Christ & Communication

Redeeming Eloquence for the Glory of God

You can stream or download the audio version of this sermon, presented to Christ Family Church on 5.27.12, by clicking here.

Eloquence: a style of speaking or writing that is intrinsically pleasing. Eloquence seeks a powerful verbal impact through an artistic, surprising, provocative, or aesthetically pleasing application of language.

There are right & wrong ways to use eloquence.

Wrong ways:

  1. Anti-oratory
  2. Over-eloquence

Right ways:

  1. Self-humiliation
  2. Christ-exaltation

Before we can speak about eloquence, we must discuss the building-blocks of eloquence: words…
The Gospel as it relates to words: (Special thanks to Justin Taylor and Tim Keller for these points)

    1. God has holy standards for how we are to speak & listen to words
      1. (Matthew 12:36-37) “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
      2. (Ephesians 4:29) “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
    2. Outside the completion of our sanctification, we won’t fully live up to God’s holy standard regarding the use of words.
      1. (James 3:8) “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
    3. Jesus fulfilled what humanity failed to do: His words were perfect words, without sin.  By His substitutionary death, His words became ours, & the punishment for our words  (indeed, for all of our failings) became His.
      1. (Hebrews 4:15) Jesus is our great High Priest, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
      2. (2 Corinthians 5:21) “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
    4. Our day-by-day failure to use our words properly comes from a functional rejection of Christ, the Word.
      1. If we accept that God has given us words for His purpose, then when we reject the purpose of words through the way we use them, it proves that we have rejected the giver of the words, as well.
        1. If Nathan gave me a mint-condition, 1965 Gibson J-45, & I turned it into a wall-clock, it would not only prove that I didn’t care much for the gift, but that I didn’t have any regard to the purpose of the giver.  The same is certainly true of the way we use words.

Language/words are God’s.  He used them 1st, He has a specific purpose for words (which is not primarily to make our lives more convenient), and we are always borrowing from Him when we use words. So, if we find that we habitually misuse His gift of language, we can know something about ourselves.

“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43-45)

So, when our words get us into trouble, it’s only ever secondarily because of our minds–whether that be our poor vocabulary, inferior diction, or total disregard for proper grammar–the trouble in communication is primarily a concern of the heart.  Our words get us into trouble because our hearts crave anything but Jesus!

“I am my greatest communication problem.  The greatest difficulty, the greatest danger, and the everyday traps of communication that we all fall into exist inside of me, not outside of me.” – Paul David Tripp

Our words are tools, and those tools always serve the king of their kingdom.

    1. If I am that king, then it’s a pretty small kingdom–as small as my own mundane life.  And those words will die with the kingdom.
    2. If God is the King, the words serve an eternal kingdom and fulfill the purpose for which God’s grace of words to us was given.

“You know nothing about the kingdom of God unless you understand that it is a kingdom of love. When you are filled with the glory of that love, when your heart is taken up by the mystery of that love, when what daily fills your heart is deep and worshipful gratitude for the miracle of divine love, then your words begin to be words of love, words of service, words of grace, words of encouragement, words of peace, and words that heal.” – Paul David Tripp

So, if we find our words serving us, and not Christ, hurting others, and not helping, tearing down instead of building up, or propelled by anything other than love, then we can be assured, we need Jesus to repair, not our tongues, but our hearts!

If that’s you, then pray to Him now, where you are, “I am Yours, Lord! Save me!”  There is no greater joy than to be His–redeemed by His blood and secure forever! Do not let such an opportunity pass you by, because we are not guaranteed another moment.

Confess your sins to God, turn from them, and believe that Christ has been crucified on your behalf–substituting the righteous for the unrighteous–and He is now seated at the right hand of God the Father, interceding on behalf of His children.

Make no mistake, one word meant for the harm of another person, one word meant to bring attention to you, rather than to Jesus, is an offense against an eternal God, and is therefore deserving of eternal punishment–do not delay in turning from the disastrous course of rebellion and to the delightful path of His grace!

