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Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel
Chapter 2 - The Gospel as Words
Jacob A. O. Preus

Go to Chapter 1

But now He has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation - if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the Gospel. This is the Gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. (Colossians 1:22-23)


Centuries ago, Shakespeare penned the famous lines:
What's in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.1

Yet names have the power to identify, clarify, and describe. To have someone's name is to have the person.

What name do we give to this "rose" known as the doctrine of justification? What language do we use to say the sweet message of the Gospel? The Bible gives us a deep and rich language, one laden with colorful metaphors that speak of the wonderful things our God has done for us in Christ Jesus. We have many ways to say the truth of justification, many names to give it. Each delivers its own share of the truth of God's love for us.

Pastors who preach the Gospel every week and believers who desire to tell friends and relatives about Jesus Christ often tire of saying or hearing the Gospel in the "same old way." Much of the language seems antiquated. The concepts seem foreign and unusual to 21st-century minds. The Gospel has an aura of "churchliness," of otherworldliness, that, frankly, sounds strange in the ears of modern people.

Christians often get the idea that to make the Gospel more palatable or exciting we must create new categories, new forms of language, new images that better reflect what's happening in the world. These new categories, insofar as they accurately reflect what Scripture says about God's saving action in Christ, may help to make the Gospel more intelligible. Yet the primary task is not to come up with new ways to say the Gospel, but to return to and revitalize the old ways to say it.

Scripture is a veritable gold mine of terms and metaphors that are vivid and descriptive of God's love in Christ. Furthermore, these words and phrases are sanctioned by the inspired writers of sacred Scripture. The holy writers used these words to describe the results of Christ's justifying work. Teachers and preachers of the Word have used such scriptural language throughout all the ages of the church. There is a solidity and substance to these biblical words that new categories or metaphors for the Gospel do not possess. Whether in the Bible or conveyed in classic theological works, liturgies, or devotional works, the Gospel words and phrases of Scripture protect us from the errors to which more time-bound metaphors may be susceptible. Their familiarity, however, also may cause us to take them for granted and may lead to a failure to appreciate them as powerful, evocative, and living metaphors.


The word metaphor describes this biblical language of the Gospel. What does it mean, though, to talk about Gospel and metaphor? First, metaphor does not mean that the Gospel is unreal or mythical or symbolic or representational or anything else that would erode its power for the salvation of the world.2 Christ is, and was during His earthly ministry, real. God's incarnation is real. Christ's work is real. The benefits of His work for us are real. God really did become incarnate - come in the flesh-in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

This God/Man really did live, serve, suffer, die, and rise from the dead, just as the Scriptures say. The effects of His work on our behalf are real, actual, historical. In fact, it is on this reality, this solidity, this one foundation, that our entire faith rests. This is the reality on which the church stands and falls. From this reality arises the reality of Christ's promise and presence for us in the sacraments and the Word.

God is not a metaphor; He is real. The descriptions we have of God in Scripture are not metaphorical.3 God really is Father, though in a way far deeper and more perfect than we have ever seen or can imagine. God is truly Father, as the Bible says, and this is a meaningful statement. However, He is not Father in the same sense that we experience fatherhood because we are sinful and finite. God is Father in a fuller, more complete sense, in an infinite sense that we never can know fully. Although fatherhood as we know it is analogous to the way God is Father, it is not identical to it in every respect.

How do we spell out the implications for us today of Christ's life, suffering, death, and resurrection? How do we articulate the benefits of Christ's real, historical actions for all the world for all time? The facts of history are literally true. But much of the language we use to explain the facts of history is metaphorical.

Despite this extensive discussion of metaphor, there has been no simple definition of metaphor. Definitions abound. Differences of opinion exist even among the experts. Furthermore, it is not always easy to distinguish a metaphor from some of its semantic cousins, including simile, analogy, synecdoche, catachresis, and metonymy. It is not possible to enter into a full discussion of language here. Nevertheless, a brief definition of metaphor and the other figures of speech is necessary.4


A simile is the rhetorical device that is most similar, at least in a superficial sense, to a metaphor. It is usually regarded as a simple comparison of one thing to another, and it includes the words "like" or "as." An example of a simile is "Sherry is like a rose." The comparison sheds light on the subject: Sherry is, by means of this simile, seen to be beautiful, delicate, sweet-smelling, and so forth. Of course, Sherry remains Sherry and the rose remains the rose. Not all of a rose's components transfer well to Sherry. For example, Sherry does not have thorns that prick, does not go dormant in autumn, and is not susceptible to mites. A simile often uses a subject that is reasonably well-known to explain something that is impossible for humans to fully understand, such as when we say that light is like waves. Our common knowledge of waves helps us to more fully understand the nature of light, a phenomenon that is less commonly known to us.5

