Words I Hope I Never Hear Again
Some of these phrases are worse than overused and stale; they are detrimental to a life of faith and have no place in our teaching, worship, and spiritual development.
Editor’s note: This begins a multi-part series by Bro. David Levin. He challenges us, rightly, to consider some of the phrases and cliches we often hear in our community, especially those that may lead to unscriptural or unhealthy conclusions.
Words, like actions, have consequences. Words spoken to a group, such as a Bible class or Sunday worship service, convey the speaker’s intent and also have the consequence of contributing to and maintaining the cultural norms of that group. The repeated use of any expression implies that the use of that locution is part of what it means to exhort, give announcements, pray, teach, or preside.
People repeat what they hear; young people raised on a steady diet of standard pulpit speech and Sunday School aphorisms will no doubt come to use those same terms when they assume teaching, presiding and speaking roles. Thus the repeated phrases eventually develop into stock phrases that have been implicitly taught as the proper speech and mannerisms when exhorting, giving announcements, praying, teaching, or presiding.
repeated phrases eventually develop into stock phrases
The result is the perpetuation of certain stock phrases—even when they’re clearly unsound. These are the “words” to which the title of this series refers: phrases that have become entrenched in our vocabulary but upon inspection or reflection, are shown to be wrested Scriptures, misquotes, or some other form of unspiritual wordings.
Cultural perfusion can only explain how these various phrases and formulations became standard and accepted in our community. Uncritical repetition also plays a large role. True, people repeat what they hear, and if they don’t think about what they say, it just goes in and comes right back out again. Some of our jargon is not obviously wrong, but upon inspection, the unscriptural and/or spiritually unhealthy meaning comes to light.
Besides cultural perfusion and uncritical repetition, a third factor is a legalistic bent to express religious life in terms of behavioral strictures and Bible knowledge. That’s no surprise, seeing how the tendency to live by rules and procedures rather than faith is always a significant challenge for believers.
Because these sayings are so prevalent, calling for their elimination might seem draconian and pretentious, but that is exactly my purpose. The more they are used, the harder it is to see that they’re misbegotten formulations. Some of these phrases are worse than overused and stale; they are detrimental to a life of faith and have no place in our teaching, worship, and spiritual development.
My main goal, however, is not so much to retire certain phrases but to raise awareness of the responsibility each teacher, speaker, and presider has to evaluate the words that he or she uses carefully.
The format for each phrase this series investigates is framed by three questions: What’s wrong with it? What’s at stake? How can it be repaired or improved? A discussion follows, expanding on key issues and addressing related phrases or themes.
“Wise unto salvation.”
I chose this one for the primary example because it is so obviously wrong, so much is at stake, and it’s easily corrected. This phrase often arises in prayers, in writing, or in classes.
What’s wrong with it? “Wise unto salvation” is a textbook example of wrested Scripture. It is an incomplete phrase that omits the real basis of salvation. The Bible teaches us that salvation is a matter of faith, not our wisdom or book knowledge. Paul reminded Timothy (2 Tim 3:15-17) that from his youth Timothy had known the holy Scriptures, which are “able to make you wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Omitting “through faith in Christ Jesus” is an unconscionable misspeak.
This situation is exactly the sort of biblical misuse that any of us pounces on when we hear it in support of erroneous teaching.
What’s at stake? A lot. The truncated phrase, “wise unto salvation,” plays into a Christadelphian tradition that emphasizes an academic approach (Bible knowledge) as the principal goal of religion. “The Truth” (a phrase to be dealt with later) becomes a matter of “knowing the right things” and “combatting error,” rather than developing a trusting relationship with God and Jesus.
In at least one critical way, “wise unto salvation” opposes faith in that the focus becomes you and your dedication to Bible study rather than your trust in God.
How can it be stated better? Use the whole verse, emphasizing “through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Discussion: Bible schools, Bible classes, study days, and lectures dominate our religious life. “Faith” is supposed to grow incidentally as a result of learning about the Bible. Exposition is indeed valuable when it’s in service to a spiritual lesson, but all too often, the exposition is the entrée, with just a side of spiritual application.
Paul warned the Corinthians about reliance on academic knowledge.
“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2 ESV). Paul knew a lot more than that, obviously, but what he meant was that the wisdom of God was manifested in a life of selflessness and trust in God, and God’s power over death, proven in the resurrection. There is less cultural difference between us and what led to Paul’s admonishing the Corinthians than you might want to acknowledge.
The core of the problem is the same: creating academic arguments and wanting to appear knowledgeable becomes the currency of religion and faith. In our day, it’s more likely to be a deep understanding of the atonement, prophetic matters, or the writings of revered authors than it is to be Greek philosophy, but the principle is exactly the same.
Also, 2 Timothy 2:15 belongs in this discussion: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God.” Ironically, if you study the word “study,” you will find that it doesn’t mean “study,” but rather “be studious,” in the sense of “be diligent,” which was the meaning of “study” at the time of the KJV translation. All the main current versions (ASV, NIV, RSV, NASB, ESV, NKJV) have “be diligent” or “do your best.” Unfortunately, this verse is still misused to propagate the “salvation by knowledge” agenda.
I do not denigrate Bible study. I like to delve deeply into the forms and structure of Biblical Hebrew. I have no cavil with the desire to learn about God’s word. That’s not the point of this article. What the point is that far too often, the emphasis on Bible exposition, for the sake of Bible exposition, is worse than putting the cart ahead of the horse. It loses the cart entirely. Only the horse matters, not what it is there to do.
Moreover, the “Bible knowledge = faith” perspective contributes greatly to, if not directly causes, divisions and strife. The Bible is not a source for debate, winning arguments, or flouting your knowledge of Scripture.
No amount of Bible knowledge will make you wise unto salvation. Wisdom is knowing that salvation is a matter of your living faith, and that faith is not reducible to how much you know about the Bible or how well-marked your Bible is.
The misquote “wise unto salvation” reflects and maintains an abhorrent perspective.
Denver Ecclesia, CO