A Quick Guide to Christian Terms

Basic Theology, Christian Life & Theology

Christianity, salvation, Christian terms, new believer, bible study, bible journaling

If you didn’t grow up in the church, adjusting to Christian culture can be a bit of a shock. Why are people throwing around Christian terms like “washed in the blood” or being “born again”? While you can adapt quickly, as you grow in faith more Christian terms will become part of the conversation. Even I – a seasoned believer with a religion degree! – encounter words and phrases I’ve never heard before.

I thought it would be helpful to compile many of these terms in one place. This post is something you can reference when you encounter a confusing word or concept. It is by no means a complete list, but is a bit of a “starter pack” for beginning believers. Without further ado (and in no particular order):

Biblical Terms

Redeem – The Bible uses a lot of ancient legal terminology to express spiritual principles. Redeem literally means to “buy back” or regain possession of something. In context of Christianity, redemption through Jesus indicates God’s initial ownership of mankind (Genesis 1-2), their fall into sin and spiritual captivity to the Enemy (Genesis 3) and the promised Messiah who would “buy back” the people through His death on the cross. Because the wages of sin is death, Jesus had to die to pay our “price” and redeem us from sin.

Justification – To be justified is to be declared righteous by God. When you accept Christ as your Lord and Savior you are “justified” – declared righteous – no matter what you have done. Christ’s blood atones for your sin, and His righteousness over you is what God sees. Justification is a one-time declaration that you learn to live up to as you walk forward in faith (the sanctification process).

Sanctification – To sanctify is to set apart, consecrate, or purify from sin. Sanctification is a process the Holy Spirit works in us after salvation. It does not all happen at once; purification is a gradual process as we walk with God (definition of “walk with God” further down this post).

Atonement – In non-theological contexts, atonement is a term for repairing a wrong. In the Bible, atonement refers to Jesus’ reparation for our sins. As discussed in the definition of redeem, the Bible says that the wages of sin is death. Death, in Scripture, is a way to express separation from God. This is what happened in Genesis 3 – Adam and Eve may not have physically died right away, but they were immediately separated from God’s holiness through their sin. Jesus’ atonement covered their sin – and ours! – restoring us to peace with God. In the Old Testament temporary atonement was made through animal sacrifices. This is why Jesus is called the “Lamb of God’ – He made the perfect, lasting atonement through His death.

Covenant – A covenant is, at its core, a legal contract. God uses this terminology all throughout the Bible, and understanding covenants is key to understanding our faith! Typically a covenant requires two equal parties who agree to specific terms (you do this, I do this, and if one of us fails, we have violated the covenant). God makes several covenants with His people in Scripture – some unilateral and unconditional (e.g. the Abrahamic covenant to bless the whole world through His seed) and others conditional (e.g the Mosaic covenant with Israel, in which God requires Israel’s obedience for them to stay in the land). In the covenant with Abraham, God not only set out the terms, He fulfilled them completely Himself. He continued to do this through the New Covenant in Jesus. Where we could not uphold our side of the agreement (by continual sin) He made a way to fulfill it for us when Jesus bought our righteousness.

Walk with God – The Bible says Abraham “walked with God” and this is a phrase we still use today. To “walk with God” is to be in step with His will, in a daily relationship with Him. “Can two walk together unless they are agreed?” (Ecc. 3) This phrase expresses a mutual agreement (covenant) to journey together toward a destination. Because walking together indicates agreement, you can’t be walking with God and simultaneously living a lifestyle of sin.

Quiet Time – “Quiet time” is a term which emerged in the 1940s to describe our devotional time with God. It was adopted by the Billy Graham campaign terminology and took hold in western Christianity. More on the quiet time and how it has changed in this post.

