We all know Christians who hop from one church to another until they find one that fits them. At some point usually, these Christians find their niche (like the rest of the world’s religious people). They find a group that makes them feel, in the best of senses, warm and fuzzy.
They feel accepted and removed from under the microscope of judgment. They find themselves capable of service and commended for the service they give. They find like-minded people who see the world, understand the Bible, and implement their Christian responsibilities in the same way. While there usually is not 100% agreement on every issue, enough is agreed on to make weekly gathering for worship and Bible study a real pleasure. They have become a part of a larger family.
They are so contented that they have very little inclination to study and discuss the different viewpoints held by other Christians. The group that they have found “works” for them so their interest in discussing alternative views holds little attraction. And part of this complacency arises both from the fact that many are not as knowledgeable as they should be (and they admit it) and from the fact that the issues in question are presented in such a way that the impression is given that a person needs a seminary education to understand and communicate what he believes.
Every Christian denomination and religious persuasion has its sacred cows. The development of the idiom sacred cow, of course, flows out of the fact that in Hinduism the cow has such an elevated place of importance that it is untouchable. That phrase has become an American idiom for anything that was considered impossible to reject, above questioning, and inherently valid.
Just like India has lots and lots of sacred cows, so in American religions there are lots of ideological sacred cows.
One of the sacred cows that I was taught is the crux of the issue of salvation is believing the right content. Of course some will insert “truly” before the term “believe” and others will want to add the idea of mandatory perseverance as part of the idea of believe. But all agree that salvation results from believing the right content.
One of the things that makes ideological sacred cows so hard to slay is that they generally have a bit of truth in them. That bit of truth is pressed so that one feels like he must accept the whole concept. Let me illustrate with a simple syllogism.
Premise #1: Jesus came to save people from hell to heaven.
Premise #2: If a person believes in Jesus, he receives eternal life from Jesus.
Premise #3: Therefore, by the gift of eternal life, Jesus saves from hell to heaven.
It is a Biblical fact that Jesus came to spiritually save all those who believed in Him as Messiah. It is a Biblical fact that those who don’t believe in Jesus aren’t spiritually saved. It is also a Biblical fact that Jesus gives eternal life to all who believe in Him as Messiah. But it is not a Biblical fact that the salvation that He gives is related to hell or to heaven. That belief is a sacred cow: a supposition that is not true, but which is, nevertheless, not open to serious questioning today!
It is also not a Biblical fact that eternal life has anything to do with life beyond this earth. Eternal life is not about going to heaven or having a place in heaven promised to its possessor. That belief is another sacred cow!
Like many theological sacred cows, this one is taken for granted and assumed to be true without any serious question being entertained about its validity. If you believe the right doctrine, you’re in; if you believe the wrong doctrine, you’ll surely miss the boat to heaven.
This doctrine of the right content was first impressed upon me in my first theology class. We were studying the two forms of God’s revelation to man: natural revelation and special revelation. Natural revelation is what God gives to man through natural creation. While special revelation focuses primarily on the specific, written revelation that God has given to man in the Bible, it also includes the visions, dreams, theophanies, and angelic visitations, all of which are used by God to communicate with man in both testaments of Scripture.
In class we were attempting to connect two issues: God’s revelation to man and man’s need of salvation. It was a very short step to draw the conclusion that receiving natural revelation could never save a person. The reason was simple, I was told: “There is no message of the cross in natural revelation, and without that message no one can be saved.” That seemed so completely logical to me back in my early years of ministry that no rationale ever presented itself to doubt the logic.
Jonathan Edwards once gave a sermon that was subsequently published into a little booklet entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. And since the Reformation that is the typical view of man’s condition before the holy and righteous Judge of Heaven. The Fatherhood of God and His love for the world that He created and sustains is, for most people, a lost message or one that they have never heard. Not only is God a God of love, also He is actually seeking individuals who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. These truths paint an entirely different portrait of the God of Heaven. Yes, indeed, He is a Judge who has given all judgment over into the hands of His Son, Jesus, who has given His life for you and to you.
Has this Father restricted the needed revelations that lead to a blessed relationship with Him to only a privileged few? Or has He revealed exactly what He requires, and has left the decision to each man to make as He convicts and draws each person to the truth that He has given?
Undoubtedly, we follow many great and godly men and women who have preceded us. It is not an easy road to question and to carefully study independently. And I have great appreciation for the seminaries I attended because, in addition to teaching me what they thought the Scriptures taught, they also prepared me to study issues for myself.
