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.”

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.

“He made us face our sin”

Looking at our sin is an uncomfortable thing. Our natural impulse is to “love ourselves,” so when the preacher climbs into the pulpit to open the Word of God and to confront our sin through reproof, rebuke, and exhortation, we feel the discomfort (2 Tim 4:1-5). We’d rather not be reminded of our remaining sin. We’d rather accumulate teachers who avoid the topic of sin altogether. And they are easy to find nowadays.

But it is not hard to imagine how this itching-ears disorder effects the confidence of the Bible preacher. He feels the resistance from his congregation. “So,” he asks himself, “should I continue preaching about sin, or is it time to preach only gentler themes of the Christian life? Perhaps I have said enough, and they have heard enough, about sin?”

The notable Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte (1836-1921) wrestled with this question. He was faced with a crucial, ministry-defining, decision: continue preaching about sin, or leave the topic of sin and preach on the more gentle features of the faith? This moment of decision—a decision that would define the remainder of his ministry—is captured in G. F. Barbour’s classic biography. Listen to his description of Whyte’s struggle…

For ten days the loch and the late harvest-fields lay steeped in quiet sunshine, and the great hills towered higher in the faint haze. Twice within a week he disappeared for five hours, and on his return reported that he had walked some seventeen or eighteen miles over beautiful but mountainous roads. … It was on one of these walks—by the Strome Ferry road to where it overlooks Lochcarron, and then round by Plockton—that Dr. Whyte found himself wrestling with the question whether he should not, for the remainder of his ministry, preach more than he had been wont to do on the gentler and more hopeful aspects of Christian truth, and less on sin and its fruits. But, as he told his congregation when he returned to Edinburgh a fortnight later:

“What seemed to me to be a Divine Voice spoke with all-commanding power in my conscience, and said to me as clear as clear could be: ‘No! Go on, and flinch not! Go back and boldly finish the work that has been given you to do. Speak out and fear not. Make them at any cost to see themselves in God’s holy Law as in a glass. Do you that, for no one else will do it. No one else will so risk his life and his reputation as to do it. And you have not much of either left to risk. Go home and spend what is left of your life in your appointed task of showing My people their sin and their need of My salvation.’ I shall never forget the exact spot where that clear command came to me, and where I got fresh authority and fresh encouragement to finish this part of my work.” *

Whyte continued to show sinners their sin, in order to show sinners the saving grace of God.

Now fast-forward to a Sunday morning in 1921, just three days after Whyte’s death, and just two weeks before his 85th birthday. George Adam Smith stood in Whyte’s pulpit. During one section of his sermon, Smith recalled and commended Whyte’s imagination and creativity in describing the Christian’s ongoing struggle with indwelling sin. Smith said,

In Scottish preaching of the ‘seventies [1870s], sin had either with the more evangelical preachers tended to become something abstract or formal, or with others was elegantly left alone. But Dr. Whyte faced it, and made us face it, as fact, ugly, fatal fact—made us feel its reality and hideousness, and follow its course to its wages in death. He did this not only by his rich use of the realism of poetry, and fiction, and biography, but as we could feel through his experimental treatment of it, out of his own experience of its temptations and insidiousness, and of the warfare with it to which every honest man is conscript.**

Such a preacher like Alexander Whyte—faithful to persevere in preaching about sin until his dying breath—is, and always will be, a rarity. But if they don’t, who will? Without the reminder of our sin, how will we be reminded of God’s saving grace and who will push us each day to live under the shadow of the cross?


* G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte (Hodder & Stoughton 1924), pp. 531-532.
** G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte (Hodder & Stoughton 1924), p. 300.

MAKE WAR! – Piper sermon jam

tsslogo.jpgOur friends over at 10:31 Sermon Jams are getting ready to launch a new and improved Website next week and with it comes the release of their 4th volume of sermon jams. And they keep getting better! Over the coming days at TSS we’ll be giving you some exclusive access to songs from the new volume.

This first one, War, comes from John Piper’s sermon on Romans 8:10-17 (his ministry will always be equated in my mind with thunder):

“I hear so many Christians murmuring about their imperfections and their failures and their addictions and their short-comings, And I see so little war! ‘Murmur, murmur, murmur… Why am I this way?’ MAKE WAR!”


Ed Welch: “There is a mean streak to authentic self-control. Self-control is not for the timid. When we want to grow in it, not only do we nurture an exuberance for Jesus Christ, we also demand of ourselves a hatred for sin. The only possible attitude toward out-of-control desire is a declaration of all-out war. There is something about war that sharpens the senses. You hear a twig snap or the rustling of leaves and you are in attack mode. Someone coughs and you are ready to pull the trigger. Even after days of little or no sleep, war keeps us vigilant.”