Receive the Spirit – I could write a whole post on this, but I’ll try to do it justice in a paragraph: Our current church culture tells us that believing Jesus is how we receive the Holy Spirit; that if you profess faith you automatically receive Him. Based on what we see in Luke and Acts, this is not necessarily the case. Receiving the Spirit is a distinct event after salvation, whether coinciding with the profession of faith or hours, days, months or years afterward. Some believers think you must speak in tongues as proof of the Spirit; tongues may be one way to reflect His presence, but they are not a requirement. They are a gift, one of many. So if tongues aren’t proof of the Spirit, what is? Scripture tells us when the Spirit comes, we receive power (Acts 1:8). The gifts and work of the Spirit are listed in Acts 2, Hebrews 2, Galatians 3, and Acts 6. If a believer has the Spirit, it will be – as John Piper says – “a real identifiable experience of the living God”. In the early church, believers were prayed over to receive the Spirit. This should still be happening today.

How do you know if you have received the Spirit? Your life will reflect His influence! Galatians 5 lists the fruit of the Spirit – a life characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self control. You will actively seek to reject sin and pursue the Lord. You will seek to praise God and know Him through His Word. You will not do these things perfectly, but your desire is for them because the Spirit is at work in you. If you do not desire these things but attempt to live the Christian life “by the bootstraps”, constantly frustrated because you can’t be “good enough” – have you prayed to receive the Spirit? Have you been prayed over? Pray now. And read more about this in this article.

Walk by the Spirit – Galatians 5, 1 John 2, Ephesians 5 – all of these tell us to walk by the Spirit and walk the way God walks. This means making choices according to the leading of the Spirit of God in you. If you don’t have the Spirit, you can’t do this. Some believers read the Bible and try to enforce it on principle; this is not God’s will. His will is for you to walk by His Spirit’s leading, which will never contradict the Word.

Evangelism – Evangelism is the fulfillment of the Great Commission – spreading the news about God’s redemptive plan and purpose to those who are “lost” and separated from Him.

Discernment – Perceiving what is spiritually valuable and what is not; having the wisdom to know what is inconsistent with Christian truths.

Grace – The unmerited favor of God.

Mercy – Forgiveness shown to someone who does not deserve it; withholding punishment from the guilty.

Baptism – Baptism is a sacrament of the church, modeled by Jesus (Matt. 3)

Backslide – To stop moving forward in your walk with God and revert back to old, fleshly habits and behaviors.

Predestination – One of the fundamental characteristics of the Calvinist Christian view. Predestination is the belief that God does not just know all who will be saved, but ordains (decides) who will be saved. The people who will be saved are called the “elect”. Though Jesus died for all people, God will not soften the hearts of all people to receive Him. See Calvinism and Arminianism.

Righteousness – To act in accord with divine law; God’s righteousness is perfect justice. He does absolutely right by every person and situation He touches. Our righteousness as Christians comes from our relationship with God. We are deemed righteous by being in right relationship with Him through Jesus.

Accountable – To be accountable is to be required to justify your choices and actions to someone else. We are all accountable to God for how we live. We are accountable to those we offend when we offend them. When walking out the Christian life, we are accountable to our brothers and sisters in Christ for how we live out our faith in community.

Sin – Before Christ, a state of being in which man is separated from God. Sinful actions are choices which run contrary to the character of God. Sin literally means “to miss the mark”, or as James said, “To she who knows what she should do and does not do it – that is sin.” (Jas. 4:17)

Repentance – To repent is to “change one’s mind”. It is not just regret or remorse. As this post describes it, repentance is a “change of mind which results in a change of action.”

Sovereignty – God’s sovereignty is His absolute power and authority as Creator, Savior, and Lord.

Godliness – “God-like-ness”; reflecting the character of God in one’s behavior; e.g. love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness; a character bearing the fruits of God’s Spirit.

Love – Biblical love is defined not in the eros sense (emotional, erotic) but more often in an agape sense (self sacrificing love). God is the culmination of agape love. God’s love is the basis of the entire gospel, and is apparent from the beginning of the Bible to the very end. More on this here.

Hallelujah – This is a Hebrew expression that literally means “praise Yah”, or Yahweh; it means “praise God”.

Worship – Worship is to “attribute worth to” someone or something. It is generally used in reference to God, which is where our worship is meant to be directed, but we can also worship idols by attributing more worth to them than to God (in the OT, idols were actual icons, but in today’s world, idols are anything that move our attention, reverence, and affection more than God).

