Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 43
Q. What is required in the ninth commandment?
A. That I bear false witness against no man, nor falsify any man’s words; that I be no backbiter, nor slanderer; that I do not judge, nor join in condemning any man rashly or unheard; but that I avoid all sorts of lies and deceit as the proper works of the devil, unless I would bring down upon me the heavy wrath of God; likewise, that in judgment and all other dealings I love the truth, speak it uprightly and confess it; also that I defend and promote, as much as I am able, the honor and good character of my neighbor.
A close-knit church community is a wonderful blessing, especially in times of trial; but it can also be a hotbed for chatter about the name of others, resulting in bitter division between brothers and sisters in Christ without them ever speaking to one another.
“That I do not judge, nor join in condemning any man rashly, or unheard.” Such would be “a proper work of the devil” and would “bring down upon me the heavy wrath of God.”
And yet, all too frequently when we get together, we find ourselves talking about others. When it is trivial information (about dating, pregnancy, marriage, moving house), we discuss it that way, as trivia, in a mild and disinterested way. But, when it begins to involve what we might judge as “sin” or, in the case of a minister, “false doctrine” or “error,” suddenly the interest is piqued, the conversation becomes intense, and names are thrown around, judged, labeled and condemned…rashly and unheard.
And because the “sin” or “error” is so serious, we think the way of Matthew 18 does not apply. After all, this is public knowledge.
Not just minister’s names. It starts with what we say about the name of any brother or sister in Christ. This is a very real danger in a close-knit church community—what James calls “wars and fighting among you” (James 4:1), or what Paul speaks of this way: “ye bite and devour one another” with the warning, “take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Gal. 5:15).
Whereas Jesus, speaking from the perspective of seeking peace and preserving love between believers (read I Cor. 13:4-7), says, “go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone” (Matt. 18:15).
Would we bring down upon ourselves “the heavy wrath of God?” Have we already done this?
Biblical and doctrinal truth is important, but so is the truth about the name, honor, and character of the neighbor, especially when that neighbor is a fellow member of the body of Christ, and even more especially, when that neighbor holds office in the church of Christ.
A necessary command
How necessary is this commandment!
First, because words are powerful, and can be especially destructive when the motive behind them is something other than love.
In James 3, to illustrate the destructive power of words, James compares the tongue to things very small that have massive impact. A bit in the mouth of a strong horse to turn its whole body. A small rudder that turns a massive ship into the driving wind at sea. A match sized flame that can start an inferno. “So is the tongue among our members…it is an unruly evil” (James 3:38). In some cases, a few words have turned the course of history.
And now, attach that little weapon with such potential to a sinful heart and it becomes a weapon of mass destruction! James says that you can tame every kind of beast—bird, snake, and sea creature—but no man can tame the tongue. It is full of deadly poison (a source of destruction); it defiles the whole body (it produces a whole variety of other sins); and it is set on fire of hell (the source of its evil is hell).
The book of Proverbs also speaks of the ruin that words can bring. The one who repeats a matter separates close friends (Prov. 17:9). The words of a gossip are deep wounds (Prov. 18:8). Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21).
Behind this commandment stands the fact, the reality, that with our words we can so hate our neighbor that we destroy his spirit and ruin his desire to live.
The commandment is showing us something deeper, our sin. Lies and deceit, gossip and slander, evil and destructive words, which come across our lips, come from a depraved heart. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matt. 12:34). We do not become evil because of what we say, but we say what we do because we are evil.
We are forced to look inward. Why do we slander and gossip? Why are we so intensely interested in what others have done or said? Why so ready to exaggerate the faults of others? The source is an evil heart that hates others and is filled with self-love.
Romans 3 demonstrates the universal depravity of man—“there is none that doeth good, no, not one”—by calling attention to our words. “Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Rom. 3:13-14).
How necessary is this commandment! How important the taming of the tongue!
An urgent calling
Just as we would cage a wild animal or put out a fire, so we are called to restrain our speech.
“Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile” (Ps. 34:13).
“Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3).
“He that refraineth his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19).
There are two aspects to the taming of the tongue. We must deal with our words, yes, but first the heart must be addressed.
Here the commandment brings us to the Savior. By our words we are condemned as haters of God and the neighbor. The commandment brings us to Christ in repentance, seeking forgiveness and sanctification. Jesus Christ, who tells us that God would bring into judgment every idle word spoken, died to pay the price for my sinful words. By His Spirit He sanctifies the source of our words by filling us with love for God and the neighbor. Aware of sinful and selfish thoughts, we engage in a war with our words; we put off slander and evil speaking; and we put on love with words that edify, words of truth, blessing, and encouragement.
Very practically, this war with words, or we could call it the taming of the tongue, involves three areas of awareness and intentionality: 1) I watch my thoughts about others; 2) I guard my lips when I speak of others; and 3) I use my tongue in a positive way for good when I speak of others. This is one we fight on three fronts.
