Author Archives: Dr. Larry Dixon

About Dr. Larry Dixon

Seminary professor, teaching systematic theology and other topics. Grandfather, wicked tennis & table tennis player, loves playing chess on Please check out the ten books I've written. "The heart cannot rejoiced in what the mind rejects as false!"

Back to the Basics! Introductory Matters #10 Theological Language!

In this last post on introductory matters, we might seem a bit defensive.  The study of theology is often attacked, it seems to me, for its language, its use of technical terms.  “Oh, I could never study theology!”, one might say. “The vocabulary is just too, uh, daunting!”

Well, daunting or not, here’s an essay I wrote a few years back on the need for theological language.  I hope you find it helpful and maybe a bit entertaining!

Theologese: The Language of Theology

The language of doctrine is often perceived as indecipherable and confusing. But technical language is a part of everyday life. Whether one is getting one’s car repaired or playing a game of chess, technical language is used by those who care about their area of knowledge. This objection to the technical language used in the study of doctrine deserves an extended response.

I discovered that when I was in the market for a CD player, I became very interested in the words used to hawk one brand over the other. In fact, I even enjoyed my time of comparison-shopping. But first I had to learn to navigate my way through the verbal sea of CD language.

There were a number of questions I had to answer before laying down my hard-earned plastic to purchase what was to me new technology. Did I want “Introscan”? With or without “Cue and Review”? Was a “30 Track Memory” going to be enough, or more memory than I find myself (a number of years over 30) possessing these days? “Bitstream” sounds impressive – would I regret buying a model without it?

I’m sure I mixed up the ads for CD players with those for other technical equipment. If the CD player comes with a hard disk drive, how exactly does one go about softening it up? If it comes with “double azimuth,” will that mean that a single person can’t listen to it? If the model I buy has a “Video Accelerator Card,” what do I do if I don’t want the music to play that fast? “Mash 1 bit technology” sounds like the CD player is broken before I even get it home to take it out of the box. I know that I need “8X oversampling,” but don’t ask me what the value of “X” is, or exactly what it will do for me.

What I really wanted in a CD player were practical features, such as: Do they

“Will this article never END?!”

make a model which will hopefully melt my son’s “Blind Melon” CD’s? Will a “Graphic equalizer” edit out the embarrassing lyrics of my
daughter’s friends’ CD’s which she might naively borrow? None of the advertisements answered my real question, a very practical one, which was, “How often do I have to replace the needle – and why doesn’t the manufacturer tell you whether it is a diamond stylus or one made out of Philippino bamboo?”

I finally bought a CD player, and let my son do the technical things with it, like turn it on. After all, he’s earned the right to push the buttons – he’s the one who programs our VCR.

The fact is, when we put our minds to it, we are able to learn the language necessary to make a reasonable decision. Interest and effort frequently provide sufficient motivation to learn the lingo. And terms are not always terminal; I actually enjoy explaining the features of my CD player to others.

The Usefulness of Technical Language
There are a number of benefits of technical language. The first is that it can aid communication. Imagine the following, admittedly improbable, scenario: A surgeon is in the middle of an operation, and, with perspiration beading up on his forehead, he says, “Nurse, quick! I need one of those metal things that works like a backwards sissors, because this patient’s tube thing is shooting out that red stuff pretty fast!” As the nurse ransacks the supply carts to find what the surgeon needs, the patient bleeds to death. Leaving the operating room, the doctor is met by the grieving – and very angry – nurse who demands, “Doctor, why in the world didn’t you simply bark out the order for a hemostat?”

Technical terminology is a kind of verbal shorthand that allows effective communication between parties who have the same understanding of the subject. But scholarly disciplines such as theology and medicine are not alone in their use of such language.

Occasionally, the highly sensitive side-line microphones used in the broadcasting of NFL football games pick up the quarterback’s instructions being given to the rest of the team in the huddle. Talk about technical language! “Slant- z-outlet six/eight, draw sneak – on three – break!” If I were in that huddle, I would grab the left half-back next to me, shake him, and have just enough time to panic and ask, “Huh? Whadda he say? Where do I go?” Time is at a premium in play-making, and communication needs to be precise. Those who belong in that huddle have spent long hours memorizing the plays. Such verbal shorthand communicates quickly and effectively. Those who don’t know the jargon have no business being on the playing field. In Christianity, however, every follower of Christ is on the team – and in the stadium. But being barely in the stadium isn’t enough; the plays need to be learned so that the Christian can leave the sidelines and get in the game!

