Would you take a copy of God’s holy Word in your hands please and turn with me to the letter of Paul to the Colossians, chapter 4. You can find it on page 985 of the church Bibles if you’re using one of the church Bibles. Colossians chapter 4. A few weeks ago when last we were in Colossians we began to look at verses 2 through 6. We studied 2 through 4 in particular. But in this section, verses 2 through 6, Paul is concerned about how the Word of God will reach the world. How will the Gospel advance? And we saw last time in verses 2 through 4 that the place to start is always the place to start when you ask “How will the Gospel reach the ends of the earth?” The place to start is with prayer. Paul solicits the Colossians’ prayers in particular for his ongoing work of spreading the good news about Jesus. Verse 3, “Pray also for us that God may open to us a door for the Word to declare the mystery of Christ, that I may make it clear,” verse 4, “which is how I ought to speak.” So he wants them to pray for the progress of the preaching of the Gospel in the world through his ongoing missionary efforts. This is missionary prayer, evangelistic prayer.
Now in verses 5 and 6, our focus this morning, his concern is still with the promotion of the Gospel and its advance in the world. Only now he seeks to enlist the Colossians themselves as evangelists. So last time in verses 2 through 4 we thought about the place, pattern, and priorities of faithful prayer. Today we’re going to think, in verses 5 and 6, about the way and the words of effective witness. The way and the words of effective witness. Before we read the passage and then begin to work through those headings together, let me ask if you would please join me once again prayer. Let us pray.
Holy Spirit, we pray that You would illumine our understanding that we may see the truth, understand the truth, see ourselves in the light of the truth, that You may uncover areas of resistance and disobedience and bring us to repentance that we may see Christ in His sufficiency to save and trust Him and run to Him and learn to love and follow and serve Him, that we may be equipped for every good work by Your holy Word. For we ask this all in Jesus’ name, amen.
Colossians 4 at the second verse. This is the Word of God:
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison – that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
The Way of Effective Witness
So Paul is teaching us here about the way and the words of effective witness. In verse 5, he talks about the way, the path – “walk in” effective witness. Look at verse 5. “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders.” So how do we relate to outsiders? That’s the concern. “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.” The way of effective witness.
One of the men who came to the Twin Lakes Fellowship this past week – Twin Lakes Fellowship is a pastor’s fraternal that our church provides for a couple of hundred pastors every year and is always a time of blessing and refreshment. One of the men who came is a church planter in a very socially deprived and needy community. Before moving to take up the work, he recently got married and then he and his new wife moved into the area. And he was trying to explain to me how steep the learning curve living there has been for them, especially for his wife. And so he told me a story.
One evening, he and his wife were walking in a particularly rough part of the neighborhood when they passed a car with tinted windows, blacked out windows, parked at the side of the road. The trunk of the car is open. There are three or four men standing around hunched over the open trunk, heads together, speaking intently to one another. It’s a drug deal. A drug deal is going down. And my friend immediately wants to get past them quickly to avoid eye contact, you know, and just to move right along. But his wife walked over and said, “Hi! How are you? I’m new to the area!” And these men immediately sort of froze up, looked at her, stared at her, I think in amazement honestly, and without saying anything to her, and her husband is frantically trying to pull her away. He told me this was their first fight as a married couple afterwards, about learning street smarts!
Walk in Wisdom
When it comes to evangelism, Paul is saying we really need spiritual street smarts. The question, remember, is “How should Christians relate to outsiders, to non-Christians?” And his answer is, he says, we must “walk in wisdom.” We need spiritual street smarts. We need wisdom. Wisdom is a category we’ve seen Paul use several times throughout his letter to the Colossians. So according to Paul in Colossians, wisdom is sourced in Christ – chapter 2 verse 3. Wisdom is given by the Spirit – chapter 1 verse 9. It is spiritual wisdom. That is, wisdom from the Spirit. Wisdom is found in apostolic teaching – chapter 1 verse 28. And wisdom characterizes the mutual ministry of the Word in which the whole church is to be engaged as we teach and admonish one another in all wisdom – chapter 3 verse 16. So wisdom, very clearly, is a Bible word, but wisdom means more than simply knowing Bible content. Doesn’t it? What is wisdom? Let me offer an attempted definition. Wisdom is the Holy Spirit sharpened, Bible informed, horse sense that enables us to live faithfully and skillfully for God’s glory and for the good of others in any given situation. That’s wisdom. Wisdom is the Holy Spirit sharpened, Bible informed, horse sense that enables us to live faithfully for God’s glory and for the good of others in any given situation. And Paul says when it comes to interacting with the world as a Christian, we really need it. It’s vital. Wisdom.
