Sunday, May 01, 2011

Revisiting Trodden Ground

In lieu of the weekend's Fundamentals post, I felt the need to repost something I put up three years ago in reference to defining the true Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

As I noted in 2008, the subject comes up quite often when you're in an apologetics ministry. To resolve this issue, we need to look at the final authority on the matter -- the Word of God -- and see what it has to say.

When you're in a discussion with people belonging to pseudo-Christian groups, it's always a must to define terms. The reason this is important is that one side might mean one thing when they use a term, and the other side might mean something entirely different. While having a short, dictionary-type definition is certainly helpful, there are times when one has to build on a theological definition by taking the whole weight of Scripture on the issue being debated. Here, I will make concise definitions, and then build my case for those definitions with the Bible:

1. A Christian is one who has saving faith in the biblical Lord Jesus Christ. True saving faith has hallmarks set forth in Scripture.

2. A true Christian church is a fellowship of individual believers who have saving faith in the biblical Lord Jesus Christ. A true Christian church has certain hallmarks set forth in Scripture.

3. By Scripture, I mean the accepted canon of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, not including the Apocrypha, nor any other writings purported by others to be Scripture.

Now that the stage is set, what is meant by "saving faith?" From the testimony of Scripture, one is saved when one believes the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and believes not by mere mental assent, but believes from the heart. What about those who think they they are true believers with a zeal for God? The Apostle Paul addressed that issue in his letter to the Romans . . .

Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “DO NOT SAY IN YOUR HEART, ‘WHO WILL ASCEND INTO HEAVEN?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘WHO WILL DESCEND INTO THE ABYSS?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, in your mouth and in your heart” --that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, 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; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation (Romans 10:1-10).

Saving faith involves believing God when He tells us that we have no righteousness of our own. People who have saving faith in Christ realize that the only righteousness they have is imputed to them by the Lord. We are clothed in His righteousness, not our own. No amount of human effort can purchase our salvation. Only the shed blood of Christ on the cross can atone for our sins. Our salvation is by His mercy and grace, not any effort of our own. Any attempt to add human works to the Gospel will be rejected before the throne of God.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Now, what about works? If they're not efficacious for salvation, then what are they for? They are evidence that faith is genuine. They are a fruit of saving faith, not a cause of it. Here's what Scripture says about it . . .

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works (James 2:18).

The passages in James on faith and works are often misunderstood, and therefore distorted from their true meaning. James is merely saying that works are evidence of saving faith. Works justify you before men, not God. If you say you have faith, but show no evidence of faith by how you live or what you do, there is reason to question whether your faith is genuine. If you'd like to read an in-depth treatment of what constitutes saving faith, this article by Dr. John MacArthur is very helpful.

What is the Gospel? Again, Scripture tells us. The only place in the New Testament where the Gospel is defined is in 1 Corinthians . . .

Now I make known to you, brethren, the Gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. 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 . . . (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

That's it. That's the biblical Gospel as defined by the Apostle Paul in Scripture. The Lord Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and rose again from the dead for our justification. The warning to those who would preach a different Gospel is severe . . .

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a Gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a Gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed (Galatians 1:8-9).

Note that Paul issues the warning twice. It's that important. There is only one Gospel revealed by God to His people. A true Gospel saves. A false Gospel damns.

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