The Christian says, “You need to repent and trust in Jesus for salvation.” The unbeliever responds, “Salvation from what? Why would I need Jesus?” The Christian then says, “You need to be born again to be saved from your sins. Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. His blood will atone for sin, and you can be justified and sanctified before God. The alternative is an eternity in hell.” The unbeliever responds, “I am basically a good person. I don’t think a loving God would send me to hell.”
Perhaps you have heard, or even been a part of, such a conversation. Christians have a tendency to use certain “religious” terms that are either directly from Scripture, or which are used as shorthand to describe a biblical principle (such as the ‘Trinity’). There is nothing wrong with this. However, it can be a problem in communicating with unbelievers. Christians tend to assume that unbelievers understand such terms, but that is often not the case. Even Christians sometimes misunderstand certain biblical terms. We here examine, define, and explain some of the more important biblical terms that are helpful in understanding the Gospel. We will include relevant verses that shed light on these terms.
God is the Creator of everything that has come into existence (John 1:1-3, Exodus 20:11). He has always existed (He is eternal) and is beyond time (Exodus 3:14, Isaiah 43:10, Revelation 1:8). God is a spirit, meaning He is non-material, not made up of atoms or energy, and does not have a specific location in space (John 4:24, Luke 24:39, 1 Kings 8:27). God is omnipotent, meaning He is all-powerful; He can do anything that He desires to do, anything that is consistent with His nature (Jeremiah 32:17). God is omniscient, meaning all-knowing (John 16:30, Colossians 2:3). God knows absolutely everything about everything, including everything that has ever happened or will ever happen (Isaiah 46:9-10). God is omni-present, meaning His power is immediately available everywhere (Psalm 139:7-12, Jeremiah 23:24). God is sovereign, meaning He doesn’t answer to anyone (1 Timothy 6:15, Isaiah 40:13-14, Hebrews 6:13). He does not have to explain why He does what He does, and He does whatsoever He pleases (Psalm 115:3, Daniel 4:35).
As a spirit, God is normally invisible, but can appear visibly or take on a material body when He desires to do so (1 Timothy 1:17, Colossians 1:15, John 1:1, 14). God is Holy, meaning He is morally perfect and pure, having never done anything wrong (Revelation 4:8, Romans 3:23, Ezekiel 18:25,29, Hebrews 4:15). God is gracious and merciful (Psalm 86:15, 145:8). Grace is unmerited favor – when God gives us something good that we have not earned and do not deserve. Conversely, mercy is withholding something bad that we do deserve; when God withholds giving us punishment for our wicked actions, this is mercy. God is compassionate (Deuteronomy 4:31, James 5:11), but also just and righteous (morally perfect); everything He does is perfect and right (Deuteronomy 32:4). He is the Judge of all judges (Psalm 2:10-12). And since God knows every thought and intention behind every action, He is the perfect Judge, able to discern the correct punishment or reward for every action of every person (Jeremiah 17:10, Revelation 20:12).
The Bible teaches that there is only one true (living) God (Isaiah 45:21, Deuteronomy 6:4). God is one in His eternal essence, and yet three in persons. The three persons are the Father (John 6:27, 8:54, 20:17), the Son (Hebrews 1:8-10), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4). These are not merely different manifestations of God. Rather these are three eternally distinct persons, each of which is (and always has been and always will be) fully God (Malachi 3:6, Micah 5:2); and yet there is only one God. As God, the three persons have the same divine nature (Philippians 2:6, John 1:1, 17:5), and each has always existed in perfect fellowship with the other two persons (John 17:24). The Father sent the Son on a mission to save His people from the punishment for their sin. The Son entered time and took on a human nature in addition to His divine nature (John 1:14). He is Jesus Christ, both God and man. The Trinity is not easy for us to grasp. But this is what God has told us about His nature, so who are we to argue?
