No “Buts” about It
Want to say no without actually saying, “No”? It’s easy — agree with someone and then add a “but.” We like to use “but” to disagree without sounding disagreeable. When we “but in” to others’ statements, we’re actually telling them to “butt out.”
Most of us are guilty at times of using “but” to avoid going along with the thoughts of others — but when others do it to us, watch out! How dare they tell us yes and no in the same breath! And if it pains us, imagine what God thinks when we say “but” to Him.
Many classic Christian heresies grew out of people saying “but” to clear words of Scripture. Arius said, “Yes, Jesus is the Son of God — but He’s not really God.” He also would have replied in the affirmative if you’d have asked him, “Was there ever a time when the Son of God was not?”
Nestorius confessed that Jesus was God and man — but established a theology that so divided the divine and human natures that the Christ was essentially two people in one person. He claimed that certain things only happened to the man-part or the God-part and not to the entire Son. Heretics such as these accepted what they could comprehend and then rejected what was difficult or uncomfortable to believe.
Today, millions of people will agree that Jesus was a great teacher or a mighty prophet — but not God’s own Son. When they hear Him say, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, (John 14:6)” they’ll say, “Yes, but not the only way, the only truth, and the only life.” Often, they would rather embrace the contradictions of conflicting beliefs than the paradoxes of biblical Christianity, where God’s harsh, sin-condemning Law stands beside His gracious Gospel that forgives and forgets our wickedness.
In our own faith and personal piety, we also can be guilty of using “but” in order to hold God at arm’s length. Often this comes in our hesitance to fully and completely accept Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Our fallen natures resent divine monergism — the idea that God is solely responsible for establishing and maintaining our salvation, our faith, and our new lives as believers.
Not wanting to think of their natural-born selves as sinners, rebels, God’s enemies, or spiritually dead, people try to put a “but” after agreeing with our Lord’s absolutes. Yes, Scripture plainly teaches that God rejects, condemns, and finally damns unrepentant sinners — but I’m not really all that sinful. Yes, I’m saved only by grace through faith in Christ — but I have to do or undo something before this salvation takes effect.
When we say “but” to the Law, we tell God that we aren’t really as bad as He says we are. When we say “but” to the Gospel, we demean Jesus’ sacrifice by claiming that there’s something good and right in us that can share the credit (and the glory) for our salvation.
When the Holy Spirit catches us in this error of agreeing with God and then contradicting Him, He moves us to repent and receive full forgiveness. Instead of the self-accommodation of “but” the Spirit teaches us to say, “Amen.”
Amen is the “anti-but.” It means “truly” or “so be it.” Amen is faith’s answer to an all-powerful, incomprehensible God. Amen tells the Lord, “You’re right. I may not understand or even like what You’re saying — but that’s fine, because You’re God and I’m not.” Instead of our “but” negating God’s holy Word and perfect will, our “Amen” becomes the “but” that negates our own sinful disagreement with Him.
“Verily, verily,” Jesus often said. This, “Amen, amen,” was and remains His way of saying, “My Word is truth.” When that truth lives in us, it drives out our sinful “buts” that we might respond in kind. When the Law rebukes our wickedness and calls us sinners, we say, “Amen.” When the Father invites us to receive His forgiveness for Christ’s sake, we say, “Amen.” When Scripture tells us that we cannot save ourselves or cooperate even in the slightest manner in our salvation, we say, “Amen.” And when we open our hearts and minds to Him in prayer, we close with “Amen” because we are certain that He truly hears and will answer in the way that is best for us.
God grant you the integrity in your everyday life to avoid hiding behind your “but.” May you plainly and clearly agree or disagree with others, yet always in humility and respect, letting your yes be yes and your no be no. And when receiving God’s Word or responding in prayer, may He lead you to ever reply with the whole Church, “Amen! Yes, Lord! Amen!”
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
Article first appeared in The Concordian of 1 May AD 2013 in a slightly different form.