One of the emphases in all my writing is on the exclusivity of truth, as it is represented in the Bible. I have made numerous and sometimes lengthy defenses of various doctrines by showing how they are mandated by Scripture, and/or by what is rationally necessary. On many occasions, these have also doubled as polemics against popular but irrational and unbiblical theologies. One of the natural questions which arises from such an approach is: who are the Christians?
What I mean is, if salvation is through Christian faith, and if faith is a true belief, then it is obvious that belief in falsehood does not constitute faith, and therefore does not lead to salvation. Anyone who does not believe the true gospel cannot be saved, because he does not have Christian faith. Yet, there are certainly many people who are not believers of the gospel, but nonetheless call themselves Christians. Although this can at times be obvious, very often a believer may be justifiably confused as to whether someone’s profession is genuine or not. I myself have many times felt uncertain as to the faith of a professed Christian, and so I have undertaken to write this series as a study on the topic.
It is important to note, at the beginning, the dangers inherent to this subject. On the one hand, there is the possibility of unwarranted legalism, or even cultish insistence on belief in non-critical doctrines. On the other, there is the equally undesirable situation of an unjustified liberalism in doctrine, or even the acceptance of cults and the ultimate denial of the exclusivity of the gospel. Although I will, as always, take a strong stand on certain issues which are permitted by Scripture—such as on Catholic doctrine, which I imagine will make me unpopular—I must be clear that wisdom and charity should always be exercised whenever we evaluate someone’s profession of faith. This doesn’t mean we should be hobbled by doubt, and thus prevented from speaking the truth. On the contrary, I am writing this series with the intent of mitigating doubt, and thus encouraging faithful witness and accurately-directed teaching. Nonetheless we are to exercise discernment, so that we may be sure that when we answer for our own words on the final day, we do not stand condemned.
One of the largest difficulties we face in the modern day is in convincing people of what the term Christian means—in even the most general sense. This is because it is used extremely fluidly by many people, to mean anything from someone who entertains a casual belief in God, to someone who understands and accepts and lives by the belief that in Christ alone salvation is found. This fluidity is much to the detriment of the witness and the work of those who are genuine believers. Since the term “Christian” is used so very loosely, most people do not realize that a great many persons or organizations which go under this banner are not in fact believers of the gospel. Equally, most people are therefore ignorant of the exclusivity of this gospel—and of its actual content. In the mind of the layman, Christianity may merely imply a general assent to some vaguely religious propositions—or worse, it may imply simply a history, such as when someone speaks of a “Christian nation”, or of “being a Christian”—meaning that, at some point in the past, Christian doctrine has influenced his development.
Indeed, most Western countries, such as New Zealand, were founded in large part by missionaries; and so they have a significant Christian heritage. Because of this, a large percentage of their populations have been raised with “Christian values”: that is, views of morality which have been passed down from generation to generation, the origins of which can be found in the Bible. In addition to this, a certain tradition or habit of going to church on special occasions has been maintained—and, so it is thought, anyone who goes to church (even if not very often) is certainly a Christian. Over two million people in New Zealand—about 50%—name themselves as Christians (Statistics New Zealand, ‘Census snapshot: cultural diversity‘). Yet only 15% of our population attends church on a regular basis (Massey News, ‘Tracking the trends of church-goers’).
But a little consideration must show that it is the Bible which defines Christianity. This has always been so, because the Bible alone has constituted the sole Scripture of the Christian religion since its inception. Although there are questions of canon which should be understood, it is nonetheless safe to say that it is the Bible which is the basis for all Christian doctrine. It is in the Bible that Christ is revealed, and where the truth about him is detailed and explained. Christianity is defined by the Bible, and is derived from it. Any tradition which purports to establish Christian doctrine also claims its authority in the Bible, and so ultimately it is the Bible itself which is the sole standard against which all questions of the Christian religion are tested. Therefore, it should be evident that anyone who claims to be a Christian is in fact claiming to be a believer of the Bible.
Thus, about 50% of New Zealanders claim to be Bible-believers (whether they realize it or not). But Scripture says that we know we have come to know Christ—that is, that we are Christians—if we keep his commandments. “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). Assuming that most professing Christians in New Zealand are in a position to obey the commandment of Hebrews 10:25, and not neglect meeting together in worship, it stands to reason then that at least 35% of those who call themselves Christians are liars. This should by no means shock us, for Jesus was clear that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord!” will enter the kingdom of heaven—but only the one who does his Father’s will (Matt 7:21).
The Authority Of Scripture
To profess oneself as a Christian, but reject belief in the Bible, is self-refuting, since what a Christian is is established by the Bible. It is really a contradiction in terms to call oneself a Christian but to deny the authority of Scripture, since it is Scripture itself which defines everything which a Christian believes. Without the Bible, there would be no Christianity. To call oneself a Christian while denying the authority of the Bible is to deny the source by which the word Christian can mean anything—and thus it is self-refuting.
To not believe that the Bible is scripture (that is, that it is sacred and authoritative), is not merely to disbelieve a central doctrine of Christianity. It is to disbelieve Christianity itself. It is not merely a doctrine of Christianity that the Bible is the word of God—it is Christianity. Even ignoring epistemological issues for now, it must be obvious that, if someone is to profess to be a Christian, he must at least claim assent to some part of the Bible. If he believed that the whole Bible was false, his claim would be ludicrous.