Sin is the breaking of God’s law (1 John 3:4). It is a futile rebellion against the Almighty (Psalm 2). Since God is the sovereign Creator, He has the right to make rules for His creations – laws that apply to all people (Deuteronomy 4:1-2). God gave the first two people the power of contrary choice – the ability to either obey or disobey God’s law (Genesis 2:17). When Adam violated God’s command, Adam sinned and became a sinner. A sinner is someone who has violated God’s law. The Bible informs us that sinners desire sin and pass that desire onto their offspring (Romans 5:12). We call this the sin-nature. Since all human beings are descended from Adam, all have a sin-nature (Romans 5:12). We are all sinners, and we sin by our own perverse, free choice (Romans 3:23). And since God is a just Judge, He must punish sin. (Only a corrupt judge would let a wicked criminal go free with no punishment.) God has declared that the right punishment for sin is death. And this presents a problem for all of us because we have all sinned against God and therefore deserve death (Romans 3:23, 6:23). This is why being “basically good” is insufficient to prevent being punished for our many sins. Since our sin is ultimately against an infinite God, the penalty must also be infinite – an infinite death.
Life and Death
The words ‘life’ and ‘death’ are each used in two distinct (though closely related) ways in Scripture. Life can refer to physical life or spiritual life. Likewise, death can be either physical or spiritual. Physical life is the ability of a person or animal to breathe, move, and otherwise physically function as designed (Acts 17:28, Genesis 2:7). Physical death is the logical alternative; a person or animal is physically dead when the material body is no longer able to breathe, move, or perform its designed function (Genesis 3:19).
The Bible also uses ‘life’ and ‘death’ in a spiritual sense. In addition to a physical body, human beings have a spirit – a non-material aspect of our being that is designed to love and serve God. We are spiritually alive when our spirit functions properly as God designed it: when we love God and desire to obey and glorify Him. However, most people are spiritually dead. They are alive physically, but they do not love and serve God. They still have a spirit, but it is “dead” in the sense that it does not function as God designed it to; instead it desires sin (Ephesians 2:1).
The term ‘spiritual death’ is very fitting. When an animal dies, it does not cease to exist. But it does cease to function as designed. Indeed, a dead animal is incapable of doing what it was designed to do. Likewise, our dead spirit is unable to function as God originally designed it but is a slave to sin (John 8:34). We are all born with a ‘dead’ spirit, incapable of loving or serving the Lord (Psalm 51:5, 53:2-3). And we will remain that way unless God imparts life to our spirit (Ephesians 2:4-5). When we are born, we have physical life, but a dead spirit. Unless we are born again, this time spiritually, we cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). It makes sense. Unless you are born physically, you cannot see the physical world; unless you are born spiritually, you cannot see the kingdom of God. That is what Jesus means when He says you must be born again (John 3:7).
A person whom God has given spiritual life will never die spiritually (John 11:26). The person will still die physically but will live again (John 11:25) because of the resurrection.
Resurrection is the act of going from a state of death to a state of life. It is something only God can do (John 11:25-26, 5:21). Just as there are two types of life, and two types of death, there are two resurrections – physical and spiritual.
A physical resurrection is when God imparts physical life to a person who was physically dead. We see such examples in Lazarus (John 11:1-45), and with the resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:5-6). There will be a final physical resurrection in the future when everyone who has ever died will be brought back to life by God Himself (John 5:28-29, Revelation 20:13). Death itself will be undone as the last enemy to be defeated by the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:26, Revelation 20:14).
A spiritual resurrection is when God imparts spiritual life to someone who was spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:4-5). We call this “being born again,” “being saved,” “being redeemed,” or “being regenerated.” When an unbeliever becomes a (genuine) Christian by placing his or her faith in Christ, he or she has experienced this resurrection (John 5:24). We sometimes call this the “first resurrection,” because it happens before the second (physical) resurrection.
