Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases

Have you ever had two people understand something you’ve said in two very different ways? It happens to all of us sometime. I’ve had it happen to me when I preach, more than once. This happens even when I use common Christian words or phrases derived from the Bible—maybe especially when I do so. It can be a little disconcerting, to say the least.

Part of this is just me needing to look for ways to communicate more clearly. Part of it, however, is our natural tendency to hear what we expect to hear. When we’re in a church and someone speaks about “faith” or “heaven,” for example, or they say “Jesus saves us from our sins,” we are inclined to hear those things in a particular “churchy” or “Christianese” kind of way.

But many of these words or phrases don’t mean for me what they often mean in popular Christianity. The reason? I don’t think the popular understandings actually reflect the biblical ideas behind these words or phrases, at least not completely.

Well, if you’re ever in doubt about what I might mean when I talk about “salvation,” or when I say, “Jesus is Lord,” I’ve created this nifty little guide: Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases. Who knows? Maybe I’ll start handing this out before I preach every Sunday.

God. God is depicted in a myriad of different ways in Scripture. These are all metaphors: God is in some sense comparable to a “Father,” for instance, or a “Mother,” or a “Lord,” or a “Rock,” just to name a few. Even “God” is a metaphor: God is analogous to the “gods” of other nations and religions, comparable to what we typically think of when we think of a “deity.” Some biblical descriptions, however, take a different tack: God is YHWH, “I Am Who I Am,” for instance, or God is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being,” or “God is love.” When I speak of “God,” I’m thinking more along those lines: God is “the ground and source of all being, personhood, and love.” I don’t imagine that God is merely “a being,” a distinct being within the universe, like us only bigger and stronger and immortal and invisible.

heaven. The Bible doesn’t speak of “heaven” as “our eternal home.” The New Testament understanding of life after death is simply being “with the Lord” or “with Christ.” In the end this includes living in transformed bodies in a renewed earthly creation (“resurrection” to a “new heavens and new earth”). In the Bible “heaven” means either 1) “the skies,” 2) “God’s dwelling,” or 3) a roundabout way of saying “God” (e.g. “kingdom of heaven” = “kingdom of God”). I don’t use the word “heaven” very often myself because of how it is misunderstood, but when I do it’s along the lines of 2) above: “the ‘place’ where God is most ‘fully present.’” Usually I use the word to speak of the biblical hope of “heaven” come down to earth, God’s presence being fully realized among us within a renewed creation.

sin. We tend to think of “sin” as “personal moral failure”: we’ve crossed a boundary established by God, and these boundaries are mostly related to our private lives or individual relationships. This way of thinking about sin isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete, and if this is the only way we think about sin then it can be unhelpful and unhealthy. I think a better (and more holistically biblical) way of thinking about sin is as “all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world through our settled thoughts, our words, our actions, and our inaction.” This “harm” can be thought of as “preventing or hindering flourishing life.” With regard to people this can most practically be understood as keeping them from having their most basic needs met: needs for clean air and water, nutritious food, basic health, security and freedom, meaningful relationships, love and respect. This sin is more than just “personal moral failure,” then—it also includes collective sins such as systemic injustice, as well as actions that harm the natural world.

salvation. In Scripture the language of “salvation” is most often about “rescue” or “deliverance” from some real-life peril, but it also can include ideas of “healing” and “restoration,” whether physically or relationally, individually or collectively. Then there’s all the related biblical words like “redemption,” “reconciliation,” and so on, which are really variations on the “restoration” idea. When I speak of “salvation” or being “saved” or God as “Saviour,” I mean something along the lines of “God delivering us from all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world, and bringing about a full and flourishing life for all creation.” I don’t mean “God rescuing us from future eternal torture so that we can live a disembodied existence somewhere else forever with God.”

kingdom of God. In much popular thinking the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” is equivalent to “heaven,” which is thought of as “our eternal home” (see “heaven” above). But for early Jews, including Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, “kingdom of God” was a way of referring to “God ruling over God’s people and all the peoples of the earth.” When I use the phrase “kingdom of God,” I’m trying to capture Jesus’ particular understanding of this earthly rule of God, something along the lines of “God’s vision of a world of justice, peace, and flourishing life, which becomes a reality when people live according to God’s way of love.”

Jesus Christ. “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name; “Christ” is a title. And it’s not a title of divinity; it’s a human title. “Christ,” or “Messiah,” was most commonly a way of referring to the human kings in the line of ancient Israel’s King David. Eventually it came to refer to the ultimate Messiah, “the king from David’s dynasty who brings about God’s kingdom on earth.” The phrase “Jesus Christ,” then is a mini-creed: “Jesus is the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth.”

