Tag Archives: Definitions

“Now Hiring: Evangelists”

St. Paul Preaching at Athens - by Raphael
St. Paul Preaching at Athens – by Raphael

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a trend among product vendors to label their marketing as “evangelism”. Autodesk, producer of the Revit software I use (along with I don’t know how many other programs) has “Technical Evangelist” as an actual job title. These are the people usually doing the blogs and seminars and webinars, telling us design professionals how their product will be so incredibly helpful to us in our day to day jobs. And while dictionaries may describe this type of evangelist as “someone who talks about something with great enthusiasm,”[1]  I’d like to suggest that there’s more to these companies’ choice of job titles than just their employee’s attitude. But for that, we have to look back at the origins of the word.

Now maybe you’re familiar with evangelists as preachers. Maybe you’re cynical toward Christianity because of televangelists you’ve seen on TV: maudlin, maybe a little crazy, but like clockwork when it came to asking for money. I understand. But set aside those impressions for a moment, and come back with me to a time before the word was sullied with such behavior. If we dig into the Bible, we’ll find the following statement in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church: “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved…”[2]  The noun “gospel” above is εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) in the Greek. Likewise, the verb phrase “preached to you” (or “proclaimed” in other translations) is εὐηγγελισάμην (euēngelisamēn). Remember that in it’s transition from Greek to Latin to English, the “u” became a “v”, and you can then see the root of our word evangelist or evangelism in both of these. But the “eu” at the beginning of both of these words is why companies sometimes call their marketers evangelists: “eu” means good in Greek. The other root, ἄγγελος (aggelos) means a messenger. This is the same word we get “angel” from, for angels serve as messengers of God. Put together, an evangelist is a messenger proclaiming good news or tidings. So when a vendor sends a technical evangelist to talk to me, they’re hoping to deliver a “gospel” of sorts (i.e. good news). And if their product really does work the wonders they promise –  well then, that would be good news!  The key point is, it’s not enthusiasm, but the content of their message that (hopefully) justifies the job title. “Good news” is at the very heart of the word evangelist, by definition. If it’s not good news to the audience, then evangelist may not be the most appropriate job title. But if it really is good news for the people you’re going to, then there’s also a reason to talk about it “with great enthusiasm”.  It’s not just an act then.

Now, what of the original evangelists? Does the Christian gospel actually bring good news? Indeed! Paul’s statement above speaks of the gospel (or good news) “by which also you are saved.” Many see the news that we are all sinners, worthy of condemnation by a just and holy God as bad news – even offensive news – and stop there. But is that part really “news”? When you look at the nightly news, or read the papers or look back through history books, can you honestly say humans are not fallen creatures? In spite of all our scientific and cultural advances, overall, we excel at finding better, more efficient ways to destroy and kill. We tend to be like the classic arch-villian of comics and movies – so much potential for good, yet so often choosing evil. In our heart, in those quiet times of reflection, we recognize that something is wrong at the core of us. And no amount of cultural progress or species evolution could ever fix it. Christianity not only explains our potential for good (we were created in the image of the one truly good God), but also our actual failure to realize that potential (we have all inherited a terminal disease called sin, that is, rebellion against our good Creator). Christianity recognizes the depressing problem that we can’t “fix” ourselves no matter how hard we try, but also proclaims the rest of the story – the amazing solution that God has intervened to do what we never could! Now that’s news.

Allow me to illustrate our trying hard to be good, but still failing. I never learned to swim until high school, when I took swimming lessons. After getting chided by my coach for doing something incorrectly, I flippantly remarked, “Oh well, practice makes perfect”, at which she snapped back, “No! Perfect practice makes perfect!” She was right. Practicing swimming strokes wrong will never make you a better swimmer, no matter how sincerely or devotedly you practice. Religious devotion or trying to lead a “good life” (by whose standard, anyway?) can likewise never succeed. That’s because the standard to meet is perfection. But, as the old sayings go, “to err is human,” and “nobody’s perfect.” In every other religion, you must earn salvation. Only Christianity proclaims this supreme unfairness, that God, in the person of Jesus, perfect and without sin, would become a human like us, to offer Himself as a sacrifice in our place, taking the punishment we justly deserved, that we might be justified and acceptable before God despite our utter inability to ever “measure up.” That’s not just good news – that’s GREAT news! And with news like that, how could we not proclaim it?

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evangelist, accessed 8/8/2016.
[2] 1 Corinthians 15:1, NASB.

