When my children were young, one of the books that we enjoyed together was Doreen Cronin’s Duck for President. As the title suggests, the story is about a duck who got tired of farm life and decided to run for political office. As Duck campaigns, the narrator tells us that “he gave speeches that only other ducks could understand.”
In its own amusing way, this story raises a real problem. What happens when any person or group begins to communicate in ways that are intelligible only to the like-minded or their own members? They forfeit the opportunity to connect in any meaningful way with outsiders.
Meaningful connection in gospel communication is the subject of these articles. In Part 1, we observed that the culture around us no longer takes its moral or spiritual assumptions from the teachings of Christianity. Consequently, we are faced with a tremendous challenge: how do we make the gospel clear to people whose notions of biblical truth are either completely lacking or seriously flawed?
As a preliminary step in answering this question, we looked at how the Protestant Reformers dealt with similar challenges in their own day. In addition to Bible translation, we saw that the Reformers crafted confessions and catechisms that articulated the teachings of Scripture using clear definitions and real-life connections. We concluded that clarity of communication is an integral part of our Reformed heritage.
But is such clarity an integral part of our identity today in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church? When we speak to non-Christians, or when they read our literature or surf our websites, does our content connect? When they listen to our preaching, do they hear an intelligible presentation of the gospel, even if they ultimately scoff? In short: is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church known for making the gospel clear or do we tend to communicate in ways “that only other ducks could understand”?
It’s not just non-Christians who may struggle to understand our message. Early on in my ministry in State College, a serious believer from a non-Reformed tradition pointed out to me that while all branches of the church use a certain amount of “Christianese,” Presbyterians seem to have a special love for technical terminology!
If we are willing to be honest and constructively self-critical, I believe we will find that this observation holds true. So what should be done?
The solution is not to sacrifice theological precision. Biblical distinctions are important. The differences between “inerrant” and “infallible,” between “justification” and “sanctification,” and between “temporal” and “eschatological” are all very important—and should be utilized in our ministry. Words like “covenant” and phrases such as “the means of grace” belong in our vocabularies. Yet we must recognize that precise terms mean precisely nothing unless people understand precisely what they mean. Theological precision is intended to make things clear, not make them more abstract.
Our own Reformed heritage shows us a better way than theological fuzziness. Rather than discard theological terms, we should define them. There is nothing wrong with using a precise, complex term, so long as we always couple it with a concise, simple definition. When we speak of “the covenant of grace,” we can immediately explain it as “God’s rescue plan.” When we teach on “the means of grace,” why not briefly remind our listeners that these are “the ways God works in us”? Even such an ominous-sounding expression as “the regulative principle of worship” becomes accessible when we explain that it simply means that “God tells us how to worship him.” Good definitions go a long way toward making the gospel clear.
Beyond definitions, we can again follow our Reformed heritage and labor to make real-life connections. In addition to being clear with others about what we mean, we should show them why it matters. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has said it well:
You have to show that this is not some academic or theoretical matter which may be of interest to people who take up that particular hobby, as others take up crossword puzzles or something of that type. You are to show that this message is vitally important for them, and they must listen with the whole of their being, because this really is going to help them to live. Preaching and Preachers, p. 76)
How do we put these things together in practice?
As a first step, let me suggest that we all learn to share what we might call a “today” testimony. How would we answer if a stranger asked us, “What does Jesus mean to you today?” Let us learn to answer that question clearly—without resorting to any special terminology—and you will learn to make the gospel clear, both to yourself and others.
Beyond this, I regularly ask myself to consider how I would explain a Bible text to three distinct groups. First, how would I explain it to kids? This has proven immensely helpful in forcing me to use clear definitions. Second, how would I explain it to skeptics? How can I show respect for their objections, while challenging the underlying assumptions? Third, how would I explain it to pagans? Here I try to imagine what it would be like to be a missionary in the Dark Ages. How would I explain the gospel to a Viking? (This may seem far-fetched to some, but I have actually met a person in State College who professes to follow Norse pagan religion.)
Clarity of confession is part of who we are in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. May the Lord preserve this, while adding to us increasing clarity of communication. Who Jesus is, what he did to rescue us, and how we must respond is far too important a matter not to make clear.
The author is the pastor of Resurrection OPC in State College, Pa. New Horizons, April 2015.