In John 8 we read the famous story of the woman caught in the act of adultery—a story so famous that even those who know little about the Bible know that one. They even quote it sometimes because it contains one of the best zingers of all time. Jesus said, “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” With that, the would-be executioners drop their stones and leave, oldest to the youngest.
Jesus—the only person in history who by that criteria had the moral authority to execute the woman—chose not to do so. Instead, he allowed himself to be executed for her when he went to the cross on her behalf. He took her place, and ours, as well. No wonder the hymn writer said, “Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree.” Quite significantly, the last thing Jesus said to the woman in this encounter was, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus says the same thing to people today, “Go and sin no more.”
Unfortunately, many believers take that statement to be a suggestion rather than a command. They regard it as helpful advice rather than holy admonition, which is dangerous. Perhaps we think to ourselves, “Grace is so amazing, once I receive it, nothing else matters. God will keep loving me, forgiving me, and regarding me as his child.” Whatever truth there may be to such notions, that’s not how the child of God thinks! The Christian life is not a moral free-for-all. Jesus was tortured and executed for sin; that’s why we no longer play around with it. Jesus still says to the rescued child of God, “Go and sin no more.”
Could it be, then, that some believers have misunderstood grace? Could it be we’ve forgotten that “belief behaves”? Grace is not only God’s unmerited favor toward his people, it is also a power from God that enables them to live a godly life. The Apostle Paul writes, “For the grace of God that brings salvation…teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12). So, grace is not some coupon we can cash in to sin at a reduced rate of consequences.
Having expounded upon the grace of God in Christ, Paul anticipates an important question in Romans 6:1-2: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Or again, Jude 1:4 says, “[It is] godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality.” That’s a truth modern evangelicals need to hear. It was certainly a truth the believers in Corinth needed to hear. Like many people today, they understood the grace of God to be little more than fire insurance from hell.
That’s why their church was in chaos, marked by envy, strife, factions, worldliness, irreverence, and in some cases, outright immorality. So, Paul turns up the heat on them in this passage, giving them important lessons from Israel’s checkered spiritual history. He reminds them of a truth believers need to embrace today as well: The grace of God in Christ is not a license for immorality, but our motivation for holy living.Fortunately, God always provides a way out of the spiritual traps that can so easily ensnare us.
In Mark 2:1-12, Jesus famously healed the paralytic, a man lowered on his mat through someone’s roof because of the crowd. Before Jesus restored his legs, however, he restored his soul, declaring the man’s sins forgiven. Some folks in the crowd fussed at Jesus for saying such a thing because only God himself can forgive a person’s sins. Therefore, Jesus told the man to take up his mat and walk home, in full view of the crowd. To everyone’s amazement, he did. The visible miracle (the healing of his legs) authenticated the invisible miracle (the forgiveness of his sins). In a dramatic display of his own power and authority, then, Jesus made the man’s salvation visible to everyone.
This story teaches us a lot about Jesus, but it also illustrates how God wants a believer’s salvation to be made visible in our day, too. He wants it to be verifiable. He wants it to be evidence by a changed life. The theological word is “sanctification,” which means to be set apart. This message looks at the doctrine of sanctification—the process by which God shapes a believer’s character over time to be more like Christ’s. While justification speaks of the beginning of our salvation, sanctification speaks of the continuing of our salvation. Like the two natures of Christ, they are distinct theological realties, but they cannot be separated.
Justification is about Christ’s work for us on the cross. Sanctification is about Christ’s work in us by the Holy Spirit. Justification is about Christ’s completed work in making us his children forever. Sanctification is about Christ’s continuing work in making us godly in life. Justification is about removing the penalty of sin in our lives. Sanctification is about breaking the power of sin in our lives. Justification is about forgiveness, so that we can come to God. Sanctification is about holiness, so that we can become like God (in character). Justification calls us to believe. Sanctification calls us to behave.
John Calvin explained the relationship between justification and sanctification using the sun as an illustration. He said the sun’s heat and the sun’s light are two distinguishable things. They are not the same, but they are always found together. They both flow from the nature of what the sun is. Moreover, we cannot have the sun’s heat without the suns’ light in the same way that we cannot have justification without sanctification.
