A PLUMB LINE FOR COMPARING FAITHS
Biblical Christianity. What does that mean? Can you be a Christian and not be biblical? Are there brands of Christianity that are unbiblical? And what does it mean to have a plumb line for comparing faiths? Some defining of terms is definitely in order.
Whatever their tradition or denomination, most who answer to the name of Christian claim in some sense to be biblical. For this book's purposes, "biblical" means that the Christian believer searches seriously and carefully for the meaning of the Bible on its own terms, not changing its meaning to fit the times. Biblical Christians approach the Bible with reverence and respect because they believe it is true and authoritative - that it contains God's very words.
As early as the second century and even late in the first, Christians saw the need for separating right (true) Christian belief from various kinds of subtle heresies that began to creep in. Webster defines heresy as "an opinion held in opposition to the commonly received doctrine and tending to promote division or dissension." Christianity has always had its foes, but no enemy has been more dangerous than the heretics within who have held opinions in opposition to the commonly received truths on which Christianity was founded. These common truths are contained in the New Testament, the books and epistles that came to be recognized as God's inspired - and final - words on what Christianity really is. [.]
A plumb lineâa string with a pointed weight on the endâis still used today by masons to make sure they lay a brick wall straight and true. In a short little book tucked among the minor prophets of the Old Testament, God told Amos, "Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people" (Amos 7:8).
As the Holy Spirit directed Amos's thoughts, the analogy of a plumb line came to his mind and he referred to this familiar tool to tell the Israelite people what God wanted them to know - that God would measure them by His standards, His Word, and no other.
[.] We will explore the teachings of the Bible on three key points, all contained in capsule form in 1 Corinthians 15:3,4:
- The person and work of Christ - who He is and what He did for us.
- Mankind's' major problem - all of us are sinners in rebellion against God and in need of a Savior.
- The truth and reliability of the Bible - divine inspiration of Scripture.
By definition, the backbone of Christianity is Christ. There are two key issues concerning Jesus Christ: who He is and what He did.
1. Who is He? Only a man? God disguised as a man? Or was He someone uniquely different?
2. What did He do? Teach us how to live? Die for our sins? Both?
All biblical Christians subscribing to the Nicene Creed agree on Christ's deity. Following are some of the key questions that people often raise about Jesus Christ.
Was Jesus really God, or was He a great teacher and nothing more than that? While the Bible does not use the exact words "Jesus is God," the biblical record clearly and frequently teaches that Jesus Christ is, in fact, God. For example, John 1:1 refers to Christ as the Word (Logos) and tells us that "in the beginning was the Word ... and the Word was God." John 1: 14 testifies that "the Word [God] became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only,... full of grace and truth."
Of primary importance is what Jesus said about Himself. On several occasions, He claimed to be equal with God. See, for example, John 10:30: "I and the Father are one." On another occasion Jesus told Philip and some of the other disciples that because they had seen Him they had seen the Father (see John 14:9).
In addition, Jesus frequently referred to Himself as God. In John 8:58, Jesus told the Pharisees, "I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!" The Pharisees, being excellent Bible students, knew that in Exodus 3:14 God had said to Moses, "This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.âââThe Pharisees knew that Jesus was claiming to be the God of Israel.' They picked up stones and would have tried to kill Him, but He slipped away.
Jesus also claimed to be God in important conversations with His own disciples. For example, before being arrested on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus told His disciples, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well."
Philip then asked, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." Jesus' reply was a clear claim of divinity and equality with God: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (see John 14:5â9; see also 20:24â29).
In summary, if Jesus Christ was not who He claimed to be (God), but only a man, then Christianity is a fraud and Jesus would have to be a liar or a lunatic. As C. S. Lewis said, "He leaves us no other alternative. He did not intend to."
Did Jesus' virgin birth actually happen?
According to the Bible, the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. People with an atheistic or naturalistic worldview scoff at this story because they cannot accept miracles or the supernatural. Other people object to the doctrine of the virgin birth on the grounds that it is similar to another legend, like pagan (polytheistic) stories of heroes who were half god, half man. But there is an enormous difference between the pagan worldview and the biblical. In all pagan stories of this kind, there is gross physical cohabitation of a god with a human being. In the Scripture account, Mary is simply informed, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). There is no suggestion that Jesus is half God and half man.
