Words Matter

We see then that the smallest part of justification cannot be attributed to the law without renouncing Christ and his grace.”[i]   John Calvin

In a few weeks I have a book coming out on customer service. The title is Words Matter-How One Little Word Can Change the Way You Do Business. There’s a chapter in that book reflecting the title. It’s called “Words Matter”.   Why? Because words matter!

When we study our Bible it’s important that we keep in mind that simple truth—words matter. But there’s a special challenge when it comes to the Bible and our Western language, or any modern language.

Because the Bible was written in languages quite different from ours, we have difficulty sometimes making sense of the biblical message. It’s almost impossible to translate the original languages of the Bible into our language—or any other language—word for word. In Hebrew or Greek a particular word can mean several different things and finding a correct English word to reflect the meaning accurately is not always easy. Translators have to make a choice. Often times a difficult choice. That’s why it’s always a helpful to use a couple different translations when doing your Bible study. A good study Bible will also help, giving notes on possible translation difficulties.

Knowing how language works, even at the most basic level, helps you see how certain words or phrases are used in different situations—contexts.

We’ve talked about translations before, so we’ll only mention this briefly. Word-for-word translations can be rather stilted and hard to read. The content just doesn’t flow like we’re used to seeing in other books. Thought-for-thought translations can often be more relaxed and perhaps convey a meaning of the text that the author may not have intended.   Both styles have translators who, with the best of intentions, struggle sometimes to make correct choices.

It’s also important to keep aware that words, by themselves, are not as meaningful as words in a sentence. It’s the sentence that loads particular words with their meaning. (This can effect even the smallest of words such as pronouns: he, she, and it.) We can back that out even further and see how certain words are understood and influenced by paragraphs, chapters, and even whole books.

Galatians 5:4 provides us with a wonderful example of how this works. In the ESV Bible the verse reads like this:

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law, you have fallen from grace.

In the New Living Translation, the verse reads like this:

For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen from grace.

In the ESV, being “severed from Christ” is indeed serious business, but the “fallen from grace” seems to be more intimately tied to being “justified by the law.”   You can see that the NLT has a more potent expression and connects “cut off from Christ” with “fallen from grace.”

When you hear preachers or teachers on this passage, they will often say that this is not a matter of the Galatians “losing their salvation”, it’s a matter of them trusting the law and not grace for justification.

I may be biased, but it seems to me the NLT has a much more potent expression of the idea that Paul seems to be conveying. It is not just a matter of one’s means to justification, it’s a matter of trusting the law cuts one off from Christ and they indeed forfeit their salvation.

That may be all well and good, but on what basis does the NLT build its translation. Quite simply it’s on the basis of words, used in a sentence, couched in a context that clearly indicates something more is going on here then just picking a card from the law deck or the grace deck.

I know we’re getting longer than normal on this post, but….

We won’t do a detailed word study with this verse, but let’s take a minute to examine two of the key words.

Let’s look first at the idea of “cut-off” or “severed.”   In Mounce’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words[ii], the root word used is found 27x in the NT. You can see the actual root word and the variety of meanings below.

καταργέω   katargeō   27x…….to render useless or unproductive, occupy unprofitable, Lk. 13:7; to render powerless, Rom. 6:6; to make empty and unmeaning, Rom. 4:14; to render null, to abrogate, cancel, Rom. 3:3, 31; Eph. 2:15; to bring to an end, 1 Cor. 2:6; 13:8; 15:24, 26; 2 Cor. 3:7; to destroy, annihilate, 2 Thess. 2:8; Heb. 2:14; to free from, dissever from, Rom. 7:2, 6; Gal. 5:4 destroy; nullify; release.

Pretty serious stuff.

Then if you look at the word “fallen” you see something similar. The root word is found 10x in the NT. The word and Mounce’s definitions are:

ἐκπίπτω   ekpiptō   10x…to fall off or from, Acts 12:7; 27:32; met. to fall from, forfeit, lose, Gal. 5:4; 2 Pet. 3:17; to be cast ashore, Acts 27:17, 26, 29; to fall to the ground, be fruitless, ineffectual, Rom. 9:6; to cease, come to an end, Jas. 1:11; 1 Pet. 1:24* fail; fall; fall away.

Again, pretty serious stuff.

Just this quick glance at two key words will show us that the emphasis depicted in the NLT seems to be straight to the mark of what Paul is saying to the Galatians.

Now, based on our particular beliefs, we can try to massage those words to fit our belief system[iii] nevertheless it’s hard to escape the power of what Paul is saying.

Can you see how words matter? Paying attention to words, is important. Watching how different translations deal with words is also important. This is how we can dig deeper and find some exciting stuff in our Bible study.


[i] John Calvin, Comment on Galatians 5:4, “Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians”, Kindle Edition

[ii] This is a tool that we have mentioned before. It’s great for in-depth word study but may be more than many people care to deal with. A regular dictionary of Bible words may be sufficient.

[iii] Translating the biblical text based on our particular belief system or “tradition” is seldom a good practice.


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Filed under Bible, Bible Study, Book of Galatians

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