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Christians are a peculiar people with a peculiar vocabulary.

We talk about “sin”. We use words like “repentance” and “gospel.” We take common words like “sin” and “faith,” but fill them with meaning that flows from the Bible.

Other Christian words are important too:

  • Trinity
  • Justification
  • Sanctification
  • Imputation

Whenever we seek to proclaim the gospel in a way that is culturally understandable, we face the problem of our peculiar vocabulary.

Some Christians believe that we need to rid our speech of “Christianese.” Let’s root out our Christian lingo and speak in a way that anyone can understand! If the term “justification” is incomprehensible to most people, let’s do away with the word and just use the concept.

I sympathize with the desire to make the gospel understandable to those in our culture who are unfamiliar with our peculiar vocabulary. But I also think that we need these distinctive words. Why? Because our vocabulary reminds us who we are. Besides, we use specific and peculiar language for other areas of our life too.

Several years ago, when I was working in my dad’s print shop, I used terms like “glossy,” “cover,” “80#,” “varnish.” I also knew that ink colors were called PMS. Yet there were times that we would speak of PMS colors in front of guests, and I would feel the need to explain what these colors were (so as to make sure they weren’t thinking of a more common understanding of PMS!).

Baseball is not commonly played in Europe. When my wife first attended a ballgame with me, she was introduced to terms like “double header” and “pinch hitter,” “foul ball” and “home run”. If I hadn’t explained these concepts to her, she would have nodded her head but not known what we were talking about.

It would be foolish for me to advocate changing all of baseball’s terminology so that Europeans can more easily understand the game. Instead, Europeans who move to America deserve an initiation into this sport so that they can comprehend the language, understand the purpose of each term, and enjoy the game with us.

In the same way, we shouldn’t lazily rely on Christianity’s peculiar vocabulary without explanation. Neither should we abandon important words for the sake of cultural relevancy. We need to take the hard road – explaining Christian concepts to outsiders in a way that can be understood. Then, we need to initiate them into the Christian community where these words are used and celebrated.

Maintaining our peculiar vocabulary while at the same time seeking to make our words understandable is beneficial to both the Christian and the non-Christian.

It’s beneficial to Christians because it challenges us to think more deeply about the terminology that gives expression to our faith. If we tend to rely on Christian lingo, we need to be forced out of our comfortable ghetto of word usage, to to figure out what we mean by these concepts before we can teach them to others.

Try defining “sin” without using the word. Define “glory” in a way that makes sense biblically. Explain “justification” to someone who’s never heard the gospel. Until you yourself know what these words mean, you won’t be able to explain the concept to others.

It’s beneficial for non-Christians because we are able to present Christian truth in a culturally comprehensible way, and yet we are not sacrificing the distinctiveness of our speech. We are initiating them into a new way of speaking, helping them not only walk the walk, but talk the walk as well.

Our purpose in maintaining our distinct vocabulary is not so we can check off boxes on a vocab matching test. It’s so that we will know who we are, know what God has done, and fulfill our mission as his called-out people.


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4 thoughts on “Peculiar Words for a Peculiar People”

  1. Frank Turk says:

    Just a point of order, Trevin —

    In Titus 2:14 where Paul calls us a “peculiar people” in the KJV, the ESV translates the passage, “a people for his own possession”; in 1Pet 2:9, it’s “a people for his own possession”; in Deu 14:2, it’s “you to be a people for his treasured possession”.

    We all have the KJV imprinted in our brains for that phrase because it’s seems to be such a great statement of how alien we ought to be in the world and (perhaps) our culture. But in fact it’s a statement how precious we are to God, and how/why he is jealous for us.

    The question is how this impacts your point — because I think you mean to use “peculiar” in the modern sense of “strange; uncommon; distinct.”

    In one sense, I think it displaces your point because the citations in question have a meaning not just of distinction but of preciousness or valuation; that is, we have value becuase of God’s purchase price, so to speak. But at the same time, I really like the sports language analogy as it relates to the issue here: a precious people in this sense ought to have a language which is precious in describing their hope and their savior in the same way baseball fans have a language which extolls its heroes and defines its purposes.

    So yes and no here — I think the point can be made, but I think it’s also critical that we see these words right so that we don’t get too rapped up in being other-worldly or a bunch of weirdos.

    Carry on. :-)

  2. Trevin Wax says:

    Frank,

    Always good to have you drop by.

    You are right to point out the original meaning of “peculiar”, which in King James land meant something quite different than what it means today. But “Distinctive Words for a Distinctive People” didn’t have the same “grab-you” power as using the word peculiar, so I chose the latter anyway.

    The main point I am making is that it is too easy to say, “Away with this Christian jargon” and it is also too easy to say “Keep the jargon, no matter if people don’t know what we’re talking about.”

    The difficult task is seeking to be faithful and distinct, while also comprehensible to the outside world. As we usher people into the community of faith, the distinctive words that God has given us become the common vocabulary for the people of God.

  3. Scott Smith says:

    Interesting take, Trevin.

    I am particularly sensitive to Christian jargon. It drives me batty. You do do make some great points on words that matter though. So many of the ones I hear are just not words found anywhere in the 2010 lexicon.

    “Hallelujah! Because we are blessed and highly favored to, we will delight in the Lord (as David did), and seek his Shekinah glory in the tabernacle! If you stick around after the service, one of our prayer warriors will be available to speak life into you. Just follow the signage past the fellowship hall towards the parsonage so we can break bread with you!”

    In your dad’s print shop, while you did use terms important to the trade, you didn’t greet people with words that your industry made up. I’ll bet you said “Good afternoon” – “Lovely day isn’t it!” and other normal things. This is where the church has gone horribly off-track. For some unknown reason, we have to have a private word for everything.

    We would do well to learn and use the words you mention. They are well worth keeping – and explaining. (I’ll bet many lifelong churchgoers couldn’t define all of those.) But let’s frame it all in context of the people we claim we are trying to reach.

    Thanks for the great post!

  4. Paul Clutterbuck says:

    I think I’d agree with Scott here. In particular, the baseball analogy really doesn’t help your case as far as I’m concerned. If I don’t understand a sport (which actually means most sports), I don’t waste any time on it, but get on with doing things that I do understand. If something presents itself as an alien subculture that I somehow have to break into, I’m not usually prepared to put in the effort. In that case, I’ll just tend to forget that the subculture exists because I have no place for it. Unless there is some really compelling reason to become part of something, I feel that I needn’t bother with it.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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