Theological Terms

Vincent Danen

September 22, 2014

Recently I wrote about Christian Statements of Faith, which talks about the foundational pillars of Christianity -- those things that make Christianity what it is. In this posting, I want to explain some theological terms that every Christian should know (sadly if you ask most Christians what these terms mean you likely won't get a very good response). These terms and what they mean are most probably foreign to those who know nothing about Christianity (beyond what non-Christians describe, which is grossly inaccurate).

So what, exactly, does "redemption" mean? Or "justification"? Or "sanctification"? These are big words that are core to the belief of any Christian. I am going to define them in brief and give a scripture reference for each; the interested reader can follow the links to definitions in Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology which will explain these words in depth (looking at original Hebrew and Greek words with their meanings, further commentary and other scripture references -- I highly encourage taking the time to read it).

These words, and the meaning behind them, are fundamental to understanding the Christian message and worldview.

Gospel means "Good News" or "Glad Tidings" and refers to the message of salvation and new life offered in and by Jesus Christ. To the Christian, being cleansed of your sins and having the assurance of eternal life in the presence of God is indeed good news!1

“AND NOW let me remind you [since it seems to have escaped you], brethren, of the Gospel (the glad tidings of salvation) which I proclaimed to you, which you welcomed and accepted and upon which your faith rests, And by which you are saved, if you hold fast and keep firmly what I preached to you, unless you believed at first without effect and all for nothing. For I passed on to you first of all what I also had received, that Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One) died for our sins in accordance with [what] the Scriptures [foretold], That He was buried, that He arose on the third day as the Scriptures foretold, And [also] that He appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the Twelve. Then later He showed Himself to more than five hundred brethren at one time, the majority of whom are still alive, but some have fallen asleep [in death]. Afterward He was seen by James, then by all the apostles (the special messengers), And last of all He appeared to me also, as to one prematurely and born dead [no better than an unperfected fetus among living men].” (1 Corinthians 15:1–8 AMP)

Salvation means "rescue, set free, deliverance, escape, wholeness, healing, and safety". When we receive salvation, we are released from the bondage of sin and are no longer slaves to the sinful nature that each human being is born with.2

“For God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that He [even] gave up His only begotten (unique) Son, so that whoever believes in (trusts in, clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish (come to destruction, be lost) but have eternal (everlasting) life. For God did not send the Son into the world in order to judge (to reject, to condemn, to pass sentence on) the world, but that the world might find salvation and be made safe and sound through Him.” (John 3:16–17 AMP)

Repentance means a complete change of direction in a person's life (for example, you are travelling north, then you turn around and travel south in the opposite direction). It is a complete change of the mind, will and emotions away from sin and towards God.3

“Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have love, pity, and mercy for him, and to our God, for He will multiply to him His abundant pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7 AMP)

Redemption is the means by which salvation is achieved, by the payment of a ransom. It literally means "to buy" and signifies the act of purchase in the market (in particular the slave market). For a Christian, we are redeemed, or have received redemption, from being slaves to sin and through the purchase of ourselves with the precious blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. He paid our debt to God for our sins on our behalf. The death we deserved as sinners before a Holy and Righteous God, Jesus took upon Himself and died in our place.4

“In Whom we have our redemption through His blood, [which means] the forgiveness of our sins.” (Colossians 1:14 AMP)

Atonement is the term used to sum up the entire saving work of Christ, the offering of a redemptive sacrifice for the sin of man. Atonement is God's action -- His work, not man's. Man cannot provide atonement for sin, only God can. Jesus Christ died the death that every person on the planet deserved and through this act of complete surrender, God's divine justice was satisfied and the wrath of God against sin was appeased. This satisfaction concerning sin is called propitiation.5

“He went once for all into the [Holy of] Holies [of heaven], not by virtue of the blood of goats and calves [by which to make reconciliation between God and man], but His own blood, having found and secured a complete redemption (an everlasting release for us). For if [the mere] sprinkling of unholy and defiled persons with blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a burnt heifer is sufficient for the purification of the body, How much more surely shall the blood of Christ, Who by virtue of [His] eternal Spirit [His own preexistent divine personality] has offered Himself as an unblemished sacrifice to God, purify our consciences from dead works and lifeless observances to serve the [ever] living God?” (Hebrews 9:12–14 AMP)

Justified means "to declare or pronounce righteous" (as my pastor likes to say, "just as if I'd never sinned"). Justification is the act of God removing the guilt, condemnation, and the penalty of sin from the believer and placing His own standard of righteousness on them. This is not something that man can obtain on his own. It's similar to being acquitted of a crime, but goes much further because as sinners we are guilty -- in other words, we are guilty and deserve the penalty of sin, but God not only doesn't punish us for it, He removes the stain of it from us so completely that it's as if it was never there.6

