"Salty" Speech and the Salvation of Souls (4:5-6)
Christians have often jokingly said that the three least appealing responsibilities they face are fasting, praying, and sharing their faith with non-believers. Sadly, though, it’s not just a joke. It’s a reality that has severely crippled the ministry of the body of Christ. Few have incorporated regular fasting into their spiritual diet (pun intended). Perhaps a few more actually pray on a regular basis, hopefully in accord with Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 4:2-4. But evangelism? Now that’s another story.
If they were totally honest, I suspect most Christians would say they’d happily skip a meal and spend it praying rather than have to talk to a non-Christian about Jesus. You may be wondering why I even bring up the topic at this point in our meditations through Colossians. Yes, all acknowledge that Paul requested their prayers on behalf of his own evangelistic efforts (Colossians 4:2-4), but few recognize that when he turns again in vv. 5-6 to instruct the Colossians he has THEIR (and our) evangelistic efforts in mind.
Let’s look more closely at these two verses: “Conduct yourselves wisely 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” (Col. 4:5-6). I’m convinced he’s talking about evangelistic witness, and for three reasons. First, as noted, evangelism is on his mind in the immediately preceding context (see vv. 2-4). Second, he wants all of us to be fully equipped to “answer each person,” those he calls “outsiders” (undoubtedly a reference to those outside the church, i.e., non-Christians). And third, the word translated “speech” in v. 5 is the same Greek word (“logos”) used in v. 3 where he asks that God open a door for the “word,” i.e., that he be granted opportunities to preach the “word” of the gospel, the mystery of Christ.
There are five important points in these two verses about sharing our faith with others. Let’s look at each in turn.
First, we are exhorted to conduct ourselves “wisely” toward outsiders. I think at least two things are in view here. I’m immediately reminded of our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount: "Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6). Wisdom requires that we be discerning as to when we speak and to whom. Sometimes we need to be bold and forthright, while on other occasions, because of the calloused and hostile posture of our audience, we need to keep our mouths shut.
The other point of emphasis in Paul’s use of the word “wisdom” has been ably summarized by John Piper. I can do no better than quote him directly: “Wisdom is knowing what to do for the glory of God when the rule book runs out. It’s knowing how to become all things to all men without compromising holiness and truth. It is creativity and tact and thoughtfulness. It’s having a feel for the moment, and having an eye for what people need and want” (“Walk in Wisdom Toward Those Outside,” a sermon on Colossians 4:2-6 at http://www.desiringgod.org/).
Second, we mustn’t lose sight of the urgency of our task. The ESV renders this, “making the best use of the time,” while older translations retain the more literal translation, “redeeming the time” (KJV). Commentators do a good job of highlighting Paul’s emphasis. Peter O’Brien renders it, “snapping up every opportunity that comes” (241). Murray Harris is even more to the point: “In the open market where the commodity of ‘kairos’ [time] is on sale, Christians are to make a ‘timely’ purchase for themselves. In other words, they are to seize eagerly and use wisely every opportunity afforded them by time to promote the kingdom of God” (197).
Don’t waste any opportunity that comes your way or squander the chance to walk boldly through an open door into the heart of an unbeliever! Every encounter has the potential to be soul-saving. Don’t let fear or hesitation or lack of preparation steal that moment.
Third, our witness must always be “gracious” (v. 6), which is to say, as charming as possible without crossing the line into compromise. Be accommodating and kind, says Paul, but not at the expense of truth.
What matters is not simply the content but the manner or spirit in which you speak of Christ to others. We are to be both “pointed” and “pleasant” in our witness! Sadly, many embrace one to the exclusion of the other, finding it difficult to embrace both in delicate balance. Either they care for nothing but the truth, regardless of how it is conveyed, or they are so afraid of sounding offensive or pushy that they end up diluting the truth and fail to articulate the realities of sin, death, and hell.
Fourth, our proclamation of the “mystery of Christ” must be “seasoned with salt” (v. 6). Let there be a pungency to our preaching, a flavor worthy to savor. There’s no virtue in being dull or insipid or lukewarm in the presentation of the gospel.
My former professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, Howard Hendricks, was often heard to say: “According to the old adage, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. That’s true, but you can feed him salt!” Do you talk of Jesus in a way that makes people’s mouths water? Do your words and manner create the opportunity for a spiritual thirst to emerge?
The psalmist said, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8)! Do people see and sense the sweetness of the Savior when we speak of him? He is altogether lovely and should not be made known in an unlovely or unappealing manner. Jesus tastes good! Don’t spoil the flavor by sinful additives and sour dispositions.
Fifth, and finally, we must be diligent to answer “each person” (v. 6). He doesn’t mean speak the same way to “everyone,” but speak appropriately to “each separate person” as he or she has need. We must supply perceptive and discerning answers in accordance with the unique circumstance of each individual. Not everyone hears the gospel the same way. Some encounter Christ with probing intellectual objections, while others are struggling with deeply entrenched sinful habits.
Evangelism should never be monolithic, as if one mode or manner of presentation is suitable for all souls. Yes, each is in need of a savior from sin. Of course, there is but one Savior and his name is Jesus. But each person is also at a different stage of life, facing their own unique set of trials and troubles, each with varying degrees of understanding of who Jesus is and what he has accomplished. In sum, be adept to adapt, and pray that the Spirit would awaken their hearts to see and celebrate the mystery of Christ!
Redeeming this moment,