Aug 31, 2006

What Must We Believe?

Are there things that I must believe if I can legitimately call myself a Christian? In our atheological age, it is always good to be reminded that there are indeed some essential doctrinal truths--truths that define the very essence or being of the Christian faith. Christians, of course, differ among themselves over many doctrinal issues. nevertheless, there at least seven doctrinal issues that Christians throughout the ages have considered essential. In what follows, I will describe these seven doctrines and provide a biblical justification for them. I invite readers to comment and ask questions.

1. The Deity and Humanity of Christ
It is essential to the Christian faith that Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate. This means that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. As the Chalcedonian Definition puts is, Jesus is “truly God and truly man.” He has two distinct natures, human and divine, which are “unconfused, unchanged, indivisible, and inseparable.”

That Jesus is God is clearly taught in the Bible. John declares, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Paul wrote that Jesus was “in very nature God” (Phil. 2:6) and that in him “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). The Lord Jesus himself, referring to Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush, declared, “Before Abraham was born, ‘I Am’”—for which the Jews took up stones to kill him for blasphemy.

Jesus’ full humanity is also set forth plainly in Scripture. He was “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4); he grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52); he hungered and thirsted (Luke 4:2; John 19:19); he died (John 19:30). Both John and Paul underscore the dual nature of Christ by teaching that in Christ God became a man. John says that the divine Word “became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), and Paul explains that though Jesus was in very nature God, he “emptied himself. . .being made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7).

2. The Trinity
Belief in the deity of Christ necessitates affirming the doctrine of the Trinity. Some people, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, mock the idea the Jesus is God by asking such questions as, “Well, if Jesus was God while on the earth and he died on the cross, then who was running the universe while he was in the grave?” and “If Jesus was God, then who was he praying to in the Garden of Gethsemene?” What those who ask such questions fail to realize is that the doctrine of the Trinity is designed (in part) to directly address those kinds of issues! Since the universe was obviously still under divine control while Jesus was in the grave, and since Jesus would not likely pray to himself, there must be more than one divine person! This logic finds confirmation in the Bible. When Jesus (who is God) was baptized, we are told that the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove and a voice spoke from heaven and said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Three distinct and divine persons are simultaneously present in this event: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Does this mean that Christians believe in three gods? Not at all. The doctrine of the Trinity is not the view that there are three gods. Neither is it the absurd view that there are three gods and one God at one time. Early church leaders explained that the Son and the Holy Spirit were of the same essence or substance with the Father, though they are nevertheless distinct personalities. Though containing an element of mystery that we may never fully understand, the doctrine of the Trinity asserts that there is one and only one God, who exists simultaneously in three personalities.

3. Original Sin
Having a right view of Jesus requires a right view of human beings. We believe that Jesus is our Savior. We believe that he died for our sins (see below). We in fact believe, as several biblical texts indicate, that Jesus had to die—his death is somehow necessary for our salvation (see Luke 24:26; Rom. 3:26). Moreover, as we will see, our salvation is secured not by any of our works, but by grace alone through faith alone. For all of this to make sense, human beings must all be in a certain condition. Theologians call this condition original sin. This means that every human being is born into a state of guilt and corruption inherited from our first parent, Adam. In other words, we are born sinners. We are born, that is, with a nature that is bent toward sin and rebellion and which is incapable of doing any good in the sight of God.

Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Worse, “there is none who does good, not even one” (Rom 3:12). Worse still, “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). David explains why we are in such a terrible condition when he says of himself, “I was. . .sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). Paul echoes this idea when he says that all of us are “by nature objects of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). We come into the world in a state of original sin because Adam, as the representative of the whole human race, sinned on our behalf: “the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men. . . . through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners” (Rom. 5:18, 19).

The implication of original sin is that we all naturally stand under the just condemnation of God with no hope that we can earn his favor and escape his wrath. This is where Jesus comes in.

