I received a question from a reader of my previous post, “Only Saving Faith Promotes Saving Faith and Obedience.”
Question: “I would like to humbly request for further clarification with regards to the idea that “only right doctrine promotes saving faith”. “Does the statement imply that those who don’t have right doctrine are not saved.” The reason I ask is because this is the argument raised by church X that salvation is based on doctrine rather than on a belief in the person of Christ…However my concern is more for those who have a simple child-like faith and who are ignorant either because they happen to be unknowingly stuck in a church that deprives them of sound doctrine or because they happen to be uneducated. Do these people have saving faith without “right doctrine”?
Many church leaders have the impression that doctrine entails argument over abstract propositions that distracts Christians from focusing on more important spiritual exercises which build faith and relationships. To correct this false impression I pointed out MLJ’s insistence that doctrine is practical and that “there is an inseparable link between doctrine, spiritual experience and Christian obedience.” I was hoping that MLJ would add weight to my post which was written in a “rah-rah” spirit to get church leaders excited about doctrine.
I am aware of the possibility that the title of the post could be misread. Hence, your question, “Does the statement imply that those who don’t have right doctrine are not saved” does not come as a surprise to me. May I suggest that we read the title for what it affirms positively, “Right doctrine promotes saving faith” without implying the negative possibility, “No right doctrine means no saving faith”?
Some clarifications is in order:
First, while it is our duty to defend right doctrine, nevertheless, we should refrain from drawing definitive conclusions about someone’s salvation simply because of doctrinal difference. That is to say, our focus should be on critiquing wrong doctrine and not on judging people. Ultimately, to judge whether someone is saved or not is the business of God alone. We should humbly leave this matter to the holy God who is not only a God of truth and justice, but who is also a God of mercy.
Second, we are not saved by believing in doctrines (however right our doctrines may turn out to be). We are saved by faith (allegiance) in Jesus Christ alone. This being the case, I am prepared to venture a guess that many of those ordinary church goers whom you mentioned are likely to be saved in Christ. To be sure, they may not be educated enough to give a sophisticated presentation of doctrine. But thankfully, many of them do have a sufficient grasp of what we call “core or fundamental doctrines” of faith and salvation learned from good Christian hymns, contemporary worship songs and even from listening to “right sermons preached from the wrong biblical texts.” Truth be told, oftentimes the reality of their faith in Jesus Christ and their simple and unquestioning obedience to the commands of God put sophisticated theologians to shame.
Nevertheless, I would like to distinguish ordinary believers who demonstrate a simple but adequate faith in Jesus Christ from sophisticated biblical scholars and theologians who have chosen to reject the “core doctrines” of Christian faith. In this regard, to the extent that these teachers deny the “core doctrine” of salvation one may question whether they have wandered from the truth of salvation and in danger of falling from grace. For example, one wonders if someone who rejects the infallible authority of Scripture, the deity of Jesus Christ and the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ would acknowledge that only Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. To be sure, the historic creeds did not reduce the atoning work of Christ to a single theory, but one wonders what saving faith really means to a teacher who merely affirms the “horizontal” aspects of the work of the cross which view Christ’s death as providing as a moral exemplar or a “scapegoating mechanism” to overcome “mimetic violence” while ignoring or denying the “vertical” aspects of the atonement, that is, God’s judgment of sin and work of reconciliation through Christ’s sacrificial and penal substitutionary death on the cross.
In the end right doctrine matters as it points us to Jesus Christ as our only savior. Christian teachers who are tempted to play down the significance of the “core doctrines” of salvation because they want to be accepted by a secular academia where religious pluralism, ethical relativism and political correctness is the order of the day would do well to imitate Paul when he passionately defended the purity of the gospel against false teachers who were misleading the Galatians. (Galatians 1: 6-10)
Still, as I am not an apostle, I would greatly hesitate to pronounce judgment in the manner of Paul. My humbler task is merely to affirm that so long as our teaching is subject to the infallible authority of the Bible we are more likely to to get right doctrine which would challenge people to pledge their faith and allegiance to Jesus Christ as their only Lord and Savior. Right doctrine does not save us, but it promotes saving faith in Jesus Christ.
