Vocabulary & Grammar Is Important for “Grace”


“Hopefully” in Irish is “le cuidiú Dé;” directly translated it reads, “with the help of God.”   I do not speak Irish fluently, but I do have some sayings, and there are some I say regularly to my son.  For instance, when I put him to bed I say “Oíche mhaith, codladh sámh,” which means “good night, sleep well.”  He has heard it often in his three years.  I am confident he knows it as a blessing for sleep, but honestly, as he is delayed in communication and has autism, we truly do not know when he understands English, Irish, or Choctaw (he attends Choctaw Headstart).

We concentrate on his English, but it is wonderful that he is exposed to the language of our ancestors and the language of people native to this area (well, the “relocated” area).  I know he is delayed in communication, but vocabulary is not his issue.   He can certainly learn words in multiple languages and transfer between them, why should the primary colors be only known as “red, yellow, & blue,” they can also be known as  “dearg, buí, & gorm” or “humma, lvkna, & okchvko.”   Communication is not simply vocabulary, and that is what my son’s teacher, aids, speech therapists, and parents are teaching him.

The church, on the other hand, needs vocabulary and grammar lessons.  We use some very religious words, but we use them incorrectly (I am talking to pastors here).  Atonement, justification, faith, and sanctification are four words that come to mind.  Across the theological spectrum I hear pastors use words in such a way that undermines the meaning of the great word “grace.”  When that word, “grace,” is used everyone seems to know it is the love of God that we receive even though we do not deserve such a gift.  That is good news; that is the Gospel.  However,  when we (and I am certainly not immune) use other religious words such as justification or faith, we are not always clear what we mean, and we fail our vocabulary quiz.

We preach that God is the only one that saves us; God’s grace justifies us.  Simple, but then I hear someone point to actions one may do to be right with God; however, that is not as common a culprit, for they will make it clear that the good acts are in response to God’s Grace.  The most common culprit I hear is, “justified by faith.”  No longer does the word grace have any meaning.  If justification is determined by one’s faith, it is determined by human action, not the free gift of grace.  This may seem subtle, and I know that most who say “justified by faith,” preach grace and God as the only source, and thus will call this issue semantics.  That is the point–we must be aware of our vocabulary, our grammar, and our semantics when we talk, and especially, preach.

I believe that Joe Jones offers an important alternative, “I prefer to avoid the expression ‘justification by faith’ and use instead ‘justification by grace through faith.’ It is the grace of God that justifies, and it is through faith that we say ‘yes’ to that prior justification and begin to live on the basis of that justifying grace.”[i]  Hear the difference?  We maintain the meaning of grace, justification, and faith.

My son may need to learn to communicate, but as church we need to remember our grammar and vocabulary and how they work together. Once we get our vocabulary and grammar straight, I hope we can join my son and work on our communication.  Hopefully (le cuidiú Dé ) we will  remember that it is all done with the help of God especially our justification and salvation by grace, through faith.

[i] Jones, Joe.  A Grammar of Christian Faith; Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine. Volume II Rowman & Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.  2002.  p. 518.

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4 thoughts on “Vocabulary & Grammar Is Important for “Grace”

  1. As a deliberate act of redundancy and hyperbole, we should always say, “unconditional boundless grace.” The unconditional boundless grace of God is sufficient regardless of what we do or what we are or where we are. Then, instead of “Am I saved?”, the question becomes “How do I respond to unconditional boundless grace?” It is not about us or our needs or the condition of our existence, it is simply an expression of the character of God. Anything other than unconditional boundless grace is an attempt to make God less than what God is.

  2. SPEAKING CHRISTIAN
    Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power –
    AND HOW THEY CAN BE RESTORED
    by Marcus J. Borg
    HarperOne (c) 2011

    Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. He was Hundre Chair of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University until his retirement in 2007. Borg is the author of nineteen books, including the bestselling “The Heart of Christianity”, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time”, “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time”, and the novel “Putting Away Childish Things.”

    – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    Christian language has become a stumbling block in our time. Much of its basic vacabulary is seriously misunderstood. Big words like “salvation”, “save”, sacrifice”, “redeemer”, “redemption”, “righteousness”, “repentence”, “mercy”, “sin”, “forgiveness”, “born again”, “second coming”, “God”, “Jesus”, and “Bible” and collections of words like “the creeds”, “Lord’s Prayer”, and “liturgies” have acquired meanings that are serious distortions of their biblical and traditional meanings.

