The Meaning of Words

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Language and the Meaning of Words

Language is essential for a society and for a group of people in society to function. For example, I speak English. I can order a cup of coffee, go to the bank, purchase rotors and brake pads for my truck at the auto parts store because of a shared language. And it’s not only a shared language that allows a society to function, but it’s the shared meaning of words that allows commerce to take place and for friends to gather around dinner tables for hours of conversation. 

In the church, a shared language and the shared meaning of words are equally important. But, unfortunately, there are times when the meaning of words is never explained, leaving Christians to utter Christianize but without a mind to know the meaning behind the words

Language and the Meaning of Words in the Church

Here is an example. You cannot understand the God of the Bible without the concepts of grace and mercy. The words grace and mercy are used in countless songs. The pages of scripture are littered with the words grace and mercy. Yet, how many Christians do not know the basic meaning and undoubtedly not the depth of these words? 

The words mercy and grace are often used synonymously, which is not good or right. Mercy and grace are connected, but they are different in meaning and application. If you confuse the two, you miss out on God’s heart to save a person from perdition.

Let me sort it out. 

Mercy from God

In Ephesians 2:4 it says, 

But God, being rich in mercy…

– Ephesians 2:4

Mercy is when punishment or discipline is deserved, but it is withheld. Here is the deal. Every person reading this blog post deserves the wrath of God because every person has sinned against God. The only reason Christians will not be the recipient of God’s judgment is because of his mercy

Swiss reformer from the 16th century Heinrich Bullinger tells us what God is up in the salvation of souls. He helps us make sense of mercy. He says, 

Since there is no need for a long exposition of what is perfectly obvious, we shall explain this verse only briefly. By grace, Paul understands nothing but the rich mercy and abundant love of God that he has already spoken about at some length and of which Ambrose so elegantly and reverently says, “The true riches of mercy are that it is not necessary to look any farther than this to receive it.” Isaiah said the same thing: “I was made known to those who were not looking for me.” Mercy is really abundant when it is given to people who were not asking for it. This is the love of God toward us, which he showed us because he did not want us to perish. 

– Heinrich Bullinger

Did you hear what Bullinger says? Mercy is really abundant or obvious when it is given to people who were not asking for it. There is an acknowledgment that mercy isn’t fully comprehended until it is still received. Every good parent knows the meaning and application of mercy.

There have been times when a child does something wrong warranting consequences. This is the case with every child and parent dynamic in human existence. And with kids, they often know when they were wrong. They know if they are caught with their hand in the cookie jar, there will be consequences. At the Powers house, there have been several moments when a child did something wrong that warranted discipline, but instead, mercy was extended. The conversation can go something like this:

Me: Do you know that you did something wrong? 

Child: Yes

Me: Now that we both know you did something wrong, I will not discipline you. 

Child: Why?

Me: Because of mercy.

These conversations have to lead to us talking about the mercy of God. Because of your sin and trespasses, you deserve to live up to the name, child of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). You deserve the full extent of God’s cosmic justice. But God…But God withholds his justice because of Jesus. It is because of Jesus that God extends mercy. 

Ephesians 2:4 qualifies God’s mercy by saying He is rich in mercy. Do you know what that says to me? God does not begrudgingly extend mercy. God does not look at Johnny and say, oh man, I don’t know about that one. The greater awareness of sin results in a greater acknowledgment of God’s merciful love. God extends mercy out of love. If God has set his electing love on someone, God’s mercy will follow regardless of the baggage connected with the person. Take a look at Ephesians 2:4-5.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…

– Ephesians 2:4–5

So what is the motivating factor of God’s mercy? It’s God’s great love! 

Just ponder for a moment how you respond to someone when you have been wronged. I know people can overreact over the littlest of things. When someone treats you poorly, what’s your reaction? You become frustrated. The heart can become hard when you are offended by another person. Now consider your sin before a holy and just God, and out of love, God shows you the richness of his mercy. Why did God show you the richness of his love by extending mercy to you? Because, as the creator of the universe, it is God’s prerogative, and his prerogative alone, to extend mercy to you so that God’s glory might be revealed in you. You deserve God’s justice, but mercy has been extended to the glory of God.

Amazing Grace

So, all of this is what mercy means in this passage. What about God’s grace?

Grace is being given something – a gift – that you do not deserve. Mercy is God withholding a just punishment. Grace is God giving you something you did not earn – salvation. So let’s stick with Ephesians 2. 

At the end of verse 5, it seems Paul is writing a parenthetical statement in the middle of another thought. He says, by grace, you have been saved, and then he moves on from the idea until verse 8, where he repeats and expands what it means to be saved. Here might be the most well-known verses in the Book of Ephesians.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

– Ephesians 2:8–9

Now we are getting to the heart of the gospel. The primary question Paul is answering is, how is a sinful, wretched person saved? Here is what makes Christianity distinct from other religions and faith traditions. I grew up Catholic, and I was told something differnet from what we read in Ephesians 2.

Not A Good Catholic

Growing up, I was told that the way to heaven is to be a good person. It went something like this: Yes, there will be bad things I do in life. There are sins I will commit. But, if I can do enough good deeds, specifically toward other people, then maybe the scales of justice will be in my favor after I die. 

On the one hand, this kind of teaching caused me to hold doors for the elderly. It caused me to care for those in need. This kind of teaching ingrained into my thinking that my good works matter, even though this kind of teaching is self-focused. 

On the other hand, I had an excuse to sin. I could be a nice guy in the day and a jerk at night. Well, this kind of theology is dangerous and cultivates hypocrisy. It’s not in the Bible. There is no grace from God in thinking that it is up to me to save myself. So you can see that the word grace and its meaning and application are crucial. 

A theologian from the 4th century, John Chrysostom, said plainly about verse 8, 

Do not rely on your own efforts but on the grace of Christ. “You are,” says the apostle, “saved by grace.” Therefore it is not a matter of arrogance here but faith when we celebrate: We are accepted! This is not pride but devotion.

– John Chrysostom

And I would also add that knowing you have been saved by God’s grace alone fosters devotion and humility

Only based on grace are people delivered from their desperate situation of sinfulness which separates them from God. When a person is given faith from God to believe in the sinless life, atoning death and resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ, God’s lavished grace is recognized. When a person is given faith, he or she all of a sudden is like, Woe! What amazing grace!

The Brass Tacks

Salvation from God delivers people who are dead in transgressions because of God’s sovereign grace and mercy. And based on God’s mercy, one has been saved from God’s wrath, and because of amazing grace, God freely gives the gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. 

The words mercy and grace are to be celebrated because of what they mean and how they are applied through the gospel.