Is “Lost” a Four-Letter Word?

How One Little Word Conveys Great Value

By Matt Green

“Four-letter words” are often used as curse words in English—words that aren’t to be used in polite society. Do we have words like that in the missions community? Some would say that the term “lost” is a four-letter word. Technically, it is. But should we stop using this word to describe people who do not yet know Christ as Savior?

If you have a heart for the unreached, you may find yourself arguing—even with fellow Christians—for why it’s necessary to take the gospel to people who seem to be perfectly happy with their own beliefs. Likewise, the idea of identifying someone who doesn’t follow Jesus as “lost” can seem culturally unacceptable, demeaning or disrespectful.

Lost Sheep, Coins and Sons

We should always consider how those we hope to reach hear words like this. However, the concept is not an unbiblical one. In fact, Jesus is the first to use the phrase. He used it to refer not to gentiles and unbelievers, but to the “lost sheep of Israel” to whom He initially called His disciples (Matthew 10:6).

The idea of “lostness” is not to demean the thing lost, but to emphasize its value.

The idea pops up again in the parables of the lost coin, sheep and son (see Luke 15). In each instance, “lostness” is not intended to demean the missing item, but to emphasize its value. Thus, the extravagant celebrations when each lost item is found.

Only when we lose something of great value do we feel great distress. That is why we use the word to describe those who have not yet come to believe in Jesus.

As creatures made in the image of God, human beings possess a worth that exceeds that of all other things God created. That value is demonstrated in the lengths to which He went to seek out those who are lost.

Worth the Pursuit

Jesus described the purpose of His coming to earth in these terms: “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). It’s a mission that He calls His followers to share in. We should be sensitive in using words such as “lost,” recognizing that others may hear them differently than we intend. But may we never miss the truth they communicate. Lost people—whether our friends and neighbors or the unreached overseas—are worth pursuing with the good news.

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