British writer Aldous Huxley once wrote that “most of our mistakes are fundamentally grammatical.” Surprising as this assertion may appear, there is something to be said for it, and particularly in the Christian realm. In an age when Madison Avenue has attempted to make good grammar and “good taste” mutually exclusive, the believer, having tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8), must show the world that the good grammar of grace is “good taste.”
One of the major “grammatical” mistakes Christians are prone to make has to do with pronouns: they rely on the first-person pronoun—“I”—rather than on the third—“he.” Paul spoke of this fundamental problem in Galatians 2:20—“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me.” The secret of a victorious Christian life lies in getting one’s personal pronouns straight—not I but he.
Perhaps nowhere else is the pronoun problem so obvious as in Romans 7, where in just twenty-five verses the first-person pronoun occurs forty-one times. A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small package, someone has rightly said. The victory, signaled in verse 25—“I thank my God through Jesus Christ our Lord”—lies in the third-person referent, that is, in Christ, as shown by the recurrence of the third-person he in chapter eight (note especially verses 27–32). Only when the believer settles the personal-pronoun difficulty—and it is a continuous battle—can he properly use the demonstrative pronoun, as Peter did at Pentecost: “This is that …” (Acts 2:16), speaking, as Paul did, in “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).
Another mistake is in number: limiting God to the singular rather than recognizing his limitless plurality. The Christian life is a plurality: God and the believer make a majority in any situation, for “greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). In Your God Is Too Small, J. B. Phillips wrote: “The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs.” We are guilty of limiting to niggardly singularity our munificent God, whose very name, Elohim, is plural in form. He is “able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). In Romans 5, the chapter of the five “much more’s,” Paul reminds us that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” Because we are subjected to a plurality of temptations and trials (1 Pet. 1:6), the grace he supplies is “manifold” (1 Pet. 4:10)—varied, multiple, having many features or forms. In an age of horrific “overkill,” we can be “overconquerors”: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Rom. 8:37).
Still another grammatical problem is one of tense, of relying on the past tense, or the future, instead of on the present. Many Christians live in the past, either being guilt-ridden with old sins they should have confessed and long since forgotten or attempting to live on blessings of twenty years ago or of last week. Paul said, “This one thing I do: forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13, 14). But Paul was not simply living in the future. While he eagerly anticipated the “sweet bye and bye,” he was very much involved in the “nasty now and now.” “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation,” he warned the Corinthian Christians (2 Cor. 6:2).
Undoubtedly one of Satan’s most effective ploys is to get the believer to live in an irrevocable past or in an uncertain future. Someone has said that one of the devil’s greatest wiles is “wait awhile.” C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters has Screwtape advise his nephew, the fledgling devil Wormwood, as follows:
Our business is to get them away from the eternal and from the Present.… With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human to live in the Past.… Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole.… The Enemy does not foresee humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in his unbounded Now.
The believer must serve his Lord, if at all, in his “unbounded now.” “The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present age” (Titus 2:11, 12).
There is also the problem of voice: the mistake of using the passive rather than the active. Too many Christians remain passive, their voices mute. A year or so ago in Los Angeles, an eighty-four-year-old woman who had no family and lived alone became so desperately lonely that she ran an ad in the local newspaper asking for someone to visit her or even write a letter. “In Christendom, where are the Christians?” Emerson asked. Where, indeed?
Love is always active, never passive. Because of its very nature, love must give: “God so loved the world that he gave.…” Note the active verbs in First Corinthians 13: “beareth,” “believeth,” “hopeth,” “endureth.” A colleague recently asked me how one can know if he loves God. One way of knowing is suggested in John 14:15—“If ye love me, keep my commandments.” True love always manifests itself in self-sacrificing action. How misguided was a sign I saw recently in a student’s window: “Love is the ultimate drug.” God’s love does not drug us; it activates us, empowers us, constrains us.
No less pronounced is the problem of mode or mood: using the subjunctive (expressing doubt, or something contrary to fact) instead of the indicative (expressing fact, certainty). Mark 9 records the story of the father who brought to Christ his demon-possessed son after the disciple had been unable to cast out the demon. The father says to Christ, “If thou canst do anything [using the subjunctive, expressing doubt], have compassion on us and help us.” Christ corrects his grammar: “If thou canst believe [placing the subjunctive, here expressing that which is contrary to fact, in the right place], all things are possible to him that believeth.” The father then cries out, in the indicative mode, “Lord I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
In a day of relativism and subjectivity, the subjunctive mode, which was supposedly fading in English usage, seems to be used with increasing frequency to express the pervading sense of doubt, of unreality, in the heart of modern man. The subjunctives with which Satan tempted Christ—“If thou be the Son of God”—are being used today in only slightly altered form. The Christian must respond as Christ did, in the indicative: “It is written.” At a time when we are told there is no such thing as absolute truth, the believer can say with Paul, “I know whom I have believed …” (2 Tim. 1:12). “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” Christ promised (John 8:32). I shall never forget the college student who, plagued with the folly of humanistic relativism, brightened when I presented to her the Christian concept of Truth in the Person of Jesus Christ rather than as a nebulous abstraction. Glorious indeed is the indicative mode in Christ’s challenging promise, “If any man will do my will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17). This challenge is being accepted by many college students.
There is, finally, the preposition problem, the mistake of being against rather than with Christ. “Oh, but I’m not against Christ,” many will respond. But are you really with him? Christ said, “He that is not with me is against me and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad” (Matt. 12:30). To put it differently, if we as Christians are not, through our Christian witness, part of the solution to today’s problems, we are part of the problems.
Christianity might be called a preposition proposition. Prepositions indicate relationship, and the Christian experience is not a system of rituals and creeds but a living relationship with Christ. A Christian is in Christ; a non-Christian is outside Christ. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Not only is the Christian in Christ, but Christ is also in the Christian: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). John brings these two prepositional relationships together in the fifteenth chapter of his gospel, where Christ says: “Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”
Most of our mistakes in the Christian life are in a sense grammatical. What we need is a transformational grammar—a grammar of grace to transform our Satanically inspired solecisms into grace-full words and deeds that will, in turn, be instrumental in transforming the lives of others. This transformational grammar can be learned only through the tutelage of grace. Good grammar, this grammar of grace, is the result of “good taste,” for the believer, as he grows in grace, continues to “[taste] that the Lord is gracious” (1 Pet. 2:2, 3).
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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