Translating Christianese, Part 7

Trinity ShieldIn January & February, I posted a series of articles that (hopefully) defined some common “church talk” terms in non-jargon fashion: “sin”, “holiness”, “righteousness”, “atonement”, “grace”, “justification”, “sanctification”, “born again”, “saved”, and “repentance”. This week, I want to add to that list a distinctly Christian term, yet one you won’t find actually mentioned by that name in the Bible – the Trinity. Nevertheless, the concept is throughout the Bible, and “in the confession of the Trinity throbs the heart of the Christian religion”.[1] The Trinity is the name given to the completely unique three-in-one relationship demonstrated by God. The idea that God is one, and yet three (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) is at the core of Christianity, but what exactly does that mean? Are Muslims right when they say we are polytheists worshiping three gods? Are skeptics right when they say one of our core beliefs is self-contradictory?  No. Now let’s dig into why not.


  • The Trinity, or Tri-unity, is the idea of “plurality in unity”, that God is three distinct persons united in a Being having one nature or essence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity describes three “Whos” in one “What”.[2]
  • A being’s nature or essence is what it is at its core without incidentals. For example, having blond hair is not essential to a human being, but having human DNA is. Nick Vujicic, the man born without arms or legs (and pretty amazing guy), is still obviously human despite not having the limbs typical of most humans. That’s because these are not what makes us human.
  • “Personhood is traditionally understood as one who has intellect, feelings, and will.”[2] Alternatively, a person can be defined philosophically as “a self-conscious or rational being”.[3] William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland use the concept of “imago Dei” (that humans are created in the image of God),[4] to explain that when we use terms like “person” to describe God, it’s not that we are trying to say how God is like us, but rather how we derive our nature from God. They put it this way: “Human beings do not bear God’s image in virtue of their animal bodies, which they have in common with other members of the biosphere. Rather, in being persons they uniquely reflect God’s nature. God Himself is personal, and inasmuch as we are persons we reflect Him.“[5] Part of the difficulty in understanding the Trinity is that our uniform experience is that one person correlates to exactly one human being. We have no experience with how 3 persons would correlate to 1 being.

Though there have been many attempts to explain the concept with different analogies, it’s important to remember that every analogy breaks down when the object under study is truly like nothing else. In fact, several common analogies actually explain competing ideas about God that are definitely not the Christian view. We’ll look at some of those in with related objections.


  •  Muslims look at the Trinity and think we are polytheistic (believers in multiple gods). However, the Trinity is not 3 gods (this would be tritheism), but rather one God in three divine persons. The Godhead is 3 personalities operating in perfect union, but only 1 essence.
  • Another common misconception is that God is one Being taking on different roles (or modes),  as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at different times. This is actually an old heretical view called modalism that says that God took on different modes as our Father from eternity past, then as our Savior as Jesus, and then as the Holy Spirit  after Jesus ascended. A common illustration of the Trinity – that God is like water in that it can exist in solid (ice), liquid (water) and gas (steam) – is actually an example of modalism. While it’s still H2O in each case, it isn’t water, ice, and steam at the same time. It has to stop being one to change form to the others. Similarly, the example of how a man can be a son, a husband, and a father at the same time also falls victim to this error (the modes may be simultaneous in this case, but they are exhibited by only one person instead of three). However, each member of the Godhead is equal in being (i.e. fully God) at the same time, while differing relationally from each other.[6]
  • The law of noncontradiction explains that a statement can’t be true and false in the same sense at the same time. When skeptics claim the Trinity is a contradiction, they are forgetting the “same sense” part of that law of logic. To say that God was 1 person and 3 persons, or 1 essence and 3 essences at the same time would be a contradiction. The correct term would be that this is a paradox (a statement that appears contradictory at first, but proves not to be on closer examination), or a mystery (something we simply don’t understand fully yet, like the wave-particle duality of light).

In closing, in the Trinity, we find mystery and awe for One truly beyond our finite understanding, yet who reveals Himself sufficiently for us to grasp in small ways the scale of our Creator’s nature. We find a foundation for our own dignity as humans. Yet we also find a reason for humility in remembrance of our own limited understanding. The more we grasp this, the more we are driven to worship – to give God the honor, respect, and adoration only He deserves. I leave you with these words from theologian Wayne Grudem on the matter: “Because the existence of three persons in one God is something beyond our understanding, Christian theology has come  to use the word person to speak of these differences in relationship, not because we fully understand what is meant by the word person when referring to the Trinity, but rather so that we might say something rather than nothing.”[6]

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, p. 281, as quoted in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 247.
[2] Norm Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume (Bethany House, Minneapolis, 2011), p. 540-1.
[3] “Person”, www.dictionary.com, definition 5 (Philosophy), accessed 10/25/2015.
[4] Genesis 1:26-27, NASB.
[5] William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic, Downer’s Grove, 2003), p.609.
[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 254-5.


