The Essentials – Part 1

Since we are saved by grace and not by our merit, God will no doubt forgive some of our theological shortcomings – places where our thinking does not currently align with Scripture.  But when a person denies certain core aspects of the Gospel, this indicates that he or she has not been granted saving faith in Christ.  The Bible itself teaches that certain core doctrines cannot be rejected by a saved person.  Let’s examine these.

What doctrines are absolutely essential to Christianity?  As the Word of God, all Scripture is equally and absolutely authoritative.  But not all Scripture is equally clear, nor equally central to salvation.  Christians disagree on certain nuanced details, yet are united by our common salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ.  On the other hand, there are people who profess to be Christians, but who deny central, core doctrines of the faith.  Where is the line that divides genuine faith from a false faith?  At what point does theological error become heresy?

Heresy is defined as “adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma” or “an opinion, doctrine, or practice contrary to the truth or to generally accepted beliefs or standards.”  The problem with using such definitions is that different churches themselves disagree on some issues of doctrine.  Even individuals within the same local church may disagree on what is “generally accepted.”  Perhaps the word ‘heresy’ ought to be reserved for the most serious of theological errors – those that deny an essential aspect of the Gospel.  Then we can define ‘heresy’ as a theological error so severe that it indicates that a professing Christian might not be truly saved.

Since we are saved by grace and not by our merit, God will no doubt forgive some of our theological shortcomings – places where our thinking does not currently align with Scripture.  But when a person denies certain core aspects of the Gospel, this indicates that he or she has not been granted saving faith in Christ.  The Bible itself teaches that certain core doctrines cannot be rejected by a saved person.  Let’s examine these.

1. The Deity of Jesus Christ

The Bible not only teaches that Jesus is God, but it also teaches that anyone who denies this core principle is not saved.  Professing that Jesus is Lord (Yahweh) is necessarily associated with salvation according to Romans 10:9-13.  Verse 9 gives two conditions that must accompany salvation; the first is that a person must confess with his mouth that Jesus is Lord.  The author (Paul) then proceeds to prove that this is a necessary condition by quoting Joel 2:32 in Romans 10:13, “For whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Jesus is the Lord, and professing this with the mouth is thus necessary to demonstrate that a person’s faith in Him is genuine.

The critic may object, “But couldn’t this just mean that Jesus is a lord, not the Lord God?”  No.  Context shows that the word “Lord” is being used here to refer to Yahweh, the almighty God.  Paul cited Joel 2:32 in his proof that calling upon the name of the Lord is necessary for salvation.  And the word translated “Lord” in Joel 2:32 is Yahweh – the unique name of God.  Paul is therefore claiming that those who call upon Jesus as Yahweh will be saved.

Jesus Himself said as much in His earthly ministry.  In John 8:24, Jesus said, “for unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins.”  Some English translations add the word “He” as in “I am He.”  But in fact, this word is absent in the original Greek text.  Jesus was actually saying that people would die in sin (unsaved) unless they believe that He is the “I am.”  The “I am” is one of the names of the Holy God, first used in Exodus 3:14, and then later in Isaiah [e.g. Isaiah 43:10, 25, 45:18, 46:4].  Jesus refers to Himself as the “I am” again in the same chapter: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am’” (John 8:58).  The strange grammatical construction shows that Jesus is indeed applying one of the names of Yahweh to Himself.  It would be blasphemy if Jesus were not in fact God.

God the Father refers to Jesus as “God” in Hebrews 1:8-12.  Hebrews 1:8 states, “But of the Son He says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom.”  Here, the Lord quotes Old Testament passages describing Yahweh, and applies them specifically to Christ (compare Psalm 102:1,24-27).  The Lord God says in Isaiah 45:23 that “to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear.”  In Philippians 2:10-11, Paul explains that this was Jesus speaking: that to Jesus “every knee will bow” and “every tongue will confess.”  That’s because Jesus is the Lord God.

Yet, unsaved people cannot accept and embrace that Jesus is God.  A genuine saving faith that Jesus is the Lord is something only the Holy Spirit can give (1 Corinthians 12:3).  Thus, a rejection of the divine nature of Jesus Christ is an indication that a person is not (as yet) saved (John 10:25-30).

