “Damn right!”, “Holy cow!” or “Holy mackerel!” makes light of the eternal penalties of hell and damnation, and the sacred righteousness of our Lord God. If we believe in the horrible reality of hell, we shouldn’t use the word like a punctuation mark. The same is true of damnation. And if the divine command, “Be holy as I am holy,” carries for us the same weight it carried for Moses, Jesus and the apostles, we will simply find that “holy” anything (when not referring to the Almighty) will stick in our throats because it treats something infinitely precious as a trifle.

3. Referencing Sex and the Body in Vulgar Ways

With this kind of language people take good things that God has made, and use them like mud to smear on whatever they get upset about. The use of vulgar four-letter words communicates anger, scorn, disdain or hate. The act of sexual relations, created by God as good to be fulfilled in marriage, gets translated into a four letter word carrying the meaning of hate and scorn when we get God and the sanctity of His creation out of our minds–which is fundamental to all vulgarity. The four letter word does verbally the same thing that rape does physically: it expresses selfish, and uncaring abusiveness.

4. Speaking in Mean-Spirited Ways

Saying other words in a mean-spirited manner, like, “Shut up!” is also rotten. The words themselves are untarnished. But the usage is vicious and loveless.

Paul likens evil, corrupt, unwholesome and rotten language to spoiled fruit, like Jesus did (Matthew 12:33). Rotten fruit doesn’t nourish, can make us sick, smells bad/makes an atmosphere unpleasant and probably comes from a diseased tree. Rotten and vulgar language doesn’t strengthen others, may wound others, keeps our attention off of the Lord, and probably comes from a hardened heart.

Jesus said, “O You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For 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. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:34–37) If the fruit is bad, the root is bad.

Instead of admonishing us to clean up our language and replace it with pure and wholesome words, Paul shifts the focus from the external fruit to the internal root. He shifts from what we say to why we say it: it’s a love issue. “No rotten word must proceed from your mouth, but only something good for the building up of the need, in order that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29)

We need to ask ourselves:

  • Is my mouth a means of grace?
  • Am I meeting a need with the words that are coming out of my mouth?
  • Am I building up faith into the people who hear?

This is similar to how Paul treated our service in the previous verse: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands,” and then he shifts from the what to the why, “so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph 4:28). We aren’t imitating Christ when we just to stop stealing and work honestly in order to have things. We are to work to have in order to give—to meet the needs of others. All our work is to be a display of grace.

When we allow the love of Christ to fill our hearts in our “new man”, then the focus of both our work and speech is to meet the needs of others, showing and speaking grace. If we are Christ followers, our rotten root within has been made new by grace through faith in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The grace of God has taken the hate, anger and resentment that spill over in mean and vulgar and irreverent language (old man), and has covered them with the blood of Christ and killed them along with the old unbelieving self.

What He left behind is hope, guaranteed by the seal of the Spirit (Eph. 1:13). Our hope is at the end of history we will come to a day of redemption instead of a day of damnation. The seal of the Spirit is the assurance of a secured hope redemption will be complete.

How does the next verse, “and do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (v30), relate to rotten language and gracious language? The Spirit has been given to seal us and secure us for an infinitely wonderful future; the Spirit’s sealing work aims to give us hope!

So how do we grieve the Spirit? By not hoping in the day of redemption and in the power of the Spirit to secure us and help keep us. If instead of hoping, we fret over our problems; become angry, bitter and resentful, then we grieve the Holy Spirit of God. We strive against the very purpose for which He was sent.

But if as believers stop and remember thankfully

  • Christ died for our sin
  • God has promised to work all things together for our good
  • He has given us His own Holy Spirit for the specific purpose of sealing us for the day of redemption

then surely a deep and confident hope will be the root of our lives. And up through that root will flow the sap of grace, and out onto the branches of our life will come the fruit of a whole new way of talking.