Spock_at_consoleIn the coming weeks, I want to look at some different arguments for the existence of God. But first, how can you know my reasons for believing God exists are legitimate? Maybe you don’t believe God exists, or maybe you simply don’t know. Likewise, how do I know if your reasons are legitimate? How do we discuss our opposing reasons (for this or anything else imaginable) on a level playing field? With that goal in mind, today let’s start out with a refresher (or introduction) to basic logic. Like a lot of foundational material, it may seem a little dry, but it really is the necessary foundation for any type of critical thinking. Underlined words are key terms in logic.

Let’s start with some clarification. An argument in logic is not a fight or quarrel, but rather a rational though process using a series of statements (or propositions) called premises and conclusions. As such, there are some rules for making sure the conclusions you draw are legitimate. Just like in sports, these rules help ensure that the winner really did win fairly.

Propositions are simply statements that may be either the premises or the conclusion of an argument. While you may be trying to determine a reasonable answer to a question with an argument, you can’t have a question or a command for a premise, so these are always declarative sentences. Not to bring up bad memories of diagramming sentences in grade school grammar, but these statements need a subject and a predicate. The subject is just what you’re talking about, while the predicate is what you’re saying about it. The premises are  propositions that each propose a basis for the conclusion. They give your evidence. Premises can be either true or false.  “The city of Houston, Texas is located in the country of Australia.” is a false premise, while “Mars orbits around the sun.” would be a true premise. These premises use terms that can either be clear or unclear. A term is clear if it can be understood in only one sense. For instance, a person can use the word “hot” to describe: temperature (“It’s hot outside”), attractiveness (“She’s hot!”), or questionable legality (“He wrote a hot check”).  In this case, “hot” has equivocal meanings and wouldn’t be a good term to use in a premise unless we either defined it first, or the meaning was clear from the context. Some terms are not so obviously different  in their meanings, and many a misunderstanding has happened because of this issue of equivocation (using the same term in different ways).

The conclusion either necessarily follows from the premises and the argument is valid, or it doesn’t follow and is invalid. “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” is a classic example of a valid syllogism. A syllogism is your most basic argument: 2 premises and 1 conclusion showing a clear relationship between 3 terms. If it is true that all men are mortal, and Socrates is indeed a man, then Socrates simply must be mortal. This is an example of deductive reasoning, which generally moves from a universal principle to a specific application. Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, typically moves from specific observations to a more general conclusion. Valid deduction provides certainty in its conclusion, while induction only provides a degree of probability. Just because you’ve observed many similar cases doesn’t mean all cases will be similar (the exception would if you’ve actually observed all cases). Science typically uses inductive reasoning based on specific observations, hence the tendency of scientists and engineers to always qualify what they say with disclaimers.

Understanding the principles of logic is advantageous regardless of your educational background, your culture, or your beliefs because it provides a framework for knowing that what you believe is true. If your terms are clear, your premises are true, and your deductive argument valid, then your position is necessarily true and there can be no argument against it. Likewise, if your opponent’s argument doesn’t have ambiguous terms, a false premise, or a logical fallacy, then, to be honest, you must admit he’s right. The same goes for me. And so we now have a level playing field, with the same rules applicable to and acknowledged by, both sides. Maybe you’ve listened to a talk show where two opposing guests simply stated their own views over and over again and ignored the other side. Or they simply talked past each other louder and louder? Did you walk away feeling like it was just pointless discussing some issues? There is hope, and this is where logic shines. I encourage you to not simply stop at this short  glossary of logic, but to dig deeper, learn it, and apply it in your own life.


Socratic Logic, Edition 3.1, by Peter Kreeft, (St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), which served as a reference for much of this. This is an actual logic textbook.

Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, by D.Q. McInerny, (Random House, 2005), is also an excellent and very concise introduction to logic, and well-suited for a first exposure to logical principles.