And as often happens when one gets more experience in the ministry and much more time to study the Word of God for himself, inconsistencies arise. Instead of lethargically clinging to the ubiquitous mindset that recognizes that some problems exist and are readily identifiable, but, for the most part, believes that the theology that I have been taught answers most of the problems well, I began to seek answers for the exceptions, for the problems that my theological grid could not answer. My former theological mindset remained acceptable to me until I began to dig deeper, questioning assumptions and some of the interpretation that flowed from those assumptions.
For example, did anyone (much less, did every saint) in the OT really understand the coming of the cross of Messiah? And if we are to assume that knowledge and understanding about the cross increased as one generation succeeded the next, then why didn’t the disciples, who became the apostles, know about and understand the death and resurrection of the Messiah? They were quick to recognize Him through John the Baptist’s introduction of Him. But they never understood nor believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus until after He was raised from the dead and after He appeared to them, explaining how those two things had to occur.
It is abundantly clear that the apostles did not believe in a coming death for the Messiah. In fact, Peter, the leader of Jesus’ little band of followers, took Him aside and rebuked Him for suggesting that such a thing could, much less should, happen (Mark 8:31-33). And here is the real killer point: not only did they not believe in either the death or the resurrection of Jesus, they were, nevertheless, saved individuals (John 1:35-51; 3:16; 6:47; 20:31). These are the Scriptural facts and are not open to debate. These are some of my new sacred cows!
The question naturally arises then, if the apostles could believe in Jesus without believing in either His death or His resurrection, why couldn’t people in the OT have a belief system that was adequate to rightly relate them to the God of Israel without believing in the Messiah’s coming death and resurrection?
When I was taught that natural revelation, the truths that God reveals through His creation, could not save a person, that was partially correct, but based upon incorrect assumptions. What are some of those assumptions? Here is a partial list:
1. That anyone was spiritually saved in the OT.
2. That spiritual salvation was even sought by anyone.
3. That God provided a means for OT people to obtain spiritual salvation.
4. That spiritual salvation had anything to do with going to heaven after physical death.
The facts are these: NOBODY was saved in the OT. Not one. Biblical speaking, save and salvation denote either the reception of eternal life (Eph. 2:4, 8-9), or the use of that life to be delivered from the spiritual trials that confront a person (1Tim. 4:16; cf., also Heb. 7:25). These spiritual concepts are never being referred to when the OT uses the terms save or salvation. These terms only refer to a physical deliverance in the OT. So . . .
Adam and Eve were not saved.
Noah was not saved.
Abraham was not saved.
Job was not saved.
Joseph, who was clearly a type of Messiah, was not saved.
King David was not saved.
Daniel was not saved.
None of the prophets or judges or other prominent leaders were saved.
Spiritual salvation was not even an option until Jesus began His earthly ministry. I’ve attentively searched for verses that say otherwise, but I have yet to find any to support the idea that spiritual salvation occurred in the OT. What I did find was the fact that salvation in the OT is universally a physical deliverance from some physical, temporal situation, disease, or enemy. It is never the spiritual salvation that Eph. 2:8-9 describes.
So, it is true that the information that God reveals in natural creation is not enough to save a person. But no one had to be saved in this way in the OT so it doesn’t matter. And when people are saved that way in the NT, they aren’t given a free gift of heaven. There was enough information in the truths that God revealed in nature to establish a relationship with Him, however. And that is the relevant point.
And after a positive relationship with God has been established, there is nothing that forbids this same person from coming to some bad conclusions about God, about His Son, or about the Holy Spirit. What is considered orthodox, Christian theology cannot be the plumb line that determines who is really in and who is out for the simple reason that it has changed over the centuries. Even the theology of the Protestant Reformation can’t be used as the infallible guide to truth since there are quite a few today to have rejected parts of that theology based upon a literal, grammatical, cultural interpretation of the Bible, our only infallible, inerrant plumb line for faith and practice.
And if the new studies on justification are true, then the central doctrine of the Protestant Reformation is false. In fact, if justification is not what the Reformation declared it to be, following Augustine’s understanding of it, then ALL of the soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) of the Reformation partakes of error.
One day, I believe, all Christians will rejoice in the fact that bad theology won’t send anyone to hell. If it did, we’d all spend some time there for sure.
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