Sunday, January 07, 2007

War of the Words

One of the hallmarks of evangelical Christianspeak is a term upon which our patron saint, Billy Graham, has built his career - it's the word "saved". You might recognize its usage in popular phrases such as, "Are ya SAVED tonight?", "When did you get saved?" and (my favorite) "That guy needs to get saved". It is, in fact, such a ubiquitous stand-in for describing evangelical Christians that a satirical movie by Brian Dannelly could lampoon us (rather successfully) under that simple monosyllabic banner. To be a Christian is to have been "saved". The more doctrinally fastidious would be quick to point out all of the corresponding components to that past event, to be sure - namely, present sanctification and future glorification; but generally salvation should be regarded as a past-tense fact. Sanctification is a term that belongs to the outworking of that past fact, and glorification is a term that belongs to the consummation of it.

It might strike you as strange, then, that in comparison with today's evangelical terminology that the word "saved" is in considerably modest circulation within the pages of the New Testament. Not only is this the case, but to the chagrin of the more dogmatically inclined, the salvation terminology of the Bible doesn't comport with the rigidly chronological categorization everyone is so familiar with (justification, sanctification, glorification). In fact, the Biblical word "salvation" speaks primarily not of a past event, but a (certain and secure) future hope (cf. Mt. 10:22, Ro. 13:11, 2 Tim. 2:10, Heb. 9:28, 1 Pet. 1:9). The lesson here is that theologians, even very good theologians, use Biblical words differently than the Bible uses that same terminology. This isn't because they're doing something evil or underhanded, but because they are trying to draw together all of the diverse strands of Scripture into one discernible whole - and that can be very helpful. But if people don't understand that the Biblical writers themselves didn't mean exactly the same thing these theologians mean by these words, it can result in confusion - and even more often that that, contention.

Before listing some passages to prove that point, though, it's important to notice that the Biblical passages which contain those words most familiar to systematic theology - words like justification, sanctification, adoption, regeneration, etc. - are not the only passages in the Bible which speak to those theological topics. Justification, for instance, deals with concepts of judgment, wrath, righteousness, law and covenant. Studying about justification, then, means more than just looking up every time the word shows up in the Bible. It means rooting out the concepts attached to that word. But more to the point, once you do find all the occurrences of these words, you need to know that they aren't even used the same way in every passage. The word "sanctification", for example, doesn't mean the same thing in 1 Co. 6:11 as it does in 1 Co. 7:14. That's an incredibly important point. It means that not only do theological words (like justification, sanctification and glorification) not mean the same thing in the Bible as they do in systematic theology - but they don't always mean the same thing even in the Bible itself.

With those caveats out of the way, and getting back to the issue at hand, once you begin looking up words like "salvation", "justification" and even "glorification", the time line mentioned above unravels. In fact, every term used by systematic theologians to describe our salvation - all of them - have an “already—not yet” pattern. Whatever saving activity is being described, it is generally (and variously) presented as beginning at a point in time, carried through the present and brought to final fulfillment or realization at the end. Numerous passages could be listed, but I'll list just a few - notice in the passages selected how the word differs both from usage in other passages listed and from common theological currency among Christians.

Salvation is past (Eph. 2:8), present (1 Co. 1:18) and future (Mat. 10:22).

Redemption is past (1 Pet. 1:18), present (Col. 1:14) and future (Eph. 4:30).

Regeneration is past (Titus 3:5) and future (Mat. 19:28, Rev. 21:5).

Forgiveness is past (Jn. 20:23), present (1 Jn. 1:9) and future (Mt. 18:34-35).

Adoption is past (Eph. 1:5) and future (Ro. 8:23).

Justification is past (Ro. 5:11), present (Ro. 6:7 - "freed"= lit. justified) and future (Mt. 12:37).

Sanctification is past (1 Co. 6:11), present (Ro. 6:22) and future (1 Thess 5:23 - see also 2 Thess. 2:13).

Glorification is past (Ro. 8:30, i.e. proleptically), present (1 Pet. 1:8) and future (2 Thess. 1:10-12).

