Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Semantics of Mercy and Grace (1)

I saw a good illustration of the concept of semantics the other day: If you google the word “sombrero” for images, you will get a series of pictures of traditional Mexican hats. Of course, if you use the version of Google from a Spanish speaking country and do the same, you will simply get a series of pictures of hats; all sorts and varieties of hats. In Spanish all hats are sombreros. Sombrero is the Spanish word for hat. In other languages it has simply become the word for that particular style. This is the confusion caused by semantics. Even within a single language, we can have this problem. Two people can have different, even valid, understandings of the meaning of a word. This can cause some silly arguments. I personally have had the experience of arguing with a person where we both were saying the same thing, just insisting that our particular way of saying it was the right way.

However, sometimes the meaning of words can be vital. Like when we speak about what it takes to be right with God. In Luke 10 we have an example of an encounter with Jesus where the meaning of words was an important thing to understand for eternal salvation:

A lawyer set out to test Jesus. Jesus was a popular teacher and may religious professionals wanted to see if He measured up to their standards. His question was not designed to learn how to be saved. He wanted to see if Jesus agreed with him. Jesus does not really participate in the test. He does not answer the question, but turns the question back onto the lawyer. What does the law say?

The law does not save, it convicts. Recognition of our problem is vital. Conviction of sin is vital. Without conviction, there is no salvation. When Jesus asks the layer what the law indicates, it is not to see how well the layer knows his subject. It is to see if the lawyer will recognize that he cannot achieve eternal life. It is not enough to recognize we are sinners. We have to realize we need help. We need to throw ourselves on God’s mercy, not justify our sin or try to fix our situation.

When Jesus’ affirms the idea, “fulfill all of the law,” the lawyer knows he has a problem. He cannot hope to have eternal life. No one can! It is impossible to be good enough. At this point a correct answer would be to throw our hands up in despair and surrender. “We give up, God!” “Help us, for we cannot help ourselves!”

But the lawyer does what we all do. He looks for a loophole. There has to be a way out; a way we can still save ourselves. He turns to semantics. How can we fulfill the law and love our neighbor without loving everybody?

We all need God’s mercy to fix our dilemma. We are hopeless in our own abilities and solutions. We are totally dependent on God for salvation. We cannot work, lie, or cheat our way out of the punishment we deserve for our rebellion. Thankfully, when we recognize this we have a way out. It is called God’s mercy and grace. He sent His Son to take our place and offer us the free, unearned restoration of a relationship with Him. It is nothing we deserve or earn.

That knowledge is a great relief. It should also be a source of great thankfulness and humility. What does that thankfulness look like?

(part 2)

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