For a number of summers I shed my professor’s jacket and tie for a completely different outfit. I served as a registered volunteer baseball umpire in Canada. Having grown up in North Carolina, I love the game of baseball and joined the umpiring ranks several years ago. There’s a correlation between theologizing and umpiring, for the expression “You’re outta here!” can be used equally well with heretics in the church or unsuccessful third-strike bunters at the plate.

I did not become wealthy umpiring baseball games during the summer. At $10 a game, it took me seven years to pay off my expensive uniform (umpire’s mask: $60; chest protector: $55; plastic ball/strike counter: $5; shin guards: $45; miscellaneous, uh, protective equipment: $8; etc.).

Are you aware of the technical language in the game of baseball? (I mean words that are more than four letters long). A “foul tip” is not the same as a “foul ball.” A “balk” is an illegal act by the pitcher attempting to purposely deceive a base-runner. Other terms include “appeal on half-swing,” “double touch on a fair ball,” “interference of B-R to interfere with double play,” “minimal presence” (I’m sure this is true of some of my theology students), and my all-time favorite expression, the infamous “infield fly rule.” This rule is not a statement about a superior class of flying bugs, but rather an attempt to prevent the defensive team from purposely dropping a pop fly in the infield to initiate a double-play. But listen to the official rule-book:

“An infield fly is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out. When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare “Infield Fly” for the benefit of the runner. If the ball is near the baselines, the umpire shall declare “Infield Fly, If Fair.” The ball is alive and runners may advance at the risk of the ball being caught, or retouch and advance after the ball is touched, the same as on any fly ball. If the hit becomes a foul ball, it is treated the same as any foul. When an infield fly rule is called, runners may advance at their own risk. If on an infield fly rule, the infielder intentionally drops a fair ball, the ball remains in play despite the provisions of Rule 6.05 (L). The infield fly rule takes precedence.”

Clear? I personally think the infield fly rule was actually dreamed up by an infielder who always dropped infield flies to make it appear that he was doing so intentionally.

The fact is all of us learn the technical language necessary for coping with a variety of issues – and adventures. Let’s say that you are visiting the Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico. As the guide leads you around a sharp and fairly dim underground bend, she suddenly shouts, “There’s a stalactite around this corner. Watch out!” The question is, do you duck – or do you jump? Knowing that a stalactite is a projecting downward formation of calcite from the roof of a cavern and that a stalagmite is a projecting upward formation of calcite from the floor of a cavern, you have enough sense to duck as you go around the bend. As others in the tour party get smacked on the head, you pat yourself on the back because you learned your high school teacher’s memory device that a stalactite is a formation which holds tight to the ceiling, while a stalagmite juts mightily up from the floor!

By the way, language which aids communication doesn’t have to be elaborate to be effective. Imagine that you are in a crowded theater. The play has just begun when all of a sudden a man in the third row stands to his feet, turns to face the audience, and cries out, “My olfactory organ is registering a vaporous essence which indicates the presence of noxious, pyrogenic activity in the approximate vicinity of this domicile!” Some would tell him to sit down and be quiet, some would not know how to react, and others would exit the theatre as quickly as they could. It would have been far better for him to have simply stood to his feet and shouted, “FIRE!”

Technical language facilitates discussion between those who have mastered common words in their area of discussion. For outsiders, those terms may seem like secret passwords that they do not know. But passwords (if not kept secret) can be learned, and a learned password admits one into what we might call the communication clubhouse, so that real discussion can begin. In theology, the terms are more than passwords; they are frequently a vital part of the discussion itself.

Technical language not only aids discussion, but secondly, it develops precision in dealing with concepts. One writer said that “If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind, give it more thought.” Theological terms (such as the term “Trinity”) have been coined by dedicated scholars not to obscure the truth for the uninitiated, but to encapsulate the truth for those who take it seriously. In a discipline such as doctrine, where the subject matter (God and the things of God) could not be greater, it is logical that exact expressions would develop to aid students of Scripture in grasping its concepts.

