Descriptive Terms in Scripture Carry Theological Weight

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Herbert Spencer said, "How often misused words generate misleading thoughts." This is especially true when attempting to explain what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The terms which Scripture uses to describe believers say a lot about our new identity, our new life, and our new priorities.

It is enlightening to examine the words which Jesus and the apostle Paul used to describe both believers and unbelievers. These descriptive terms say a lot about what is involved in being a follower of Christ. The terms chart a course for holy living, while relegating a life of deliberate sin to the past.

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One of the most well-known examples is where Paul writes, "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Cor. 6:9-11)

Each one of those descriptive terms is used by Paul to describe people who are not born again, and who deliberately and persistently pursue the sins by which they are identified. In other words, a person who persistently lives to be greedy is not a Christian. And a person who persistently lives to be a slanderer is not a Christian. Instead, Paul taught believers, "And that is what some of you were."

This doesn't mean Christians no longer struggle with any of those sins. Christians struggle with just about every sin under the sun. But the key distinction has to do with repentance, and the intention of the heart. Believers in Jesus live a life of repentance rather than a life of deliberate sin. (see 2 Cor. 7:11) And if a period of deliberate sin does creep into a Christian's life, he or she will be miserable until turning away from it and relying completely upon Christ to be forgiven. (see Psalm 32:1-5)

But this bad behavior doesn't justify using terms for believers which describe sinful behavior. Such descriptive terms are typically reserved in Scripture for those outside the kingdom of God. An example of this biblical terminology is found in Revelation 21:8: "But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars - their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."

Likewise, Jesus only used the word "hypocrite" to describe those who were pretending to be super religious. Our Lord was describing those who tried to appear righteous, while harboring a heart which loved sin and planned to continue sinning.

It has to do not only with outward actions, but most importantly with the attitude of the heart. Christ said: "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'" (Mark 7:6,7)

Perhaps you have heard someone say, "We are all hypocrites." Biblically speaking, that is not true. That's not the way Jesus used the term. We are not all hypocrites, even though we have all in certain instances displayed some measure of hypocrisy. I mean who hasn't, other than Christ Himself?

What we can accurately say is this: We all have a sinful nature, and we all fall short of the mark. Each of us is either a believer, or an unbeliever. And every professing believer is either genuine in his profession of faith, or a hypocrite in his profession of faith. But we are not all hypocrites, anymore than we are all Christians.

In addition to using descriptive terms for both believers and unbelievers, Scripture also warns us against the danger of deliberate sin. "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God." (Hebrews 10:26,27)

This is one reason why the words we use to describe believers are so critical. If we employ the wrong terms, we can end up leading people to assume that deliberate sin is compatible with Christianity. Such an error in doctrine and practice leads to fatal consequences. And this explains why Jesus and Paul consistently used holy terms rather than sinful terms to describe people who are born again through faith in Christ.

For example, the word "saint" in the New Testament is used to describe not only believers who have died and gone to heaven, but also believers who are alive on earth today. A "saint" refers to someone who has become righteous in the eyes of the Father through faith in Jesus. A saint is not a hypocrite, and a hypocrite is not a saint. Believers don't pretend to believe in Jesus, while devoting their life to the pursuit of sin. In the New Testament, "believers" are genuine followers of Jesus Christ.

The book of Romans was addressed "to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints." (Romans 1:7) Likewise, 2 Corinthians was addressed "to the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia." (2 Cor. 1:1) Ephesians was addressed "to the saints in Ephesus." (Eph. 1:1) And Philippians was addressed "to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi." (Phil. 1:1)

So you see, your body doesn't have to die in order for you to become a saint. But there is a different death which must take place. One must "die to sin" through repentance and faith in Christ. (see Romans 6:1-8) This is how a person becomes a believer, a Christian, a saint. Those three terms are interchangeable in the New Testament.

Compare those terms for believers to the word "wicked" which Paul used in the passage above (1 Cor. 6:9) to describe those who don't know Christ. Even though Christians do wicked things at times, Jesus and Paul did not use the descriptive term "wicked" to describe believers. And it's more than just semantics. It has to do with a person's intentions and motives. That's why descriptive terms get to the heart of the matter, literally.

God understands the struggle which each one of His children has with temptation and sin. And He also understands the new heart which He has placed inside us as believers. It is because of our new heart and new life in Christ that we no longer want to sin. (see Romans 7:15-25)

Whatever the Bible calls "sin," we too must recognize as being outside the will of God for our lives. Therefore, by God's grace, we seek to do good and avoid evil. And we realize that our forgiveness and salvation is rooted in Christ's sacrifice on the cross, rather than our performance and our obedience.

If a person had to live a perfect life in order to be saved, then no one could enter the kingdom of God. "But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved." (Ephesians 2:4,5)

So here is the issue for you my friend: Do you believe in Jesus as your Savior from sin? And is it your intention to flee from sin while living for Christ? If so, be encouraged in the Gospel. Know that you are forgiven, and eternally secure in Christ.

On the other hand, if it is your intention to live for sin, then God's message for you is just as clear: Repent. Turn away from your wicked intentions. And wherever you fall short of God's standard, bring your sin to the foot of the cross and ask Jesus to forgive you.

That's the only way to become a believer, a saint, a follower of Jesus, a disciple, a Christian. All of those beautiful terms refer to one and the same relationship. And it gets established the moment a person repents and believes the good news. (see Mark 1:15)

"God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by His blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through Him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through His life!" (Romans 5:8-10)

So if you are a Christian, go forth joyfully as a child of God to serve your King in sincerity and truth. And remember how God describes you and everyone in His family: "You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light." (1 Peter 2:9)

Dan Delzell is the pastor of Wellspring Lutheran Church in Papillion, Neb. He is a regular contributor to The Christian Post.