Son of God. This phrase has a dual meaning in the New Testament. Some writings, Mark’s Gospel, for example, use “Son of God” in one of its Old Testament senses, as a way of referring to the kings in the line of David. In this sense the phrase is equivalent to “Christ” or “Messiah,” and has no overtones of divinity. Other writings, most notably John’s Gospel, use “Son of God” with a clear implication of divinity. I believe both to be true of Jesus, and how I use this phrase tends to depend on which New Testament books I’m talking about: Jesus is “the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth,” and Jesus is “the one who uniquely embodies God, showing us most clearly and completely who God is and how God works in the world.”

Jesus is Lord. This doesn’t mean “Jesus controls everything that happens.” Nor does it merely mean “Jesus is the boss of me.” “Lord” in the ancient world had connotations of “master,” yes, but it was also a common way of speaking of human rulers—kings, emperors, and the like. With none of these was the idea that they controlled a person’s life circumstances; it was that they commanded their obedience or allegiance. To say that “Jesus is Lord,” then, means that “Jesus is greater than all human rulers and any powers-that-be in this world, and so he holds our ultimate allegiance in all things.”

gospel. The New Testament word “gospel” means “good news.” The “gospel” is not merely that “God sent Jesus to die for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven when we die.” It’s the “good news that God has acted in Jesus—through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection—to make right everything that has gone wrong in the world.” In other words, it’s a way of summing up pretty much everything I’ve described above.

faith. We tend to think of “faith” either as “believing certain things to be true,” or “trusting in someone to do something.” The New Testament language of “faith” includes those ideas, but also others: “faith” (pistis) can mean everything from “belief” to “trust” to “faithfulness” to “fidelity” to “allegiance.” When I use the word “faith” I can mean any or all of those, following the New Testament usage. All of those are the response God desires from us: “believing what God says to be true, trusting in God through all things, being faithful to God and following God’s way of love.”

love. Some people hear “love” and think “affection,” a surge of warmth and fondness toward others. Others hear “love” and think “tolerance,” acknowledging and accepting others and their actions with a kind of benign smilingness. Some, perhaps conditioned by Christianity, hear “love” and think “self-sacrifice.” Others, of course, hear “love” and think “romance” or even “sex”: physical, emotional, even erotic intimacy. None of these are bad, but on their own they are incomplete. In the New Testament, love is consistently portrayed as loving the way Jesus loved. It is more along the lines, then, of “freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.” This love, I’m convinced, is at the heart of who God is, what Jesus taught and lived out unto death, and how God’s “salvation,” the “kingdom of God,” comes about.

How do you understand these words? What often-misunderstood “Christian words” would you add?

I’m an Atheist

Okay, it’s confession time: I’m an atheist.

It’s true. But probably not in the way you’re thinking.

atheistEarly Christians were sometimes called “atheists,” did you know that? Not because they didn’t believe in God, but because they didn’t believe in the Romans’ gods. In a world in which there were many “gods” and “lords,” for Christians there was only the one true God, the Creator, and one true Lord, Jesus.

So this is what I mean when I say I’m an atheist. I’m using the word in its ancient sense. I mean there are plenty of “gods” that I don’t believe in—even some that are popular among Christians. Some of these are “gods” that I simply do not believe exist. Others are “gods” that, even if they do exist, do not hold my allegiance.

Here are a few of these gods I don’t believe in:

I don’t believe in a god who is a “supernatural being.” That is, I do not believe God is a bigger, stronger, and smarter version of ourselves—who also happens to be immortal and invisible. In fact, I do not believe God is “a being” at all, as if God is merely one being among many in the universe, albeit the most powerful one. Instead, I believe God is being itself, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the One “from whom and through whom and for whom are all things.” God is that without which nothing would exist. God is being, not merely a being.

I gave up looking for “evidence” of God a long time ago, or denying God’s existence for lack of such evidence: “a being” might leave traces of its existence, but “being” just is. I also no longer look to God as an all-controlling chess master, or a benevolent grandparent, or a strict police officer. Some of these sorts of projections of ourselves are helpful metaphors, useful analogies for God (like God as “father” or “mother”). Others, I’m convinced, are distortions of the true and living God (like God as all-controlling chess master).

I don’t believe in a god who is simply a force, some kind of energy field or “higher power.” (Great, I just ticked off two groups I like: Star Wars fans and Alcoholics Anonymous.) Rather, I believe God is person—not only “personal” but personhood itself, consciousness itself, awareness of self in distinction from other and in relation to other. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, so also there is consciousness in the universe because God is.

