Note: This article appeared as a blog post back on January 5, 2013 on the Reformed Baptist Fellowship blog. Theologian James Renihan points out that the modern broad-evangelical call for “passion” may be misguided. Perhaps we ought to call instead for faithfulness. –Pastor Jeff Riddle
It seems that evangelical preachers and writers have become passionate about being passionate. This might be one of the most common buzzwords of the day. We are urged to have a passion for God, to be passionate about winning souls, to be passionate in worship etc. ad nauseum. If you aren’t passionate, you probably are not really living as a Christian should-or so it would seem to be implied. But it seems to me that there is a problem with the use of this language, and it ought to cause us to reconsider our terms.
Today, ‘passion’ is generally thought to be good. It is used to describe powerful emotions, or deep and profound commitment. These things may be very good in themselves. The problem is, however, that we Christians inherit an older sense of the term that is utterly contradictory to anything good.
If you look at most conservative translations of the Bible-for example the New American Standard Version or the New King James Version-you will find that when ‘passion(s)’ is used in the New Testament, it always has a sinful connotation: Romans 1:26 “God gave them up to vile passions;” 1 Cor. 7:9 “It is better to marry than to burn with passion;” Gal. 5:24 “Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires;” we are even told in Col. 3:5 “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Isn’t it confusing to preach to people, telling them to be passionate about something good, when all that they read about passion(s) in the Bible is evil? What do they think when they read the scriptures?
And making matters even more confusing for serious minded believers, our Confession tells us that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” This is an important theological point, often misunderstood. While we speak somewhat simplistically of emotions, our tradition spoke more specifically, not about emotions, but about affections and passions. Affections are righteous attributes which have their source within God; passions are unrighteous attributes which have their source outside of God. Our Triune Lord has true affections, but he has no passions. Preachers who understand and subscribe to our Confession should comprehend this point and think through its implications for their communication with their people. Isn’t it confusing to urge people to strive to be passionate about imitating God when we rightly confess that God has no passions?
Language changes over time, this is certain. And it may be that we are witnessing a change in the use of ‘passion’ and its derivatives. But it seems to me that Confessional Christians who are serious about the Scriptures ought to be careful in their use of language. We need to avoid confusion or confusing terms. It might be better for us to refrain from using this term in a positive sense, finding another to replace it. This would avoid the difficulty of telling our people to be passionate even when the Scriptures tell us to mortify our passion.
Are you passionate? Maybe you need to repent!
James M. Renihan, Dean
The Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies
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