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Updated: May 15

In a recent small church meeting someone new to the faith let me know that they find all the new words a bit challenging to keep up with. (You keep saying "New Covenant". Was there an old covenant? And what is a covenant anyway?) So I thought a glossary of terms might be helpful. I'm starting this off small (with a top 10 list) and will continue to develop it over time, so check back as needed.

Want to be a partner in this project? I would welcome your help. Let me know what words you think might need explanation and also what you might change or add to current definitions. Thank you for being a partner!


  • AGAPÉ: Absolute unconditional love. Agapé is wholistic and not just emotional. It includes what we feel (the gut) and also what we know (the head), but it ultimately manifests through what we choose (the heart). Agapé is the experience and expression of an attitude of awe and honour toward a person. It is the choice, the decision, the act of the will to relate to someone with unconditional embrace according to their infinite value. Agapé includes action (merely feeling love is not enough if we do not act on that feeling to care for others) and also attitude (merely acting loving out of religious duty or for show is not enough). Agapé is the will to work for the wellbeing of a person. Ultimately, this kind of love is our source (God is love) and our goal (we are called to love like God).

  • ATONEMENT: A made-up English word (I guess all words are "made-up"), literally meaning "at-one-ment", based on the Bible’s theme of reconciliation. Atonement translates the Hebrew kippur, as in the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Kippur means to cover over, wash away, cleanse, or purify. Atonement, then, is about clearing away whatever is getting in the way of our relationship with God. (The fancy, nerdy, theological English word for this is “expiation” – the wiping away of any impurity.) It is the removal of roadblocks to relationship so that intimacy can be restored. In theological circles, to talk about "the atonement" is to refer to the crucifixion of Christ and what it accomplished for us. (For more, see here.)

  • COVENANT: A way of being in relationship with God and others. Like a contract, but less business-y and more relationship-y (e.g., a marriage covenant). In ancient times, a covenant was often established with a sacrifice through a “cutting of a covenant” ceremony (e.g., Genesis 15). Jesus told his disciples that his death would be the sacrifice that begins a New Covenant between God and humanity (Matthew 26:27-28; Mark 14:23-24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Hebrews 8:13). The Old Covenant (or Old Testament) was a covenant of law, with clear rules and clear punishments for breaking those rules. It functioned as a kind of nanny or tutor to help us grow until we could be mature enough to live in the New Covenant (Galatians 3:23-25). The New Covenant (or New Testament) is a covenant of grace, guided by the Spirit within loving communities (John 1:17). (For more, see here.)

  • FAITH: active trust; belief manifest in behaviour. The Greek word, pistis, means both trust and trustworthiness, faith and faithfulness. Faith is how we receive God's gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8) - we simply trust that Jesus is true, and live our lives in light of that trust (John 3:16).

  • GOSPEL: Our English word gospel comes from the Old English word godspell, meaning “good tale” or “good story.” Gospel translates the Greek word, euangelion. In Latin, it’s evangelium, from which we get words like evangelism and evangelical. The gospel is an announcement that is meant to be shared. When an ancient empire won a war against an aggressive enemy so that times of peace and prosperity would be ushered in, the message of this victory was announced far and wide as euangelion—gospel. When new royalty was born, the announcement carried throughout the land was called euangelion—gospel. When something wonderfully “world changing” happened, heralds carried the message to all points of the known world, calling it euangelion—gospel. We see this demonstrated clearly in history when, for instance, the Roman proconsul Paulus Fabius Maximus honored Caesar Augustus by referring to the day of his birth as “euangelion [gospel] for the whole world.” Jesus and his earliest followers chose this word—euangelion—to summarize his good news message of hope and healing, of reconciled relationships and reunion with God. The Gospel can be summarised in three words - "Jesus is Lord" (Romans 10:9), which leads to the conclusion that "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16). The Gospel can also be studied as the entire story of the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus - hence the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible are called the four gospels. Jesus announced his Good News message as the Gospel of the kingdom of God - (Matthew 4:17; 6:10; 9:35; 10:7; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43) - the royal announcement that through Jesus, Heaven is coming to earth and we are all invited to be a part of God's eternal family here and now. Sin is forgiven, shame is erased, and everyone is accepted. When Jesus was born, an angel announced his birth to shepherds in the fields as “good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Good news. Leading to great joy. Offered to all people. That is gospel. (For more, see here.)