4. The Substitutionary Atonement
Romans 5:8 announces the gracious news: “But God demonstrates his own love toward us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We cannot save ourselves. We cannot do anything to escape God’s just wrath. But God the Father, in love and mercy, sent God the Son to die for us. For Christ to die for us means that he died on our behalf, for our benefit. More than that, however, he died in our stead. The Apostle John states that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins. . .” (1 John 2:2). That big word “propitiation” has to do with the satisfaction of God’s wrath; with the appeasement of God’s just anger toward our sin. Paul makes this even clearer in Romans, when he writes,

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [ propitiation], through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)

Notice that Paul not only uses the important word “propitiation” in this text, but he also clearly connects the death of Christ with God’s justice. Christ was presented as a sacrifice on the cross so that God might be seen as both “just and the one who justifies”—Just because he does not leave our sins unpunished, and the justifier because he punishes Christ in our place and imputes to us his perfect righteousness through faith (vv. 21-22).

All of this means that Christ’s death on the cross served as a substitutionary atonement. He died as our substitute to satisfy the demands of God’s holy justice regarding our sin. It is only because of the substitutionary death of Christ that those who believe are saved. This is why the substitutionary atonement is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith.

5. The Resurrection of Jesus
The Christian faith stands or falls on the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. Paul made it clear that “if Christ is not raised, then your faith is worthless” (1 Cor. 15:17). If Christ is not raised, then he is still dead and buried. If Christ is not raised, then we have no reason to believe his exalted claims about himself, namely, that he is the incarnate God who determines the eternal destinies of every human being. If Christ is not raised, then we have no hope that our sins have been forgiven—we would be, as Paul woefully laments, “still in [our] sins.” As the Apostle says elsewhere, Christ “was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25). In other words, Jesus’ resurrection guarantees us that the Father accepted his death on the cross as payment for our sin. Without his resurrection, we would have a sure indication that his death on the cross accomplished nothing at all.

“But now Christ has been raised from the dead,” declares Paul (1 Cor. 15:20). He was seen alive again by Peter and the other apostles, as well as James and Paul, and even 500 people at one time (see 1 Cor. 15:3-8)![ii] So, those who believe may have assurance that their sins are forgiven, and that just as Christ was raised from the dead, so they will be, too.

6. Justification by Faith Alone
“Justification” is the act by which God declares sinners just or righteous in his sight. Every pseudo-Christian religion holds that faith on the part of the sinner plays a role in justification. Genuine Christianity, however, teaches that justification is by faith alone. Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, the Watchtower Society, the International Church of Christ, and other pseudo-Christian religions deny that justification is by faith alone. Rather, they teach that justification is by faith plus works. For example, though the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are clear that God’s grace is necessary to put a person on the road to justification, and to give him strength to pursue holiness, they also declare that justification comes at the end of a process in which the sinner, through moral effort and good works, achieves true, inward righteousness. In other words, for the Catholic (and others) justification follows sanctification.

The biblical view, however, is that justification precedes sanctification. By grace alone through faith alone, God declares sinners justified. Then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, justified sinners enter into the pursuit of holiness. As Scripture says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). And how could it be any clearer than it is in Romans 4:5, where we are told: “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

Salvation is an unmerited gift of God’s sovereign mercy. The doctrine of justification by faith alone is crucial to preserving this truth. If our good works play any role in acquiring justification, then salvation is not entirely by grace, and it would not be true (contrary to Eph. 2:9) that no one could boast.

7. The Second Advent of Christ
Though often left out of these types of discussions, it is another essential doctrine that Jesus Christ, who departed the earth shortly after his resurrection (Luke 24:50-5; Acts 1:9-11), will return bodily ot this planet. Jesus told his disciples before his crucifixion, "If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to myself" (John 14:3). After his ascension, the angels told the disciples, "This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same manner that you have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). This is why the Apostles' Creed declares that Christ "ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead."

