It’s time to come clean. I was gullible. I took someone else’s word for it and didn’t do the research for myself. I should have searched the Scriptures “see whether these things were really so,” but instead I took the word of a man I highly respected. He was wrong and so was I.
In 1992, I read an article in Clarion about why we shouldn’t just use the name “Jesus” by itself. The author argued that proper respect for our Saviour demands that we always write or say, “Our Lord Jesus Christ,” or “Christ Jesus,” but never just “Jesus.” He had arguments to try and support this, arguments from Prof. Seakle Greijdanus, a highly esteemed New Testament professor from the Netherlands. He argued that the New Testament, after the resurrection of our Lord, almost always referred to him with some kind of honorific(s). Only rarely is he called “Jesus” outside of the Gospels. Moreover, said the author, the early church fathers continued to combine his personal name with respectful titles. He argued that this was a matter of respect for the majesty of the Son of God. I was fully persuaded.
So, a short time later, when I reviewed some books by Philip Yancey, a popular evangelical author, I was horrified to discover him almost always referring to the Saviour as just “Jesus.” In fact, the title of one of his books was The Jesus I Never Knew. I took him to the woodshed for that, using the 1992 Clarion article as my paddle. For the longest time in my writing and preaching, I’d never refer to the Lord without some honorific.
But over time, as I studied the Scriptures for myself, I began to see that this wasn’t a sustainable position. As I read more widely in church history, I began to see that this was out of step with much of the historic Christian church. I had been duped by someone else’s idiosyncrasy.
Let me first survey what the New Testament says. He is referred to simply as “Jesus” in the book of Acts numerous times. Outside of the Gospels and Acts, we find simply “Jesus” at least 31 times. That’s not chump change. Yes, the vast majority of times he is referred to as more than simply “Jesus.” However, the many exceptions are there and in none of those exceptions is there any disrespect communicated. How can someone forbid something that is practiced in Scripture so often? Surely the numerous usages of “Jesus” gives us the freedom to do likewise. We should never aspire to be more righteous than Scripture itself.
Moving into the patristic era, the pattern of usage in the New Testament is indeed repeated. There’s a common usage, but there are also exceptions. I didn’t do an exhaustive search of the church fathers, but just randomly looking here and there I found plenty of examples of simply “Jesus” with the Epistle of Barnabas, Augustine, Clement, and Irenaeus. They all manage to use his personal name by itself with great respect.
Moving much further along in history, I can’t imagine anyone would accuse J.S. Bach of having disrespected our Saviour with his 1723 cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. This cantata is most well-known for the tenth movement, Jesus bleibet meine freude – translated into English as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” In fact, there is a long history of sacred music referring to him as only “Jesus” and this has been carried forward into the hymnody of the church, including the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia. We have several hymns which use simply “Jesus” but do so in a way that honours his majesty.
When I was a missionary, I learned something important about names. Respect doesn’t necessarily come with honorific titles. In the churches I grew up in, folks were often rather particular about referring to the pastor as “Reverend.” But the same sticklers about such honorific titles would also sometimes have roast pastor for lunch on Sundays. So much for respect. In Fort Babine, where I served as a missionary, there were no honorific titles for anyone. The youngest members of the community addressed the oldest members by their first name. Everyone called me by my first name. But there was never any disrespect in that practice. You showed respect in other ways besides using an honorific title. It’s the same with the name “Jesus.” You can show your respect for him by referring to him as “our Lord Jesus,” but you can also say “Jesus” and yet speak to him with a respectful tone and respectful word choices. You can simply say “Jesus” in the most worshipful way. Respect is about more than just the terms you use.
So, to Philip Yancey, I unreservedly apologize for criticizing you about your use of the name “Jesus” all by itself. I was wrong. The books I reviewed from you still have other problems and I stand by those criticisms, but on this point, I take it back. You displayed no disrespect for Jesus and please forgive me for saying you did. For everyone else, if you feel compelled to always add an honorific title to our Saviour’s personal name, I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t. You go right ahead. I still often do the same. But please afford your fellow Christians the courtesy of realizing that forbidding simply “Jesus” goes beyond Scripture.