What Is the Least You Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?
. . . 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. (Romans 10:9)
Mainline Methodist minister Martin Thielen recently made this the title of a book he wrote in hopes of winning to the Christian faith sceptics, atheists, agnostics, and people who hate Christian fundamentalists.1 Thielen recounts an on-going conversation with an atheist who was coming around to the Christian position who finally asked, ‘What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?’ So Thielen writes his book, first of all listing ten things one does not need to believe. Here they are:
- God causes cancer, car wrecks, and other catastrophes
- Good Christians don’t doubt
- True Christians can’t believe in evolution
- Women can’t be preachers and must submit to men
- God cares about saving souls but not saving trees
- Bad people will be ‘left behind’ and they fry in hell
- Jews won’t make it to heaven
- Everything in the Bible should be taken literally
- God loves straight people but not gay people
- It’s okay for Christians to be judgmental and obnoxious.
Then Thielen tells us what we must believe to be a Christian. He says that Christians need to believe in Jesus – his life, teachings, example, death, and resurrection – and this belief, in turn, provides ‘promising answers’ to life’s most profound questions including:
- Who is Jesus?
- What matters most?
- Am I accepted?
- Where is God?
- What brings fulfilment?
- What about suffering?
- Is there hope?
- Is the church still relevant?
- Who is the Holy Spirit?
- What is God’s dream for the world?
Thielen says that people in the 21st century hunger for an open-minded expression of Christian faith.
What shall we say about these things? In the context of taking up the issue of why the Jews had largely rejected the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul the Apostle says that the righteousness based on faith is what saves (Rom. 10:5-8). From there Paul defines what he means by faith that saves (Rom. 10:9-10). He says saving faith involves confession and belief. One must confess with his mouth (a public, wilful, intentional proclamation) that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he is the One to whom we owe our supreme allegiance. One must also believe in his heart.2 Martyn Lloyd-Jones shows how the heresy of Sandemanianism brought great difficulty in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in the early 19th century. The view was largely that one could believe on Christ by mere intellectual assent, that one need not necessarily be moved in heart, one need not experience conviction and grief over sin.
So Thielen says that to be a Christian means one must believe in Jesus – his life, teachings, example, death,and resurrection. However, does this not necessarily beg the question, ‘What does it mean to say that one believes in Jesus?’ Paul answers that question in Romans 10:10, ‘for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness (holiness of life, spiritual transformation brought on by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, John 3:5-7), and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation (reconciliation, pardon from sin, the wrath of God taken away, Col. 1:13-23). So true, saving faith always brings change, and that change begins by acknowledging that Jesus Christ is Lord, that what he says is true,that we are to obey him. So this begs another question – what do Jesus, his apostles, and prophets say about the issues Thielen raises?
On cancer, car wrecks, and other catastrophes Isaiah says that God is the author of calamity (Isa. 45:6-7). So does Amos (Amos 3:6). Jesus does not deny this but affirms the purpose of it (Luke 13:2-5). On good Christians doubting, Jesus rebukes them for lack of faith (Mark 9:19). On true Christians believing in evolution, Moses believed in a literal, actual Adam and Eve, the father and mother of the human race (Gen. 2:20ff). Paul affirmed their historicity (Rom. 5:12-14, 1 Cor. 15:22, 2 Cor. 11:3). On women being preachers Paul said, ‘No way’ (1 Tim. 2:12-14, 3:1). On women being commanded to submit to their husbands, Paul could not be clearer (Eph. 5:2-22). On saving souls and trees, God’s overarching purpose is the salvation of sinners to the praise of the glory of his grace (Gen. 3:15, 12:1ff, Isa. 53, Mark 1:15, Luke 19:10, Rom. 1:16). On bad people being ‘left behind’, Jesus said that unbelievers end up in hell (Mark 9:42ff, Rev. 21:8). Paul said the same thing (2 Thess. 1:8-9). On Jews not making it to heaven, Jesus wept over Jerusalem because the Jews were rejecting him (Luke 19:41). Paul was willing to go to hell for the sake of his kinsmen, the Jews (Rom. 9:3). Any Jew, Gentile, pagan, Muslim, Hindu, animist, or secularist must come the same way – humbling themselves before God, seeing their sin, turning from it, and asking God for mercy through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 26:17-18). On taking everything in the Bible literally – the writers did not always mean for everything to be taken literally. That depends on the genre of biblical literature. Some is poetic in nature (the Psalms and Proverbs), some is apocalyptic in nature (like Ezekiel 1-10 and much of Revelation), some is parabolic in nature (Matthew 13), but some is clearly to be taken literally (the straightforward Old Testament narratives like Genesis, 1 and 2 Samuel;and the didactic Pauline and Petrine epistles). On God loving straight people and not gay people, the Bible makes clear that regardless of one’s sexual orientation, God is angry with the sinner every day (Deut. 32:35, Nahum 1:2), that he is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29), that he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Exod. 34:7). And on it’s okay for Christians to be judgmental and obnoxious – clearly being obnoxious is reprehensible and surely we are to heed Jesus words to not judge others (Matt. 7:1-3), but Jesus also allows for ‘judging’ when we first get the log out of our own eye (Matt. 7:4-5), and he furthermore explicitly commands us to judge others (false prophets, Matt. 7:15-20).
Bottom line – true faith, saving faith results in the transformation of one’s mind, emotions, and will. We become more and more like Jesus. We take God’s Word seriously. We glory in the cross. We long to obey, thus proving our sincere love for Jesus (John 14:15). While we do not need to have all these doctrines nailed down in order to be saved, it is clear that as we grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, our views will most definitely change on these issues.
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 10 – Saving Faith (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997), Chapter 14.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Al Baker’s sermons are now available on www.sermonaudio.com.
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