Have you had those conversations, whether they be counseling, coaching, preaching, or evangelism, and you were sure you said everything the way it ought to be said? You wait for that pivotal moment when there is an extra breath between words in the conversation and let off the chain: the immense realities of Christ’s preeminence, the sovereignty of God, the glories of Christ’s active obedience and even manage to squeeze in a point on presuppositions before the clock runs out, only to look up and see their eyes more glazed over than a Dunkin Donut? You share the truths of the gospel only to find out they heard you, but didn’t understand you? Isn’t this Christ’s established way of growing the Church?
Paul testified to speaking the truth to grow the Church into the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:14-15). As opposed to expecting the same outcome from anything contrary to the truth of the gospel-like trying to make a good omelet out of bad eggs.
I can recall frustrations with similar scenarios as a leader to high school students. Until, closer attention to all of Paul’s instruction, ‘to speak the truth in love.” As Paul has said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or clanging symbol.” (1 Cor 13:1). I thought I brought gospel content, Paul said I was no more effective than a rim shot without love. This spoke into the issue at hand that while the truth was shared, the goal at hand (growth in Christ) seemed always to be missed. My mind reached back to my high school government class on “filibusters”. I realized what I had been doing was akin to what is seen in a legislative assembly- someone talking ad nauseum to avoid something being achieved. In the same way, I realized I had been doing that in many conversations with my words.
I had been guilty of filibustering with the gospel.
Filibustering with the Gospel: Indications and Implications
Gospel filibustering happens when the goal of speaking the truth is missed when the role of speaking the truth is switched, from loving others to self. Though this can be manifest in our speech, it’s more than a wordsmith issue. It’s deeper. Our speech doesn’t emerge from a vacuum, rather from our hearts, both the content and their course (Matt 12:34). In love, Jesus began to confront my method of speech. In challenging my wordiness he first challenged my heart.
The qualification to speak in love was alarmingly revelatory for the direction of my speech. I soon realized the questions I had been asking were all wrong. They were centered on the dysfunction of “who I spoke to”. His instruction quickly showed me the dysfunction of my question. Rather than ask, “Who did I speak to?”, I was asked “Who was I speaking for?” If not for them, then for who? Well, for myself. The ineffectiveness of my onslaught of gospel jargon was an issue not with the gospel, but with me. The issue wasn’t with the ‘isms’ and ‘tions’ themselves, but first with the proprietor of those words. Though my words presented gospel truths, it was merely a baptized way to exalt myself. The selfish direction of my speech was indicative of the love with which they were said. My love was counterfeit, so to was the goal of my words.
Implication: Hollow words = Hollow Power
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, let the cross of Christ be emptied of it’s power. 1 Cor 1:17
The phrase “eloquent wisdom” can be known as “cleverness of speech”. This cleverness may have particular reference to the ‘wisdom’ of the Sophists. A group of Greeks who taught persuasiveness and power through cleverness of rhetoric. Marked by the ability to exalt oneself as powerful, wise, and worthy of fame if they could hog tie imaginations with dilatory tactics. As the gospel came to Corinth, it clashed with this brand of thought. This may have been the backdrop that prompted the Gospel to be critiqued as foolish- echoed in critiques of Paul’s public speaking abilities (2 Cor 10:10).
Instead of caving, Paul wanted nothing of making synonymous the power of the gospel with the popular notion of persuasion through prideful, self-exalting speech. He says doing so would be emptying the cross of it’s power. Paul’s words here are staggering. There is a way we can talk about the what of the Gospel that if our why is inconsistent with the what, it’s running on ‘E’. Even now I’m hesitant to write that last sentence, but Paul doesn’t say “lest our words about the cross be emptied of their power”, but “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of it’s power.” This is the dangerous implication of filibustering with the Gospel. When issued from self-love, a plethora of parlance of the cross is actually powerless.
The gospel, it’s principles and purpose, is so antithetical to human pride that when our words of the gospel are serving the prideful purposes of self, it renders them useless. If we confuse the power of the gospel with the preponderance of pontification, it is like exchanging a nuclear weapon for a sidewalk popper. Though our words should be full of gospel theology, our gospel theology need not be full of words.
How does Jesus change our wordiness?
His love: What it is and what it does
What it is: Christ’s other-focused love
Identifying the counterfeit of self-love comes when you know the real McCoy of God’s love. Tim Keller writes about the relationship between Jesus’ death and God’s love, “Jesus didn’t have to die despite God’s love; he had to die because of God’s love. And it had to be this way because all life-changing love is substitutionary sacrifice.”*. The life changing love we see in the gospel is other-focused. This is characteristic of the love shared in the tri-une God of the gospel. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father (Matt 17:5- Isa 42:1, John 3:35, 5:20, 17:26) and the Spirit glorifies the Son and Father (John 14:26). This other-focused love was being shared before creation (John 17:24), “The “picture of God” is of one “whose love, even before creation of anything, is other-oriented”*. From God’s love then for us, Jesus’ substitutionary life and work wasn’t something done to us, but something done for us (Romans 5: 6, 8, 1 John 4:9). Being restored by the Spirit in community, we see our ability to love is from him and for others. The Church is the context where we see this subversive love change the direction of words and the way we say them.
What it does: Christ’s other-focused love
Only the substitutionary love of Christ can emancipate us from self-love and bring us, as entitled, “The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness” (2 Cor 4:14-15). Our sinful proclivity will unabashedly be toward the self. The Gospel brings to us the love of Christ, severing the power of sin and the momentum toward the self abates. Set free to forget ourselves, we see what love for others does to our words for others. As the priorities of our motives change, the particulars of our method will. When we speak for them, what we say and how we say it will change:
- Prayer: Praying that we are ourselves would be enraptured by Christ’s love for us, so that our words will be for those we’re talking to.
- Listening: Listening to them, we hear how we can speak into their lives for their sakes (Proverbs 15:23). Not just waiting for spaces to cram in our thoughts (James 1:19), but we can know how to ask questions and how to respond to keep us from making assumptions and speaking over them.
- Humility & Patience : If our words are for them and not for ourselves, then how someone reacts will not seem like an attack against us.
- Hope & Confidence: If our words are the truth of the Gospel spoken in Christ-like other focused love, then we can be hopeful that the power for change doesn’t come from us, but from the Gospel- the power of God (Rom 1:16).
- Explain your terms: This had more to do with ‘why’ than ‘what’, but there is a relationship between loving others and us making sure we do the heavy lifting in our communication. We want to bring them to Christ, but saying ‘Christology’ won’t necessarily do that.
*Tim Keller, King’s Cross, Dutton, 2011, page 141
**D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, Crossway, 2000, pg 44
Ben Riggs resides in Dayton, Ohio with his incredible and lovely bride Emily. He is Gathering Assistant at Apex Community Church and a house church leader in that area. He is the proprietor of pageflipping.blogspot.com. Ben has a passion to see the power and depths of the God’s gospel be drawn out for all aspects of life for God and others in God’s world.
Read more on how to share the gospel in Unbelievable Gospel by Jonathan Dodson