Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. COLOSSIANS 4:6
A number of years ago I became fascinated with the writings of Neil Postman, a professor of communication arts at New York University and author of a best-selling critique of our television-saturated society, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. One of my friends on the West Coast knew of this interest and sent me an article about Postman from Harper’s magazine (March 1991). Actually it was about two people: Postman, who criticizes television, and a woman named Camille Paglia, who is a defender of it. Mrs. Paglia is also a professor, a teacher of humanities at Philadelphia College of the Arts. The article was a polished transcript of a conversation between these two very fascinating people.
But here is the delightful thing. The magazine’s editors had arranged this conversation around a four-star dinner
served in the private Tasting Room of New York City’s Le Bernardin restaurant, whose chef is Gilbert Le Coze. The editors had invited them to come to the restaurant to eat and talk. So as we were being told what they said, we were also told what they were eating. There would be an argument by Paglia. Then, for example,
… baked sea urchin …
After this there would be a further exchange between the two popular authors, followed by
… shrimp and basil beignets …
In the course of this lively conversation the two dining companions enjoyed seared scallops in truffle vinaigrette, black bass in coriander nage, roast monkfish on savoy cabbage, and at the end a carousel of caramel desserts. I was as fascinated with the dinner as with the conversation.
Which was exactly the point, of course. For the setting was a device the editors had for indicating that the conversation between Postman and Paglia was well prepared, satisfying, and extremely tasty.
Which also makes it a good introduction to our text, a verse in which the apostle Paul applies the need for grace to the speech or conversation of Christians, using a gastronomic image: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6). In this verse the word translated “conversation” is the common Greek word logos, usually translated “word” in other passages. So the verse is talking about the importance of our words or speech, and it is telling us that our speech should be gracious and not insipid to the taste. It should be well seasoned.
Evil Heart, Evil Tongue
Gracious speech flows from a heart that has been established in the grace of God. Gracious speech does not flow naturally from a sinful heart. But that is what we are all born with, according to the Bible. Jeremiah described the unregenerate heart by saying, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
This is the state of every heart apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and a heart like this speaks harmful, deceitful words because it is exactly that, harmful and deceitful.
As I began to research this subject I found two things: (1) not many contemporary writers have dealt with the importance of how we speak, whether graciously or not, and (2) the Bible has a lot to say about human words and conversation. Do you know that the very first mention of “words” in the Bible is in Genesis 4:23, where the evil despot Lamech is said to have used “words” to boast about having killed another man? His words are in verse, which makes this the first recorded poem in human history.
Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times. (vv. 23-24)
And it doesn’t get better after that. In Psalm 55:20-21, David speaks of the man who attacks his friends, saying of him, “His speech is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart.” Psalm 64 speaks of people “who sharpen their tongues like swords and aim their words like deadly arrows” (v. 3). Psalm 94:4 speaks of evil men’s “arrogant words,” and Psalm 109:3 of hateful words (“words of hatred”). The author of Proverbs says, “The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, but the speech of the upright
rescues them” (Proverbs 12:6) and “Reckless words pierce like a sword” (Proverbs 12:18).
It is the same in the New Testament. Peter is concerned about false teachers who harm their listeners by words:
They mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity. (2 Peter 2:18-19)
Jude reminds us of “all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against [God]” (v. 15).
This is a problem for Christians, too, though it should not be. James writes about it in the third chapter of his very practical letter, warning Christians that their tongues are unruly by nature and can be quite dangerous.
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:3-8). The picture James gives is not overdrawn. We can think easily of people who have stirred the world to great harm by their words.
Hitler is a prime example, and there have been other similar demagogues throughout human history. Whole nations, whole decades have literally been set on fire by the tongue. And James is right in something else, too: “No man can tame the tongue.” The tongue is incorrigible. But “what is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). God can tame it. That is where hope lies. For just as certain as it is that evil people have used their eloquence to do evil, so also have many Christians been given grace to do evil, so also have many Christians been given grace to control their tongues and use whatever eloquence God has given them to teach his Word and praise him both in spirit and in truth.
