A young woman was brutally raped and murdered. The assailant was arrested and convicted of the crime and sent to prison. The mother of the victim harbored anger and bitterness in her heart toward the man who had taken her life. She was also a Christian. In time, God convicted the woman about her hatred toward this felon. She came to recognize her own sin and was able to forgive this young man in her heart. Eventually, she wrote the man in prison, to tell him of her change of heart. This was still not enough. She knew that she would have to visit the man face to face. And this she did.
Some time later, a Prison Fellowship instructor visited the prison where this young man was incarcerated, to teach a weekend seminar. Later, he told me about the miraculous change of heart and forgiveness he witnessed at that seminar. As he looked out into the audience, he saw the young man who had killed the young woman. Beside him sat the girl’s mother. In the prisoner’s hands was a Bible, with an inscription in the front which read something like this: “To my son …”
That is forgiveness, Christian forgiveness. It is the kind of forgiveness which our text calls for, not just on the part of a few individuals, but on the part of every Christian. In our text Paul commands us to put off all bitterness, anger, wrath, clamor, slander, and malice. He commands us to put on kindness, tenderheartedness and forgiveness.
Paul’s instructions, found in our text, are vitally important to each of us, and to our church. As we begin this study, let us remind ourselves of the immensity of the problem of anger and malice, and of its implications.
(1) The anger and malice which Paul condemns is a part of the past of every believer, and of the present condition of every unbeliever:
1 Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, 2 to malign no one, to be uncontentious, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. 3 For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another (Titus 3:1-3).
28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32).
(2) The anger and malice of which Paul speaks is the fruit of our old nature, with which we continue to struggle:
18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:18-21).
(3) The anger and malice which Paul condemns is a problem in the local church:
20 For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there may be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances; (2 Corinthians 12:20).80
The Corinthian church was marked by strife and division. Some saints were even taking other saints to court (1 Corinthians 6:1-11). When Paul wrote his first and second epistles to Timothy, who was serving temporarily in Ephesus, he had much to say about strife and discord. One of the requirements for church leaders was that they be free of the evils which he condemns in our text in Ephesians (see 1 Timothy 3:3; 2 Timothy 2:22-26; Titus 1:7). The need for these qualifications to be stated and emphasized strongly argues for the presence of anger and strife in the church.
Jesus spoke much to His disciples about the necessity of loving one another, and that this would mark out His disciples from others:
35 “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Anger and malice produce disunity and discord, thus disrupting the church, its unity, and its ministry:
An angry man stirs up strife, And a hot-tempered man abounds in transgression (Proverbs 29:22).
For the churning of milk produces butter, And pressing the nose brings forth blood; So the churning of anger produces strife (Proverbs 30:33).
It is difficult for there to be unity in a church that is filled with bitterness, anger, malice, and slander. It is unlikely that our ministry will edify those whom we hate and hope to see suffer for the things they have done to us. It is hard to pray with and for those whom we wish to be cursed, rather than blessed (see 1 Timothy 2:8). It is hard to worship when we are at odds with one another (see Matthew 5:21-26). It witness to the unbelieving world is tarnished by our strife with our fellow-believers. It is no wonder that the New Testament has so much to say in condemnation of hatred and in requiring us to love one another (see, for example, 1 John 2:9; 3:13-15; 4:20).
(4) Bitterness, anger, and hatred is at the core of many marriage problems:
19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be embittered against them (Colossians 3:19).
7 You husbands likewise, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, since she is a woman; and grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. 8 To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; 9 not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing (1 Peter 3:7-9).
(5) Scripture seems to indicate that anger and strife hinder our individual growth and sanctification which the Scriptures were given to promote. This is why Peter precedes his command to grow in the Word with a command to put off all malice and guile and slander:
22 Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, 23 for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God. 24 For, “All flesh is like grass, And all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, And the flower falls off, 25 But the word of the Lord abides forever. “And this is the word which was preached to you. 1 Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, 2 like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, (1 Peter 1:22-2:1)81
(6) Putting off malice and bitterness and putting on kindness and forgiveness is the first step in the process of reconciliation. It is the prerequisite to reconciliation and Christian harmony. Joseph was wronged by his brothers. He suffered the consequences for their sins against him for years. But after his elevation to power under Pharaoh, Joseph indicated his forgiveness of his brothers in the naming of his two sons (see Genesis 41:46-52). His forgiveness of his brothers was granted before their arrival in Egypt, and it was the basis for the process of reconciliation that was to follow. Forgiving his brothers freed Joseph from a spirit of revenge and motivated him to act for his brothers’ benefit. So it is with each of us. Edification and growth occurs in the context of forgiveness and grace, not in bitterness and revenge.
