Not What You Think it Means
"He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!” "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Some of you might remember the above exchange in the movie, The Princess Bride. It happens between Vizzini and Inigo Montoya. Vizzini thinks himself a genius and Inigo picks up on his overuse of the word, inconceivable. Vizzini had been applying the word liberally and probably wasn’t using it in its proper context. Inigo calls him on it.
A few years back I remember talking to a student leader who had been part of our Summer Training Project (if you’re a student, go ahead and click on that link 😉) about a similar exchange. Apparently one of our student leaders was chatting with a participant in the project who was struggling with some of the challenges of the Christian life. The student leader, sincerely hoping to help the participant, explained how he simply needed to “believe the gospel.” The participant, having heard the phrase repeated throughout the summer, exclaimed, “Everyone keeps telling me that, but I have no idea what that means!” I believe it may have been a bit more colorful, but you get the idea.
Lingo Without Literary Understanding
Now, I wasn’t present at this exchange. I can’t speak with great certainty about the exactness of it, but I certainly understand the context and have heard similar exchanges happen in our ministry. I have no doubt the student leader was earnest and wanted to help. And, theologically speaking, I think the leader was on the right track. The danger, however, is that like many words or phrases in the Christian community, they can become lingo without literary understanding. That is to say, a word can simply be repeated because it’s been heard, but accurate understanding of the word is void.
Certain words are heard by many of us from the pulpit, in the context of small groups, just outside the sanctuary after a worship service, or even around the dinner table that ultimately lose meaning because they’re simply repeated over and over again. It’s not that repetition is bad, not at all. However, repetition without explanation can be really harmful. We need to be careful about people, especially those who grow up within the Church, who know a lot of the right answers and are able to speak the right lingo but don’t really “mean what they think they mean”.
We need to state biblical truths in fresh and new ways in order that they resonate with us and sink down deeply into the soul. I’m not talking about seeking to be hip or cool. Rather, I’m talking about stating biblical truths by explaining them fully, articulately, and as often as possible connecting them to the everyday stuff of life. And there may not be a more important word in all of the Bible than “gospel” that needs repeating in a fresh and new way.
Learning From Paul — Appropriating the Gospel
Consider Paul’s confrontation of Peter in Galatians 2:11-16. I won’t get into all of the theological backdrop of the passage. But what I would like to point out is that Paul could have confronted Peter about a couple of ways he was in sin. He could have told Peter he was being racially insensitive. He could have told him he was simply pleasing people. But Paul didn’t mention either of those explicitly.
What did he say?
…I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel…
…we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:14-16, ESV).
Paul saw the central issue Peter was struggling with as one that dealt directly with the gospel. Paul went beyond simply stating jargon, however. He is helping his Galatian audience understand that to feel a sense of superiority because of one’s ethnicity or religious heritage is to walk out of step with the truth of the gospel. Indeed, Peter was afraid in this particular instance of what others thought. And what one fears can usually be traced to what a person values. When someone understands how Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of our value we need not fear what others think.
Paul spoke the truth of the gospel to Peter in the way Peter (and the church of Galatia) needed to hear it. He appropriated the message. This is what we all need to be able to do as we preach to ourselves first and foremost, and also as we preach to others. We need to heed Inigo Montoya’s advice and not "keep using that word” that may not mean what we think it means. More importantly, we need to figure out what the gospel means so that when we use that word we are confidently saying what we mean.
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