theologically sound alternatives to piatt’s “ten cliches christians should never use”

Yesterday, Christian Piatt wrote a post for the blog Patheos attacking ten cliches that he feels Christians should never use. The post ended up being quite controversial, considering many of the cliches deal with some form of orthodox Christianity (such as God’s sovereignty, Christ’s Lordship, or the atonement). It would be easy to assume that he’s attacking those doctrines themselves, but he’s not. He’s simply stating that the cliches end up being unhelpful because of their sloppy theology, inappropriateness, or both. The fact that this blog post has caused so much debate over whether the cliches are actually helpful or not is indicative to me of the problem.

Now the response to Piatt’s post shouldn’t be one of never attempting to comfort or witness the gospel to someone, as some have suggested. The alternative is to fill your mind with phrases that are theologically pregnant and appropriate rather than ones that are theologically sloppy and presumptuous. So I’d like to attempt to offer a theological alternative, not to Piatt’s post but to the cliches which he attacks.

Please note that my alternatives are not the only possible alternatives to these cliches. You may very well think of your own alternatives that are more theologically precise and/or are more appropriate for people that you communicate with. If you do, I would be more than happy for you to comment on my blog with what you come up with.

Cliche #1: “Everything happens for a reason.”

My Alternative: “God is sovereign over all things and orchestrates all circumstances to bring Him glory and to make His people more like Christ.”

Why Does It Matter? 

  • The Bible never says the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” So the cliche itself lacks biblical precedence.
  • Things don’t just “happen” for a reason, as if this thing called reason is just floating around in the air, causing events around us. God makes things happen for a reason. The Bible would never contain a phrase like this because it’s fatalistic and not God-centric.
  • The word “everything” is very imprecise. A sneeze is a thing; so was there a hidden reason why I sneezed the other day, other than the fact that my body was trying to expel a foreign substance that entered my nasal cavity? Maybe, but most likely there was not. That’s not to say that God wasn’t in control in that situation; it just means that not everything He allows has some kind underlying meaning to it that we need to evaluate.
  • Before attempting to refute my above point with Romans 8:28, please consider that the word “things” is not in the original text. The translators have added “things” in order to be more clear, but actually they probably should have substituted something more precise, like “all circumstances.” That’s why I feel like my alternative is a much more accurate representation of the biblical text than the cliche.
  • Let’s face it – sometimes even telling a person in the most theologically accurate way possible that God is in control isn’t what they need to hear. They may just need you to listen to them and “mourn with those who mourn.”

Cliche #2: “If you died today, do you know where you’d spend the rest of eternity?”

My Alternative: “If you died and met with God today, what would be His evaluation of your life?”

Why Does It Matter? 

  • The Bible never suggests witnessing to someone by leading with this question. So the cliche itself lacks biblical precedence.
  • The reason why God saves people is not primarily so that they go to heaven. It’s so that He is glorified by redeeming His people from their sins (Titus 2:11-14). The eternal state is only a part of this process of redemption.
  • The cliche-question implies one of two answers: heaven or hell. But the Bible focuses more on eternal life than it does heaven (and no, the two are not equal). So what is eternal life? Ultimately, it is the supreme manifestation of knowing God (John 17:2-3). The focus is on God, not the streets of gold.
  • When witnessing to someone, should the focus be on what their evaluation of their life is or on what God’s evaluation is?

Cliche #3:“He/she is in a better place.”

My Alternative: “God is so kind that our loved ones who trust in Him for salvation are able to spend eternity worshiping with Him, free from sin and the distractions of the fallen world.”

Why Does It Matter? 

  • The Bible never says the phrase “He/she is in a better place.” So the cliche itself lacks biblical precedence.
  • As already stated, eternal life isn’t about the “better place,” it’s about the loving God who redeems His creation to worship Him forever. The fact that they are in a “better place” is inconsequential because the only reason it’s better is because it is filled with God and free from sin. So why not just focus on those things instead?
  • Focusing on the deceased person places the focus (and ultimately, the glory) on that person, not God. Notice that in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul only mentions the deceased 4 times. Paul makes reference to God/Jesus/Lord 10 times. The comfort we take in death ultimately has nothing to do with the dead person – it has everything to do with what God did for that dead person.

