by Steven B. Cowan –
Cults and other false religions deviate from the truth of God’s Word. But how? In what way? If cults and false religions are “counterfeit,” then what is the “feit”? That is, what is the truth from which they deviate? What is the “genuine article”? This question is important because having a clear understanding of these essential Christian truths will enable the Christian to spot error more easily and prevent him from being deceived by false teachers and prophets. So, in this brief article, I wish to provide a sketch of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith; those core doctrines which define the Christian religion over against any and all non-Christian religions.
THE ESSENTIAL AND THE NON-ESSENTIAL
As a first item of business, however, we need to make an important distinction. Not every Christian doctrine is an essential doctrine. Not every biblical truth must be embraced before a person can legitimately be called a Christian. There are doctrines which even true, Bible-believing Christians debate. Some doctrines are essential to the Christian faith and essential to the salvation of the Christian person. Other doctrines, though, are not essential.
In fact, we may distinguish at least three levels of Christian doctrine which may be placed (for purposes of illustration) within concentric circles (see diagram below).1 In the outer ring are doctrines which (though not unimportant) are the least central to the existence and well-being of the Christian faith. Let us call these doctrines adiaphora doctrines (from the Greek for “indifferent” or “neutral”). An adiaphora doctrine is one which is indifferent to the well-being of the Christian faith and the wellbeing of the spiritual life of the Christian. Adiaphora doctrines are biblical teachings which a Christian may deny or, for some reason, fail to believe, yet still be a Christian and even a growing, mature Christian. Suppose, for example, that the Bible teaches that Hell is a place of literal fire and brimstone. There are Christians, however, who believe that the biblical language of fire and brimstone is metaphorical for something else that is just as bad or worse than literal fire and brimstone. Such people, though mistaken on our supposition, are not outside the camp of Christians. Nor does this error cause them any serious spiritual damage. Other doctrines that probably should go under the heading of adiaphora would include views on the millennium, the propriety of pastoral vestments, the question of whether children should be home-schooled or public-schooled, the queschildren should be home-schooled or public-schooled, the ques hour period or a long age, and the like. Christians within the same local church may disagree on such matters and get along, worshipping side-by-side.
Within the second concentric circle lie doctrines we will call bene esse doctrines. These are doctrines that are important to the well-being of the Christian faith—doctrines that make the difference between a healthy Christian or church and an unhealthy Christian or church. These are not essential doctrines; they are non-essential doctrines. One may deny or fail to believe a bene esse doctrine and still be a Christian, but the practical consequences of such a denial will cause damage to one’s spiritual well-being. Disagreements over bene esse doctrines lie behind most denominational splits among Christians. Such doctrines include the inerrancy of the Bible, the question of infant versus believer’s baptism, forms of church government, the issue of prophecy and tongues, and other matters which have important practical consequences for living the Christian life.
The center circle represents esse doctrines, essential doctrines, doctrines related to the very being or essence of the church. These are doctrines which define the very heart of the Christian faith, and which therefore define what it means to be a Christian rather than a Hindu, or a Muslim, or an atheist. We use the word “heresy” to describe any doctrine which denies or contradicts an esse doctrine. A person who knowingly and conscientiously espouses a heresy is not and cannot be a Christian. With this said, we are now in a position to describe the essential (esse) doctrines of the Christian faith.
ESSENTIAL CHRISTIAN DOCTRINES
Elsewhere in this issue of Areopagus Journal, Clete Hux tells us that a pseudo-Christian cult may be defined as any group which has a different Jesus and/or a different gospel other than those revealed in the Scriptures. In other words, it is essential to the Christian faith and to the salvation of any particular person that one believe in and trust the true Jesus and the true gospel. But, what are the true Jesus and the true gospel? And what other doctrines might there be which are logically presupposed or implied by the biblical views of Jesus and the gospel? These are the questions I wish to answer in this section. Having the right view of Jesus and the right view of the gospel requires that one understand and believe six key doctrines, which I will outline below.
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 it, 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).
Belief in the deity of Christ necessitates affirming the doctrine of the Trinity. Some people, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, mock the idea that 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 Gethsemane?” 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.2
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 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.
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). The 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.
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 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)!3 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.
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 be possible (contrary to Eph. 2:9) that one could boast.
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. AJ
Steven B. Cowan is the Associate Director of the Apologetics Resource Center.
1 For this distinction in levels of doctrine, I am indebted in part to Alan K. Scholes and Stephen M. Clinton, “Levels of Belief in the Pauline Epistles: A Paradigm for Evangelical Unity,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Philosophical Society 14:2 (1991): 70-84.
1 See James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998), for a biblical defense and explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity.
2 For a detailed defense of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, see William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, Or: Wipf and Stock, 1981).
THE NICENE CREED
I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
THE CHALCEDONIAN CREED
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.