The term analogy signifies several things. It can refer to a type of relationship, such as when we say that membership in the church is analogous to a marriage between husband and wife (Ephesians 5). Analogy also can designate a kind of argument (based on the kind of analogy just suggested). It is, however, linguistic analogy that is of particular interest for Scripture. Analogy is a linguistic device whereby language is "stretched" to fit new applications. Thus, a word retains a central core of meaning but also comes to have a wider range of application. For example, though once appropriate to horses, riding is now used in reference to bicycles or cars.6 An analogy is different from a metaphor because from its inception, an analogy is appropriate, but a metaphor appears shocking at first. Metaphor is a greater "stretch" than analogy. More components of meaning naturally transfer in an analogy than in a metaphor. There is much greater correspondence between two things that are analogous than when metaphor is employed.

Synecdoche is a rhetorical device whereby one moves from genus to species or vice versa.7 In other words, we refer to the whole by naming a part or we refer to a part by naming the whole. For example, "The ships opened fire" really means "The guns on the ship opened fire." In synecdoche, we mention the whole while intending a part.8 On the other hand, if we say, "The hearts of all people are sinful," we do not mean that only the heart (and not any other part) is sinful. In this example, we use synecdoche - naming a part but intending the whole.

Metonymy is similar to synecdoche. Metonymy means giving a thing a name that belongs to one of its attributes.9 In other words, we use an adjunct to stand for the whole. When the newspaper reports, "The White House said yesterday ...," it really means, "The President said yesterday ...." White House is an attribute (the residence, office, etc.) of the president.10

Catachresis gives a thing that lacks a proper name a name that belongs to something else. It is a type of metaphor that supplies a term where one is lacking in the vocabulary. This is how the base of a mountain became known as the "foot" or the item on which the text of a book appears became known as a "leaf." In other words, catachresis "is the activity of filling lexical gaps."11


We have come full circle to the definition of metaphor, the richest and most powerful of all rhetorical devices. Perhaps Aristotle's classic definition is a good place to begin: Metaphor is "the application of an alien name by transference."12 In other words, a term belonging somewhere else is used in an unusual context, as when we say, "Sherry is a rose"; "Time is a thief"; or "Christ's death on the cross is a victory."13

Notice the difference between a metaphor and a simile. A simile would say: "Sherry is like a rose"; "Time is like a thief"; or "Christ's death on the cross is like a victory." Similes communicate a much softer comparison. A simile involves the transference of fewer components of meaning. A simile seems to highlight not only which aspects of "cross" and "victory" are similar, but also which are different. It leaves both "cross" and "victory" unchanged.

Metaphor, on the other hand, invites a more penetrating comparison, almost an identification. In fact, a metaphor blurs the distinction between "cross" and "victory" to the point where the words begin to take on a meaning they did not have prior to their juxtaposition in the metaphor. The metaphor "creates new meaning" as neither "cross" nor "victory" is left unchanged in the process. Both are seen in a new light because they were placed together by the metaphor.14

A metaphor is something done to and with language, or as Nelson Goodman has suggested in highly metaphorical language: "Metaphor is teaching an old word new tricks," or metaphor is "an affair between a predicate with a past and an object that yields while protesting."15 Perhaps a good working definition of a metaphor would be: "A metaphor is a figure of speech whereby we speak about one thing in terms which are seen to be suggestive of another."16

A metaphor is a verbal convention, a rhetorical device. But it is more than mere "word games," and it is certainly not an abuse of language. It used to be a common belief that a metaphor was basically a lie. For example, to say that a "cross" is a "victory" is a lie because we all know that a cross literally is not a victory. It is a bloody and horrible death and a defeat. One still hears this disparagement of metaphor as only a "rhetorical device" or as "merely a word game" as opposed to what is literal and real.

Now, however, many linguists and theologians offer a more positive assessment of the literary or rhetorical dimensions of language. In fact, there is a lively connection between metaphor and reality. As Thomas Long says, "The literary dimensions of texts are not merely decorative."17 He further suggests that rather than thinking of the form and content of language as two separate realities, it would be more accurate to think of "the form of the content."18

In fact, some social scientists today hold that there can be no progress in our knowledge of the world without the development of metaphors or other figures of speech. We comprehend aspects of the world only as we find new words to use in our search for understanding.19 Metaphor is, therefore, necessary for the advancement of knowledge.

When we learn a new thing, we may say, "I see it now." This phrase means we have connected in some way the new thing with what we already know. We have made an association between what is known and what is unknown. Thus, we construct knowledge by building on what we already know. We really cannot learn or understand new things except through some sort of connection or association.20

Walter Ong, a prominent literary critic, makes the point that judgment is always binary. We can grasp nothing in itself but only as it is related to and set apart from something else.21 Because they relate what is known to what is unknown, metaphors make it possible for us to advance in our knowledge of reality.