Sanctification, then, is progressively growing in the grace we have freely received in Christ. It is the continuing work of God in the life of the believer, making us holy in practice, not merely in position. As Maxie Dunham has said, “We don’t buy a violin today and expect to give a concert in Carnegie Hall tomorrow. Similarly, we may be converted to Christ in a moment, but…walking as a Christian requires discipline and is a lifelong undertaking. As Christians, we do not emerge from our conversion fully grown; we must grow.” The Apostle Peter would agree: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). In short, belief behaves.
When we embrace Jesus as the Savior who justifies us, we are at the same time embracing Jesus as the Lord who sanctifies us. The key to sanctification is living up to what we have already attained in Christ (cf. Philippians 3:16).
If you were looking for a new church home, what would you be looking for? What would be the criteria by which you make your selection? Size? Location? Style of Worship? Average age of the parishioners? How about facilities? Or the ministry programs? Or the preaching?
There are probably as many answers to that question as there are believers. Different people look for different things when it comes to finding a church. And trying to satisfy everyone is an absolute impossibility. But have you ever wondered, “What does Jesus look for in a church?” After all, it’s his church, right? What are the criteria by which he makes an evaluation?
Revelation 2-3 tell us. In these chapters we catch a glimpse of seven report cards for seven first-century churches in Asia Minor. The criteria Jesus uses to evaluate them may be different from our own. Now, Jesus is not looking for a new church home, but he is looking for a home in his church. What is it that makes him feel like he belongs in a group of believers? This message takes a summary look at that question in the context of John’s experience of the risen, glorified Christ.
John meets an awe-inspiring Jesus, functioning like a great high priest, actively tending to his lamps—filling his people with the oil of his Holy Spirit and trimming their wicks with his corrective word. He does these things so they can shine upon the nations with the hope of the gospel. The image tells us that the church is a company of believers vitally joined to Christ, giving light to the world. That’s a creative, apocalyptic way of saying much the same as we saw in the image of the church as the ambassadors of Christ.
Are we connected to the center stem of this lampstand—Jesus—by faith? Are we burning brightly for him? Are we allowing ourselves to be “trimmed” (i.e., sanctified) by the Lord? He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
In 1 Corinthians 3 and Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul likens the church of Jesus Christ to a sacred temple. The building blocks of this new temple, he says, are Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Together they “rise to become a holy temple in the Lord.” Not only that, says Paul, they’re being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” That is, they are habitations of the divine. Similar imagery can be found in 1 Peter 2.
It’s an amazing image to ponder. First, one of the great themes running through the Bible storyline is that God looking for a home on earth. That’s what a temple is—the intersection point of heaven and earth. Second, Jews and Gentiles were notorious for not getting along. Many within each group harbored a deep resentment toward the other. So, how in the world would this new arrangement work? With such contempt and disgust close to the surface, how would they ever interact peacefully? Clearly it wouldn’t be easy. But here’s the little known secret: it wasn’t supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be easy today, either.
The church-as-temple image tells us that God is building a “house” for himself, and flawed believers are his construction materials. Yet, the whole project is for his glory, our good, and the Kingdom’s gain. It was Augustine who first described the church as “a hospital for sinners.” He went on to say it would be very strange if people were to criticize hospitals because their patients were sick. The whole point of the hospital is that people are there precisely because they’re sick and they haven’t yet fully recovered.
And so it is with believers today. Colin Smith has noted, “It’s hard enough for two sinners to make a good marriage. So how much harder is it for 200 sinners or 2,000 sinners to make a good church?” Indeed, Scripture says when we see Christ, “we will be like him,” but until that time comes, we are like a building under construction. Construction is messy. Construction sites are muddy. The construction process can look like chaos. But the mess of construction means the Builder is at work, and the blueprint is being followed. As renowned theologian R. C. Sproul has said:
“The Christian church is one of the few organizations in the world that requires a public acknowledgement of sin as a condition for membership. In one sense, the church has fewer hypocrites than any other institution because, by definition, the church is a haven for sinners. If [we] claimed to be an organization of perfect people, then [our] claim would be hypocritical. But no such claim is made by the church. There is no slander in the charge that the church is full of sinners. Such a statement would only compliment the church for fulfilling her divinely appointed task.”
