Alternatives to Christianity
Man’s plight is to live in a world full of sorrow and struggle, worry and trouble—all compounded by the sin in his own heart. In his desperate need to make sense out of life and to correct the problems crowding his path, man has tried many different worldviews.
Polytheism. A man can improve his lot by giving honor and offerings to the gods who control his destiny. But the afterlife is a shadowy unknown.
Hinduism and Buddhism. The highest good is to practice meditation and other disciplines that aid escape from material reality into union with the All, which is a state of unconsciousness to self and every other real thing in particular, including things evil. Death is followed by reincarnation—that is, by rebirth as another being, whether man or animal.
Confucianism. To protect himself, a man can do no better than to revere his ancestors, preserve social traditions, and practice self-restraint. There is no heaven to hope for.
Secular humanism (the antisupernatural religion of modern man). By the continuing development of his knowledge and power, man can evolve into a being of godlike greatness, and human society can become a utopia. But life itself is just a journey to the grave
Perversions of Christianity
Christianity differs from all these gloomy worldviews by offering every man a future that is worth attaining. It is no less than life forever in a happy world. As the glad light of Christianity has spread through this world’s darkness, many have heard that to gain eternal life, they must remove the sin barrier that separates them from God. But the devil has fought back by creating and promoting three false remedies. All these have at their core the same lie—that a man can satisfy God by some program of self-improvement.
Self-reform. Many men try to salve a bad conscience just by trying harder to refuse sin. But the effort to gain sainthood through self-reform is nothing new. Throughout history, both before and after the New Testament was written, countless men have striven for moral perfection by denying fleshly desires. Yet, in the opinion of Scripture, none in this multitude have succeeded. Scripture’s verdict is, "For all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23).
Works of righteousness. Many men troubled about their bondage to sin have sought relief through good works. They might give money to help the needy. They might become involved in community service. They might even go to live in a poor nation for the purpose of teaching the most impoverished how to improve their standard of living. But do such works take away sin? No. "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us" (Titus 3:5).
Paul, the writer of many New Testament books, explains why works have no saving value. "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8–9). If people could get to heaven by good works, some would have barely enough to qualify and some would have plenty to spare. But God does not want any saint in heaven to feel superior to his brother. Nor does He want anyone to think that heaven is what he deserves—that God owes it to him. God owes no man anything. He gives us wonderful things out of pure generosity.
Religious exercises. The stream of Christianity known as Catholicism insists that a man can greatly reduce God’s wrath upon his sin just by going to Mass and taking the sacraments. Islam and all other cultic offshoots of Christianity, including Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a host of others, say that to gain heaven requires strict fidelity to the cult. A member must participate in all its rituals and obey all its rules. Yet religious exercises of any kind are merely another attempt at good works.
The Real Remedy
The Bible offers only one way of salvation. It is "through faith" (Eph. 2:8–9). But this essential truth was nearly forgotten in the Middle Ages, when most Christians were Catholics. Then in the 1500s a vigorous new stream of Christianity called Protestantism sprang off the Catholic stream and moved in a different direction. Its emergence became known as the Protestant Reformation. One of the rallying cries of Martin Luther and other reformers was the principle sola fides ("by faith alone"). Another was sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone"). The first affirmed the true basis of salvation; the second, the true basis of authority.
Erroneous Conceptions of Faith
Hardly anyone disagrees that we need faith. After great tragedies, such as the 9/11 assault on America, many voices proclaim that only by recourse to faith can we recover from despair and avoid defeat. But the following kinds of faith are useless for salvation.
- Faith with no object. When someone recommends faith, the right question is, "Faith in what?" Many people do not attach it to any particular object. In their view, an objectless faith is enough. They confuse faith with a nebulous confidence that everything will turn out all right. But such a confidence, disregarding the grip that evil has on man and society, is naive.
- Faith in a powerless object. In response to the question, "Faith in what?" many people readily give an answer. They say, "Faith in America," or, "Faith in the future," or even, "Faith in mankind." But here again, their confidence is misplaced. They fail to understand that history is not on an upward course, but on a downward course, and that man and his institutions are sliding ever deeper into wickedness (2 Tim. 3:13).