Words are a matter of the heart.

As a reminder, Eloquence is a style of speaking or writing that is intrinsically pleasing. Eloquence seeks a powerful verbal impact through an artistic, surprising, provocative, or aesthetically pleasing application of language.

Let’s look at our text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-31

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Pay special attention to verse 17: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

Sin is, by nature, anti-social.  It works itself out through our use of eloquence by alienating our hearers from our message in primarily 2 ways:

1.  Anti-oratory

  1. Eloquence can either be, as John Piper said, “high eloquence” or “low eloquence.” Our words can be either distractingly over people’s heads, or distractingly dressed-down, messy, or profane.

(Ephesians 4:29) “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

    1. Anti-oratory is an application of these types of words or word styles which is aimed at harming either the message or the hearer (or, in many cases, the reader).
    2. While dulling the clarity of the idea conveyed, either by intentional misuse of language or by habitual neglect of one of God’s greatest physical gifts–our brains, anti-oratory portrays the speaker as crude and careless, and the scope of this way of communicating spans from grammar to vocabulary all the way to posture. Being in the deep south, I’m guessing that I won’t have to belabor this point, because I’m sure most of us have heard our mother’s say, “watch your mouth!” and we know exactly what I’m talking about when I say “distractingly dressed-down, messy, profane–anti-oratory use of language!”
    3. But, because a lot of you are probably, in your minds, replaying worn out recordings of southern preachers rattling off a list of sins that include “drinkin’, smokin’, cussin’, and hanging out with people who do…” Let me take a moment to say something:
      1. All language is necessarily socially-defined.  That is to say, words are culturally-generated symbols that convey ideas, and, just like different cultures use different words to describe the same ideas, different cultures also use the same words to describe different ideas.
      2. Profanity is a great example: I work with a lot with International Students, and, let me tell you, if I wasn’t aware of the cultural fluidity of the meaning of words, I could have gotten my feathers ruffled more than a time or two!
        1. They regularly use words in their homes, with and to their parents, that, had I pronounced when I was a kid, I would have spent 4 hours with a bar of soap in my mouth, and I would have been standing up, because my back side would have been waaaay too sore to sit on! But they can use that language, because in their cultures, the words convey different meanings and emotions.
        2. Just because a person speaks “English,” that doesn’t mean that their words mean the same thing as yours or mine, and vice versa!  There’s no such thing as a universally-defined cuss-word.  There’s a grey area in our speech that permits us to use the words that best communicate our ideas to our intended audience.
        3. Now, a word of caution: while some words that are considered “bad words” are really just generally impolite, there are some words which, in our culture, are intended only to hurt, and not to build up–condemning, judgmental, ungodly words, as well as graphically sexual words that bring to mind terrible ideas.  There’s no place for words like that in a Christian dialogue.
        4. But don’t miss the point! The biblical principle of Ephesians 4:29 is that wholesome communication must not be reduced to a certain set of words. The biblical standard is the intention of the heart.
        5. Furthermore, our calling, as Christians, goes way beyond what is culturally acceptable, and love always willingly sacrifices our own rights (including the right to a vocabulary) in order that we might give grace to others.
        6. So if you can use a word, any word, in a way that gives grace to your audience, then do it.  If not, don’t.

2.  Over-eloquence

  1. There is a great temptation among those who can speak well to use this gift in such a way as to elevate themselves.

This was the case of a certain group whom Paul was addressing in our text: 1 Cor. 1. (The Sophists)

The Sophists used eloquence and style of speaking as a goal in itself–as an intrinsic end.

Denis Donoghue wrote a book called “On Eloquence,” and he defined eloquence much the way the Sophists would have:   “Eloquence is a style of speaking or writing that is intrinsically pleasing without any reference to other aims.”

