The Language of Theology – An Introduction

Most of us are somewhat familiar with words such as Justification, Atonement, and Reconciliation. But do we know what they specifically mean? Are they just multiple words describing the same thing? 

Christianity has a language of its own, at least in church circles where pastors still use Theological language. However, an increasing number of American churches don’t make use of Theological vocabulary, often saying that they “want to talk in terms that a regular person can understand.” Is this a good idea? Should we abandon “old-fashioned” words like propitiation and monergism? Or do these words still hold value when discussing Christianity?

While using the phrase “Jesus died for your sins” is a good way to introduce someone to Christianity, it doesn’t quite capture the whole scope of the work of Christ. When we try to translate these kinds of words into “modern-day English,” some of the meaning is lost, just the same as it happens when translating any language. These words are valuable, and the importance of learning them follows a “rule of thumb” of Christianity: Scripture should not change to suit us. Rather, we should change to suit Scripture. In short, this means that we should make the effort to learn the definitions for these Theological words, because they’re actually derived from the original words used by the authors of Scripture. When we fail to learn the meaning of these words, it makes it seem as if we don’t have the time to grow in our knowledge of the Truth.

Of course, these words shouldn’t just be thrown at non-Christians or new converts. The true meaning of these words cannot be understood until one understands the concepts and doctrines of Christianity. As Peter says in 2 Peter 3:16, some concepts found in the Bible are hard to understand, and false teachers are able to twist them to suit their needs.

With this in mind, I think it’s well worth it to better understand these Theological words, and distinguish them from words that seem similar. Here we will examine some of them:

Justification – Essentially the central doctrine of Christianity. Derived from a Latin legal term, Justification is God’s act of declaring us righteous because of the work of Christ. Justification is something that happens outside of us. Some divisions of Christianity see justification as an internal transformation, where the Christian them self  becomes righteous. Rather, justification is the act of Christ’s righteousness being credited to us. Justification is something that happens externally.

Imputation – Related closely to justification, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, that is, crediting it to us as if it were our own. This happens by grace through faith.

By grace, through faith – Even though this is a common phrase heard in the majority of Christian churches, it can have a slightly different meaning across denominations. As the Lutheran Confessions understand it, God justifies us by His grace, not because of anything we have done. We are given this righteousness through faith in Christ. We cannot be made righteous without faith in Jesus as our Savior.

Atonement – By living a perfect life and dying in our place, Christ atoned for our sins. That is, Christ was punished in our place to satisfy the wrath of God. Jesus atoned for the sins of the entire world.

Concupiscence – This is a formal term that describes our original sin. Concupiscence is the sinful state we are born in – it is the origin and cause of every sinful thought and action of mankind. Though the actions committed against God’s will are also known as “sin,” concupiscence is a state in which humans exist. It is the reason we are opposed to God from our conception.

Sanctification – This term is often confused or mingled with justification. However, they are two distinct doctrines. As Christians who are justified by God’s grace, sanctification is described as the Christian’s ability to lead a “holy” life, a life that seeks to uphold God’s will. We are only able to do this through the power of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies us through the Word and Sacraments. The Christian himself does play a role in leading a godly life, but is only able to do so because of the “New Man” created within himself through baptism.

These few theological terms barely begin to scratch the surface of Christian vocabulary, but they are central to the doctrines of Christianity. You can understand these terms even more precisely by searching for them in The Lutheran Confessions. There you will find them explained with far more depth than they are here. It is my prayer that every Christian would continue to grow in the understanding of God’s Truth, even if it takes the effort of learning a new vocabulary.

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”

2 Peter 3:18 (ESV)

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