You may be interested to read further on the importance of Penal Substitutionary Death of Christ in these related posts:
Penal Substitution as the Heart of Christ’s Work on Atonement on the Cross
3 thoughts on “Are We Saved by Believing in Right Doctrine?”
“One wonders what saving faith really means to a teacher who merely affirms the “horizontal” aspects of the work of the cross which view Christ’s death as providing as a moral exemplar or a “scapegoating mechanism” to overcome “mimetic violence” while ignoring or denying the “vertical” aspects of the atonement, that is, God’s judgment of sin and work of reconciliation through Christ’s sacrificial and penal substitutionary death on the cross.”
I would venture it means that one still accepts Jesus as Lord and Saviour despite not agreeing with penal substitutionary atonement. My own puzzlement is why conservative thinkers cast doubts onto ppl’s salvation (or, “wonder what saving faith really means to these ppl”) simply because they object to PSA.
The intent of the statement is not to cast doubts on the salvation of people who reject PSA. I am mindful that the historic creeds did not ‘canonize’ one model of the atonement to the exclusion of other models. The point of the statement is to emphasize the necessity of going beyond “horizontal” aspects and affirm the “vertical” aspects of the atonement.
There are many scholars in the academia who have written learned treatises about how Jesus as a profound moral teacher and Weberian charismatic prophet inspires noble moral aspirations and social reform. Other scholars provide fascinating Girardian anthropological and psychoanalytical analyses on how Jesus’ death impacts the dynamics of social violence etc. As far as I can tell, it is possible for these scholars to stop their research with the “horizontal” aspects of Jesus’ death. They have no interest in examining the biblical teaching that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners from God’s holy wrath and judgment against sin. To be fair, such “vertical” aspects or theological issues are best resolved by biblical exegesis-hermeneutics rather than by philosophical or psychoanalytical theorizing.
Evangelical Christians are appreciative of the insights offered by these scholars, but they would emphasize the necessity of going beyond merely affirming “horizontal” aspects of the cross (assuming these scholars may not be willing to accept the word “atonement” with its classical Christian meaning) since it is the “vertical” aspects of the atonement that elicit or challenge individuals personally to respond to Jesus’ death with “saving faith” (believing and pledging faith/allegiance to Jesus Christ, receiving benefits of Jesus atoning death and obeying his commands).
Perhaps it would be helpful if I define what I mean by “saving faith”. Following the Westminster Confession of Faith, “The gift of faith makes it possible for the souls of the elect to be saved by believing in Jesus Christ…By this faith a Christian believes whatever is revealed in the word to be the true, authentic, authoritative statement of God himself. By this faith the believer also acts according to what particular passages in the word say. By faith the believer humbly submits to and obeys God’s various commands. He trembles at God’s awesome threats, and eagerly embraces his promises about this life and the life to come. But the chief actions of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting on Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, in the power of the covenant of grace. (WCF chapter 14: “Saving Faith”)
As a Lutheran, I suppose you can quote something similar about “saving faith” from the Book of Concord.
Naturally, the category of “saving faith” which calls for personal commitment to the savior who died for sinners remains an intellectual category foreign to contemporary scholars whose idea of dispassionate scholarship restricts their research interests to positivistic and phenomenological descriptions. In this regard, the PSA highlights more than any other theory of atonement the necessity of individuals exercising “saving faith” and thus presents an obstacle or an antithesis to the research ethos of these scholars.
To echo your sentiments, my own puzzlement is how these scholars would move from positivistic and phenomenological analysis of the “horizontal” aspects of the cross to arrive at saving faith if they ignore or deny the “vertical” aspects of the atonement in general or PSA in particular.
Thanks for the reply, Dr Ng.
I’m glad you cclarified there was no intention to cast doubts on the salvation of folks who reject PSA (for whatever reason). I’m of the view that there are certainly ‘vertical’ alternatives even should one have qualms about PSA (e.g. the Christus Victor model).
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