Vol.XIX No.VI Pg.2
August 1982

Striving About Words

Robert F. Turner

A well-known preacher was closing his sermon with a plea concerning the "sovereign grace" of God. I think he had no more in mind than "grace," but being familiar with the classic theological expression I wondered, momentarily, if he had embraced a doctrine that denies free moral agency. That's what word association can do for us.

If you are well read in the John Wesley concept of the "second work of grace" (or his "sanctification") you may want to censor many of the songs we commonly sing. Their nomenclature is there — why not, since they wrote many of our hymns — but we cannot fairly charge all who sing the words with accepting the doctrine they were intended to convey. Blissfully ignorant of the original thought, we may assign some poetic meaning, and worship "in spirit and truth."

What I'm saying is semantics plays a big and frequently unrecognized part in some of our "issues." Multiple reports from a recent debate can be summed as "They believed the same thing on most points, but said it differently, and refused to budge a syllable." Some have adopted terminology from the Calvinistic material they read, and insist upon saying it that way, even though careful examination shows they do not accept the ideas the Calvinist expressed in those ways. On the other hand, brethren have developed their own way of saying it, and woe to him who changes words.

True, our terminology may indicate what we are feeding into our mind. We may be unaware of what we are saying to a Presbyterian, or a Humanist, because they hear our words with the connotation their writers have given. All the more reason to beware "the language of Ashdod." But sometimes "our" way of saying things is more "Church of Christ" than scriptural — as "church" terms are not infallible.

Is it too much to ask that we compare ideas (tested via "other" words) before jumping on one another? If one says we are justified by faith, does he mean "faith only" or does he mean what Paul meant (Rom. 5:1)? We might ask, "What do you mean by 'sovereign grace'?" and discover he just said it because he read it somewhere, and had no particular "doctrine" in mind. The "trigger happy" writer shoots at each rattle in the bush because he is inexperienced, lacks "cool", or is out to "get" someone. There is no excuse for the later, and he could correct the former by applying Matt. 7:12.

Fight error, but "strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearer" (2 Tim. 2:14).