Much carnage has resulted among Christians because of the fundamental failure to ask what someone means by the words they're using. So the next time the theologically meticulous and doctrinaire among us (yeah, I'm included) are tempted to take someone to task for their theological imprecision, we can ask ourselves whether it's wise to indict the New Testament writers along with them.


flathead said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! And I want you to know that this is a past, present, and future Yes! I have been amazed over the years how much contention has arisen from these misunderstandings. I think your advice to "ask what someone means by the words they're using" is right on the mark. Likewise, it would probably be appropriate to have those who are doing the communicating (preachers, teachers, etc.) to make these things explicitly clear to their listeners and not assume beforehand that everyone knows what you are talking about. Thanks for the reminder!

Paul Bright and family said...

Thanks for the post Sharad. A brief question: would you include justification in the past and future (akin to Moo's suggestion in the Pillar Commentary Series on James)?

TheBlueRaja said...

I would include justification in the past and the future as the standard affirmation of Reformed soteriology. I think it's relatively uncontroversial to say that Christians believed that the justification due to God's people in the end was pulled to the present through faith in Christ - but that doesn't eliminate the future assize when men are either justified or condemned.

weswise said...

I agree that word defining is definately necessary- depending on the discussion, otherwise you'll never be able to communicate without making it an exasperating experience- at least for the other person.
I was thinking about this in my Math class today; Let X = ?. Word defining is necessary, but only in regard to the word at hand. I think that there are certain words that are to, in the context of the discussion, be considered variables. Constants, such as 'the, is, make, do, perform, etc.' are to have a generally accepted definition. Variable words, however, 'God, saved, redemption, even "Jesus", etc.' are so diverse in definition from one discussion to another, that to declaire a definition for a word such as those, is to create several words in one image, thus, it's almost necessary to inquire its meaning at the outset of the conversation, or when it first comes up in the conversation, because that's about as long as the agreed definition for that word will last. It's dangerous to assume that X (such as 'God, saved, Jesus, etc.) from one guy's equation, is the same X that you're using in the equation you're attempting to solve. Rather than comparing the two "equations" and saying, "no, there's a contradiction in what you're saying, that's not what X is!," perhaps it would be better to say, "according to what you're saying, your X doesn't equal my X." Then decide if reality can account for two X's, and, if not, you must decide who's X pertains to reality.
Wow, I think I just put my MATH teacher to sleep with that. Anyway, there's a book I bought called "Words in Sheeps Clothing," talking about how people manipulate the meaning of words; I haven't read it, but if I do I'll let you know what I think.

Thanks for informing a little bluestocking such as myself, ;)

nate said...

Great advice on the use of loaded words.

I love the past, present, and future aspects of salvation, redemption, justification, etc. While the need for continuation in these things (by God's grace) scares the pants off me (a good reason to wear long johns), it also makes them real - based in the context of a relationship (and one that makes sense being worked out in fear and trembling). The fact that I am glorified if I continue on punctuates my need for, love of, and reliance upon Jesus. It screams at me to see my sin as more condemning, my unworthiness as more obvious, and His mercy as so much greater.

TheBlueRaja said...

One of the great uses of theology is to make other people take their pants off. Mission accomplished! ;)

The Rains said...


I have many thoughts on this topic. Too many to begin to share here, but I believe that (we?/I) have been misreading the NT for a long time. Salvation is predominantly future. Anything that we have now that pertains to Salvation (Hebrews 6:9) is just a foreshadowing of that future reality. Any 'saving' that goes on now is just anything that either initiates, preserves, or promotes our walk toward our salvation. That is why women can be 'saved' in childbearing (Timothy), we can 'save' a brother if we guide him back to the truth (James), baptism can 'save' us (Peter), etc. That is also why Paul would say that we are closer to Salvation today then when we first believed in Romans 8. I agree that the other items you mentioned have that 'already/not yet' aspect, but Salvation should be set apart as being more 'Not yet/indicated in the present'. For quite awhile I have said that God made a way of salvation (I like the way Titus 2:14 puts it) but what He gave us personally and presently was a Savior and our assurance of our future salvation was never any further from us than He was.


TheBlueRaja said...

That's it, Randy.