Wednesday, August 31

When does bad theology get in the way of a person being saved?

Upon seeing an advertisement for an American youth church choir that would be performing in our city, my wife and I decided to attend. We arrived at the largest church venue in the heart of the downtown capital city of the country we were living in at the time and sat towards the back.

The musical performance was first-rate. Our hearts rejoiced at hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed so boldly through these youth. After the musical presentation, the Gospel was openly preached. The words coming out of the mouth of the one preaching were straightforward leaving no doubt, or wiggle room, that the only path to God was solely through faith in Jesus' shed blood on the cross.

"The Church will not save you...your good works will not save you...it is by grace that you are saved by faith...Jesus conquered death by his resurrection from the grave and today stands at the right hand of the Father...open your hearts to Jesus and receive him as your Savior and Lord..."

At the end of the evangelistic message an invitation was given for sinners to stand and publicly profess their faith in Jesus. Dozens stood. Tears were shed. Men and women fell to their knees crying out "Lord, forgive my sin." The youth gathered in small groups with those standing, leading them in the "sinner's prayer." I had a hard time believing the amazing things we were witnessing. Was spiritual awakening finally coming to our city? To this Latin American nation? PTL!

You might be wondering why this revival-like atmosphere would have so captivated me. The reason was that all of the above took place in a Roman Catholic cathedral in the capital city of a Latin American country. The one preaching the Gospel message was a fully-garbed RC bishop!

I was blown out of the water to say the least. Not a single word had been spoken in the two hour evangelistic service that I was not in full agreement with.

But then something very unexpected happened.

In the final two minutes of the service, the priest who had so effectively preached the Gospel of salvation in Christ alone, raised his hands in a benediction and said,

"Hallelujah! God has been so good to us tonight. Let us all stand and join our hands together and give thanks to MARY, THE BLESSED MOTHER OF OUR LORD JESUS, for all she did for us this evening!"

I nearly croaked. How could he possibly believe that Mary had anything at all to do with what the HOLY SPIRIT had done that evening?

That was one of the most memorable services I have ever participated in. And yet, with all due respect to our RC brothers, was marred at the very end by what I consider to be clear theological heresy.

Which of the following theological stances can be considered so false as to actually stand in the way of a person's salvation if adhered to?

-hell is a non-literal place
-Mary is the mother of God
-a person can lose their salvation
-women pastors
-evidence of the indwelling Spirit is speaking in tongues
-the practice of baptizing infants
-only ordained clergy can administer baptism/communion
-any one of dozens of other 2nd and 3rd tier Christian teachings

I like Paul's response to the Romans,

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions...Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. Rom. 14:1,4

It would seem from Paul's perspective that there are brothers (saved brothers) whose theology is "weak" and can even be flawed. But we are to accept these weak brothers and not pass judgment on their inaccurate opinions and beliefs. They do not answer to us for their false/misguided beliefs, but to their master.

Yes, another's theology might be wrong. But when does that bad theology stand in the way of their being saved? Can we still be saved and yet have bad theology on certain matters of faith?

What is the raw essence of the Gospel? The bare minimum that must be believed, or one is lost/condemned? This is something I have thought a lot about over the years. While I have strong evangelical convictions, it doesn't take long being around Christians of other faiths, traditions and denominations before one realizes there are some major theological differences between us!

Peter's response to the listening crowd was, Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

Paul and Silas responded to the Philippian jailor's, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household."

Again Paul writes, "that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved..."

Writing to the Corinthians Paul elaborates on what he considered of FIRST IMPORTANCE For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures... What is of first importance is Christ's death, burial, and resurrection.

So in summary, there can be a lot of bad/false/inaccurate theology out there, but if 1) a person repents and is baptized, 2) believes in the Lord Jesus, 3) confesses with their mouth Jesus as Lord, 4) believes in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, THEY WILL BE SAVED regardless of any bad theology they might adhere to.

Of course, for me, that is what "making disciples" is all about, "teaching them to observe all that Christ commanded"--making sure we correct any bad/false/inaccurate beliefs as we teach them about Christ. Good theology comes from knowing and obeying Christ and all that He taught us about the Father.

So what do you think is the essence of the Gospel--that which absolutely must be present for a person to be truly saved? I am open to hearing any of your thoughts on the matter.

14 comments:

Dan Benson said...

I posted something similar to this on my blog with the title, "The Unimportance of Doctrine." Boy did I catch it. I would say none of those things disqualify a person from the Kingdom of Heaven if they are trusting in the work of Christ on the cross for their salvation. I grew up RC and have returned to it at different times in my life. It's a very tactile -- statues, candles, incense, spectacle -- and it can be very comforting. Pentacostalism is very emotion driven (aren't the three songs at the front end of a contemporary Protestant service?). Different strokes for different folks. The key thing is introducing people to Jesus and preaching him crucified and his resurrection.