Translating Christianese, Part 6

repent sign 2As we roll on through the list of  “church talk”, we come to the word “repent”. Maybe you find that offensive. Maybe that word makes you think of “fire and brimstone” revival preachers or eccentric guys with signs on the street corner saying the end of the world is coming next week. But what does that word actually mean? Let’s look at that today.

Basically, to repent is to do a 180°, to think differently after something. But real repentance goes deeper than that, delving into our motivations. When we see various calls to repent in the Bible, some form of the Greek word  μετανοέω (metanoeo) is typically being used. This means to have “regret accompanied by a true change of heart toward God” and indicates regret after careful reflection, resulting in a wiser view of both past and future. [1]  A critical distinction here is between this genuine repentance and another word translated as “repent” in English: μεταμέλομαι (metamellomai). This word expresses “the mere desire that what is done may be undone, accompanied with regrets or even remorse, but with no effective change of heart.” It is often “nothing more than a selfish dread of the consequences of what one has done.”[2] This is the repentance of a man who turns from his criminal ways simply out of fear of of being caught, but given enough assurance of getting away with something, commits another crime in spite of his earlier outward signs of “repentance”. This isn’t meaningful repentance like the first (metanoeo). It’s only when we see our behavior from the perspective of God’s perfect standard that we begin to repent and understand our need for forgiveness. Otherwise, we view ourselves as “not that bad…”, at least “good enough…”, maybe even “pretty good”. Viewed in that light, our sin is simply minor shortcomings and “oopsies”. But in reality, we don’t have to be an ax-murderer or a Hitler to warrant condemnation. Every little lie, cheat, lost temper, every little thought or act contrary to God’s design, condemns us  by His standard of perfection. Understanding then, the magnitude of even our smallest offenses against such an unyielding standard, juxtaposed against the amazing, self-sacrificial grace and mercy  of God that offers us undeserved redemption and adoption as beloved children – repentance is the only logical response. But this repentance is authored by God; we can not work up this change in our own strength. Charles Spurgeon said “The Spirit of God enlightens us to see what sin is, and thus makes it loathsome in our eyes.”[3] It is not a single act, but a lifelong attitude of self-examination and seeking to be more like Jesus that is part of the sanctification process described 2 weeks ago. In the words of Spurgeon, “Repentance is the inseparable companion of faith.”[4]

This then is the repentance we speak of; not a condescending judgment, but rather an earnest plea to join us on the path we daily walk. Nobody’s perfect, and we’ve all said and done things we wish we could take back. We can all shed tears of regret with or without God, but only genuine repentance can provide hope with the tears. For “repentance and forgiveness are riveted together by the eternal purpose of God.” [5]

[1] 3340 – metanoeo, The complete Word Study New Testament, 2nd Ed, ed. by Spiros Zodhiates, 1992, (Iowa Falls, World Bible Publishers), p. 936.
[2] 3338 – metamellomai, ibid., p 936.
[3] Charles Spurgeon, “All of Grace”, Kindle Edition of Christian Classics: Six Books by Charles Spurgeon, location 1399. Also available at The Spurgeon Archive.
[4] ibid, location 1369.
[5] ibid, location 1332.

Translating Christianese, Part 5

With a lot of terms like faith, sin, holiness, righteousness, atonement, grace, justification, and sanctification in our toolbox of terms, let’s look today at 2 terms that incorporate these concepts and see what Christians mean by the terms “saved” and “born again”.

Some people hear Christian pleas for them to “be saved” and recoil from it, feeling that needing to be saved from anything is a sign of weakness. What are we being saved from? Is Christianity just “fire insurance” to save us from a funny-looking guy with a pitchfork in some underground cave called hell with a big lake of fire? Are we to be “saved from ourselves”? From sin? From the “world”? From our present misery? What if we feel like life is going pretty good right now,  and we don’t want to be “saved” from anything right now? But the question shouldn’t be whether we feel like we need saving, but simply whether it’s true that that’s what we need. When I learned to scuba dive in college, one condition we were warned about, particularly in our deepwater class, was nitrogen narcosis, or the “rapture of the deep”. That’s where the diver’s judgment and motor skills are impaired because of pressure effects on dissolved gases in the blood. The primary danger in this often euphoric state is that the diver doesn’t recognize the danger they’re really in. He may, in fact, have never felt better than when he is in the most danger. This is the reason the Bible says “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…”[1], and this is the reason for the Christian’s urgent pleas. The next breath is not guaranteed to any of us. So while we are saved from our own self-destructive behavior, and the power of sin in our lives, and sometimes from our present troubles, we are primarily saved from getting what we deserve: God’s perfect, unwavering, unrelenting justice. The result of that, apart from Christ’s atonement,  is permanent separation from God, which is what hell is (despite whatever jokes or caricatures you’ve seen to the contrary).  So are we simply after “fire insurance”? The Bible tells us that we were created to glorify God[2], and until we do so with our lives, we will always be missing the mark, missing our life’s purpose. So no, our salvation is tremendously important for this physical life as well as eternity. In fact, we are told that though physically alive, we were “dead in our sins” and only become truly alive when we are saved. How? Simply “that if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” [3] While all of the terms the last few weeks play a part in this work of salvation, this is where the rubber meets the road. 