So, what is God up to in the building of his living temple, whose very stones are flawed from the get-go? That’s what we explore together in this message.
If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow at 3 p.m., what would you do tonight at 9 p.m.? Who would you be with? How would you spend your time? What would be the final memory you give yourself before stepping into eternity? That’s the situation we find in John 13-17, the account of Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room.
Jesus knows he’s going to die in about 18 hours. He doesn’t have the privilege of ignorance like we do when it comes to our own departure. Most people don’t usually know when they’re going to breathe their last, but Jesus knows exactly when he’s going to die. He also knows that he’ll be betrayed by one of his followers. He knows he’ll be unjustly tried and rejected by his own people. He knows he’ll be mocked, flocked, and crucified like a common criminal.
In the face of such an ordeal, Jesus decides to spend his last night with his closest friends. He wants to be with them so he can prepare them for his absence. To that end, he will teach them, encourage them, love them, and pray for them. Yes, pray for them! What must it have been like to be the subject of Jesus’ prayer? Many people have heard of the Lord’s Prayer, but John 17 records the Lord’s Prayer for us—not the prayer we pray to him but the prayer he prays for us, his followers. The prayer unfolds in three segments:
In vv. 1-5 , Jesus prays for himself.
In vv. 6-19, Jesus prays for his first-century disciples.
In vv. 20-24, Jesus prays for his future disciples.
Speaking to the heavenly Father, Jesus says, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21).
If you are a follower of Christ, be encouraged by the fact that you were on the Lord’s heart and mind the night before he was executed. Moreover, Jesus has not stopped praying for you. Hebrews 7:25 teaches that Jesus “ever lives to make intercession” for his people. What that means for us today is that the Christ to whom we pray is also praying for us. Naturally, we can conclude that the prayers of Jesus work! They get through. They get the job done. James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective,” and they don’t come any more righteous than Jesus. He was the sinless Son of God!
While the text of Jesus’ prayer is virtually inexhaustible, this particular message focuses on WHY Jesus prays for his followers (17:6-11a) and WHAT Jesus prays for his followers (17:11b-24). It can be a tremendous source of encouragement for believers to know that Jesus is praying for us at this very moment.
Are we as a nation less civil than we used to be? Maybe to a point, but three factors make it seem a lot worse than it probably is. First, today’s instant media puts the national invective “in our face” quicker and more frequently than in days gone by. Technology gives us hate at the speed of light. And lots of it. The sheer amount of vituperation we see on a daily basis can be disconcerting to one’s sense of personal peace; hence, the recent calls in our society for more civility. Unfortunately, outrage is good for business. The merchants of wrath on social media generate both clicks and cash for their cause, so, don’t expect the fireworks to fizzle any time soon.
Second, our crisis in education has rendered ideological retorts far less effective (not to mention fun) than they used to be in previous generations. Verbal pushbacks today are crafted as little more than ad hominem attacks—personal insults that are unseemly, unsophisticated, and ultimately unpersuasive. But one need only recall the kinds of political discourse our nation witnessed just a century and a half ago. In the 1858 debates, for example, Lincoln called the logic behind a proposed Douglas policy “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.” Somehow the nation endured such brutal zingers. I do concede, though, it was the policy being attacked, not the person. That distinction seems to have been lost in our day.
Third, gone are the days when the mainstream media were (mostly) honest and evenhanded. Indeed, there was a time when our “straight news” outlets sought to be dispassionate in the delivery of their product. They were content to be our eyes and ears on the events of the day, but now they try to be our brains, too, telling us what to think. No thank you; we can do that ourselves. Moreover, professional pundits have done more to polarize our country than any politician. And now they’re playing censorship games to aid and abet certain candidates, being selective and prejudicial in what they cover and don’t cover. Along with Big Tech’s manipulation of search results and feed content, it’s rank advocacy masquerading as real journalism—a flagrant corruption of a once noble industry. I’d rather chew glass than consume that kind of “news” on a regular basis. Of all the trends in motion right now, this one might be the most dangerous.
