The Reformation movement of the 16th Century was not a mere human venture with a great cause. It was not just a revolutionary effort of one man, namely Martin Luther. It was neither an individual revolutionary action nor a society’s collective effort to bring about change and progress. Instead, it was a divine work through those whom God has chosen and empowered by His Word and His Spirit.
The reformation of the church was not a one-and-done event in 1517, but an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of His people. It emerged from the Holy Spirit’s work in many individuals that brought about their repentance, regeneration, renewal, reformation and revival through His Word. Indeed, God used the revival in Luther’s heart to start a revival of Christianity in his time. The saving and reviving work of God in the Reformers was the beginning of divine work to revive Christianity. Through their transformation, God worked to expel the heretical beliefs and practices from the church, and to proclaim biblical truths for the salvation and sanctification of sinners. The Reformation movement and the Protestantism that ensued were God’s reviving of Christianity.
The Reformers viewed their task as a divine work carried out through them for the renewal and planting of Christian churches. The perspective of the Reformers (Martin Luther, Zwingli, John Calvin, etc.) on the movement was that it was a divine work for the renewal of the church, and that the true Gospel of Jesus Christ be proclaimed everywhere for the salvation of sinners. This overwhelming understanding of the Reformation is reflected in the following words of John Calvin’s prayer:
“We pray to you now, O most gracious God and merciful Father, for all people everywhere. As it is your will to be acknowledged as the Savior of the whole world, through the redemption wrought by your Son Jesus Christ, grant that those who are still estranged from the knowledge of him, being in the darkness and captivity of error and ignorance, may be brought by the illumination of your Holy Spirit and the preaching of your gospel to the right way of salvation, which is to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
(This is a further continuation of the article on “Our Speech Matters!” by Pastor Koshy, published over the last two weeks. It is compiled from several articles that he wrote in Bible Witness, Volume 11, Issue 4.)
More practical instructions in the Book of Proverbs on developing wholesome speech are presented below.
Proverbs 15:1 regards “a soft answer” as wise speech because it “turneth away wrath”. The Hebrew word for “soft” (rak) appears about 16 times in the Old Testament; it is translated by the King James Bible as “tender” (9 times), “soft” (3 times), as well as “fainthearted”, “weak” and “tenderhearted”. In the context of this verse, it points to gentle, conciliatory words.
We must be careful to avoid provocative words at all times. Especially in tense situations, gentle and non-provocative words will help to calm those who are agitated and wrathful. So, our words must be chosen with much self-control, forethought, love and patience. Words spoken in haste will aggravate a heated conversation even further. Speak to pacify – that is wise speech!
So, Proverbs 25:15 says, “a soft tongue breaketh the bone.” It is yet another maxim that drives home the truth that gentle and amiable words will make tender those who have been most difficult and inflexible. A modern Greek proverb says, “The tongue has no bones, yet it breaks bones!”
Words of Kindness
Wise speech is always characterised by virtues like love, grace and kindness. Wise speech is not harsh, discourteous or rude.
Proverbs 22:11 provides instruction on the graciousness of wise speech – “He that loveth pureness of heart, for the grace of his lips the king shall be his friend.” The Hebrew word for “grace” (hēn) is often translated as “grace” and “favour”. So, the phrase, “grace of his lips”, suggests gracious speech or expressions of kind and favourable words. This verse also tells us that a man who loves purity will be gracious.
Purity of heart and graciousness of speech make a man worthy of notice and reward from his king. Though many kings would care nothing about righteousness and graciousness, yet several of the Old Testament characters were promoted by their kings because of their purity and graciousness. Joseph (cf. Genesis 41:37-45), Daniel (Daniel 6:1-3, 28) and Ezra (Ezra 7:21-25) are truly examples of those who had lived out the instruction and promise of this verse. “Righteous lips are the delight of kings; and they love him that speaketh right” (Proverbs 16:13). If God, the King of kings, were to bring any promotion to us at all, He will look for purity and graciousness in our hearts, words and actions.
Concerning the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31, it is written that “in her tongue is the law of kindness” (Proverbs 31:26). “The law of kindness” is a very necessary rule for every tongue if the words it utters are to be wise.
