In this article, we want to address the accurate usage of words and how precise language keeps our thinking sharp and preserves our freedom in Christ. The critical difference between truth and error, something vital to every aspect of our existence, often boils down to a question of the definition of words, and whether or not we are using the words accurately. God, the Creator of man, invented words as the vehicle by which He communicates His heart to man, and also the link between any two or more human beings. In His Word, God set the standard for the meticulous usage of words, those incredibly versatile combinations of letters that have throughout history inspired death-defying acts of heroism, won the love of fair maidens, inflamed the hearts of patriots, given hope to the hopeless, and evoked the full range of human emotion, from boundless and unrestrained joy to unmitigated misery. Words is grate, ain’t them?
When it comes to the usage of words, nothing could be more important than using words the way God does in His Word. Psalms 12:6 emphasizes how precisely the Author of authors uses man’s words to communicate “…all things that pertain unto life and godliness….” We especially like E. W. Bullinger’s translation of this verse: “The words of the LORD are pure words, As silver tried in a furnace, words of earth [i.e., man’s words], Purified seven times.” It is vital that we who are Christians do all we can to recognize, utilize, and preserve the distinctions found in the biblical usage of words. This is part of what it means to be a “workman” of God’s Word.
Since Genesis, Chapter Three, Satan’s primary target has been the Word of God. Realizing that the Word of God is composed of the words of God, the Devil has assaulted language in order to cripple the communication lines between God and man, and among men. He influences popular culture to move the meanings of key words away from their biblical usage. Usually, the meanings degenerate or become watered down as time goes by. As an illustration, “terrible” once meant “awesome,” but it now means “very bad.” When you are looking up a word, it is often profitable to look at the archaic definition of it.
For example, Christians today often speak of an “accusation” as if it were always inherently evil. In fact, an accusation can be either godly or ungodly. In John 5:45, Jesus said that the Pharisees would one day be “accused” by the words of Moses, which at that time they did not believe. In 1 Timothy 5:19, Paul does not say never to bring an accusation against an elder. Rather, he sets forth the standard by which to do so: before two or three witnesses. The word “accusation” simply means “a calling to account,” which is the godly course of action whenever one recognizes evil. Thus we see that a distinction must be made between an “accusation” and a “false accusation” or ungodly judgment.
When we as Christians do not use words the way God uses them, the consequences can be spiritually, mentally and emotionally debilitating. Again citing the above example, not properly defining the word “accusation” could shut down iron-sharpening-iron dialogue that is indispensable for hearts-knit-together fellowship among believers.
In this same vein, consider the concept of “thinketh no evil,” a phrase found in the KJV in 1 Corinthians 13:5. Many people naively assume that this means they should never think that something another person says or does is evil. But how are we to call someone to account for behavior contrary to the Word if we can’t think about it first? Obviously, we have to look for a deeper meaning. We don’t have to look far, because the NIV translates this phrase as, “Love does not delight in evil….” The Amplified Bible reads: “…takes no account of the evil done to it—it pays no attention to a suffered wrong.” The NASB says: “…does not take into account a wrong suffered.”
In Christendom, it seems that every day another voice is added to the popular chorus that Christians should work to get along with each other at all costs, and that debating about “right doctrine” is either an exercise in futility or downright demonic. Please allow us to once again articulate the indispensable importance and practicality of sound teaching as it pertains to the practice of genuine Christianity.
The subtle difference between true teaching and false teaching is perhaps nowhere clearer than in Romans 4:19a. Since 1611, the KJV has read, “And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead….” From this statement, many have concluded that to not consider one’s negative circumstances is evidence of strong faith. It seems clear now that this teaching breeds denial, inaction and wishful thinking, rather than real faith. Later Bible versions corrected this error, acknowledging that the little word “not” is not in the text. The text reads, “he considered his own body now dead.” Abraham did not stick his head in the sand and foolishly deny reality. He chose to believe the promise of God rather than what his senses told him.
This “nit-picking” little word “not” completely negated the true meaning of the verse, not to mention one aspect of what the Bible teaches about the process of having faith. Accurately translated, the verse supports the true teaching that to consider the possibilities of one’s negative circumstances generates true faith. Real faith is generated within the crucible of evidence contrary to the senses. This is the difference between piety and godliness. Piety looks and sounds good, but it is dead wrong.
If Jesus was concerned about “every jot and tittle” of the Word, then it is not “nit-picking” for Christians to be concerned about the words of Scripture and what they mean to our lives. Yes, it is at times tedious, but rigorous examination is often necessary to “…rightly dividing the word of truth,” and only the truth can set us free.
Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend have written an excellent book called False Assumptions: Relief from 12 “Christian” Beliefs That Can Drive You Crazy (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1984). We want to mention two of these that have occurred to us also. Remember that uncovering these false assumptions requires a diligent search of the Scriptures. And please do not think that false teachings do no harm to people’s lives. Cloud and Townsend have made a career of counseling Christians out of the effects of wrong beliefs arrived at via wrong teachings.
The first assumption they address is: “It is selfish to have my needs met.” Often in response to depression, loneliness, financial pressure, etc., Christians are told, in effect: “Stop thinking about yourself and start thinking of others. Just as our Lord thought not of himself, but emptied himself for others, so you will find joy in self-sacrifice and service. Get off the pity pot. Repent of your self-absorption and find peace in sharing.” While there is much truth in these statements, the authors rightly point out that a distinction must be made between stewardship and selfishness. It is not selfishness to recognize the God-given responsibility to care for yourself and your family (See 1 Tim. 5:8).
We cannot successfully nor consistently give ourselves in service to others until we have demonstrated an ability to care for ourselves. 1 Timothy 3:5 reflects God’s concern that our service overflow from our application of godly principles in our family and home life first (cp. 1 Tim. 4:16). The Bible does not teach that we are to love our neighbor before ourselves, but as ourselves. Consider The Amplified Bible’s translation of Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you esteem and look upon and be concerned for not [merely] his own interests, but also each for the interests of others.” Again we see those pesky little words like “as” and “merely” getting in there to steer us away from the ditch and onto the right road. The currently popular teaching that Christians ought not to be too minutely concerned about the accuracy of the Scriptures is satanically inspired.
Here’s another good one from False Assumptions: “I just need to give it to the Lord.” Consider what the authors say:
Many Christians, however, adopt a passive attitude toward their spiritual and emotional growth, especially if they struggle with emotional pain, character weaknesses, life situations that need changing or dreams that need to be realized. Such Christians often have a “let go and let God” view of their healing and growth process.
In our teachings, we are continually emphasizing the reciprocal relationship between the believer and God. God will not do our part for us, but He will help and guide us if we are moving forward in obedience as best we know how. In a very real way, we are responsible to steward our salvation and our sanctification until we see the fruit manifested in our lives. To teach otherwise, that somehow “it’s all up to the Lord,” or some other equally pious platitude, is to keep God’s people in bondage to their circumstances.
Here are some other important distinctions that we believe are vital to delineate. In every case, they make the difference between truth and error in doctrine (i.e., teaching and belief), and between liberty and slavery in practice. We are using definitions from Webster’s Dictionary (1828 Edition) because of his commitment to biblical accuracy. In a few cases, we refer to The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) for its clarity.
Love vs. Sentimentality: Look at Eugene Peterson’s excellent rendering of Philippians 1:9-11 in The Message: “So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.” True love involves truth, judgment, and sometimes anger. It calls sinners to account for their disobedience, and sometimes rebukes them. Sentimentality wants everyone to feel good about everything (one of the idols of our liberal age, by the way).
Confidence vs. Arrogance: If we are afraid of being thought of as arrogant, we will be enslaved and restrained from a bold, robust, and boisterous faith. Arrogance is “giving oneself an undue degree of importance.” Confidence is defined as “an assurance of mind or firm belief in the integrity, stability, or veracity of another, or in the truth and reality of a fact.” Confidence and arrogance can be distinguished sometimes only in hindsight, because the difference between them is one of heart. Also, people who lack confidence will often judge confidence in others to be arrogance.
Conviction vs. Closed-mindedness: Conviction is “the state of being convinced or convicted by conscience.” Because we have convictions arrived at by our experience and study does not mean that we are “closed-minded.” The latter term means that we are unwilling to seriously consider another opinion. If our convictions come from honest inquiry and rational conclusions, we are not “closed-minded,” we’re just convinced otherwise. Sometimes we who have convictions are misjudged by those with whom we continue to disagree, who think that we aren’t listening or don’t care what they think. We may listen and care very much, but to agree against the convictions of our conscience is not a tenable option. In this vein we also distinguish between “listening” and “agreeing.” One may listen to you and understand your position, but cannot agree with you.
Exposing Error and Sin vs. Slander: An exposé is “an exposure or revelation of something discreditable” (AHD). Obviously, there must be a standard for what is creditable. Slander is “to defame; to injure by maliciously uttering a false report respecting one; to tarnish or impair the reputation of one by false tales, maliciously told or propagated.” There are two key words in this definition: “false” and “maliciously,” which means “with deliberate intention to injure.” In other words, to slander is to spread false information “with deliberate intention to injure.” Slander also involves character assassination such as attributing false motives to others.
Discernment vs. Judgment / Misjudgment: Ephesians 5:15 says that we are to walk “carefully” (Amplified) / “circumspectly” (KJV). We are not to naively believe everything we hear and see, but are to recognize that we are in a spiritual battle. We are to discern believers from unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14, et al.), what is godly from what is ungodly, the true from the false, the honest from the insincere, the pure of heart from the wicked. Matthew 7:1ff (KJV) says “judge not,” which is not referring to the fact of judgment but rather the standard of judgment. Is it the standard of the Word of God by which we judge, or is it by our own opinions and feelings? God’s Word calls us to judge and prove all things (John 7:24; 1 Cor. 6:5; 1 Thess. 5:21 – KJV, etc.).
Self-Defense vs. Defensiveness: Defensiveness is an attitude of heart in which one is quick to protect himself from attack. Self-defense is to answer the assault or attack once it is made. Paul made a defense (apologia) against his accusers. It is not selfish, wrong, or “defensive” to defend oneself against lies, misjudgments, false accusations, and rumors.
Emulation vs. Envy: Emulation is “an attempt to equal or excel others in that which is praise-worthy, without the desire of depressing others.” The desire to be like Christ and those who manifest his character is a good thing and can be done without wishing them failure. Envy is “the pain, uneasiness, mortification, or discontent excited by the sight of another’s superiority or success, accompanied with some degree of hatred or malignity, and often or usually with a desire or an effort to depreciate the person, and with pleasure in seeing him depressed. Envy springs from pride, ambition, or love, mortified that another has obtained what one has a strong desire to possess.”
Talking About Others vs. Gossip: AHD: Gossip is “trifling [of slight importance], often groundless rumor, usually of a personal, sensational or intimate nature; idle talk.” Gossip is therefore to be distinguished from witnessed facts or issues of importance that affect the common good of a community. It is certainly not to be applied to any time one talks about others outside of their hearing. This would result in a cumbersome and restrictive situation wherein one couldn’t speak about another without first requesting his permission. Such a false definition also restricts the interplay of free minds in the pursuit of truth.
Humility vs. Lack of Confidence: Humility is “a deep sense of one’s own unworthiness in the sight of God, self-abasement, penitence for sin and submission to the divine will.” Lack of confidence often stems from not believing what God says. One’s submission to Divine will is evidenced by his obedience and boldness to be and do what God says, not by a public display of self-deprecation and inability.
Meekness vs. Weakness: Meekness is “submission to the divine will, without murmuring or peevishness [complaining] (cp. Phil. 2:12). It is the attitude of mind that allows for improvement of doctrine or technique; coachable.” Those who submit to the will of God for their lives are strong and courageous, not mousey and self-denigrating.
Repentance (Godly sorrow) vs. (a) Remorse, (b) Self-Reproach or (c) Regret: Repentance is “Real penitence; sorrow or deep contrition for sin as an offense and dishonor to God, a violation of his holy law, and the basest ingratitude towards a Being of infinite benevolence. This is called evangelical repentance, and is accompanied and followed by amendment of life.” The evidence of true, biblical repentance is listed in 2 Corinthians 7:9–11. Until these fruits are in evidence, what one feels is little more than (a) “the keen pain or anguish excited by a sense of guilt” (remorse); (b) the pain of “making oneself the object of contempt, scorn or derision” (self-reproach); (c) to “feel sorry, disappointed, or distressed about; distress over a desire unfulfilled or an action performed or not performed” (under “regret”-AHD).
Trusting in God’s Promises vs. Naive Credulity: “Credulity” is “a disposition to believe too readily; gullible” (AHD). For some Christians, what passes for “faith” is really a passive, trusting state of spiritual hitchhiking in which they allow others to do their thinking, and therefore their believing, for them. They may be led by a succession of Bible teachers without ever developing any unshakable convictions of their own about what God will do (or won’t do) for them.
Accountability vs. Responsibility vs. Blame: To be accountable to someone else means that we answer (give account) to him. It doesn’t mean that we give him control of our lives or make him responsible for our actions or the results of those actions. To be responsible means that it is within your power to help rectify a situation, as distinct from you being the cause of it, i.e., the one to blame.
Many similar distinctions could be made, but we hope we have made the point. We all need to keep educating ourselves to accurate word usage, and consider whether we are using words with the clarity and precision of the Word of God. Let us avoid the temptation to take the easy way out and “baal” on the battle, joining with those who have opted for a feel-good Christianity. Without being careful and respectful of the precision of God’s Word, we will play into the hands of God’s Arch-enemy, who slides quietly through the underbrush of popular culture, stealing the truth from men’s minds in order to freeze them into inactivity and stop them from bearing fruit.
Let us stay awake and vigilant, carefully applying ourselves to hiding God’s timeless truth in our hearts and comparing everything we read and hear with His precious Word. Although it may not make us popular, we’ve got to keep on being workman of the Word for our Lord.