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Christians or no?

February 28, 2015

I just read an article about the Egyptian Coptic Christians who were beheaded recently. The Coptic Church has canonized these men as martyrs and saints.

Events such as this put conservative Protestants in an awkward position because Coptics don’t hold to the same doctrine of salvation as Protestants do. When one believes 1) that doctrine isn’t just a formal, extrinsic set of ideas but rather has a fundamental bearing on our standing before God, and 2) that the Protestant view of justification is the correct (and necessarily only correct) view, with the implication that people who believe otherwise can only become Christians by accident, so to speak, one may well wonder about the true spiritual condition of those who believe differently. I know because of my years in theological education and in the church that conservative Protestants who have a special interest in theology can have a hard time believing that people who don’t accept the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith only can really be saved. I understand the sentiment because that was my general attitude. Maybe a person could exercise saving faith even though he was taught, and believed, that salvation required certain works, but such a person’s salvation was suspect. “We’ll leave it between him and God,” we said. The person might be saved but not because of what he believes. Hence my expression, salvation by accident.

I’m not taking a jab at the view that doctrine is important. Doctrine – what is believed to be true, to be the way things really are – is important. And if one studies Scripture and the history of what the church has taught and concludes that salvation comes a certain way, the logical conclusion is that other ways are false, and no one who believes falsely can have any assurance of salvation.

What complicates discussions of this matter is the skeptical subjectivism of our day (on the other end of the spectrum of certainty), found even in the church, where any claims of theological truth are demoted to mere opinions that have no purchase on anyone who doesn’t happen to agree (and the reasons one might hold one’s beliefs can vary widely). People who believe this way pooh-pooh any claims to have the truth about Christian doctrine, although, when pressed to the wall, they’ll acknowledge that Jesus has to play a major role in salvation and right living. As far as I’m concerned, such thinking needs to be taken seriously only because of its prominence and the need to correct it. How seriously are we to take people who make strong claims, which they think are true, against our ability to know truth? The Bible is chock full of truth claims about God and His ways and desires, and they can’t be dismissed so easily (as one scholar has said, people who claim that one can’t be certain of the truth of written texts dump that belief when they read the labels on medicine bottles).

My challenge here, if it can be called that, is to be really sure about what we believe one must believe in order to be truly Christian. When Protestant Christianity was dominant in our country, it was easy to draw lines. Now it isn’t. I’m not calling for sacrificing doctrine or for adopting a “whatever” attitude. I’m simply saying that we must not erect walls where they oughtn’t be. One can’t really feel empathy for people suffering persecution as fellow believers  when one doubts that their Christianity can be real.

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From → Doctrine, The church

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