Making More of Gospel Metaphors

metaphors be with youEditor’s note: Professor Glenn Nielsen is on a partial sabbatical this year, maintaining his vicarage/ internship responsibilities, but catching up on reading and writing occasional reflections on those readings. This is the third of these reflections.

I’m working with a Ph.D. student on his dissertation.  He is from another country and currently works with campus ministry.  He’s focusing on which metaphors serve well when interacting with students from other religions (e.g., Muslim and Buddhist, not merely different denominations).  One such metaphor that he will study is “gift” as advocated by Terry Muck and Frances Adeney in Christianity Encountering World Religions. [1]  While these authors are not working with a campus setting in particular but mission in general, they do show the benefits of seeing such interactions under the metaphor of “giftive” mission.

In the middle of the book, they deal briefly with the nature and power of metaphors.  Three levels of metaphor are described.  The first is one most of us are well aware of: a literary device.  We learned about this use of metaphor early in our writing education.  “My five year old niece is as adorable as a Golden Retriever puppy.”  If you’ve ever seen a Golden as a puppy, you know full well how cute this young child would be.  You use a key aspect of some animal, object, place, etc., to highlight a similar trait in a person (or place, animal, object, etc.).  A metaphor is a helpful device to describe something or someone.  This use of metaphor is basic and quickly understood.

Another level of metaphor the authors describe is what they call “metaphor as reality itself” or “metaphor as everything.” [2]

In this view, metaphor is not simply a way of talking about real things; metaphors (that is, human language itself) are the real things. We cannot, as human beings, say anything really exists until we talk about it. In a sense, when I relate my dad to an ox, I am creating both by the act of describing them. And because I relate them to each other, I am creating a reality of relationship that would not exist except for the fact that I have spoken of them in this way. Reality, in this view, is not something concrete “out there” but is something I create in my mind, by thinking and talking about it. [3]

While this may sound strange, what it gets at is how much of we consider as objective reality “out there” is actually determined by how deeply impacted something is by our emotions, prejudices, cultural backgrounds, religious views, past experiences, shared meanings with others, and other such influences.  Our subjective knowing of something creates the reality we are speaking about, so our language use is inherently metaphorical.  The problem with this position, according to Muck and Adeney, is that it’s not particularly helpful.  If everything is metaphorical, then it’s too big and unwieldy to be of use for a particular study.

Instead, they advocate a middle ground which they call the complex view of metaphor. [4] Metaphor is much more than just a literary device.  Yes, it is a way to talk about things.  But it is more.  Metaphors have powerful creative properties in that the regular use of a particular metaphor contributes to the how people behave and do things.  The metaphor itself impacts how we see something and influences our response.  One common example comes from the 1980 book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. [5]  When we describe an argument as a war, then the relationship we have with someone becomes adversarial, and you get a complex of words and concepts to go with that metaphor: attacked, defensible, on target, strategy, shot down, win, lose, etc, etc.  But what if the metaphor is sport instead of war?  Then you get words like: volleyed, match point, curve ball, slam dunk, end run, etc, etc. [6]  While the sport metaphor is still competitive with a winner and loser, it doesn’t necessarily convey the same life-or-death undercurrent the war metaphor does.  And, if you were to change the metaphor for argument to dance, you’d see the activity in a different way, with different words and concepts governing how we argue with each other.  The metaphor thus creates the reality just as it describes it.

The rest of the Muck and Adeney’s book (360 pages) looks into the gift metaphor for mission work.  Some helpful contrasts are made when it comes to an agriculture metaphor (bringing in the sheaves) which no longer communicates well to a non-agrarian society, or a military one (onward Christian soldiers) which may have contributed to colonialism and crusades, or a now pervasive one focused on economy/market (conversion is a successful sale) which leads to seeing who has the largest market share.  It was insightful to see what the gift metaphor brings with it in terms of God’s grace, His giving to us, how we not only give but also receive in exchange with others, generosity and gratitude. [7]

Now I’m going to take a quick turn out of the book itself and into the realm of preaching, specifically naming a problem followed by an encouragement for a more extensive use of this complex view of metaphor in our sermons.

Lutheran preaching suffers from overuse of what I call the default metaphor combination.  The two metaphors that all too often dominate our sermons are the legal and the sacrificial.  Now these are excellent metaphors.  We know them well.  Legal:  We are guilty of our sins.  God should punish us.  The law accuses us rightly.  In the courtroom scene, God hears the evidence.  He judges us, and then sentences us to death.  But we are declared “not guilty.”  Not because God is corrupt and somehow lets us off the hook.  Not because He’s incompetent and doesn’t pronounce the proper sentence.  But because of Jesus.  Sacrificial:  Jesus takes our place.  He is our substitute.  He does this by sacrificing Himself on the cross.  He dies in our place.  By His blood we are freed from the guilt and punishment.