If being saved is the result, being “born again” is the start of that process. The term comes from a passage in the Bible where a religious teacher named Nicodemus comes to talk to Jesus at night and admits that God is obviously with Jesus for Him to do the miracles He did. Jesus then tells him that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”[4] If this makes you do a double take, don’t feel too bad – Nicodemus did too. With the brain gears grinding and smoke coming out his ears, Nic asked Jesus how a man could go back into his mother’s womb. But Jesus told him this was a spiritual birth, a regeneration. In the words of Matthew Henry, “to be born again is to begin anew. We must not think to patch up the old building, but begin from the foundation.”[5] Mr. Henry’s analogy is appropriate; not only will plastering over the cracks in our walls not fix the problem, even major structural repairs to the framework of our lives won’t help with a foundation built on quicksand. Our lives apart from God are just pretty house facades covering rotten boards and cracked, shallow footings. It’s a total loss and needs to be gutted and rebuilt, but it all starts with the foundation. Only with new piles driven down to the bedrock that is Christ can our house be built securely.  But this starts with God regenerating us, making us spiritually alive and able to respond to His free gift of salvation. Only God has the power to initiate this in us.[6]

There’s a lot more that could be said about both of these terms (and others have!), but hopefully this has given you some new insight into these 2 common phrases. Questions or comments are always welcome. I may not have all the answers, but I’ll do my best to point you to the One who does. 🙂

[1] Hebrews 3:7 (ESV)
[2] Isaiah 43:7
[3] Romans 10:9 (NIV)
[4] John 3:3 (NIV)
[5] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible in One Volume, ed. Leslie F Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), p. 1517.
[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994), pp702-703.

Translating Christianese, Part 4

Translating Christianese 4Last week, in discussing atonement, I quoted Charles Spurgeon, a preacher from the 1800’s who described Christ’s atoning sacrifice as the “just Ruler dying for the unjust rebel”. The week before, I looked at righteousness, which can be defined as justness. What then do Christians mean when we talk of “justification”? Justification comes from the Greek word δικαίωσις (dikaiosis, meaning “the act of pronouncing righteous”[1]),  and can be defined as “an instantaneous legal act of God in which He a) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and b) declares us to be righteous in His sight.”[2] We can draw some important points out of this definition. First, this is something God does, not us. Only the judge has the authority to declare someone condemned or pardoned. The defendant has no say in the decision. Second, it’s a judicial declaration, not based on us earning it by good deeds. Third, declaring someone right is not the same as making them right. We are not made morally perfect people by this action, but rather declared as such in God’s sight because of us placing our trust (faith) in Jesus Christ to save us from the death sentence we were under, by virtue of Christ’s perfect righteousness. But if God is just, how can He ignore our guilt and simply declare us righteous?  One result of Christ’s substitutionary atonement discussed last week is “imputed righteousness”. Imputation is a “transfer of benefit or harm from one individual to another”.[3]  Imputation isn’t a common term, but there are some common examples of it in our daily lives. The actions of an employee breaking the law in the course of his job duties may be imputed to his employer. A friend’s accident in your car can be imputed to you. Below is an example from one state’s laws regarding imputation of driving negligence:

“Any negligence of a minor … when driving any motor vehicle upon a highway, shall be imputed to the person who signed the application of the minor for the license. That person shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for any damages caused by the negligence.”

And so our sins were imputed to Christ, and He was held fully liable for them, while His perfection was imputed to us, in a merciful exchange that satisfied God’s justice even though we deserved punishment.

