Some Thoughts on Important Words Like: Compromise, Liberal, Emergent, and Repentance.
A friend in my church recently asked me “Pastor, what’s an emergent church?” It was a delight to answer him biblically and provide him with several good books I had read on the subject, in hopes to built his discernment and love of truth. That conversation sparked the following thoughts, which I hope will equip my church family and friends, and encourage you to love truth.
(Note: I recognize that, for many readers, this post is redundant and simple. But for new Christians in my church family, or those who would ask, perhaps it will strengthen you.)
“Words mean things”—so says a popular talk radio show host. Some times Christians use words carelessly and undiscerningly. I want to use the line from The Princess Bride— “You keep using that word. And I do not think it means what you think it means!” (Inigo Montoya)
Words with big meanings lose their weight when used inaccurately. Christianity loses its distinction and doctrine is diminished when we misuse or redefine words.
Fidelity to God’s Word and to the significant meaning of “words” (in general) is a linch pin of the foundation of our faith. Everything hangs on our care for the definition and weight of the words we use to communicate or quantify our Christian faith.
It’s concerning to see words hijacked. More importantly, it’s terribly unwise.
Here are a few of the many words that Bible-believing Christians should labor diligently to protect and use accurately and wisely:
1. Compromise—in theological context, this word historically means something very important. When someone “compromised,” it meant they were denying Bible doctrine. For instance, it meant they had stopped believing in the inerrancy of scripture or the deity of Jesus Christ. It meant they were not accepting the literal reading of God’s Word, and were turning to allegorical or mystical interpretations of scripture. It meant they were changing their doctrine. Perhaps it meant they were teaching diminished or watered-down versions of God’s truth.
Yet today, the term itself has been diminished by some. It’s been redefined, by misapplication, to refer subjectively (not substantively) to “anyone who isn’t exactly like me.” It’s been broadened beyond a doctrinal definition, an applied to “brand.” Style over substance. Form over content. The broadening and watering-down of this word is dangerous. It makes the term subjective to personal whim. It has taken the focus off of “what we believe” and placed it onto “who we like, and who we are like.” Or “who we don’t like for subjective reasons.”
For many generations, men who were very different from one another in non-doctrinal ways did not see each other as “compromisers” unless Bible truth was actually being compromised.
2. Liberal—This word, in Christian context, refers to a person who claims to be “Christian” in religious terms, but simply does not believe the Bible. A theological liberal is someone who attempts to fit the Bible into modern scientific and philosophical assumptions. It’s a dangerous attempt to make the Bible acceptable to the modern mind. As a result, religious liberalism redefines and dismantles every major doctrine of the Christian faith—the deity of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the inspiration of scripture, etc. Liberal means something very strong and destructive to authentic, biblical Christianity.
Pastor Dave Delaney sent me this quote from author Rick Cornish, “The poison of liberalism is that it looks and sounds like true Christianity. It says things like ‘You must have a personal relationship with Jesus,’ or ‘The Bible is the most authoritative book we have.’ But they have very different meanings behind the words. They redefine doctrine to be essentially meaningless.”
As liberals change word meanings, so some have changed the word liberal to mean “anyone who is not just like me.” How could I begin to detail the number of Bible-Believing people on this planet who are not “like me.” A Christian might have a different view of free will than I do, different personal standards, a different view of eschatology, a different educational background, or a different understanding of church government—but those things don’t make him liberal.
To use this word subjectively or flippantly is to “liberalize” it’s very definition and render it basically useless. Redefining important words is what birthed “liberalism” to begin with. To arbitrarily redefine and misuse this word is not to resist liberalism, but to imitate it.
3. Emergent—This word surfaced in the more recent past, and has three practical definitions, in the contexts I have studied. At its core, “emergent” refers to a fluid movement of churches and leaders that are essentially liberal, but they want to avoid that word, so they tagged themselves “emergent.” Their doctrine is “up for grabs” and negotiable—still being discovered really. Their authors write with great ambiguity about the gospel, and insinuate that we really don’t and never have “understood it.” They deny a literal Bible and the Bible’s concept of church. They write that hell is not real and that universalism is true. They approach their version of “Christianity” very mystically and philosophically.
“Emergent” is a hipster version of liberalism. Someone said it this way, “Emergent is old liberalism wrapped skinny jeans.” It’s not really new and it’s not at all orthodox in its approach to the Bible. It’s a movement that essentially denies the “faith once delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)
A second, softer and more ambiguous definition are those who call themselves “emergent” in social and political ways, but not in doctrinal ways. This is a real mixed bag of uncertainty. This definition would hold more liberal political/social positions, but still claim to retain a belief in core Christian doctrine. It’s sort of “a foot in both worlds”, and the term is adopted intentionally, as in, “We are an emergent church…” It’s a self-identifier worn intentionally.