    1. We’ve already charged that Christians’ speech is to be propelled by love of God and love of others.  Since love was defined for us in the act of the crucifixion of Jesus, we know that our use of words will always be a misuse if it does not come from a desire to see God magnified and others served–regardless of merit or potential reciprocation of our love.
      1. 2 Corinthians 5:15 ~ Sin causes us to live for ourselves instead of others, but Christ died to free us from living for ourselves!
    2. The Corinthians had bought into the Sophists’ idea that eloquence was an end in itself, and they were aligning themselves within the Church with their favorite preachers!

(1 Corinthians 1:10-12) “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”

Paul’s opponents had mocked him as lacking eloquence (2 Corinthians 10:10)

Acts 18:24 tells us that Apollos was very eloquent in speech & that he was from Alexandria, which is where Philo had worked.  Philo was a tremendous front-runner of the Sophist movement, and there was, history tells us, a strong infiltration of Sophists in the education-system of Alexandria.  Apollos, no doubt, spoke like a Sophist!  He was slick-tongued, and very enjoyable to listen to.

That doesn’t mean he was a false-teacher, just that he was a clever wordsmith, and people were gravitating to him based on the way he spoke, rather than judging him primarily on the content of his speech.

They were doing the same thing to Paul, and to Cephas.  Paul rebuked them for caring more about the way that the gospel was presented than the gospel itself!

  1. The trap the Sophists had fallen into was that they were seeking their own glory as their chief end.  Their message wasn’t “Emmanuel, God is with us;” their message was “ME!” and not me with you, but me over you–better than you, smarter than you, and unreachable by you!

“Pride-sustaining, self-exalting use of words for a show of human wisdom is incompatible with finding your life and your glory in the cross of Christ.” – John Piper

Paul didn’t try to dress up the gospel to make it easier to understand or easier to swallow.  He spoke plainly about Christ crucified, and expected the Holy Spirit to do the work of conviction, regeneration, and sanctification.  He fully understood that his words were only a conduit of God’s grace, and that there was no point in him to try to persuade or trick people into believing.

The snare of over-eloquence has its roots in the same sin–the sin of pride and of self-worship–as ethnocentrism, the common human problem of refusing to empathize and assuming that my way is the best way, my culture is the best culture, everybody else should just learn to be like me, and they’ll be better. It’s the sin that led to the holocaust; it led to America’s abhorrent brand of slavery, and it leads to modern-day racism and hate-crimes every day!

I struggle so much with this sin, and I HATE IT! and this study has made me even more aware of my problem, even this week, even in writing these very words!

It’s one of the most pervasive of sins for me and for us, because it has infected us so subtly and deeply–into the very fiber of our identity!  We actually believe that we’re better than others at this or that, and so we act and speak so as to try to persuade others to believe it, too!

It is the darkest of demonic lies, and if we’re to give grace with our words, we have to cut the head off of this serpent living in our hearts!  *Remember that communication problems are heart problems.*

I HATE the number of times I had to plead for forgiveness and grace in writing this very sermon because I chose words that were “the best words to describe the idea,” rather than the best words for you to understand the idea!

The sin of self-worship worked out in over-eloquence had us teach English to whole tribes of native Americans, give them “Christian names,” and rob them of their cultural identity in the name of evangelizing the people-group, rather than “becoming all things to all people,” learning their culture and their language, and preaching the gospel to them in their words!

It is just as stupid to try to convert lost Russians by preaching to them in English as it is for me to insist that all of our online dialogue be qualified by the utmost care for the preservation of classical grammar-rules!

So what if it’s the official rule of the English language!  If people don’t understand my eloquence, then I may as well be speaking to them in Klingon!  Their ignorance of the gospel is an infinitely greater hazard than their ignorance of how to use a Thesaurus!

In north Georgia, this means that most of us need to familiarize ourselves with Spanish; so that we can speak words of grace to our neighbors, rather than allow our laziness to all but ensure their eternal damnation.

It means that some of you who have gifted minds for understanding language should take courses to become experts in speaking exotic languages that don’t yet have a translation of the Bible, in order that God’s lost sheep in other parts of the world might hear the gospel of Jesus Christ in words that resonate with them and be saved!