Going back to that important distinction earlier about God declaring us righteous versus making us righteous, one might wonder if we can simply continue on our selfish, sinful life journey after this atoning, justifying encounter with our Creator. That brings us to the term “sanctification”. Sanctification is “a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.”[4]  This definition brings up several points. First, this is a separate process from justification. While our efforts can never justify us, they do contribute toward making us holy, or “set apart”. Second, this is a cooperative work. We cannot do it without the power of God’s Holy Spirit in us, but He also won’t let us be lazy or apathetic and say that we can’t change or that we’re just waiting on God to change us. Third, it is a continual process. God uses our life events and our responses to them to mold us into who He destined us to be in this life, and to prepare us for an eternity in heaven. So this process won’t stop until the day we die. Fourth, this should not be an abstract concept, but should have actual results that others can observe and see there is something different about us. Read Corrie ten Boom’s account of the behavior of her sister Bessie in the Nazi concentration camps they were at, and you will get a beautiful picture of what someone farther down the journey of sanctification looks like. Fifth, because of our role in it, it will vary from person to person. I have had the honor of knowing some saintly people over the years, who, while not perfect, reflected Christ far closer than I ever have, and likely ever will. My humble prayer is that I could be half the servant of God they were. Sixth, becoming more like Christ will affect every facet of our lives. There can be no holdouts, no secrets, no private pleasures. But when we do yield those up to Him, He takes away our cherished mud pies and replaces them with gems of joy we didn’t think possible.

Today was a summary of a few of the many things that could be said on these two concepts. Tune in next week as we tie some of these ideas together and look at probably the 2 most common Christian terms: “saved” and “born again”. Enjoy!

[1] dikaiosis, www.Biblehub.com/greek, accessed 2015/02/08.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994), p.723.
[3] “Imputation”, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, by Grenz, Guretzki, & Nordling, (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1999).
[4] Wayne Grudem, ibid., p 746.


Translating Christianese, Part 3

Dictionary Entry - AtonementThe last couple weeks, I’ve gone over the depressing situation we find ourselves in with 3 terms: sin, and holiness and righteousness. Not that they’re depressing in themselves, but they are in the context of our sin in light of God’s holiness and righteousness. And if the story ended there, it would be a tragedy. But today’s first term is “atonement”, and it brings real hope. Our second term, “grace”, explains why.

If God is perfectly just and can’t lower His standards to accept us in our sinful condition, and we can’t rid ourselves of  this dark stain of sin in each of us – what’s the solution? Atonement is the act by which God’s justice is satisfied by the perfect, voluntary, substitutionary sacrifice of His Son, Jesus. Sin put us in debt to God, a debt that we could never pay, but which a perfectly just God could never overlook. Who can pay this debt? Can one in bankruptcy and without a job  ignore his own creditors and offer to pay off his friend’s mortgage?  Of course not. His own creditors would say he owes them first. Only someone with money can pay off a debt, but we’re all spiritually bankrupt on our own. And so we come to a problem: only man owes the debt, but only God can pay it.[1] However, God did something remarkable: He came to earth as the man Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, the only one able to satisfy His legal demand for justice, and voluntarily offered Himself as the payment for the judgement against us. In effect, the judge stepped down from behind the bench and paid the fine we could never pay. This is the atonement needed for us to be reconciled to God, made available to all through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.*   Charles Spurgeon once said,

“The doctrine of the atonement is to my mind one of the surest proofs of the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture. Who would or could have thought of the just Ruler dying for the unjust rebel? This is no teaching of human mythology, or dream of poetical imagination. This method of expiation is only known among men because it is a fact; fiction could not have devised it.”[2]

(Lest I forget my goal of translating church lingo, the “expiation”  Spurgeon referenced is sometimes considered a synonym for atonement, although it can more specifically mean the part of atonement dealing with the covering of sin by Christ’s sacrifice. In that more specific meaning, expiation is the means of “propitiating” (appeasing or satisfying) God. To recap, “one propitiates a person, and one expiates a problem.”[3])

As Spurgeon mentioned, this idea of atonement is unheard of in human-invented religion. When every other religion says “you must work hard and earn your way into heaven/paradise/nirvana/eternal reward/etc, Christianity says “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”[4] What then is this grace that drives this supremely sacrificial saving gesture? Grace is commonly remembered as “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense, or as “completely undeserved (or unmerited) divine favor”. It is God not asking us to “clean up our act” before we come to Him, because we never could. Ironically, grace isn’t fair. We tend to think about fairness when we feel we’ve been wronged, but not so much when we’ve wronged others. If God were fair, He’d simply say “you failed the perfection test” and obliterate all of us. Yet He lovingly extends credit to the debtor if we only accept. Contrary to performance-based religion, God’s grace frees us from pursuing self-righteousness (and failing), so we may simply accept the free gift of our Creator[5]. This gift is His sovereign love for us before we even could love Him, extended to us by His atoning sacrifice for us, covering our sin and paying the penalty for us that His justice demanded, thus satisfying God, reconciling us to Him, and opening the door to new life, both here and eternally.