Thoughts are the source of words. When I blurt out something about another, that does not come from no where, or from a lack of forethought; no, it comes from my thoughts. We do a lot of thinking about others. We compare, judge, admire, envy, despise, smile, or are in pain because a name brought to mind drags up old wounds.
The biblical rule or principle for thinking of others is set down in Philippians chapters 2 and 4: “Let each esteem other better than themselves;” and, in thinking of others, “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Phil. 2:3; 4:8). Our thinking should lead to praying: “Love your enemies, pray for them” (Matt. 5:44). Before we open our mouth to say something about another, open our mind to God in prayer for them. When you are praying for someone, it is very difficult to speak evil of that person.
Taming the tongue includes having proper thoughts about God. There is not a word in our mouths or thought in our minds that God does not know (Ps. 139:2, 4). Scripture tells us that the Lord hates “a lying tongue, an heart that deviseth wicked imaginations [about others], a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren” (Prov. 6:16-19). God hates such! The Bible also warns us that by “corrupt communication,” that is, evil words about others, we “grieve” the Holy Spirit of God (Eph. 4:29, 30).
The first line of defense for the tongue is our thinking about others and about God.
But also, our words themselves need to be watched. How easily we permit sinful words to slip out. One of the Puritans said that God has placed teeth and lips as a “double sentry” to guard the tongue. Both our lips need to be opened and our teeth unclenched before our tongue can speak. “A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards” (Prov. 29:11). In the control of lips, teeth, tongue, and jaw, we show wisdom. There is wisdom in pondering, in waiting to speak, and in silence. “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19). Pray this prayer before you speak: “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth: keep the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3).
We do well to watch our words with these three questions concerning what we would say about another.
- Is it true? Do I know it is true, or is it something I have just heard through the ‘grapevine’? Isn’t this the source of so many destructive and divisive rumors? Someone who does not know and who should not be involved, starts talking. Does what I say reflect that God is a God of truth?
- Is it necessary? It may be true, but does it need to be said? Will my words be useful, edifying, beneficial to the one whose name I raise? Too often our words are not only a waste of breath but would be better not said.
- Is it loving? Am I speaking about this person because I love him and in love for him? Do I speak to protect his name and reputation or to damage it? This question really gets to the heart of the ninth commandment. We must “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
If we would run our words through the screening process of those three questions, so much destruction of names and division between believers could be deterred. “Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth” (Prov. 26:20).
Third, we tame our tongue by using it as God originally intended it, for His glory and the love of the neighbor. Putting off evil speaking, we put on the new man and speak “that which is good to the use of edifying” (Eph. 4:29). Words themselves are not evil, and as much potential as there is in the tongue for evil, so much potential is there in the tongue for good.
Think for a moment of the way that God powerfully uses words and language. He speaks the saving gospel into our lives by using words. He speaks truth, and it transforms us and sets us free. Similarly, He equips us to use our words in powerful ways for good. That begins, very simply, with speaking God’s own Word into the lives of others both by witnessing with words and giving biblical counsel with words.
One of the main reasons that God calls us together as believers is that we might minister His Word to one another. Hebrews 10:24-25 not only says that we should gather together, but also that we ought to “consider one another” and “exhort” and “provoke one another to love and good works.” Because life is difficult, we need words of encouragement, gratitude, sympathy, praise, and kindness from one another. “The tongue of the wise is health,” and “A word spoken in due season, how good is it!” (Prov. 12:18; 15:23).
Do you think about the positive use of your words? Not insincerity and flattery, but life-giving, invigorating words, rather than demeaning and hurtful words. “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).
Do you love truth and do you love the God of truth? Are you loving God and truth by loving your neighbor with your words?
Questions for discussion
- How does Jesus’ rule of Matthew 18:15 relate to this commandment? Should we be talking about others when we have not first talked to them?
- Discuss and give examples of how the words of others can crush a person’s psyche and self-esteem. Does the fact that we should not live for the esteem of others excuse hurtful words?
- What proper biblical things should we be thinking about God before we open our mouths about others?
- To what is the Catechism referring when it speaks of “proper works of the devil?” What does it mean that Satan is the “father of the lie?” Whose reputation did Satan attack in the garden of Eden? What does it mean that he is the “accuser of the brethren?”
- List five or six specific sins forbidden in this commandment and discuss/explain them.
- What is God’s attitude toward the sin of the ninth commandment? Why? (Ps. 5:6; Prov. 6:1619; Rev. 22:15)
- How should we speak about others? Why is it so difficult for us to speak good things about others?
- How does the resolve of Psalm 101:7 help us in keeping this commandment? (See also Prov. 26:20)
- How does Proverbs 31:26 describe the mouth of the virtuous woman? What can we learn from this?
- How do we guard our lips and tame our tongue? Discuss what was proposed in this article. How is this helpful?
- What are some positive ways to use our words to edify or build up others? Is it wrong to praise or appreciate others? Do you do this often enough?
- What is the happy result of keeping this commandment?