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.