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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Other 'Christians' by David Crank

I just read this in the new issue of Unless The Lord Magazine by David Crank (who I really enjoy reading), and thought it was extremely timely and interesting. I'm not sure I agree with all of his conclusions, but I thought it was something I really ought to share here.

Other “Christians”


Many people wear the label of “Christian.” Many churches call themselves “Christian” churches, though their beliefs differ widely. With which of these can we truly fellowship with as brothers and sisters in Christ? And which are false brethren, claiming the name of Christ but without truly being born again? To assess whether certain churches are truly “Christian,” we must first define what a “true” Christian is.

What is a “true” Christian?

The Bible describes a “true” Christian as: one who believes, who has faith in Christ, who confesses Jesus as Lord and believes in his heart that God raised Him from the dead; one who is born again by the Spirit, one who repents and is baptized, one who is saved by grace through faith – not as a result of works; etc.
The condition of “faith” or “belief” is given as the sole condition for salvation in approximately 200 places in the Bible. It is a faith placed in Jesus Christ, as the son of God, and as one’s savior and substitute who took our penalty for sin. Some churches add to faith a condition of “surrender to the Lordship of Christ.” Others make a point of saying you must first repent (of sin) and then believe. Still others will say you must believe and be baptized to be saved.
We could debate whether these other conditions (other than faith/belief) are a natural part of, or consequence of truly believing, or are themselves separate requirements. However, it seems clear enough that a true turning in faith to Jesus Christ, believing Him to be who He said He was (the Messiah, the only Son of God, One with the Father) and trusting solely in His death in our place for the forgiveness of our sins and receiving eternal life … would normally include confession of our sin, repentance (a change of mind), surrendering to His lordship, and choosing to be baptized (though in some situations this last response might be delayed for some time).
The “true” Christian is one who as a result of his faith, is completely forgiven by God of all his sins, and considered justified in God’s sight, has been born again by the Spirit of God, has inherited eternal life in heaven, etc. The true Christian does NOT believe he will get into heaven by doing more good things than bad, or being an OK guy, or by performing any rituals, doing any works of penance, or anything else to “earn” his salvation. The true Christian realizes his salvation is an undeserved gift from God and that there are no works he must do to either earn or keep this salvation.
Salvation should properly result in a life of good works (Eph 2:10). A professed faith that does not result in a turning away from habitual sin, and a life lived desiring to please Christ and to do good works for His sake - - may well not be a saving faith.

Are Only Protestants Christians?

What about the Catholics and the Orthodox? Are these “other Christians” truly Christians? Protestants are acutely aware of many of the works based teachings within the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Catholic church does teach faith in Christ, His substitutionary death, and many other things that most Protestant churches would agree with. But then there are many other extra-biblical teachings that have grown out of church tradition and pronouncements of popes over the centuries – things that cannot be adequately supported from the Bible.
Most of us can also think of many professed sincere Catholics who have lived lives of habitual sin while participating in the Catholic “sacraments” and regularly going to confession. These certainly show no indications of being “true” Christians. However, much the same can be said about a number of folks in Protestant churches as well.
I have been in some Protestant churches where nearly everyone gave every outward appearance of being saved and professed a faith in Christ alone for their salvation. However the same cannot be said for most Protestant churches. There are most always at least a few who appear to be false believers in the midst.
Certainly Catholics think they are “true” Christians. In fact, they usually consider the Catholic church to be the ONE true church – the very same church that was founded by the apostles. Yet when we compare the early church teachings and practices as exhibited in the New Testament, with those of the modern Catholic church, we can see that there has been a huge change.
Much has been added to the gospel to make it a salvation by faith plus works. New doctrines have been introduced which replace a life of faith with one of ritual and/or self-abasement. The list of new and contradictory doctrines, introduced without sound biblical support, is long (veneration of Mary & the saints, purgatory, forbidding priests to marry, the clergy/laity distinction, etc.).
Nevertheless, there are Catholics who are very serious about their religion, who believe the Bible and seek after the true God. These Catholics hold to many of the same beliefs and values as Protestant “true” Christians. And among these are some who do not hold to all of the non-biblical doctrines the Catholic church has adopted over the centuries.
Is it possible for a Catholic to find true salvation through the study of the Scriptures, and perhaps even through the study of the writings of early church fathers? Yes! How else would we explain men such as Martin Luther, Jan Hus, John Wycliffe? Certainly there have been many, many more who never made such a public break with Catholic teaching as to result in their being branded as heretics, excommunicated and often persecuted or even killed.
Living among many Protestant Christians has exposed many Catholics to Protestant teachings about salvation, causing some to truly put their faith in Christ without any dependence on works. Afterwards, many of these do leave the Catholic church, but often not immediately and some do not leave at all. What is the point of all this? You cannot judge a person’s beliefs, salvation, or lack thereof, solely by the church he attends!
So are Catholics Christians? Some are undoubtedly “true” Christians, even though they may hold to some false teachings (but then the same can be said of those in most Protestant churches, just perhaps to a much lesser degree). Many other Catholics are very serious in their worship of Christ, their belief in most of the teachings of the Bible, and in desiring to live a life pleasing to God. They may engage in many good works and acts of charity. For Protestant Christians to treat these folks as if they were pagans, cannot be right! Most of these people may not have actually come to a true saving faith, yet they do believe a lot of the truth and seek after God. They are not far from being “one of us” and God might use us to help them come to a truer understanding of the gospel.

