“Once saved, always saved.”
“God loves everyone.”
“Hell is the absence of God.”
“God helps those who help themselves.”
“All sin is the same to God."
I occasionally hear students repeat a slogan in class when they hear me say something that calls the slogan into question, or that directly contradicts a slogan. This is a shock for the students. The slogans are an oral tradition circulating in evangelical churches, a weak catechism of some of our most important beliefs.
If I make a theological slogan one of the answers on a multiple choice exam, most students will select it as the correct answer, even if I have singled out that slogan in class lecture as a mistaken, misleading, or inadequate expression of a theological concept.
This concerns me because the slogans are both widely prevalent and usually misunderstood. Often it seems that someone invokes a slogan to cut off hearing the biblical and theological evidence that might discredit the slogan, as if to say: “If I can say the slogan, then I don’t need to think about this subject any longer.” Slogans are memorable and oft repeated because they are important to us, or at least they speak on important topics.
“Love is the core of God.”
“Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.”
“Justification is God’s part; sanctification is our part.”
“Justification means just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned.”
Sometimes we use slogans as a sort of litmus test or shibboleth to indicate to others we are on the team, or to judge others as on our team (or on the other team). Slogans are superficially efficient, fast, and seem to connect us to large masses of content. Unfortunately, many people know only the slogan, and not the mass of content that the slogan is a symbol to represent it. With that disconnect, the user interprets the slogan as she wishes, and may venture far afield from truthful moorings. What may have started as a theology connected to the Bible, becomes expressed as a slogan without carrying the connections to the theology and the Bible. The slogan may have the appearance of theological wisdom or piety, but lacks or even betrays the truth.
“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”
“God can’t be in the presence of sin.”
“God hates the sin but loves the sinner.”
Some slogans are intentionally or carelessly constructed in a pejorative way to mock some theological tradition or claim, as with the straw man fallacy. Calvinists poke fun at Arminians, and Arminians return the jibes. Protestants and Catholics construct false statements of each other’s theology and practice. These are bad too, since they intentionally misrepresent theology that we happen to disagree with, and pass on those distortions to others who may not realize that an exaggeration is part of the fun. Maybe we should limit our jokes to other things than theology.
Francis Schaeffer urged the church to develop fresh terms to express the truth of Christianity in ways that would be clear and not mistaken. Perhaps we need to beware of clichés that are also shorthand for proper items of faith and practice. Maybe we need to resist the attraction of oversimplifying our language for theology, and retain the complexity that is harder to grasp. Do we always mean what we say by our clichés, and do we always understand them? Do others understand us when we use slogans and clichés?
“Have you asked Jesus to come into your heart?”
“It’s for the glory of God.”
“It’s a Spirit-filled church.”
“I’m hoping for a breakthrough.”
“It’s not all about you [it’s all about God].”
“He’s a hyper-Calvinist.”
Ours is a society that often retains a veneer of biblical truth through slogans and Christianese. Maybe it’s time to speak more carefully about the realities of Christian faith and practice, even if we have to use fresh ways to articulate them.