We all will die physically someday (Hebrews 9:27). And everyone will be physically resurrected on the last day (John 5:28-29, 6:40,44, 54). And those who are born again will never die again. However, those who have never experienced the first resurrection – the spiritual resurrection of their dead spirit – will experience a second death (Revelation 20:6). This second death is the eternal, conscious, hopeless existence of a person who is spiritually dead, not in fellowship with God, in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14) which we refer to as hell (Matthew 5:29, 10:28, 23:33). There can be no worse culmination.
Jesus explains the two resurrections in John 5:24-29. The first resurrection happens anytime (both present and future – “an hour is coming and now is”) someone responds to God’s call to repent of sin and trust in Jesus (John 5:24). Only those who listen/respond (“those who hear”) will experience this resurrection. The second resurrection will occur in the future (“an hour is coming”) when all people will be resurrected physically from their tombs (John 5:28). This will be a “resurrection of life” for the saved, and a “resurrection of judgment” for the unsaved.
Christians use the term “salvation” to refer to the first (spiritual) resurrection. When a person is saved, his or her dead spirit has been resurrected by God, and God forgives that person’s sins. God removes the “heart of stone” and replaces it with a “heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). In Scripture, the “heart” represents the essential core of a person, his inward thoughts and desires (Proverbs 23:7). Since unbelievers have a “dead” spirit, their heart is as stone with no desire to obey or love God (Ephesians 4:17-18). When God resurrects a person’s dead spirit, the core nature of the person changes to new creation with a living heart that desires to love and glorify God (2 Corinthians 5:17). A person who is saved will never see the Lake of Fire but will instead be physically resurrected to joyfully live in God’s grace forever (Psalm 23:6, Daniel 7:18, John 6:51). Salvation cannot be earned by any means, it is an unmerited gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is received by having faith – a trusting confidence – in Christ (Romans 10:9-10). Salvation goes hand-in-hand with repentance from sin (Acts 3:19, Luke 13:3,5, 24:47).
To repent is to change your heart, your mind, your direction. The word “repent” is used in several different ways in Scripture. It can refer simply to changing your mind in the sense of your intended actions (Jeremiah 26:3, Job 42:6, Ezekiel 14:6), often changing them from a bad intention to a good one (2 Chronicles 6:37). In the Old-English of the King James translation, “repent” can sometimes refer to a feeling of sorrow without any intention of change (Genesis 6:6).
The most significant use of “repent” in relation to the Gospel is a complete change of heart, going from a state of rebellion toward God to a state of loving obedience (Acts 3:19, Ezekiel 18:32, Luke 13:3, 16:30, Acts 26:20). This is the type of repentance that leads to salvation from sin (2 Corinthians 7:10, Acts 11:18). And it is something that God ultimately does for the person. Just as a person cannot change his own physical heart, a person cannot change the essence of his or her nature (Jeremiah 13:21). A sinner has no desire to stop sinning. Hence, it is God who must give a person a new heart if that person is to be saved (Ezekiel 36:26). It is God who grants people repentance unto salvation (Romans 2:4, 2 Timothy 2:25, Acts 5:31, 11:18).
Most modern English translations follow the Hebrew and Greek tradition of using the term “man” to refer to humanity in general – both men and women. When God created human beings, He made them in His image, after His likeness. This does not mean that mankind resembles God physically; it cannot mean that since God is non-physical. In fact, the Hebrew word translated “likeness” in Genesis 1:26 is also used to compare a sound that is “like” the sound of many people in Isaiah 13:4. Sound has no visible or physical appearance at all, and yet this word is used to show that one sound is similar in some respects to another, in ways that are not visual or physical. Likewise, man is similar in some (limited) ways to God, even though God is spirit and man is physical. Perhaps a fitting analogy would be the way a shadow resembles the object casting it. A shadow is not nearly as rich or substantive as its source, but there is a similarity.
