Justice, mercy, grace: A few words express a lot

Theological language can be tricky. What precisely does predestination mean? How about apocalypticism, millennialism, infralapsarianism, sanct-ification, justification, soteriology or teleology? We have rows of books on our shelves that explain the derivation of these words and the history of their usage across the centuries by faithful people. But time-honored though they may be, none of these terms gets a lot of play in everyday conversation. Can you imagine asking your neighbor, “Are you an infralapsarian?” and receiving the response, “As a matter of fact, I subscribe to an entirely different view of predestination and my soteriology runs in another direction”? That conversation is unlikely to occur!

Maybe the concepts that many theological words represent are just too obscure to be rivetingly interesting to most people. We don’t generally engage in nuanced theological conversation in high-flown terms. Nevertheless, we all use theological vocabulary nearly every day. There are several words of tremendous religious significance spoken regularly and by nearly everyone. We’re thinking of words like justice, mercy and grace.

Granted, these well-worn components of our vocabulary are a little vague.  We might differ in what constitutes justice, for example, under a particular set of circumstances. But we would all seek it as an important legal goal. And justice has a distinguished history as a theological concept as well as a legal one. The Bible makes reference after reference to the mandate for justice among God’s people, because after all, God is just. Justice has a fairness, a rightness, a decisiveness about it. Justice is about getting what we deserve.

Mercy is another significant theological word that finds its way into our modern vocabulary. We may say we need to throw ourselves on the mercy of the court when we’ve gone wrong somehow but hope to be treated leniently. Appealing to someone for mercy acknowledges his or her right to exact a penalty for wrongdoing, but our hope that instead forgiveness will be offered. The faithful across the ages have commended the mercy of God, who puts up with a lot from humanity on a regular basis. Mercy speaks of benevolence and pardon. Mercy is about not getting what we deserve.

And then there is grace. The word, grace, finds its way into our everyday conversations in a variety of ways. We are “graceful” if we do not trip our dance partners. We show “grace under fire” if we are calm and effective when facing trouble. We are “gracious” if we are well-mannered. But theologically-speaking, the word grace means more than avoiding clumsiness or panic or discourtesy. It refers to an attribute of God that defies our expectations and augments our conceptions of God’s justice and mercy. Grace is a manifestation of divine love that is unmerited, life-changing, wildly generous, and more powerful than any obstacle placed in its path. As one clear-headed thinker put it: If justice is getting what we deserve, and mercy is not getting what we deserve, then grace is getting what we don’t deserve. Grace is the jackpot, theologically speaking.

How impressive is your theological vocabulary? Maybe we really only need a few words to say it all!

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