Cliche #4:“Can I share a little bit about my faith with you?”

My Alternative: “What do you believe about God or religion?”

Why Does It Matter? 

  • The Bible never suggests witnessing to someone by leading with this question.  So the cliche itself lacks biblical precedence.
  • When witnessing to someone, you can’t cram your faith down his/her throat. When you study how Paul evangelized the pagan world, you find that he did it differently almost every time. The reason is because his audience changed and each had different hurdles for coming to Christ. You don’t know the hurdles of the person you’re witnessing to until they tell you what they believe. And they won’t be able to do that if you’re too busy telling them what you believe first.
  • In John 4, Jesus dealt with the “woman at the well,” and He witnessed to her without ever asking to share His faith. On the contrary, he opened the door for her to share her faith and then gently addressed the flaws in her theology. His faith-sharing was a conversation, not a monologue.

Cliche #5: “You should come to church with me on Sunday.”

My Alternative: “Would you like to have lunch with some of my friends and me on Sunday afternoon?”

Why Does It Matter? 

  • The Bible never encourages us to bring unbelievers into a Christian worship setting/service. The biblical model for evangelism always finds Christians going to the lost rather than trying to bring the lost to Christians.
  • Although God can use a church service to help the lost see their need for Him, it could also be incredibly confusing to an unsaved person and cause him to be turned off to the gospel. The Christian culture is very foreign to the unsaved world and to immerse someone into that culture prematurely is like transplanting a New York businessman – suit, tie, and all – into the Amazon Rain Forest without providing the proper food, vaccinations, maps, etc. to help him get by. This is not an invitation that we should give a non-Christian lightly.
  • It’s easy to ask someone to attend a non-personal church service. But it’s vastly harder to have that person eye-to-eye with you at a restaurant where all your flaws are on full display. But guess which approach is more effective? Hopefully you guessed correctly – it’s the personal approach that involves one-on-one interaction, and it’s not just limited to eating out. The bigger issue is that we try to make it easier on ourselves by bringing the lost to a weekly church service, when the most effective way to reach them is by spending personal time with them and showing them love the other 6 days of the week.

Cliche #6: “Have you asked Jesus into your heart?”

My Alternative: “Have you responded to God by turning away from your sins and turning to Jesus for salvation through His obedient life (whereby He satisfied the demands of God’s Law) and death (whereby He satisfied the punishment required by God for your sins), believing that what Christ did is enough to save you from your sins and restore you to a loving relationship with God?”

Why Does It Matter? 

  • The Bible never describes salvation as “asking Jesus into your heart.” So the cliche itself lacks biblical precedence.
  • The closest Scripture comes to this is Romans 10:8-13, but these verses never mention a) asking Jesus anything – the core actions in these verses are confessing and believing, not asking, b) Jesus coming into anyone’s heart – the heart was viewed by biblical people as the core part of the person, and so Paul is simply stating that belief in the gospel must come from your innermost being and not be merely a head-knowledge, or c) that we need to ask whether or not a person is saved to begin with, as the cliche in question above assumes (although I concede that it could be helpful at times, but it’s not warranted from this text).
  • Since this “asking Jesus into your heart” concept isn’t biblical, it actually does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. It distracts people from responding properly to the gospel in repentance and faith.

Cliche #7: “Do you accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior?”

My Alternative: “Have you responded to God by turning away from your sins and turning to Jesus for salvation through His obedient life (whereby He satisfied the demands of God’s Law) and death (whereby He satisfied the punishment required by God for your sins), believing that what Christ did is enough to save you from your sins and restore you to a loving relationship with God?”

Why Does It Matter? 