[.] Jesus could have descended from heaven as a fully grown man, but that would have made it very hard for us to see how He could be just as human as we are. Or, He could have been born of two human parents, but that would have made it hard for us to see that He was truly God.
Does the Trinity make three gods?
Even though the Bible never uses the word "trinity," Christians teach the doctrine of the Trinity, namely, the one eternal and living God, always existing as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. This leads some religions to reject the Trinity on the grounds that it sounds like Christians worship three gods, not one. It is true that Deuteronomy 6:4 states, "The LORD our God, the LORD is one." But it is also true that the Old Testament uses the plural form elohim for the word "God" 2,346 times . (See, for example, Gen. 1:26; 11:7.)
The New Testament also clearly states that "God is one" (see Gal. 3:20), yet here again is abundant evidence that the unity of God, His oneness, involves three "persons." For example, as Matthew describes Jesus' baptism, He speaks of Jesus coming up out of the water, the heavens opening, the Spirit of God descending like a dove and a voice from heaven (God the Father) saying, "This is my Son, whom I love" (see Matt. 3:13â17).
One of the strongest reasons that many critics reject the doctrine of the Trinity is that it makes Christ coâequal with God the Father. The Trinity is the particular target of critics in religions like Judaism and Islam, and in cults such as Unitarianism, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormonism. All of these groups reduce Christ to a created being who is "secondâinâcommand" at best or just another teacher on the same par with Buddha, Krishna or Moses.
Bur we have already seen that Jesus frequently referred to Himself as God. In addition, the rest of the New Testament fully concurs that the Son, Jesus Christ, is the Godâman who was perfectly human and perfectly divine. [.] (See, for example, John 1:1â4 and Phil. 2:5â7.)
As for the Holy Spirit, Scripture clearly teaches that He enjoys the same interrelationship with the Father that Jesus does. In Matthew 28:19, the Holy Spirit is clearly made equal with the Father and the Son when Jesus commands the disciples to go and teach all nations "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
When Jesus was preparing His disciples for His death and resurrection, He told them He was going to send a Comforter, whom he identified as the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth who would live with them and be in them (see John 14:15â26). Also, Jesus' continued activity after His ascension, through the promised Holy Spirit, is the central theme of the entire book of Acts."
Despite the many Scripture passages that clearly describe how the oneness of God includes three Personsâthe Father, the Son and the Holy Spiritâthe Trinity remains one of the most difficult concepts for Christians to understand or explain to other people. How three persons can be one God called the Trinity is a puzzle to natural reasoning. If you try to see God your creator in natural or creature-like terms, then you want to believe He is some kind of infinitely powerful person who is THE BOSS. If He is such a gigantic, allâpowerful person, then how in the world could He be three big persons or even three smaller persons at once?
However, one question we might ask is, If God is supernatural beyond natureâwhy must He be understood only in natural terms? The biblical believer accepts the mystery of God's greatness, realizing that the real point is that God is not the "Big Fella" upstairs. [.]. We should not be surprised, then, that in the Trinity there is an element of mystery that defies any human analysis or understanding, because we are only human and God is God.
Did Christ actually rise from the dead?
Biblical Christians say He did. The significance of this event in the biblical, historic Christian faith cannot be overestimated. It is absolutely nonnegotiable. Biblical Christians claim that by conquering death, Jesus Christ proved He was God. Furthermore, He ensured that all who believe in Him will have eternal life (see John 11:25,26), and He lives today as our mediator (see 1 Tim. 2:5) and our high priest (see Heb. 4:14â16). For Resurrection accounts, see Matthew 28:1â10; Mark 16:18; Luke 24:1â42; John 20 and 21.
The doctrine of the Resurrection is the foundation on which Christianity rests. As Paul wrote, "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (1 Cor. 15: 17).
If the Christian's hope is in a dead Christ who was martyred because He threatened the existing religious establishment, then the Christian is in the same boat with the Muslim, the Buddhist and the follower of Confucius. Mohammed is dead. Buddha is dead. Confucius is dead. But the Bible affirms that Christ is alive; and because He lives, the Christian will live also, eternally.
Because the Resurrection falls into the same supernatural category as the Trinity, many doubt that Christ actually did rise from the dead. Some theorize that He never really died but that He just passed out and was awakened later by His disciples. Or possibly the women went to the wrong tomb and found it empty. Another theory says that either His friends or His enemies stole the body.
