Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

Who are the Christians? Part 3: salvation and doctrine

Continued from part 2 « In 1 Corinthians 15, which I have used as a summary of the gospel message, Paul takes pains to emphasize the utmost importance of believing that Jesus died for our sins and was raised again. It is upon this belief that we depend for our salvation. If it did not […]

Continued from part 2 «

In 1 Corinthians 15, which I have used as a summary of the gospel message, Paul takes pains to emphasize the utmost importance of believing that Jesus died for our sins and was raised again. It is upon this belief that we depend for our salvation. If it did not happen, or we do not believe that it happened, then we are lost. And, as I have elaborated from Ephesians, it is by faith in this work of Christ that we are saved—not by any effort of our own.

It is important to bear this in mind, because a lot of Christians affirm that we are saved by faith alone—but are so eager to elevate faith that they mistakenly treat it as the very object of salvation. But of course, Christ is the object of salvation: faith is an affirmation and assent to Christ’s salvific work, accomplished for us. What I mean is, our salvation is through a faith whose object is Christ. Faith is not an object unto itself, for otherwise any faith would do—faith in Allah or Buddha would be just as good as faith in Christ, since faith, and not its object, would be the means of salvation. But this is not so: on the contrary, the object of our faith is Christ, and Christ is our salvation.

What this means is that all we must do to be saved is simply believe God when he promises salvation in Christ—believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who seek him, as Hebrews 11:6 puts it. To believe God, however, we must know God; and to know God, we must know his self-revelation, his word (Rom 10:17). To have faith in Christ, one must understand who he is, and what he has done. This knowledge is not separate from other doctrinal questions, but is intimately related to them, for all Christian doctrine, stemming from the same unified God, is itself unified.

The Object Of Salvation

There are many errors which people commit in understanding God. This ought to be quite evident from the number of “Christian” cults which exist. (I am speaking specifically of errors which have arisen in Christianity itself; other religions like Islam and so on misunderstand God so completely that I don’t see any need to explain that there is no salvation in them.) Of all the errors which are possible, though, there are only two which seem common and dangerous enough to warrant consideration. Perhaps there are others, but these are the ones which I have personally encountered. These errors are regarding the deity of Christ, and the will of man. Both are serious because they have a direct influence on soteriology—the theology of salvation—which, if wrong, will result in condemnation, judgment, and hell.

The deity of Christ

The fact that Jesus is God is integral to the gospel message. It is also integral to the nature of God himself, who is a trinity: three persons in one substance. To deny Christ’s deity constitutes clear and basic unbelief, because Christ is God. If you disbelieve that Christ is God, when Christ is in fact God, then by definition you disbelieve in God. Since Christ’s deity is so integral to the gospel, we must affirm unequivocally that to deny it is to deny that gospel, and to deny God. Thus, if you pray to God while denying his Son, you are not praying to the Christian God at all, but to some invention of your own imagination. Obviously, a prayer directed toward a god which does not exist is not going to be effectual. Similarly, making Jesus the object of your faith when you do not believe that he is God is to make the object of your faith someone who is incapable of atoning for all sin, and thus incapable of saving you. Only faith in the biblical Jesus can save: Jesus, who is also God, who was made like us so that we could be united to him (Heb 2:14ff; Rom 8), who suffered death as a man so he could take our punishment for us (Heb 9:13-15), who could not be held by death because he is life (Acts 2:24; John 1:4, 6:63), who was therefore raised again so that we may share in his life (1 Thes 4:14), which will be eternal because, by the power of God he has abolished death and thus brought light and immortality (2 Tim 1:10). To claim that Jesus is not God, but put your faith in him anyway, is to reject the only means of salvation given to man, and commit idolatry.

Most professing Christians whom I have met do believe that Jesus is God. But many cults, who call themselves Christian, deny it. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints both deny it, though in different ways. It therefore follows that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are, by definition, not Christians. Unitarians are not Christians. “Christian” polytheists are not Christians. To disbelieve that Jesus is God is to disbelieve in Christianity.

Man’s will and God’s sovereignty

The second error is one which is much more common among “mainstream” Christians, and that error is the belief in human free will.

