Using Biblical Language

There exists a disturbing trend among Christians today to forsake the Word of God for a secular counterfeit. Now, I am not talking about paying more heed to pop psychologists, celebrities, and other ill-suited mentors than to expositing Scripture (though that may be true). I am speaking instead of our preference for faddish jargon rather than the eternal Word—seemingly innocuous, but devastatingly dangerous.


A few examples may prove the point.


Evangelicals often speak of “accepting Christ” when describing the conversion experience. The human-centeredness of this language notwithstanding (cf. Acts 13:48), there are other serious drawbacks to these extra-biblical words. Presumably one would only have to accept Christ one time (the moment when we “get saved”). This leads to errors in evangelism especially, trying to get people to “pray the prayer” or “walk the aisle”—as if these had saving significance—rather than calling them to lives of repentance and belief, as Jesus did (cf. Mark 1:15). The greatest danger in speaking of accepting Christ is the false assurance it brings. One might “accept Christ” in the flesh for a time, but fail to repent and believe genuinely. Such people do not need to hear false assurance—“once saved, always saved”—but instead need to be called to true repentance and faith. This is not a one-time choice, but lifestyle decisions: a daily dying to self and living in and for Christ. That is biblical.


Or consider a less common example. Recently I have had several conversations with colleagues at the school where I serve about professionalism among the staff. Already issues arise, as professionalism is not a biblical term. The assumption seems to be that we should be striving for excellence professionally because we are working as for the Lord (Colossians 3:23). Now, it may be that working for the Lord will drive us to excellence, but is the connection self-evident? Are striving for excellence and professionalism better terms to use than biblical counterparts? I suspect not. As Christians we are called to obey our masters (which corresponds pretty nearly to employers) with “sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (Colossians 3:22). While this sort of faithful service and professionalism undoubtedly overlap at several points, they are hardly coterminous. Professionalism and striving for excellence may carry with them humanistic notions of workaholism, idolatry, perfectionism, at least in the minds of some Christian professionals. To these we are not called. But to faithful service—to work with integrity, wholeheartedly as for the Lord himself—we are most certainly. We may eliminate much of the confusion by using precise biblical language rather than the language of the lost and idolatrous.


Closely related to this problem is the tendency to use biblical language unbiblically. Again, abuses abound. For example, many times I have heard Christians pray, “Lord, we declare healing for this person today.” We may cast aside the issue of guaranteed healing for the moment and focus instead on the word “declare”—a transparently biblical term, with almost five hundred occurrences in the NIV. The assumption seems to be that we may declare God’s promises over someone’s life in order to claim them. But this is not how this word is used in Scripture. The overwhelming majority of occurrences appear in the phrase “declares the LORD”—not in the declaration of his people. When his people do declare something, it is uniformly the goodness of God or the truths of his gospel (e.g., Psalm 96:3; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 6:20). We plead with God in prayer, seeking his will and purposes (cf. Mark 14:36; 1 John 5:14-15); we do not claim uncertain promises with undue authority.


At another time I read a prayer letter from a fellow missionary asking for greater “anointing” on her ministry. Presumably this missionary wished to have greater empowerment from the Spirit in her service for the kingdom. But this is not how the term is used biblically. The only New Testament occurrences come in 1 John 2:20-27. (The other instance, in Hebrews 1:9, is a quote from the Psalter.) The term there refers unambiguously to the Holy Spirit received at conversion. Indeed, the contrast drawn in these verses is between those who are genuinely in Christ and those who are not. All Christians have received the same anointing—an important point to make considering the tendency to establish a two-tier Christianity. It would have been far better had our missionary used the language of Ephesians 5:18—being “filled with the Spirit”—which expresses our need to be in step and empowered by his presence repeatedly, continuously in our lives.


I could multiply examples, of course, but hopefully this lends clarity to the importance of using biblical language biblically. We do not want to misuse the Word of God, nor do we want to neglect it in favor of a secular counterfeit. We want our words to honor him and edify one another. Precision in our speech reflects precision in our thinking—a worthy aspiration. “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).

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