How Bad Will It Get Out There?
It remains to be seen if we can long endure the kind of verbal explosions we see online each day. On the other hand, it may be helpful to remember that in the 1960s, bomb-throwers actually threw bombs. To the snowflake generation (a somewhat inflammatory but largely warranted moniker) verbal shrapnel apparently is worse. Students are easily “triggered” these days, sometimes needing professional escorts to help them get to “safe spaces” on campus when they hear something they don’t like. We used to call such an attitude unmistakable evidence that a young person was “spoiled.”
Important debates get shut down now simply by someone claiming his feelings got hurt in the marketplace of ideas. Ironically, such fragile folks have little hesitation in pulling their own verbal triggers against those considered not yet “woke.” In their minds, the uglier the response, the better. “Be cruel or be cast out,” sang Rush in the 1980s. Their musical prophecy has come to fruition in today’s cancel culture. It’s “free speech for me but not for thee.”
Alas, the summer of arson and violence we just endured (labeled “mostly peaceful protests” by the spinmeisters in the media) makes me wonder if we’re heading back to the 1960s. Will we revert to throwing real bombs again? Oh, and rumor has it there’s an election next week. Is it that time again? Already? Lots of folks are on edge about what will happen to our cities if some people don’t get their own way at the ballot box. Hurt feelings can justify all kinds of malevolence these days. But if a civil war is needed to quiet things down again, let’s find a way to make it bloodless. Preserving people’s freedoms may be worth life and limb, but preserving their feelings—not so much.
One aspect of our current lunacy is rooted in the fact that those who are so easily outraged seldom see people on their side of a particular issue as less-than-perfect specimens of moral goodness themselves. Their cause is right, so they must be right. Not so (cf. Luke 13:1-5). It’s a secular form of self-righteousness, and the dogmatic assertions they preach get enscripturated in the doctrines of political correctness. It’s a new form of fundamentalism—without any fun, of course. Butself-assertion without self-reflection becomes self-destruction. In time, society itself collapses under its own weight. Cancel culture winds up canceling itself.
If civilization can be defined as “social order promoting cultural creation,” one might define civility as “verbal order promoting respectful communication.” But it takes character to be civil—and even more character to endure incivility. Apart from an elevation of character, neither can be realized to any extent in contemporary society. For believers, character is a function of our relationship with God. Therefore, we must lead the way in society by modeling a proper stewardship of words. I cannot accuse the secularists of failing to be self-reflective if I myself am not self-reflective when it comes to my own particular speech patterns—both in discourse and in scholarship. That’s what this series has been all about. I need to own up to my own lapses.
Civility in Scholarship
As noted previously, the esteemed clergyman, scholar, and author Eugene Peterson has said, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.” His call is for believers to cultivate the practice of integrity and winsomeness in speech, which involves a genuine respect for others as well as humility within ourselves. These attitudes are especially important for the Christian scholar. As Nancy Jean Vyhmeister notes, “The research mindset is characterized by objectivity, focus, clearly set-forth presuppositions, and logical organization. In a more biblical frame, it is adorned by humility.”
In her doctoral dissertation, Laurie Mellinger likewise highlights the need for humility by advocating a posture of hospitality among readers, writers, and teachers of theology. “Engaged theological readers respond in ways that bring their Christian faith to bear on what they read,” she writes. “For instance, they endeavor to respond with love and compassion. Whether they read secular literature or biblical narrative, they attempt at first to withhold judgment, offering a thorough and fair hearing to authors, characters, and ideas before responding.” The idea is provocative, as the word “hospitality” in the New Testament (φιλοξενία) means to love people of a different country or culture. Practicing hospitality, then, means to demonstrate a high regard for individuals who are different than we are—even in their thoughts, words, and ideologies.