As one Bible scholar has said, none of the "standard" explanations can account for the total change that occurred in Jesus' followers after they found the empty tomb. And as for His post resurrection appearancesâto as many as 5OO people at a time (see 1 Cor. 15:6) - they were far more than just a spiritual presence or apparition. Instead, "history, theology, and experience combine to show that the glorious fact is that Christ did rise from the dead" (see 1 Cor. 15:20, Phillips)."
So far we have looked at what it means when 1 Corinthians 15:3 says, "Christ died and was raised." Next we will see that Christ died for a good reason: our sin.
CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS
People often ask, "Who is Christ?" but they are equally puzzled over the question "Who are we?" Or perhaps more to the point "What does it mean to be human?" Following are biblical Christianity's answers to these questions.
Are we all good, all bad or in between?
Most people wouldn't want to say that we are all good; neither do they want to admit that we are all bad. They prefer the littleâbitâofâboth approach. Most of us like to think we're bad enough to be fun (i.e., a regular type - not dull or holier than thou). But of course we like to think we're also good enough to do the right thing when it counts.
The typical eulogy at many a person's funeral says, in effect, "He was a great guy," when he may have hated his motherâinâlaw, nursed a 20âyear grudge against his neighbor, cheated on his income tax, padded his expense account, chased (and possibly caught) several other women besides his wife and blasphemed God daily in speech and actions.
The Bible teaches that all human beings are born with a crucial flaw in their natures, and that flaw is sin. In Ephesians 2:1 Paul tells us, "You were dead in your transgressions and sins." The reason for our spiritually dead condition is the sin of the first man, Adam. According to Genesis 1:26, Adam was made in the image of God. He was a free moral agent. Of his own choice, Adam sinned (disobeyed God), and the entire human race was plunged into sin. (See Gen. 3 and Rom. 5:12â21 for the account and the implications of what is commonly known as the Fall.)
How could Adam's disobedience plunge all of us into sin? Theologians from all the major branches of the Christian Church agree that Adam acted as "federal head of the human race." That is, he represented all of us, and his initial act of sin had consequences for everyone, for all time. In his letter to the Romans, Paul sums it up by saying, "Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned" (Rom. 5:12). Because Adam was our representative, God counted us guilty because of his sin."
At first glance, Romans 5:12 sounds like an unfair judgment on everyone who lived after Adam. But is it? All of us know by experience that we do not live up to all that we know we should do (or not do) in relationship to God and our fellowman. Scripture teaches that we are all descended from Adam, and because we are part of Adam's family (the entire human race), we all have Adam's nature - a sinful heart. "The heart," writes Jeremiah, "is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Jer. 17:9.
While all of us are created in the image of God, just as Adam was, Adam's sin led us into a state that theologians call 'total depravity.' As Wayne Grudem points out, "Every part of our being is affected by sin, Our intellects, our emotions ... our hearts (the center of our desires in decisionâmaking processes), our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies."
Yes, unbelievers can do good on a social or human level. But Scripture clearly teaches that we totally lack spiritual good before God. Furthermore, we have no ability in ourselves to do anything in our own strength to please God or even come to Him to have a relationship. Only when God moves toward us in His grace and love through Jesus Christ can our total depravity be overcome. Total depravity is a serious condition, but we are redeemable. God does not give up on us. Although we are far from what He intended us to be, He loved us and sent His Son to die for us (see John 3:16). Adam's act of rebellion plunged all of us into sin, but Christ's act of obedience made it possible for us to be made righteous (see Rom. 5:17â21).
Just what is sin? Who decides what is or isn't sin?
In our culture it has become generally accepted that truth and morals are relative, that there are no objective or absolute truths and morals. All questions of right and wrong are seen as relative to the situation or to the culture or to each individual personal opinion. Since no one's opinion is more valuable than anyone else's, each of us must personally decide what is right and wrong - for us. To claim there are absolute truths about right and wrong is viewed as being intolerant, bigoted or judgmental - the three great "sins" of our postmodern secular culture.
Interestingly enough, those who take the "all truth is relative" approach, constantly find themselves having to make judgments about what is true, what is right and what is good. As they do this, they cannot help but judge other people with whom they disagree. With no absolute measuring stick about right and wrong, the ultimate result is moral chaos. (For where postmodernisrn is leading us, see chapter 12.)
