Have you ever tried to stop using a particular word? When I was younger, I had the bad habit of using “mild” curse words, at least mild compared to those used today. It was tough to stop, with no other reason than I wanted to change. But I needed a deeper motivation which was not to offend and to be more professional. I replaced my bad words with “oh, pooh” and “darn.” Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Having been redeemed in Christ, the words that now come out of my mouth flow from a changed heart—transformed and gradually sanctified. Lately, God has been deepening my motivation, even more to speak for his glory and kingdom. Our conduct, choices, and decisions reflect the good God has put in us through Christ for the benefit of his family, our Christian brothers and sisters. This is especially true of our words, which should be for the benefit of others and not our own glory, promotion, or satisfaction. It’s counter-cultural, like other ways in which we live for Christ.
Speaking for the benefit of others rather than for myself is biblical. “But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (1 Thessalonians 2:4) Even in prayer, as we meet with God, our words bless others through our union with him and our intercessions for them. So here is our passage today, focusing on the fruit of our mouths: “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…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 12:33, 35-37) Godly speech, which originates in our gospel treasure strengthens God’s family. Our words will mirror the gospel treasure in our hearts as we seek to bring out the treasure for others to enjoy. “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.” (Ephesians 4:29-30)
When Christ transforms us, bringing us out of the darkness into his light, and the Holy Spirit makes us progressively better, so our fruit is improving. “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” (verse 33). When people plant trees today, they can “make” them good by the way they prepare, plant, and nurture them. Some will, because of sin, not be good, by no fault of God. Like trees, there resides in us the potential to be made good, but only by Christ’s interceding mercy. Like trees, we bear fruit depending on whether we are (spiritually) healthy or rotten. Have you ever opened a spoiled peace, apple, or watermelon? The outer peel may look good, but the flesh inside is brown and putrid—some may even be poisonous. And so it is with our words or our tone of voice when we are not reflecting the gospel good in us. “Even a liar’s speech expresses something true; it may not tell us the state of the world, but it tells us the state of his heart.” (1)
C. S. Lewis wrote a brilliant expose of Satan’s work, “The Screwtape Letters.” In the imaginary letters, Satan writes to his demon nephew, Wormwood, as an “affectionate uncle,” to disciple him in the devil’s craft. In one particular letter, he instructed Wormwood to use a man’s speech to hinder his relationship with God and his mother. “My dear Wormwood, I am very pleased by what you tell me about this man’s relations with his mother… In civilised life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face. To keep this game up you…must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: ‘I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.’ Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.” (2) Convicting, is it not—a commentary on our society today, using words to drive home superiority and criticism of others?
Compare Lewis’s quote with this commentary by John Gill on Matthew 12:35. “A good man is a regenerated man, one that is renewed by the Spirit of God, a believer in Christ, a sincere lover of him, and one that follows him, wheresoever he goes, and who has the grace of God implanted in him: for “the good treasure the heart”…[and he] brings forth good things; tells his experience, speaks of what God has done for his soul; says many things to the glory of the grace of God; of the person, offices, blood, righteousness, and fulness of Christ; and of the operations and influences of the blessed Spirit; and which are pleasant, profitable, useful, and edifying to the saints.” (3) Rather than incite conflict and criticism, our good words build up our Christian family and those who will be drawn to join it. Our speech will reflect the gospel treasure in our hearts as we seek to bring out our wealth of grace for others to enjoy.
The selection, character, and tone of our words should prove that we have been justified. In Matthew 12, Jesus addressed his comments to the unbelieving Pharisees. However, in verse 36, he refers to the “people” whom God will judge. “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 12:36-37) But we should not think that anyone’s words will be the basis for their justification, their delivery out of condemnation. Instead, Jesus teaches that our words reflect the state of our justification, much as James teaches that we are “justified” (proved to be Christians) by our conduct. (4) In our progressive justification (sanctification), speech improves over time as we are conformed to the character of God. “Consider Peter, a disciple who must have been present with Jesus as he preached to the rulers of the Jews on this occasion…If ever a disciple was guilty of foolish, careless words, it was Peter…But what a change regeneration makes! And what a change in Peter after Christ’s resurrection and his gracious recommissioning to service….In that day Peter’s words were no longer careless, idiotic, or mistaken. Peter began to speak truthfully and with power, as the Holy Spirit spoke through him.” (5) Our pastors, theologians, teachers, family members, godly friends, and Scripture help us by modeling purified speech. “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:14-15) Over the last week, the Spirit reminded me of our pastor’s sermon on Acts 17, about speaking the gospel with love and respect when I was discussing other Scripture with my Christian family. (6) What a delight it is to know that God matures us through our regular participation and interactions in our local churches.
Will our words reflect the gospel treasure in our hearts as we seek to bring out our cache for others to enjoy? Do your speech and manner of speaking reflect the goodness Christ has worked in you, that the Spirit continues to work in you? Do you see progress in your use and choice of words? How about your tone and manner of speaking? Are you quick to react or do you take time to appreciate the full impact of what others are communicating? How often do you verbally share the gospel treasure in you? Does it come out in your emails, texts, tweets, or other posts? Will you pray about doing so respectfully and without attacking an unbeliever’s values or integrity? Do we give thanks to God, as he deserves, for our justification in Christ? Whenever I conduct a Bible study or meeting now, we begin with praises and thanksgiving; is there any better way to prepare for our time together? God deserves it and we need to get into the habit of delighting in words of praise together. Will you devote a regular time to commune with the Lord with words of praise, acknowledgement, and appreciation for what Christ and the Spirit have done in and for you? “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Peter 1:3-4)
(1) Budziszewsky, J., “What We Can’t Not Know,” Ignatius Publishers, First Edition, 2011.
(2) Lewis, C. S., “The Screwtape Letters,” pages 13-14, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Matthew 12:35, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/matthew-12.html
(4) James does not contradict Paul on positional justification, meaning saved by faith alone through grace alone, not by our works. But James uses the term “justification” in a different way—Saved by grace alone, but not saved for grace alone. A couple of articles about this are found at:
(5) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Matthew 12:28-38, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
(6) Taha, Allen, “Sharing is Caring,” https://www.csmedia1.com/trinityboerne.org/02-02-2020-website.pdf
February 7, 2020