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.