Words of Rebuke
Proverbs’ promotion of words of encouragement does not preclude the necessity of words of warning and rebuke. Both are equally important. In fact, the book itself has many instances of rebuke for those who behave foolishly.
Proverbs 28:23 lauds the usefulness of rebuke when it says, “He that rebuketh a man afterwards shall find more favour than he that flattereth with the tongue.” Daring to rebuke a person may cause temporary alienation, but if the person who has been rebuked is truly wise, he will return to give thanks for the correction he has received. On the other hand, flattering someone who has erred may appear pleasant, but it prevents him from seeing his errors. Flattering someone who ought to be rebuked is tantamount to cheering him on in his foolishness! A faithful and loving friend will sharply rebuke the man who has erred, so that he may be corrected and rescued from the consequences of his errors. Hence, rebuke is better than flattery.
“Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Proverbs 27:5-6). Rebuking is to be preferred over hidden (literally “closed up, withdrawn”) love. In other words, correcting a person’s fault is evidence of love, but failing to correct him shows that love is withheld. An enemy (literally “one who hates”) may seem to be a friend by his many “kisses”, whereas a true friend (literally “one who loves”) may seem to be an enemy by the wounds he inflicts (i.e. inner hurts that come from being rebuked or criticised). Ironically, while rebukes can be genuine expressions of friendship, kisses can be deceitful expressions of hatred.
That is why Proverbs warns against ignoring correction. “But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof … they would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof” (Proverbs 1:25, 30). In fact, on several occasions, the wisdom of Proverbs urges readers to respond positively to wise rebuke directed at them:
Words Used Sparingly
A wise man generally uses few words. In fact, Proverbs teaches us to use words sparingly and unhurriedly. “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). Firstly, the verse warns us that constant talking will eventually lead us to sin and trouble. Secondly, it teaches us to avoid that danger by refraining our lips from uttering too many words.
The warning against chattering is repeated two other times in the same chapter. We read in Proverbs 10:8b and 10b, “but a prating fool shall fall.” Likewise, Proverbs 11:12 says, “He that is void of wisdom despiseth his neighbour: but a man of understanding holdeth his peace” (cf. James 3:2-8). The Hebrew word for “despise” (bûz) can also mean “deride” or “belittle”. It often expresses the idea of speaking contemptuously of another. It makes no sense to deride one’s neighbour (i.e. someone who lives or works in close proximity). Since this causes friction and dissension, it is wise to “hold his peace”. Divine wisdom highly recommends friendly silence rather than unwise ridicule.
Wisdom of silence is again mentioned in Proverbs 17:27-28 – “He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit. Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.” Proverbs also advises us to refrain from gossiping: “A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter” (Proverbs 11:13). This verse recommends prudent concealment rather than spreading rumours. A talebearer betrays his friend who confides in him. It is foolish and unrighteous to reveal what one has been entrusted with.
Proverbs also tells us that guarding one’s speech is self-protection: “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles” (Proverbs 21:23). A man who guards his speech protects himself from many troubles that careless words would have brought to him. By constant watchfulness over our words, we can avoid the many troubles of an ungoverned tongue.
Words Carefully Chosen
Engaging in conversation is often a necessity. However, we should be careful with our choice of words. Most importantly, our words ought to be wise and apt.
Proverbs 15:28a notices that “The heart of the righteous studieth to answer”. The Hebrew word for “studieth” (hāgâ) carries the idea of “meditating”. This verse emphasises that a godly man would first make a judgment about the thoughts in his mind before he utters them.
Evaluating our thoughts and feelings before we say anything at all will help us avoid careless errors, and speak with wisdom. Pouring out every thought provoked by circumstances, without weighing its merit carefully, can lead to foolish speech of various kinds. “The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness” (Proverbs 15:2). Again, it is said, “The heart of the wise teacheth his mouth, and addeth learning to his lips” (Proverbs 16:23).
Truly, may we pay heed to develop wholesome speech, that the words of our mouth, which come from the meditation of our heart, be acceptable in the sight of God and men (cf. Psalm 19:14).