How Important are Christian Words?

"Words, words, words."

“Words, words, words.”

The email came back with four words that jumped off the page: “Nothing preachy; nothing churchy.”

The email was from a church to our church. The content had to do with a consortium of churches organizing for an outreach to the city. The outreach was an Easter egg hunt for children at a local park.

An Easter outreach.

Easter.

The distinctive claim of Christianity, indeed the absolute center of the gospel, is that Christ has risen from the grave, overruling death, hell, sin and the grave. Without this miraculous blessing, we would be the most miserable people on the planet. We wouldn’t have Easter without Christmas, but the point of Christmas is Easter. The point of the Incarnation is the Resurrection.

The words “incarnation,” and “resurrection” aren’t just words to mark the seasons of the year. They represent massive doctrinal truths on which Christianity stands. They are as important as “predestination,” “redemption,” “justification,” “sanctification,” “glorification,” “repentance,” and “faith.” Can you imagine a conversation about the gospel without intelligently using such words?

Why are words so important to the church? Recently, I read this from a David Mathis blog:

Before printing it and binding it and covering it with leather, consider the concept of God’s word. That God speaks. He reveals himself to us. He communicates himself for us. His word, as John Frame says, is ‘his powerful, authoritative self-expression.’ Just as the words of a friend are central in revealing his person to us, so it is with God.

When God speaks, he uses words to tell us what’s on his mind (Heb 1:1-4). He sustains us, and all things, by his word. Everything began with words, and everything will culminate in God speaking. His words surround us all day long: “Day to day pours out speech . . . There is no speech, nor are there words whose voice is not heart. Their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.” (Ps 19:2, 3). That’s a good thing because we are flooded by unimportant, trivial and meaningless words all day long, too. Your radio station’s four minute commercial break speaks those words.

Christians are people who read the word. We have Bibles that tells us what was on God’s mind at various points in salvation history. The Bible’s greatest word is Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. The words that Jesus spoke were and are “life and spirit.” The words that we speak can build up, tear down, give life or death, be a tree of life or a poison to the soul.

No doubt, we live in a digital visual age. Yet, as I look at this screen, I see words. These words originated in my heart in sometimes inarticulate or confusing ways, travel “up” to my brain where one side (I’m never sure if it’s the right or left) formulated words to give expression to (one hopes) articulate thoughts and arguments. Out came words. Sometimes they poured out; sometimes they failed me.

Words communicate more than information. They convey meaning. We are meaning-making people and we explain the meaning of our worlds with words. Words influence others and shape cultures. If you live in Minnesota, you know the meaning of “Uff-da” when uttered by an exasperated mom of four toddlers. If you’re in the bowels of Manhattan and you overhear someone say “fuggedaboutit,” you know it’s time to move on. If you ever had a Jewish friend say “Oy gevalt” you know you are about to be the recipient of some nasty kvetching.

These words, like many others, arise from a culture, a worldview and the words sustain both.

So, when I read that our church people had to avoid “preachy” or “churchy” words, I pondered a larger question: what might happen to our distinctive worldview and particular culture; and the church is a peculiar people, isn’t it? “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).

That is not to say that we should talk to each other or unbelievers in KJVese. After all, we have newer translations that make the Bible more accessible than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Yet, even in the new translations, you will still find words like “predestination” or “redemption.”

Distinctly Christian words rescue people from darkness and bring them into light (a distinctive and useful Christian metaphor for salvation), and shape a distinctly Christian culture and the unique people of that culture. The church has conversations about sanctification and holiness and sin and repentance because we really live in the meanings of these words every day. They are a necessary part of our common experience as God’s people.

So, when I hear that Christians are invited to join an outreach effort prompted by the most distinctive event in salvation history, but are to “stifle it” (in the words of the late Archie Bunker), I wonder what we might have left to say? Surely, the word “Easter” is not a biblical word, but resurrection is; substitutionary sacrifice is; atonement is. Are not these important words to explain the meaning of Easter? Yes, they need further explanation to unbelievers (and sometimes to believers!). But the further explanations open up the privilege of unpacking (in words) the gospel that saves precious souls.

 

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