    The misunderstandings flow from two major causes shaping the way Christian language is heard. The first is the literalization of language in the modern period. The second is the interpretation of Christian language within a common framework that I call “heaven and hell” Christianity. When this is the primary framework for understanding Christianity, it diminishes and distorts the meaning of Christian language.

    This book’s purpose is to exposit an alternative understanding, one that draws on the Bible and premodern Christian tradition. Again and again, it compares and contrasts the contemporary meanings of Christian language with their often very different and traditional meanings. Again and again, it names the effects that literalization and the heaven-and-hell framework have had upon the meanings of Christian language. Again and again, it reveals the more ancient and authentic meaning of “speaking Christian” and tries to connect these reinvigorated meanings to the realities we face in the twenty-first century.

    This book’s purpose is to redeem or reclaim Christian language in all of its richness and wisdom.

    This book’s purpose is to help us to read, hear, and inwardly digest Christian language without preconceived understandings getting in the way. It is about learning to read and hear the language of our faith again.

    pp. 1-3

    The heaven-and-hell framework has four central elements: the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, Jesus’s dying for our sins, and believing.

    1. THE AFTERLIFE: Heaven is the reason for being Christian.

    2. SIN AND FORGIVENESS: Sin is the central issue in our life with God, Forgiveness is the solution. Because we are sinners, we deserve to be punished.

    3. JESUS DIED FOR OUR SINS: What is most important about Jesus is his death. He died for our sins in our place, paid the price of our disobedience, and thereby made our forgiveness possible.

    4. BELIEVING: Affirming a core set of statements to be true. Believing or “having faith,” is what God wants from us and what makes it possible to go to heaven. For about half of Protestants, this means not only believing that Jesus died for our sins, but much more, including that the Bible is the inerrant revelation of God, literally and absolutely true. There is common agreement that affirming a set of beliefs matters. For many, this has become the primary meaning of “faith.”

    The framework created by these four elements decisively shapes the meaning of many “big” Christian words, giving them meaning very different from their biblical and ancient Christian ones. To illustrate:

    SALVATION:
    *now refers to life after death; it is about going to heaven.
    *But in the Bible, it is seldom about an afterlife; rather, it is about transformation this side of death.

    SAVED:
    * now means to be saved from our sins.
    * But in the Bible, it is about much more than this, and often not about sin at all.

    SAVIOR:
    * now refers to Jesus as the one who saves us from our sins.
    * But in the Bible, “savior” is used long before Jesus and most often has nothing to do with being saved from sin.

    SACRIFICE:
    * now refers to Jesus’s death on the cross as payment for our sins.
    * But in the Bible, sacrifice is never about substitutionary payment for sin.

    GOD:
    * now refers to a personlike being separate from the universe. God’s character is both loving and punitive. God loves us enough to send Jesus to die for us, but God will also judge and punish those who don’t believe or behavve as they ought.
    * But the Bible also contains a very different understanding of God, both of what the word refers to and of God’s character.

    MERCY:
    * is now about God forgiving us, even though we are sinful and deserve to be punished.
    * But in the Bible, the ancient words translated into English as “mercy” often do not mean what “mercy” means in modern English.

    REPENTANCE:
    * is now remorse for sin and resolving to live a better life.
    * But in the Bible, its meanings are quite different: to return from exile and “to go beyond the mind we have.”

    REDEEMER, REDEEM, and REDEMPTION (like SAVIOR, SAVE, and SALVATION):
    * now refer to Jesus as the redeemer who redeems us from our sins and brings about our redemption.
    * But in the Bible, these words are not about being saved from sin, but about being set free from slavery.

    RIGHTEOUSNESS:
    * is now primarily about individual virtue – about being a righteous person.
    * But in the Bible, it is often a collective or social virtue. It is about justice and whether societies are just or unjust.

    PEACE:
    * is now primarily understood as an individual internal state – peace of mind and being at peace with God. But in the Bible, peace is more than internal peace. It is a major part of God’s dream for the world, a world of nonviolence and the end of war.

    FAITH:
    * now means believing a set of statements about God, Jesus, and the Bible to be true, often literally true.
    * But in the Bible and premodern Christianity, faith and believing are not about affirming the truth of statements. Rather, they are about commitment, loyalty, and allegiance, and not to a set of statements, but to God as known especially in Jesus. Perhaps the best single synonym for “to believe” is “to belove.”

    The point is that the common heaven-and-hell framework is like a black hole that sucks the meaning of Christian language into it, changing and distorting it.

    pp. 11-16

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