What then is saving faith? The best-known brief statement of the gospel is a verse that most Christians have committed to memory: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). "Belief" is a common New Testament synonym for "faith." On the authority of this and many similar verses, Protestant Christians agree that to be saved, a man must believe in Jesus. Saving faith is faith with an object, and its object is Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21).
Who Jesus Is
The Bible teaches that God is one Being in three Persons named the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To remove sin’s penalty from you and everyone else, the Father appointed the Son to be our Savior, a role He could fulfill only by entering this world as a man. The man He became was unique in being fully human as well as fully divine, unique also in being wholly without sin. Who was He? He was Jesus, the man of Jewish descent who lived two thousand years ago in the country of Palestine, then part of the Roman Empire.
The story of His life appears in the four New Testament books called the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They tell us that His ministry as a prophet and teacher began when He was about thirty years old, and that for the next three and a half years, He walked throughout the land and challenged the people to seek the kingdom of God. Also, He presented Himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies that foresaw the coming of an anointed one—in Hebrew called the Messiah, in Greek, the Christ—who would take away the sin of the world. In proof of His claims, He performed many astounding miracles. On several occasions He raised the dead to life. Once, in the presence of thousands, He multiplied a few loaves and fishes into a meal sufficient for them all. Rather than deny His ability to perform wonders, His enemies accused Him of being a sorcerer (Matt. 12:24).
Yet the mobs who followed Him at the beginning of His ministry soon turned away when they discovered that His mission was essentially spiritual, not political. They wanted a deliverer from Roman oppression. The leaders of the Jewish nation likewise rejected Him. Regarding Him as a threat to their own power, they brought Him before the Roman governor, Pilate, and falsely accused Him of trying to make Himself king (Luke 23:2), a capital offense. Pilate bowed to their will and condemned Him to die by crucifixion, one of the cruelest ways of killing a man ever devised.
In His last hours, Jesus went through agony beyond our conception. To the suffering of His body on the cross was added the suffering of His soul under the Father’s wrath, yielding a sum of pain equal to a just penalty for all the sins of mankind. Yet He made no attempt to escape, He uttered no complaint, and as He looked upon His crucifiers, He prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
We can be glad that the story of Jesus does not end at His death. During His ministry, He had taught that after lying in a tomb for three days, He would rise again. And the prophecy came true. Beginning on the third day after the Crucifixion, He was seen alive on numerous occasions, once by no less than five hundred people (Luke 24; John 20-21; 1 Cor. 15:4–8). After another forty days, He left this world and sat down at the Father’s right hand in heaven. Many of His disciples witnessed His departure, known as the Ascension. As they stood amazed, He rose out of their sight into a cloud (Acts 1:4-11).
Then, according to Jesus’ instructions, they returned to Jerusalem and waited to receive the Holy Spirit, for they could accomplish nothing without the Spirit’s power. On the Jewish feast known as Pentecost, the Spirit descended with supernatural signs of His presence (Acts 2), and immediately the disciples began to win many to salvation in Christ. The gospel quickly spread far and wide. Within the next generation, Christian preachers carried it throughout the Roman world and beyond.
Wherever people responded with faith, the new believers met regularly for prayer, study of God’s Word, and fellowship. The first local assembly of believers, the one in Jerusalem, was known from the beginning as a church, and the same term was used for the assemblies that sprang up in other cities. The entire body of believers everywhere was known as "the church" (Eph. 5:25).
The Bible teaches that someday Jesus will return to this world and establish Himself as world ruler (Matt. 24:29–30; Isa. 9:6–7; Rev. 19:10–16). He will place His throne in the city of Jerusalem (Jer. 33:14–17; Luke 1:31–33).
In casual discussions about religion, many say that they have faith in Jesus. But unfortunately, they do not have a saving faith. Why? Because they have a wrong idea of Jesus. Perhaps they think that He was a remarkably good man, but only a man. So, their faith in Jesus is merely a resolve to follow His example. Or perhaps they look on Him as fully realizing the divine potential in all of us. So, their faith in Jesus is merely a hope that we also can become divine. Besides these two false conceptions of Jesus, contemporary culture is promoting many others, none of which upholds the Jesus with power to save.
