Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Reply All Q&A #1: Christianity Among Other Religions

On Sunday, June 27th, we started a new series called Reply-All, where we are attempting to answer five questions that we received in response to the Letters series that we did in May and June.  The first sermon I preached was in response to the question, How does evangelical Christianity compare to other denominations and other religions?  In order to answer that question on the 27th, I went over the essential elements of the Christian gospel - the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and salvation by faith alone in Christ.  I then went on to describe how different denominations and religions tweak different elements of the Christian gospel.  I discussed how liberal Protestantism tweaks the Bible's teaching on the nature of man (saying we're basically good, not basically sinful), how Catholicism tweaks the Bible's teaching on the means of salvation (saying we are saved by accumulating grace through the sacraments of the church), how the cults tweak the Bible's teaching on the person and work of Jesus (saying that He was just a created being and not fully God), and how the other religions in the world tweak the Bible's teaching on the nature of God (the Trinity, etc.).  Here are answers to some of the text message we received in response to that sermon:

1. Which denominations/religions, other than our own, follow our message and teachings?  Most evangelical churches that believe in the authority of the Bible will be aligned with us on the essentials of the gospel.  We may disagree on forms of worship, ecclesiastical structure, how the gifts of the Spirit work inside the church, etc, but these are all secondary issues (what we call "open-handed" doctrines) compared to the core gospel message.

2. Is the Catholic tweaking of the gospel a question of salvation or is it a secondary issue?  Can someone be a devout Catholic and still be saved?  This is a very important issue to discuss openly and honestly.  The question is one of trust - where is their confidence?  I think people can be Catholic and be saved if their trust is in Jesus for salvation and not the church.  One of the challenges that flows from Catholic ecclesiology (that has a very high view of the authority of the church) can be that people are not encouraged to have a personal faith in Jesus as their Savior, but simply to trust in the institution of the church.  We believe that the Bible is clear that salvation does not come from membership in an institution, but through faith in the finished work of Jesus.  Most Catholics believe rightly about the person of Jesus, but also believe that their salvation is dependent on the sacraments of the church.  I think this is adding to the gospel of freedom in Christ alone and confuses people about the source of their salvation.

3. For those who have never heard the gospel message, is it for lack of faith in Jesus that they are cast out of God's presence forever?  Is there any hope for them?  People are not cast into hell because they have never heard of Jesus.  People go to hell because they are sinners who have rebelled against a holy God and turned to their own idols to save them (see Romans 1).  That being said, I understand the heart of this question.  We all can hope that God will save those who never hear of Jesus, that God in His wisdom and mercy has some other way to redeem those who never hear, but we can't have certainty on this position.  If you want to believe this, you have to defend this view from a position of Biblical silence.  The Bible doesn't explicitly say anywhere that God will save those who never hear the gospel.  Because of that, I cannot hold that position confidently.  I must believe and live as though the name of Jesus is the only one by which men, women, and children can be saved.

4. Which category does the Unity church fall in as far as beliefs that are not consistent with the Bible?  The Unity church tweaks the Bible's teachings on the nature of God, denying the Trinity - that God is One in essence and three in person.  Orthodox Christianity over the last 2000 years has understood the Bible to teach that God is eternally One, but that in His One Essence, He exists eternally as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  To deny the Trinity, Unitarian churches tend to have low views of the Bible and thus fall into other unorthodox teachings on the nature of man and salvation.  But the original change the Unitarian church made was on the nature of God Himself.

5. Why is it impossible not to sin?  The Bible teaches that we are under the curse of sin as human beings because our original parents, Adam and Eve, rebelled against God in the garden of Eden.  The Bible tells us that we have inherited a sin nature from Adam and Eve, that our very beings are marked by the impact of original sin.  Christianity teaches that all men and women are fallen creatures, having dignity because we are made in God's image, but also being depraved because we are part of a fallen creation.  Therefore, we are born into sin, both because we are decedents of Adam and because we choose to sin on our own.

6. Are practicing Jews still covered under the Old Covenant?  The Old Covenant did not say that the Jewish people were saved by keeping the law or doing the sacrifices.  They were saved by faith in God.  The apostle makes the strongest case for this in Romans 4 when he says that the Bible is very clear that Abraham was saved by faith and not by his works.  Therefore, salvation has always been by faith, even if the Jews of the Old Testament did not know about Jesus or his work on the cross on their behalf.  That being said, today's Jews do know of Jesus and his work on their behalf.  Today, Jewish people are saved just like Gentile people - through faith in the finished work of Christ.  The Old Covenant does not provide another way to salvation - it simply pointed people to their need for Jesus Christ.  Therefore, all people around the world today need to repent and place their faith in Christ for salvation - Jew and Gentile alike.

These are tough questions - theologically and emotionally - but I want to be clear and I want to faithful to Scripture.  Please let me know if I need to clarify my answers on any of the points above....

2 comments:

jeremy said...

Keith,

Can you expand further on the issue of salvation through faith discussed in the summary and question #3, as opposed to salvation through grace alone. I am struggling through understanding the compatibility of predestination and free will. Any thoughts or suggested readings would be great.

Jeremy Carpenter
(random huh?)

Keith Ferguson said...

Jeremy,

Evangelical protestants teach that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. In other words, salvation is completely "earned" by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross - we don't add anything to his work. This is what is meant by "grace alone." By "faith alone," what we mean is that we receive this grace from God by trusting in Jesus, not by doing anything to earn it. This is the main difference between Catholics and Protestants - how do we receive God's grace in our lives? Catholics believe we receive grace through participating in the sacraments of the church. Protestants believe we receive grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

On your second question regarding predestination and free will, I am going to preach on that topic in two weeks. In short, what I believe the Bible teaches is that God is both sovereign over all things and that we make real decisions that we are ultimately accountable for. I will try to make that position logically coherent on July 25th. As far as best books to read on that topic, I have found the Four Views book called Predestination and Free Will the best overview of the different positions. I personally find Clark Pinnock's position outside of orthodox Christianity just so you know.