Thursday, October 29, 2015

Grammar and the Gospel

I grew up the progeny of a professor.  My mom held a PhD in English and taught various forms of that field at the university level.  She was a lover of literature and a guardian of grammar.  In our home, words mattered and the improper use of syntactic structure could get you in as much trouble as the crude use of cursing. 

Mom taught me that grammar is the glue that holds context and content together.  When the glue is improperly applied, meaning can fall apart and crucial pieces of conversation can be lost. We talked often of using accurate articles, properly applied pronouns, and correct verb tense. 

I didn’t care much for those language lessons as a child (particularly not as they were being drilled into me over summer vacation!), but, as the years have rolled on I’ve grown in my gratitude for the phonemic pedagogy of my parent.

I’m far from being a perfect grammarian.  I picture my mom rolling over in her grave every time I improperly apply an apostrophe, mix up a homonym, or leave a modifier dangling over the edge of a conversational cliff. (Let's not even discuss punctuation.) 

In spite of my philological failings I’ve never forgotten the overarching idea of my mom’s instruction on these things, and I’m thankful for her tutelage.   

Recently, I’ve thought about these things as they relate to the gospel – most particularly as they relate to what I call “grammatical gospel glue.”  Articles, pronouns, and verb tenses can make a definitive difference in whether or not the gospel is accurately, adequately, and actually applied to our lives. 

Let me seek to explain with three examples.

1.  Accurate articles.

Articles are small words that define a noun as being specific or unspecific.  In the English language there are only three articles: a, an, and the

Asking you to grab me a shirt from my closet, versus asking you to grab me the blue striped shirt in my closet – well… that could make a real difference in my wardrobe for the day. Asking you to pick up a pill from the medicine cabinet as opposed to the pill the doctor prescribed for me - well... that could make a life or death difference. 

Articles can make a life or death difference in our understanding of the gospel as well. 

Many will say that Jesus is a Savior.  That’s the use of an unspecific article, and it makes Him out to be one Savior among many.  However, the Bible declares that Jesus is the Savior – the specific, unique, and sole Savior.

Luke writes that “there is salvation found in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  

John records the Savior as saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” (John 14:6.)

One article (“a”) implies that there are many ways to find freedom from sin and favor with the Father. Another article (“the”) declares that there is but one way – the way of Christ via the way of the cross. 

Which article am I applying to Jesus?  
Is it an accurate article?  
Is it a Biblical article?  
Is it grammatical glue that will hold throughout eternity, or will I find myself stuck with nothing that sticks on my final day?

2. Possessive Pronouns.

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun - I, me, he, she, you, we, etc. (In the South you can add y'all.  In the mountains of North Carolina feel free to toss in a y'uns or two!) 

Possessive pronouns indicate exactly what you’d think – possession of the thing to which they point.  With their use I can declare that the Subaru is my car, the baby is your daughter, and the mess in the kitchen is all his. (This last example is one that my eleven year old is particularly fond of)!

So, what about possessive pronouns and the good news of the gospel?  

Well, without them we are literally lost.  

Even with an accurate article (“Jesus is the Savior”) the absence of the possessive pronoun (“Jesus is my Savior”) means that all gospel glue is gone, and the stickiness of all eternal hope with it.

We can acknowledge all day long that there is no forgiveness of sins apart from Jesus Christ, and no salvation except in Him, but if we have not personally taken hold of Christ by faith, if we are not personally resting in Him and on His finished work on our behalf, if we don't personally possess the promise, then we are no better than the demons who believe and shudder (James 2:19).  

Christ’s question to Peter is an important one for us to ask and answer ourselves:  “Who do you say that I am?”  

Do I publicly declare Christ to be the Savior of sinners, and along with that have I personally applied the possessive reality of Him as my Savior from my sins?

It is a crucial question, my friend. 

3.  Terrific tense.

In my neck of the woods, the improper use of verb tense is one of the things that I most commonly hear. Verb tense helps us know when a thing happened - past, present, future, and a plethora of sneaky grammatical nuances thereof. 

When I was growing up, my mom had no hesitancy to take people to task for their error in this area.  Cashiers and customers were often left speechless as mom waxed eloquently on the difference between simple past, present perfect, and past continuous verb forms when they’d fumbled those forms.  

I pitied the person who improperly applied them in her path!

A passing comment from a total stranger that “My son done good on his driving test!” would send her into a teaching tizzy - not only on proper verb tense, but also on the distinguishing marks and uses of adjectives and adverbs. 

