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Religious Terms

Compunction
A sharp twinge that accompanies the realization of wrongdoing. Compunction is constructive if it leads to confession, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, and sanctification.
Confession
As in a court of law, confession means admitting that you’ve done something wrong, or that your values were leading you down the wrong path of conduct. “Confessing that Jesus is Lord” means admitting you rebelled against Jesus, perhaps in ignorance that He is Lord. Just as in court, confession is something you say out loud. You can confess to a mature Christian, a pastor, a counselor, or to God in prayer. (Before you confess to a human being, make sure they have the training and credentials to deal with the issue you are confessing.) Many people stop at confession, but it is really the second step in a process. Compunction leads to confession, which leads to repentance, which is a change in your values, and that leads to a change in your conduct. The technical term for a person who admits that they did something wrong and then never tries to fix it is “hypocrite.” In the ancient church, catechumens were required to stand on a box in front of everyone and confess their sins to the the entire congregation. This eventually ran into practical problems, because a convert’s confession could implicate other people, especially if they were a government official. Since we are not supposed to confess other people’s sins, catechumens were given the option of confessing to a clergyman privately. That began in the fourth century and eventually that became the norm. It is still the practice among Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and Catholic Christians, though among Anglicans and Lutherans, it is optional.
Consecrate, Consecration
A dedication ceremony that sets people or objects aside for a holy purpose. A church can consecrate buildings, furniture, crosses, candlesticks and so on, or it can consecrate people for a holy purpose, such as lay reader or missionary. Consecration can be for a limited period of time, such as a person’s term of office, and it usually has a limited scope, such as for reading scriptures publicly. The inner nature of the object or person being consecrated is not changed. The only thing that changes is an object’s function or a person’s tasks. See also sanctification and ordination.
Contrite, Contrition
Deep sorrow for having done wrong. Contrition is constructive if it leads to confession, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, and sanctification.
Excommunicate
The word communicate originally meant to take Communion. People who are excommunicated are barred from Communion for disciplinary reasons, but may still participate in other parts of the service. In the ancient church, excommunicated people had to start over as catechumens, and after they completed the process, they were welcomed back to Communion.
Forgive, Forgiveness
The unilateral act of a creditor who cancels a debt, notifying the debtor that repayment is no longer necessary. Theologically, forgiveness cancels the guilt but not the consequence of the sin. If you are forgiven for robbing a bank, you still have to give the money back.
Free will
Free will is a person’s capacity to freely chose to repent and be saved. All branches of the historic Church affirm that we have free will, except theological traditions that are heavily influenced by Augustine’s later writings. Those who deny free argue that it impugns God’s sovereignty. The rest of the Church disagrees, observing that scriptures tell us to choose and to obey, two things we cannot possibly do without free will.
Grace
God’s unmerited love and favor toward sinners, the divine gift that brings about contrition, penitence, repentance, and the works of obedience in response to forgiveness.
Guilt
A legal term that is often used instead of compunction. The word guilt has the unfortunate implication of a hopeless situation, so it is better to use the terms compunction or contrition in a theological setting. Feelings of guilt are only constructive if they lead to repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, and sanctification.
Heaven
In scripture, the word heaven has three meanings:
  • The sky, where the clouds are and where weather happens. This is probably the meaning in Matthew 3:16. We use heaven in this sense when we describe an approaching thunderstorm by saying that the “heavens are angry.”
  • The place where the stars and planets are located, as in Matthew 24:29. We use heaven in this sense when we talk about the grandeur of the “heavens” while looking at the nighttime sky.
  • The place where God abides with His angels, as in Matthew 3:17.
In popular religion, good people zip off to heaven at the time of death. In Christianity, when Christians die, their souls go to Paradise (Luke 23:43, also called the Bosom of Abraham ) to await the Resurrection and the Last Judgment, after which they live in the New Jerusalem, also called the New Earth.
