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.

Chief of Sinners

John Newton penned three letters explaining his thoughts on how grace typically grows in the life of the Christian. Using agricultural terms he explains how grace develops in the sinner from the first green blade of conversion (A), to grace in the ear of corn (B), and then finally to mature Christian represented by corn ready for the harvest (C). In his letter explaining the highest levels of Christian maturity he writes this about humility and its fruits [Works, 1:212]:

A measure of this [humbling] grace, is to be expected in every true Christian: but it can only appear in proportion to the knowledge they have of Christ and of their own hearts. It is a part of C’s daily employment to look back upon the way by which the Lord has led him; and while he reviews the Ebenezers he has set up all along the road, he sees, in almost an equal number, the monuments of his own perverse returns, and how he has in a thousand instances rendered to the Lord evil for good. Comparing these things together, he can without affectation adopt the Apostle’s language, and style himself “less than the least of all saints” [Eph 3:8], and “of sinners the chief” [1 Tim. 1:15].

Satan’s Tactic

From Puritan Thomas Brooks’ book Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices:

“The first device that Satan has to keep souls in a sad, doubting, and questioning condition, and so making their life a hell, is by causing them to be still poring and musing upon sin, to mind their sins more than their Savior; yes, so to mind their sins as to forget, yes, to neglect their Savior, that, as the Psalmist speaks, ‘The Lord is not in all their thoughts’ (Psalm 10:4). Their eyes are so fixed upon their disease, that they cannot see the remedy, though it be near; and they do so muse upon their debts, that they have neither mind nor heart to think of their Surety. A Christian should wear Christ in his bosom as a flower of delight, for he is a whole paradise of delight. He who minds not Christ more than his sin, can never be thankful and fruitful as he should.”