Several general observations concerning our text are crucial to its interpretation and application. Let us begin by taking note of these. First, our text is the specific application of the more general command given earlier in the chapter:
22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:22-24).
And so, in verses 31 and 32, we are specifically commanded to put off bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander and malice, while we are commanded to put on being kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving.
Second, what Paul has to say about anger here concerns unrighteous anger. All manifestations of anger which spring forth from bitterness and malice are to be put off. Righteous anger, which was dealt with in verses 26 and 27, is to be expressed in accordance with the principles set down there and elsewhere in Scripture. While every form of unrighteous anger is to be put off, righteous anger is not.
Third, the commands which Paul gives here are given to Christians, and they concern the relationships which believers have one with another. Believers neither desire to obey them, nor are they able to do so. Paul does assume that Christians have been given the means to obey these commands.
Fourth, the evils which Paul lists in verse 31 have a sequence and an order which is consistent with their nature and practice. Bitterness and malice are inward attitudes, sins of the heart. These produce wrath, anger, clamor, and slander. Clamor and slander are predominantly sins of the tongue, and thus we see the continuity here with what Paul has commanded in verses 25, 29, and 30.
Fifth, the cure for bitterness and malice and all of its fruits is forgiveness. Verse 32 is the cure for all the Paul condemns in verse 31.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice (Ephesians 4:31).
The first sinful attitude which Paul condemns is “bitterness.” Phillips renders this word “resentment” and the New English Bible translates it “spite.” Barclay defines this as “long-standing resentment,” “a spirit which refuses to be reconciled.”82 In effect, bitterness is the bearing of a grudge against another, because of some wrong we believe they have committed against us or another.
If I understand the Scriptures correctly, certain sins are “root” sins, while others are the “fruit.” Greed, or the love of money, is a root sin, and the source of many other sins (see 1 Timothy 6:10). Pride seems to be another “root” sin. Bitterness also appears to be a root sin:
Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled (Hebrews 12:14-15).
“Wrath” is rendered “passion” by the New English Bible and “bad temper” by the Berkeley Version. Barclay renders it, “outbursts of passion.”83 This term refers to the explosive outbursts of anger which are common practice to those with “bad tempers” and less frequent with others. These violent, explosive eruptions of temper are destructive. Very often, the angry words which are spoken at such times are regretted, and often do great damage to relationships.
“Anger” is rendered “long-lived anger” by Barclay.84 If “wrath” has a hair-trigger and is highly volatile, anger is less explosive, less violent, but much longer in duration. It savors the sinful satisfaction of making people pay over a longer period of time. It is more premeditated, while “wrath” is more spontaneous.
“Clamor” is rendered “noisiness” by Berkeley and “quarrelsome shouting” by F. F. Bruce.85 The Twentieth Century New Testament renders it “brawling, and abusive language.” Foulkes, quoting Findlay, explains that this is “the loud self-assertion of the angry man, who will make everyone hear his grievances.”86 As a rule, angry speech becomes louder and louder, as well as more and more animated. Clamor depicts our speech at its loudest and most animated levels.
The term rendered “slander” is transliterated “blasphemy.” And so it would be translated, if it were speaking of an angry man’s profanity, when speaking with reference to God. Here, however, man’s anger is directed toward other men. And so the term is translated “slander.” It is that speech which demeans the other person. It is destructive, not constructive, speech. It is also speech which often falls short of the truth.
“Malice” is “ … the evil inclination of mind … that even takes delight in inflicting hurt or injury on one’s fellowman.”87 Hodge speaks of malice at the “desire to injure.”88 Malice is resentment that has turned even more sour, so that we now bear ill will toward another to the degree that we wish to see them suffer. It is the attitude which, when it conceives, actively seeks to bring harm to another.
All of these evil dispositions are to be “put off”—every one of them, with no exceptions. These evils are like cancer cells. They perform no good or healthy functions, they only bring suffering and ultimately death. And so, when we operate or radiate or chemically treat these cells, we are satisfied with nothing less than the total eradication of every cell. So it is with these evils. Every hint of them is to be cast aside as evil and destructive.