There will never be genuine tongue control until we possess a new or renewed heart. But that is just what has been given to us when we became Christians. Because of God’s renewing work within, we are able to let our “conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” and “know how to answer everyone” wisely and well.
Our Lord’s Example
The gracious speech of Jesus is a great example for us, as he is in all other areas. We recall that after the first sermon of his career, spoken in the synagogue at Nazareth, the people were mostly enthralled at his gracious teaching. The text says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22). So it was throughout his three-year ministry.
Here are some examples.
1. His endorsement of John the Baptist.
Matthew tells us in chapter 11 that when he was in prison and doubtless discouraged, John the Baptist sent disciples to Jesus to ask whether he was really the one who was to come or whether
John had been mistaken and should look for another. From some religious leaders a question like that might have provoked harsh words: “Of course, I’m the one. Didn’t you get a sign from heaven at the time of my baptism? Don’t you believe God? What do you mean asking a question like that at a time like this? Doubt on your part may seriously undermine my credibility!”
Jesus did not say any of those things, of course. Instead, he pointed John to the Scriptures, telling the disciples to report how the blind had been made to see, the lame to walk, and how lepers had been cured, all in line with prophesies such as that in Isaiah 61:1-2, which he had read in the synagogue in Nazareth when he began his ministry. Rather than criticizing John’s ministry, Jesus endorsed it, saying,
What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? … A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist. (Matthew 11:7-11).
Those were gracious words indeed.
2. His instruction of Nicodemus.
The third chapter of John recounts Jesus’ instruction of Nicodemus when Nicodemus came to him at night to discuss religious matters. Jesus told him that he could not understand them unless he was born again. But instead of sending him away to “get born again,” as we might have done, Jesus graciously taught Nicodemus from the Old Testament, since he knew that
it is through the teaching of the Word as it is blessed by the Holy Spirit that people are regenerated. Jesus must have taken a rather long time to do this, since the chapter touches on at least eight major doctrines Jesus taught him.
3. His conversation with the Samaritan woman.
The situation was different with the Samaritan woman, whose story is told in John 4. She was no theologian. She knew only the beliefs and prejudices of her people. But Jesus nevertheless led her gently to understand who he was, what he had come to do, and her great need of him. As a result of this gracious conversation, the woman came to trust Jesus as her personal Savior and became a witness to the other people in her town. Later those people had this testimony: “We know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
4. His concern for the woman who had been caught in adultery.
One day Jesus’ enemies brought him a woman who had been caught in the act of committing adultery. Jesus was supposed to condemn her, as required by the law. But he did not. Instead, he demanded that those who were themselves innocent should be the first to cast stones at her. According to the law, the first stones needed to be thrown by those who had borne witness to the crime. But since this was an obvious setup, those persons must have been guilty of what we would call entrapment. They knew it, were convicted of their greater sin, and one by one began to slink away. Then Jesus turned to the woman and forgave her on the basis of his death for sin that was yet to come. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” he asked.
“No one, sir,” she answered.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus replied. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:10-11). He forgave her but also
taught the necessity of living a holy life. We studied this story at greater length in chapter 3.
5. His restoration of Peter:
My final example is Jesus’ gentle restoration of Peter after Peter had denied him at the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Jesus could have been harsh, humiliating Peter before the others, since Peter had boasted that even if the others denied Jesus, he at least would not. Even then Jesus told Peter that, although he would deny him, Jesus would pray for him so that his faith would not fail, and that when he was restored he would use his experience to strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:31-32). But now, following the Resurrection, Jesus restored Peter both deliberately and gently.
“Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
Peter remembered his earlier boast and replied without Jesus’ pointed comparison to the other disciples, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
This was repeated three times, corresponding to Peter’s three denials (John 21:15-17). It was an exceedingly gracious way of dealing with Peter. It was characteristic of all Jesus said and did.
What Our Conversation Should Be
We may ask again, What should the Christian’s conversation be like? What does Colossians 4:6 teach about the way we should see words? There are many things we could say about the way Christians should speak, but this text alone suggests at least five of them.