By extension, hospitable scholarship would involve treating the author we’re engaging as valuable and worthy of respect even if we vigorously disagree with their conclusions. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5:46-47). In other words, being kind to others who are just like us is no big deal; anybody can do that. Unbelievers can do that, says Jesus. But φιλοξενία costs something; it’s a virtue that may not come naturally to us. Indeed, it may even require something of us, but it adorns the gospel.
In the end, common grace allows people outside our faith to be right about many things, even if their view of Christ and Christianity is askew. That means I can always come to an author outside my faith tradition and say, “I can learn from this person. I may not always agree with her, but I can always ‘chew up the meat and spit out the bones.’ Christ is not exalted when others are diminished, so I will not seek to skewer this writer. Instead, I will be fair, dispassionate, and even-keeled in my interaction, reserving my harshest critiques only for the most heinous of ideas.” Celebrate before you cerebrate, Tim.
Modeled by a Mentor
No one modeled this approach for me better than Professor David A. Dorsey, the late Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies at Evangelical Seminary who mentored me through my first doctoral program. Dr. Dorsey was a master at responding to the ridiculous things we would say in class. Looking back, I marvel at the grace he displayed. One of us would say something goofy about a passage, or something way off-base theologically, and he would say, “Well, you might be right about that, but here’s what I think is going on in that text.” And he would proceed to school us on the proper handling of the passage, but always with gentleness and respect. We were corrected, but not insulted; re-directed, but not ridiculed.
Dorsey’s approach is still with me today. In a recent article I wrote on the Sabbath for the Evangelical Journal, I politely disagreed with one scholar whose form-critical assumptions caused him to miss the exquisite nature of various passages in Exodus. His harsh assessment of the biblical text was unnecessary, and I said so. However, I also praised other aspects of this scholar’s work, noting how “magisterial” his work was in the field of Sabbath studies. He contributed much to the topic, and that contribution is rightly honored. In other words, I treated him as I myself would want to be treated if my own work were being reviewed by him. Dorsey, along with other professors at Evangelical Seminary, showed their students how to do this during my M.Div. days. My goal now is to do the same for my own students.
Civility in scholarship does not mean that we treat all ideas as equally valid, or that we all need to restrain ourselves from offering honest critiques when we think they’re warranted. After all, when it comes to the field of biblical studies and Christian theology, much is at stake for the parishioner in the pew. For example, can believers really have confidence in Scripture as God’s Word, or must we always take the critical position that the Bible is untrustworthy? To hear some scholars, one would think there is nothing unique about the Christian canon, or that Jesus Christ was no more important to his nation than George Washington was to ours. As Vyhmeister notes, “Researchers start their work from the premise that knowledge is attainable and that finding truth is possible.”
My goal, then, is to argue respectfully and persuasively when it comes to engaging those whose arguments would undermine a high view of Scripture. Indeed, Richard J. Mouw’s concept of “convicted civility” is my target. Mouw is on a mission to clean up society’s speech in our generation. In his book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, he writes, “As Martin Marty has observed, one of the real problems in modern life is that people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions lack civility. I like that way of stating the issue. We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a ‘passionate intensity’ about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility.”
Mouw continues, “Civility has its own value, quite apart from any evangelistic or political results it might produce. To become a gentler and more reverent person is itself a way of being more like what God intended us to be.” To which I say, “Amen.”
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
Words have the power to captivate and communicate, sometimes even better than images do. That’s one of the reasons movie adaptations of our favorite books can fall flat. They deviate from what our own imaginations did with the words we read. Take, for example, this silly sentence from an unknown source: “The bulbous woman ballooned toward me.” No picture is needed for such a sight; the mental image conjured by the words is amusing enough.
Likewise, this famous line from Carl Sandburg needs no help from a video: “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.” Such a scene can’t be filmed; it can only be conveyed by a creative and strategic use of words. Similarly, Truman Capote painted a feast of images with this memorable line: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” I can almost taste the town just by reading the sentence.
