9 Thoughts on the Language Learning and the Gospel
There are a thousand needs in the world, and none of them compares to the global need for the gospel. John Piper One: The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news of salvation for all peoples. The Bible speaks of the hope we have in Christ, and this hope is consummated in the testimonies of millions of believers in Jesus Christ throughout the world representing thousands of people groups and languages! Praise God we have Scripture in so many languages for people to read and hear! Praise God for the testimony of believers faithfully proclaiming the word of God in these languages, even learning other dialects and repertoires of speech to communicate the gospel to the unreached around them! Consider what this means for each of us as we live and work among the unreached. How are we proclaiming the gospel to all peoples, to our neighbors? Two: Obedience to God’s calling is our primary motivation to learn the language. As followers of Christ we are commanded to proclaim the gospel to all peoples. What will it take for us to be effective witnesses for Christ among the unreached? To begin with, if we don’t have a habit of proclaiming the gospel at home in the language we know, there’s a strong chance we won’t make the effort to learn another language to a level where we can proclaim the gospel in that language. The converse is also true. If we cultivate a habit of proclaiming the gospel to our neighbors at home in a familiar language, we are more likely to be motivated to learn another language to a level where we can fluently proclaim the gospel to our unreached neighbors in that language. Three: We learn, I should say we begin to learn to proclaim the gospel in another language - with integrity - in this sense: When we can understand more than just an utterance, and move beyond basic conversational fluency, when we get to this point of basic gospel text comprehension, we need to begin to systematically read and work through what we know, so that we can tell it, better yet converse it with those around us, and get feedback. The reason for this is we have a responsibility to learn to tell what we now know, in the language we are learning. Learning the language beyond basic conversational fluency, therefore, begins with understanding and describing simple familiar gospel texts, and this lays the foundation, and creates the “plumb-line” or strategy for learning to fluently proclaim the gospel in that language. Four: There is a buoyancy to the gospel that surfaces as we learn the language and begin to proclaim the gospel. Anytime we communicate in a language we are learning we make mistakes, lots of them. And we want to be mindful of this in handling the word of God. Yet the gospel is incredibly resilient in this way: we start with what we know, very simply, and not without mistakes; God multiplies our gospel proclamation efforts - through prayer, faith, obedience, and hard work - with fruitful response. As we are faithful to him and his calling, and as we faithfully learn the language, God will not let his word, our words, fall to the ground. We must press on, believing with confidence that God’s authoritative word will prevail through our jars-of-clay communication efforts. We indeed possess a priceless treasure which glorifies Christ as he is proclaimed, however simple though meaningful the expression. The more we practice and proclaim, the more fluent we become. But we must start simply, and we must not be afraid to make a few language mistakes along the way. Five: ‘Tell me the gospel again and again.’ I need this in my life, and I regularly say and practice this for myself and from those around me, in both my heart language and in languages I am learning. Likewise, we must preach the gospel to ourselves and to each other. As we learn the language, we must keep things simple, starting with what we know, proclaiming it aloud. We work to tell the gospel to ourselves, and to a friend, requesting feedback, making improvements, and telling it again. Then we tell a neighbor, and then another neighbor. I have done this by first working through the book of Mark, one simple gospel passage at a time, and have since gone through several other books of the Bible, slowly building a repertoire of gospel presentations. Six: Gospel interpretation. Beginning with very simple familiar gospel texts, God calls us to learn to proclaim his word using many forms of discourse. We may at first only be able to describe the gospel as scenes and events from scripture and from our lives. We then learn to narrate the gospel from the word of God and from our testimonies. We learn to explain the meaning of gospel narratives, expounding on eternal truths about God, man, sin, Jesus, salvation. We learn to ask questions. We learn to listen. We learn to appeal to our lost neighbors, persuading them to believe the gospel through repentance and faith in Christ. In almost all situations and genres, we learn to converse the gospel. The Bible regularly uses many discourse forms. The gospel is described, narrated, explained, and discussed, many times interweaving these forms throughout the text, clearly inviting us to respond in faith. This is the discourse of the gospel. We, too, must learn to proclaim the gospel with a certain level of complex discourse fluency that takes time and effort to reach. Seven: We must persevere in learning to proclaim the gospel. Reaching discourse fluency in the language takes far more effort than reaching basic conversational ability. In fact, the amount of effort it takes to go from “getting around” to becoming biblically fluent in the language so we can effectively proclaim the gospel requires extensive and deliberate practice, exposure, and time. It also takes humility and courage. It takes knowing what the next faithful step is, taking that step, and then cultivating a long view toward taking the next step after that, and the next step after that. While each step is more challenging than the previous, each step indeed provides greater and richer opportunities to proclaim the gospel. Eight: The gospel speaks to the human condition at every level. I am convinced that as we regularly proclaim the gospel to those around us, our knowledge of the language and culture grows by leaps and bounds. More important, our proficiency in gospel proclamation, our gospel fluency, flourishes. We should not be blind to the culture, needlessly arrogant to those around us; nor should we tiptoe through it either, afraid to confront the lost with truth. The gospel offends. Sin resists the truth. But the gospel searches and exposes hearts, and draws people to grace-filled repentance. We need to work to understand insights into the culture, our host communities, and the lives of those around us, and we also need to be mindful that there are many things that only the Spirit of God can reveal. Nine: The communication of the gospel – I use this word “communicate” to help us understand that we use far more than just our speaking ability to proclaim the gospel. In addition to speaking the gospel, proclamation also means listening with sympathetic understanding as people hear and respond to the gospel. Further, proclamation means prayerfully considering their response through dialogue and discussion. We, therefore, must learn to listen, and learn to respond, in the language. Just as speaking, listening, and responding are essential language skills, they are also important for effective gospel proclamation. As we proclaim the gospel, we do so with confidence in the authority of God's word, by the power of God’s Spirit within us, through prayer, anticipating that God is directing us to ripe fruit, and that he is active in these conversations at a heart-level, bringing people to repentance through our faithful witness.