Gospel – Gospel means “good news”, and is a term for the teaching about Jesus and God’s redemptive plan.

Great Commission – The “Great Commission” is a term for Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This was Jesus’ last command to His disciples and the mission of every believer.

Theological Terms:

Sotierology – This is the technical term for “doctrine of salvation”; what we believe about how Jesus saves us.

Doctrine – “Doctrine” comes from the Latin word for “teaching”, and it simply means the set of core beliefs held by the church. “Orthodox doctrine” means “sound teaching”. When someone says “the doctrines of the church”, they mean the unchangeable, true teachings of Christianity.

Heresy – A heresy is a belief or teaching contrary to orthodox doctrine.

Canon – The Bible is also called “the canon of Scripture”, or a collection of books deemed authoritative and genuine by the church Fathers. For more on how the Bible came to be, read this post.

Dispensationalism – This view is based on “dispensations” or periods of time in the Bible which show how God interacts with man. It divides up the metanarrative (big story) of Scripture and each dispensation usually correlates to a historical covenant (Noah, Abraham, David). Israel and the Church are seen as distinct entities and almost all dispensationalists hold to a premillennial eschatology.

Calvinism – Calvinism is a theological viewpoint developed from Martin Luther’s view of justification (by grace alone, not by works) during the Reformation, which began in 1517. John Calvin is the founder of this view. Most Protestant (non-Catholic) churches hold to the majority of Calvin’s views of Scripture, and all present denominations are “descended” from Calvinist churches in some respect. Characteristic of Calvinism today is belief in predestination of the elect (God ordains who will be saved; man does not have the option of choosing/rejecting God of his own will). A summary of Calvinist doctrines is articulated with the acronym TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints (Once Saved Always Saved). Denominations that are Calvinist: Presbyterian USA, Presbyterian PCA, Reformed Baptist, Dutch Reformed, United Church of Christ, Protestant Reformed Churches.

A summary of TULIP from a Calvinist perspective and five things that led this Calvinist to leave Calvinism. 

Arminianism – Joseph Arminius originally disagreed with John Calvin on only one “point” of TULIP (which didn’t exist until the 20th century; Calvin did not come up with this acronym): Unconditional Election. This developed into an alternative view today known as “Arminianism”. Most people who do not agree with Calvinism aren’t Arminians, however. Most fall somewhere in the theological middle (research Molinism for one view).

People who do not hold to a Calvinist view of Scripture (like myself) believe Jesus died for the sins of the world, and that those who respond to the Spirit’s call can be saved. God, in His sovereignty, allows man the will the accept or reject Him. This is done because God is both sovereign and loving, and a loving relationship is not possible when there can be no willing response. Denominations that are not Calvinist: Traditionalist Baptist, Wesleyan, Nazarene, Methodist, Church of Christ, charismatic and Pentecostal churches.

For an educated view from a non-Calvinist perspective, listen to Dr. Leighton Flowers from the Sotierology 101 podcast and visit this article on his blog.

Eschatology – Eschatology is a fancy word for “theology of the end times”. It’s the study of end-times prophecy and how we should understand apocalyptic passages of Scripture. Eschatology helps us understand the different views of God’s end time actions. These views are premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism.

Premillenialism – This interpretation of end times theology holds that the millennial reign of Christ referenced in Revelation 20 will occur after Jesus returns. An exaggerated, fictional depiction of this view is articulated in the Left Behind book series. Christ will return after Christians have been “taken up” to be with Him, after which He will establish a reign on earth for a thousand years. With this view, the world grows progressively more corrupt and anti-Christian before the Second Coming.

Postmillennialism- In this interpretation, Jesus returns AFTER the millennial reign or “golden age” for Christians on earth.  The earth will be progressively evangelized and righteousness, peace, and prosperity will become the norm on earth prior to Jesus’s coming, unlike the premillennial view, where the world grows more corrupt.

Amillennialism – In this interpretation, the millennial kingdom is a metaphor, not an actual period of time (a = none; no millennium). Amillennialists hold that the millennium has already begun with the advent of the Christian church. Christ returns only for the final judgment

I hope this list was helpful to you!

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