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Paul’s closing exhortation to the believers at Colossae, the culmination of a series of staccato instructions, begins with a comprehensive introduction: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus . . .” (Col. 3:17). With this end in view, Paul speaks to wives, husbands, children, fathers, bondservants, and masters. He then urges believers to be steadfast in discerning, thankful prayer—particularly for him, that he would have a fruitful preaching ministry.
Paul concludes the whole in Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” To understand his instruction, we should first ask, Is there any significance to this final placement? Paul does, on occasion, make a summary statement of the important themes in a letter at the conclusion. Could that be the case here?
Yes, I think it is. Consider Colossians 1:9–10. Paul has in view the walk of believers, in wisdom, in a manner worthy of the Lord, bearing fruit in every good work. In the central portion of the letter, Paul returns to this theme, now referring to their former walk in unbelief. That way of life was characterized not by wisdom and gracious speech but by “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk” and lies (3:7). Now, by God’s grace, they have been renewed, putting off the old, and putting “on the new self, which is being renewed after the image of its creator” (vv. 8–10). A significant element in this renewal is the focus of the closing exhortation.
For Paul, the image of walking refers to one’s whole manner of life. That manner of life must reflect wisdom—the God-given ability to choose the best practical means to achieve the best possible ends. In our text, the wisdom belonging to the whole of the Christian walk is emphasized as especially needful with respect to unbelievers. Paul speaks of them as “outsiders” (4:5). But note that though they are outsiders, and their views must not be embraced (2:8, 18–19), Paul’s instructions clearly imply that believers are to be in regular contact with such folk, finding in such relationships an opportunity for wholesome conversation that is not to be lost. Thus, “making the best use of the time” (4:5), they are to take full advantage of every opportunity to speak to outsiders graciously.
Although some very able expositors suppose this speech to be specifically witnessing to the gospel, such a construction improperly narrows Paul’s view. Such interpreters often note that the same word that Paul uses immediately before our text for his preaching of the gospel (logos) is also used to refer to the believer’s speech in verse 6. However, Paul regularly uses logos for common speech (more frequently, in fact, than for gospel preaching), and sometimes he uses it for wicked speech (e.g., 1 Cor. 4:19; Eph. 4:29; 5:6). Here, Paul has in view the believer’s conversation on any matter, on any occasion, whereby the gracious character of their speech might bear witness to their gracious Savior. Douglas Moo rightly concludes:
Extra-biblical parallels where we find the same cluster of words that Paul uses here . . . refer to human speech in general. . . . Paul is exhorting Christians to exhibit in all their speech (whether casual conversation or overt gospel witness) a gracious and attractive tone.
John Calvin offers three reasons for Paul’s concern. First, because “unbelievers are driven from bad to worse” through the wounding speech of thoughtless believers. Second, because unwise speech gives an apparently just occasion for unbelievers to deride the name of Christ. In such circumstances, persecution against believers may be stirred up. Finally, because unwise speech is in fact a common characteristic of unbelief, and thus when believers fall into such patterns, they “by little and little become profane.”
Gracious speech, on the other hand, witnesses to Jesus because that was preeminently His way of speaking (Luke 4:22). Believers, being renewed according to His image, thus take on the same heavenly accent of speech “seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6). Calvin urges that such speech is alluring to the hearer because it is plainly profitable. That is to say, it is not enough that wicked speech be avoided; worthless speech is forbidden also. The only gracious, savory speech is that which builds up.
Finally, Paul shows how gracious, savory speech is to have an other-orientation that grants dignity and significance to these outsiders—“that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (4:6). Paul calls believers to address each unbeliever according to his own unique qualities. Calvin notes that for Paul, “true prudence [is] to know how to discriminate as to individuals, in speaking to one and to another, as there may be occasion.”