A friend sent me a message on Facebook the other day, asking me about my thoughts in regard to a portion of a recent interview between Timothy Keller and a self-proclaimed doubting Christian, Nicholas Kristof, entitled, “Am I A Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?” The gist of Kristof’s argument was, is it necessary for a Christian to believe the basic tenets of the Christian faith to be a Christian? That this is deemed a valid question, seems absurd to me. However, as absurd of a question as this may sound on the surface, I can see the value in its debate, especially in our current age of “cafeteria style” Christianity.
Questioning whether or not you have to believe the basic tenets of Christianity to be a Christian, is truly absurd, but questioning just exactly what makes a person a Christian, is a concept I feel worthy of debate. At what point do we cross the Rubicon of eternal salvation in Christ? Where, exactly, is the delineation on the event horizon between eternal damnation and eternal salvation? Not only do I find these questions worthy of our consideration, but I also find them necessary at this point in Christendom. A point, it seems, where anything goes as long as you have an intellectual awareness of Christ and repeated a prayer, or as long as you’ve been baptized and go to church, or as long as you’ve done one or the other, or all. A point at which current evangelism says that as long as you do “A”, “B”, “C” and “D”, you are forever-locked into the kingdom of God. A point at which people are told that simple acknowledgment of Christ is enough to inherit eternal life.
When I study scripture, I marvel that Jesus seemed to deftly avoid the “grocery list” of necessary tasks people sought from Him to define the path of eternal life. Every time someone asked Jesus what they must do, He seemed to give a different answer:
– We must be born again (John 3:3-6)
– We must be converted (Matt 18:3)
– We must be obedient (Matt 7:21)
– We must not commit adultery, murder, or theft; we must not lie and we must honor our parents (Luke 18:21)
– We must forsake our possessions and follow Him (Luke 18:22)
– We must hate our life in this world (John 12:25)
– We must serve and follow Him (John 12:26)
– We must believe in Him (John 7:38)
– We must keep His word (John 8:51)
– We must drink the Living Water of Christ (John 4:14)
– We must live in Him (John 11:26)
He did this because the only way to eternal life is through a personal relationship with Him, which must be sought with our whole heart, rather than works of our own effort checked off like items on a grocery list. It is not that scripture is in error when it says that we must only believe in Christ to be saved, but rather, it is our understanding of what it means to believe. When scripture tells us that we must believe in Christ, the implications of such a belief is to acknowledge Him as Lord. And the only proper response a human being can have when they acknowledge Christ as Lord, is to surrender to His Lordship.
Jesus said, “For it is My Father’s will that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40). Yet we are told by James, “You believe that God is one. Good for you! Even the demons believe that, and shudder!” (James 2:19). The demons believe in God and shudder, yet they are not saved. And yes, I am aware that Christ died to save men and not demons, but I feel it is worthy to note what is being articulated here by the dual use of the word “belief”. The Greek word translated in the New Testament as “belief” is the word “PISTEUO”. It is the context of the use of this word that determines its meaning, whether a belief of simple intellectual acknowledgment or a belief that leads to submissive faith. A belief of simple affirmation versus a belief of trustful surrender. James differentiates a belief based on simple affirmation from a belief that leads to trustful surrender when he goes on to say, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:20). Not only is James referring to a faith that results in bearing fruit for God’s kingdom, but also a saving faith in Christ that is willing to conform to His authority and will, rather than a faith that is defined by simple intellectual acknowledgement of a certain list of beliefs.
Is it necessary for a person to believe in the basic tenets of Christianity to be a Christian? Absolutely. The definition of any religious movement is a belief in a certain set of fundamental tenets. If you do not believe in the set of tenets that define that religious movement, then find another faith that is more appealing to your intellect and personal motives. Does belief in the basic tenets of Christianity make a person a Christian? Absolutely not. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matt 7:21-23). Salvation is by faith alone, in Christ alone, but our faith must be one of surrender, rather than one of simple acknowledgement.
At what exact point in our belief do we cross over the Rubicon into God’s kingdom? What is the defining moment of transcendence from eternal spiritual death, to eternal spiritual life in Christ? Despite the squawking pontifications of many theologians today and the formulaic “Roman Road” to salvation used by contemporary evangelism, that is truly a question that only God can answer to any degree of absolute certainty. Because it is only God Who can see a man’s heart, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7). But what I can tell you with absolute certainty, is that there is no salvation without surrender.
“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” (John 6:37)