What does that new life look like? Accepting God’s gracious offer starts a lifelong process that can be divided into the 2 terms we’ll look at next week – “justification” and “sanctification”. See ya then 🙂

* It should be noted that while Jesus’s sacrifice made salvation possible for each of us, not everyone will automatically go to heaven He won’t force us into heaven; we still must accept the offer.

[1] Anselm of Canterbury, “Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man?), 1474, as in “Systematic Theology” by Norman Geisler, p. 833.
[2] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, from his message “Just and the Justifier”, in his book “All of Grace”, (1886) included in the 6 book collection “Charles Spurgeon: Christian Classics Collection”, Kindle Edition, Location 680. To read this excellent sermon from the “Prince of Preachers” online, you can go here.
[3] “Propitiation”, www.theopedia.com, accessed 2014-02-01.
[4] Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
[5] Romans 6:23 (NASB)- “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Interestingly, the Greek word translated as “free gift” comes from χάρις (charis), the  root word for grace.

Translating Christianese, Part 2

Christianese DictionaryThis week, I wanted to look at 2 more examples of Christian jargon: holiness and righteousness. So let’s jump right in.

Holiness means to be “set apart”, to possess “otherness”, or to be “different”.[1] It’s been said that “it’s much more popular to speak of a loving God than a holy God”[2], but it’s important to understand all of God’s characteristics (to the best of our ability) rather than just imagining Him how we want to Him to be. God is holy in that He is completely separate from everything and everyone else. How is this separateness revealed? He is self-existent while all else is contingent (i.e. we need water, oxygen, etc. to exist). He is infinite, while all else is finite. He is perfect, and two or more perfect beings cannot exist simultaneously and be different without one being “less perfect” than the other. Therefore, only one perfect being can exist. In each case, God is in a category of His own, differentiated from all else, and therefore holy.  However, what about where God tells us to “be holy, because I am holy”[3]? This doesn’t mean God expects us to be perfect like He is, but rather that He wants us to be set apart, different from the world. For example, furniture and utensils in the Jewish temple of the Old Testament were considered holy not because they were made of gold or of a certain design but because they were devoted exclusively to God’s service. Likewise for us, to be holy is to be dedicated to serving God, abstaining from anything that would taint that.

Related to holiness is the term “righteousness”, which is simply the quality of being “just” or “right”.  For example, our justice system tries to punish the unjust. In fact, one definition of justice is: (n) “the quality of being just; righteousness; moral rightness.”[4] That doesn’t always happen with human justice, but it is our goal. One thing that differentiates God from us is His perfect justice. Looking at opposing conceptions of deity, the Greek or Roman “gods”, for example, were just as petty, manipulative and dishonest as we are. God, however, is perfectly righteous, for it is an intrinsic moral attribute for Him[5], a part of His inherent character.  His righteousness then provides a set standard of justice that doesn’t change with the latest ideas or fads. We can build on that standard and describe human righteousness as conformance to God’s ethical and moral standards.[6] The Christian view of humanity, on the other hand, is that we are most definitely not righteous. The apostle Paul writes “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one'”[7].  That may sound harsh and too much of a generalization, but is it really? Have you always been perfectly just in all of your dealings your whole life? If we’re honest, none of us can make that claim. Again, Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[8] Generalization? Not really. If the world wasn’t such a messed up place, the nightly news would be a very different broadcast. Evil, malice, ill will, wrongdoing, bad blood – whatever you call it, it’s all sin. We see it the world over. But when the standard is perfection, then it suddenly becomes very personal. It’s not just the serial killers, the rapists, the terrorists, the brutal dictators and warlords – it’s you and me.  It’s the “white lie”, the pirated software, the “padded” résumé, the angry response in traffic, and a thousand other ways we all fall short of the mark of perfection and find ourselves condemned, unrighteous and without any way to fix it.

