“No foul language is to come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)
Imagine that! Conversations that “give grace to those who hear”!
But first, what about that adjective “foul”? What is “foul language” in this context?
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, “It is not the good tree that bears bad fruit “(Luke 6:43; Matthew 7:17f.; Matthew 12:33). The term for “bad” fruit here is the same word for foul (or unwholesome or evil) in our text.
The image in Paul’s mind is one of rottenness and decay, something that is spoiled.
This kind of rotten language must be thrown out like like bad apples, or, in another analogy, stripped off like dirty clothes. It is part of the old self of v22 that needs to be peeled away when a person becomes a Christian.
What sort of talk does Paul have in mind when he mentions “foul language“? Clearly, he’s referring to what we call “swear words,” and “taking the Name of the Lord in Vain,” such as when we say “God” or “Jesus” as a mild interjection.
Also, he’s clearly talking about when we trivialize something important and serious, such as when we reference sex and the body in vulgar ways. With this kind of language people take the good things that God has made, and use them like mud to smear on whatever they get upset about. The whole assumption behind the use of vulgar four-letter words is that they communicate scorn or disdain or hate.
How does this happen?
Here’s John Piper on the F-word: “How does the act of sexual relations, created by God as good to be fulfilled in marriage—how does it get translated into a four letter word and carry the meaning of hate and scorn? The answer is easy: first you get God out of your mind. That’s fundamental to all vulgarity. Then you get the sanctity of his creation out of your mind. And then, in your mind, you replace the tenderness of married love with the force of rape, and you’ve got yourself a four letter word which does verbally the same thing that rape does physically: it expresses selfish, uncaring abusiveness.”
Finally, “rotten speech” might be classified as anything that is mean-spirited, sneering, vicious or negative. It might not be technically “swearing” but the usage is unpleasant and loveless. It doesn’t build up. It doesn’t give grace to anyone.
Quite the opposite.
Why is this language “foul” or “rotten”?
Because it doesn’t nourish. It doesn’t “build up” either speaker or hearer; in fact it sickens and desensitizes both. Words can transmit meanness and vulgarity like a disease from parent to child, from schoolmate to schoolmate, from colleague to colleague. It poisons the atmosphere, mocks the concept of the noble, trivializes the serious and important.
Jesus said , “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:34–37).
But instead of simply wagging his finger at swearing and telling us to knock it off, Paul proposes a whole new way of thinking about language. Instead of saying, “You don’t need dirty language to communicate your intention,” he says, “The root issue is whether your intention is love.” In other words the issue for Paul is not really language at all; the issue is love. The issue is not whether our mouth can avoid bad language; the issue is whether our mouth is a means of grace. You see he shifts from the external fruit to the internal root.
He shifts from what we say to why we say it.
And that’s the real issue.
“No foul language is to come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear.”
Do you see the shift? He doesn’t say, “Let no rotten talk come out of your mouth, but instead let fresh clean talk come out of your mouth.” He says, “Let no rotten talk come out of your mouth, but ask this: 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?”
It is not enough just to stop swearing. I must ask the deeper question: Am I speaking now to edify? Is my mouth a means of grace?I have been made new in Christ! The grace of God has taken the hate and anger and resentment that spill over in mean and vulgar and irreverent language, and has covered them with the blood of Christ and killed them along with the old unbelieving self.
So now the words which once wounded and scorned can actually minister grace!
Let it be so, Lord. And may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to your sight, Lord, today.