My husband and I have an ongoing misunderstanding with the words couple and few. I use them interchangeably. If I ask him to pick up a “couple” of grapefruit at the grocery store, I’m always disappointed when he comes home with just two grapefruit. I expect him to know that I mean somewhere between two and five. He adamantly explains that the word couple means “two”—as in, “We’re a couple, and there are two of us.” I see his point, but as I cling to my right to use the word as I see fit, I will most likely continue to be disappointed with the number of grapefruit in that grocery bag.
Good communication can happen only when both the one speaking and the one listening have a shared understanding of the words being used. As the grapefruit saga clearly shows coming to a mutual understanding can be difficult even when the communication happens in the same culture, language, and time in history.
As we study the Bible, we are bridging gaps of language, culture, and time, which means that even more work will be required of us to understand the words the biblical authors used. Paul, the man who wrote the letter to the church in Rome, was a Jewish man, lived in the first century, and wrote predominantly in Greek. Most likely, these descriptors are not all true of you. So, as we study the book of Romans, we need to do the work required to understand what Paul meant when he used the words he chose. If we don’t, we stand the chance of either missing out on the fullness of what he wrote or misunderstanding what the Lord is trying to teach us through Paul.
This is why In View of God’s Mercies: The Gift of the Gospel in Romans includes a glossary of terms at lifeway.com/mercies. I wanted to make sure we had a way to better understand the words Paul used in his letter. Some of the words—like sin, faith, and mercy—are so common that our tendency can be to skim right over them, assuming we understand what Paul meant when he wrote them. Others might be less well known to us—like election, sanctification, and regeneration—so we need to make sure we slow down and work to understand them.
For instance, one of the most important words in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is righteousness. In Romans 1:17, Paul wrote, “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.” The next thing Paul wrote was that the wrath of God is being revealed against unrighteousness (v. 18). Meaning, Paul is going to show us that the gospel is all about the righteousness of God, that the righteous person will live, and how the unrighteous will experience the wrath of God. This may seem obvious, but the point is that we should want to be righteous.
Now a lot of us probably see the word righteousness and assume it means being really good. And we think, Well, I guess the wrath of God is going to be for those who aren’t really good. And maybe we congratulate or console ourselves because we think we’re not those people. We’re not unrighteous; we’re pretty good. But Paul doesn’t mean “pretty good” or “really good.” He means morally perfect and without sin. And just to make sure we understand, he ended this whole section with, “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10, ESV). Not me. Not you.
As we better understand the word righteous, we begin to comprehend the depth of our need and the depth of the good news. In Romans 3:21-22, Paul wrote, “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, attested by the Law and the Prophets. The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction.” And, by better understanding what righteousness means, our joy and gratitude for our salvation should increase. This righteousness, this moral perfection and sinlessness that we do not have, yet desperately need, is now available to us as a gift from God. He gives the perfect righteousness of his Son to anyone who believes. That is more than just good news. That is the greatest news any human will ever hear.
Defining terms and working to have a shared understanding of words isn’t just an intellectual exercise. We don’t study words to simply increase head knowledge—or even to make sure we get the desired number of grapefruit from the grocery store. We study the words of the Bible because, as our understanding deepens, so does our love for all God has done for us in Christ, our love of our Savior, and our ability to faithfully live out all He has commanded.
Courtney is an author and Bible teacher. She received an MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary in 2013 and is the author of In View of God’s Mercies, a 9-session study on the book of Romans, From Garden to Glory: A Bible Study on the Bible’s Story, Steadfast: A Devotional Bible Study on the Book of James, and co-author of Remember Your Joy: A Bible Study of Salvation Stories in the Old Testament. She currently serves as the Coordinator of Women’s Initiatives for The Gospel Coalition. Her greatest desire in all of this is to be able to faithfully study, apply, and teach the Word of God and help others to do the same.
God has blessed Courtney and her husband, Craig, with four wonderful children, two amazing daughters-in-law, five precious grandchildren, and a spunky Bernedoodle named Walter. Find her online at courtneydoctor.org.