Column entry, “Language, Grace-ful Order, and Christian Communication,” by John Hatch

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Column title: Crossed My Mind: Thoughts on Culture and Communication

Column entry: “Language, Grace-ful Order, and Christian Communication”

By John Hatch, Ph.D.
Eastern University (retired)
CCSN Senior Fellow

Column Description: As Christians, we are called to have the mind of Christ. This goes against the grain of our social and cultural conditioning. We seek personal or political advancement; Christ seeks the lost and the least. We grasp for cultural ascendency; Christ descends to the cross of love. This column is dedicated to thinking about culture and communication under the sign of the cross.


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Language, Grace-ful Order, and Christian Communication

In his important book Communicating for Life, Quentin J. Schultze devotes an entire chapter to the essential role of grace in human communication.[i] The book’s updated/expanded edition includes response essays by various authors,[ii] and this column is adapted from my essay responding to chapter 2.

Amid his rich reflection on grace in relation to language, communication, and community, Schultze contrasts grace with entropy—the natural tendency of things to become disordered over time. While God’s grace clearly counteracts chaos, I think it’s important to look at the other side of the coin as well: grace counteracts rigid order. To be more precise, grace transcends the simple dichotomy of order versus disorder, bringing something wondrously creative and transformative into the picture. And that makes all the difference in our language and communication.

To begin with, let’s think about the difference between order and grace. Order has to do with structure, rules, cleanliness, and neatness—everything in its rightful place. When we speak of “moral order,” we mean justice, rights, responsibilities, the rule of law, and so forth. To picture these concepts, we often resort metaphorically to lifeless objects: the measuring rod of the law, the scales of justice, the machinery of the court system.

Grace is a very different animal. We associate grace with living things—deer leaping, eagles flying, dolphins swimming, ballerinas dancing. Their forms and movements are organic and graceful; their intricately ordered bodies move freely. These creatures reflect their Creator—not some theological formulation or mechanism, but a living God of energetic communion among the Persons of divine Trinity, whose freedom overflows in gracious acts of creating, celebrating, loving, and redeeming.

In Scripture, we encounter a tension between this grace—God’s organic, creative, self-giving freedom—and law. The Law of Moses was designed to order Israel’s communal life and worship properly, steering them clear of idolatry, immorality, and corruption. Yet just as the rules and foul lines in basketball don’t, in themselves, create the energetic dance of skilled players on the court, so rigid adherence to a system of law does not produce a vibrant relationship with God or a community of shalom. In the New Testament, this strict regimen of “law and order” comes to be regarded as a kind of slavery, like applying the rules and constraints of childhood beyond adolescence.[iii] In contrast, living by grace through faith in Christ is likened to the freedom of spiritual adulthood.[iv] Grace is God’s free gift that frees us from enslavement to sin.

Now, there’s an important connection between this law/grace tension and the nature of human language. First and foremost, language is a form of grace: a special gift from God that sets humans apart from other animals. Language enables us to build upon nature by naming things, making sense of them, developing culture, creating art and technology, and so on.

Like grace, the gift of language brings both freedom and order. Words liberate us from the limitations of instinct by allowing us to reflect before responding to our environment. Words also make it possible to order our knowledge of the world, create social order, and order ourselves and others to behave in certain ways.

As a result, you and I can act by higher principles than selfish desire, pleasure, or survival. We can conquer our natural fears through reason. We can overcome our anger by pondering the extenuating circumstances that may have caused another person to act in a way that hurts or offends; we can forgive. When we wrong someone, instead of falling back on the natural impulse to defend ourselves and deflect blame, we can listen to the voice of conscience and choose to take responsibility, repenting of our offense. In so doing, we bring a healthy and life-giving order to our relationships and communities. All these expressions of grace depend on the capacity to negotiate life through language.

However, sin corrupts the gift of human language. When we forget our dependence on the gracious Giver, our capacity to order people and things through words becomes fuel for prideful ambition or compulsive perfectionism, driving us to damage or destroy good realities in the name of imagined ideals. Paradoxically, the power to order things becomes a propellant of entropy.