1. Our words should be kind.
God is kind to us. Therefore, we should be kind when we speak to other people. God’s words are gracious words. Ours
should be gracious also. This is the first thing Paul indicates when he says that our conversation should be “full of grace.”
Is this an apt description of your words? I know a leader in the evangelical church who has a problem at this point. He is a man of unusual gifts and is widely used of the Lord. But he has a way of making hurtful jokes or telling disparaging stories about other people. These stories are not intentionally malicious, as far as I can see. I would assume they arise from his own insecurities. He feels more in charge of things if he can humble someone else. But his words are still unkind and harmful. I have seen people visibly wounded by the things he says.
And they remember it, too. When we were children and other children were making fun of us, as children will, we were taught to say:
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will never hurt me.
But it is not true. Words do hurt, and we can all remember harsh things that were said about us or to us, perhaps decades ago.
In his best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People, the self-taught human relations expert Dale Carnegie tells about something he did as a young man that was very foolish. He was preparing a magazine article about famous American authors and wrote to an author whose name was Richard Harding Davis, asking him about his method of work. A few weeks earlier he had received a letter from someone else. It had been typed by his secretary, and on the bottom there was a notation: “Dictated but not read.” Carnegie was impressed. It sounded important. So at the bottom of his letter to Davis, Carnegie added the same phrase: “Dictated but not read.”
Davis never even bothered to answer the letter. He simply returned it to Carnegie with these words scribbled across the
bottom: “Your bad manners are exceeded only by your bad manners.” Carnegie admitted that he had blundered and deserved the rebuke. But he resented the retort and remembered it. He remembered it so vividly that ten years later, when he read in a paper about the death of Richard Harding Davis, the one thing that came to his mind was the hurt Davis had given him.
Words do hurt. Sometimes words kill. So do not harm by your words. “Let your conversation be always full of grace.” Speak kindly.
2. Our speech should be serious.
I do not mean by this that Christians should be humorless or grim or always talking about the Bible or theology. We are never told that Jesus laughed, but we know he was witty and that he was an enjoyable person to be with. We do not have to be more serious than Jesus. Yet Jesus was not frivolous either, was he? He never engaged in stupid or mindless conversations. He could enjoy life and have a good time, as he did at the wedding at Cana. But he also knew that what we say is important and that spiritual matters are of the utmost importance. Therefore, when speaking, Jesus always seemed to have the spiritual well-being of other people uppermost in his mind.
I am sure Paul is recommending this in Colossians 4:6 because of the context in which the verse is set. Verse 3: “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” Verse 4: “Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” Verse 5: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” There is a progression in those verses. First, Paul asks prayer for the missionary team that surrounds him: Tychicus (v. 7), Onesimus (v.9), Aristarchus, Mark, and Barnabas (v. 10), Justus (v. 11), Epaphras (v. 12), Luke and Demas (v. 14). Second, he asks prayer for himself, that he might
be a good witness. Third, he encourages the believers at Colosse to make the most of every opportunity, undoubtedly referring to their own opportunities to share the gospel. It is immediately after this that he says, “Let your conversation be always full of grace.”
In developing the previous point I have assumed that “full of grace” means “gracious.” But in view of this context, it might equally well mean “full of the doctrines of the grace of God.” That is, “Let a lot of what you talk about be God’s grace.”
Is your conversation serious in this sense? Do you talk about spiritual things often? Are you considering the spiritual need of other people as you do? At the end of the Old Testament we are told that the godly in Malachi’s day did this: “Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard.” They were talking about spiritual things. Then we are told, “A scroll of remembrance was written in [God’s presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name” (Malachi 3:16).
Job wanted his words to count. He said, “Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever!” (Job 19:23-24).
Paul wrote to Titus recommending “soundness of speech that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:8).
3. Our comments should be discerning.
This is what Paul is speaking about when he tells us to “make the most of every opportunity.” Not every moment of our day contains opportunities for sharing the gospel or speaking a timely or encouraging word. In fact, some moments are decidedly inopportune. If people in your company are rushing to satisfy a customer by meeting a critical deadline, that is not the time to distract them by opening a serious discussion about sin.
If you are asked to honor an employee who is retiring after thirty years of good service, that is not the time to ask, “By the way, do all of you know the four spiritual laws?” That would be inappropriate, unwise, and offensive.
On the other hand, there are many more opportunities to speak about things that matter than most of us are conscious of, and a discerning person will pick up on them. People betray their anxieties in countless small ways, and a discerning Christian will quickly relate to these and testify to the peace and contentment that faith in Jesus brings. Discussion of current events can turn to the root causes lying beneath the world’s problems. The collapse of national morality can lead to a discussion of the need for inner spiritual change, which only God can give.
Also, we can create opportunities. Paul Little tells how he would often ask another person: “Are you a Christian, or are you still on the way?” That presented an easy alternative, and if they were not sure and said that they were still on the way, he would follow with: “How far along the way are you?” Many serious, helpful, and inoffensive conversations followed.
4. Our statements should be wise.
We all know the story of the zealous Christian barber who wanted to witness to his customers. So when he had them in the chair, had lathered their face, and was about to shave them with a large straight razor, he would ask quite suddenly and fiercely: “Are you ready to die?” He could never understand why some immediately bolted from the chair and never came back. His witnessing was zealous, but it was unwise. Paul says in Colossians 4 that our conversation should always be wise, prefacing verse 6 with the words, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders,” and ending his words about our conversations with the clause, “so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
How to speak, when to speak, and when not to speak are all
matters that involve wisdom. But when we think of our conversations being wise, we should also think of the content of what we say and how true wisdom is found not in the world’s insights but in the Bible. In its darkened and sinful state the world may not regard this as wisdom. Paul says that when he preached the gospel the Greeks regarded it as foolishness. Nevertheless, the things of God are true wisdom, and we should be known as those who believe and often repeat these wise words. Paul told the Corinthians, “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
True wisdom comes from God through the instruction in the Bible, and the conversations of Christians should be filled with it.
5. Our conversation should be interesting.
My final point is that the conversation of Christians should be interesting, which is the way I understand the phrase “seasoned with salt.” Salt had various uses in the ancient world, the chief one being that it was used as a preservative. There was no refrigeration then, of course. So if meat was to be preserved, for instance, the only way of doing it was by smoking it or curing it with salt. Jesus was probably thinking about this use of salt when he told his disciples that they were “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). He meant that it is due to the influence of godly people that the world is not a more rotten place than it is.
But that is not what Paul is thinking of in this verse from Colossians, for here he uses the words “seasoned with.” This is not referring to salt’s preservative powers but to salt’s ability to contribute flavor to something that might otherwise be insipid.
Is your conversation like that? Is it interesting? I am afraid that many Christians are dull in what they say because they are not thinking much about important matters and can only comment on the latest sports scores or the weather. Yet it is also true
that the most interesting of all people are Christians, in my judgment, particularly if they are studying God’s Word and learning to think about life as Christians. People like this do not merely reflect the warmed-over views or hackneyed clichés of the gray, dull world around them. Their minds are alive with new ideas, and their conversation is provocative and intriguing.
Throughout the year my speaking schedule brings me into contact with many such people. I am always stimulated by these contacts. Shouldn’t your speech be lively? Shouldn’t your conversation be at least as well prepared, satisfying, and tasty as the conversation between Neil Postman and Camille Paglia that I referred to in the introduction to this study?
A Few Important Warnings
There is one matter before I end. I have written about what our speech should be, but I also want to note that there are important biblical warnings about what our words should not be.
First, they should not be arrogant, that is, pretending to have answers to questions we do not actually have. Remember Job’s counselors. God called their words “words without knowledge” (Job 38:2), and Job rightly complained that their ignorant counsel harmed him. He asked his friends, “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?” (Job 19:2).
Second, our words should not be divisive. Some people think that in order to defend truth they have to be argumentative. But Paul warned Timothy about godless men whose arguments “result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind” (1 Timothy 6:4-5). He also said, “Warn [Christians] before God against quarreling about words” (2 Timothy 2:14).
Third, our words should not be careless. Remember Jesus’
warning about the place words will have in the final judgment. He said, “Men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
Words are important! Your conversation counts!
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).