On Using Words Carelessly


As a communicator, there’s sometimes a fine line between using strong language to make a point, on the one hand, and throwing words around carelessly and irresponsibly.  I’d like to report that I’ve never crossed that line…but while I might like to report that, it wouldn’t be true.  As I wrote a couple weeks back, I’m trying to redouble my efforts to check my wording on some things more carefully before I go public.

There is a “controversy” of sorts that has brewed in the evangelical world over the course of the last few weeks, ever since John Piper, darling of the conservative and Reformed branch of evangelicalism, invited Rick Warren to appear at his Desiring God conference this fall.  Warren is viewed with downright scorn by at least a certain vocal segment of this movement, and predictably, many were up in arms, reacting with horror to Piper’s invitation extended to this man they view as a pragmatist who waters down the gospel, who represents so much of what they abhor about the contemporary evangelical movement.

An aside: though I have benefited from some of Warren’s writing, I have increasingly viewed a lot of what he says and does with skepticism myself.  I understand a lot of where these folks are coming from, and I sympathize with it.  Some of the positions Warren takes have a level of, I believe, danger inherent in them.

But one of the things that has been thrown around is the word “heretic” to describe Rick Warren.  Seriously.  Folks, say what you will about Mr. Warren, and there are some things to say, to be sure, but Rick Warren is no “heretic”.  And I wrote all this to make a point that Trevin Wax makes in this article about the controversy:

When you use the word “heretic” to refer to anyone who disagrees with you, you don’t have a good word to use to refer to someone who actually fits the bill.

Couldn’t said that better myself.  Wax references Jerry Falwell, who a few years back used the “H word” to refer to folks who believe in the Calvinist doctrine of “limited atonement”.  Do I disagree with “limited atonement”?  Absolutely.  Are people who hold to it “heretics”?  Please.  Spare me.

We’d all do well to remember—particularly if we “c0mmunicate for a living”—that words mean things, and we do no service to anyone when we cheapen those words by over-speaking.


  1. Don on April 16, 2010 at 11:54 am

    I believe in limited atonement, and I think if you analyzed the doctrine a little more closely you would have to agree that you do too. The problem with the phrase “limited atonement” is it suggests that the atonement is somehow limited in its sufficiency. In reality no true Calvinist believes that. No true Calvinist places some limit on the value or sufficiency of Christ’s atonement. The phrase, “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world,” is quoted directly from the canons of the Synod of Dordt, which is the original manifesto of Calvinism. Yet even the Arminian would agree that Christ’s atonement is effective ONLY for those who actually believe. In that sense, even though they would be loath to admit it, Arminians actually believe in limited atonement. In fact most Arminians limit atonement even further by suggesting that you can somehow LOSE that atonement after you have received it. Limited atonement simply means that Christ’s atonement on Calvary is limited to those who believe and receive it. Otherwise everyone would go to heaven and there would be no one in hell.

    • Byron on April 16, 2010 at 3:39 pm

      By that definition, I agree with you, but I’m not sure that that’s what a lot of folks mean by “limited atonement”. I think that definitions are important here, and there are certainly some hyper-Calvinists who would define it differently.

  2. Don on April 16, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    As I said, that is the way a TRUE Calvinist would define it. That is certainly the way John Calvin would have defined it. Look no further than John 3:16. “For God so love the WORLD that gave his only son…” that’s the sufficiency of atonement, “…that whosoever believes in Him…” that’s limited atonement.

    Unfortunately when we lump everyone including the hyper-Calvinist nut jobs into the same ball of wax we get this kind of confusion. So while the correct definition of limited efficacy is Biblical, the incorrect definition of limited sufficiency, while it may not be heresy, is at the very least aberrant and does not reflect the original intent of this doctrine.

    • Byron on April 17, 2010 at 2:35 pm

      I agree with you; the hyper-Calvinists have out-Calvined Calvin, apparently. But I think that the general understanding of “limited atonement” is not the one you or I hold, but rather the more hyper-Calvinist version. Thus, I don’t refer to myself as believing in “limited atonement” because I think the term is confusing enough to be unhelpful, as it is popularly understood.

  3. Hefe on April 17, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    Byron, most Calvinists have also begun to drop the term for the same reasons, instead using the term “definite atonement”. It’s a small difference that now makes for a more awkward “TUDIP” acronym, but most of us recognize the same misconception that you have pointed out.

    • Byron on April 17, 2010 at 8:34 pm

      OK…so are you with Don on the definition of “limited atonement”?

