OK, I’ll make a statement and you fill in the blank with the first words that come to mind: “You can’t be a Christian if you ____”.
If every one of the thousands of people listening would email me with the first words that came to your mind—and I compiled them all into one “statement of belief”—it would be very interesting. And it would say something about the pride that still infiltrates the hearts of the strongest of believers—because our first answer might incriminate everyone except ourselves.
In fairness, it is a question we should take seriously. Sadly the definition of “Christian” these days is all over the board. That’s what happens when we abandon the Word of God for the teachings and so-called wisdom of man. The moment we start to believe that the Word of God is anything except eternal truth and completely sufficient, we start a long journey that leads to a dark place.
There are absolutes in the Word, make no mistake about it. But once we seek to add to those absolutes with our own human understanding, we open the door to become either legalists or Gnostics—two belief systems that the Apostle Paul spent years warning about and fighting against.
It is a sad twist of irony that the Reformation brought to light the Biblical definition of salvation from the Word itself—“by grace through faith alone”—yet the hundreds of years since then have seen literally tens of thousands of denominations sprout up. In fairness, many were started not because they thought the others had salvation wrong; but they were formed over what is called “doctrinal distinctives”. For example, the Charismatic movement might have started to counter the Baptist teachings that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were suspended at the completion of the Canon of Scripture. These doctrinal distinctives dealt with sanctification issues, not salvation issues. But as they say “A funny thing happened on the way to the store…”
Over time, because of man’s proclivity for sin and pride, these sanctification disagreements became salvation disagreements with some people. Suddenly if you are Charismatic, well I’m not so sure you are really saved. Or if you do not believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit apply today, well then maybe you aren’t really a Christian at all.
“What, you don’t believe in a pre-tribulation rapture? Well, I’ll be praying for your salvation buddy.” Or, “Hold on, you’re telling me you don’t believe in pre-destination? Well, obviously God is revealing much more wisdom to me than to you, so get with the program!” How about “Well you can’t really be a Christian if you listen to the teachings of so and so…”.
Look, there are definitely things you must believe in to be a true Christian. Among them: Believe in the One true God—the God of the Bible. Believe that Jesus Christ—God in the flesh—is the only begotten Son of God. Believe that Jesus Christ took the righteous wrath of a Just God upon Himself as the punishment for our sins. Believe that without true faith in Jesus Christ—who He is and what He did on the cross—that we are destined for eternal separation from God. And believe that we cannot save or justify ourselves—that it is by grace through faith alone that we are saved. Oh, and one more thing emphasized by Jesus, Paul, Peter, James and John—that salvation by grace through faith alone will change us and start to transform us into holy people in the image of Jesus Christ.
After that, let’s be humble enough to admit that there might be things we have yet to understand and can respectfully disagree on. The gifts of the Spirit; the timing of the rapture; pre-destination or choice; and on and on. Will we be humble enough to actually admit we could be wrong in our deeply held beliefs? Can we do something that the Pharisees could not—be humble and willing to listen to the perspective of another and to search the scriptures diligently, asking God to reveal more truth to us each day?
It is good to contend for the faith and to challenge one another with the Word. And guess what: If I am humble enough to admit I could be wrong about a non-salvation issue—and you can prove in the Bible that I was wrong—I actually grow in the knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ!
How we contend for the faith speaks volumes about where we are with God. Coming from a position of pride and self-righteousness makes us no better than the Pharisees that Jesus finally called “white-washed tombs”. But coming from a position of humility with a desire to learn and grow makes us like the little children Jesus said we must become like if we want to inherit the Kingdom of God.
And why we confront others makes all the difference in the world and before the eyes of God. If we confront others to show our superiority, we are prideful and sinning. But if we confront another believer with the intent of helping them, God will honor that. Is our heart right when we confront a brother? Or filled with self-righteousness and an agenda of making ourselves feel superior?
One last thing. Make no mistake, there are wolves out there posing as sheep and shepherds. They are out to deceive the flock and gain earthly wealth and power. Some are preaching an incomplete or false gospel and they must be held accountable publicly. They are deceivers. But there are many out there who are not deceivers; they are deceived or they have yet to come into the fullness of the rich, eternal teachings of Biblical principles and doctrines. They truly want to grow in the knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ, and need someone to point them to the truth. To those people let us be humble and patient, realizing we too at one time had many questions about the Bible.