One of the reasons I absolutely love expository preaching and insist that pastors preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible for their congregations is because the Word of God is always timely. Rather than preaching hobby-horses or tired and trite topics of interest, expository preaching, when done well, forces the pastor to faithfully handle the texts of Scripture as they come down the pipeline. There’s no guessing about what’s coming next Sunday for the congregation, either. They can rest in the assurance that—Lord-willing—the preaching will pick up in the text where it left off the previous Sunday.
Some, however, worry that expository preaching prevents pastors from engaging with pressing topics of the times. This, however, is hardly ever the case. Our sovereign God has a peculiar way of lining our preaching texts up with pressing events in often unexpected ways.
This was my experience very recently as I have been preaching through the Gospel of Matthew for nearly a year-and-a-half. Recently, there has been some talk about the use of vulgar language by certain evangelicals, and some in our congregation (and some friends outside of our congregation, too), have been asking me about how Christians should understand the use of language. As the Lord would have it, amid these questions, Matthew 12:33–37 lined up as my next sermon, and perfectly answered many of these questions. Below, I will share some highlights from this sermon about Christian speech.
Your Actions And Words Are the Fruit That Reveal Where You Are Rooted
Jesus makes the issue clear. Those who are in Christ ought to speak and act in a righteous way, because, as he plainly states in Matthew 12:33, “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.”
Jesus uses the metaphor of the tree and its fruit on more than one occasion and it’s incredibly simple to understand. If I’m a branch on an apple tree, what kind of fruit will I bear? Apples. No one expects to find oranges on an apple tree because a tree will always bear fruit corresponding to the type of tree it is. If an apple tree bears oranges, something has gone horribly askew. It simply isn’t possible. It is, ultimately, against the nature of the branches to bear fruit differing from the rest of the tree.
So it is with people. If we’re saved and rooted in Christ, we’ll be marked by holy speech and righteous deeds. If we’re lost and chained to sin, we’ll be marked by evil speech and wicked deeds. Thus, Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4–5).
While we know we are not saved by our works, but by faith in Christ alone, yet it is true that a Christian is known by their speech and actions. Hence, there are evidences of salvation, and our speech is one major evidence of whether or not we’re saved and indwelled by the Holy Spirit.
What Fills the Heart Moves the Mouth
In Matthew 12:34, Jesus is speaking directly to the Pharisees whose pretense and facade of apparent righteousness fell apart when they opened their mouths. Jesus rebuked them and explained, “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. This is as straightforward as the previous verse. What you have been filled with will ultimately spill out of you. Whatever occupies your heart will control your tongue.
It would, perhaps, be simple enough to say that this verse simply warns us against foul language, swearing, and cussing. However, this verse means even more still. The context of this rebuke is the larger issue of how the Pharisees have blasphemed Jesus by accusing him of being demon possessed. Rather than praise Jesus for his miracles, the Pharisees blasphemed Christ by claiming “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matt. 12:24). What makes this language so wicked, sinful, evil, and blasphemous is that it lies about who Jesus truly is, while simultaneously ascribing the miracles he was performing to Satan. Such an accusation tried to rob God of his rightful glory while ascribing the glory to Satan instead. In the process of such a wicked accusation, the Pharisees revealed both their wicked hearts and their sinful allegiance to Satan.
Jesus, knowing this, said of the Pharisees in John 8:44 that, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Those who try to pretend to be righteous will, eventually, be revealed by their language. Their true colors will eventually show. They will, by mere words, reveal where their allegiance lies—whether they belong to Christ or Satan.
This is because, as Jesus puts it, “out of the abundance of heart, the mouth speaks.” What has filled your heart? If you’re a Christian, then the answer is simple: the Holy Spirit. As Paul asked in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
So, what does the Holy Spirit do when he begins to fill our hearts? He regenerates us, plants faith in us, seals us for eternal life in the presence of Jesus and leads us into holiness. That means that he also convicts us of sin so that we repent of our sinfulness, including our sinful language (cf, John 16:6–11).
Having been filled by the Holy Spirit, we are then called to “be careful to devote themselves [ourselves] to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:8). Devoting ourselves to good works and speaking from the abundance of our hearts means speaking as God teaches us to speak in his Word.
A good rule of thumb for the Christian, then, regarding speech, is to ask two primary questions: 1. Would Jesus say what I’m about to say? 2. Would I say this directly to, or in front of, Jesus? If you can’t answer “yes” to both questions, then it is not befitting of a Christian.