It means that others of us learn to use the language of our day, the way people best comprehend it, and in the method they best connect with, in order to cross the cultural barriers of age and technology and inject truth, love, and grace into their lives.

Did you know that Ruth Cantrell has an email address?  The oldest woman in our congregation is an email-fiend!  If she can use the internet to encourage the members of this congregation, then you can learn to use Facebook for the glory of God, and not just to build imaginary kingdoms, or gather and disseminate the latest gossip!

I’m willing to admit that I’m not the best example of what redeeming the internet looks like–not by any stretch!  I have put my digital foot in my proverbial mouth countless times after tweeting or blogging something, however truthful the words, that was harmful to my brothers or my sisters, but I’m trying to do better–I’m trying to use the tools of our day to communicate words of grace to people in their language and by their cultural means, and you should too.

A refusal to meet people where they are is absolute selfishness; it’s the opposite of love, it’s blatant sinfulness, and it is not at all following the model of Christ.

Right Ways to Judge Our Use of Eloquence:

1.  Self-humiliation

(1 Corinthians 1:26-29) “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

God’s design in the cross and in election is that “no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

Ask yourself:
Do my words feed boasting?
Do they come from an ego in search of exaltation through clever speech?

2.  Christ-exaltation

(1 Corinthians 1:30-31) “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

God’s design in the cross, in election, and in regeneration is that all boasting be in Him!

Ask yourself:
Do my words exalt Christ, especially Him crucified on my behalf?

So, can we use eloquence in a way that glorifies God or should it just be altogether avoided? Yes–certainly we can!

The Bible is full of eloquence!

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak,
and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching drop as the rain,
my speech distill as the dew,
like gentle rain upon the tender grass,
and like showers upon the herb.
For I will proclaim the name of the LORD;
ascribe greatness to our God!
(Deuteronomy 32:1-3)

Proverbs 15:23, 25:11, 26:7, & Colossians 3:17 actually encourage & command us to speak well–to give thought to the timing, appropriateness, and potential impact of our words–and to make every one of them an honor to the name of Christ!

We must accept, if we are to be true to Scripture, that God is absolutely sovereign over all things, and yet, He chooses to use human means to accomplish His will.  He certainly doesn’t need our eloquence, but He can and does use us to accomplish His ends.

If we use eloquence properly, we can hope, at least, for 5 positive, God-glorifying outcomes, knowing full-well that it is the Holy Spirit who convicts, regenerates, and sanctifies, and that He may, at any time, and in spite of our eloquence, or lack thereof, intersect our dialogue and work in the life of our audience.

5 Potential Positive Outcomes of Christian Eloquence:

(I stole these from John Piper, and since I already know I won’t have time to fully develop them as part of the sermon, I’ll let you do most of the digestion.  That’s why most of these points are raw quotations from his & Justin Taylor’s book “The Power of Words and the Wonder of God” which I heartily commend).

  1. Keeping Interest
  2. Gaining Sympathy
  3. Awakening Sensitivity
  4. Speaking Memorably
  5. Increasing Power

Keeping Interest:

Matthew 26:41

    1. We need to help people’s physical weakness!
      If the Word is a spring of life, then eloquence is a well-paved, beautifully-adorned road through the spring’s garden that not only leads to the water, but beckons travelers to drink!
    2. My presentation of truth has no bearing on the reality of that truth, but whether you hear it is, in very large part, a factor of how well I present it.

John Piper – “Artistic, surprising, provocative, or aesthetically pleasing language choices (that is, eloquence) may keep people awake and focused because they find it interesting or unusual or pleasing for reasons they cannot articulate. When the disciples fell asleep in Gethsemane, Jesus said, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). We need to help people’s weaknesses.

This is not conversion or even conviction or sanctification, but it is a serious means to those ends. Sleeping people or distracted people do not hear the Word, and faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word. Therefore, eloquence is like a good night’s sleep. It won’t save your soul, but it might keep you awake to hear the Word, which can save your soul. So a person’s style may keep you interested and awake to the same end.”

