In August 2016, Crossway announced that the text of the ESV Bible would “remain unchanged in all future editions” to provide a fixed translation that could be used “for generations to come.”1 Two months later, however, Crossway issued a retraction. “We have become convinced that this decision was a mistake. . . . Our goal at Crossway remains as strong as ever to serve future generations with a stable ESV text. But the means to that goal, we now see, is not to establish a permanent text but rather to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship, such as textual discoveries, or changes in English over time.”2
Crossway’s reversal rightly accounts for a basic feature of human language, namely, that communication tends to be more fluid than fixed. Indeed, the remarkable number of English translations of the Bible—not to mention the “ongoing periodic updating” of such translations—underscores the fact that communicating meaning requires different words over time and across cultures.3 Put another way, meaningful words are needed to communicate, words that are understood and understandable, that is, knowledge of what one wants to say and an understanding of how to convey it accurately to those being addressed.
This is especially important for those who preach the unchanging gospel to an ever-changing world. Simply put, the gospel must be communicated clearly for God’s kingdom to advance. This is why Jesus says in the parable of the sower: “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it” (Matt. 13:23). You cannot make someone understand you, but you can make yourself very hard to understand. The first instance is due to hardness of heart and the mystery of iniquity. The second, however, is a failure in “gospel translation.”
By virtue of our calling, pastors and teachers are uniquely attuned to the need for gospel translation. Standing between two worlds, we are rooted in the theological vision of the Scriptures even as we live and speak to those who move and have their being on Maple Street. It is our vocation to bring the former world to bear upon the latter, communicating the gospel in a comprehensible fashion such that God’s will might be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
In all this, we are following the lead of the Apostle Paul, who asked the church at Colossae to pray that God would open new doors for the gospel and “that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:4).4 By way of example, it is also well known that Paul’s sermons in the book of Acts varied according to his audience.5 The essential message of the gospel did not change, to be sure, but the “translation” of that gospel message differed according to the ignorance and idolatry of the people Paul addressed. Hence, he calls Gentiles to turn from vain idols to the living God, while he calls Jews instead to recognize Jesus as God’s promised Messiah and the fulfillment of the temple, the sacrificial system, and all that was written about Him in the Law and the Prophets.6
The contextualizing work of gospel translation is difficult today for two reasons. First, there are some who are complacent about the need for it. This objection generally underestimates the particularity of cultural idolatries, including their linguistic webs, and the need for the gospel to be understood in every nook and cranny of fallen minds and hearts. Additionally, these objectors fear that gospel translation involves a curtailing of the essential elements of the gospel to suit sinful appetites. Gospel translation is not making the gospel palatable but making the gospel understandable. In fact, gospel translation is unavoidable. All of us speak from and to a specific context. The question is not whether we translate the gospel, but whether we translate it well.
The second factor that makes gospel translation difficult today is the increasing complexity of the world we are addressing. How can we translate the gospel well to people we do not know? We are sympathetic to the frustrated pastor who is tempted to dispense with gospel translation altogether. If it’s this difficult, maybe it’s unneeded. I will just preach “the simple gospel.” All sinners need the same saving grace, right? This line of thinking fails to consider the highly specific preaching of Jesus. As Calvin says, “Christ put his finger on the sore.”7 The gospel is the medicine, in other words, but the administration of that medicine may differ according to the hearer’s condition.
Happily, what is needed for effective gospel translation is not a special gift that only the fortunate possess. What is needed is the same love that God has for the people Jesus died to save. We must learn to consider those around us: How do they speak about the world (versus how God says the world actually is)? Where are their loves disordered (being out of line with God’s kingdom priorities)? Which idols carry special appeal (and why these particular besetting sins, among this particular people, in this particular time and place)?
Gospel translation is learning to say the same thing differently, making the understood understandable. We must learn to make the unchanging gospel clear to an ever-changing world—“which is how we ought to speak” (Col. 4:4).
- Lane Dennis, “Crossway Statement on the ESV Bible Text,” September 28, 2016, https://www.crossway.org/articles/crossway-statement-on-the-esv-bible-text/, accessed October 24, 2017. ↩︎
- Ibid. Emphasis original. ↩︎
- This reality is intuited by almost everyone. One does not need a Ph.D. in linguistics to know that the word “gay” no longer means “happy.” If you doubt: try telling your congregation on Sunday, without qualification, that recently you have felt very “gay.” Their reaction will override any antiquated dictionary collecting dust on the shelf. ↩︎
- Emphasis added. The Greek word translated “clear” is phanerōsō, which is rendered “make it clear” or “speak clearly” in the ESV, NIV, NLT, NAB, NASB, RSV, NRSV, ISV, and NCV. The CSB and NET translate it as “make it known,” which conveys a similar sense. ↩︎
- For example, contrast the sermons recorded in Acts 13:16–43 and 15:1–21 with those recorded in 14:15–17 and 17:16–34. ↩︎
- See “Repentance” and “Varieties of Conversion” in Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008), 136; 153. ↩︎
- John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, vol. 1, John 6.31, trans. William Pringle, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom34.xii.v.html, accessed October 24, 2017. ↩︎