And he has a particular application of wisdom in mind. Doesn't he? Look at verse 5 again. Walking in wisdom toward outsiders means "making the best use of the time." Now Paul is using a verb there that came originally from the commercial language of the marketplace. It means "to buy up." It's a compound work in Greek and its prefix, the linguists tell us, "denotes an intensive activity, a buying which exhausts the possibilities available." So you would buy up everything that the vendor has for sale. To buy it all up. To exhaust the possibilities.
Buy Up Every Opportunity
And notice the particular commodity, Paul says here, that we are to buy up. What is it that we are to buy up? It’s time. Or better, opportunity. So you could translate verse 5 something like this – “Walk in wisdom, eagerly buying up every opportunity available.” Wisdom toward outsiders means a kind of Gospel opportunism that’s always on the lookout for ways to advance the purposes of Jesus Christ in the lives of others. Capitalize on every opening for the Gospel. That’s what he’s saying.
Now how is that wisdom? Wisdom toward non-Christians means buying up the time, capitalizing on every opportunity for the Gospel. So why is this kind of Gospel opportunism wisdom? It’s wisdom because the commodity Paul says we need to buy up for the sake of the Gospel is the one commodity non-Christians do not have very much of – time. Time is short. It is running out. “The day is nearer now than when we first believed.” And then add to that, add to the shortness of the time the words of Paul in Ephesians 5:16 which is a verse very closely parallel to this one. He uses the same verb in a similar context – how Christians relate to non-Christians. He again talks about buying up the time, making the best use of the time, capitalizing on every opportunity. And then he adds this; here is the reason we are to do it – “for the days are evil.” Not only is the time short, the days are evil. Wickedness abounds, sin is normal, spiritual darkness prevails. So when you have an opportunity to shine the light of the Gospel, take it. That’s what he’s saying. Take it.
Listen, if you have friends or loved ones who don’t know Jesus, do not tell yourself you’ll get around to speaking about Christ to them some other day. Do not tell yourself, “I have plenty of time. I’m working up to it. I’ll get there eventually.” Maybe you will, but time is short. No one knows how long providence will allow them. The same church planter I was telling you about a moment ago, explained when people come to his ministry he now has to make sure that every single time they come they hear the bad news about sin and the good news about Jesus, the only Savior of sinners, because there’s a very real possibility in his community – this is not an exaggeration – there’s a very real possibility that they will be dead before he gets another chance. He understands Paul’s point here very well. Time is short and the days are evil, and so we need to capitalize. Wisdom capitalizes on every opportunity for the Gospel. Who do you have in your life that does not know Jesus Christ? Seize the day. Take the opportunity. Speak for Jesus. Wisdom seizes every opportunity.
And it would be remiss, having said that, not to say a word to you today if you yourself are not a Christian. I want to warn you about your precarious position. Maybe you’ve grown up in church, maybe you’re a child of this church and you’ve heard about Jesus a thousand times over. And every once in a while, the claims of Christ, the message pricks your conscience and confronts you a little bit and you’ve thought to yourself, “I really must do something about this.” And then of course after a while the conviction wears off and the urgency dissipates. I want to warn you, please will you let me warn you, that your life is a fragile thing and time is surprisingly short. I want to warn you there is a Judge in heaven and judgment is coming. I want to remind you the days we live in are evil, full of distraction and deception and soul-killing danger. It is just not safe to say, “Yes, I know I should come and trust in Jesus. Yes, I know I should turn from life on my own terms and submit to His Lordship. Yes, I know I should. I know I should, but not now. Not today. Not yet.” What a risk you are taking. What a risk.
Look, Jesus stands ready to welcome you today, to forgive you today, to save you today. He’s inviting you to come and trust Him today. Today is the day. Now is the appointed hour. Don’t delay. Come and trust in Jesus before it’s too late because the days are evil and the time is short. Wisdom, wisdom takes every opportunity for the Gospel. It is folly not to come and trust in Jesus. So that’s the first thing to see here – the way of effective wisdom.
