Words are powerful. The Bible opens with God speaking and creating the universe with His Word. Then the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. This is the Word by Whom, God upholds the universe. And this same Word has now gone forth into all the earth in the power of His Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel. Thus, biblically speaking words have teleology, ends, aims, goals, and tend to incarnate. They are like seed that goes into the ground that tends to grow up into plants. And the Incarnation of God’s Word results in words going forth.
All of this is why the tongue of man is such a terrible glory. As God’s image bearers, men and women mimic God in His power with their words. Their words are flames of fire, able to set worlds ablaze. “The tongue is set among our members, straining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by Hell” (Js. 3:6). Words can be violent and blood-thirsty (Prov. 12:6). Words can be rash and reckless (Prov. 12:18). Words can be full of sweetness and carry healing power (Prov. 16:24). Words can persuade or break bones (Prov. 25:15).
All of this is why words matter:
“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving… Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Eph. 5:3-4).
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:5-10).
Several things to note here: In both Ephesians and Colossians Paul connects lifestyle with language. People who live in darkness talk a certain way. The sexually immoral have filthy mouths. The impure and violent have obscene talk on their tongues. Words become flesh, but we know from Jesus that flesh also becomes words: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45). And this also underlines the power of the gospel: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:13-17).
So evil hearts have evil mouths, and they mutually re-enforce one another. But the Creative, Eternal Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us in order to re-make the world, and that work of re-creation is being accomplished through spoken, proclaimed words — the word of Life, the word of the gospel, the word of grace and gratitude. When that word goes forth, and men believe, they are saved, and their hearts become good and good treasure starts coming out of their mouths. And those good words incarnate into more goodness.
And all of this is just to point out the simple fact that Christians should not talk like they are still lost in the darkness. I pointed out on Sunday, preaching on the Prodigal Son narrative, that there would be no cause for rejoicing had the son returned but refused to participate in the father’s celebration because he wasn’t really into the music or kept cussing like he was still back in the pig pen. Christians are to take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness but expose them. And this means that their mouths should not be full of cursing and swearing and f-bombs. Their mouths should be full of blessing, thanksgiving, and praise. And the stakes really are quite high — Jesus says that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart. And with evil words you defile yourself (Mt. 15:18-20). You can’t talk like an angry man, a sexually immoral man, a covetous man, an impure man and not be doing something to yourself and those around you. Words are fire. Words are potent. You are a living image of the Eternal God. Your words are either giving life or defiling life. They are either giving health or doing violence.
You can’t say that when you use an “f-word” you’re just playing. You don’t mean what the world means. If that’s true, why not use the word “faggot” the next time you refer to a sodomite in public? Just explain to all the horrified faces what you mean by it. The fact that many Christians would readily offend their mothers in the church while assiduously minding their p’s and q’s for the godless speech-marms demonstrates who’s being discipled by whom. And the same thing goes for those who use filthy language in the name of gritty creative writing, acting, and art, as well as those who surround themselves with music and movies and television shows that do the same. You are becoming your words and the words around you.
In this sense, we might say that words always incarnate. Words always go on living and acting. Either they are doing good or working evil. And this is why confession of sin is also so potent. You may not really be able to take back your words. They have gone out in the air, in messages, in emails, but the good news is that you can send other words, even more powerful words out after them. You can send out the words of truth, the words of confession, and the words of the gospel — and those words can heal, restore, refresh, and raise up, even where our words have been destructive, bloody, violent, rash.
“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” (Mt. 12:36-37) Every careless word. Every careless “WTF?” Every filthy word. Every obscene word. Every crude joke. Perhaps most significantly, the words we use demonstrate whether we fear God or not. The point isn’t that God has some kind of list of bad words in heaven, and He’s counting your infractions. The point is that God is in Heaven, and He will require an account. And it does absolutely no good to protest that you’re a deacon in your church, a Christian school teacher, lead a small group Bible study, or sing in the choir. That only underlines the point. What are you incarnating?