Pastor John you once said in a message, “Everything I write is to try to find a way to say the obvious in a way that will make people bolt awake and come alive in Jesus.” Explain that. Obviously this awakening is the work of the Spirit. What role does creative language play as a means of awakening sinners?
I have been wrestling with that question for years and years. I once did a talk called “Is There Christian Eloquence?” and more recently, I gave a talk on George Herbert that touched on the issue. I am always thinking as a preacher and a writer: Does my language make a difference?
Clearly the Bible teaches: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). God is the decisive growth-giver in Ephesians 2:5. God made us alive when we were dead. Dead men are not impressed by vocabulary, right? And they are not raised by my poetic effort. God raises the dead.
Or 1 Peter 1:23, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” So the imperishable seed is the Holy Spirit. He does the begetting, and the instrument is the word of God, which is the gospel we preach (1 Peter 1:25). Likewise, Jesus said in John 3:8, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
God Gives Growth — Am I Needed?
So the message of the Bible is: God raises the dead. God causes people to be born again, and it is not decisively our instrumentality. So the question is really urgent for me. God can save people through bad grammar and he can save people through flat demeanor and he can save people through prosaic speech and heavily accented English or German or whatever language people are hearing the gospel in and he can do it through faulty exegesis and lopsided presentations and hypocritical preachers even.
I mean, God can save people just about any way he wants provided the rudiments of the gospel get through to people. So the question is urgent: should I just draw the conclusion, “Well, que sera, sera?” Don’t teach preaching, and don’t make any efforts to say anything in a creative or impactful way?
Here is my best shot at answering that question: I don’t think language is a matter of indifference in the matter of bringing people to Christ or sanctifying people in Christ. But there are two things I would say.
First, we should avoid efforts to preempt the work of the Holy Spirit by our language. That language may be sloppy intentionally. It may be casual intentionally. It may be artsy intentionally or literary or refined. But any effort, whether you are talking low culture or high culture, to try to manipulate people by your language, preempt the Holy Spirit, get them saved through your design, we should abominate that, throw that away. There should be a feel about our praying and our preaching that says that we are not presuming that our words save sinners, but rather that God saves sinners and uses his words.
A Portrait of Christ
Which, secondly, then, implies this for me. The Holy Spirit is sent into the world, according to John 16:14, to glorify Jesus Christ. So the Holy Spirit is going to open the eyes of the blind in order for them to see Jesus. And this means my words should be portraying the Jesus that the Holy Spirit wants people to see when he raises them from the dead — or he might not raise them from the dead and give them eyes to see, because there is nothing true for them to see. My words are a like portrait in front of people which is somehow worthy of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit says, “I like that portrait. I will now grant this person the eyes to see that portrait.”
And then if I ask myself, “Ok, what is it about Jesus that I should portray?” Well, he is true and he is beautiful and he is stunning and he is amazing and he is shocking, which says something about the kind of descriptions I want to make of him.
So that is my reason for giving effort “to bring people bolt awake” by saying something striking. All I mean by that is: Jesus really is striking. Jesus really is amazing. Jesus really is worthy of the most wonderful or the most surprising ways of describing him truly and the Holy Spirit regularly honors that effort by opening the eyes of the blind to see a truly described Jesus.
For more on we can glorify God through our language, see The Power Words and the Wonder of God, a collection of essays edited by Pastor John and Justin Taylor.