J. Guy Muse said...

Dan,

Thanks for stopping by and for the comment. It is indeed a "touchy subject" but one I think is very important. For me doctrine is important, but it is not what saves us. As you point out, it is our personal relationship with the risen Lord. I am sure the Phillipian jailor did not know a lot of doctrine and Christian articles of faith that night he asked, "what must I do to be saved?" Paul told him the essence of the Gospel, and that was enough for salvation. It is the work of the church/discipleship to teach the ABC's and DEF's of the faith.

Alan Knox said...

Guy,

This is a very important question for the church to struggle with. Last week, as we were studying Acts together, we came across these passages:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." (Acts 15:1 ESV)

But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses." (Acts 15:5 ESV)

I would consider these statement to be contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and would question whether or not these people are saved. But, Luke (and Scripture) recognizes these people as brothers...

-Alan

J. Guy Muse said...

Alan,

I totally agree with you. These are questions the church must come to grips with. What is the essence of the Gospel? what is of first importance as non-negotiable, and what things are 2nd and 3rd tier that do not affect one's salvation.

The Scriptures you share are most interesting in that they are yet more evidence of what the early church struggled with in coming to terms with who is saved and who is not. Those early Jewish believers really did believe one must keep the Law of Moses to be a genuine believer. You are right in pointing out their faulty theology is not referred as something that caused them to lose their salvation. It was viewed, rather, as something that needed to be dealt with by all the brothers. Good observation.

BParsons said...

Guy, good thoughts. I have wondered where I would draw the line. I still have a problem with the "Mary" thing. A "Spirit-filled" Catholic -- a priest -- once told me that the gift of tongues had heightened his relationship with Mary.

What if the church is still honoring the "Reina del Cisne?" I also remember one of the little towns just past Mitad del Mundo on the way back to Esmeraldas that advertised "El Señor de los Arboles," and had a picture of Jesus on the cross, morphing into a tree.

I am interested in knowing more about myself -- just where I would draw the line.

J. Guy Muse said...

Bruce,

I hear you and have some of the same struggles (that's why I wrote this post). As Alan points out right above you, in the early church believers--and it says believers thought you had to be circumcised in order to be "in", so even with their bad theology, they were still brothers in Christ! It all gets back to who Jesus is and what we choose to do with Him. The other things can be corrected along the way, but what Jesus did on the cross and our belief/faith/trust in Him counts for everything!

Greg Parsons said...

Very helpful.
You could make a different list for each of the major "non-Christian" religions also. Can a Muslim continue to go to the mosque? A Hindu to the temple, or get flowers for his mother each day for her worship? A Buddhist serve his time in the temple to honor (not shame) his mother?
It is happening.
Their are problems, error, etc., but there are many who are following Christ, and have trusted as you outline, AND who look to the Bible for truth. BUT they may practice things within their culture, not become part of a very foreign-looking church. they are following their upbringing, like our RC brothers and sister (i am not saying they are all believers...that is something we are not privy to!).
Of course, ALL are new creations, if they are redeemed. There will be changes, and they are noticed! That is why it is spreading (because, of course, of the holy spirit).

J. Guy Muse said...

Greg,

Their are problems, error, etc., but there are many who are following Christ, and have trusted...AND who look to the Bible for truth. BUT they may practice things within their culture, not become part of a very foreign-looking church. they are following their upbringing...

Yes. That is the question I am trying to explore in this post. When do those problems, errors, etc. become a true obstacle for saving faith in Christ? Just because everyone does not interpret the Bible as I do, does not mean they do not have the truth. They just understand things differently. But that shouldn't separate us as brothers in Christ.

Thanks for stopping by and for your insightful comments.

antwrites said...

Great post. I've thought a lot about this myself. The real question is WHO are we trusting in? I used to be a pastor, but have left believing that the clergy/laity divide is not the desiure of Christ. Are you sinning if you stay in church? Absolutely not, but I think our growth is impeded. I think I'd rather listen to an uneducated fisherman's word (peter) than to a ivory towered theologian's word any day.
I bet we'll be shocked how wrong we've been with our pet doctrines. But Thank God He has the grace to forgive our faults.

J. Guy Muse said...

antwrites,

Thanks for stopping by and for the interesting comment. Yes, we all have our "pet doctrines" which we want everyone to believe. I am reminded of Jesus' words to Martha in Luke 10, about only a few things are necessary and Mary had chosen that which was good.

Aussie John said...

Guy,

I've waited for a while to comment because I can get "wound up" on this subject.

Now that I've caught my breath and settled down, Ill not say much escept to agree with your 3rd and 2nd last paragraphs.

I've seen people go away, shaking their heads in confusion, when someone complicates the Gospel with denominational distinctives and theology.

NovumTestamentum said...

After a long time I am coming back to visit your blog, so I am commenting this rather old post because it provoked me to answer.