Admittedly, between these first two applications, it’s a confusing term. One would ask, “Are you emergent doctrinally? Or are you simply emergent politically and socially?” For that reason, conservative Christians avoid the word altogether. Either way, you would not arbitrarily apply the term to someone who didn’t freely identify with it.
A third and more sloppy use of the word is when someone simply peels the backing off the word “emergent” (like a sticker) and haphazardly slaps it on “anyone who is not just like me.” This is very unwise. To apply this word to another Bible-believing Christian who rejects “the emergent church movement” is simply a misuse of the word.
4. Repentance—This word biblically means “a change of thinking.” Repentance is turning from one belief and embracing another. Believing my sin was acceptable, but then believing my sin is sinful—this is repentance. Believing that Jesus was a good teacher, but changing my mind to believe and receive Jesus as God and Savior—this is repentance. Behaving sinfully but then accepting the conviction of my sin and seeking God’s grace to have victory over it—this is repentance. Esau repented (changed his mind, Heb. 12:17) but it was too late.
Biblical repentance in salvation is the heart decision to cease from all self-trust and self-effort and to literally collapse into the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It’s not MORE self effort (as in, trying to feel more sorry), it’s NO self effort. It’s not generating or mustering up lots of emotional, deeply felt regret (though it may be there), it’s giving in and abandoning any attempt to gain credit with God, either by my own goodness or by my deep remorse.
Repentance is motivated often by sorrow, which makes the sorrow a godly thing (2 Corinthians 7:10), but may also be motivated by God’s goodness (Romans 2:3). Authentic repentance will reflect change (fruit, Luke 3:8) because a change in belief always impacts or affects a change in behavior. If the Pharisees in Luke 3 truly repented, their fruits of “works-righteousness, public hypocrisy, and personal oppression” would have dramatically changed.
The word is misused when it is defined as penance—in other words “self-punishment”—a certain quantity or quality of emotional remorse or regret over sin. Repentance may or may not be emotional. Either way, self-punishment is not at all scriptural—Jesus took all of our punishment. Christians are to base their belief not on the intensity of their emotional experience but in the truth of God’s Word. Christians are not to “self-punish”—they are to repent and accept the substitutionary punishment of Jesus in their place.
The word is also misused when another Christians attempts to assess the “authenticity” of someone’s repentance by measuring or quantifying external change according to their personal paradigm or standard. The problems with this are numerous. Perhaps I cannot yet see the fruit of repentance that God is shaping or growing in a believer’s life. Perhaps the fruit is appearing in areas that are not clear to me yet. Perhaps it’s too early in “the season” and fruit is on its way. Who am I to appoint myself the arbiter of another Christian’s fruitfulness with God—especially when I have enough trouble “taking heed unto myself!”?
In other words, “I don’t see ‘x’ behavior when I want to see it and in the quantity, quality, and visibility that I expect to see it—I don’t see tears of self-punishment and penance—therefore you did not genuinely ‘repent.’” This is dangerous, proud thinking for any Christian, and it usurps the work of God’s Spirit in another.
When someone confesses Jesus Christ as Savior and expresses belief in Him by faith, this is repentance. When a Christian becomes convicted of sinful behavior and rests in God’s grace to empower transformation and change, this is repentance—and it should happen regularly in all of our lives. Romans 10 never uses the word repent, but the entire chapter is essentially about repentance. Repentance is not something a Christian does once, but often and throughout life, until we meet Jesus.
Yes, God tells us to examine the fruit of false teachers (Matthew 7:15-20) but that’s different from examining or discounting the spiritual authenticity of another Christian. One is discernment, the other is comparison. (See 2 Corinthians 10:12)
We’ve seen four words that are sometimes hijacked. Compromise. Liberal. Emergent. Repentance.
(Note: By the way, practically and biblically speaking, by true definitions, I am thankful that God allows me to teach and preach an uncompromised gospel, inviting lost hearts to repentance, from a Bible that is literally true, in a church that is not emergent—and to do so in a biblically illiterate region of the world.)
There are many more important words with significant meanings. (Perhaps you can add some in the comments.)
In closing, I challenge you not to compromise your definitions of these words, just as I challenge you not to compromise the truth of the Word of God.
Don’t use these words loosely or liberally—use them accurately and carefully. When we protect the meanings of words, we protect the faith of Jesus.
Avoid the growing trend of emerging definitions. Refuse to stick words indiscriminately and inaccurately on fellow Bible-believers.
Finally, consider repenting if you find yourself misusing these words to the hurt or marginalization of others. Speak with integrity.
Finally, if you do compromise these words, use them liberally with emerging definitions without repentance—that does not necessarily make you “a compromising, liberal, emergent who doesn’t believe in repentance.”
Because, truthfully, these words are too important to misuse.