We all know one. Those people who are compelled to speak using big words when the conversation could continue just fine without the entrance of such unnecessarily awkward terminology.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love words. They keep me up at night. But, far too often we confuse wisdom with eloquence and knowledge with vocabulary. This particular stumbling block is almost epidemic among Christians. We must remember that it does not serve our neighbor well if we throw them an atonement curveball, followed by a resurrection slider, and finish with an incarnation fastball, simply to leave them struck out at the plate. We need to frame our words carefully.
Christians are a people rooted in word: The Word of God incarnate in Christ (Jn. 1:1-18), the Word of God breathed out by God in scripture (2 Tim. 3:16), and the Word of God preached (2 Tim.4:1-2). We dare not touch God’s word in a way that seeks to add or subtract (Rev. 22:18-19), but we must learn how to speak the words of scripture plainly.
In his biography on C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath argues that one of Lewis’ distinctive gifts was that he was able to bring the weighty matter of theology into the language of his day. Lewis was able to contextualize the deep things of God in a way that could speak directly to young Oxford philosophy students and London cab drivers at the same time. Lewis’ popularity alienated him from many of his academic contemporaries who looked down on him because he wrote books men and women across a range of understandings could read and understand.
Like Lewis, we must become faithful practitioners of contextualization. Here are a few suggestions on how we may learn to “speak plainly:”
1. Soak in Scripture
No one has to explain that honey is sweet. Why? Honey speaks for itself. Those who have tasted honey want to taste it again, its sweetness lingers.
If you are going to “speak plainly” concerning Scripture you must learn to marinate in the Word. You will never be able to communicate the truths of God’s Word clearly until you love God’s Word. Listen to the Psalmist, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.” (Ps. 119:103-104).
When you soak in scripture, it will become more accessible for you to communicate the profound truths of scripture in way that is clear to those who may not be accustomed to the words used in scripture.
2. Study Culture
The believer who wants to speak the truth of the Gospel in both a winsome and insightful way will have to make it their business to study culture. What do I mean by studying culture? They will need to be a reflective consumer. They need to learn to ask questions such as, “Why is their such a demand for movies depicting the end of the world? Why are people obsessed with buying and eating local organic food? Where are my neighbors from?”
These questions should not be answered in isolation. Questions like this should be part of the conversations that you are having with the guy you always see in your local coffee shop, the fellow mom next door, or the person in the office next to you.
You will never be able to speak the truth of Scripture plainly until you begin to reflect on the world you live in and determine whether the cultural rhythms surrounding you are in tempo with God’s order or are out of step.
3. Speak with Care
We are too often careless with our words. Words are important and they carry weight for the honest listener. As Christians, God has given access to a treasure chest of meaningful words that can crush the curious neighbor if they are not used with care and graciousness. But, if used with care, the words of Scripture can be the sweet tune of salvation to the non-Christian.
When we speak about the profound truths of scripture, using words like propitiation, holiness, and sin, we must be careful that we do not lose sight of their gravity. As Bret Lott has suggested, we must be humble before these great words.
James warns us that our tongue can start great fires when left unchecked, and yet, Paul believes that it is possible to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). It is possible and necessary to speak the truth of scripture in a careful way, not to water it down or clean it up, but in order to communicate clearly what God’s word says.
When we soak in scripture, study culture, and speak with care, we can begin to imitate the very best of Lewis: communicating profound truths in language that is both easy to understand and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, persuasive.