Word Meanings Matter

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My mother said at supper one night, “Eat your potato chip.” I love potato chips, but I didn’t see any. I looked at my sister’s plate. I looked at both my brothers’ plate. I looked under the table. “Eat your potato chip!” she said again, more forcefully. Startled, I bumped my head on the way up! For the life of me, I couldn’t find any potato chips. Now irritated, she exclaimed one last time, “I said, ‘Eat your potato chip!’” I finally replied in despair, “I don’t have any potato chips.” 

She looked at me strangely before busting-out laughing. It sent the entire table (except for me) into an eruption of deep belly-laughs. Finally, after catching her breath, my mother explained. “I didn’t mean, ‘Eat your potato chip.’ I meant, ‘Eat your potato, Chip!’” 

Then I looked at my plate: A piping hot baked potato wrapped in tin foil sat right in front of me the whole time! 

Verbal meaning matters.

Verbal Plenary Inspiration

Verbal plenary inspiration means “every word found in the Bible is given to us by God (verbal), everything in the Bible is authoritative (plenary), and every word is divinely directed.”[1] I believe we all would agree: God carefully chose every single word in Scripture. Of course, a single word can have several different meanings depending on context (as we saw, “chip” can be a type of food or a proper name!). 

For instance, the word, “world,” in Scripture is used in several different ways:

  • Romans 1:20 = planet earth              
  • Mark 8:36 = materialism                                     
  • Romans 12:2 = secular society
  • John 14:17 = lost souls                                         
  • Romans 1:8 = a limited geographical region 
  • Matthew 24:14 = an unlimited geographical region   
  • Matthew 13:22 = a secular mindset                              
  • John 12:25 = the earthly realm                                   

God carefully chose every single word in Scripture.

Verbal Plenary Principles

Is there a process we can apply to determine which usage is correct? Certainly. Follow the guidelines below, but make sure you follow them in order.

  1. Determine the meaning of the word at the time the author wrote. For instance, today we use the word “hope” to refer to a wish: I “hope” the Braves win the World Series. When Paul wrote, the word meant something different entirely. It meant a future certainty not yet realized. That’s why he says in Romans 12:12: Rejoice in hope. You rejoice in a rock-ribbed certainty, not in a possibility (wish).
  2. Investigate how the same author used the word in other places:
    • First, investigate how he used the word in the rest of the book under consideration.
    • Second, investigate how he used the word in his other biblical writings. 
  3. Research how other biblical writers used the term.
  4. Run a search on how extra-biblical writers of the same era used the term.

Once you’ve cycled through these steps, you should have a good indication of the correct meaning. Lastly, double-check to make sure that meaning aligns with the surrounding context. 

Verbal Plenary Example

Recently, I applied that process to the word “condemnation” in Romans 8:1. Paul had just described the conflicted Christian in Romans 7: That inner tug-of-war between the spirit and the flesh within every believer.[2] Paul even cries-out in despair, “Wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24). It’s as if he says, “I want to do right, but I don’t always do right! How can this be? Am I even saved?”

The chapter break after Romans 7:25 is unfortunate because the thought-flow carries into Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). I always assumed “condemnation” referred to “self-condemnation” or to “condemnation” from others. I do experience self-condemnation or condemnation from others at times, but this verse seems to say I shouldn’t. Something was not matching-up. So I did a word study. 

First, what did “condemnation (κατάκριμα) mean when Paul wrote it? BDAG says it is “a judicial pronouncement upon a guilty person.” Paul is saying, “There is now no spiritual death-sentence. The death penalty has been removed!”

That changes everything! When I fail in my fight against sin, the spiritual death-penalty is not hanging over my head. Jesus took it away. That glorious news reinvigorates me to go back to battle with a renewed spirit. I can fight without the pressure of thinking, “If I fail, the death penalty awaits.”

Second, does Paul use this term anywhere else in this letter? He does in two other places. Romans 5:16: And the free gift is not like the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation. Ah, there is confirmation I’m on the right track! The Apostle uses it again in Romans 5:18: Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men . . . Ah! A second confirmation. Now, I feel reasonably comfortable I’m onto Paul’s meaning. 

Third, if I wanted to be thorough, I could search it in Paul’s other letters (it doesn’t occur in any of them in that form). 

Fourth, if I wanted to be doubly-thorough, I could search it in the entire NT (again, that form doesn’t occur). 

Fifth, if I wanted to be triply-thorough, I could search it in the LXX (the Greek translation of the OT: it doesn’t occur). 

Finally, if you wanted to be super-thorough, search it in secular Greek literature.

A simple word study helped me see something important. I was imposing a 21st century understanding on a 1st century word. Word meanings matter.

Closing Thought

Words can take on new meanings over time. Do the necessary work to make certain you are understanding God’s words the way His biblical authors meant them. If only I’d known this principle when I was 7 years old: I’d have saved myself a knot on my head while looking for potato chips under the table! 

[1]Matt Slick, “What is Verbal Plenary Inspiration of the Bible?” Christian Apologetics & Research (Oct 27, 2014). If you haven’t read B.B. Warfield’s magisterial work, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (1948), you must. It has yet to be adequately refuted.

[2]Some (see Schreiner in BECNT) think Paul is describing the unconverted Jew, but this is a minority view. While a possible interpretation, the context of Romans 5-6 suggests Romans 7 is dealing with the Christian’s battle with the mortification of the flesh.

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Chip Thornton

Pastor of FBC Springville, Alabama. Chip is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his Ph.D. in expository preaching. He enjoys spending time with his family, has a passion for discipleship, and is committed to biblical exposition.