From Natural Vices to Supernatural Virtues
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (4:31–32)
The final change Paul mentions is from natural vices to supernatural virtues and amounts to a summary of the other changes.
Man’s natural tendency is to sin, and the natural tendency of sin is to grow into greater sin. And a Christian’s sin will grow just like that of an unbeliever. If not checked, our inner sins of bitterness and wrath and anger will inevitably lead to the outward sins of clamor, slander, and other such manifestations of malice.
Bitterness (pikria) reflects a smoldering resentment, a brooding grudge-filled attitude (see Acts 8:23; Heb. 12:15). It is the spirit of irritability that keeps a person in perpetual animosity, making him sour and venemous. Wrath (thumos) has to do with wild rage, the passion of the moment. Anger (orgē) is a more internal smoldering, a subtle and deep feeling. Clamor (kraugē) is the shout or outcry of strife and reflects the public outburst that reveals loss of control. Slander (blasphēmia, from which we get blasphemy) is the ongoing defamation of someone that rises from a bitter heart. Paul then adds malice (kakia), the general term for evil that is the root of all vices. All of these, he says, must be put away from you.
These particular sins involve conflict between person and person—believer and unbeliever and, worse still, between believer and believer. These are the sins that break fellowship and destroy relationships, that weaken the church and mar its testimony before the world. When an unbeliever sees Christians acting just like the rest of society, the church is blemished in his eyes and he is confirmed still further in resisting the claims of the gospel.
In place of those vices we are rather to be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven us. These are graces God has shown to us and they are the gracious virtues we are to show to others. God did not love us, choose us, and redeem us because we were deserving, but purely because He is gracious. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.… While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:8, 10). If God is so gracious to us, how much more, then, should we be kind, … tender-hearted, and forgiving to fellow sinners, especially to one another.
Being unconditionally kind characterizes the Lord, as Luke 6:35b shows: “For He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.” Paul speaks of “the riches of His kindness … that leads you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). We are to be like our heavenly Father, says Christ, and are to “love [our] enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and [our] reward will be great, and [we] will be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35a).
Tender-hearted has the idea of being compassionate, and reflects a feeling deep in the bowels, or stomach, a gnawing psychosomatic pain due to empathy for someone’s need. Forgiving each other is so basic to reflecting Christlike character that it needs little comment. The most graphic illustration of forgiveness is in the parable of Matthew 18:21–35. When Peter asked about the limits of forgiveness, the Lord told him a story of a man with an unpayable debt who was forgiven by his creditor, the king. This was a picture of salvation—God forgiving a sinner the unpayable debt of unrighteous rebellion against Him.
The forgiven man then went to someone who owed him a small amount and had him imprisoned for nonpayment. He who eagerly accepted a massive, comprehensive forgiveness would not forgive a small, easily-payable debt of another person. The incongruity of his action shows the heinousness of a believer’s unforgiving heart, and the man was severely chastened by the Lord for his wicked attitude.
Paul has this same relationship in mind as he calls for believers to forgive just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Can we who have been forgiven so much not forgive the relatively small things done against us? We, of all people, should always be eager to forgive.
The parallel text to this passage, found in Colossians 3:1–17, forms a fitting summation to Paul’s teaching here.
If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in Glory.
Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.
And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone, just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
32 Now Paul moves, at least for the moment, to the positive side of the ledger—to several of the virtues believers must “put on” (recall v. 24; cf. Col 3:12). In contrast to the preceding, they must become kind or benevolent (chrēstos, GK 5982) to one another. (The word is also used of God’s kindness in 2:7; cf. Lk 6:35; Ro 2:4.) They must also be compassionate or tenderhearted (eusplanchnoi, GK 2359). This word’s only other use in the NT occurs in another list of virtues (1 Pe 3:8). It speaks of the need to have tenderhearted feelings toward others in the body of Christ, which naturally leads to the third virtue—forgiveness. Again God is the standard: they are to forgive as God has forgiven them “in Christ.” The corporate body in Christ forms a forgiven people. The word charizō (GK 5919) can mean “to give freely” or “to forgive freely,” but the close parallel in Colossians 3:13 points to the sense of “forgive” here. (Other uses with this sense include 2 Co 2:7, 10; 12:13.) Motivated by God’s incredible generosity (recall 2:7) toward his people in granting them complete forgiveness, they are to extend that to one another.
4:32 / This verse provides a striking contrast to the previous one by emphasizing the virtues that should characterize believers in their interpersonal relationships. Instead of those negative and destructive qualities, believers are admonished to be kind and compassionate to one another. Both of these virtues promote a spirit of acceptance, tolerance, and patience within the congregation.
Beyond that, the readers are to be continually forgiving each other. The word for forgiveness (charizomai) is also the word from which grace (charis) is derived. Within this context, believers are to respond to each other with the same grace, forgiveness, and generosity that they have experienced from God: hence forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Christians have been forgiven by Christ (echarisato, past/aorist tense), but they are to go on forgiving (charizomenoi, present tense) one another on the strength of the example that Christ has provided.