Imprecision is occasionally found in laymen who misuse technical language. An older man recently told me that his friend had to enter the hospital for prostrate problems. I did not correct his language (he really meant prostate); but I was reminded that most Christians I know, including myself, have prostrate problems (we find it awfully difficult to prostrate ourselves before the Lord). Our confidence in a medical doctor, however, would be somewhat lessened if he or she used the wrong term to describe that particular condition. Precision in medical language is a prerequisite for those who have the awesome task of practicing the cure of the human body.
But why are our expectations different for those who are charged with the “cure of souls”? The spiritual ills which plague Christians necessitate precise language if theological therapy is going to be effective. Theological exactness is simply one evidence of taking the discipline and its truths seriously.

Audience and Language
When I first began teaching in Bible college, I remember the great statesman of American Evangelicalism, Carl F.H. Henry, coming to our campus to deliver a series of lectures on theology. He began the first of his four addresses to our students and faculty with the words, “Good morning.” I didn’t understand a thing he said after that, and I was the theology professor! As a scholar, Dr. Henry has in his long life left us an impressive legacy of important writing in defense of biblical orthodoxy, but as a communicator to undergraduate Bible college students, he left us at the station!

Dr. Henry’s presentation is an example of an important principle: one’s audience determines one’s language. A truly educated person is one who can put into words understandable by his audience the truths which he wishes to communicate. Norman Cousins is right when he says, “It makes little difference how many university courses or degrees a person may own. If he cannot use words to move an idea from one point to another, his education is incomplete.” It is the communicator’s task to use language which communicates rather than confuses.

I am told about a sign which was posted in a government office which read, “The man who knows what he is talking about can afford to use words everyone understands.” The assumption in that statement is that the speaker is talking to everyone, and sometimes that is simply not the case. A contractor discussing the construction of your new kitchen with the finishing carpenter is going to use language, probably fairly technical, which communicates quickly and effectively. That contractor will likely not use the same language with you, the customer.

Perhaps the best example of someone proficient in the use of audience-sensitive language was C.S. Lewis. He could write children’s fiction (The Chronicles of Narnia) which anyone can understand, but he could also engage in vigorous debate over theological, philosophical, and philological* issues, demonstrating his expertise as a literary critic. He practiced what he preached, and his challenge to Christians needs to be heeded:
“You must translate every bit of your Theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome and it means you can say very little in half an hour, but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.” (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970), “Christian Apologetics,” p. 98.).

Lewis is right regarding the double benefit of translation. Using language understandable by one’s audience presupposes both an interest in its response and an effort not to confuse.

We have seen that technical language can assist communication and develop precision. It can, thirdly, increase confidence (both in the listener as well as the speaker). Mr. Brown brings in his 1973 Datsun for service. The mechanic looks under the hood, and says, “Mr. Brown, I know exactly what your car’s problem is. You see that thingamabob next to that whatchamacallit? It’s all clogged up with that slippery stuff that comes out of that other doohickey next to it. Barnie,” he calls out to the other mechanic, “what do we call that part, anyway?” Such a discussion would not build your confidence in that mechanic. And if you want to fix your `73 Datsun, or become a mechanic yourself, you’d better be prepared to learn some technical language.

Granted, some technical language (especially that used in advertising) instills not confidence, but cynicism, in an audience. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen about all the television ads I can handle hawking Dristan “with Ammonia-D.”) There is probably a “believability threshhold” which determines when technical language ceases to be a help, and becomes a hindrance.

Fourthly, I would argue that a certain mastery of technical language increases one’s enjoyment of a subject. I am an avid chess player. Notice I did not say a successful one. Bobby Fisher can remain in seclusion, but I do enjoy playing. Mostly I have a chess game going on my office computer while I am grading students’ papers. I refuse to buy any wise-cracking chess program which hurls abuse on novice players like myself who take a whooping twenty seconds to make their chess moves. I am sure my computer thinks I have some dastardly plan up my sleeve whenever I make such a quick move. Because I don’t think very far ahead in chess, I make many silly mistakes, and I usually lose to my computer. Sometimes my only consolation is that I can always turn off the computer before it beeps that annoying beep to inform me that I have been checkmated.

On a recent church retreat, I played chess with one of the men who attended. I had my pawn on the fifth rank when he moved out his pawn two spaces, landing beside my pawn in the process. I then initiated the move known as an en passant. That is a perfectly legal move in which one can take one’s opponent’s pawn by moving behind it (rather than taking it in a diagonal fashion as is customary). The fellow I was playing looked at me as if I didn’t know which pieces went where on the board!

