You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. [James 2:24 (ESV)]
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, [Galatians 2:16a (ESV)]
“I realize it’s all too vague for you to put into words,”… [Ransom replied] “On the contrary, it is words that are vague. The reason why it can’t be expressed is that it’s too definite for language.” [From “Perelandra” by C.S. Lewis]
According to the Washington Post, there really are fifty Eskimo words for snow. They describe everything from a soft falling snow to snow that is good for driving a sled to a wet snow that will ice a sled’s runners. The Inupiaq dialect has seventy different terms for ice. The Sami people, in northern Scandinavia and Russia, have over 1,000 words for reindeer, including one for an unmanageable female and another for a reindeer with short branched antlers. Clearly, language evolves to meet the ideas and needs of the people speaking it. Why, then, does Christianity seem to be missing some very crucial words? This thought occurred to me while reading C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra when a character struggled to describe something he’d experienced. It wasn’t that the concept he was describing was vague; it was that our limited language wasn’t specific enough.
Christianity seems to be full of paradoxes. Perhaps the confusion comes from our language and not our doctrine. We’re saved by faith and not by works and yet, if we have faith, we are to do works. Moreover, we can’t have faith without works. It’s not obedience but rather grace that saves us and yet, if we’re in God’s grace, we’re obedient to His law. By having two words—faith and works—the concepts seem unconnected; the same with grace and obedience. It’s easy to think there is a mixed message upon reading isolated verses in the New Testament.
It seems to me that, if the Simi people can have a single word for a short fat reindeer and the Inupiaq a single word for ice that is filled with holes like Swiss cheese, we should be able to come up with something for the combination of faith and works, perhaps “faithorks” or “fairks,” and another word for grace and obedience, possibly “ogracience” or “grabedience.” These concepts are so intertwined in our faith that it’s a pity we don’t have a wider Christian vocabulary. Alas, I’m neither a linguist nor a theologian so we will just have to continue as we have for centuries: having faith, doing His works, saved by grace, and remaining obedient to His law.