What About the
“Christian Cults”?

There are a number of church denominations that consider themselves Christian, but that are considered by most other Christian churches to be cults. Typically these are churches that hold to some special revelation given to their founders that has resulted in the development of doctrines seriously at odds with foundational doctrines of most Protestant faiths. These different teachings often strike at the very heart of the person, nature and work of Jesus, as well as the way of salvation.
Founders of other Christian denominations are viewed as being merely mistaken on certain points and having normal human faults. Whereas the founders of the cults are believed to have been false teachers and deceivers in the worse sense. “Prophets” who lied about special revelations, or in some cases may have even been demonically influenced. Many are accused of pretending to live holy lives while truly living lives of habitual sin and manipulating their followers for their own personal benefit.

A Case In Point: The Mormons

The Mormon church was founded by Joseph Smith, who claimed special revelations from God and to have found and supernaturally translated another book of Scripture written in the Americas – the book of Mormon. This book, as well as some writings of revelations to Joseph Smith, are regarded as authoritative by the Mormon church – on a level equal to the Bible. There is much historical evidence presented that Mr. Smith was a religious fraud who finally developed a story that played well in his time, that was effective in gathering a large number of believers for starting a new religion under his own authority as a prophet.
Yet whatever one’s verdict about Joseph Smith the man, the more serious question concerns the things that he taught that have become the foundational beliefs of the Mormon church of today. Smith’s teachings about who Jesus is are decidedly different from protestant orthodoxy. However, these differences are not immediately apparent as so much of the biblical terminology is used but is given a different meaning. Likewise the way of salvation initially sounds very biblical, but actually seems to include a very large “works” component by which one “earns” his salvation.
Yet Mormons as a whole have a very good reputation as being very “Christian” folks. The Mormon church takes a strong stance on moral issues, strongly encourages marriage, children and the development of strong families. They encourage good character and good works, take care to present themselves as very conservatively well dressed, and are concerned about how they are viewed in the larger community and being a good testimony for their church. In their character and lifestyle, there is much that conservative Protestant Christians can identify with and relate to. By lifestyle and appearances, the Mormons would appear to be a more solid Protestant denomination than most. However, the false teachings of Joseph Smith run deep and discourage sound biblical exegesis that would lead towards doctrinal correction.
The Mormon church has also been very effective in capturing many from Protestant churches who were immature in their faith and disenchanted with their previous churches. Indeed the Mormons are very evangelical in preaching the Mormon church to others. Thus they can be a danger for leading immature believers into their church and into false doctrines.
Yet the typical Mormon believes he is worshiping the same God and serving the same Christ as Protestant Christians. Perhaps they do. Indeed, we can agree with them on many teachings of the Bible – as long as Joseph Smith’s peculiar doctrines remain in the background. We can potentially work together on many social issues in our society – but not on evangelizing the lost! For though the initial message sounds much the same, as one goes deeper into the Mormon gospel, one finds a very different gospel.
Does this mean that no Mormons are “true” Christians? It would seem that a full understanding of the “gospel” from the Mormon perspective would get no one truly saved. However, the Mormons take in many converts from other churches, some of whom were already saved before coming into the Mormon church. And there will always be individuals who draw some of their beliefs from their own personal study or other influences rather than from their church. Thus we may find some “true” Christians, even in a Mormon church!
Also, there will be many in a Mormon church who will be very devoted to God and will not be far from an understanding of the true gospel. They may be very skeptical of listening to any teaching from a non-Mormon source, yet if they would, a good many might find the true gospel and forsake the false teachings of Joseph Smith.

Other Denominations & Cults?

Much the same can be said for many churches seeming to hold to some strange doctrines or even those considered to be cults. The more extensive the false teaching within a church, the lower the probability that those attending will ever hear and understand the true gospel and find salvation. Yet however false the teaching, God can still reach some people with the truth, whether through other influences outside of their church, or directly through their own reading of the Bible and seeking after Him. Most so reached will eventually see the serious error in their church and decide to seek out a different church. But a few may remain where they are, partly to influence others, and partly due to strong cultural, family and friendship ties.

