September 15, 2015

200 Words: Denomination or Deformation

by Nathan Busenitz

200wordsBaptists, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. All three claim to believe in Jesus. Yet, only one of these groups can be rightly classified as a denomination rather than a false religion.

With that in mind, the question we are asking today might be stated as follows:

What are the marks of cult groups and apostate forms of Christianity that identify them as false religions—such that we can and should label them as heresies, rather than simply classifying them as different denominations?

Here is my attempt to answer that question in 200 words or less:

The New Testament articulates three fundamental doctrinal criteria by which false teachers (and false religions) can be identified:

1. A Wrong View of Salvation

False religions (whether they claim to be Christian or not) attempt to add good works to the gospel of grace (cf. Rom. 11:6). Rather than trusting in Christ alone for salvation, they seek to earn God’s favor through self-righteous works and human effort (cf. Acts 15:1–11; Gal. 1:6–9; Eph. 2:8–9; Php. 3:8–9; Titus 3:5–7).

2. A Wrong View of Scripture

False teachers distort, deny, and deliberately disobey the Scriptures (2 Pet. 2:1, 3:16). They add to or subtract from God’s revealed truth (cf. John 17:17; Rev. 22:18–19), looking to some other false authority for their beliefs (Mark 7:6–12; cf. 2 Cor. 10:5).

3. A Wrong View of the Savior

False religions twist the truth about Jesus Christ. They deny aspects of either His Person (e.g. His deity, humanity, eternality, uniqueness, etc.) or His work (e.g. His death, resurrection, ascension, etc.). Those who do not worship the true Christ are not truly Christian (John 4:24; cf. John 1:1, 14; 1 John 1:1; 2:22–23; 4:1–3; 2 John 7–11).

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Nice and concise, well done. BTW, I was at church Sunday (9/13) and I saw you when the elders were called up near the end. I wanted to say hello but never saw you again. Sorry I missed you! Yours is still my favorite seminary class I’ve ever attended.

  • Jason

    A lot of what people call “denominations” would fail test 2 fairly handily. 3 is on pretty shaky ground for a number of teachers that many call “evangelical” today as well.

    As useful as labels can be to express ideas more quickly (or at all, really) it can be quite counter-productive toward good solid discernment to stop where terminology lines have been drawn (I.E. between false religion and denomination).

    Denominational lines are never as petty or insignificant as people make them seem. I’ve heard people say it’s basically about music style, teaching methods, level of energy in worship, etc… but I’ve yet to find a division in the church that could be reconciled if only one group would accept more pop music.

    Labels, in most cases, end up being 1 Corinthians 3 situations. It’s the height of irony that the one division of the church labeled after a person is named for someone who understood this:

    “I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? The doctrine is not mine. I have been crucified for no one. St. Paul in 1 Cor. 3:4-5 would not suffer that the Christians should call themselves of Paul or of Peter, but Christian. How should I, a poor stinking bag of worms, become so that the children of Christ are named with my unholy name? It should not be dear friends. Let us extinguish all factious names and be called Christians whose doctrine we have. The pope’s men rightly have a factious name because they are not satisfied with the doctrine and name of Christ and want to be with the pope, who is their master. I have not been and will not be a master. Along with the church I have the one general teaching of Christ who alone is our master.”
    -Martin Luther

  • KPM

    Is it possible for a church to have a theologically accurate view of justification, but a practical embrace of legalism? Sorry, I know everyone on this site is in someway connected to Grace Community/TMS, so I’ll tread lightly, but still try to push a bit.

    I’ve seen a few churches, three that I can think of off the top of my head, who like to emphasize Lordship Salvation. In all of these churches, while they promote Sola Fide in theory, in practice it seems like many of the congregants, as well as the elders, are very insistent that you must have works to verify that you’re truly saved. The preaching even begins to depart from the model laid down by Christ, Paul, and the Reformers. Instead of preaching free grace in a way that logically leads the hearer to raise concerns of antinomianism, grace is only preached if it is immediately followed up by “you must make Jesus the Lord of your life to be truly saved,” and “the Holy Spirit will empower you to obey.”

    While I agree with the necessity of works as the fruit of repentance, I’ve seen and experienced in practice many people swollen with pride because they look at their own “fruits” as superior or more abundant than the fruits of another. I’ve also seen people marginalized or driven to despair (even suicide) because that don’t have all of the fruits of repentance or fruits of the Spirit mentioned in scripture.

    It seems like this becomes a practical legalism in a church that theologically affirms Sola Fide. Instead of saying, “Bob is a Christian because he believes in the objective promises of God, and there are no gross sins in his life that would lead us to believe otherwise” we say “Bob might be Christian because he believes in the objective promises of God, but unless I see him produce the following fruits, I’m not sure I can believe him.”

    Would embracing legalism in practice, while still affirming Sola Fide in doctrine make a church heretical?

    • KPM

      Along those lines…

    • Jason

      A church can certainly acknowledge the principles of scripture in word and still practice legalism. Each person is capable of believing something is wrong and still falling into it.

      However, it should be stated that legalism doesn’t look like people encouraging one another to submit their lives to God as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) or acknowledging that faith without works is dead and isn’t really faith at all (James 2:26).

      Instead, legalism is evident when a person wants to put every action into a good and bad bucket so that they can look good(at least in their own eyes) without actually developing maturity. They want a list of “good behavior” and “bad behavior” so that they can do a bunch from the first list, avoid the second list and otherwise live as they desire.

      Congregations who are afraid to be considered “too strict” if they teach Jesus as Lord tend to be *very* legalistic. They have a few “really bad things” that you have to avoid to still be considered okay, and a few things you have to profess and do to be safe.

