Thursday, March 1, 2012

Grammar Saves Lives

Your junior-high school English and Literature teacher said so. Your college professor said so. Any editor or writer (OK, well almost every writer) will tell you the same thing: Grammar is important. Words have meaning. And so does punctuation. Perhaps you've even seen the t-shirts and pictures floating around Facebook: "Grammar Saves Lives."

It's (not "its") a timeless maxim both figuratively and grammatically speaking. But something (both grammatical and theological) struck me today after the confession of sins during a shut-in visit. Grammar saves lives; this too (not "to") is a theological life-saver, a preservative. Bad grammar could (and frequently does) lead to confusion, uncertainty or worse when it comes to the manner in which the Word of God is written and spoken.

Here's what triggered my grammar police siren: "O Almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment..."

Did you catch it? It's not only the spelling of the words and the punctuation that matters, although those things are important. But the tense of the verbs also matters. Still not sure where I'm going with this? How about one word, deserved? Get it yet? Just two little letters, "ed" make a world of a difference. Past tense. The present - or indicative - would have said it this way: "deserve." And while it's true that when we sin we do deserve God's temporal and eternal wrath and punishment. However, that's not what we confess in confession. We confess in view of what Christ has done - past tense. And what he continues to do for us by his Word and Sacraments - the perfect tense, which means a verbal action completed in the past with present results, as in, "I am Baptized." It's a one-time gift of God - his verbal action in the past - that keeps on giving, daily in fact. Present and future results abound in that saving flood.

Thus, we confess: "I deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment" because that's not the last word spoken over us in the Divine Service. For what we deserved - everlasting death and condemnation - is not what we received (past), receive (present) or will receive (future) in Jesus' death for us. We come before Christ deserving nothing and yet receiving everything from him. We come as sinners without defense before a Christ who holds no condemnation - no present or eternal tense punishment for you. Jesus has taken all of that upon himself. We go from being grammatically dead and, more importantly, spiritually dead, to being alive, saved by divine grammar: the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. Jesus actively obeyed God's commands for you. Jesus passively received all of your punishment on the cross. And you are saved, no "ifs", "ands" or "buts" about it. Jesus' grammar really does save lives.

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