He knew that I was a theologian (which probably explained his suspicious look), but I assured him that I had performed a textbook chess move. After I explained en passant, he surrendered his pawn to me (reluctantly, I might add), then proceeded to look for opportunities to subject me to the same move! Needless to say, he never succeeded, although he did unfortunately win the game as I studiously guarded my beleaguered pawns. I believe he will enjoy chess more since he has learned the manoeuvre known as en passant. By the way, I don’t ever want to play him again. But the point is that terminology can increase one’s enjoyment of an activity or subject.

All of this is meant to say that the objection to doctrine’s terminology is greatly exaggerated. No matter whether one is engaged in scuba-diving, needlepointing, or volleyball, technical language exists and is learned by those who care the most about the particular activity or discipline.

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Posted by on February 20, 2018 in theological language


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Back to the Basics! Introductory Matters #9 Essentials and Distinctives!

Today’s topic is a critical one — one which often divides Christians from one another. And part of the issue is that we sometimes don’t divide from one another when we should!

I’m talking about the area of essentials and distinctives. By “essentials” we are referring to the Christian truths that all Christians everywhere should affirm (the deity of Christ, His atoning work, the authority of the Bible, etc.). By “distinctives” we are thinking about the many areas where sincere believers have different opinions — and where the Bible is less clear on what we ought to believe on those issues (for example, what translation should one use?, Is Jesus returning before or after the Tribulation?, Have the miraculous gifts ceased?, etc.).

One man’s distinctive might well be another man’s essential. Liberals have no essentials. All theological points are preferences to them. A raging fundamentalist has no distinctives. All issues are of first-level importance to him or her.

The Reformers used a term that I think is valuable. They referred to the perspicuity of Scripture. By that they meant the clarity of the Bible. Is the Bible equally clear on all matters? It is, thankfully, perspicuous on the essentials of the Christian faith.

For example, Romans 14:5 says, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” We do not have to hold exactly the same opinions about every issue in life! (to be continued)

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Posted by on February 19, 2018 in essentials and distinctives


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Back to the Basics! Introductory Matters #8 Systematic Theology?!

We’ve been thinking through some of the issues of a preliminary nature that need to be discussed before we get into the major areas of Christian doctrine. How one defines faith, the reality of heresy, the need for good philosophy, etc. are important topics to touch on before tackling the categories of God, the Bible, the Church, etc.

As we look at the material of the Bible, how ought we to organize and summarize what we find? There are essentially two ways to approach the biblical “data.” One way is to begin at Genesis and read straight through the Scriptures, collecting the truths we find, for example, on the doctrine of God. This is looking at the biblical material chronologically, sometimes called “biblical theology.”

“Biblical theology” is a term used by some in other ways, but we are referring to the collecting of Scriptural truth as it is progressively revealed in the 66 books of the Bible. There is value in seeing how, for example, the doctrine of the atonement (how God saves us) is gradually unfolded in the pages of Scripture (beginning, of course, with the proto-evangelium in Gen. 3:15).

Our approach in these posts, however, is called systematic theology. With a systematic theology approach, doctrines are looked at from a logical perspective. The data of Scripture are collected into logical categories (everything the Bible says about the Person of Christ, for example) and analyzed.

I don’t believe one approach is better than the other. They are just different ways of collecting the same material. The real question is what does the Bible as a whole say about the doctrine of __?

Some would say that the Bible might contain some examples of systematic theology, such as I Timothy 3:16 where we read, “Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.” (I Tim. 3:16)

Regardless of which approach one takes, aren’t you thankful for the many truths about our wonderful Savior?

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Posted by on February 18, 2018 in systematic theology


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Back to the Basics! Introductory Matters #7 THE FAITH!

There are many issues that could be considered under this category of “Introductory Matters.” We’ve briefly looked at a definition of faith, how everyone (to some extent) lives by faith, what’s meant in the Bible by “belief,” the danger of heresy, etc.

Let’s spend one more post on this issue of FAITH. But not in the sense of one’s belief or trust in the Lord. The expression “the faith” is used in the Scriptures to refer to the content of truth which has been revealed by God.

We noticed earlier Jude’s challenge to “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” (Jude 3). Notice the expression: the faith.

That same expression is used about 19 times in this way:
Gal. 1:23- “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”

Eph. 4- 4 “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Acts 14- 21 “They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.”

Acts 16- 4 “As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”

2 Cor. 13- 5 “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?”

I Cor. 16- 13 “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.”