      The size or the strictness of these lists don’t matter. What matters is how much a person is depending on some set of rules to dictate what they can and cannot “get away with”.

      If a person is trying to decide what they can get away with they are legalistic with no real faith in the saving work of Christ no matter how small or great their “get away with” list is. If a person is trying to figure out how best to serve God with their lives they’re doing exactly what you’d expect a person with saving faith to behave.

      • KPM

        I think you’re right on the mark, Jason. That’s where my problem with the Lordship salvation camp comes in. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they’re heretics or terrible people (or I wouldn’t be reading this blog), but I think their approach to the Christian life is a bit off-kilter.

        The general principle of Lordship Salvation is sound. How it is usually applied tends toward legalism, in my opinion. They look at their own lives and their own works and say, “yeah, i’m probably saved because i’ve got fruits x, y, and z.” Likewise, they look at others and say, “I’m not sure they’re saved because they’re failing to exhibit fruits x, y, and z.” It’s a very legalistic way of thinking that approaches works-righteousness salvation.

        I think a better approach is to say, “we’re all horrible sinners and we all fail in truly egregious ways.” Instead of looking at our failures or successes to say, “I must have truly made Jesus the Lord of my life, because I’ve done such and such,” we ought to say, “yes, I’ve failed and I am a sinner.”

        The thing is, I cannot make Jesus the Lord of my life, no matter how hard I try. I hate my sin and I desire to obey, but there is a war in me, in the same way that there was a war in the Apostle Paul. I desire to do good, but the good that I desire to do, I do not do. That which I hate, I do. I believe that Christ died for me because he said that if I come to him, he will save me. His promises are the foundation of my hope. I cannot make him the Lord of my life, no matter how hard I try, because i need to be saved from myself.

        In fact, I never see any place in the Bible that says I need to make Jesus the Lord of my life in order to be saved. Jesus is the Lord of my life, objectively, in the same way that he is the Lord of every man’s life. Yes, the Holy Spirit produces the desire for obedience and the strength for progressive holiness, but I’m in absolutely no way qualified to make a determination as to whether or not someone I know has the desire for obedience, and it’s difficult to discern how another person might be growing in holiness. Unless there is gross, unrepentant sin in a person’s life that clearly indicates they have little desire for obedience or holiness, we should not doubt their standing before Christ, assuming they’ve professed faith.

        Starting with the assumption that a large percentage of the visible Christian church is unsaved – and then trying to preach the gospel in such a way that confuses justification and sanctification because we think we’re doing the work of Christ trying to sort the wheat from the chaff – we’re slipping into the territory of works-righteousness and confusing the doctrine of sola fide.

        • Jason

          We should never judge the ultimate fate of a person, to be certain. God can grant new life to anyone at any time. However, it’s not like we’re not supposed to be judicious in any way.

          In Matthew 18:15-17 we are commanded by Jesus to correct and, eventually, break fellowship with a person who is too committed to their sin to be a member of the church. In 1 John 4:1 we are commanded to test the spirits.

          It’s a lot more nuanced than just watching for specific actions and when they “cross a line” throwing them out on their can. It also isn’t waiting for them to “cross a line” in righteousness before we can accept them. This is legalism.

          It’s a matter of their heart. Spend any time in a typical congregation in America today (can’t speak for any other area or time, because I’ve not been there) and you will see plenty (sadly, often the majority) of lukewarm people who perfectly fit the description of those who accept the message gladly but then are choked out by the cares of this world or those who shrivel up at the first sign of persecution because they had no roots.

          Any church that blindly believes they are doing God’s work by packing the house with those who are like the church God warns he will ultimately spit out(Revelation 3:16) and then shrinking away from encouraging one another into godliness (1 Thessalonians 5:11) because it would offend the worldliness of the congregation isn’t on the right path.

          Also, it’s incorrect to say that Jesus is lord of a believer’s life in the same way He is lord of every man’s life. God is ultimately in control of everything, but a person is either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness. We cannot be both and, despite what many believe, we cannot be neither (Romans 6:15-23).

          His lordship is a matter of kingdoms, and a person who is a slave to sin is not of the kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

          You’re correct to say that you don’t make Him lord of your life. Believers are servants to God through their faith, which is a work of God in itself (Ephesians 2:8).

          It does sound like perhaps you’ve run into people who don’t take the lordship of Jesus far enough (though it may seem to many like they are taking it too far). We don’t get to pick who is in the kingdom, and nobody “earns” their place. Both of those are only by the grace of God.

          Still, a church that refuses to accept the necessity of a believer to submit their life to the service of God isn’t loving Him (John 14:21).

        • Mr. Mike

          Wise words, my friend. Very wise words. Jesus IS Lord. The question is our level of obedience to His commandments. Even the apostle Paul had a problem with this as he did the things he should not have done and didn’t do the things he should.
          One of Grace Church’s church plants in Columbia, Maryland and a member of Grace Mid-Atlantic, has gone completely off the rails with its legalism. It requires perfect attendance in the small groups they have divided church into and is very demanding of its members in the area of church service. This is a fairly recent development and was not a part of the original church plant. What a shame.
          I am not about to tread lightly concerning this subject. We are saved by GRACE alone through FAITH alone.

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  • Johnny

    This is very good. I live near a number of churches you could consider “gospel+” (e.g. Pentecostalism, baptismal regeneration, KJVO, etc) in which there’s something else subtly tagged on to the end of gospel, and those types of churches are what I would consider “gateway cults”, because of their insistence that there’s just something else more you need to do beyond the perfect work of Christ Jesus alone.