Four Little Five Letter Words (I)

Words are powerful things.  They can encourage or discourage, build up or break down.  Some words have reputations.  Think about the infamous four letter words.  (Of course, I’m limiting my discussion to English, my native tongue.  Related words aren’t likely to be only four letters in any of the other languages of earth.)  And no, we won’t recite such things here. But they immediately conjure up some pictures, I’m sure.  I remember once using some word I shouldn’t have and my mother treated me to a mouth washing with Zest.  I can’t recommend it.  In my ecology classes, we discuss parts of an ecosystem including that complex and essential one, the soil.  I tell the class to never say the word “dirt” to a soil scientist, since that is a four letter word.  Of course, it doesn’t take too long for some bright young scholar to count the letters and chime in that “soil” is a four letter word, too.

Now, of course, there are many four letter words that are certainly welcomed in polite company.  Think about it:  Help.  Hope.  Give.  Life.  Love.  No one can find fault with these words, and they can convey very positive messages in terms of the life of the spirit. 

I got to thinking the other day that in matters of faith, there are several five letter words that are of tremendous impact.  In fact, in matters of faith, faith itself is one of those five letter words. The writer of Hebrews defined faith as “…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrewes 11.1).  Later, in verse 6 of the same chapter, he indicates that faith is essential to pleasing God: “…without faith, it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”  That makes sense, since it is likely that only those who believe in God would be interested in pleasing him.  Belief in the existence of God must precede the realization of rewards.

But someone may say that James points out that faith without works is dead.  And that is true.  But as I have often thought, putting the works in perspective is essential.  That passage is talking to established Christians about how to conduct their lives, as the rest of James’ epistle also does.  While I cannot argue that there are things that must be done in order to place one in that Christian relationship, failure to assign the appropriate contextual emphasis is dishonest, and misleading.  In our more modern vernacular, James is basically saying that if you are going to talk the talk of being a disciple, you better be ready to walk the walk.  Let your actions demonstrate your faith more loudly and clearly than mere words, because talk is cheap. 

Another famous passage in James gets misused a lot, as well.  The writer says in 4.17, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the passage used to condemn procrastination in the matter of baptism.  While the principle may be obliquely applicable, the direct context has nothing whatsoever to do with one’s initial act of obedience or submission.

Notice the function of the comment in verse 17:  the thought begins with “so,” an obvious indication that the writer is drawing a conclusion.  The immediate context returns to verse 13ff, where James expands his arguments regarding the tendency of some—remember that he is admonishing Christians—to leave God out of the picture when making plans. 

“13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17  So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

This thought actually blends with the previous discussion of arrogance, which he asserts is firmly grounded in worldliness, or friendship with the world, in verses 5-10.

“5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  9  Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” 

Faith and works are now mingled with the concept of grace, which, in keeping with our theme, happens to be another five letter word.  Wait a minute:  James doesn’t talk about grace.  Paul talks about grace.  James is a “works” man.  Read it again for yourself.  Of verse 6, Barnes reflects,

“The meaning is, that he shows them favor; he bestows upon them the grace needful to secure their salvation. This he does:

(1) because they feel their need of his favor;

(2) because they will welcome his teaching and value his friendship;

(3) because all the arrangements of his grace are adapted only to such a state of mind. You cannot teach one who is so wise that he already supposes he knows enough; you cannot bestow grace on one who has no sense of the need of it. The arrangements of salvation are adapted only to an humble heart.”

Grace is one of the most feared words in the narrowly focused segment of the faith heritage with which I have been associated.  In the broader experience of this particular movement, it is not necessarily the case, however.

Back in the early/middle 19th century, as the Stone-Campbell Movement was picking up speed and becoming recognized especially across the American frontier, a former Baptist by the name of Walter Scott became one of the most successful evangelists in the new—or as many would have it, restored—group.  Scott is credited (or some may suggest, blamed) with formalizing the Five Step Plan of Salvation.  Scott would enter a town, find some children and teach them the five steps, which could easily be remembered by ticking them off the fingers of one hand, and encourage them to bring their parents to his revival meeting to learn more about this simple path to salvation. 

In an earlier post, we discussed how Scott’s initial concept included six steps, three for man and three for God.  But, over time, this was reduced to five, de-emphasizing the role of God and emphasizing the works of man, where salvation largely remains today among many of this movement as a Five Finger Exercise.  The sad and shocking thing that I think about is that so many preachers take to the pulpit weekly and tick off the Five Steps and never once in the entirety of their lesson or invitation speak the word, “grace.”  It is a sad commentary on the state of the movement when grace becomes a word to be shunned and avoided.

Grace is so important a concept that Paul opens and closes his letters with it, along with the twin blessing of peace (another five letter word, for those who are keeping score).  Paul also delivers the most definitive pronouncement regarding the centrality of grace to the life of the Christian in Ephesians 2.4-10:

“4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Paul says that grace is the key to salvation, which can only be realized through faith, and not by the works that anyone may produce or perform which could then be used as the basis of claiming entitlement or perhaps even more seriously, may be the source of arrogant boasting.  But notice also the result of receiving that grace: the Christian is to be engaged in good works.  In a sense, he is to transmit God’s grace to the world, serving as a conduit of that grace for God.

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