“What do you mean by that?” “How do you define the term *insert theological term that was just used*?” Those are two questions that I find myself asking more and more. While I have undoubtedly annoyed many by constantly asking them what they mean by the words that they use, it is a practice that I am finding to be more and more necessary. The reason is simple: with many terms, but especially with theological terms, there is a wide array of definitions that may be attached to the same word.
For example, consider this statement: “The Bible says that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ will be saved.” Is that a true statement? Certainly. The problem, however, is that it is a statement that many people can agree with including Roman Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, as well as countless other groups in-between. Now many would rejoice over this reality and declare it an ecumenical victory, but the reality is that any “agreement” is only because the terms have not been properly defined.
For example, what does one mean when they use the word Bible? The Protestant Bible? The Catholic Bible? Is the Book of Mormon included? The Bible as interpreted by the Watchtower Society? Is the Quran included in one’s understanding of the Bible?
What does one mean when they use the word believe? What does it actually look like to believe? Muslims argue that one must believe that Jesus Christ existed in order to be a faithful Muslim so they could get on board with this statement.
What does one mean when they refer to Jesus Christ? Is Christ fully God and fully man as Christianity has historically taught? Is he only a man as the Jehovah’s Witnesses say? Is he the spirit brother of Lucifer as the Mormons say? Is he the second to last prophet who pointed to the prophet Muhammad who was to come? What did Jesus actually say? What did Jesus actually do?
What does one mean when they use the word saved? What are we saved from? What does salvation entail? Even among those who profess to be Christians, you will find many different ways in which the word salvation is used. Many individuals who hold to Liberation Theology will use terms like “salvation” and “saved” but their understanding of those words is drastically different from historic Christianity.
Consider again the statement: “The Bible says that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ will be saved.” A true statement, but it is meaningless until we define our terms.
With this understanding in mind, we must define our own terms and ask others to do the same for three reasons.
1. For the sake of clarity
Being vague and abstract does not help anybody. To say, “Jesus is the Way” isn’t helpful unless we explain what he is the way to, how he is the way, and why he is the way. It is good to be “gospel-centered” but not if you don’t explain what that actually means. We need to define our own terms and ask others to do the same for the sake of clarity.
2. To protect against error
We may be content to hear that a particular pastor or teacher believes that Jesus rose from the dead. However, it is becoming more and more common for those who profess to be Christians to believe that Jesus only spiritually rose from the dead and that his actual body didn’t rise from the dead. We would never know this, though, unless we dug a little deeper and asked the question, “What do you mean when you say that Jesus rose from the dead?” We need to define our own terms and ask others to do the same in order to protect against error.
3. To communicate the truth
We don’t communicate truth in its fullest sense by saying “God is love.” Why is that the case? After all, saying “God is love” is both true and biblical. The Apostle John says God is love in 1 John 4:8b. However in the chapter before, John writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”-1 John 3:16a. If we take John’s statement “God is love” and divorce it from its context where he tells us how we know what love is, then we might define what it means to love in an unbiblical way and then put that modern definition of love onto God. If one says, then, “well I don’t believe that God would condemn anyone, because the Bible says that God is love,” we need to ask them “what do you mean by the word love?” If they provide an unbiblical definition, then we must point them to John’s words in 1 John 3:16 where he tells us what love is and then we can elaborate on what “Christ laying down his life for us” means as well as why he laid down his life. We need to define our own terms and ask others to do the same in order to communicate truth. Doing so allows us to move beyond generalities and into precise, clear, and faithful doctrinal truth.
-Joshua Bryan DeLong