According to the Bible, God has clearly shown us how to know what is objectively and absolutely right and wrong. In other words, God has defined sin for us and He has done it in two ways: general revelation (the moral law planted within each one of us) and special revelation (the Scriptures).
Paul describes the universal moral law (general revelation) in Romans 1: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualitiesâhis eternal power and divine natureâhave been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (v. 20). Paul goes on to say that men knew God through nature and the very world around them, but they neither glorified God nor thanked Him and instead plunged into idolatryâserving created things rather than their creator (see vv. 21â25).
As for special revelation, Scripture is full of definitions for sin, which all boil down to breaking God's laws or going against God's will. Summed up, these definitions might be stated: Sin is proud, independent rebellion against God in active or passive form.
To put it in scriptural terms, "[.] sin is lawlessness" (1 John 14). Also, "all wrongdoing is sin" (1 John 5: 17).
Examples of actively breaking God's laws or doing wrong can be summed up quite well in reviewing the Ten Commandments. Active sin includes such things as lying, stealing, murder and adultery. Passive sin is subtler, because it may not involve actions but may instead be a matter of attitude or thought. We can passively sin as our thoughts draw us into lust, selfishness, greed, jealousy, pride, indifference and lack of love.
James describes passive sin when he says, "Anyone, then, who knows to do good as he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins" (Jas. 4:17). Passive sin is summed up in the attitude that says to God or others, "Get lost, you're cramping my style. I'm too busy for you."
All of us sin actively and passively. As John puts it, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). Isaiah zeros in on our basic nature this way: "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6).
The laying of our iniquity (the guilt of our sin) on Christ is another puzzle for many people. They wonder: How could Jesus Christ die for everyone's sins? Isn't every person responsible for his own sins?
Many religions and cults admit the problem of sin, but their answer is to seek salvation from sin through good works or by keeping rules and laws. The Christian's Bible teaches that Jesus Christ redeemed us from sin by dying on the cross. Nowhere is this more clearly stated than by the apostle Paul: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:23,24).
Justification by faith is the doctrinal pillar of biblical Christianity. When we place our faith and trust in the fact that Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins, we are justified, meaning that God's justice has been satisfied through the substitutionary death of His Son Jesus Christ, and we have been brought into a correct relationship with God. When Paul spoke of the redemption that came by Christ Jesus, he was saying that Christ paid the penalty for our sin by removing our guilt.
To illustrate, suppose you have to go to court for speeding, but you do not end up paying the fine. You learn that it has been paid by someone else - possibly good old Dad or rich Uncle Charley. Getting your fine paid by someone else partially illustrates justification, but God goes one important step further. While your traffic ticket is taken care of, it doesn't alter the fact that you are guilty. But when you, as a sinner, turn to God through Christ, amazingly (and inexplicably), your guilt is wiped out as well.
Paul went on to say, "God presented Him [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood" (Rom. 3:25). When the Bible speaks of atonement, God's justice and His love are both involved. When Jesus Christ - God incarnate - died on the cross, He rendered satisfaction to God's holy standard and paid the penalty [.] (see John 3:16,17).
How can Scripture say that Christ's single death is adequate payment for the sins of the entire world? It is adequate because Christ is God. No one less than God could make payment for the sins of everyone. God is the one who set the holy standard. Who could fulfill its requirements but God Himself?
The Bible also teaches that we can do nothing to earn our justification. The Christian is saved by grace - God's unmerited favor, mercy and love. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8,9).
Many people, however, have difficulty accepting the concept that they cannot earn God's favor. Deep down, they believe they can earn salvation by being "good enough." Also at work is the popular and widespread idea that "Somebody else shouldn't be punished for my mistakes." That kind of thinking sounds noble, humble and honest. Actually this reasoning stems from pride, from not wanting to admit that no one can attain the standard of a holy God. For any of us to say that we can earn our own salvation is to say that God is something less than perfectly holy, and this is to say that God is less than God. Not only has Christ provided salvation by dying for our sins, but He will also return to Earth to judge the living and the dead (see John 5:22,27; Acts 10:42).
CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES
For Christians, the Scriptures are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Christians view these writings as the God - given basis for their faith.
Inspiration of the Bible is a main watershed between Christianity and other faiths. If the Bible cannot be trusted to be the inspired Word of God, then its claims concerning the deity of Christ, our sins and state and our need for salvation through faith in Christ's death, and resurrection have no force. The biblical Christian recognizes the Old and New Testaments as the only words that come from God Himself - the final authority for faith and practice. For biblical Christians, all claims to authority must be judged according to Scripture. Following are answers to common questions concerning the Scriptures.