This is because:
A Man’s Speech Reveals Whether His Treasure Is Christ or Sin
As Jesus continues to explain how our language is the fruit that reveals where we are rooted, he goes on to say in Matthew 12:35 that “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.”
It’s as though we are treasure chests, or piggy banks, and the words we speak reveal what’s really been deposited inside of us. Every time we speak, it’s like we’re making a withdrawal from the deposit—the deposit never diminishes, of course, but our speech reveals whether the deposit was the Holy Spirit or sin. Our duty is to guard the good deposit. This is why Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:14, “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”
God, through the Holy Spirit, made a deposit into us and that deposit consists of the confession, “Christ is Lord.” And, indeed, Christ is Lord of all! He’s Lord of our hearts, our minds, our actions, our families, our homes, our churches, our worship, our employments, our recreations, and—yes—our speech. After all, either Jesus is Lord of all or He’s not Lord at all. And, so, when we draw on the good deposit of this confession, we bring forth the fruit of the the Spirit of God: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22–24).
Is your speech marked by the fruit of the Spirit? Does the way you speak reveal to others that you’re rooted and grounded in Christ, that the Holy Spirit has filled your heart, and that Christ is your great treasure?
We need not wonder what such speech might look like. The Bible is very clear about this fruit of the Spirit in our speech and tells us, in a very practical way, to, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:6). Gracious and wise. This is what it is to have speech seasoned with salt; it is, primarily, speech that kindly and lovingly lifts our brothers and sisters in Christ, while also having the holy tenacity to tear down idols.
But, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:29–32, there are some prohibitions laid on the Christian when they talk. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, 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. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
So, with our mouths, we must worship God, proclaim the gospel, and make known the Lordship of Jesus. Our words are to build others up, offering grace to our hearers. It is to be marked by kindness, tenderness, and even forgiveness, while avoiding bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice. And, there is to be no corrupting talk, which is perhaps the most telling part of these verses. We ought not to sound like the world. This means no gossip, slander, unrighteous anger, lying, or blasphemous speech, but also that swearing and cussing ought to be off the table as regular patterns of life.
I’ve seen and heard some, very recently, suggest that Christians, and especially Christian men, ought not to make a fuss over language, like swearing and cussing. Some have gone so far as to say that if we want blue collar men to return to the church, we need to embrace swearing and get comfortable with cussing. Others have even suggested that advancing in certain occupations and keeping friends requires one learn how to “talk shop” with the boys. And, to make their defense, they appeal to men like Luther, who occasionally did swear, and prophets like Ezekiel who use the sort of language that might make your grandmother blush, as in Ezekiel 22.
I don’t deny that cussing can have an effect. I also don’t deny that men like Luther appear to have used very strong language. Prophets like Ezekiel and Elijah did the same. But, here’s the deal: We’re not Luther, Ezekiel, or Elijah. We are not called to be like them; we’re called to be like Christ. Our standard for holiness is Christ. So, while there may be times for strong language from Christians, does it not seem best to err on the side of caution here? I believe we can do better. I believe men can speak like men, valid points can be made, wisdom can be taught, idols can be torn down, and the sins of our culture confronted in brave, courageous, and tenaciously holy ways, devoid of vulgarity.
My own testimony of language is this: I used to cuss like a sailor. I knew every swear word in the book and then some. I used them in inventive ways. While Paul boasted in Philippians 3 about his Jewishness, I could have boasted about how much I swore. I was young at the time, but I doubt my parents ever even knew. I knew better than to do it in front of them or when at church.
But two things happened to me that changed this pattern of speech and behavior. One day, I remember my dad telling me that cussing never made anyone sound intelligent. And, secondly, I read these various verses and became quite convicted about my ungodly language. Over time, then, not only did my language change, but others took notice. I worked enough blue collar, secular jobs to know this truth: Even the unsaved will change their speech around Christians when they realize we talk in a holy manner. This, in turn, acts as an agent of conviction, opening the door for gospel conversations.
If that isn’t enough to convince you to speak in a holy and righteous way, consider this:
Our Language Will Be Judged Because It Reveals the Allegiance of Our Hearts
Jesus is incredibly clear in his warning of Matthew 12:36–37: “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.”
Even our careless words will be judged! That ought to make us pause. This means that the words we speak publicly and privately, carefully, intentionally, or even without thought, will all be judged. And, if you really want to know what treasure a person possesses, listen to how they talk the other six days out of the week; not just Sunday. If the regular pattern of their speech is to praise God, discuss Scripture, proclaim the gospel, pray, and is theological and commendable, you have your answer. That person is filled with the Holy Spirit. But, if not . . . well, they will be judged.