One of the reasons why the Second Coming if Jesus is essential is that Christians believe (and the Bible teaches) that we are currently living in what Scipture calls "this age" (cf. Mark 10:29-30; Luke 20:34-36; 1 Tim. 6:17-19, etc.), and age characterized by corruption, imperfection, sin, death, and pain. Christian believe and hope that "this age" is not the final state, that it will give way to "the age to come" in which we will live in incorruptable resurrection bodies that are free of disease, pain, sin, and death. The demarcation between "this age" and "the age to come" is the return of Christ. This is why Paul reminds us of the importance of pursuing holiness in this life. The reason is hat we are not citizens of this world or age, but "our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 3:20).

Before I close this brief article, I want to head off a possible misunderstanding. I have called the six doctrines outlined above the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. By that I mean that these doctrines are of the esse of the Christian faith; that is, they constitute the very being of Christianity. Without these doctrines, there would be no Christianity. I have also said that these doctrines are necessary for a person to legitimately call himself a Christian.

Now does this mean that a person who does not believe all six of these doctrines is automatically lost and going to Hell? Does this mean that a person must understand and believe all six of these doctrines before he can be saved? The answer to both questions is “no.” I dare say that few people who are converted to faith in Christ have a full understanding of the Trinity, for example. Theologians have a hard time delineating exactly how much a person has to believe and understand before he can be converted, and so it is safe to not be dogmatic at this point.

However, this much can be said with confidence: any person who understands these doctrines and their significance for the Christian worldview, yet conscientiously denies any one of them—that person is not a Christian (or, at least, you and I have no reason to believe that he is a Christian). What this means is that a person may ignorantly espouse a heresy without being a heretic. But a person who knowingly embraces a heresy is a heretic whose eternal soul is in danger. This is why Christians must defend sound doctrine and reach out in love to those who are in error.

[Most of this article previously appeared in my "The Genuine Article: The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith," Areopagus Journal 2:3 (July 2002): 31-35.]


Frank Walton said...

What about Biblical inerrancy and Sola Scriptura? Aren't those essentials?

Dr. Steve Cowan said...

Frank Walton asks whether sola Scriptura and biblical inerrancy are essential doctrines of the faith. The answer quite simply is no. They are not essentials. A person can be saved even if he denies these two doctrines.

Now, let me clarify. By saying that they are not essential, I am by no means saying that they are unimportant. I distinguish three levels of biblical doctrine. First, there is what I described in my blog, the essential doctrines of the faith, what might be called the esse (being) of Christianity. In addition are matters that are comparatively trivial, what we can call adiaphora (matters of indifference). The latter are doctinal teachings of the Bible that effect neither one's salvation nor his spiritual health. The adiaphora (e.g., views on the specific nature of eternal punishment--literal fire or something else; views on the millennium, etc) are items that Christians even in the same local church can disagree on and still worship together.

However, in between the esse and the adiaphora is a category we can call the bene esse, teachings that have to do with the "well-being" of the church and the christian life. These are doctrines that a person can get wrong and still be saved, but getting it wrong can have an adverse effect on one's spiritual health and growth as a Christian. In this category I would put biblical inerrancy, views on the sacraments, church government, charismatic gifts, etc. I hope this helps.

Frank Walton said...

That was very helpful. Thank you, sir.

Aaliyah Hannah said...

Very informative. The World Peace Religion

drew@jonah said...

Really great insight. This gives us a platform. Many think that if people don't believe exactly the way we do, we're shouting "heretic." This gives us an opportunity to say, "no, but this IS detrimental to your development as a christian." Any chance we can get a post on charismata?

Michael said...

I was recently talking with Jehovas witness's who deny the Diety of Christ and the Trinity. They used there version of the Bible to support there position and try to bend the rules of Greek grammer to justify their translation. There version is certainly full of errors due to a faulty translation which in turn effected there view of the trinity and Jesus Christ in a way that effects there salvation. So based on this would you not agree that biblical inerrancy would be an essential or is this just a case of poor scholarship effecting there salvation?