The Words of Effective Witness
Then look with me in verse 6 and notice in the second place the words of effective witness. The way and then the words of effective witness. Verse 6, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.” How do you capitalize on Gospel opportunities when they come? Well, you speak, Paul says. It seems rather obvious. It does need to be said, I think. We have to open our mouths and speak. We need to tell people the good news – “You’re a dreadful sinner. Me too. God is holy and a just Judge. That’s the bad news, but I have good news for you. In Jesus Christ, God has made a way. He has born your sin in His body on the cross and everyone and anyone who trusts in Him will receive mercy and pardon, cleansing, and be reconciled to God.” We have a message to proclaim. No one ever believed a Gospel they never heard in words. There is no one in heaven who did not get there by believing a Gospel they heard preached. Open your mouth and speak for Jesus.
But how are we to speak for Jesus? “Let your speech,” he says, “always be gracious.” At the very least, that means our speech should be kindly, not harsh or unfeeling; gracious. I think Paul though has a bit more in mind than our tone of voice. The word in English, just like in Greek actually, comes from the word for “grace.” He’s saying, “Your speech, the content of your words, and the manner of your speaking should communicate and be consistent with the grace of God in the Gospel both operative in your life and that you long to see working in theirs.” How you speak and what you say need to match. You can’t preach good news from a heart of anger and hostility, from resentment and prejudice, from pride, from ignorance, from lovelessness. There ought to be a gracious disposition to match words full of grace. Paul says let your words and your heart be married and matched together. Our speech should be gracious.
Brothers and sisters, I fear that far too many of us that profess ourselves to be trophies of redeeming grace, if the world were to form its opinion of us based solely on the things we say and the way that we say them, the world would be quite astonished to learn that we professed to be Christians at all. Jesus said, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasures brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasures brings forth evil. I tell you" – this is a chilling statement; listen to this – "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." Put another way, our words – both the things we say and the way we say them – betray our hearts. Or, if I can flip it and put it positively, redeeming grace beautifies everything it touches. Redeeming grace beautifies everything it touches. The unregenerate human heart is like a poisoned spring. Every word that flows from it is toxic. But when grace makes the spring clean, our words become gracious and they point back to Christ, the fountain of living water. Do your words flow from a grace-cleansed heart and so point to the fountain of grace, the Lord Jesus?
Always Be Gracious
And don’t miss the significance there in verse 6 of that word, “always.” Do you see it? What a punch it packs. “Let your speech always be gracious.” I would much rather Paul have said, “Let your speech occasionally be gracious.” That would be far more convenient for me! Not just when you’re trying to persuade somebody to believe in Jesus, not just when you think you can be overheard, not just when you need to be on your best behavior. Saying, “Bless her heart,” doesn’t make it gracious after you’ve stuck the knife in and twisted it a few times! Always gracious, he says. Always an instrument of grace. Always full of grace. Who you are when you think nobody can hear you is who you really are. And if you think your private persona doesn’t bleed through into your public image, despite your best efforts, you are fooling yourself.
Now don't misunderstand. Paul isn't offering counsel here that we should fake it all the time, that we should put a facade on that's pleasant and smiley when it does not reflect the reality of our hearts. Actually, the opposite is true. What he's saying is that "I want grace so to penetrate and saturate your life that you naturally display what grace does in all your interactions." You see what he's really talking about, don't you? He's talking about sanctification. We'll come back to that in a minute.
Look at the qualifying statement in the middle of verse 6. He has more to say about this business of godliness in speech in this realm of evangelism. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.” Now when we talk about someone having salty speech, we usually have in mind someone who can swear like a sailor. That’s clearly not what Paul is talking about. Actually, Paul is building on an idea that was common. It has a tradition both in ancient Jewish and in pagan Greek sources that has to do with the judicious application again of wisdom. A good cooks know how and when to season a dish, how much seasoning to add so that the dish is full of flavor; it makes all the difference to the dish. That’s the metaphor. Gracious speech is wise speech, judicious speech, careful speech. It knows which words to say when to make all the difference.
Let me confess to you one of my biggest battles, one of my besetting sins, is speaking before I’ve really thought things through. I wonder if you can relate to that. None of you will admit to it. Okay! Words are out of my mouth before the gears in my brain have fully engaged, and it regularly gets me into all kinds of trouble. Just ask my dear wife! And Paul is saying one of the marks of grace at work in this whole realm of speech is a growing thoughtfulness and care with how we use our words. By God’s grace, we will learn – albeit more slowly than we would like – to season our speech with salt. We start to learn which verbal spices and condiments are needed when, so that whatever the circumstances, instead of our words obscuring the grace of God in the Gospel, they help to make it plain.