Man is a soul-body unity. Man has a physical component – a body – often referred to in Scripture as “flesh” (Genesis 6:3, Job 19:26). And man has a soul or spirit – a non-material component to our nature that has been given to us by God (Genesis 2:7, 41:8). Man was originally perfect and was placed as God’s representative on Earth to rule and care for it (Genesis 1:26-31). When the first man, Adam, rebelled against God, sin entered the world, and death through sin (Romans 5:12). Adam and Eve became mortal. Since animals were under Adam’s authority, they too now suffer death due to his rebellion. God cursed the world on account of Adam’s sin; work became difficult and childbearing became painful. But God graciously provided animal skins of clothing as a symbolic covering for the shame of sin. And He promised that one day, a descendant of Eve would destroy the power of sin (Genesis 3:15). This descendant would become known as the “anointed one”: “Messiah” in Hebrew and “Christ” in Greek. Anointed means that He is chosen by God.
To justify means to declare or demonstrate that someone is in right moral standing (Deuteronomy 25:1). When God justifies someone, He pardons all their sin, and treats them as if they were righteous and had perfectly obeyed the law (Isaiah 53:11, Romans 4:3). People do not instantly become sinless when they are justified, but God treats them as if they were. We cannot earn justification by good works (Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:16). We are justified (declared righteous) before God by having faith in Christ (Galatians 3:8, Romans 5:1). Justification is a gift by the grace of God (Romans 3:24, Titus 3:7). God will look at the justified as if they had never sinned, as if they had lived the perfectly righteous life of Christ (Romans 4:3, 5, James 2:23, Galatians 3:6). The justified are saved from the wrath of God and will never experience hell but will instead enjoy eternity in God’s loving presence.
But how do we declare or demonstrate to others that God has pardoned our sins and that we are therefore in right moral standing before Him? How can others know that we have received justification by having faith in Christ? After all, men cannot see the faith of someone. But they can see the outward actions that follow from inward faith (James 2:18). We are justified before God by faith alone (Romans 5:1); we are justified before men by the works that follow from saving faith (James 2:21-22). A “faith” in God that never produces good works is not a genuine, saving faith, as explained in James 2:18-26.
To sanctify means to “set apart” for God, to make holy. When a person or object is set apart and dedicated to divine service, it is sanctified. Under the Old Testament administration, those things that were used in Tabernacle/Temple service (the alter, the priests, and so on) were sanctified. The Sabbath day was set apart for divine service, and therefore sanctified (Genesis 2:3, Ezekiel 20:20). Israel as a nation was set apart as holy to the Lord (Ezekiel 37:28), even though many individuals within the nation were not saved. And this brings us to an important distinction in the way “sanctify” is used in Scripture. It can denote either being made holy in practice, or in principle. The nation of Israel was declared holy in principle, but often failed to live up to this in practice.
Those who have repented of sin and trusted in Christ for salvation are fully sanctified in principle but not in practice. Believers desire to obey God, but nonetheless sin at times and are therefore not fully sanctified in practice. However, as Christians continue to love and serve Christ, they become increasingly sanctified in practice, though perfect sanctification is not achieved in this life. Sanctification is therefore both a past action of God (Hebrews 10:10, 1 Corinthians 1:2), and a continual process in the life of a believer (Hebrews 12:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:23). The believer is gradually transformed so that his or her character conforms increasingly to that of Jesus (Romans 8:29). Perfect sanctification in practice is achieved only in the eternal state (1 John 3:2).
The basic meaning of the Hebrew word translated “atonement” is to make as one. To atone is to do whatever is necessary to alleviate alienation and bring about reconciliation between people who are at odds, so that they are now in agreement as one. God is rightfully angry at people for their sin (Romans 1:18); there is alienation between God and man. For us to be reconciled to God, there must be atonement for sin. That atonement is found only in Jesus. He is the propitiation for our sin (1 John 4:10, Hebrews 2:17). Propitiation is that which appeases wrath. If you have wronged your neighbor, but then give him a gift that completely alleviates his anger, this gift is propitiation. God is no longer angry at those who trust in Christ, by virtue of what Christ did on the cross. Christ paid the penalty for sin by dying on the cross – death is the penalty for sin. This satisfies justice and therefore appeases God’s wrath. Christ’s death makes atonement for all who trust in Him because they have been made right with God (2 Corinthians 5:18).