“You mean, your son did well on his driving test – and here’s why you should learn to do well with your speech…”

Usually silence followed from the poor shell shocked soul who’d made the snafu, and all check out chit chat came to a screeching halt.

“Did,” “do,” and “done”  - while not necessarily misused in a gospel verb tense sense -  are often misused in another way when it comes to understanding salvation.  

Many people look at their lives and think “I’m not that bad.  I don’t really do anything all that awful, and I’ve actually accomplished a lot of good in this life.”   

We can easily puff ourselves up with pride and say, “Hey God, look at what I did” and assume that our doings are what will get us into heaven - even though our best doings are said to be nothing more than filthy rags when compared to the perfect and holy standard of a perfect and holy God (Isaiah 64:6).

Like the rich young ruler we may foolishly feel confident to come and ask “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” - thinking we’ll receive a pat on the back for our actions and the key to the holy city for our works.  But, Jesus pressed that young man into a corner and uncovered his covetousness, showing him that he wasn’t doing as well as he thought he was. He does the same with us. Are we listening to and learning from the lesson?

At the heart of the gospel, “did,” “do,” and “done”  fall into what I refer to as the “terrific tense”.  My salvation is not based on my verbs, it is not founded upon the things that I once did nor upon the things that I am now doing.  

My salvation is found, ground, and bound by what Christ has done on my behalf. 

He has done what I could never do – lived the sinless life in my stead. 
He has done what I should do – died for my sin.
He has done what I would do but am powerless to do – He has risen from death’s grave conquering sin and granting salvation to sinners – to sinners who see the importance of grammar and the gospel. 

Jesus is the Savior.
Jesus is my Savior. 
Jesus has saved me not based on anything I will do but on everything He has doneAnd what He has done on my behalf covers more than all the past, present, and future tenses I could ever fathom - for He is the same yesterday, today and forever.  It's indeed the terrific tense!

This is one grammar lesson I never grow weary of hearing and this is the gospel glue that will see me through!  How I pray that your gospel grammar, by grace, is good!


  1. Great article, but I don't like the acronym "snafu."

    1. It didn't bother me until I just looked up the origin. I can see why you don't like it.

  2. Thanks for this post Lori. I always benefit from what you write. The possessive pronoun section really convicted me. Thank you. Also, in case Kelli sees this, I don't think snafu is an acronym. Isn't it a noun?

  3. Google it. It contains an obscenity. Some people don't know it. I've even heard preachers say it but they are naive.

    1. I looked it up in my grandfather's dictionary from the era where it originated. In that dictionary it reads as "fouled" not as the word that is all over google. I appreciate Samantha's words. This is not information I would have ever come up with from simply reading this post and I hate that the message of Christ that Lori has given to us has led here because one word, which was used as it typically is in conversation, has been singled out.

    2. I am sorry to have offended anyone by pointing out one word. In my own experience, knowing myself without having had to look it up that the word was somewhat inappropriate in the context, I chose to bring it up. Since the original blog post was about the use of language, I thought Lori might appreciate the input. Re your grandfather's dictionary, I'm almost certain that a dictionary of that era would not have contained the obscenity, though common understanding from the historical context backs it up. Indeed, as I said, I have heard a preacher use the term in ignorance, and I don't doubt that others have also done so. It really isn't an expression we want our children or grandchildren to pick up.

  4. Really? These comments are the takeaway from this post? SMH. :(

  5. Lori,
    As always I am encouraged and challenged by your words. What a gift. I finished the post and sat for a moment simply thinking through its implications. How are my articles and pronouns and do I really see the terrific tense. (Loved that, by the way!!) I came to comment and got sidetracked by the snafu statements. Being curious I looked it up. My dictionary had no obscenities, only the definition I'd heard all my life. Then I googled as Kellih suggested. In seeing the acronym I was saddened. Saddened not that you'd used the word, but that I found myself going from great thoughts of my God to googling a word to see what obscenity it might contain. This is a beautiful, Christ centered post and I'm reminded at how, in this fallen world, we make a mess of things that are lovely. I had to work hard to find that ugly meaning rather than just resting in the beauty of the gospel as you'd held it forth. How often do we chase down rabbits instead of sitting down with Jesus? I'm convicted by my actions as well as by your words. Keep writing Lori. I'll keep reading and I'll try my best to stay on task as I do.

  6. This retired English teacher thanks you for this post, Lori. Well crafted and very encouraging.