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The Rev. David W. Hall (PhD, Whitefield Theological Seminary) is married to Ann, and they are parents of three grown children. He has served as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) since 2003. After completion of his undergraduate studies, Pastor Hall studied at Swiss L’Abri and then enrolled at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, graduating in 1980. In addition to pastoring, David Hall is the author or editor of over 20 books and numerous essays.

Column: First Truths from the First Gospel by David Hall

The Gospel Ethic of Speech

December 22, 2014 •

Read Mt. 5:33-37

Christians, of all people, should be known as “eminent for fidelity” (Barclay) and that “whatever we say is firmer than an oath.” All of our language must have this character. Wasn’t our Lord’s speech and language like this? Can you think of an instance when his words were not reliable and totally true? That is the heart of our trust in the inerrancy of Scriptures. Jesus’ followers are also called to imitate him in the use of our words. Our lives should be of such reliability that our words are also afforded the same respect and confidence.

The Westminster Larger Catechism develops a commentary on the 9th commandment. There it views the required duties as “the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully speaking the truth and only the truth in matters of judgment and justice, . . . a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring and rejoicing in their good name, sorrowing for and covering their infirmities, freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency, a ready receiving of a good report, and an unwillingness to admit of an evil report concerning them; discouraging tale-bearers, and slanderers; . . . keeping lawful promises, and studying whatever is true, honest, lovely and of good report.

What is forbidden from that same catechism is “all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbors as well as our own, especially in public judicature, giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses . . . passing unjust sentence, calling evil good and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous . . . forgery, . . . undue silence in a just cause, . . .”

The rest of the New Testament points to a similar ethic of speech. Consider these passages (that you might wish to study more) that make the same point and stress the importance of our speech.

Matthew 12:33-37 lays out that our speech reveals our hearts, for out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. And we must account for all our words on the Judgment Day.

The Pauline epistles have much to say about our speech and echo these first gospel truths:

  • Ephesians 4:25 says: “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.”
  • Later, Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
  • Ephesians 5:3-4: Immorality should not be among God’s people, “nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
  • Ephesians 5:19: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. . .”
  • Col. 3:16-17 repeats, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Then it is added, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
  • Col. 4:6: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Maybe the most familiar and demanding passage on this subject is James 3:2-12. There our tongues are compared to sparks that start raging fires, and James 3:2 stresses the need and difficulty of cultivating our language. Once our speech is fully sanctified, we have arrived. Have you? Really?

So our Lord and the rest of the New Testament stress that our speech is to be full of grace and seasoned with salt and thankfulness.

In summary—all words, our speech, the whole of our language is not to be used for deceit or self-authentication. Rather God, who in the beginning was Word, gives us language as an amazing vehicle to be used for his glory. And our speech best glorifies God when we speak truthfully and people believe us without oaths, because our lives and words are truthful.

Helmut Thielicke, German pastor, who endured World War II in Germany, comments on this passage from his German experience. “Think of the thousands of ‘Heil Hitler’s’ that have thickened the air, and the thousands who disassociated themselves from it all with the lame excuse that it was a word without content, an empty matter of form. The question is however, whether the last Judgment will take the same view.”[1]

Do you see what he says? Our words have definite consequence. He continues, “or if I’ve said ‘I have no time’ or if I said any number of times ‘Heil Hitler.’ and somebody asked me, ‘On your word of honor, do you stand or fall on that? I would suddenly realize with horror that I had been babbling irresponsible stupidities, that I have been playing the hypocrite and lying reprehensibly, and carelessly playing with the bombshell of human speech which is loaded with all the powers of heaven and hell.”

When church members and officers make promises or take vows, those become continuing obligations, too. That is part of the Gospel Ethic of Speech.

So we should see by now three things:

  1. The importance of our speech, and
  2. It is to be considered a lasting stewardship from God, and
  3. It is to be backed up by a life of truthfulness.

Christians claim to have the truth and to follow him who is the truth (John 14:6). In our conversations, therefore, truth (directness and simplicity) must be our watchwords. How many of us stoop to telling stories with a reprehensible slant, either to make our point more emphatically (or by profanity) or to present ourselves in a more glamorous light than the raw facts will allow? How many of us say we will do things and instead renege on these responsibilities because it is personally inconvenient to go through with them. How many say, “I’ll pray and then don’t?” Our Lord insists that the Old Testament Scriptures point toward truthfulness; all who submit to his New Testament authority cannot construe his command here in any way other than to be people of their word who speak only the truth.

Let us be different from the world around us. If the Holy Spirit at the First Pentecost could take the disciples tongues and make them speak to the glory of God in unknown languages, then he can also take our tongues and make them speak to the glory of God in our known language.

[1] Helmut Thielecke, Life Can Begin Again: Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963), 55.


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