Unbelievers sometime wonder why Christians sign hymns about the blood of Christ. “Are you washed in the blood?” It must sound strange and even disturbing to those unfamiliar with the Bible. In Scripture, blood represents life (Leviticus 17:14, Genesis 9:4, Deuteronomy 12:23). Therefore, the shedding of blood represents death, and in particular the death that atones for sin (Leviticus 17:11). It is the shed blood of Christ that provides our salvation (Hebrews 10:19)! Blood is also associated with relatives; even today we use the term “blood relative.” It is because Jesus is a descendant of Adam, a relative of all people, that His blood can atone for sins. In a sense, His blood is our blood (Acts 17:26), and His death therefore pays for our sins (1 Peter 2:24, 2 Corinthians 5:21).
In the Old Testament, animal sacrifice was used to symbolize the future death of Christ. In that sense, animal sacrifice was an atonement for sin (Exodus 29:36). God would see these sacrifices and would forgive the sins of the people (Leviticus 4:20,26), as if their sin penalty had already been paid by Christ. It is very important to note that animal sacrifice does not actually take away sin, and therefore cannot save anyone (Hebrews 10:4). It was merely a reminder of the tragic penalty for sin (Hebrews 10:3), and a symbol of Christ to come. Atonement by animal sacrifice merely “covered” sin, whereas Christ not only covers but actually takes away sin by paying our debt (John 1:29, 1 John 3:5, 1 Peter 2:24). Fittingly, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for ‘atonement’ is also used to mean “to cover”, as Noah was to cover the ark with pitch (Genesis 6:14).
Many of the terms above may be helpful in explaining the Gospel. It is not that we should try to include theological jargon in the conversation, but sometimes using one of these terms is nearly unavoidable. And the concepts behind many of these terms are essential to understanding the Gospel, regardless of whether the term itself is used.
The Gospel is the good news: Christ provides salvation from sin. This good news is contingent upon the bad news: man is lost and needs to be saved from sin. We are born in a state of rebellion against God. We have inherited our sin-nature from our ancestor Adam, who became a sinner when he broke God’s law. We continue to sin by our own wicked choice. The penalty for sin is death. And since our sin is against God who is infinite, our penalty is infinite. We must die an eternal death in the Lake of Fire – a permanent and hopeless separation from God’s grace. Those people who deny the existence of hell are necessarily denying the justice of God. Since God is a fair judge, there is no doubt that He will insist that the penalty be paid, and that penalty is infinite since God is; anything less would be unjust. Our situation would seem hopeless.
But God Himself, out of His compassion for us, sent Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, to pay our penalty (John 3:16). Jesus entered the world as a human being, in addition to being fully God (John 1:1,14,18). As a man, Jesus is related to us and His shed blood counts as if it were ours. As God, Jesus can pay an infinite penalty. Christ offers salvation to all who will repent of their sin and trust in Him as Lord. This salvation means we are justified before God. We will be resurrected to enjoy eternal, sinless life with God, and will be spared an eternity of hopeless torment in the Lake of Fire.
But salvation isn’t just about the future. It means that our life now is one where we can enjoy fellowship with God as He continually sanctifies us, transforming our character to the likeness of His. We are no longer slaves to sin and its destructive effects. We are free to obey God and enjoy His blessings. Salvation does not always mean that life will be easy. God promises that hardship will occur (John 16:33). But God will always use it for a greater good (Romans 8:28). And the Christian has an underlying joy and hope in the midst of all circumstances, and a living spirit that rejoices in praising God. No longer is our life a purposeless waste. But we have a mission to trust and follow Christ and to lead other people to do the same (Matthew 28:19-20). We don’t obey God in order to earn salvation. We can never earn it. Rather, we obey God out of love and gratitude for the salvation He graciously bestowed upon us.