By free will, I mean of course libertarian free will. I am not referring to compatibilistic free will, which really isn’t free at all—at least in the sense meant by Arminians and Catholics and open theists and so on, which is a freedom from God. Most lay Christians, though (and many philosophers and theologians) believe in libertarian free will. This is a serious error because it necessarily places certain limitations upon God’s sovereignty, inasmuch as it ascribes to man a sovereignty of his own. Thus, it is asserted that in some sense God is passive, and that man is active in that same sense. This is particularly evident in view of salvation, where it is affirmed that man chooses, of his own free will, to believe in Christ—and that God passively accepts those who believe (although he did perhaps actively bring about the circumstances upon which they believe).

Now, even if a belief in free will did not so negatively influence soteriology, I would still take serious pause before dismissing it as inconsequential to the question, who are the Christians? This is because a god who is passive in some sense and merely responds to man is again not the biblical God, who is totally sovereign and active, and who causes all things. If our view of God is not one that places God in a position of absolute sovereignty, we would seem to be denying something very intrinsic to his nature.

Having said this, however, a distinction seems evident between this error and the aforementioned one of denying Christ’s divinity. In the case of the former, an actual rejection of God’s nature as a trinity is entailed. He becomes a different kind of god altogether when this happens; and certainly Jesus becomes less than God, and therefore less than a genuine savior. But in the case of free will, the denial is not one of kind, but of degree. God does not become a different kind of god under most libertarian free will theologies, because when he is said to be in some sense passive, it is a voluntary passivity. He willingly removes his sovereignty in some way to allow for human free will. It is true that this is a very confused and inconsistent and ultimately incoherent concept; and reflects a faulty understanding of what sovereignty really is—but the point is that his sovereignty is not being rejected, but rather affirmed, if misunderstood. The majority of libertarian free will proponents do not genuinely wish to deny that God is totally sovereign. They just think he sovereignly limits that sovereignty. Confused? Yes. But heretical? No. God does not require that we understand him perfectly, or no one would be saved.

The notable exception here seems, at least to me, to be the open theists and their ilk, who, recognizing the logical incongruity entailed between sovereignty and libertarian freedom, and unwilling to give up libertarian freedom, have given up sovereignty instead. Although in principle they affirm that God has sovereignly limited his sovereignty, just as Arminians and so on do, they functionally deny it completely by rejecting both his exhaustive foreknowledge, and his immutability. They ascribe the state of the world entirely to human actions, with God acting only as the initial creator who could not know how his creation would develop, because human actions, being free, are indeterminable before they occur. To compound this error, they further assert that God changes in response to human actions as he comes to knowledge of them. Thus God becomes more like Zeus than YHVH. Because sovereignty is so intimately related to immutability and foreknowledge, the open theist god is a creaturely parody of the transcendent Creator.

The difference between this god, and even the Arminian God, is indeed one of kind as well as of degree. A mutable god is one who is entirely different in essential nature than an immutable one. And, although it may seem that a god lacking some foreknowledge has only a different degree of knowledge than one with exhaustive foreknowledge, this degree is great, and the difference so pervasive to everything about his nature, that it is hard to imagine the open theist god as being anything like the biblical one. (The number of passages in Scripture which open theism flagrantly denies is so vast that I could not hope to comprehensively list them all here; but for starters, see Ex 3:19ff, 6:1, 7:3-4,13,22, 8:15,19,32, etc; cf Pr 21:1, 19:21; 2 Sam 24:1; 2 Chr 36:22; Ezra 1:1; Dan 4:35; Jer 18:6; Rom 9:15-22; Num 23:19; Job 23:13; Ps 33:11; Is 14:26-27, 45, 46:9-11, 55:11. Rom 8:29, 9:23, 11:2; Eph 1:5,11; 1 Pet 1:20.)

If we were just to base our analysis on this, I would tentatively say that those who hold to libertarian free will, and inconsistently still affirm God’s sovereignty, in all its forms, are certainly Christians—just confused ones. But those who hold to free will and, consistent with that, deny God’s sovereignty in various ways have changed the essential nature of God into something entirely else, and are worshiping the creature and not the creator; they are not Christians at all. But there is more to be considered than just the nature of God himself as the object of salvation, because free will fundamentally affects the nature of salvation also. Therefore, I don’t think the preceding discussion suffices to yet answer our question in full.

Continued in part 4 »

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