Don’t get me wrong here.  These two metaphors together are powerful.  They provide the foundation of so much of our Lutheran theology, especially our Lutheran Confessions in the context of the conflict with Roman Catholicism in the 16th century.  Scripture presents both the legal and sacrificial metaphors often.  Romans 3 is rightly used on Reformation Sunday.

But, for our preaching of a specific text, the combination of these two metaphors sounds familiar, perhaps too much so.  It seems that no matter what metaphor the biblical text itself may be using, somehow many sermons will come back to this metaphorical complex.  Read carefully the citizenship metaphor in Phil. 3:20.  It is tied to Jesus’ return and our resurrection hope that one day our lowly bodies will be transformed.  Yet that matrix of Gospel proclamation doesn’t “mix” with the legal/sacrificial ones.  And the latter too often drowns out the former.  We are comfortable with the forensic/sacrifice pair.  It rolls off easily from our tongue.  It doesn’t take much time to write out in a manuscript.  It becomes the default metaphor even when the text doesn’t go there.

The result: our preaching is reduced to accusatory Law and forgiving Gospel (often in that order in the sermon).  That sameness then deadens listenability by its predictability.  It also fails to treat the biblical text with integrity, and we are not preaching what the text has given us to preach.  Even more devastating is that Christ’s resurrection becomes secondary, little more than an afterthought, because everything important happened on Good Friday. [8]

My encouragement is to preach the metaphors that God’s Word gives us in the text rather than falling back on a default metaphor so much of the time.  Two quotations are helpful here.

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 not a way to say the Gospel without words, without metaphors. [9]

Once God in His wisdom committed Himself to language 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 a cause for rejoicing. Our language is the richer for it. Metaphor helps rather than hinders communication. In brief, metaphor is a necessary good. [10]

Metaphor, the complex approach to metaphor, helps communication, which brings me to my point: The Bible provides us with a wonderful repository of many, many metaphors, not just the legal/sacrificial ones, to make use of in our preaching.

In my homiletics classes, I ask the students to help me list the various metaphors and ways the Gospel comes to us in the Scriptures.  I write them on the board.  (As a helpful exercise, try doing this for yourself.)  In a matter of minutes we will fill the board with 25-30 different ones that could be used—enough variety for six months of sermons!  For example, just alliterate “r” words:  redeemed, rescued, reconciled, recreated, reborn, raised, ransomed, remission, released, renewed, rock, righteousness, rest, restored, road.  Each of these will provide rich imagery, different aspects of the fuller Gospel narrative, and needed variety to our sermons.  The challenge, of course, is to study the metaphor well, to let it take you to Jesus in creative and fresh language, and proclaim it with its own textual integrity (content and intent) without resorting/returning/reducing the sermon to the legal/sacrificial metaphorical complex.

One example: the metaphor behind salvation or being saved.  We are saved by Jesus.  Salvation unto us has come.  But note, it is a resurrection proclamation.  We are saved soul and body by Jesus.  No gnostic move here to reduce it to just our soul is saved.  Or that Jesus saves us and we are going to heaven (in some vague manner after we die).  No, our salvation moves on to the joyous hope that we will rise from the dead on the last day.  Our bodies will be saved too, even glorified like Jesus’ body was glorified.  The last day will bring the fullness of our salvation when, like Jesus, our bodies return to life.  Now Jesus’ Good Friday forgiveness is part of that salvation, and we are saved from all that sin brings upon us.  I’m not denying that.  So is going to be with Jesus when we die (often called the interim state).  But running with this metaphor shows that the fullness of salvation comes from Jesus’ resurrection, which assures us that our salvation ultimately and fully culminates in a resurrection like His one great and glorious day.  Not only are we saved from something, but also for something.

Notice how the fullness of the metaphor places emphasis on the resurrection.  The sermon runs through Easter and the return of Christ rather than stopping at Good Friday.  The Gospel can be proclaimed with the courtroom imagery all but absent, and with the empty grave prominent.  Christ’s glorified body fills the spotlight.  Read Acts 4:10-12, Romans 13:11-12, and 1 Peter 1:3-5 to see the resurrection and last day connection to the word salvation.  Revelation 7:10 is proclaimed most faithfully, then, when we join with those who fall at His throne and worship Him.

Metaphors are powerful.  They have a complexity to them that impact what we do and say even as we use them to describe what we see going on in life.  So preach them in their variety.  Preach them faithfully from God’s Word.  Preach them for the glory of God and the more complete edification of God’s holy people.


[1] (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2009).  The section on metaphor is located on pp. 303-328.

[2] 306.

[3] 306.

[4] 307.

[5] (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[6] Muck and Adeney, 309.

[7] 325.

[8] I know, I just made some bold assertions in this paragraph that are not sufficiently developed.  Wait.  My next reflections will go into greater detail.

[9] Jacob A. O. Preus, Just Words:  Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel (CPH, 2000), 34. This useful book provides an extensive list of different metaphors for the Gospel, with short descriptions of each.

[10] Francis Rossow, Preaching the Creative Gospel Creatively (St. Louis:  CPH, 1983), 34.





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