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Church divisions may not be caused by a failure to define terms, but church troubles certainly can be hastened and aggravated by it. In recent years I have noticed, with great pain at times, that if two divided parties had clarified what they meant when they used a certain word, or had admitted that they were using the same word in a different way, they would have found that they were closer than they actually thought. I have heard and read, also with great pain, the grossest misrepresentations of churches or preachers because of a failure to recognize that some words have different meanings—imposing on others a meaning they did not intend.

When Scripture teaches us to speak the truth in love, it requires not only to be properly motivated when speaking and to speak only what we are permitted to say, but also to be aware that what we mean by a word may not be what others mean, and vice versa. One word may mean two different things. Or three. Or four. It is important to define our terms.

And it is also important to ask what another may mean before labeling his writing as false teaching.

This is true in natural life, too. If you are a resident of the USA and travel to England, you should be aware that your use of the word ‘boot’ or ‘bonnet’ may not be what those in the UK mean by it. When you are invited for ‘tea,’ you should not come to your hosts with a full stomach. If you ask for chips in a restaurant, do not be surprised when they bring you French fries. And if a group wants you to play football with them, do not expect them to bring a pigskin for throwing passes and making touchdowns.1 Such miscommunications may be innocent and even funny at times. But there are other miscommunications that can cause fear or hurt, and some Americans who have preached in the UK or Singapore have learned this the hard way.

But clarity and carefulness when we speak is never so urgent as when we speak to other Christians about God, His works, His attributes, or His way of salvation. If you say, ‘righteousness’ or ‘salvation’ or ‘law’ or ‘gospel’ (for only a few examples) and mean one thing, while your neighbor thinks you mean something quite different, the potential for division is great. It is important to define terms. If we are not careful, we will either judge others rashly or be judged wrongly.

We often use words and mean different things by them because the Bible does. When reading the Bible and listening to others, we are obliged to be clear about the context and the writer’s intention.

Those with seminary education learned this in their first year of training. All Christians should be aware of it. In the course that teaches the principles of Bible interpretation— the formal name is “hermeneutics”—one of the basic rules of Bible interpretation goes like this: “The same word in the same context means the same thing, unless….” There are a couple obvious inferences one must take from this rule. First, to state that “the same word means the same thing in the same context” implies that it may well have a different meaning in a different context. Same word, different meaning. Second, even in the same context, the same word may have two different ideas. The rule states “unless….”

I remember well when Prof. Homer Hoeksema was teaching us theology and the ordo salutis, or the order of the steps of salvation. Repeatedly he said, “The order you propose depends on the meaning of each of the concepts you are referring to. If, by ‘regeneration’ you mean…then regeneration is first. But if, by ‘regeneration’ you mean…then regeneration follows….” Or, “If, by ‘faith’ you mean…then faith precedes…. And if, by ‘faith,’ you mean…then faith comes after….” This good teacher was not so much giving latitude to the students in stating their preferred order, but emphasizing the importance of: “It depends on what you mean.” He also was teaching us: “Be clear about what you mean.”

The Bible uses words and concepts in different ways.

A classic example of the same biblical word used multiple times in close proximity but with different meanings is the word ‘spirit’ in John 3:5-8, where ‘spirit’ has three different meanings. The Holy Spirit of God (“Spirit” with upper case “S”), man’s spirit (‘spirit’), and wind are all different meanings of the same Greek word pneuma. In John 3, therefore, even the same context does not mean that the same word means the same thing. Careful study of a passage’s context and the writer’s own usage of the word will help determine it. Thus, the same word in widely different contexts may certainly have different meanings. The word’s context and the writer’s intentions are determinative.

Let me give some other examples of the same word having different meanings in Scripture—and some significant theological terms—and then conclude by making a plea to the readers.

‘Righteousness’ in Scripture can mean the legal state in which a believer stands before God because Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed to him. Think, for example, of Romans 1:17 or 3:21. But ‘righteousness’ can also refer to the upright conduct in which a believer walks. Genesis 30:33 and Psalm 15:2 are two examples of ‘righteousness’ meaning a man’s upright behavior. There are many others, especially in the Old Testament. But if I am speaking of a man’s righteous conduct and a reader supposes that I am referring to how I am justified, there could not be a more serious misunderstanding. To be justified, I need the righteousness of Christ. My living in righteousness is sanctification. To which definition of the word ‘righteousness’ am I referring? I, as a writer, must make clear my intent, and the reader must understand my context.

In Reformed circles, ‘faith’ can refer to the bond that God forms between the believer and Christ. Based on Scripture’s teaching in passages like Romans 11:20, the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 7) speaks of faith as an ‘ingrafting.’ But the Catechism also speaks of faith as the believer’s true knowledge of God’s Word and his confidence that the salvation described in it is his salvation. When I am speaking about faith, therefore, it is imperative that I make clear to which aspect of faith I am referring, lest I am misunderstood to mean the ‘bond’ when I am in fact referring to the activity of knowledge and trust.

Writer, be clear. Reader, understand context and intent.