Application to Us

1. When around those from churches that we do not believe are teaching the true gospel, we need to use our opportunities wisely. Many of these people may be very sincere in seeking God and may be very close to the truth. So we need to approach them in love and with wisdom and gentleness. Most will resist a forceful approach, but God may gently open the door for our witness, that we may be tools in His hands to lead another person into a fuller knowledge of the truth.
2. We must be careful not to assume that ALL Catholics, Mormons, or whatever, are not “true” Christians. It may be safe to assume most have never truly “found” Christ, but there will be exceptions. Find out what the individual believes before reaching a conclusion, not just what his or her church believes. Don’t brand them as non-Christian before you truly know where they stand.
3. Also be careful in your judgment of the teachings of “other” groups of “Christians.” Are all your information sources from their critics? If so, some of what you are reading about them may be biased or a mistaken understanding of their beliefs. It is all too easy to hold up the most extreme and indefensible view as being THE belief of the entire group, when in reality, this may only be the view of one small segment of the group.
4. These groups believe they are “true” Christians (it’s the rest of us they have doubts about). So when interacting with them, we need to be sensitive to this fact. To label them to their face as non-Christians will be offensive and will likely close off any opportunity to explain why. Build from what we do have in common, such as a belief in the Bible, a belief in Jesus as being the Son of God, etc. A basis of commonality and acceptance will go a long ways towards creating a future opening for sharing where your beliefs differ, how the Bible supports your beliefs, and your own personal testimony. 

From: UNLESS THE LORD … MAGAZINE Volume 7 Issue 2


Kelly said...

You know, I was really hesitant to read this, but I have to say, it was very evenhanded! I especially liked this part:

Most of us can also think of many professed sincere Catholics who have lived lives of habitual sin while participating in the Catholic “sacraments” and regularly going to confession. These certainly show no indications of being “true” Christians. However, much the same can be said about a number of folks in Protestant churches as well.

I think my big question about articles such as these, is, if you are a true "saved" Christian, then would you be condemned for practicing "extra-Biblical practices"?

I don't know about your views in particular, Amy, but I have had "once saved, always saved" Christians tell me that they could commit any sin after being saved (though they shouldn't, they hasted to add) and it would not effect their salvation.

Yet, I would be condemned for following the teachings of the Catholic Church, despite my belief that I have been saved though my faith in Jesus Christ, by the grace of God. It just doesn't make sense to me.

I feel this is especially the case when I partake of the Catholic sacraments out of the sincere belief that this is God's plan for us. I think I'm presuming a lot less on God's mercy than my many, MANY "saved" friends in school who felt that God would overlook a little fornication, since they were Christians and couldn't lose their salvation.

I also think it is interesting how the definition of Christian has changed relatively recently. Historically, Christian meant affirming the historic creeds, the Nicene or the Apostles if you wanted to avoid the "filoque clause" problem. Using this formula would give a "pass" to nearly everyone but the Mormons.

It has only been since the first Great Awakening that the idea that you must have an emotional experience of "being saved" has existed. No one was "saved" before, say, 1750. Why would Jesus have bothered to die in the 1st century if it would take over 1700 years for his death to being salvation to anyone? If the "gates of hell will not prevail against" the church, why would it have fallen into error almost from the start?

From my perspective, this is a totally new view of Christianity, which is distinctively American, which is quickly denying salvation to anyone else.

Putting such an emphasis on READING the Bible as a means to salvation (as opposed to proclaiming) makes sense in America, where the literacy rate is only 1%. Yet worldwide, 20-25% of the population can't read. The illiterate population is mostly concentrated in the areas MOST in need of hearing the gospel---South and West Asia (places such as India and Indonesia), Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Arab States. Handing out King James Bibles is not going to help these people to be saved.

I once went to a Baptist church were it turned out, I had visited in the midst of a 20 week study of one of Paul's letters. I was handed an outline for the day's homily, and a pencil for taking notes. I can think of some good points to this system. We rarely get to do such indepth study of one particular book during the regular Sunday service in a Catholic Church.

However, if I were someone in India who couldn't read, after nearly six months, I would have heard only one book of the Bible. Whereas, if I had attended a Catholic Church (or Anglican or Lutheran for that matter), by coming to services daily, I would hear almost the entire Bible over three years.

I think I've started to ramble, but I guess what I'm saying in the end, is that I don't think this system of salvation makes sense either historically, or globally. I'm interested to hear your thoughts, and I hope I didn't come across too harshly.

motherofmany said...