Hell
In scripture, the word hell translates the Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek word hades, both of which refer to the realm of the dead. Before Christ, the souls of all the dead, whether wicked or righteous, went to this realm to await the Resurrection and the Judgment. In popular religion, hell refers to the place of eternal torment, which is called the Lake of Fire, Tartarus, or Gehenna in scripture. According to Jesus in Matthew 25:41, this place of eternal torment was designed for the devil and his angels, not for humans. Thus humans can escape this fate through repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, and sanctification.
Holy
The word holy has two meanings:
  • Intrinsically holy. Only God is intrinsically holy.
  • A mundane object or person who is set aside for a holy purpose.
The words saint and holy have the same meaning. The only difference is in the usage: we use saint to refer to people and holy to refer to objects.
Justify, Justification
The act of God that frees a sinner from the penalty of sin.
Ordination
A church ceremony that acknowledges that God has called a person into professional ministry and formally delegates the duties and responsibilities of clergy to that person. In most cases, there is a lengthy ordination process that includes systematic examination and approval before the ordination is performed. Ordination is generally for life. An ordained person, like a lay person, can be consecrated to carry out a specific task or office. See also sanctification and consecration.
Original Sin
Original sin is the doctrine that as descendants of Adam, we inherit his sinfulness, just as we inherit his humanity. In the west, primarily because of St. Augustine, this concept grew to include the idea that we inherit Adam’s guilt. Calvin took Augustine’s position to the extreme, teaching that we are totally depraved and without any natural virtue or worth whatsoever. The eastern Church teaches that we have inherited from Adam the state of sin, but not the guilt of sin. Therefore, despite original sin, we still possess the small amount of goodness necessary to realize our sinfulness, to choose good, and to repent of evil. The eastern Church teaches that if we were totally worthless, we would be totally irredeemable.
Penance
Any voluntary act that results from repentance. Penance is a concrete expression of gratitude for the forgiveness of a debt that can never in fact be repaid.
Penitent, Penitence
Willingness to correct a wrongdoing, synonymous with repentance.
Predestination
Predestination means that our destination is set in advance. Calvinists argue that predestination implies determinism; that is, that all things have been decided in advance and that we have no free will; we are like actors saying our lines in a play. Therefore, they argue that some people are predestined for eternal punishment. The rest of the historic Church argues that since it is not God’s will for anyone to be lost (Matthew 18:14), all people are predestined to live with God in His glory. However, since they have free will, some may choose not to realize their destiny and end up in hell. They also note that if a person’s eternal fate was determined in the beginning, the Judgment took place on the first day, when in scripture it takes place on the last day.
Providence
God’s benevolent intervention to supply needs.
Repent
The literal meaning is “to change one’s mind.” The Greek and Hebrew words that are translated as repent can either mean a simple change of mind or a realization of sin with the accompanying resolve to reform. In some Bible translations, we find God repenting. In the original language, it simply means that God changed His mind. Repentance is the change of mind and penance is the change of deeds. For example, realizing that you were wrong to steal something is repentance, while returning the stolen goods is penance.
Repentance
Willingness to correct a wrongdoing, synonymous with penitence.
Saint
The words saint and holy have the same meaning. The only difference is in the usage: we use saint to refer to people and holy to refer to objects. A saint can be any of the following:
  • A person who has been set aside for a holy life; in this sense, all Christians are saints, as in Philippians 1:1.
  • A person whose life is upheld as spiritually exemplary. In some churches, there is a process for recognizing saints. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is a formal, centralized process. In Orthodox churches, the process is not centralized. In the Episcopal Church, it is done informally by the Prayer Book committee.
  • In common usage, the word saint can refer to a deceased Christian, as in the phrase “my sainted mother.”
Sanctify, Sanctification
To set a person apart for a holy purpose. In most usages, sanctification is an act of the Holy Spirit that permanently transforms the person’s inner nature. See also consecration and ordination.