The concept ‘save’ and the word ‘salvation’ have perhaps the broadest range of meanings in Scripture. ‘Salvation’ may refer to its origin in regeneration; or it may refer to its end in glory, as Peter refers to it—a salvation that will be “revealed in the last time” (I Pet. 1:5). Perhaps ‘salvation’ means what Christ has done for His people—in the past; at other times it may refer to what Christ does in them—in the present. Depending on what sense I am thinking of, I may say, “I have always been saved” or “I am being saved,” or even, “I am not yet saved.” In the Psalms, saved children of God cry out, “Save me, O God!” as though they yet need salvation. In Acts 4:12, ‘salvation’ refers to what God does in Jesus. In I Timothy, Paul tells pastor Timothy that he saves himself and those who hear him when he preaches (I Tim. 4:16). In Luke 19:9, ‘salvation’ is the great deliverance God provides; in Luke 2:30, ‘salvation’ is the Person who brings it. Christians have the liberty to use the word in all these different ways, as long as they identify what they mean and what they do not mean.

Clarity. Intention. Context.

The word ‘forgiveness’ has given rise to more than a little discussion and disagreement. One man says forgiveness comes after repentance; a second man claims that forgiveness has no relation to repentance. Unless they are willing to recognize that the first man is referring to God’s declaration to a penitent sinner, and the second man is referring to the satisfaction Christ accomplished on the cross, they may come to blows. But both may be right; that is, if you permit each to use his biblical or confessional definition of ‘forgiveness.’

There are also expressions that can mean more than one thing.

When a Reformed Christian of one denomination speaks with a Reformed Christian of a different denomination about the covenant, the two may imagine unity of faith when both assert that man can “break God’s covenant” because, of course, Scripture teaches it (for example, Gen. 17:13, 14; Lev. 26:14-16; Deut. 31:16; Jer. 31:32). But one man believes ‘break the covenant’ means ‘to destroy’ or ‘sever’ the relationship that God established, and the other that it means ‘to violate’ a relationship that can never be truly destroyed. There is a world of difference between the two, and unless they define their terms their theological discussion will give a false sense of unity on a very important doctrine.

An example of a secular term that gives rise to misunderstanding these days is ‘abuse.’ The concept is a hot-button topic and special care needs to be given to explain what is meant when we use the term. Context is vital and, especially here, assumptions are dangerous. In spousal mistreatment, ‘abuse’ is usually defined as an ongoing, repeated, intentional, conscious effort to destroy the other. But with some sexual sins, ‘abuse’ takes place when it happens once. Deliberateness or persistence has no bearing at all. Again, definition and context are crucial.

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There are important lessons that everyone can take from this.

For the sake of truth, right, unity, and peace, let me urge upon us, as the people of God:

First, let us, especially preachers, teachers, and writers, define carefully what we mean when we speak and write. Let there be no misunderstandings. When we write and speak about God’s works and attributes, God’s name is being ‘pronounced.’ His name is His reputation. Let us get His name right, to His glory. We confess in the Catechism that there is no sin more heinous than taking His name in vain. The trumpet must sound no uncertain sound. Especially from those who teach. This is our duty. Be clear.

Second, let us, especially hearers and readers, judge writers, teachers, and preachers charitably. Judging rashly is violation of the ninth commandment. Let us listen carefully and, before we label another as in error, let us ask for explanations. And when explanations are given, genuinely listen to the explanations. Imposing your definition upon another’s speech is not only unwise, but it may also be sinful and damaging. Do not judge another according to only one—probably your favorite or preferred—meaning of a word or concept. Brotherly charity does not “think evil” and “hopes all things.”

Third, let us all, as Reformed Christians, work very hard to use the language of Scripture and of the Reformed creeds, whether the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards. The creeds are the official interpretation of Scripture for the Reformed Christian. And the creeds not only give good guidance in defining biblical concepts, but also provide latitude to give some words a fairly wide range of meaning. Let us permit the confession’s definitions, never criticizing a brother for using them, even if in our own minds we think the definition should be narrower or sharper. Let us start with the creeds, not our favorite theologian, in our definition of concepts.

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Communication among Christians is so exceedingly important. Miscommunication can be so utterly divisive and damaging. Speaking clearly and understanding rightly is a wonderful gift among Christians.

So, before I travel to a different country, I want to learn about the social and verbal blunders I should avoid. I do not want to hurt my friends in Northern Ireland by eating a big meal before coming to their invitation to ‘tea,’ or be confounded when they tell me to put the groceries in my ‘boot.’

How much more do we not want to hurt one another by miscommunicating about the truth of God. There is nothing more important, nor more precious. What a grace to be able to think carefully before we speak, study the proper manner of speaking about biblical things, and work hard at judging as charitably as we can and may.

“If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18).


1 Legend has it that the Americans and Brits were engaged in formal discussions during WWII and could make no progress because they meant different things by the same parliamentary terms. When the Americans wanted to discuss a topic, they asked to ‘put it on the floor,’ which, to the British, meant to delay treatment of it. And when the British wanted to discuss a topic, they proposed putting it ‘on the table’ which, to the Americans, meant to put the item on hold.