2. The Resurrection of Christ

The other criterion for salvation that Paul gives in Romans 10:9-10 is that a saved person must believe that God raised Christ from the dead.  The resurrection of Christ shows that He has authority over life and death (John 10:17-18).  It establishes that what He said about Himself is true.  According to the Apostle Paul, faith that Christ rose from the dead is what results in (imputed) righteousness (Romans 10:9-11).

Resurrection means being raised up from the dead – going from a state of death to a state of life.  But there is an important caveat to consider when discussing life, death, and resurrection.  The Bible speaks of two types of life, two types of death, and therefore two types of resurrection.  On the one hand, there is physical life, death, and resurrection.  And on the other hand, there is spiritual life, death, and resurrection.  Physical life, death, and resurrection all pertain to the physical functioning (or lack thereof) of physical bodies.  A person is physically alive when his heart is beating, blood is flowing, and so on.  When those functions cease, a person dies.  The Bible speaks of the physical resurrection of several individuals, such as Lazarus (John 11:14-45), and Jesus Himself (Matthew 28:6-7).

Spiritual life and death both pertain to the state of a person’s immaterial spirit.  God designed humans to love Him and obey His commandments.  This is the function of a living spirit.  When Adam sinned against God, his spirit “died” in the sense that it no longer sought to live for God, but for sin.  Adam’s descendants have inherited a dead spirit and do not seek after God (Ephesians 2:1).  However, God has mercy on some and resurrects their dead spirit, resulting in spiritual life (Ephesians 2:5-6).  All true believers have already experienced this spiritual resurrection.

Jesus spoke of the difference between these two resurrections in John 5:24-29.  He first addresses spiritual resurrection: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).  This spiritual resurrection is applied to everyone who trusts in Christ for salvation, and only them.  Thus, the Lord says in John 5:25, “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”  Notice that Jesus indicates that this spiritual resurrection (1) applies only to some – “those who hear,” and (2) takes place both in the present and also in the future – “an hour is coming and now is.”

Then Jesus describes the physical resurrection of the dead in John 5:28-29 which states, “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”  To clarify that He is speaking of the physically dead, He refers to them as those “who are in the tombs.”  Those would be physical bodies of course.

This physical resurrection differs from spiritual resurrection in two ways.  First, it applies to everyone who has ever died – “all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and will come forth.”  Second, it is entirely in the future: “an hour is coming” (but not “and now is”).  Thus, Jesus indicates that there will be a time in the future when everyone who has ever died will be resurrected.  Jesus said that this general resurrection will occur on the “last day” (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54).  This indicates that temporal history will end at some point, ushering in the eternal state.

So, which of these two resurrections did Christ experience?  Clearly, Jesus rose from the dead physically.  Unlike all other men, Jesus never experienced spiritual death because He never rebelled against God (Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 5:21).  Christ obeyed His heavenly father perfectly and never needed any sort of spiritual resurrection because He was never “dead in sins.”  Moreover, Jesus physically died by crucifixion (Mark 15:24; Luke 23:46), and was therefore physically raised on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:4; Acts 10:40).  He claimed that His physical body was proof of His bodily resurrection (Luke 24:39).

Therefore, it is a belief in the literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Christ that is necessary for salvation (Romans 10:9-10).  Those who believe that the resurrection of Christ is merely a spiritual resurrection, or otherwise non-literal, do not have salvation.  The physical resurrection of the dead is an essential part of the Gospel.  The Bible says, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.  Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:13-17.  Hence, the resurrection of Christ is essential to the Gospel.  Anyone who rejects that Christ physically rose again does not have salvation.

3. The General Resurrection

The resurrection of Christ foreshadows the future resurrection of all the dead.  1 Corinthians 15:20 states, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.”  In the Old Testament administration, the Israelites celebrated the Festival of First Fruits after Passover.  In this festival, they offered a sheaf of the first fruits of their first crop to the Lord (Leviticus 23:9-11).  This showed the gratitude of the people toward God who provides the harvest.  And it also shows their trust that God would also bring forth the rest of the harvest in time.   That is, if God was faithful to bring forth the first fruits, then He will be faithful to bring forth the rest of the harvest in season.

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