Gaining Sympathy

  1. If everyone, as John Acuff says, “has a rock in their hand,” made of all their cultural and experiential baggage–a rock they intend to clobber you with the moment you begin to act like they expect you to act, as a factor of whatever stereotype that rock represents, then eloquent language can take that rock out of their hand–disarm them–and it has the ability to replace that rock, or boredom, anger, resentment, and suspicion, with respect, attraction, interest, and concentration.

John Piper – “Artistic, surprising, provocative, or aesthetically pleasing language may bring an adversarial mind into greater sympathy with the speaker. If the language is interesting and fresh enough, obstacles may be overcome—boredom, anger, resentment, suspicion—and replaced with respect and attraction and interest and concentration. These are not conversion or conviction or sanctification, but they don’t drive a person farther away like boredom does. They may in fact draw a person so close to the light that Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

For example, [consider]… George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin for a moment. Whitefield’s eloquence overwhelmed Franklin. He did not think Whitefield was a sham. He admired him. He became one of Whitefield’s closest friends. Whitefield biographer Harry Stout says, “Franklin allowed himself to be drawn out on the subject of personal religiosity with Whitefield as with no one else, finding in Whitefield a listener he could trust—if not agree with.” Therefore, Whitefield could speak to Franklin about Christ as no one else could. He explained to Franklin with a smile: “I must have something of Christ in all my letters.” Who knows how close Whitefield came to winning Franklin to the faith—and all this because Whitefield’s eloquence overcame Franklin’s disdain for the Revival.”

Awakening Sensitivity

Eloquence may not bring about regeneration, but as a means to that end, it may awaken the emotional and intellectual sensitivities for more serious and beautiful things.

John Piper – “Fresh, surprising, provocative, aesthetically pleasing speech may have an awakening effect on a person’s mind and heart that is short of regeneration but still important as an awakening of emotional and intellectual sensitivity for more serious and beautiful things. If a poetic turn of phrase can cause people to notice the magnificence of the sun, their next step might be to see that the heavens are telling the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), and then they might confess Christ as the great sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2).

Is that not why David, the great poet of Israel, first says, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1), and then says, “In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy” (Ps.19:4–5)? Why compare the rising sun to a bridegroom and a runner? To help the dull mind awaken to the joyful beauty of the rising sun in the hopes that this natural kind of awakening might lead to the spiritual sight that nature is all about the glory of God.”

Speaking Memorably

John Piper – “Certain kinds of eloquence—cadence, parallelism, meter, rhyme, assonance, consonance [& alliteration & brevity]—may not only interest and awaken the heart but increase that impact by making what is said memorable, that is, more easy to remember or memorize.”

Increasing Power

  1. John Piper – “The attempt to craft striking and beautiful language makes it possible that the beauty of eloquence can join with the beauty of truth and increase the power of your words. When we take care to create a beautiful way of speaking or writing about something beautiful, the eloquence—the beauty of the form—reflects and honors the beauty of the subject and so honors the truth.”
  2. There is a synergistic power in combining beautiful presentation with beautiful truth.

(That’s why fajitas taste so good!)

All of our senses are telling us, “This food is going to be good!”  We hear it, smell it, it’s bright and exciting to look at, when it gets to the table, the waiter drops a shot of tequila on it and lights it on fire! (What’s more exciting than your food being on fire?!)  We’ve become so engrossed in the experience of being served the food, that we are able to most fully appreciate its flavor because our attention has already been drawn to the excellence of the cuisine before we taste it.

People who cannot yet see the beauty of Christ should receive in our language both a witness to His beauty and an invitation to behold it with us.  They should, in effect, hear us say, “The beauty of my words is [a] shadow. Christ, who created and sustains and mercifully accepts imperfect beauty, is the substance. Turn to him. Go to him.” (Piper)

And that is the calling for each of us as we fix our attention, once again, on Christ, crucified on our behalf, becoming sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.  Turn to Him. Go to Him!

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