I think the point you make is exactly where the cusp of the difference lies. My stance would be that someone who knows the truth woul dnot continue in a church where extra things are taught, because the real danger is that when you add extra teachings, you make it very likely for people to put their faith in things that are not going to save them. I would say the verses about our righteousness being filthy rags and our traditions making the gospel void would warn about trying to add to the plan of salvation laid out for us. It is like a giant slap in the face to God, who has said this is my son, I will sacrifice him for you to make you free, and we say, no thanks, I'll keep trying to do it myself. Or God says Here is my word for you to follow, and we say well, I'd arther have mroe than just your words.

Once saved always saved is dependant on whether the salvation was true or not. God has promised that he can keep those who belong to him, as well as the promise that when we are truly born again, He will change us dramatically through the Holy Spirit. Anyone who thinks they can continue to sin has not been changed, and Luke 9:62 says if we put our hand to the plough (make our committment to the work of Christ) and tunr back, we are not fit for the kingdom. Many verses say that we are new creatures, and if there is nothing new about a person, it is not a real salvation.

Also, not all of the church group in history heard of the Nicene creed, but relied on the verses that say those who believe Jesus was who he claimed to be and that he alone could save them were Christians. I know you believe otherwise, but there were many splinter groups that survived apart from the Catholic church for centuries. Being 'saved' is just a term used to exlpan what happens whne someone is converted or born again. Thiose who put their FULL trust in Christ from the very beginning, even before his crucifixion, were saved.

A biblically sound church teached both the milk of the word (basics) and the meat (deep theological stuff) in order to be edifying all present. I have bnever been in a biblically based service where the gospel message was not presented. Check out Ray Comfort (there are many others, but he is my favorite). The gospel message can be taught in 5 minutes, because our conscious tells us that sins is wrong, and the Bible says sin leads to death. That's another reason I am against friendship evangelism- what if the person dies in the midst of your attempt to teach them over a course of casual meetings? They can know and be saved in a very short time, because we are not promised tomorrow to tell them a little more. We read in the Bible that the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. Just as the Bible tells us the law is our schoolmaster to bring us to the knowledge of our sins, someone does not need to read through the entire Bible before they realize they are a sinner. And there are many examples of conversions during a single preaching session in the Bible, because the people already knew the law (even the gentiles because they were written in the conscious of man) and they very qwuickly realized they had broken them, were headed for damnation, and could rely only on the perfect sacrifice of Christ.

Kelly said...

My stance would be that someone who knows the truth woul dnot continue in a church where extra things are taught, because the real danger is that when you add extra teachings, you make it very likely for people to put their faith in things that are not going to save them.

Yes, but these kids I went to school with put their faith in saying a Sinner's Prayer, and it might cost them their salvation in the end.

Once saved always saved is dependant on whether the salvation was true or not.

But many people such as Candy talk about how you shouldn't have to always wonder about you salvation, the way that Catholics supposedly do. But if people get "saved" two or three times to make sure that they are really saved, how is that any different?

Also, not all of the church group in history heard of the Nicene creed, but relied on the verses that say those who believe Jesus was who he claimed to be and that he alone could save them were Christians.

But what are you basing this on?

I know that Candy (and yes, I remember that you two aren't interchangable, so feel free to tell me when you don't agree) wrote once that she thinks Christians used to be more knowledgable about the Word when it was forbidden by the Catholic Church, because Christians would borrow a Bible from their neighbor to copy it out themselves.

But paper and ink and candles to give light to write by were expensive! There is no way that there were peasants out there with a big stack of parchment copying out Bibles. Even if there was, wouldn't these heirlooms have been preserved? Even one!

There are Christians in Kerala India who claim, and have evidence, that they were converted by St. Thomas the apostle in the 1st century.

In Japan, Catholicism was introduced by the Jesuits in the 1500's. Eventually, all of the priests were expelled, and the converts were martyred. When Catholics returned in the 1800's, they found that many Catholics were still there, secretly practicing the faith that they had handed down from generation to generation. There is again, ample historic evidence that this is true.

Perhaps you are thinking of people such as the Montanists- who rejected the heirarchy and believed in following on the Bible. Only, Montanus also taught his followers that he was receiving Divine Revelation, and that his word was equal to the Word of God.

The Waldensians are often pointed to for such a history, however, even Protestant scholars agree that there is no historic evidence that they originated prior to Peter Waldo. Their doctrine also does not match with fundamentalism in many counts. They practiced infant baptism, believed in transubstantiation, confession, etc.

Just as the Bible tells us the law is our schoolmaster to bring us to the knowledge of our sins, someone does not need to read through the entire Bible before they realize they are a sinner.

I wasn't really speaking of conversion. I was speaking of how converts are always told that now they are saved, they should begin to read the Bible daily. That obviously isn't doable for the illiterate. Their only chance to hear Scripture is at church.