To understand saving faith, we must look closely at the many New Testament texts that tell us how to be saved (John 1:12; John 3:18; Acts 20:21; Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:13; 1 John 5:13). In these we note two things.
- The proper object of faith, or belief, is Jesus Christ.
- Yet they are more specific. Saving faith is faith in His name.
The next obvious question is, what is His name? Before Pentecost, the day marking the beginning of the Church Age, Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth to His enemies, as Master or Rabbi to His disciples. But on Pentecost, Peter, who was principal leader of the early church, announced, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36). Henceforth Jesus was known as the Lord Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus the Lord, or Jesus Christ the Lord. This is the name that the seeker after salvation must believe and confess (Acts 16:31).
The requirement to believe in Jesus’ name makes it impossible to be saved through any false Jesus. We must believe in the real Jesus, the Jesus who is both Lord and Christ.
The Components of Jesus’ Name
What do the three components of His name signify?
The name Jesus. The object of saving faith is the flesh-and-blood man known to history as Jesus. The name Jesus therefore speaks of His humanity.
The requirement to believe in Jesus implies that the seeker after salvation must understand that He is a real human being. This elementary condition denies any hope of salvation to people seduced by either of two damnable heresies (false teachings).
- Ancient Gnosticism taught that Jesus was a supernatural being who merely pretended to be a man—who was aloof to real pain and suffering even during His crucifixion. To seek salvation in the nonhuman Jesus of Gnosticism is therefore futile. Scripture warns that Gnosticism is the invention of evil spirits (1 John 4:2–3).
- The necessity of putting one’s faith in a real, historical man exposes the danger in another pernicious heresy as well—modern neo-orthodoxy, a type of theology (the attempt to formulate truth about God) that retains a strong hold on many churches. This heresy alleges that whether or not Jesus was a great man and even whether or not He existed are questions irrelevant to faith; that the value to be found in Christianity depends not upon the man Jesus, but upon the idea of Jesus; and that a man can exploit this idea and the language of religion to create for himself an uplifting religious experience. Those who embrace this heresy mouth praise to Jesus, but think of Him only as a noble fiction. So long as they withhold the love and devotion due the real Jesus, their religion is vain.
When I was a student at Wheaton College, I took a course in contemporary philosophy of religion from Kenneth Kantzer, later the editor of Christianity Today. He chose me together with some other students to accompany him on an outing to hear Karl Barth speak at the University of Chicago. Barth, generally regarded as the father of neo-orthodoxy in a form professing allegiance to the central tenets of Christianity, was making his farewell tour of America. Although in my youthful naiveté I was ready to consider whatever the man said, he failed to make me his disciple. I sensed that his religion was hollow. In fact, his reworking of Christian faith was merely a spin-off of fashionable existentialist philosophy, which put self and self’s experience at the center of reality. It seemed to me that he was almost apologetic for his years of long-winded labor to sell strange new doctrines (teachings).
In its rituals and language, neo-orthodox Christianity appears no different from the traditional kind, but it is nothing other than a sophisticated exercise in hypocrisy.
The name Christ. Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means "the anointed one," implying "the one commissioned and sent by God."
In the Old Testament, the term designates the man whom God would send into the world to put away unrighteousness: "And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself" (Dan. 9:26). The term "cut off" is used frequently in the law of Moses to signify a judicial sentence of death. The prophecy here clearly implies that the Messiah (that is, Christ) would be unjustly put to death by the rulers of His people. The Messiah must therefore be the same as the suffering servant foreseen by Isaiah: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). From this passage we learn that God’s hand of punishment for our sin would fall upon Christ, not us. As our sin-bearer, Christ would suffer and die in our place.
We have said that to be saved, a man must believe that Jesus is the Christ, and we find that the Christ of prophecy is the One who would come to save us from our sin. Thus, to put faith in Christ means to receive Jesus as Savior. A seeker after salvation must understand and believe that a complete payment for his sin was made by Jesus when He died on the cross, and he must trust in Jesus alone for salvation.