The point is this: Metaphors convey truth. While most metaphors are at least partly false because their statements do not correspond literally with the truth (though it could be argued that there are no statements that are literally true in this sense), what they convey is (or certainly can be) true. For example, consider this: "Watch out! That's a live wire!" You could, of course, respond, "Well, that's only metaphorically true. Wires are not 'alive.'" But if you touched the wire, you would soon find out the truth about dead and alive. The statement that the wire is "alive" is true, but it is expressed metaphorically.22 Thus metaphors are "referential"; they refer, in figurative language, to realities.

So it is with the biblical language of the Gospel. It is true - it refers to historical realities - but it is expressed metaphorically. In fact, there is no way to say the Gospel and spell out the implications of the Gospel without words, without metaphors. Our problem is that we have forgotten - or perhaps we never even knew that our language is metaphorical. What we sometimes see as literal usage actually is often metaphorical. Both ordinary and technical language is filled with usages that we assume were originally metaphorical, such as "neck of the bottle," "leaf of the book," "flow of electricity." However, we now have no figurative connotations for these metaphors for the native speaker. We call these dead metaphors.23


To explain what God did for us in Christ, the biblical writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, borrowed language from other contexts: creation, commerce, law, relationships, sacrifice, and deliverance. The Scriptures say that in Christ we are enlightened, we are reborn, we are redeemed, we are justified, we are reconciled, we are hallowed, we are delivered, we are saved, and we are forgiven. We tend to hear all these as virtually synonymous, as indeed they are when we speak doctrinally. But in their linguistic meaning, such phrases are not synonymous. They are metaphors that have died, that have become lifeless, because of frequent use (and abuse). Each word, each metaphor, waits to be raised to life.

Cohn Gunton has written that preaching the Word "continues to be testimony both to the capacity of words to be living, to make things happen, and to the mode of the divine victory which is 'not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit...' The word is mightier than the sword, as both cross and resurrection avow."24 There is a twofold nature to the life of the Word of the Gospel. First, it is alive as the Word of God, which is energized by the Holy Spirit, who, in and through the words, does the divine and miraculous work of bringing sinners to a conviction of their sinfulness and prompts them to turn to Christ in faith. The Spirit-drenched Word of the Gospel frees Jesus from the past and makes His victory over death at the cross alive in the lives of those who hear it today. The Gospel is alive because the Spirit energizes and vivifies it.

The Gospel also is alive simply because it is words. It is alive with words and metaphors that are themselves living. These words actually make things happen. Everyone experiences the power of words: to destroy or to build up, to bring tears of sadness or of joy, to strengthen or to weaken, to comfort or to cause distress, to encourage or to discourage, and to disturb or to calm. Words as words, simply because they are words, have power. They are alive.

This power is particularly evident in metaphors. Good metaphors are vivid and evocative. In fact, each way of saying the Gospel is a figure of speech whereby we speak about one true thing in terms that are seen to be suggestive of another. It is metaphor, at least as language. It is metaphor precisely because it is language.

Francis Rossow writes:
Once God in His wisdom committed Himself to lan-guage, as a means to communicate His saving love, He simultaneously committed Himself to the use of metaphor. When words are used, metaphor is inevitable. I hasten to add that this outcome is not at all unfortunate. It is cause for rejoicing. Our language is the richer for it. Metaphor helps rather than hinders communication. In brief, metaphor is a necessary good.25

Instead of hearing and communicating the Gospel with the richness and vividness that each metaphor contains within it, we tend to blend language together. We generalize metaphors and flatten them out so they all end up meaning virtu-ally the same thing. We wind up with the doctrinal nutrients, but we lose the distinctive flavors of the language.


Each word, each metaphor, has a world inside of it. Each has a particular way of referring to or conceptualizing our standing before God. Metaphors have their own internal worldview into which the skillful preacher or communicator invites hearers. Inside the metaphor is a universe, a richly textured and beautifully colored reality through which the hearer of the Word is invited to view himself or herself. Through this universe, we understand, even visualize, how God is toward us on account of Christ.

To blend all metaphors together, to take off the sharp edges of the various metaphors, may be something like the following:

Imagine ordering a nine-course dinner. The green salad is cool and crisp, the soup clear and tasty. The brightly colored vegetables are steamed just right. The steak and lobster are cooked to perfection. Flaky bread, soft and warm, is served with creamy butter. A bottle of fine wine complements the entree. Sweet dessert follows with rich black coffee. What a delightful experience! With so many colors, flavors, textures, temperatures, the meal is complete. Then imagine asking the waiter to throw all the courses into a blender and turn the knob to purée. What would become of the dinner's attractiveness? What color would it be now? What would be its texture, its flavor, its temperature? It would come out colorless, bland, runny, and lukewarm at best. It would be totally unpalatable. You would lose your appetite immediately. You would push it away from you, turn your back on it, and walk away from the table as quickly as possible.