And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32).
Kindness appears to be the counterpart of malice. Malice dwells upon a perceived wrong, committed against us or one we love. It therefore seeks to make the offending part pay for his actions. It wants the other person to suffer. It looks for ways to cause harm to the other.
Kindness is the opposite. It is occasioned by grace. It is not prompted by the good which the other person has done, but by the good which God has done. It seeks to bring about the blessing of the other person at our own expense. It does not seek to get even by causing pain, but to get ahead of the other in bringing a blessing to them. It desires and strives for the blessing of the other person, even when that person has caused us harm. It recognizes that even when our brother has purposefully committed sin against us God has allowed this for our good and His glory: “And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph realized that God used the sin of his brothers, committed against him, to bring about good, not only in his life, but in the lives of many. Kindness is the believer’s response to grace, which includes the grace which comes to us through the sins of others which causes our suffering.
“Tender-heartedness” does not seem to correspond directly with any of the terms in verse 31. It does, however, contrast with the angry disposition described there. Malice is born out of resentment, and this, when conceived produces anger, wrath, clamor and slander. When we wish harm would come to a brother, we have little concern about him. If we look for his pain and suffering, it is only that we might take pleasure in it.
Tender-heartedness is that sensitivity toward our brother which stems from kindness. Kindness seeks the blessing of our brother. We thus begin to tune in on our brother’s responses to our speech and actions. We look to see if we are understood, and if we are being a blessing. When we find ourselves doing harm, we stop or modify our actions. We look for weaknesses and needs, not to take advantage of them, but in order to minister to them. Tender-heartedness is the sensitivity which comes from caring about the other person.
The key concept in verse 31 seems to be that of forgiveness. The fact that it is both present and prominent in our text strongly argues that Christians will sin against one another, so that forgiveness is required. As long as we are still struggling with sin, forgiveness is vitally important to unity and harmony in the church.
The forgiveness which Paul calls for here is specific. He defines what forgiveness is like and how it works. He does so in relationship to the forgiveness which every Christian has received from God. Kindness and forgiveness (and likely tender-heartedness) is to be reciprocal, but when it is not, we must press on anyway. “Forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Let us consider Paul’s words here, to discern the relationship between God’s forgiveness of our sins in Christ with the forgiveness which we are to manifest toward others.
(1) God’s forgiveness should motivate our forgiveness (see Matthew 18:21-35). It is because we have been forgiven that we desire to forgive others, in obedience to Him.
(2) God’s forgiveness was “in Christ.” God accomplished divine forgiveness in the sacrifice of His Son on the cross of Calvary. It was through His shed blood that men receive the forgiveness of sins. It is also through Christ that we are able to forgive the sins of others. If Christ’s death on Calvary motivates us to forgive, it also empowers us to forgive.
(3) God’s forgiveness in Christ sets the standard for our forgiveness of others. It demonstrates the degree to which we should go in forgiving others. Since His forgiveness is total and complete, so ours must be also.
(4) God’s forgiveness in Christ was without exception (universal), and thus ours must be as well. On the cross, Jesus declared, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). His forgiveness was universal. His death on the cross of Calvary was not purposed to save everyone, but it was accomplished to forgive all men. When that forgiveness is spurned and rejected, then we choose to suffer the wrath of God ourselves, rather than to be forgiven in Christ.
(5) God’s forgiveness was not selective in terms of the sins committed. God, in Christ, forgave us all our sins. He did not selectively forgive us of some sins and not others. His death was for the forgiveness of every sin. No sin is left uncovered by the cross. We dare not be selective so far as which sins we will forgive and which we will not. We must forgive every sin.
(6) God’s forgiveness was granted to His enemies in Christ, before they repented. God’s forgiveness was granted men in advance of their salvation. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:5). We cannot wait until those who have wronged us repent, and ask our forgiveness. We must forgive those who have harmed us before they ask for it. Forgiveness is meant to precede repentance, and not to follow it. Forgiveness facilitates and encourages repentance.
(7) God’s forgiveness in Christ was both willing and sacrificial. It was at His expense (the expense of His only Son) that God accomplished forgiveness for our sins. When we forgive the sins of another against us, we cease to require that they “pay for it,” and we declare the fact that we are willing to bear the price ourselves.
