The Essentials – Part 2
Any position that attempts to add or subtract from this Gospel is a false gospel that cannot save. Many heresies are such because they claim that something additional is required. For example, there are some that say that, in addition to faith in Christ, one must be baptized in water in order to be saved. But water baptism cannot save you; only Jesus can. Water baptism is merely an outward act of obedience reflecting our unseen faith. There are those that claim that after salvation, one must do good works in order to maintain that salvation. This too is heretical because it makes continued salvation contingent upon works, not on Christ. Jesus is both the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Good works will naturally follow from salvation because a saved person wants to please God. But these works cannot save. They are merely an outward reflection of inward faith.
In part 1, we looked at those doctrines that are essential to salvation: those that cannot be denied by a person whom Christ has saved. We found that these all centered on Christ: His perfect nature as God Almighty, His atoning death for our sins, His grace by which He grants us faith in Him, His resurrection that foreshadows our own, and the repentance He grants us which results in obedience and good works. We cannot attain salvation by our own works, but only by God’s grace received through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is the Gospel and it is all about Jesus.
Any alternative is a false gospel. The saving faith that Jesus imparts to us allows us to confess that Christ is the Lord God (Romans 10:9-13; John 8:24). It is a genuine faith that God raised Christ from the dead (Romans 10:9-11), and will resurrect everyone else at His second coming (1 Corinthians 15:20-24; John 5:28-29). The saving faith God imparts to us always involves repentance from sin and will result in good works (Luke 13:3,5; Revelation 2:5; 1 John 2:4; James 2:4). These verses also clearly teach that the one who denies any of the above principles does not have salvation, but will die in his sins.
And yet, there are many who would verbally profess the above doctrines but lack saving faith in Christ. Consider what Christ Himself said in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” We saw in Romans 10:9-13 that declaring Jesus is Lord is a requirement for salvation. Yet, Jesus Himself indicates that this, by itself, is insufficient. He said, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:22-23).
Notice that Jesus said “many.” That is, many people think they have salvation in Christ and will be surprised to learn on Judgment Day that they do not. That is a terrifying thought! These verses should challenge every professing believer to ask himself, “Am I truly saved?” Saying the right words does not impart salvation. Rather, God imparts salvation, granting to the sinner a new heart, repentance from sins, and faith in God.
But how do we know that our faith in God is genuine? After all, Jesus refers to people who were confident in their salvation, who professed Christ as Lord, and even performed miracles in His name; yet, they will not enter heaven. Just imagine living your life, thinking you are a Christian, being confident in your faith in Christ, and then having Him say to you on Judgment Day, “I never knew you. Depart from Me.”
God knows the people He saves (John 10:27-28). And they know Him (John 10:14). This knowledge is more than simply an awareness of God’s existence. Even the demons know that God exists, but they are not saved (James 2:19). Rather, God enters into a loving relationship with those whom He saves (Romans 8:29). Therefore, those who are genuinely saved have come to know God and to recognize His voice.
For this reason, a severe misunderstanding of the nature of God is an indication that a person may not be saved. Suppose that someone professes Jesus as Lord and believes that God raised Him from the dead. But then when I ask him to describe God, he responds, “Oh, he is a three-headed dragon that lives on a moon of Neptune.” Such a heretical and absurd response would indicate that this person does not know the real God. The person may be saying the right words in professing Christ’s Lordship and resurrection, but he has placed his faith in a fictional god of his own imagination. And a fictional god cannot save you from the wrath of the Living God.
This is the characteristic of cults. Cults profess to be Christian, but have placed their faith in a false god rather than the biblical God. It can be difficult to identify cults because they often use the same words as Christians, but they mean something different. Thus, it is necessary to ask questions about the nature of their god. Is their god an all-powerful, all-knowing, omni-present, unchanging, eternal, triune spirit? A person who does not know God in a saving way often has one or more fundamental misconceptions about God that are revealed when sufficient questions are asked.
No doubt, even a saved person can have some misconceptions about God. After all, God is infinite and we are finite. Therefore, we cannot know everything about Him. But there are certain characteristics that are basic to the nature of God. A denial of one or more of these may indicate that a person does not know God in a saving way.