And then notice the reason why this is all so very important, right at the end of the verse. Verse 6, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that” – so here’s the reason this matters – “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” It’s interesting to me that Paul is not here concerned so much with the content of our speech when he thinks about answering non-Christians in an evangelistic conversation. Now he has been teaching truth and correcting error throughout the letter so he’s assuming our commitment to that – that in our speech we want to be clear about the truth. And so his emphasis here falls elsewhere, not on what you say but on how you say it. The way to be able to answer each person when you’re interacting with an unbeliever has to do with discernment, he says; wisdom, the judicious management of your words.
How To Say It
Too often we think that our main problem in evangelism is a lack of knowledge. Don’t we? “If only I had memorized more Scripture. If only I had brushed up on my apologetics. If only I was a better theologian. Then, then my non-Christian friends would be persuaded.” And don’t get me wrong, to be sure, knowledge of the Bible is important, sound apologetic arguments are useful, orthodox doctrine is vital. Pursue those things. Cultivate them. Learn them. You can’t do without them. But if you do not study to season your speech with salt, that is, if you are not judicious and discerning, no matter how sound and orthodox and full of Bible you might be, you will repel people rather than attract them to the good news. We need to know more, not less, but more than what to say to answer people. We need to know how to say it.
So you see how he’s talking about sanctification? Really, what he’s talking about is likeness to Jesus in the realm of speech. Because the best evangelists are not necessarily the people with the gift of the gab. The best evangelists are not necessarily those personality types who can walk up to a stranger and make them feel like they’re best friends and can talk to anyone anywhere about anything. The best evangelists are the people who are most like Jesus Christ. Those are the best evangelists – full of self-distrust, full of love for Jesus and love for the lost, studying that everything they say and do might point to Him and promote His ends, His purposes, and His glory. The best evangelists are the people who are being remade into the likeness of Christ. Paul is calling us to godliness, to holiness, to Christlikeness in speech and in wisdom. And when the Lord is at work in us to make us like Jesus, He will make use of us for His glory among our family and friends and neighbors to extend His kingdom.
And for me, that's where the great encouragement lies. When I was studying this passage I felt really beaten up by the apostle Paul. You know, every phrase was another stinging rebuke to my soul. But then when I realized he's talking about sanctification, I remembered that God's commandments are also His promises. The commands of God are promises of God in reverse. What God requires, grace performs. And so what Paul is calling you to here, ought to sting us, ought to challenge us, ought to provoke us, ought to move us to some self-reflection and even to some repentance and to some hard work to change patterns of action and speech, but it ought not to cause us to lose heart, because "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."
You, believer in Jesus, are being transformed from glory into glory into the likeness of Christ. The commands of God are inverted promises. They’re not given to condemn you and leave you feeling useless. They’re given certainly to exhort you and to call you to godliness, but also to encourage you. This is the program God is at work to accomplish in your life. So take heart. Throw yourself into the fray. Don’t sign a truce with sin but step up to the plate, work on godly speech. Let your speech, let your manner of life be gracious, let it point to Christ. He will help you to do it. Grace is what will animate and empower it all. And as you look to Jesus, His grace strengthening you, He will, He will use you. Sometimes the reason I don’t speak up is because I fear I won’t be much help, I won’t be much use. The Lord isn’t calling you to sophistication and cleverness. He’s simply calling you to faithfulness, to take Him at His Word, to take what may feel to you to be a great risk to open your mouth to speak for Christ. He will make much of you. He will use you for His glory in the lives of others. So may the Lord help us, not discourage our hearts but embolden them, and give us grace to open our mouths to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ.
Let’s pray together.
Lord, we do often feel small, weak, useless. Sometimes we don't know what to say. Sometimes we think if we are going to tell someone the Gospel we need to have all the answers ready. And sometimes we say all those things and use them as an excuse. Please, will You forgive us for letting ourselves off the hook when Your Word calls us to speak for Jesus. And please will You forgive us when we think that being gracious is something we turn on from time to time, a temporary mood or attitude and not the disposition of our hearts. O Lord, please will You deploy Your grace with greater power and force in our lives that out of the operation of Your grace within us we might be more gracious to others around us, not because we want people to admire us, but simply because we love You and we want others to come to love You too. We want them to know You as we have come to know You. Please, will You make use of us, for Your honor and glory, in Jesus' name, amen.
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