My all-time favorite line in English comes from Alexander Pope’s description of Jesus turning the water into wine. The verse he crafted portrays the miracle performed in Cana in a rich and unforgettable way: “The conscious water saw its master and blushed.”
Here the poet personifies the water, giving it a consciousness, the capacity to see, and the ability to feel embarrassed. The profound theological message conveyed in this one verse speaks volumes about the relationship of the creation to its creator (one of subordinate humility), as well as the exalted identity of the one who performed the miracle (the creator himself, incarnated and living humbly as a craftsman in Galilee). Can a picture do all that? Probably not.
I happen to love words, and I enjoy learning new ones. I also love reading the works of others who use them better than I do, sharpening my own craft in the process. I was an English major in college, so I had the opportunity to read broadly across the literature spectrum. Anchored now in the truths of a biblical worldview, I’m untroubled by reading works outside my own tradition. It expands my perspective and allows me to peer into how other people think and use words.
I also enjoy the weekly challenge of crafting a “big idea” for my sermons, encapsulating the entire message in a single sentence. Vivid, pithy language with turns of phrases and symmetrical touches can serve the homiletical task well. There’s no shortage of good examples on how to do this.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (President John F. Kennedy)
“Do I love you because you’re beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?” (Oscar Hammerstein)
“In the blue grass region, a paradox was born: the corn was full of kernels, and the colonels full of corn.” (John Marshall)
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” Steve Allen (though variously attributed)
Factor in the gospel, and there are all kinds of possibilities when it comes to words that evoke vivid images and big ideas. Who can forget the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial? Over time his big idea became the title of his message. As Winston Churchill once said, “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.” Dr. King did exactly that.
Good communicators get this. Andy Stanley writes, “Every time I stand to communicate, I want to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener. I want them to know that one thing and know what to do with it.” Finally, as if to model the very technique he advocated for so many years, Haddon Robinson said, “A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot.” Here are some big idea bullets I’ve fired recently on Sunday mornings:
Hope never dies because the God of the impossible lives.
To outlive your life, yield it completely to the Author of life.
Many babies have become kings, but only one king has ever become a baby.
When God stretches your faith, he will also strengthen your heart.
Love God not to get him to love you but because he already does.
The activation of God’s promise is joined to the asking of God’s people.
If you’re wandering around in a spiritual desert, you need to have a moral compass.
A fake gospel cannot deliver a real salvation.
The grace of God will remove sin, but it will not redefine sin.
Finite human beings are like crossword puzzle addicts with a limited vocabulary.
The big idea of the biblical text must always be located within the Big Story of the biblical plot, lest the forest be missed for the trees. (Big ideas and big stories need each other.) For this reason, I read both exegetical and hermeneutical materials. I do this out of enjoyment but also out of a sense of calling to “tell the people the full message of this new life” (Acts 5:20), as described in a previous post. For me it’s a labor of love.
But sometimes my words are not vehicles of love—toward God or toward others. Too often they’re self-centered or dispiriting. Too often they’re unhelpful or unkind. That’s why this is yet another area where I need to keep making progress. Specifically, I need wisdom, power, and grace from God to eradicate my complaining and eliminate my criticism—even when such impulses remain unarticulated. They’re still under the surface.
How can I properly handle God’s words in Scripture if I continually mishandle my own words in life? The incongruity is a red flag. As Marilyn McEntyre writes, “What is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, who became, as Eliot so beautifully put it, the ‘word within a word, unable to speak a word,’ has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues. May we use it to good purpose.”
On those occasions when I become a “negaholic” or a “complainiac,” I’m not using the power God gave me to a good purpose. More on these two verbal vices next time.
God the Father inscribed the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. God the Son wrote in the dirt while preparing to respond to a thorny question about law and grace. God the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles, prophets, and evangelists to write sacred Scripture. Indeed, each member of the Holy Trinity revealed divine truth to human beings using human language, the currency of which is words. Moreover, heaven’s ultimate revelation, Jesus Christ, is called ὁ λόγος, “the Word” (John 1:1).