  • GRACE: Greek, charis, means a gift of kindness. The Good News message of Jesus is that God is a God of grace, who wants to give us salvation, cleansing, holiness, righteousness, and enlightenment as a gift rather than have us strive or work to attain these things. Grace means that everything religion has ever tried but failed to accomplish, God has done for us and applied to us as a gift. This gift of life and love should empower us to live loving lives, soften our hard hearts, and bend our stubborn will to want to do God's will (Romans 2:4; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-12). Jesus never uses the word "grace" in his teaching, but he describes the concept vividly in his parables and shows us what it looks like through his relationships.

  • JUSTICE: Two Greek words are translated "justice" in English Bibles. 1. Ekdikeó means to make things right forcibly or to take vengeance, and this is something that disciples of Jesus should not practice but should leave in God’s hands (see Luke 18:1-8; Romans 12:19). 2. Krisis means to make a right judgement, and Jesus usually uses this word to refer to judicial or divine judgement (Matthew 5:21-22; 12:20; 23:23, 33; John 5:22-30; 7:24), again something that is not characteristic of Jesus followers. Both understandings of justice are different to what the Bible calls "righteousness" (Greek, dikaiosuné), even though some Christians, and even some unfortunate Bible translations, use the two words interchangeably (e.g., the NLT translation of Matthew 5:6). Righteousness is the pursuit (or gift!) of right relationship, which is always expressed through mountains of mercy, grace, forgiveness, and the passionate pursuit of reconciliation and restoration whenever there is a relational rift. So JUSTICE is about making a right judgement, enforcing right conduct, or punishing wrong conduct (God’s business, often expressed through the State), and RIGHTEOUSNESS is about having or restoring right relationships (everyone’s business, especially followers of Jesus). JUSTICE falls more into the eye-for-eye category of making things just or fair by pursuing appropriate payback for wrongdoing, something Jesus strongly rebukes in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:38-42). Unqualified JUSTICE tends to be punitive. But biblical RIGHTEOUSNESS is always restorative (sometimes expressed through what today is often called "restorative justice"). JUSTICE fights for what's fair; RIGHTEOUSNESS pursues the unfairness of grace. JUSTICE judges; RIGHTEOUSNESS restores. JUSTICE punishes sin (God's business, worked through the State); RIGHTEOUSNESS repairs relationships (everyone's business, especially worked through the Church). Christians should be cautious, then, of those who wear the mantle of social justice warrior or anyone who tends to take their cues from our current cultural trend of performative moral outrage that demands justice. Disciples of Jesus are social righteousness warriors, which means we will fight for justice only if it is accompanied by the pursuit and expression of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. (For more, see entry on "Righteousness" and these two studies here and here.)

  • KINGDOM: The Greek word, basileia, means monarchy - a nation or society ruled by a king. A kingdom is a realm in which the king’s will and way holds sway, so the character of the king will determine the quality of the kingdom. Jesus framed his Good News message (see our entry on "Gospel") as the kingdom of heaven coming to earth (Matthew 4:17; 6:10; 9:35; 10:7; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43). The "kingdom of God" or "kingdom of the heavens" that Jesus announced is not geographical but relational (Luke 17:20-21), describing a way of living where "Jesus is Lord" (Romans 10:9) and we who follow Jesus are his citizens, soldiers, and ambassadors (Ephesians 2:19; 2 Corinthians 5:17-20; 10:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:3-4). Jesus teaches us to pray, not "take us to heaven when we die" but "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." (For more, see here.)

  • LOVE: (See agapé above.)

  • RIGHTEOUSNESS: Greek, dikaiosuné; right-relatedness; loving attention to right relationships; includes elements of justice and equity, but always worked out through the dominant relational values of forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation, grace, mercy, and peace-making; Jesus contrasts real righteousness with religious righteousness, which focuses more so on external sin avoidance and social justice apart from mountains of mercy. The Good News is that God wants to make us righteous as a gift of grace - for God makes righteous the ungodly (Romans 4:5). (For more, see entry on "Justice" and these two studies here and here.)

  • SIN: Any attitude, action, thought, or word that does not come from faith, hope, and love; anything that comes between us and God and others and ourselves; a force of separation and isolation. The most common Greek New Testament word for sin is hamartia, which means to be separated (literally not-togetherness). Sin is dis-integrating, always pulling us apart. Sins (plural) can refer to the wrong things we do, whereas sin (singular) can refer to the virus, the disease, the virus in our programming, the flaw in our code, that is passed on to all humans through birth and works to unravel our God-given glory and relational oneness. All humans are image-bearers of God first and foremost, yet all humans are also sinners, since everyone sins to some degree. Through the forgiveness, atonement, and cleansing of Christ, we are turned from sinners into saints (Romans 8:1).


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