  • The Bible never describes salvation as “accepting Jesus.” So the cliche itself lacks biblical precedence.
  • The term “lord” is virtually meaningless in our society. If we are going to use it with non-Christians, we need to give quite a bit of background into the way the Bible uses it first. And, in any event, how frequently do we need to discuss lord-ship when witnessing? I can’t think of any witnessing situation I’ve had where I felt like I needed to discuss it, and even if I did, I would try my best to discuss it in terms that make sense today, rather than being stuck on the word “lord.”
  • The term “savior” is also one that needs hefty explanation before tossing it around haphazardly in conversation with a non-Christian. The average un-churched person would be incredibly confused by the term. Who is this savior? Who is he saving? Why is he needed? What is he saving from? What happens after he saves? If you don’t answer those questions before using the term, your witness will likely be more confusing than eye-opening.

Cliche #8: “This could be the end of days.”

My Alternative: “Christ could return and establish His perfect, sinless kingdom on earth at any moment.”

Why Does It Matter? 

  • The “end of days” is a meaningless phrase. Days are not going to end. The power of sin on this earth is what will ultimately end when Christ returns.
  • Focusing on the “end of days” (or last days, last things, end times, etc.) makes Christians sound like they are gleefully waiting for the earth to self-implode. The reason we look forward to the end is because Christ promises to restore everything back to its pre-sin state, not because everything is going to be utterly destroyed. He’s coming to do a positive transformation, not to bring about destructive upheaval.
  • Focusing on the “end of days” (or last days, last things, end times, etc.) takes the focus off of Christ. The world talks a lot about the end of the world (if you don’t believe me, just wait until December, 2012), but it doesn’t talk much about Christ (at least not in a biblical sense). Christians aren’t supposed to be so easily distracted with current events that they lose sight of Christ in it all. And if we’re going to talk about the last days, the subject of the conversation needs to be Christ.

Cliche #9: “Jesus died for your sins.”

My Alternative: “God is totally perfect and set apart from His creation (i.e., holy). Because of this perfection and holiness, whenever we sin, we act in rebellion against Him and violate who He is. Sinning also demonstrates that we are following in the footsteps of Satan, who was the first “sinner.” When Satan sinned, God created hell as a place of eternal punishment for him and his followers; and so, as sinners and followers of Satan, we too deserve his punishment. But when Jesus came to earth, He lived a perfect life before God and died a sinner’s death of crucifixion, despite having never sinned. For those who turn away from their sins and turn to Christ for salvation, God has lovingly accepted Christ’s obedient life and death on the cross in the place of their sinful rebellion and punishment of hell that they deserve.”

Why Does It Matter? 

  • “Jesus died for your sins” assumes the audience understands a lot of very weighty doctrine. I disagree with Piatt here that this phrase should never be used, but I would agree that it should only be used when a very clear groundwork of the gospel has been laid. Christ’s atonement is impossible to grasp without first understanding the concepts of  sin, righteousness, the Law, God’s holiness, and His justice.
  • As I’ve already implied, this sentence totally ignores the all-important concept of justification, which can’t be understood without a firm grasp of the Law and Christ’s righteousness. How will a non-Christian understand this if you pull the “Jesus died for your sins” card on them without first explaining the other, equally important doctrines?
  • [Note: I’m not getting into the discussion of whether or not Christ died for the sins of all people or only of the elect as that isn’t the bigger issue here and wasn’t what Piatt was referring to anyway.]

Cliche #10: “Will all our visitors please stand?”

My Alternative: “I don’t think I’ve met you yet?” [courtesy of Josh Simons]

Why Does It Matter? 

  • Making visitors feel uncomfortable is something that many churches do quite well. Making visitors stand is the best way to make them feel uncomfortable.
  • This is a way that churches try to make it easier on themselves to identify visitors. Why should it be easy? Churches need to do their work to get to know who is (and who is not) a part of their church.
  • Church leaders should not be singling out the visitors from the pulpit. On the contrary, the people in the church should be taught to identify visitors quickly and put the focus on their relationship with them instead of their church attendance.
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    • Stacie
    • July 7th, 2012

    You spelled this out wonderfully. I will definitely make an effort to serve non-believers better by using theologically sound phrasing that they can understand better. I’m not sure I use any of those cliches, but often I just don’t say anything at all, for lack of knowing how to say things in a way that is concise and relevant. Reading this has definitely helped me. I agree that keeping our minds ever full of these bite-size truths/phrases will immensely help how we relate the gospel to those who need it! This is definitely a practical way to obey 1st Peter 3:15 “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Thanks for taking the time to put this together Stan!