Last week, we looked at what sin means. This week, we’ve seen what God’s holiness and righteousness means and how we are unrighteous in our sinful condition. This then leads us to a dilemma: how, in our guilty condition, can we approach a just and impartial judge who uses a standard of perfection? What good deeds could we ever do to satisfy that standard? There aren’t any. Justice demands not lowering the bar, yet we can never reach the bar on our own. Understanding the utter hopelessness of this situation is critical to understanding the importance of the next week’s terms: grace and atonement.

[1] ἅγιος (Hagios), www.BibleHub.com Greek Concordance, accessed 2015/01/24.
[2]Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), p. 568.
[3] Leviticus 11:45 & 1 Peter 1:16
[4] “Justice”, definition 1, www.dictionary.com, accessed 2015/01/15.
[5] Geisler, p. 569.
[6] “Righteousness”, Nelson’s Foundational Bible Dictionary, 1st Ed. (2004).
[7] Romans 3:10, paraphrasing Psalm 14:3.
[8] Romans 3:23.

Jargon, or Translating Christianese, Part 1

DictionariesI took an online class this past fall about designing bracing connections and the instructor mentioned a term I wasn’t familiar with: “column shedding”. I looked online and didn’t see any explanations, so I asked my boss if he’d heard the term before. He hadn’t, so I asked the instructor and learned that it described a situation where 2 braces intersecting a column that should have opposite loads of tension and compression both go into compression because the highly-loaded column “sheds” some of its load into the braces.  Now I know a new engineering concept, and “knowing is half the battle” (anyone else remember that from the old G.I. Joe cartoons?).

The instructor in that class had used a bit of jargon: “the specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group, especially when viewed as difficult to understand by outsiders“. Why do we use jargon in the first place? Because it’s a shortcut. If everyone in the conversation understands the terms, you can condense a big concept or a whole series of concepts into a short statement and not lose any of the meaning of your message.  And when that’s the case, it makes for efficient communication. The pitfall is in the assumption that everyone understands the concept represented by these specialized terms. We often learn on-the-job via “trial-by-fire” scenarios where we learn just enough to accomplish the task at hand, but never go back to learn the theory behind the application. So sometimes even when people know the terms, they may not understand the entire concept behind them.

Have you gone to church or listened to a preacher on the TV or radio and heard what sounded like jargon? Insider talk? “Christianese”? Church lingo? Maybe it was your first (or only) time in a church and it sounded pretentious, like they were trying to see how many impressive seminary words they could squeeze in. Maybe you’ve been attending church for a while, and feel embarrassed to ask now. Either way, some definition of terms might help clear up the muddy waters. So in this series of posts, I’ll try to define a couple of common church terms in non-“churchy” terms each installment. Since I went over faith in detail last week, we won’t rehash it today. You can read that post here.  Now, let’s look at another term: “sin”.

Sin is one of those terms that none of us really like. Being told you’re a “sinner” or “living in sin” or that what you’re doing is “sinful” sounds so judgmental. But much like going to the doctor, it’s better to get the bad news and learn how to treat an illness than to be told you’re fine when you’re really dying from a curable disease. Just as with the doctor’s judgment of our physical condition, God looks at us and tells us we have a problem we can’t fix on our own, and what’s worse is that it’s fatal. Our shorthand terminology for it is sin, and it can mean falling short of the mark, disobedience, rebellion, or ignoring a command. The Bible’s statements that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) may sound harsh at first, but it really is a true diagnosis of humanity. Turn on the TV news, open the newspaper, go to any news website; the world is a messed-up place. Something’s wrong and it affects all of us, from the poorest villagers to famous celebrities to the most powerful world leaders. That’s because the problem is inside us and no amount of money, fame, plastic surgery, or respect and adoration can fix it. Our current “me generation” is simply an acting out of the pride and rebellion against God that Milton summed up so well over 300 years ago in Paradise Lost when he wrote Satan saying “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”[1] Whether it’s open rebellion or simply falling short of God’s perfect standard, the effect is still the same: separation from God. In the end, that’s what hell is, eternal separation from God because of our sin. And when Christians talk about sin, it’s not to be condescending, but more like a former drug addict saying “I got help, and you can too!” Despite our often flawed delivery, we are to speak the truth in love and humility, knowing that we’ve “been there, done that” (and often still do err in willful disobedience to God even though we know better).

Atheists say there are millions who are “good without God”. The problem is that “good” doesn’t cut it when the standard is perfection and “nobody’s perfect”. But to learn more about God’s standard, tune in next week for a look at “holiness” and “righteousness”.

[1] John Milton, Paradise Lost, (1674), Book 1, Line 263.