Is Using Profanity a Sin? Piper, Grudem & Challies Weigh in

profanity

Tim Challies critiques the opinions of John Piper and Wayne Grudem:

That we should avoid foul speech seems obvious and beyond dispute. And yet here we are. There is little consensus in the church about this particular issue.

One thing that I find is often missing in discussions on profanity is the connection between the heart and the tongue. We need to realize that the tongue is not an isolated instrument in the body. The tongue or the mouth speaks for the heart. Said otherwise, what proceeds from the mouth is a sure indication of what is in the heart. If a mouth pours forth filth, it is a sure indication that there is also a filthy heart. If a tongue spews forth rebellion, there is rebellion in the heart. If the tongue pours out praise, there is godly joy in the heart. We see this most clearly in the books of Proverbs and James. “The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is of little worth” (Proverbs 10:20). Note the parallel between the tongue and the heart. “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5). So while the issue of profanity so often centers around words, the issue strikes deeper—as deep as the heart.

As you may know, John Piper recently (back in 2007), made public an apology for his use of an inappropriate word at the recent Passion07 Conference. Speaking in a breakout session Piper said that sometimes “God kicks our ass.” . . . 

Piper began his reply by stating “I regret saying it. I am sitting here trying to figure out why I say things like that every now and then. I think it is a mixture of (sinful) audience titillation and (holy) scorn against my own flesh and against the devil, along with the desire to make the battle with Satan and my flesh feel gutsy and real and not middle-class pious. There is a significant difference between saying that God disciplines his children and saying that he ‘kicks our ass’ (the phrase used at Passion)—the effect of the first can produce a yawn and leave students with no sense of how real I mean it. I think ‘He kicks our backside’ would have sufficed. And even better might have been some concrete illustrations of the Lord’s firm spanks.” But while he regrets using the word, he is not entirely sure that it is always necessarily sinful to do so. “If I wanted to take the time, and I felt more defensive than I do, I could probably go to the Bible and find language as offensive as that in the mouth of prophets, and even God when dealing with the grossness of evil. But I doubt that the moment in the breakout session called for something that extreme. . . . 

I admire Piper for posting this response and for acknowledging the deeper heart issues of profanity. It was good of him to address this issue and to do so publicly. . . . 

Enter Wayne Grudem. Grudem wrote a letter to Piper that was subsequently posted on Desiring God’s site, further proof of Piper’s humility. Grudem mentions that he saw Piper’s initial response and says “I’m glad you said that now you regret saying it and thankful that you were willing to say this.” Grudem then offered his opinion on profane words. In so doing he pretty well summarized what I believe but what I have never been able to adequately formulate in my mind!

I’m not sure if this will be helpful but I’ve thought of such language as a question of having a reputation for “cleanness” in our speech, as in the rest of life, out of concern for how that reflects on the gospel and on God whom we represent.A number of different words can denote the same thing but have different connotations, some of them recognized as “unclean” or “offensive” by the culture.

Examples:

  • urination: taking a leak, pee, “p–”
  • defication: poop, “cr—”, “sh—”
  • sexual intercourse: sleeping with someone, “f–”
  • rear end: backside, “a—”

He then turns to Scripture, and I was grateful to see that he avoids any kind of clumsy legalism or tearing Scripture out of context. Instead he makes an argument based on the Christian’s reputation for cleanliness:

Speaking of these things and using different words for them is not contrary to any biblical command (and so it is different from taking the Lord’s name in vain, which is explicitly forbidden), but we are also commanded to maintain a reputation for cleanliness:

  • ESV Titus 2:10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.
  • ESV Ephesians 5:4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
  • ESV Ephesians 4:29 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.
  • ESV Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

And then he gets to the crux of the matter: “Using the words commonly thought to be offensive in the culture seems to me to be sort of the verbal equivalent of not wearing deodorant and having body odor, or of going around with spilled food on our shirts all the time. Someone might argue that not wearing deodorant or wearing dirty clothes are not morally wrong things in themselves, but my response is that they do give needless offense and cause others to think of us as somewhat impure or unclean. So, I think, does using words commonly thought to be ‘obscene’ or ‘offensive’ or ‘vulgar’ in the culture generally. Plus it encourages others to act in the same way. So in that way it brings reproach on the church and the gospel.” . . .

Grudem’s next paragraph was interesting to me since he dealt with Piper’s comment that the Bible often uses “dirty” language. This is an issue I have wrestled with in the past as friends and acquaintances have sought to convince me that not only does the Bible not prohibit vulgar speech, but that it actually promotes it. The common argument revolves around Paul’s use of the word “skubalon.”

As for your comment about finding language “as offensive as that” in the Bible, I’m not sure. It’s difficult for us to be sure about the connotations of words in an ancient culture. When I was in seminary I remember another student arguing that Paul’s use of skubalon in Philippians 3:8 (For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ) was just like using “sh—” today. I thought that sounded right. But later I found that the word has a broader range of meaning and I’m not sure it had the offensive overtones that “sh—” does today in English. (BDAG: useless or undesirable material that is subject to disposal, refuse, garbage [in var. senses, ‘excrement, manure, garbage, kitchen scraps’]). In translating the ESV we rendered that term in Phil. 3:8 as “rubbish,” not as a more offensive word. I think that was a good decision. . . .

Exchanges such as this make me so proud to be a Christian and to be a family member with and a brother to these two men. . . .

You can read Tim Challies’ entire blog post here:

http://www.challies.com/articles/grudem-and-piper-on-profanity

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About savedbygrace1976

Mark Chanski (author of Manly Dominion and Womanly Dominion) has labored as a full-time Pastor since 1986 in churches in Ohio and Michigan. He has been Pastor of Harbor Church in Holland, Michigan, since 1994. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Cornerstone University, and a Master of Divinity degree from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He teaches Hermeneutics for the Reformed Baptist Seminary in Taylors, SC. Mark is married to his wife Dianne, and has fathered their four sons and one daughter, whose ages stretch from 30 to 20 (born 1983 to 1994).
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