I don’t believe in a god who commits violence, or commands it, or even endorses it. I believe “God is love”—not only “loving” but love itself, the giving of self for other, for the good of the other. God cannot be other than love; God cannot not love. God always and only works for the good of the other. That which brings flourishing life and well-being: this is God. That which damages or degrades or destroys: this is not-God. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, and there is consciousness in the universe because God is, so also there is good in the world because God is.

This is a hard thing for most Christians to accept, partly because many passages in the Bible don’t reflect this view of God, and partly, I think if we’re honest, because we like having a way to justify our own violence. Not outlandish, over-the-top violence, of course. Just our civilized violence, our sanitized violence: the death of vicious enemies over there, or of condemned criminals among us here, demons all. Yet because of Jesus I am convinced that God is love, not harm, and that God brings life, not death—even for enemies and criminals. Isn’t that the gospel?

I don’t believe in the gods “Prosperity” and “Security.” “Prosperity” goes by other names: “Wealth,” “Profit,” or simply “Success.” Jesus called it “Mammon,” and he said one cannot serve both this god and the one true God. Then there’s “Security,” also known as “Comfort” or “Safety.” Prosperity and Security are the twin gods of the modern nation-state. Listen to any political campaign, and these gods are sure to be invoked: “The Economy” and “National Security,” they’re often called. These twins are sacrosanct: they are so obviously good things, who would dare to question them? Who doesn’t want prosperity and security for themselves and those they love?

Yet Jesus never promised prosperity and security to his followers, and he so dramatically gave these up himself. The problem with them? When prosperity and security hold our highest allegiance, whether as individuals or as a society or as a nation during an election year, then we pursue them at the expense of others—including the ailing earth, the needy neighbour, the suffering stranger, and the enemy “other.” The end result is only loss for us all.

There’s a whole pantheon of gods I don’t believe in: the powers-that-be, or the “powers of this age.” These are all our social and political and economic structures and systems, along with the human leaders that support them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. Presidents and prime ministers, governments and administrations, nations and nationalism, kingdoms and empire, colonialism and racism, theocracy and democracy, capitalism and socialism and so many more.

These, too, are not all inherently bad. Some can bring social order out of chaos, after all. Many even originate out of a desire for the common good. But when we put all our hope in these people and processes, when we give our total allegiance to a nation or an ideology, we’re giving them a power that only belongs to God. Then we’re sure to be disappointed and that power will probably be abused. And when these powers-that-be perpetuate structural evil or systemic injustice, they become “evil powers.” And then they must be resisted, not followed; they must be defied, not deified. Some can be redeemed, but only through deep, collective repentance.

I admit it, I’m an atheist. But by that I simply mean I’m with the Apostle Paul: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

Related to modern atheism is another term: humanism. Check out Humanist Canada’s website to learn more. Many Christians have been “humanists” since humanist ideals were first formulated in the late Renaissance. I consider myself to be in the tradition of “Christian humanism.”

“Confess and believe, and you will be saved!”

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. (Romans 10:9-10)

This is one of those classic evangelistic texts, the kind that get painted on signs and propped up on billboards, like John 3:16. It’s a gospel text, a mission text, a conversion text: it gets right down to the core of what we should believe, and it promises salvation for those who do.

Here’s how I used to understand these verses. I used to think they are telling us what we need to do to be saved from God’s eternal punishment for our sin. We need to confess with our mouth and believe with our whole heart: we need to confess our own personal sin and confess Jesus as our own personal Saviour, and we need to believe in our hearts that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.

The problem is, that’s not what these verses actually say.

Check it out again: “if you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

No mention of sin.

No mention of Jesus as personal Saviour.

No mention of the cross at all, let alone of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins.

Paul does talk elsewhere about some of these things. Sin and the cross are even pretty important to Paul. But why doesn’t Paul specifically mention them here, in this “classic evangelistic text”? How exactly can this particular “confession” and “belief” bring about “salvation”?

“You will be saved…”

Well, to make sense of this the first thing we have to get right is what Paul means by “salvation.” And to get that right, we need to go back to Paul’s Scriptures, our Old Testament. And a good place to start there is with the biblical writings Paul most quotes here in Romans 10: Deuteronomy and Isaiah.

Take Deuteronomy 30. Moses is speaking to the ancient Israelites before they enter into the Promised Land. Through Moses God promises to bring the Israelites blessings and life if they keep the commandments of the covenant. But God also warns them of curses and death if they disobey—in particular, being conquered by foreign armies and being sent into exile among the nations.

And then Moses makes this prediction: Israel will in fact fail to keep the covenant (which they did), they will be exiled (which they were), but if they return to the Lord they will be “saved”—they will be rescued from their exile and restored to their land to thrive once again.

