Borrowed Without Attribution

By Ross Engel

Something I recently wrote was “borrowed without attribution.” (I have reached out to the author, apologies and forgiveness were exchanged, edits were made, and a round of drinks promised. The guy is a pretty talented writer and clearly he has good taste!) When I first read the article (before the edits), it seemed odd to read my words coming from someone else, though with minor adjustments here and there for personal differences (though, it appears we both root for the Redwings, so that did soften the blow some). Now that he has quoted me appropriately, I’ll admit that it seems just as odd to see myself being quoted!

How many words does it take to be considered plagiarism? When does borrowing phrases or ideas drift into the realm of stealing words and ideas? What sort of massaging to someone else’s original words makes it not plagiarism? Is the lack or presence of quotation marks all that matters? What are appropriate and inappropriate times to use portions or entire words from another person? Perhaps every situation is different?

It always humbles me that so many people read what we publish here at The Jagged Word. I never quite know how my articles will be received. I never know which ones will be well received, which will start arguments, which will get me one of those “Dear brother, I’m concerned” letters, or which one will set the record for the most “likes” and “views.”

What I do know is that it is a blast to be given the opportunity to write my thoughts here, and it is a joy to know that the Jagged Mafia avidly reads and responds to what we write, for better or for worse.

This recent occurrence of “borrowed” work has gotten me thinking about the temptations that exist within this world to put our names on someone else’s work. This trend has increased in all levels of school, so much that teachers often require digital copies of papers so that they can plug them into some database to check for instances of “unattributed word borrowing.” Some years ago, I was asked by a parent to talk to their child because they had just gotten caught cheating in school. In the course of the conversation the youth blurted out, “I wouldn’t have to cheat if the teachers didn’t assign so much work and make tests so tough.” I certainly was not ready for such a statement.


This temptation doesn’t end in school, though. Whether it is due to laziness, insecurity, or being over-extended, in nearly every career and job that I can imagine, it is possible to be tempted to call someone else’s work your own. Because of laziness, one can find themselves out of time, but with a deadline still overhead. The internet can be a treasure trove of quotes, obscure papers, and more to be borrowed for personal use. Insecurity can drive a person to doubt their own abilities to produce something good, which then can cause an individual to put forth someone else’s work as their own, basking in the accolades they receive. This actually only increases insecurity, as the individual really begins to wonder if they have anything to offer at all or if they will only continue to have to utilize someone else’s work forever. Of course, being over-extended can also drive a person to the works of another, but I tend to agree with Eugene Peterson that, at least when it comes to pastors, more often than not, “a busy pastor is a lazy pastor” (his book, “The Contemplative Pastor” was absolutely outstanding! I highly recommend it!)

When we do things, whether it’s writing or building or teaching or preaching, whatever it may be that we do, we like to be credited for our work. We want to make sure that the recognition comes to us rightly. When we do something bad, we’d rather have those things slip by unnoticed or point the finger somewhere else. We get annoyed, even a bit angry, when someone else receives credit for something good that we accomplished. How dare they take credit for my work!

In our lives as Christians, though, we live in the simple reality that someone has taken credit for all our work and has placed our names on all His work. It is a blessed exchange! Our works, no matter how good they may look, stink before God! In Isaiah 64:6, the prophet gets pretty graphic as he describes our “righteous deeds” before God as “bloody menstrual rags.” This uncensored version of the Hebrew text would be a bit harsh to hear on a Sunday morning. It certainly would make folks squirm, but it puts our good works into proper perspective! They don’t earn us any standing before God, to say the least! We can’t work our way into God’s favor, earn our salvation, or claim any goodness of our own before God.

jesus side

Our good works and our sinful works are one bloody, worthless mess before God, but Christ has stepped into this world, clothed Himself in our flesh, and claimed our works as His own. He soaked up our sinfulness. He put His name on our best and worst efforts, all of them soiled with sin, and claimed them as His own. And in that gracious exchange that takes place in the waters of baptism, He has placed our names on what He has done. His perfect, sinless life now bears our names. His death and resurrection, His victory over sin and the grave, now belongs to us. We claim it as our own because of who we are in Christ.

We have nothing of our own to present to God—no goodness of our own nor greatness to lay claim to. And yet we rejoice, for what we have done no longer bears our name. The sin, the guilt, the shame, even the stink of death and God’s wrath that we deserve, is no longer attributed to us, Christ has claimed it as His own! Jesus has exchange His holiness for our unholiness. His righteousness is now attributed to us. And we now wear righteousness before God that Christ earned! In this glorious exchange, all the heavens rejoice, for our names have been placed on Christ’s saving work and we do not get what we deserve. Rather, we receive what Christ has earned.