I have no problem with having communion with Christians who think different about a lot of non-essential doctrinal issues - in fact, I have spent most of my Christian life in interdenominational settings. But there are two points in your article which, as I perceive, do affect "essentials" of the Christian faith:

1. The RCC does not simply stop at saying that "Mary is the mother of God". She goes on to teach that Mary is a "co-Redeemer" together with Christ and has to be "venerated" as such. Although in theory, they make a sophisticated difference between "veneration" and "worship" - but in practise their "veneration" equals worship, and is therefore plain idolatry. Just look at the practising Catholic believers (especially in Latin America). So this doctrinal point, unlike most of the others you mentioned, does affect "essentials" - the uniqueness of God for example, and it points people to another "Redeemer" who is not God.
Also, it must be asked how practice and life of a person or group is affected by their doctrine. I have come across a good number of groups who in theory confess doctrines directly opposed to their actual practice. So, if a Roman Catholic Bishop preaches that "The Church will not save you...your good works will not save you...it is by grace that you are saved by faith..." - ¿how far does he go in practice? He may preach this doctrine without actually drawing the consequences of it. If he applies this doctrine consistently to his practice, denying the necessity of the RCC for salvation, then he will not stay in his office for long.

Actually, if certain sectors of the RCC are now applying certain "Evangelical" methods and wording - but without seriously questioning their fundamentally erroneous concept of "church" -, I cannot see this as a sign that the RCC is becoming more "evangelical". On the contrary, I view it as a sign that Evangelical doctrine and practice has become so shallow and so deviated from the "essentials", that even the RCC can copy it without hesitation.
In fact, not only the RCC copies Evangelical methods; even street vendors do it. In several occasions I have heard people in public buses preach exactly like Evangelical preachers - only for the purpose of selling candy or pencils.

(Continues...)

NovumTestamentum said...

(Continuing previous comment)

2. This leads me to my second point: Does "standing up", "professing faith in Jesus", "shedding tears", or "repeating a sinner's prayer", indicate conversion? I ask this question not because it occurred in a Catholic setting; I ask the same question regarding to Evangelical "evangelism". Experience in a large number of Evangelical churches of different denominations taught me that in most cases, it does not. Also, there is no Scriptural support for anyone ever having been "converted" in this way. If you add up the numbers of all people in the city where I live, who have been "converted" in church services and evangelistic crusades, you get a number larger than the city's population. But only about 5% of them actually identify themselves as born-again Christians; and knowing the situation of the churches, I must assume that even many of these 5% are not born again. Most of the people who "come forward" or "repeat a sinner's prayer" simply perform an empty ritual, are driven by a momentaneous emotion or "follow the crowd". (I have had opportunities of interviewing some of them. Most of them were unable even to tell why or for what they had "come forward".) Only a very tiny percentage of them are really convicted of their sin and willing to live their whole life for Jesus. Evangelical "altar calls" have become almost as devoid of spiritual reality as Catholic or Reformed infant baptisms.

This issue has already been observed and described by several writers. Look for example at Keith Green's "What's wrong with the Gospel?" (at http://www.lastdaysministries.org), Ray Comfort's "Hell's Best Kept Secret" (at http://www.livingwaters.com), or Andrew Strom's "Today's Unsaved Church" (at http://www.johnthebaptisttv.com). Listen to Paul Washer, read A.W.Tozer or Leonard Ravenhill. All of these men of God, from different personal and denominational backgrounds, have seen and described this same phenomenon, that "conversion" in Evangelical circles has largely become an empty ritual. You could add to this Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Costly Grace" (in his book "Discipleship"). Although Bonhoeffer aims his appeal to a denomination which does not teach conversion nor practices altar calls, his words are today perfectly applicable to Evangelical churches too.

Sadly, the warning voices of these and other men of God have gone largely unheard by the mainstream of Evangelical churches - and, what saddens me most, also quite some parts of the house church movement seem to be unaware of the problem. What is a return to a New Testament church model good for, as long as the people making up these churches are not New Testament people? I very much hope that your churches over there in Ecuador have a way of assuring that there are less fake conversions and more true ones. (And maybe you would wish to write a future blog article about the way you do this...)

NovumTestamentum said...

PS. to previous comment: As for your ending question, what is the essence of the Gospel? I agree with the four points you mention; and I would think that among Evangelicals there would not be much controversy about them. (Except that you mention only what man does - a Calvinist would certainly object that Salvation depends first and foremost on what God does.)
But the larger problem, in my opinion, is the existence of counterfeits of every one of these points. There is "repentance" which is only outward and not from the heart. (As I see it, the Holy Spirit's work of convicting from sin is an absolutely necessary prerequisite of genuine repentance.) There is a "faith" which doctrinally believes in Jesus, but is not personally committed to Him. There is a confession with the mouth, while the person's life denies the lordship of Jesus. So I would say the problem is not so much about defining the essentials, but about discerning between the "true thing" and the counterfeits.
Then, also your point about discipleship is important and true. But again: let us make sure we are actually discipling "sheep" and not "goats" - else we will have a hard time trying to teach them the behavior of sheep.