  4. Don on April 29, 2010 at 7:22 am

    I’m wondering something. If the general understanding of a word is not the true, original and accurate meaning of the word should we always take the approach of discarding it? What about in the case of “social justice” for example. As we’ve seen here recently, that meaning has pretty well been mutilated beyond recognition. Oughtn’t we jettison that as well?

    • Byron on April 29, 2010 at 7:53 am

      That’s a good question, it really is. I have wondered the same thing. “Fundamentalist” is word I’d never use to describe myself these days—even though I hold to the original “fundamentals” regarding which the word was coined in the first place. Is there a place to “fight for a word”, or a term? If we keep “giving up words”, you know, what will we be left with? “Social justice” certainly is a word that means different things to different folks; Beck wasn’t so much wrong a few weeks back as he was guilty of obfuscation and over-speak when he derided “social justice”; in the way in which he meant it, I agree with him, but “social justice” to Jim Wallis means something different than it does to Marvin Olasky. In some ways, your words make a good argument for the importance of that much-derided nuance; particularly in our politically-charged culture, we need to recognize the reality that there are shades of gray and shades of meaning. It’s tough sometimes, though, and you’ve put your finger on a good point.

  5. Don on April 29, 2010 at 9:12 am

    I’ll be honest, this issue of renaming everything under the sun just because of whatever negative connotations a particular word or phrase may hold is kind of bothersome to me. It’s no longer “evangelistic”, it’s missional; it’s no longer “fellowship”, it’s “community”; we’re no longer “Christians”, we’re “Christ followers”.

    I recognize that with every passing generation our vernacular changes and evolves, which is why most reasonable Christians have abandoned the 1611 KJV a long time ago. We simply don’t talk that way anymore. I’m wondering, though, if there aren’t at least SOME words in our Christian heritage that warrant the extra effort of clarification to subsequent generations rather than summarily abandoning terms that become misunderstood.

    • Byron on April 29, 2010 at 11:06 am

      Yeah, I agree. I do think we can give away everything ’til we’re left with nothing. Then again, much as I fought this, literally for decades, I’ve ceded the word “gay” over. It does no good anymore for me to say that I’m gay about the weather being beautiful outside. Nah…you win. Your word. Enjoy it.

      I read, for my personal study, the NLT (at least I am this year). I briefly preached from it, and it’s a fine translation, but I abandoned it, at least for the time being, as a preaching text, because in Romans, instead of talking about “justification”, it defined the word instead (‘being made right with God”, or something like that). No…I’d rather teach people the big word, and then define it for them, so that they know it. Now, to your three examples, my sense is that only one of them—“Christians”—has been changed for the reasons we’re talking about. “Missional” has a different connotation than “evangelistic”. Actually, I’m sort of a “maybe” on the “fellowship” one; it has certainly been watered way down, and perhaps that is why “community” is the word in vogue now, I don’t know.

  6. Don on April 29, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Okay, I’ll bight. How is “Missional” different than “Evangelistic”? I’m guessing you’re going to say something about one being more “intentional” than the other and possibly associated with a difference in programming.

    • Byron on April 29, 2010 at 2:18 pm

      Bight? Well, as long as we don’t fite about it.

      “Missional” is more wholistic than “evangelistic”, it seems to me, not so much in “intentionality”, but in the sense that when I think of being “evangelistic”, I think of the end result being limited to the sharing of the gospel—which no one should deny is the “biggie”, of course—but “missional” activities might include things that are less directly evangelistic (with the hope being that the gospel will go forth just as surely, but perhaps a little further down the road). For instance, building a Habitat house wouldn’t, in my mind, be “evangelistic”, per se, but it would be “missional”. Further, I’d say that a “missional mindset” involves a person remembering that everywhere he is/goes, and in everything he does, he is “on mission” for Christ, whereas an “evangelistic” mindset seems to me to be thinking that sharing the words of the gospel is what we always ought to be about. It’s a medium-fine distinction, but I think there is one.

  7. Don on April 29, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Maybe, but my sense is that “missional” is being used in such a wide variety of ways that it’s meaning is often a little difficult to nail down. I would also suggest that cup-of-cold-water, lifestyle evangelism isn’t a new concept. People were doing that long before we had a really cool word to use to describe it.

    Bite the wall.

    • Byron on April 29, 2010 at 5:51 pm

      Ha! You may be right. But bight the wall yourself!

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