Of course, no one would ever think of doing such a thing. Yet in a way, that's what we do with the Gospel when we blend together all the beautiful words, the vivid metaphors, and proclaim them in a flat, bland, runny way. No wonder people tire of hearing the "same old thing" over and over again. No wonder preachers burn out on preaching or succumb to the temptation of creating a "new gospel," something more innovative and creative. No wonder we despair of being able to communicate the Gospel to our family or friends in a clear, relevant, exciting way. What a sad state of affairs when Christians push the Gospel away, consider it unpalatable, turn their backs on it, and leave the table. How tragic when they tire of hearing the Gospel, when it seems flat, bland, boring, and dead!


The following chapters whet the appetite to the wealth and richness implicit in the language of the Gospel. They are confined to a study of the words that convey the doctrine of justification, as distinct from the doctrine of sanctification (or any other doctrine), It is little more than an introduction to the topic and serves to point the way toward a fuller apprehension of the Gospel as words. For the purposes of this study, the metaphors are primarily New Testament metaphors. Of course, the background of these metaphors is found in the Old Testament, which itself is rich in vivid language.

The chapters consist of groups or families (or semantic fields) of Gospel metaphors. This is not a comprehensive list. It is merely the current state of my penetration into the treasury of words provided by the Bible. The list seems to grow all the time as I discover new and exciting ways to say the Gospel, fresh ways to speak of the implications of the work of Christ, or what is called soteriology.

Through this careful examination of the biblical metaphors of the Gospel, we will not only understand them better, but articulate them, preach them, and speak them better and more creatively so Christ's name may be praised and His people blessed. Mining the verbal treasures of the Bible can be fun and rewarding.

Go to Chapter 1


1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, II, ii, lines 43 - 44.

2. I do not mean, as some theologians do, that Christ's incarnation and saving ministry are metaphorical. Metaphor applies to language, not historical events. The Gospel, in its use of words, is metaphorical.

3. All language about God, that is, theological language, is of neces-sity analogical. While it is truly descriptive of God and relates how He truly is, it does not relate how He fully is. Finite human language, while able to convey true statements about the infinite God, cannot convey Him fully. The orthodox theologians used to speak about theological language as analogical, that is, related to analogy.

4. The literature on this topic is vast and growing. Especially helpful works include Cohn Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989) and Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor arid Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985). Also helpful in the discussion are such works as George Aichele Jr., The Limits of Story (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985); Rodney Kennedy, The Creative Power of Metaphor: A Rhetorical Homiletics (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993); Peter W. Macky, The Centrality of Metaphors to Biblical Thought: A Method for Interpreting the Bible (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990); John MacQuarrie, God-Talk: An Examination of the Language and Logic of Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1967); Moises Silva, God, Language, and Scripture: Reading the Bible in the Light of General Linguistics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990); Richard Swinburne, Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

5. See Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 58-61; and C. M. Turbayne, The Myth of Metaphor, 2d ed. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 11.

6. See Metaphor arid Religious Language, 64-66.

7. The Myth of Metaphor, 11.

8. Metaphor and Religious Language, 57.

9. The Myth of Metaphor, 11.

10. Metaphor and Religious Language, 57. Synecdoche and metonymy may be said to be primarily ornamental or decorative. Metaphor goes beyond this. Metaphor actually makes something new.

11. Ibid., 61. While this technically may be called a metaphor, it is a simple kind of metaphor. While a metaphor borrows a name for a new thing from an old thing, it also creates new categories of meaning and actually advances knowledge, rather than merely giving names to known things that don't yet have them.

12. Poetics, 1457b, 7-8.

13. Cohn E. Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989), 28.

14. Ibid., 30. Gunton notes that no advance in knowledge is possible without the use and development of metaphors.

15. Ibid., 28.

16. Metaphor and Religious Language, 15.

17. Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1990), 12.

18. Ibid., 13.

19. The Actuality of Atonement, 31

20. Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1997), 33.

21. Waither J. Ong, "Metaphor and the Twinned Vision," in The Barbarian within and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (New York: Macmillan Co., 1962), 42.

22. Metaphor and Religious Language, 70.

23. Ibid., 71.

24. The Actuality of Atonement, 178.

25. Francis Rossow, Preaching the Creative Gospel Creatively (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1983), 34.

Taken from Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel, copyright 2000. Used by permission of Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO 63118-3968. You can order Just Words for a total of $14 by calling the Issues, Etc. resource line at 1-800-737-0172.

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