The man who did more than anyone else to spread the gospel throughout the Roman world was the apostle Paul. In his summary of the message he preached everywhere, he affirms that a man is saved by receiving the gospel (the good news) that Jesus died to put away sin (1 Cor. 15:1–4).
The name Lord. The word Lord means "ruler," and indeed the Bible teaches that Jesus is the rightful ruler of everything (1 Cor. 10:25-8; Eph. 1:20-2). One day in the future, every man and woman who has lived on this earth will acknowledge who He is (Phil. 2:9-11). Therefore, we have a simple choice. We can either confess His Lordship now in this life or wait until that future day when it will be too late to accept God’s offer of life forever. He deserves to be called Lord because He is God (John 3:16), the highest Being in the universe, and because He created all things including mankind (John 1:1). As the author of our existence, surely He has the right to govern our lives so that His purposes in creating us will be fulfilled and not frustrated.
It is true that a seeker after salvation must believe in Jesus as Lord, but we must avoid two distortions of this requirement.
- It does not mean that a seeker after salvation must make Jesus the Lord of his life in a practical way, by starting to obey Him. A change of behavior acceptable to God is impossible unless it is accomplished by God’s grace through God’s power. You receive His power when the Holy Spirit comes to indwell you at the moment of salvation. So, you must be saved first before you can practice true righteousness. Anyone who says that righteousness is the road to heaven is a false teacher, because he is degrading salvation by faith to salvation by works.
- The requirement to believe in Jesus as Lord does not mean that the sinner must recite His name as a formula, saying perhaps, "I believe that Jesus is Lord." In fact, it is possible to be saved without fully comprehending this truth. Many have been saved in response to gospel invitations that failed to identify Jesus as Lord although they presented Him as Savior. It is better, of course, if a sinner hears the gospel in a fuller version, clearly stating who Jesus is, but he can be saved even through a more abbreviated version.
Why? Because although a sinner may not grasp the Lordship of Christ, he can still be saved if he has a truly repentant heart. Think of what repentance means. Sorrow for sin is no sorrow at all unless it is accompanied by a desire to be righteous instead of sinful. The repentant sinner may not put this desire into words, but if he is truly repentant, his driving motive will be to escape from sin’s bondage and to win the freedom of life without sin. Also, he will understand that to live righteously, apart from sin, means that he must do the will of God, his rightful Lord and Master.
Repentance therefore involves a fundamentally new way of seeing self and God. Eyes newly opened to spiritual reality recognize for the first time a whole series of sobering facts. Self has been chasing foolish dreams offensive to God. In this conflict between two perspectives, self has been wrong, but God has been right. Self's attempts to build its own moral universe, with good and evil defined to please self, have merely succeeded in trampling on true righteousness, as defined by God. Only God has the right to say what is good and evil. In other words, only God is the Lord, with the right to dictate how people should behave.
Thus in true repentance a person bows the knee to God and places himself under God’s command. But it so happens that Jesus is the same God he has decided to serve. So, whether or not the repentant sinner has come to a theologically correct conception of Jesus, he is in fact making Jesus his Lord. Yet any ignorance in this matter will not last long, because the Holy Spirit will soon instruct him that his God and Lord is Jesus. Then, if he has truly decided to accept God’s direction—if in fact he has forged a new relationship with God based on repentance—he will certainly respond with faith. He will without quarrel believe in Jesus as Lord. So, even though at first he may not understand that Jesus is his Lord as well as his Savior, his repentance is accepted by a merciful God as meeting the requirement to believe on Jesus’ name.
Despite our long discussion of the gospel, it is really very simple in essence. To be saved, you must do this. You must tell God that you are sorry for your sins. Then you must ask Him to save you through the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s all you must do. Of course, these cannot be empty words. You must mean everything you say.
Sometimes in dealing with children, we urge them to ask Jesus into their hearts. The language is figurative, but if presented properly, it contains all the essential truth. If you use this approach, make sure the children understand that something is wrong with their hearts. Make sure they understand also that the reason they need Jesus in their hearts is to fix the problem. It is best to tell them clearly that He will deliver them from the punishment for sin because He has already suffered it on the cross, and that He will deliver them from the power and presence of sin by assuming leadership in their lives.