So, what are the fundamental characteristics of the biblical God? What are His essential attributes that are clearly elucidated in Scripture? All those who truly know God should agree on the following aspects of His nature.
(1) The Trinity
The biblical God is triune. He is one in nature/essence, and three in eternally distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Thus, these three Persons share one name (Yahweh) as Christ affirms in Matthew 28:19. Yet each divine Person is one eye-witness under biblical law (John 8:17). The doctrine of the Trinity necessarily entails monotheism, which James 2:19 implies is necessary (but not sufficient) for salvation. We have seen that Romans 10:9-10 teaches the belief that God raised Christ from the dead is essential to salvation. The Trinity is implicit in this passage because all three Persons were involved in the Resurrection. The Spirit raised Christ from the dead, (Romans 8:11), as did the Father (Galatians 1:1), as did the Son Himself (John 10:17-18).
Fortunately, the Bible does not say that a detailed and nuanced understanding of the triune nature of God is required for saving faith. It is sufficient to know that God is one in essence, and yet three in eternally distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No doubt God will forgive some of our misunderstandings of how this all works in practice. But to reject what God has said about His own nature is to reject God. God expects us to accept whatever revelation He has given us.
Some may ask, “But what about Old Testament believers? Did they know about the Trinity?” New Testament believers have far more information on the Trinity than believers under the Old Testament administration. Yet, even Old Testament believers knew something of the fact that God is one in nature and more than one in Persons; we see communication between the Persons in the first chapter of Genesis (e.g. Genesis 1:26-27). Even the Hebrew term for “God” (Elohim) is plural (literally “Gods”) and yet used with singular verbs (e.g., Genesis 1:1). So, the Israelites knew that God was one in one sense, and more than one in a different sense. They probably did not have the rich understanding of the three Persons that New Testament saints enjoy. The point is that God expects us to accept whatever revelation He has given about Himself. A saved person will therefore come to accept what the Bible teaches about the triune nature of God, even if he doesn’t fully understand it. Thus, a rejection of the Trinity is a strong indication that a person has not (yet) been saved.
(2) God Is the Creator and Judge of All
God is the Creator of all things (Genesis 1:1; Exodus 20:11). As such, we owe Him our very lives. Since all things were made by Him (John 1:3), all things are contingent upon Him. They exist and continue to exist only because God the Son upholds all things by the Word of His power (Hebrews 1:3). God alone is not contingent upon anything. He is completely self-sufficient and does not require a universe or anything beyond Himself to exist (Exodus 3:14).
God is transcendent: beyond the physical universe (1 Kings 8:27). God is eternal and without a beginning or an end (Deuteronomy 33:27; Isaiah 43:13; Psalm 90:2). He has no creator since He has always existed. He is completely sovereign, answering to no one else (1 Timothy 6:15; Isaiah 40:13-14). He needs nothing, and does whatsoever He pleases (Psalm 135:6).
As Creator, God has the right to set the rules for all that He owns (which is everything). Therefore, it is by God’s standard and His standard alone that we all will be judged. This implicitly requires that God is righteous by virtue of the fact that His nature determines what is right (Ezekiel 18:25). His judgments are necessarily right because they stem from His holy nature (Genesis 18:25). Thus, our moral obligation is to obey God. And when we fail to do so, we must expect punishment since this is the just penalty for our treason (Isaiah 13:11). All God’s ways are just (Deuteronomy 32:4).
This distinguishes the living God from many false gods of other religions and cults. Their gods change, are not righteous, and are not sovereign over creation. As the Apostle Paul explained in Acts 17:24-25,28-29, the biblical God does not need to be served by human hands because He needs nothing; rather, we need Him since He is the one who gives us life and breath. The biblical God is the sovereign, uncreated Creator of all things. Therefore, a rejection that God is Creator of all things suggests that a person is trusting in a false god rather than the God of Scripture.
(3) God Is All-Knowing, Unchanging, and Eternal
God is eternal (Deuteronomy 33:27; Psalm 90:2; Isaiah 9:6; Romans 16:26). He has no beginning in time, and no ending (Hebrews 7:3). This would have to be the case since God is the Creator of time itself (John 1:3). Since God is beyond time, He does not change with time (Malachi 3:6). He can “step into time” as He did with the incarnation of Christ, and He can act in time. But God is not bound by time like we are.