However, if he believes only part of the Bible while rejecting other parts, he is not treating the Bible as the authoritative source of the Christian religion, but rather is merely using it as the basis for inventing his own religion. The authority of this religion is not Scripture, but his own opinion. What is accepted from the Bible, and what is rejected, is quite arbitrary. So his religion may have similarities to Christianity, but it will not be Christianity.
Indeed, this is quite a popular thing—to label oneself a Christian because one follows Christ’s teachings, while denouncing a full and uncompromised belief in the Bible. For example, I know a young woman named Sylvia who is a pro-homosexuality feminist, and who has expressed to me her heartfelt desire for and belief in the eventual eradication of the distinction between genders. At the same time, she claims to be a Christian, because she believes that Christ was a wonderful moral teacher who did many great things. No doubt she is not really familiar with Christ at all, for as C S Lewis said, our Lord did not leave open this avenue of discipleship. Either he really is who he claimed to be—God made man—or he is a lunatic or a liar. If he is a lunatic or a liar, it is absurd to ascribe to him the sort of greatness that demands discipleship. If he is God, then it is absurd to claim to follow his teachings if one disagrees with a good half or more of what he taught!
Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to define a Christian as someone who follows Christ’s teachings—for, after all, any Christian obviously does. However, since all of Christ’s teachings are consistent, and since they in turn are merely a part of the larger work which is the Bible itself, which foreshadows and explicates these teachings, to accept his teachings necessitates accepting all of the Bible as a whole. Christ himself unequivocally declared that all of Scripture is authoritative and immutable, and that although he fulfilled this Scripture, he by no means abolished it (Matt 5:17-19). It is notable that this proclamation sits directly in the middle of the passage most lauded by those who deny both the authority of the Old Testament, and the fact of Christ’s divinity: the sermon on the mount.
The authority of Scripture is therefore central to following Christ—to being a Christian. Anyone who denies that the Bible is authoritative is by definition not a Christian. And anyone who affirms the authority of the Bible must then believe what it says about itself as regards that authority: which is that it is “breathed out by God” (Greek: theopneustos), as I have previously discussed in chapter 3 of The Wisdom Of God. If Scripture really is God-breathed, then it is without error or falsehood, for God himself does nor err or lie. Thus, although it is an under-emphasized doctrine, the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture is central to Christianity.
However, it does not necessarily follow that a lack of belief in inerrancy equates to apostasy. One may be ignorant of this doctrine, or not have sufficiently considered it to recognize its importance or the necessary truth about it. This ought not to be the case, for it is quite simple and obviously critical; but, given the state of Christian pedagogy, we should not be surprised if we encounter believers who are not educated regarding the nature of Scripture. We cannot unequivocally declare someone an unbeliever merely because he lacks a positive belief in the infallibility of the Bible.
We can and should, on the other hand, regard someone as an unbeliever if he is in full possession of the facts and reasoning regarding the nature of the Bible, but rejects its infallibility anyway. If, in the face of the sort of reasoning above, he continues to deny the authority—and thus not merely the authority, but the God-breathed status—of Scripture, then he is an unbeliever. He does not believe the Bible, and so he is not a Christian. To believe the Bible is to believe its testimony about itself; it is not to pick and choose the parts which are convenient, and discard the rest. By what authority could he do such a thing? So, a positive disbelief regarding scriptural inerrancy certainly is grounds for us to consider someone an apostate and an unbeliever. Were he truly born of the Spirit, he would have God’s law written on his heart (Jer 31:33), and thus would affirm and receive the implanted word (James 1:21). To refuse to believe the Bible or assent to its complete authority is to refuse to believe God and assent to the authority of Christ, and thus to expose oneself as an unbeliever. But God’s sheep hear and know his voice in a manner which the Bible compares to the perfect relationship of knowledge between Jesus and the Father (John 10:14-15). A man cannot be one of Christ’s sheep, yet not hear his voice and follow him. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15). But a mere lack of belief in the authority and centrality of Scripture, while serious, is not sufficient to condemn—teaching and correction, rather than reproof and rebuke, are warranted.
The Centrality Of Faith
Most genuine Christians don’t think of adherence to scriptural infallibility as being terribly important when addressing the question, who are the Christians? Although they would recognize that the sort of “Christ-follower” mentioned above is not really a Christian, they would identify the reason as a lack of faith, rather than a lack of belief in Scripture. But such a distinction cannot really be made, as if faith and belief in Scripture are separate. This is not a coherent idea. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom 10:17). It is the gospel which is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16)—so a disbelief in the God-breathed nature of the Bible is one and the same with a disbelief of God: which, by definition, is the very opposite of faith. I have talked, in chapter 4 of The Wisdom Of God, about faith being a justified belief in Scriptural propositions—so it should be evident how one’s belief of Scripture is one and the same with one’s faith in Christ.
This does not mean, though, that a belief in the Bible as the inerrant word of God must chronologically precede a belief in Christ. Indeed, since faith is a gift of God, and its object is in Christ, it is both possible and likely that faith in Christ will eventuate before an assent to the God-breathed nature of Scripture. For example, one may be brought to faith merely by examining the New Testament writings as historically interesting documents—belief in Jesus would then come before belief in the inspired nature of Scripture. It is certainly possible to believe something on the strength of historical testimony, without believing that testimony to be the word of God himself. However, once faith in Christ eventuates, faith in his word follows by logical necessity. One cannot believe in Christ while disbelieving his word; and so anyone who professes faith in Christ, who has sufficiently examined the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy, but then has rejected it, cannot be thought to have a genuine faith at all.