“[And He did it in order] that we might be justified by His grace (by His favor, wholly undeserved), [that we might be acknowledged and counted as conformed to the divine will in purpose, thought, and action], and that we might become heirs of eternal life according to [our] hope.” (Titus 3:7 AMP)

Faith, in the theological context, means "firm persuasion, belief, conviction, reliance, and complete trust in God alone for salvation". I like how Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) describes it (one of the twelve definitions it has): "3. In theology, the assent of the mind or understanding to the truth of what God has revealed. Simple belief of the scriptures, of the being and perfections of God, and of the existence, character and doctrines of Christ, founded on the testimony of the sacred writers, is called historical or speculative faith; a faith little distinguished from the belief of the existence and achievements of Alexander or of Cesar."7

“But without faith it is impossible to please and be satisfactory to Him. For whoever would come near to God must [necessarily] believe that God exists and that He is the rewarder of those who earnestly and diligently seek Him [out].” (Hebrews 11:6 AMP)

Grace is the undeserved kindness of God or the "unmerited favour" of God. It is favour that cannot be purchased, gained or earned -- it is 100% the gift of God, and can only be given by God. This kindness of God came to the world in the form of Jesus Christ who died for us to make us righteous before God. And as a gift, it can be accepted or rejected. The Christian accepts this gift of God, the non-Christian rejects it.8

“For it is by free grace (God’s unmerited favor) that you are saved (delivered from judgment and made partakers of Christ’s salvation) through [your] faith. And this [salvation] is not of yourselves [of your own doing, it came not through your own striving], but it is the gift of God; Not because of works [not the fulfillment of the Law’s demands], lest any man should boast. [It is not the result of what anyone can possibly do, so no one can pride himself in it or take glory to himself.]” (Ephesians 2:8–9 AMP)

Adoption means to be placed as a son or daughter into a family, as an actual member of the family with all of the responsibilities and benefits of the family being adopted into. When God says that we have been adopted as sons, it is not to be a part of the family of God as second-class citizens but as heirs to all of the promises of God.9

“To purchase the freedom of (to ransom, to redeem, to atone for) those who were subject to the Law, that we might be adopted and have sonship conferred upon us [and be recognized as God’s sons]. And because you [really] are [His] sons, God has sent the [Holy] Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, Abba (Father)! Father! Therefore, you are no longer a slave (bond servant) but a son; and if a son, then [it follows that you are] an heir by the aid of God, through Christ.” (Galatians 4:5–7 AMP)

Sanctification means "to make holy" or "holiness". This is where we get the word "saint" from ("saint" is hagios in Greek, meaning "a sanctified one", from the Greek hagiasmos or "holiness", which is the Greek word translated "sanctification"). Another way to look at this is that to be sanctified, or holy, is when a person lives according to God's design and purpose.10

“to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’” (Acts 26:18 NKJV)

There are, of course, many other terms that could be defined but I think that these are the most important "pillars" of what it means to be a Christian. The meanings of these words are at the heart of Christian "language" and describe what we believe and show their use and context. They also illustrate the Christian worldview, to some degree, because they help to provide clarity to how we view the world.

Every person has their own worldview -- the lens through which they view the world. Whether you are Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Hindu, whatever... you have a worldview and there are certain words used to describe that worldview. In the Christian context, these words are supremely important because they convey certain imagery in a powerful way. A Christian shouldn’t be tossing these words around without knowing what they mean.

For instance, when a Christian says "I have been redeemed" or a song's lyrics talk about redemption, we should know what we are saying or singing. Without a full understanding of the word, it's just words. As with any words, it's the meaning behind them that give them depth, that give them purpose. Saying "I have been redeemed" means nothing if you don't know that it paints a picture of our state as slaves to sin, as hopeless captives, without any possibility of rescue in and of ourselves, but that it is only by the price Jesus paid on the cross that we have been taken from the pit of slavery, never to look back. We have been bought with a price, the blood of Jesus on the cross, so saying "I have been redeemed" should bring to mind the work of Jesus on the cross, the steep price He paid in the suffering, pain, and torture He endured for my sake and for yours. Knowing the state we were in, and the high price paid, should bring us to deep gratitude and thankfulness, knowing that there is no rescue, no thing, that we could ever possibly do to purchase our own freedom or place us in right standing before an infinite, holy, and righteous God. The picture behind the simple statement "I have been redeemed" is rich and potent, yet without the understanding of the word itself, it is minimized to nothing more than a "religious catch-phrase" which robs us of the precious meaning and majesty behind it.


Scripture quotes taken from the Amplified Bible (AMP) copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation, and The Holy Bible, New King James Version (NKJV) Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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