Is the Bible actually "inspired by God"? Why is the Bible supposed to be superior to other books?
The favorite verse for claiming the Bible's superiority to other books is 2 Timothy 3:16. The most familiar translation of the verse reads: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God" (KX. A better translation of t lie Greek word here is found in the NIV, which says, "All Scripture is Godâbreathed." In other words, God the Holy Spirit guided or acted on the minds of the authors of Scripture, revealing to them what He wanted written (see also 2 Pet. 1:21).
As you read the pages of Scripture, particularly the New Testament, there is an unmistakable tone of authority and accuracy. This is because the writing was done either by eyewitnesses or by people very close to those who actually knew and lived with Jesus. No wonder. B. Phillips, the gifted translator of the New Testament, said that again and again he "felt rather like an electrician rewiring an ancient house without being able to turn the mains off".
What kind of proof can Christians offer for the Bible's inspiration and accuracy?
As we have already seen, there is first of all the Bible's own claim to be the inspired Word of God. But can the biblical Christian prove this claim? There is plenty of historical and scientific evidence for the Bible's validity and evidence in the form of fulfilled prophecy. The Old Testament contains over 300 references to the Messiah that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Computations using the science of probability on just 8 of these prophecies show the chance that someone could have fulfilled all 8 prophecies is 1017 power, or 1 in 100 quadrillion.
As for scientific evidence, archaeologists have proved again and again the accuracy of Scripture accounts, the names of peoples, places and dates. Nelson Glueck, eminent Jewish archaeologist, has categorically stated that "no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference."' William F. Albright, recognized as one of the greatest of archaeologists, testified that there is no doubt that archaeology "has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament tradition.
Another piece of evidence for the Bible's inspiration is its unity. The Bible was written by 40 authors over a period of 1,600 years. Most of these writers never knew the others. When J. B. Phillips began work on his New Testament in Modern English, he was not predisposed to regard the Bible as verbally inspired (that the very words were God-breathed). But as the work progressed, Phillips was increasingly impressed and amazed at the unity that existed throughout the books of the Bible. He said, "In their different ways and from their different angles, these writers are all talking about the same thing and talking with a certainty as to bring a wonderful envy into a modern heart." [.]
IS BIBLICAL CHRISTIANITY RIGHT?
Holding a biblical worldview based on the absolute truth of Scripture can sound like Christians believe they have all the truth. Christians do not claim to possess all the truth because only God knows all the truth perfectly and exhaustively. At best, we can know truth only partially as I Corinthians 13:12 clearly teaches. Neither do Christians claim that there is absolutely no truth in non - Christian religions and other worldviews. There are many truths that are common to all people. Nor do Christians claim that they alone are immune from cultural blinders or other errors. Error and foolishness is a common human problem, even among Christians.
This chapter is built around 1 Corinthians 15:3,4, which centers on the person and work of Christ, the nature of man and the inspiration of Scripture. Obviously, there are many other doctrines to the Christian faith, but we will make these three crucial areas our plumb line as we study other faiths in the rest of this book.
Admittedly, this plumb line is based on a Protestant, evangelical, conservative point of view. Not all Christian bodies would agree with it at every point, particularly Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, who believe that Tradition is equally as important as Scripture. More on that later, but for now we proceed with the assumption that biblical Christians from all points of the theological compass can agree with Paul's words in I Corinthians 15:3,4:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
These verses are the touchstone for the Christian who wants to be biblical. Biblical Christians believe that Christ is God and that He died for our sins. Biblical Christians believe that by nature they are sinners, spiritually dead, and that their only hope of salvation from sin is faith in Christ's death and resurrection. Biblical Christians believe they have a Bible that is inspired by the living God, and it is the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
In order to make intelligent comparisons with other faiths, Christians must know what their own faith teaches - what their own Bible says. These teachings are not to be revised, watered down or "demythologized." Biblical Christianity stands in faith and assurance upon the evidence "that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3). Only God can provide saving faith to a person, and that happens only when that person is open to what God has to say. In Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 12:3, "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit." [...]
© 2001, Gospel Light/Regal Books, Ventura, CA 93003, Used by Permission
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