On Dispensing Religious Jargon

Here’s a wise caution for all preachers, teachers, and writers who frequently draw from the vocabulary of the faith — words like sin, grace, Christ, and a host of other sanctified terms that emerge over time within our particular circles — but who are tempted to use the terms without ever stopping to explain their meaning. Helmut Thielicke explains the danger, and then proposes one helpful practice, in his book The Trouble with the Church: A Call for Renewal (Harper & Row, 1965), pages 36–38:

Where is the average person today who, when he hears the word “sin,” really hears what the New Testament meant by that word? For whom today does this word still say that here man is being addressed at the point of his resistance and opposition to God, that this means man in his will to assert his autonomy, his insistence that everything centers in man, his incredible passion for security, his lostness in preoccupation with the moment and that which is tangible and immediately at hand? And yet all this must be heard when we hear the word “sin,” if for no other reason than to understand that it is possible for a sinner to be at the same time an example of moral perfection and that he need by no means be a criminal, an antisocial, or even a person who lacks seriousness. Were not the Pharisees ethically very respectable people? And yet for Jesus they were more drastic examples of sin than publicans and prostitutes.

And the word “Christ” itself? What would really be the result if we were to investigate the exchange value of that term in the psychological substructure of the average man today? What we would come out with would probably be some idea of a fabulously wise man or a perfect human being.

The point is that we need to say what we mean by these terms; we dare not throw them at people as supposedly valid coins whose value is immediately recognized. Otherwise we shall all too thoughtlessly reach out for them with the notion that they are perfectly familiar, whereas the truth is that the metal begins to glow and burn only when we have some idea of what these coins really signify. …

I once experimented with students, having them prepare sermons in which the conventional terms like “God,” “sin,” “grace,” etc. did not appear. The words had to be paraphrased. I think this is a good exercise, even though it has importance only as an interim practice. For we should not discontinue the use of these words in the pulpit; all we need is a withdrawal-cure because of the thoughtless use we make of them. We need to learn to overcome the temptation to string together the old words in different variations, because then souls remain underfed and are lost.

Sin and Worldview

“The great danger is always to single out some aspect or phenomenon of God’s good creation and identify it, rather than the alien intrusion of human apostasy [sin], as the villain in the drama of human life. Such an error is tantamount to reducing direction to structure, to conceiving of the good-evil dichotomy as intrinsic to the creation itself. The result is that something in the good creation is declared evil. We might call this tendency ‘Gnosticism’… In the course of history, this ‘something’ has been variously identified as marriage and certain kinds of foods (the Gnostic heresy Paul warns Timothy against in 1 Timothy 4), the body and its passions (Plato and much of Greek philosophy), culture in distinction from nature (Rousseau and much of Romanticism), institutional authority, especially in the state and the family (philosophical anarchism and much of depth psychology), technology and management techniques (Heidegger and Ellul, among others), or any number of things. There seems to be an ingrained Gnostic streak in human thinking, a streak that causes people to blame some aspect of God’s handiwork for the ills and woes of the world we live in.”

Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Eerdmans, 2005) p. 61.

Laughing at Sin

By now you know David Letterman publicly admitted to committing adultery with multiple women on his staff. Apparently he announced this on his show under the pressure that someone else was planning to break the news. It is a very sad situation, but apparently not scandalous to a live audience. The crowd didn’t boo or rise up in protest or walk out of the studio. In fact, as Letterman publicly confessed of his adultery to his audience frequent laughter erupted from the audience. The confession was really just another platform for his jokes, the audience was entertained, and (after a short commercial break) the show continued on as planned.

There is no need to dwell here. Scripture tells us that fools mock sin’s guilt (Proverbs 14:9).

It was laughter from a different crowd that grabbed my attention.

On Sept. 16th John Piper spoke to a large gathering at the American Association of Christian Counselors. At the beginning of his message (“Beholding Glory and Becoming Whole: Seeing and Savoring God as the Heart of Mental Health”), Piper opened his message by talking frankly about personal sin.

Piper’s blunt talk about sin generated repeated laughter from the audience. If there is one speaker in the world who is not easily mistaken for a comedian, it’s Dr. Piper. Piper is a serious preacher in the lineage of Jonathan Edwards. And this fact alone makes the first five minutes of his message, well, bizarre. Have a listen:

Of course I was not at the conference. And I’m not quite sure how Piper’s message was set up or how the conference atmosphere was crafted. (If you were in attendance, I would appreciate your perspective.) Yet I am perplexed when a man goes much deeper in addressing sin than merely addressing particular sins (like Letterman), but exposes his lifelong battle with sin and honestly acknowledges the depth of sin entrenched in his own heart and gets a laugh for it. Especially because his address was delivered before several thousand men and women who have seen with their own eyes the wicked fruit of sin, who have watched alcoholism destroy lives, who have seen the dark realities of suicide, who have watched men and women toy with sin and destroy themselves, their families, and their churches as a result. If there is a room full of people that should not confuse honest talk about sin with a punch line, this was it.

But I want to capture this moment to check my own heart. Do I laugh at sin? Do I take seriously the sins of others? Do I laugh at sin portrayed in fictional sitcoms? Before a holy God, is this any less serious than laughing at Letterman or laughing at Piper?

My sin—our sin—insults a holy God. God hates sin. And we should hate even the garment stained by the flesh (Jude 1:23). If there is an inappropriate response to sin, it is laughter. May the Lord help us not to follow the pattern of the world. In the sight of sin and its guilt, may he turn our laugher into mourning (James 4:9). For no response is more appropriate.