The other day while going for a jog, I listened to a sermon on the seventh commandment, which addresses adultery. In the 40-minute sermon, the preacher used the phrase I think over 40 times and the phrase we think another half dozen.
Of course, I was not counting at first. But as the preacher neared the conclusion, it occurred to me how often I’d heard that phrase. So, I went back and listened again and tallied the nearly 50 references.
Consider the following two examples. When talking about sexuality, he said, “I think all of that truth is grounded in Scripture.” Later in the sermon he said, “I think we have to take Jesus seriously when we wrestle with the biblical view of sexuality.”
Clearly the phrase I think functioned at the level of a subconscious tic, like saying umm or swaying side to side. And while these kinds of empty repetitions may be distracting to listeners, the theological import of sliding errr or ahhhh into a sentence amounts to essentially zero. Not so with I think.
Is truth grounded in Scripture, or does the preacher think truth is grounded in Scripture? Should we take Jesus seriously, or does the preacher think we should take Jesus seriously? The difference matters.
Too much “I think”
In 1566, the Reformer Heinrich Bullinger famously asserted in the Second Helvetic Confession, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” He added that when the Word is preached, even if the preacher “be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.” Such a bold statement requires more explanation about what the author means and does not mean.
Bullinger also speaks of the closed nature of the canon of Scripture in traditional, orthodox terms, stating that “nothing be either added to or taken from” what God has commanded in Scripture.
In another section on how Christians should understand the interpretations of the church fathers, councils, and traditions, Bullinger writes that while Christians may be helped by them, they are to be accepted only “as far as they agree with the Scriptures.” Then he adds, “We modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to, the Scriptures.”
This means when Bullinger says that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God, we should not take him to mean everything said from every pulpit is God’s Word. He’s not advocating for a postapostolic version of inerrant prophecy, an adding to the canon with new revelation.
He is saying, however, that inasmuch as a pastor preaches in accordance with God’s Word, we are right to say the pastor is preaching God’s Word. Or as some pastors have said, “When the Word of God is rightly preached, the voice of God is truly heard.”
This assertion attempts to reckon with passages like Hebrews 13:7, which exhorts Christians to remember their leaders as those “who spoke the word of God to you.” Consider also Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” The plural pronoun we certainly includes Paul’s apostolic band but must be understood more widely.
In the next verse Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (emphasis mine). Just as Christ becomes sin for all Christians and gives all Christians his righteousness, so also all those who are justified become ambassadors for Christ. This means that one Christian’s appeal to another human being to be reconciled to God through Christ can be described as though God himself were making the appeal.
In this light, the phrase I think on the lips of preachers ought to be infrequent. Word choice has consequences. Consider the result if Billy Graham’s go-to phrase had been “I think the Bible says” instead of “The Bible says.” When a preacher uses I think too often, the faith of those who listen becomes like warm taffy—faith stretchable to fit any mold. A fuzzy God of infinite malleability is certainly not the impression preachers should give as they herald the faith once for all delivered.
Rather—regardless of the elegance of the speaker, the size of the congregation, or how many times the preacher says umm and sways side to side—these truths bestow dignity and majesty to all preaching while simultaneously engendering both humility and boldness in preachers.
Too little “I think”
We should note that the opposite end of the spectrum causes problems too. While saying I think over 40 times in one sermon is far too much, not saying I think once in 40 sermons is too little.
When a preacher never says I think, a legitimate question about, say, the dating of the book of Revelation might as well be a challenge to the validity of Christ’s resurrection and return.
This brittleness will manifest itself as rigidness and defensiveness in intramural debates with fellow Christians. Without appropriate humility on the side of the listener, the speaker’s statement “I think the earth might be old” might be interpreted as the tentativeness of a coward or the heresy of an apostate.
The place for I think might be small, but the importance of saying I think every so often is not small. Consider Paul again. He speaks of his own experience as an apostle, as someone who at one time even experienced the “third heaven”—whatever that means—as knowing “in part,” not in full, and seeing “in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:9–12, ESV). If Paul saw some things dimly, then how much more do we?
And pastors shouldn’t be afraid to tell their people so. “Dear church,” a preacher should sometimes say, “I think this verse means such and such, but I’m not fully sure.” Even the apostle Peter, as is often pointed out, found that Paul’s letters “contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16).
Christians believe in the perspicuity of Scripture—that is, that Scripture is sufficiently clear. But sufficiently clear has never meant all Scripture is equally clear. It is no great breach of the faith once for all delivered for preachers to acknowledge this before their congregations.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, without shame or handwringing, even states, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”
Therefore, preachers need the homiletical version of theological triage described by Gavin Ortlund in Finding the Right Hills to Die On. We must know the difference between preaching “I think Jesus loves you” and “I think the Nephilim in Genesis 6 were fallen angels.”
The difference, I think, matters a lot.