Twentieth-century communication philosopher Kenneth Burke noticed this paradox in human language. Writing as a humanist in response to the behaviorism of his day, he defined humans ironically as “the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal . . . goaded by the spirit of hierarchy . . . and rotten with perfection.”[v] That last phrase captures the shadow side of our compulsion to impose perfect order onto life: power corrupts, alienating us from ourselves and others. In relation to this idea, Burke noticed a social phenomenon he referred to as the “Iron Law of History / That welds Order and Sacrifice.”[vi] Across human cultures and literature, order leads to guilt (since humans fail to perfectly conform), and guilt goads us toward killing something or someone, whether symbolically or physically, in hope of being cleansed or freed. Thus, for humans as the “symbol-using animal,” the ability to envision a better world goes hand-in-hand with the “foreknowledge of death.”[vii]

It seems, then, that we are ruled by the law of entropy. Human language, which should facilitate a beautiful moral order, imprisons us in a cycle of sin, corruption, and death. Order alone cannot overcome disorder; nor can our words save us. We need a grace that transforms human words and human beings alike.

Thankfully, Scripture unveils this Grace, springing from a supreme Word. The gospel of John begins by introducing Christ as the eternal and personal Logos (Word) through which the world was spoken into being, in whom all things hold together and have meaning. John then tells us that this Word became flesh and lived among us, embodying grace and truth. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”[viii] God communicates grace by coming to us in person and embodying grace in relationship with us. While words of law merely show how we fail to measure up—and demand sacrifices to cover our sins—the Word of divine grace offers God’s very self to save us. At the cross, this grace overtakes our violent effort to enforce order and transforms it into God’s loving occasion to offer himself for the sake of his misguided children. What we did for evil, the Son of God turns to good. The cross of persecution becomes the agency of reconciliation.

As the cross reveals, grace is costly. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted Hitler’s Nazi regime and ultimately paid with his life, famously distinguished true grace from “cheap grace.” Cheap grace, he said, is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”[ix] By contrast, divine grace “is costly because it condemns sin, and [it is] grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.”[x]

Just as Jesus embodied grace by healing the brokenhearted, confronting falsehood, challenging the world’s unjust order, and suffering to redeem us, so we are called to enact grace in word and deed. “Let your conversation be always full of grace.[xi]Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful . . . Forgive, and you will be forgiven.[xii] “‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”[xiii] Clearly, this work is difficult—even impossible—unless we draw deeply on God’s grace for ourselves and others. Thankfully, Christ has made His costly grace fully available: “For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.[xiv]

Gifted with the grace of language and the grace of the incarnate Word, we are called be vessels of grace to those around us. May our communication spread a banquet of grace, with all its good fruits: truth and love, faith and hope, joy and peace, justice and mercy—and gratitude toward the God of grace.

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


[i] Quentin J. Schultze, Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media (Pasco, WA: Integratio Press, 2024).

[ii] John B. Hatch, “The Beauty and Wisdom of Grace,” in Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media, 47-53 (Pasco, WA: Integratio Press, 2024).

[iii] Romans 3:19-20; Galatians 3:23-24, 4:21-25.

[iv] Romans 3:21-23; Galatians 3:25-26, 4:26, 5:1-4.

[v] Kenneth Burke, “Definition of Man,” in Language As Symbolic Action: Essays On Life, Literature and Method (Berkeley: University of California, 1968), 16.

[vi] Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), 4.

[vii] Kenneth Burke, “Poem,” in The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, ed. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 263.

[viii] John 1:17, New International Version.

[ix] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), p. 45.

[x] Bonhoeffer, p. 45.

[xi] Colossians 4:6, New International Version.

[xii] Luke 6:36 and 37b, New International Version.

[xiii] Mark 8:34, New International Version.

[xiv] John 1:16, New American Standard Bible.

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