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Religious Terms

Compunction Confession Consecrate Consecration ContriteContrition DeterminismExcommunicate Forgive Forgiveness Free will Grace Guilt Heaven Hell Holy Justification Justify Holy Ordination Original Sin Penance Penitence Penitent Predestination Providence Repent Repentance Saint Sanctification Sanctify Sin

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For background information about English-language theological terminology, see Why did England execute early Bible translators?


A sharp twinge that accompanies the realization of wrongdoing. Compunction is constructive if it leads to confession, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, and sanctification.


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. When you “confess that Jesus is Lord,” you admit that you didn’t recognize Jesus’ authority and did not obey His commands.

Just as in court, confession is something you say out loud. You can confess sins 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. The first step compunction, the second step is confession, and the third step is repentance, which is a change in your values that leads to a change in your conduct. In other words, you feel bad about it, then you admit it, then you try very hard never do it again. The technical term for a person who skips the last step 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 the convert 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. Confessing to clergy began as an option in the fourth century, then gradually became the norm.

Today, confession is a church rite that some churches consider a sacrament. Confession to clergy 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.


Contrary to what many people think, determinism is not a feature of Calvin’s theology. Calvin taught that God has only predetermined which people are going to be saved and which are not. (Calvin’s term was “elect.”) According to Calvin, we have free will to make any decision other than salvation.

Lately, physicists have observed phenomena, such as the behavior of photons, that seem to be affected by whether or not someone is observing them—and even by whether or not someone will observe them at some point in the future. The only explanation is that the future is just as iron-clad as the past, and that all possibilities are equally real. Accordingly, if you come to a fork in the road, where you have to choose between going right or left, the universe effectively splits in two and you go both ways. If every time there are alternatives and all alternatives are equally real, then there are an awful lot of universes, unless there is only one universe with all the alternatives built in and equally real.

Even if we choose all alternatives simultaneously, we are only aware of choosing one. We do not have free will to make the choice, but apparently we do shave free will to be aware of only one of the outcomes. Therefore, free will and determinism can coexist, and if your salvation depends on your choice of awareness, then you can choose to be saved, even within the framework of determinism.


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 stepping on someone’s toe, the toe is still swollen.

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.

See also predestination and determinism.


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.


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.


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 Heavens and the New Earth.


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.


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.


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 consequence of Adam’s sin, but not the guilt of sin, because of Ezekiel 18. Therefore, despite Adam’s 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.


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 means that God set our eternal destination in advance.

John Calvin argued that predestination means that God has decided our eternal fate in advance and that we cannot choose salvation, but we are still free to choose between French fries or onion rings with our hamburger, or whether to have a hamburger at all. Calvin’s reasoning seems to work like this:

  • Salvation is only by grace.
  • Grace is a spiritual gift.
  • Only the elect can receive sipritual gifts.
  • Therefore, God must have chosen the elect in advance (or “before all time.”)

Hyper-Calvinists and others maintain that predestination is the same thing as determinism. Under determinism, God decided everything in advance, down to the smallest detail, so that the entire universe is essentially acting out a prewritten script, and that we have absolutely no free will at all.

Many modern evangelicals agree in theory that everything is predetermined, but they also assert that a person has to choose to be saved.

The rest of the historic Church argues that since it is not God’s will for anyone to be lostMatthew 18:14, all people are predestined to live with God in His glory. However, since they have free will, some may choose not to go to their destination 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.

Two centuries later, John Wesley agreed with Calvin, but stipulated that God has given everyone “prevenient grace,” that is, grace in advance of salvation, to choose salvation or turn it down. I would add my own argument that without the existence of time, the words “before,” “during,” and “after” have no meaning, which means that “before all time” is the same thing as “during all time,” and that God’s process of choosing is going on right now, which would allow us to participate in it.


God’s benevolent intervention to supply needs.


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.


Willingness to correct a wrongdoing, synonymous with penitence.


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.


In current usage, the meaning of the word “sin” is restricted to “a violation of a divine commandment.” God commanded us not to judge other people, therefore judging other people is a sin, even if only God knows that we did it. Not all wrongdoings are sins. There is no divine commandment against stepping on someone’s toe, so you would have to seek forgiveness from the owner of the toe, not God. If we offend more than one party, we have to confess to all of them. Confessing to God that you stole something doesn't relieve you of the need to admit it to the victim and to restore their property.

The Bible uses the word “sin” in more general sense. It can mean an offense against a person.

Obviously, sins are not created equal; some are worse than others. Some churches have categorized and ranked sins according to severity and consequence, others don’t see the need, since no matter how serious or trivial they are, your obligation is the same: confess, repent, and obtain forgiveness.

A sin can be deliberate, accidental, unintentional, or out of ignorance. It could be something that you did long ago, and only realized now that it was a sin. It’s still a sin.