Colossians 4:6 says,
“Let your speech always be gracious [or in some versions, ‘with grace’ or ‘full of grace’], seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
This is one of the many Scriptures used to teach us to “speak sweet.” When I researched it, I found article after article telling us that having “gracious” speech, or speech that is “full of grace” means speaking in a kind and inoffensive way to and about everyone.
And to those writers, “seasoned with salt” means “pleasant tasting.” Again, inoffensive, causing no waves, just pleasant and smiling and plastic no matter what.
And for my non-American readers, here’s the rest of that old adage:
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
I understand the positive meaning that old saying wanted to convey.
But I observe that when Christians apply the principle behind it, they almost without exception are speaking about people they personally like or respect. (“Don’t say anything but nice things about my leader or my friend.“)
But this isn’t what the Scriptures teach.
What does this Bible verse really mean?
What does “gracious speech” really mean?
Wouldn’t it be speech like Jesus? Wasn’t He the most grace-filled speaker of all? After all, He received the Holy Spirit of God “without measure” (John 3:34). Luke 4:22 tells us,
“Everyone marveled at the gracious words that were coming out of His mouth.”
And what does “seasoned with salt” really mean?
It doesn’t simply mean “pleasant.” Rather, it mean bringing out the nuances of flavor instead of leaving the food bland and tasteless.
And what is the clear result?
So that you will know how to respond to any question or challenge that comes up.
There is something more there than simply being “inoffensive and pleasant.”
So instead of “make sure your speech is inoffensive to everyone” wouldn’t it be a better interpretation of this Scripture to say “make sure your speech is like Jesus, addressing even nuances of truth, because that way you’ll know how to answer everyone.”
So we learn how Jesus spoke
For example, how He spoke one way to one person and a very different way to a different person. I’m thinking now of the difference between Nicodemus in John 3 and the woman at the well in John 4.
That was “gracious speech.”
We watch how He responded to challenges from the unbelieving and unrepentant Jewish leaders, sometimes answering their question with a challenge question of His own.
That was “gracious speech.”
We observe with admiration how fearlessly He called out the hard-hearted Jewish leaders who were living their double lives, calling them vipers and whited sepulchers full of dead men’s bones.
That too, my friends, was “gracious speech seasoned with salt.”
When the people marveled at Jesus’ gracious words in Luke 4, it was immediately after He had read from the prophet Isaiah and said, “This day this prophecy is fulfilled before you.”
A few sentences later, they were ready to kill Him.
From the example of Jesus, we see that “gracious speech” is not speech that never offends anyone. It doesn’t even mean speech that never offends those in your church or in your family.
“Gracious speech” is speech that is modeled after the Lord Jesus Christ, whose words were gentle with the broken and lowly, mysterious to the casual, and harsh with the stiff-necked hypocritical leaders.
“Gracious speech” will be effective for those who have ears to hear. Those who have hearts longing after truth.
Conversation flavored with salt
In ancient times, conversation being “flavored with salt” meant the clever wit and quick comebacks of enjoyable repartee.
Colossians 3:8 and Ephesians 4:29 draw us back from the “conversational salt” wittiness that can be inappropriate and damaging, warning us against “obscene” and “filthy” or “corrupting” talk, which is all around us today.
Rather, as we pour the concept of “God’s gracious energy” over the concept of “conversational salt,” what do we have?
It’s going to look a lot like our Lord Jesus’ ability to answer challenges adroitly and discreetly (sometimes answering a question with a question), to know how to speak to one person one way and another person another way, and to call out those breathtakingly hypocritical leaders when it was time to do so.
In this modern day, some of us are calling out the sins of Christians leaders—even Christian leaders who are highly respected—even in bold language about sins that have been considered “unspeakable” (because evil done in darkness must be brought into the light).
When we follow the example of Jesus, instead of being “corrupting talk,” this is actually “purifying talk.”
And this brings us to another point about “salt,” which might not be quite so evident to us today but I’m sure didn’t escape the first century readers.
There were no freezers in those days. Food was preserved with salt—and even purified with it. By killing bacteria and other pathogens, salt halted natural corruption.
Can we see this in the gracious speech of our Lord Jesus? By calling out the corruption in the midst of the Jewish people, He focused laser attention on it and called His own followers away from it.
By His gracious speech, He pointed His followers to the purification available through the True and Living Way—His own gracious life and atoning death and powerful Resurrection.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told His followers (Luke 14:34-35);
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
In Mark 9:50 He expanded on it.
“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Have the salt of the preserving, purifying, non-bland (glorious understatement) living Presence of Jesus Christ in yourselves.
And when we do, we can live in a peace that is a joyful togetherness with others who also have that salt.
“Gracious speech” points the way to our salvation, in Jesus Christ, away from corruption and toward purification and preservation.
What should be the point of our speech?
To never offend anyone?
That is what some modern teachers of the law would have you think. (Though, if you observe, many of those who teach this will pride themselves in offending certain people.)
Rather, our gracious speech, like that of Jesus, has an end goal of being valuable. Profitable for the hearers.
Ephesians 4:29 is a parallel passages to Colossians 4:9.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
This is exactly what Jesus did, every time. His speech poured out God’s grace to those who heard.
Now, “those who heard” didn’t necessarily include the Jewish leaders to whom He spoke.
After all, He cried out over and over again during His ministry,
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Many Jewish leaders didn’t have “ears to hear.” Instead they only grew in their hard-heartedness.
But others around, the quiet watchers, the seeking listeners, many of them had ears to hear. From Jesus, they learned what gracious speech was. From Jesus, they learned what God’s grace was.
So His mysterious, challenging, and even harsh words were “gracious” words in the sense that they presented the truth and drew the people to Him who wanted to know God.
In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter also expanded on the thought of “knowing how to answer every man” when he admonished us to be ready to speak, with gentleness and respect, whenever a sincere seeker asks us the reason for the hope that is in us.
We take our example from Jesus. From Jesus, we learn what gracious speech is. From Jesus, we learn what God’s grace is.
Let us pour that out to others around us, as God gives us opportunity.
And let us do it unafraid of those who will accuse us that if we can’t say something nice (about people they like), we shouldn’t say anything at all.
That is not the heart of the God of Scriptures.