In his book Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books, Tony Reinke notes how Christianity is a Word-centered faith, which stands in sharp contrast to ancient Near Eastern religions—faith systems that typically focused on visual representations of the deities through idols. Contrary to these image-based religions, he argues, Christians are a people of books, texts, and words, a reality that has deep implications for not only what we learn about God and his world but also how we learn it:
“Words are a more precise way of communicating the meaning behind the images of our world. . . . What is real extends far deeper than what we can see. Our holy God is real. . . . Our Savior is real. Heaven is real. Angels are real. But for now these realities are invisible.” The author of Hebrews might agree with Reinke, at least to a point (cf. 11:1-2).
On the other hand, Dr. Leonard Sweet, with whom I teach on a weekly basis, would bristle at the claim. Sweet thinks it’s high time for the church to emphasize images, metaphors, and stories again. Word-centeredness, he contends, is a product of the enlightenment and modernism. The postmodernism era needs a more image-based approach if believers are to be effective in communicating the gospel in our day. He may be on to something.
In our visually saturated culture today, the church (and the world) might be well served by God’s people recapturing some of the artistic passion we lost in the Reformation period. Ironically, though, Sweet makes his case for this approach whileusing words, a point even he is happy to concede. In class he once showed a few story-based commercials lacking anything verbal—until the very end when the company tag line appeared on the screen. “The story always ends with words,” he admitted.
Doctoral programs end with words, too—a lot of them—all carefully poured into a document we call the dissertation. They also feature spirited online interactions and residency conversations by students with vastly different backgrounds and viewpoints. We do well, then, to remember Proverbs 18:21a, which says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” The word “tongue” here is a metonymy for “words.” The proverb teaches that words have the power of life and death.
With our words we can unleash quarrels and traumatize people’s hearts. We can hurt people’s feelings and multiply their insecurities. We can consternate people and plunge them into despair. We can mislead people into danger and thrust them into war. Words have the power to kill.
On the other hand, with our words we can motivate people toward deeper thinking and loftier accomplishments. We can help heal the damage done to their wounded souls and restore their faith in God. We can share the good news of Jesus Christ and lead them to find peace in a chaotic world. We can talk them up from the emotional pits they’re in and talk them down from the suicidal ledges they’re on. Words have the power to give life.
While divine words can bring life into existence out of nothing, human words can bring life into existence out of people’s brokenness. It’s a privilege entrusted to every person of faith. How are we doing in this regard?
If an inventory of your words leaves you feeling down, just find someone to whom you can speak life this day. The journey of a thousand conversations begins with the first word. Make it a good one!
Image Credits: catholic.com; iStock.com.
 Tony Reinke, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 40-42.
I’ve often said to my friends at church, “The reason I preach long sermons is that I get paid by the word.” After the chuckling dies down, I’m usually haunted for a few moments by Solomon’s proverb, “When words are many, sin is not absent” (Prov 10:19a). As Eugene Peterson has famously said, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.” His call is for believers to cultivate the practice of integrity and winsomeness in our daily speech.
That call is echoed by Marilyn McEntyre, who writes, “Like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants.” Her mission is to motivate people “to be good stewards of language,” retrieving words from “the kinds of misuse, abuse, and distortion to which they’ve been subjected of late, and to reinvigorate them for use as bearers of truth and instruments of love.” In today’s polarized environment, that sounds like a good and necessary vision.
In the next few posts, I’ll try to tease out a mini-theology of words. I may even disclose some of those areas where I believe my own verbalizations still need improvement. By the grace of God, gone are the days when I was an immature high school swimmer “cussin’ with the best of ’em” on the pool deck and in the locker room. But, oh, there’s still a long way for me to go when it comes to my mouth! Even so, words start much deeper down, said Jesus, long before they ever vibrate across our vocal chords and flow past our lips (cf. Matt 12:34b). That’s why Warren Wiersbe used to say, “The tongue is a tattletale on the heart.”
So, it’s really our hearts that need extra doses of grace, not just our tongues. Can you relate?
 Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 54.
 Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 1.