2 Tim. 4- 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

We are told to reprove false teachers that they may be “sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). In later times some will fall away from the faith (I Tim. 4:1). Believers are to be nourished on the words of the faith and sound doctrine (I Tim. 4:6). I Timothy 6 says 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.  Later in that same chapter we read: “20 Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, 21 which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith.”

Galatians 3:23 speaks of the time “before the faith came we were under the law.” In chapter 6 we read “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (the household of the faith).

In Acts 6 we read, “7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

In Romans 10 we read, “8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith (literally “the faith”) that we proclaim: 9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Luke 18:8 asks, will Jesus find the faith upon the earth when He returns”

Summary: The faith is something some want to destroy! There is one faith we must acknowledge. We are to encourage others to remain true to the faith, to stand firm in the faith, to keep the faith. Churches are to be strengthened in the faith. We are to engage in self-examination to see if we are in the faith. False teachers need to be reproved so they may be sound in the faith, for some will fall away from the faith; some will wander away from the faith. Some will depart from the faith.

A question:  What will you do today to spread THE FAITH to others?



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Posted by on February 17, 2018 in The Faith


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Back to the Basics! Introductory Matters #6 Philosophy!

We have been thinking through a few issues of an introductory nature that need to be discussed before we get into the specific subject areas of God, the Bible, Christ, the Holy Spirit, etc. [For those of you who like technical words, this area of study is called PROLEGOMENA, literally, “things you discuss first.”]

There are many of these preliminary matters to be considered. This morning we want to consider the issue of philosophy. “Philosophy” is the love of wisdom. How does philosophy relate to theology (the study of God and the things of God)?

The Apostle Paul says in Colossians 2:8- “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” Philosophy can quite easily become theology’s enemy, especially if it elevates the thinking of fallen man above the infallible Word of God.

But notice that Paul warns against “hollow and deceptive” philosophy, not philosophy in general. If one’s philosophy is how one views life, everyone has one, and needs to have the best one possible!

Paul knew philosophy, especially Stoic and Epicurean philosophy (as we see in Acts 17). We need to know various philosophies today IF we want to relate to where people are in their thinking.

We are not to put down good philosophy, but test it by the word of God. I love the quote from John Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Baines Johnson: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

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Posted by on February 16, 2018 in philosophy


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Back to the Basics! Introductory Matters #5 Practice!

What we believe is critical. Faith, in the Scriptures, is not wishful thinking or unreasonable hope. It is a conviction founded on solid evidence.

But faith is more. It is life change. True faith must show itself by works (see the letter of James for his broadside on this issue). When we make faith merely cognitive propositions or cerebral conclusions, our convictions become only internal. Biblical faith is much more than what we think. It is what we do and how we live.

Sheer belief, by itself, is meaningless mental ideas devoid of practical proof. James 2:19 says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder.” But demons aren’t saved; they aren’t redeemed. However one part of their theology is correct — they are trembling monotheists!

2 Peter 1 is quite clear that we must work out our faith — and this working out is a life-long task. Peter says, 5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

We are to work on the additives of Christian faith: goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. Peter says we are to “make every effort to add to your faith . . .”

How’s your addition going? Faith is more than thoughts. It is actions, attitudes, and characteristics of the Lord Jesus!

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Posted by on February 15, 2018 in practice


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Back to the Basics! Introductory Matters #4 Heresy!

Before we study the areas of Bibliology (revelation and the Scriptures), Theology Proper (the doctrine of God), Christology (the doctrine of Christ), etc., we need to talk about some preliminary issues.

We’ve talked a bit about faith, the need to struggle for the truth, and the concept of belief. Belief in the Bible is not gullibility, but a reasoned decision to align oneself with God’s reality.

The opposite of truth, of course, is heresy, a word that means “choice.” Why are Jehovah’s Witnesses heretics? They affirm the existence of God, the inspiration of the Bible, and the need of salvation. They are heretics because they choose to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of the Lord Jesus, and salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

“Heretic” is a strong word conjuring up images of people being burned at the stake. But heresy, untruth, is all around us. It may take the form of a formal denial of biblical truth or the spirit of the age which tells us to live for ourselves.

Jude writes to urge us “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” And that sometimes involves dealing with heresies.

(I’ve written a short booklet entitled Whatever Happened to Heresy which you can order here).



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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in heresy


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