(8) God’s forgiveness in Christ was accomplished as He gave up His life for those He forgave. We cannot forgive others and live for ourselves at the same time. We must first die to self, and to the old man, and then forgive others from our new nature.
Before I dare to speak further about the practice of forgiveness, I must begin by calling attention to its premise. We can forgive others, as God forgave us, only after we have received the forgiveness of God in Christ. We love, because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). We also forgive, because He first forgave us. And so I ask you as kindly and yet as directly as I possibly can. Have you trusted in Jesus Christ, in His death on the cross of Calvary, for the forgiveness of your sins? It is Receiving God’s forgiveness is His only way of reconciliation. You cannot give what (forgiveness) you have not first received. If you do not have the joy of knowing that your sins are forgiven, receive God’s forgiveness by trusting in Jesus Christ.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us (1 John 1:9-10).
Our text gives us the good news that we don’t have to be angry, and to harbor resentment and malice toward others. Paul speaks of forsaking anger and showing kindness not just as a choice, but as a command. It is something that we, as Christians, both can and must do, by God’s grace.
This text not only confronts us with our obligation as Christians, it speaks to us of a great opportunity. This passage offers us great hope because it assures us not only that we can change, but that others can change as well. It assures us that a person who is negative, resentful, bitter, and insensitive can change, so that he or she becomes forgiving, kind, and tender-hearted. We dare not seek to excuse our attitudes or actions by saying, “That’s just the way I am.” God does not accept the way we are. He has sent His Son, Jesus Christ, not only to forgive us, but to transform us. Ephesians 4:17-32 is all about changing. It is about those changes which God has made possible, and which we, by His grace, are to implement in our lives. What a blessed thought! Christians can and must change.
Let us not suppose that Paul has meant for us to conclude that the putting off and anger and the putting on of forgiveness is a substitute for confrontation, rebuke and correction. It is not. Dealing with unholy anger and the granting of forgiveness is but the first step on the path toward reconciliation. When we forsake unholy wrath and forgive those who have harmed us, we now become free to deal with those who have wronged us in a way that is for their benefit. It enables us to confront and correct with reconciliation in view, rather than revenge. And, having granted forgiveness, we make it much easier for those who have wronged us to repent and be reconciled.
In the light of our text and others, the Christian dare not say, “I cannot forgive.” What we must mean is, “I will not forgive.” We can choose to disobey God’s command through Paul. We can refuse to forgive, and to continue to harbor bitterness and resentment. But we must never say that we do so because it is impossible to do. God has forgiven us in Christ, and so the work of Jesus Christ makes it possible. What we will not and cannot do through our old nature, we can do through the new nature which God has given us. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit that forgiveness and reconciliation can be accomplished:
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another (Galatians 5:22-26).
We may seek to justify ourselves by pointing to the enormity of the sin which someone has committed against us. Whatever that sin may be, it does not measure up to the sins which we have committed against God, and which He has forgiven in Christ. We may refuse to forgive because we are convinced that the offending party will only sin in a similar way again. So do we! How many times do we come to God to confess a sin which we have confess often before, only to repeat again?
As we begin to fathom the immensity of our sins and the magnitude of God’s forgiveness, we will be motivated to forgive others, who have sinned against us. This is but one of the many reasons why we, in this church, observe communion weekly. Who has ever gone a week without sin? What greater comfort and joy can we find than to be reminded of our forgiveness in Christ? And what greater motivation for forgiving others?
One final word about forgiveness, as I close. I do not understand it, but I dare not ignore it. It is a word from none other than our Lord, Jesus Christ. Let us listen and take heed.
9 “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. 10 ‘Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. 11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread. 12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.)’ 14 “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 “But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:9-15).
80 Until now, I have always understood 2 Timothy 3:1-9 as a description of the condition of the unbelieving world in the last days. Now, I am more inclined to view this as a description of much of the professing church in the last days (note, for example, verse 5). In particular, Paul describes the apostate church as containing those who are “irreconcilable” (verse 3). This is due to neglect or flagrant disobedience to the instruction of Paul in Ephesians chapter 4.
81 Note, too, that immediately after his command in verses 1 and 2, Paul turns to the subject of the church and its unity. Peter thus deals with the same subject matter that Paul does in Ephesians, only in a different order.