Semantics and the Gospel, Part 1

The Bible says in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”

Today’s quote is from Saint Augustine. He said: “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.”

Our topic today is titled “Semantics and the Gospel (Part 1)” from the book, “So Great Salvation: What it Means to Believe in Jesus Christ” by Charles Ryrie.

A good choice of words is essential if we are to state the Gospel clearly and accurately.

I have often heard the retort, “it is only a matter of semantics.” In my experience it usually came from students using it as a defense mechanism to justify a poor answer to a question. And usually the question involved defining or explaining carefully the meaning of a biblical doctrine or concept. “A matter of semantics” was supposed to excuse fuzzy thinking and a poor, if not wrong, choice of words.

Is semantics important? Actually, semantics is not an excuse, nor is it incidental; it is the whole point. Semantics involves the study of meanings of words; so if a person uses words that do not convey the meaning he or she is attempting to express, then a different meaning comes across. If semantics is the study of meanings, then one has to be alert to semantics in all communication. For example, when an attorney draws up a contract, he or she must pay careful attention to semantics. The choice of words may determine whether or not the contract, if challenged, will remain in force or can be broken. The meaning of the words — semantics — forms the basis for the validity and intention of that contract.

Likewise, Bible students and preachers must pay careful attention to semantics. How careful they express the meanings of verses, passages, and doctrines will determine the effectiveness and accuracy of communicating God’s message to others. (I am not speaking of the matter of differing interpretations. One can hold a wrong interpretation of a passage and yet express it clearly; so too may one have a correct interpretation and express it badly.)

What is the purpose of language?

Language was given by God for the purpose of His being able to communicate with man. To be sure, man has corrupted language; but God saw to it that He had sufficient vehicles in languages with which He could communicate to us and we to Him. Although language was confused at the Tower of Babel so that people could no longer understand each other’s speech, God nevertheless chose Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic as sufficient and adequate languages to convey His revelation of truth in the Bible. And, in the other direction, we find English and German and French and any other language on earth adequate to carry our communication in prayer to God.

The Christian philosopher Gordon Clark wrote: “If God created man in His own rational image and endowed him with the power of speech, then a purpose of language, in fact the chief purpose of language, would naturally be the revelation of truth to man and the prayers of man to God. In a theistic philosophy one ought not to say that all language has been devised in order to describe and discuss the finite objects of our sense-experience…. On the contrary, language was devised by God, that is, God created man rational for the purpose of theological expression.”

If we acknowledge that language came from God so that He can communicate to us (and we to Him), then semantics, which studies the meanings of words, is crucial if we wish to communicate His truth accurately.

Furthermore, it seems to me that those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible ought especially to be concerned with accuracy in communicating the truth. All the Bible is without error and important to us. Certainly how we as Christians express the Gospel ought to be our greatest concern. We do not want to confuse or shortchange or obscure God’s good news of his grace—how He gave His Son so that we might have eternal life through faith in Him. Semantics is key in understanding and communicating the Gospel.

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