This, then, is “salvation” according to Deuteronomy. Salvation is about God delivering God’s people from the powers of the world that have oppressed them, restoring them after they have experienced the consequences of their collective sin, bringing them back to where they can again experience life and liberty.

van Gogh - BibleThen take Isaiah 52. Isaiah speaks of God’s “messenger” who announces God’s “salvation”: “How beautiful are the feet of those who announce peace, who bring good news, who announce salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

This, like Moses’ promise of God’s future salvation, is a message of salvation to the exiled people of Israel a few hundred years before Christ, scattered as slaves and refugees throughout the world. And the message of salvation is this: God is returning to his throne to reign over all, and God’s reign will bring peace and justice once again for God’s people.

Now back to Romans 10. This is what Paul is talking about when he talks about “salvation”: he’s referring to Israel’s promised salvation, drawing on these and other Old Testament passages.

But Paul says something new, something completely unexpected. He says this promised salvation is not just for Israel, but it’s also for the nations, for the Gentiles—for everyone. As he puts it: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This, then, is the salvation that Paul promises to those who confess and believe: God’s reign of justice and peace has arrived through Jesus, bringing deliverance from oppressive powers and restoration to flourishing life.

“…if you confess and believe.”

But what does it mean then to “confess that Jesus is Lord”? What does it mean to “believe that God raised him from the dead”? And how does this confession and belief bring about that salvation? To get at these questions we need to put ourselves in the sandals of those first Christians in Rome.

For us, it seems pretty simple to say, “Jesus is Lord.” But for those first Christians in Rome, confessing that “Jesus is Lord” was not mere words.

No, in Paul’s day, to confess that “Jesus is Lord” was a bold declaration of allegiance.

As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 8, there were many “lords” and “gods” in the ancient world, many “powers that be” that called for allegiance. And at the very top of the heap, king of the castle, was the Roman Emperor, Caesar. For good Romans—and anyone who cared about their lives—this was one of the most self-evident truths around: Caesar is Lord, master over any and all other powers that be. For them, this was the most fundamental confession: “Caesar is Lord.”

So to confess that “Jesus is Lord” was potentially a dangerous act, a revolutionary act, a radical commitment. It wasn’t something that slipped easily off the lips. This explains why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 12, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”—you would need the Spirit’s boldness to confess such a thing!

Jesus is Lord.

He is Lord over any and all other lords and gods, any other powers that be in the world: whether Caesar or the President or Prime Minister Trudeau, whether nation states or church structures or social norms, whether Supreme Courts or vigilante militias, whether ISIS or the UN, whether constitutions or confessions of faith, whether the boss at work or the bully in the playground.

Any power at work in the world you can think of, Jesus is Lord over it.

Jesus is Lord over all—and so Jesus commands our ultimate allegiance.

But Jesus is not like any other powers that be, whether back then or today. And that’s where the next part comes in: “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.”

Our Lord that we confess, the One to whom we hold fast with total allegiance, is a man who was executed by the powers that be, but was vindicated by God by raising him from the dead.

Love DisciplesThat’s the point of the resurrection. The powers of this world have assessed Jesus and vilified him; but God has assessed Jesus and vindicated him. The resurrection is God’s loud shout of “Amen!” to everything about Jesus: his teachings, his way of life, his self-giving suffering, his selfless death.

So we confess that “Jesus is Lord,” Jesus is Master over all, including us. But we follow a Lord who gave himself for us. We obey a Master who taught us to love one another, and who showed us what that love looks like. And we follow this Lord and Master because he is the one whom God has given his “Yes” to, he is the one whom God has stamped with his full approval, confirming that Jesus’ way is the only way to true blessing and real life.

It’s easy to say the words, “Jesus is Lord.” But it’s hard to truly “confess that Jesus is Lord,” that the way of Jesus is the only way to true life, and so we need to commit ourselves fully to Jesus’ way of self-giving love.

But that’s what it means to “confess that Jesus is Lord.”

It’s easy to agree with the words, “God raised Jesus from the dead.” But it’s hard to truly “believe that God raised Jesus from the dead,” that God has given his resounding “Yes!” to a man who spent his time with misfits and sinners, to a man who embraced the sick and the poor and the outcasts and the enemy others, to a man who would rather die than kill, to a man who willingly gave up his life for others—even if it meant being pronounced a blasphemer and condemned as a criminal and executed by the state.

But that’s what it means to “believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.”

And this, Paul insists, is the only way to true salvation. This is the only way for all of us together to experience true justice and peace, to experience the flourishing life God desires for all humanity: following our resurrected Lord in his cross-shaped footsteps.

This post is adapted from my sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on February 14, 2016. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl