Occasionally I find myself in a conversation with a non-Christian friend. Sometimes, I have to pay close attention to the language I use if the talk turns to things related to God and ultimate reality. I do the same when I talk to my children about Bible things. I want to be understood, but the normal Christian terms are a foreign language to many people, Christians included. The terms are difficult to use when they don’t communicate.
We are moving in the West further along this path as a post-Christian culture. No longer are Christian terms and biblical concepts commonplace. Most people are not familiar with the story of Job, or Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. It is ironic that so many Americans claim to be Christians, attend churches, and value the Bible while so few are able to recount the Ten Commandments. Things have changed; meanings that once were common in the culture have become rare in the minds of many people.
The shrinking of biblical and theological knowledge in the American culture has also occurred in evangelical churches. Whatever the level of Bible reading and meditation was in earlier generations before now, it seems that the current levels are low. This means that we retain culturally the frameworks and vocabulary of Christianity while having lost touch with their substance. In other words, people can still talk like Christians as in a masquerade (but they don’t know they’re in costume). Newer Christians can even adopt the language of mature experience with God, though they have not been there personally.
English Bible translations have unintentionally helped to drive a wedge between Christian substance and the language of everyday conversation and thought. I find myself frequently having to adjust words and insert definitional phrases for words that I’m pretty sure my children don’t understand when we read the Bible. Certainly we must continue to use large words that carry theological weight: propitiation, justification, atonement, righteousness, regeneration, trinity, incarnation, and redemption (among others I can’t think of right now). Each of these stands for a definite doctrinal teaching of the Bible that must be explained, grasped, and repeated using special terminology. I don’t think that other terms will do for describing these realities of salvation and God.
The terms that are distinctly religious but don’t seem to communicate any longer are a distinct category that causes me concern. These words are repeated in Christian songs and discourse regularly. Many times I stop and ask myself what the term really means. I ask students what they mean when they say, for example, “It’s for God’s glory.” I reply: “What do you mean by glory?” They don’t have a clue. They really mean that that the event or decision in question somehow serves God’s purposes. If so, then let’s just say that. My concern is that we have settled for using as jargon the Christian terminology because it seems rightly religious, not because we understand or intend the actual meanings these terms stand for.
My list of seven troublesome words and brief explanations is below, with suggested alternatives. Feel free to consider them for yourself and wonder about the continuing usefulness of these terms that most non-Christians have no idea what we’re talking about. Many Christians are foggy on the meaning as well. This is an appeal for clarity in our communication.
1. Exalt, exalted
I had an idea of this, but I had to confirm it with the dictionary. Why? Because people don’t use “exalt” in conversation about anything unless they are talking about a biblical passage or some topic close to a Christian activity. The word is a strong verb, but the coincidence of using it only for religious talk makes it seem like a religious term. Use of terms in a religious way drives a separation between “normal life” and our thoughts and actions as Christians. Instead of using “exalt” in our songs just because the Bible translations use it, we may do better to say “lift up” or “honor” because these are commonly understandable terms for the same idea “exalt” functions today.
2. Bless, blessed, blessing
I love the idea. The English word comes from blood, as in consecration through sacrifice. In different contexts the meaning may be “happiness” or “to please” or blessings that are “good things.” Is “blessed” different from the normal condition of “happy”? Only Christians use the word because there is a religious background to it in biblical translation. Webster’s Dictionary opened my eyes to the levels of meaning I had no idea about with this word: “1. to make or declare holy by a spoken formula or a sign; hallow; consecrate; 2. to ask divine favor for; 3. to favor or endow; 4. to make happy or prosperous; gladden; 6. to praise or glorify”; etc. We may need to use rich phrases instead of the shorthand of one word: “I want to please God,” “God has done so much good for me,” “God has filled up my satisfaction,” “I desire the best for her,” “May God care for you today.” (Incidentally, the word we have reduced to “bye” and “goodbye” came from the richer “God be with you.”)
3. Glory, glorify
The term is all over the Bible, our songs, our conversation. The OT term has the idea of “to be heavy,” as in the weightiness of God’s love and demonstration of his power. The NT term has ideas of “shining light, splendor, honor, praise, to show the truth.” It’s often similar to praise, but praise is usually done about someone else, while “glorify” is something God may demonstrate about Himself by doing something grand. As substitutes, I suggest we can say: “When God’s people make sacrifices, it shows the truth about God, that He is worthy of these sacrifices,” “They saw the truth about Jesus when He was transfigured.”
I don’t think I’ve ever said this word except when reading aloud the biblical text. I think it means “Look!” or “Here” in most cases. Why don’t we just say that, or “pay attention!” “Look at this!”
In biblical usage grace is related to “gift,” both in the undeserved favor we have with God because of Jesus (including forgiveness and righteousness), and the unearned empowerment of God’s presence and action in our lives. Grace is sometimes an operative power (a veiled reference to the Holy Spirit). Grace is mostly a work of God towards us, and not so much a work we do towards others. Sadly, Christians seem to use “grace” in the way the culture has taken over the term to mean, “let me slide here.” Banks offer a “grace period.” I would prefer that we retrieve the biblical meaning of “grace” and separate this usage from merely “forgiveness” or “give me a break here” or “love” that the term has come to mean.
6. Sin, sinful, sinners
I saw a fingernail polish label “Sinful Colors” and realized how empty the term sin has become for our culture. Some Christians are still uncomfortable with the term, so they talk of their “sins” as “mistakes” or they say, “I messed up.” When I thought about everyday language that fit what the Bible actually means by “sin” I settled on “failure” and “crime.” Both of these alternative terms make sense to non-Christians and Christians alike. Since we are a culture that is far removed from target-metaphors drawn from spears, slings, and archery, maybe it’s time for an update. Our “sins” are crimes against God and other people. We have a rap sheet that makes us felons before God (if we are apart from Jesus). I like crimes because the term has revulsion to it. It’s also less easy to label lying as a “little crime” the way we might do with saying “little sins” as in the term peccadillos. No, when I lied, I committed a crime; I am a criminal. I think everyone understands that severity better than the terms “sinner” and “sinful” that are mostly religious (and meaningless to many people).
7. Holy, holiness
I love the terms. I think the concept is really large in the Bible and theology, much bigger than what most of us intend when we throw the term around in songs and aspirations. I think we usually intend the idea of “moral purity” when Christians say “holy.” As with other terms on my list, holy probably conveys little or no meaning to the non-Christian. The concept is based on the absolute otherness, uniqueness, and separateness of God from us in all ways. Being the Holy One, God is the only one who is God. God’s otherness and differentness includes separation and purity from evil. The way we use holy, in my limited observations of songs and discourse, rarely fits the biblical usage. I say we retrieve the fullness of the biblical meaning and intend that. Otherwise, when we mean to say “morally pure,” we could just say “righteous” or “good” or “morally pure.” Holy means so much more than what we intend by it; we risk cheapening the concept through casual and slipshod usage.
That’s my list of seven terms that I think need closer attention in how we use them. I appeal for the sake of non-Christians, and for newer Christians. Let not the jargon sweep us away. Additional terms are discipleship, sovereign, praise, hallelujah, hosanna, free will, and headship.
Have you ever felt like a failure? Inadequate? Ineffectual? Have you ever examined your heart and glimpsed sin and darkness and defeat? I have. It is discouraging and demoralizing. It makes me wonder what God sees in me. There is no doubt that I am a flawed vessel. But does that mean that I am a useless vessel?
Sometimes we try to get around our weaknesses by denying them. Other times we tell ourselves that if we just try harder ... buck up ... pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, then we will succeed; then we will experience victory and conquer the darkness. But these are not the answers I see in Scripture.
In 2 Corinthians 4:6–7, Paul affirms that the treasure of the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus” shines in our hearts, which inherently contain darkness. Yet we have this treasure in “jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” The place to start, then, is acknowledging that we are frail and damaged—jars of clay that are cracked and worn and easily broken. Weakness is not to be denied. Nor are we to overcome it ourselves. Rather, weakness is to be embraced. Paul actually takes pleasure in and boasts about his infirmities (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). We must recognize the darkness that dwells in our hearts and our failure and inability to overcome it ourselves.
But once acknowledged and recognized, this darkness and these weaknesses become conduits for the brilliant light and overwhelming power of God. The light of God’s glory that shines through the face of Christ can overcome the darkness that lurks in our hearts. His light overpowers and then shines out of our darkness. And the reason Paul takes pleasure in his infirmities is because it is in his weakness that God’s power and strength are made perfect (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). It is because we are frail and feeble jars of clay that any successes or victories more clearly shine as displays of the efficacy of God and the results of the staggering strength of God. They emanate from the surpassing power of God, and not from any inherent strength of our own.
If we wait until we are perfect, until we fix all our cracks, to offer ourselves to God, then we will never do so. But if we offer ourselves to God with all of our frailties and flaws, our damage and darkness, his light will permeate our cracks and then shine through them. He will overcome our brokenness with his strength. We remain jars of clay, but jars of clay are particularly appropriate vessels to highlight the glorious power of God, as they have none of their own.
The refrain in a poem entitled “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen expresses these truths in a particularly evocative and eloquent way:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Robert Saucy, distinguished professor of systematic theology at Talbot, just released the new book, Minding the Heart: The Way of Spiritual Transformation. He kindly took some time to answer a few questions about the book.
How would you briefly summarize your new book, Minding the Heart?
The book is about how Christians can grow in the abundant life that Jesus offered. In the broad sense it seeks to unpack the truth of Proverbs 4:23: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of iife.”
After explaining that salvation in Christ is more than forgiveness and giving a picture of the abundant life which we can experience in spiritual growth, the book first considers the kind of heart that God desires for us compared to our natural sinful heart. It then goes on to explain the nature of the heart, how it functions, and how it changes. Next, what God does and what we must do for heart change is discussed along with how believing community is involved. The work concludes with a theological overview of the nature of genuine spiritual growth.
In sum, I think that the book is designed to answer a comment I once received from a young woman after speaking on the power of love and the fact that we are called to love as God loved us. In a very sincere tone, the young woman said, “We often hear sermons like this that tell us what we should do. But no one tells us how to do it.” Unfortunately, from my experience I had to agree. Thus, in the final sense, this book is designed to answer that concern, to tell people what Scripture says on how to do it—how to grow spiritually and experience more of God’s abundant life.
Who is your target audience and how will they benefit from reading the book?
I wanted to write the book for those who truly had a desire to grow in the Christian life, those who hungered for more than forgiveness of sins and waiting for heaven for change, those who believed that growth in the experience of God could begin even now in this life. I hope also that church leaders and others who seek to disciple and help others in their Christian walk would find this work useful. Although it is written with some depth, it is designed as a practical “how to” work which I believe any believer could understand and profit from.
What led you to write the book? How does this book relate to your previous scholarship? And how does it intersect with your classroom teaching at Talbot?
The instigation of this work involved the confluence of my studies and teaching at Talbot and my personal spiritual hunger. For many years I had the opportunity to team teach a class on human nature with a psychologist. The readings which the psychologist assigned stimulated me to see things in Scripture that I had not seen or read in systematic theology works on sanctification. And these things were essentially related to what Scripture said about the heart. This stimulated me to do biblical research in this area which I continued to use in my regular systematic theology classes when we came to the subject of spiritual growth. On the more personal level, I think that I was like many believers who thought there should and could be more in terms of living an “abundant life” and actually “knowing” or experiencing God. Thus, I thoroughly enjoyed the studying and learning of the material of this work and received great personal blessing from doing so.
Is the "spiritual transformation" you talk about in the book the same thing as "Spiritual Formation" (as in, Biola's Institute for Spiritual Formation)? How are they related and/or how are they different?
To me, the “spiritual formation” that I talk about is essentially the same as the “Spiritual Formation” in Biola’s Institute for Spiritual Formation in the sense that both are seeking to understand the nature of spiritual growth and how it takes place. (Of course, the program of spiritual formation in the Institute goes on to include the actual practice of the means of growth whereas my book can only encourage that necessary element of growth.) As an instructor in theology, I take this to be much like what has usually been called the present process of “sanctification.” I should note, however, that in some distinction from much contemporary spiritual formation which includes many elements from ancient church practice, my focus in this work is on what the Scripture teaches through instruction and example regarding Christian growth.
How does one "mind" the heart? What is the relationship between the habits of our mind and the habits of our hearts?
Briefly, “minding” the heart is another way of expressing the exhortation of the writer of Proverbs: “watch over your heart with all diligence.” How we do this is essentially the content of the book, so I can only sketch the key elements: (1) know your heart as the source of your life experiences—attitudes and actions, and recognize its need for change. (2) Live with an honest open heart to our self and above all to God. We don’t fully know the contents of our heart and even try to hide some things both from ourself and foolishly from God who fully knows our heart. (3) Continually receive God and his changing power into our hearts through the means that Scripture teaches. (4) Let God’s word, through which he communicates himself, touch all of our heart—intellect, emotion, and behavior. (5) Be aware of what we take into our heart and what we let slip out. Reject toxic materials; treasure the good. Our heart is who we are, so we become what are heart takes in and treasures.
It is sometimes difficult to explain the relation of the habits of the mind to the habits of the heart without being misunderstood. One reason for this difficulty is no doubt because according the Scripture our mind (intellect), emotions, and will or volition are all capacities of the heart and they are designed to be united so that there is a mutual relationship among them—each affect the others. However, Scripture clearly teaches that the primary entrance into this triad is through the mind or intellectual capacity of the heart, e.g. “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2).
Perhaps the crucial issue in spiritual transformation is ridding the heart of the lies of Satan and the world system and incorporating the truth of God. Hence, the importance of the Word of God and its creative power in the Bible, and thus the capacity to hear the word (i.e., through the mind). In the final sense the condition of our heart is directly related to what we really believe in the depth of our heart—God’s truth or lies.
What are the biggest takeaways readers should expect from this book?
My hope for the readers of this work is that they would be encouraged to grow spiritually and experience more of the abundant life of love, joy, peace, etc. that is their possession in Christ. As the fountain of this encouragement, I believe the reader will more clearly understand what is going on in their daily attitudes and actions—i.e., why they feel and behave as they do, and that they will know the way that God has provided for life change through heart change. In short, the readers will know the basics of how spiritual life works and how to actually work it through a real relationship with the powerful living God.
People often get up-tight when they first learn of the existence of variations in the text of the Greek New Testament, but their concerns are baseless. The text of the New Testament is far-and-away the most attested and stable text of any ancient document. In fact, if you question the stability of the text of the New Testament, you probably ought to disregard just about everything you think you know about ancient history, since almost all the important historical manuscripts from which such history is derived are from copies that are far later and of far poorer quality than are our New Testament manuscripts.
I recently discovered a convenient way to demonstrate this!
For my birthday this past year my wife gave me the recently published: The UBS Greek New Testament: Reader’s Edition with Textual Notes. I was delighted to finally own a Greek Bible that included definitions of infrequently used Greek words alongside of textual notes (notes that display variations among Greek manuscripts and that list some of the important manuscripts that form the basis for the text we use for translating). But when I opened the book for the first time, I was surprised (and, I’ll be honest, somewhat disappointed) to find only a few textual notes—far fewer than I expected. It turns out that the editors made a conscious decision to only include variants that they deemed important for the meaning of a text. I’ll let them describe what they did in their own words:
“Compared to the NA27 and the UBS4, the edition at hand focuses on places where variants from the reading of the USB4 signifantly impact the meaning of the text” (p. 11*).”
Before I make my big point in this post, please allow the sentence I just cited to teach you something about textual criticism. Some of you think that I just made two scribal mistakes while typing in that quote. (Did you catch them?) No, those two mistakes are actually in the printed text of the volume—a volume published by text critics no less! (Ouch…) The two printed mistakes are “USB4” (instead of “UBS4”) and the spelling of the word “signifantly” (instead of “significantly”).
But to read that sentence, you yourself had to do a bit of impromptu textual criticism! So at this point let me ask you a question: How much did those two variants impact your understanding of the meaning of the sentence? You probably understood the sentence without difficulty (and perhaps didn’t even notice the UBS4/USB4 difference the first time you read it). The types of changes found in this English sentence are analogous to the vast majority of textual variants found among New Testament manuscripts.
Now to the main point of this post… The editors of the Greek New Testament my wife bought me for my birthday (and there are no better editors than this group!) claim that the only variants that they included are the ones that significantly impact the meaning of the text. In other words, they don’t think that other variants significantly impact the meaning of the text. So they have gathered together in this volume the ones they consider the important ones.
And what do you discover when you actually look at the “significant” differences? You discover how stable our text really is! Following is a list of every variant found in 1 Corinthians 1 that the editors of this volume deemed important for determining the meaning of the text. (I have translated them into English for you.)
1:14 “I give thanks to God that…” / “I give thanks to my God that…” / “I give thanks that…”
2:1 “while proclaiming to you the mystery of God” / “while proclaiming to you the testimony of God” (“mystery” and “testimony” look very similar in Greek)
5:5 “in the day of the Lord” / “in the day of the Lord Jesus” / “in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” / “in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”
7:15 “God has called you in peace” / “God has called us in peace” (“you” and “us” are extremely close in Greek)
10:9 “Nor let us test Christ” / “Nor let us test the Lord” / “Nor let us test God”
11:24 “This is my body that is for you” / “This is my body that is broken for you” / “This is my body that is broken [different word] for you”
13:3 “And if I give my body that I might boast” / “And if I give my body that I will be burned” / “And if I give my body that I might be burned” (The difference between these three variants is a single letter.)
14:34-35 These two verses are sometimes included after verse 40 instead of in the position found in most manuscripts, but there is no significant change to it.
14:38 “But if anyone disregards, he is disregarded” / “But if anyone disregards, let him be disregarded” (same word, different tense)
15:49 “we will bear the image of the heavenly one” / “let us bear the image of the heavenly one” (one letter difference, and they sound almost identical)
That’s it! That’s every significant variant in 1 Corinthians. I remember my father coining the word “underwhelmed” when I was a child. Are you feeling underwhelmed at this moment? You should be. That’s the point.
If you exclude from the wider discussion the two longer passages that seem to create the most discussion among my students (John 8 and the Mark 16), and a handful of other passages in the New Testament that are a bit more important, you have just gotten for yourself a glimpse into the kind and quality of the so-called “significant” New Testament variants.
So when maverick scholars attempt to convince you that the Greek text underlying the New Testament that you read, love, and strive to obey is unstable, you probably shouldn’t take them very seriously. God has marvelously preserved His Word. The UBS Greek New Testament: Readers Edition with Textual Notes offers us a convenient way to demonstrate that such a claim is true.
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