    • While I appreciate what you are trying to do here I feel that you have missed the point of what Christian was saying in his article. It has to do with respect, not with phrasing. There is no one in this country who has never heard of Christ. If a person is interested, then he can go to church to check it out.

      To assume that you need to convert someone is to assume that you know what is best for that person. You don’t! Just because that person doesn’t share your ideology does not mean that he doesn’t have a spiritual relationship with God.

      You mentioned asking people what they believe. Again, this is simply a set-up because you assume that you are right and they are wrong. When I ask people about their beliefs it is because I am really interested, not because I want to change them.

      I can see that with many of your suggestions who wish to clarify things for the “non-believer” but it ends up sounding like a sermon. Keeping things simple would work better until you can gauge whether that person is receptive to what you are saying.

      I can tell that you are very ernest and sincere, however I think that you are still seeing your religion as something you have to “sell” and that turns most people off. Again it comes down to respect. It isn’t your job to tell me what to believe anymore than it is my job to tell you what to believe. It is as simple as that.

      • Hi Mary,

        Thanks for reading and for your feedback. I’m not sure that I agree that the entire issue for Piatt is respect and that the accuracy of the statements is irrelevant, considering he mentions many times that the cliches are poor choice because of their biblical or logical inaccuracy. I’m not saying that respect isn’t a major factor here, but even the most respectful person who says things that are inaccurate is doing his audience a disservice.

        It appears to me that you and I approach this subject from two totally different angles. For instance, I agree with you that I do not know what is best for a person, but I would argue that God does know and has revealed in the Bible what is the best thing for all of us. To not share that knowledge (humbly, of course; not in an I-know-what’s-best-for-you fashion) seems to me to be very selfish and unloving. Maybe you would disagree with me on that, but understand that many Christians share their faith, not because they feel like they have to tell everyone that they’re right, but because they genuinely want to help people experience God’s love in a new way.

        Your point is well-taken that when Christians share their faith they oftentimes aren’t interested in the other person. I never advocate that kind of faith-sharing, and I hope that it didn’t come across to any of my other readers that my blog advocates that. As a policy, I try to never force my faith into a conversation without it coming up organically. I recently had a chance to share my faith on a lengthy flight, and the person who I was speaking to was as excited about the conversation as I was because it came up quite naturally as we talked. But I didn’t try to change him at any point. That’s God’s job, not mine. We left the conversation with him understanding what I believed and I understood what he believed, and that was that. If God wanted to change him at that point, He would have done it without me having to artificially force it into our conversation. I can only plant the seed.

        Thanks again for stopping by and for taking the time to comment. Best of luck in your spiritual quest and with the blog you recently started.

        Stan

    • Thanks, Stacie. I appreciate your feedback.

  1. I was amused to see some of the uproar caused by the challenge to contemporary Evangelical theologies. I think Christian stayed well within the bounds of orthodoxy, though. Thanks for carrying on the conversation here, as well. I wound up writing a long response on my blog, much along the lines of what you’ve said: http://redemptionpictures.com/2012/07/06/tencliches/

    • Thanks, Micah. I actually landed on your blog earlier when one of my friends told me that Piatt’s post (which I had put on my Facebook page) was untrue and that I should read your response instead. (I’m assuming he came across your response through google.) I actually loved Piatt’s post as I feel like Christianity has become dreadfully cliche and full of twice-baked and remicrowaved theology. I agree that there appears to be very little theological controversy here except, in my opinion, that Christians should never say, “Jesus died for your sins.” It seems to me that that phrase is biblical, at the very least, to say to another Christian, even if it might be unbiblical or just confusing to say to an unbeliever.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Stan

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