What is the “minimum” content that a person must believe in order to receive eternal life? I’m asked that question fairly often, and it’s a tough one to answer.

For example, if a person believes that Jesus died for his sin and rose from the dead, yet does not understand or affirm Christ’s deity, does that person possess saving faith?¬†At what point does a failure to accept certain widely held tenets of Christianity disqualify a person from being considered a Christian?

Just a few thoughts:

First, it’s nearly impossible to know another person’s spiritual condition with certainty. We can listen carefully to somebody’s expressed beliefs and attempt to make a judgment, but it’s rarely (if ever) an easy judgment to make. Only God knows for sure if a person’s name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev 21:27).

Second, there is a distinction between ignorance regarding a particular doctrine and rejection of that doctrine. I think it’s possible for a person to be a Christian without understanding the Trinity. It’s a complex and difficult subject. It’s a doctrine that many, if not most, Christians misunderstand. On the other hand, if a person rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and believes that one member of the Godhead is not God, or that Jesus is something less than God in the flesh, then that person is placing himself outside the stream of Christian orthodoxy. That’s why I don’t consider Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses to be members of “Christian” denominations. Again, I don’t know any individual’s spiritual condition, but if a person actively rejects key tenets of Christianity, I’m going to operate under the assumption that he is not a Christian. However, it’s quite possible for a genuine believer to be confused or uninformed.

Third, the Scripture gives us some key aspects of the Gospel that leads to eternal life. When I present the Gospel, I always make sure to include three main points: First, we are sinners in need of saving (Romans 3:9-20; 23). Apart from God’s intervention and grace, we are destined for an eternity in hell. Second, Jesus provided a way for us to be reconciled to God and to receive eternal life. He died in our place and rose from the dead, proving that God had accepted His sacrifice (1 Corinthians 15:1-8; 1 Peter 2:24; Acts 2:24). Third, God offers eternal life to those who will trust in what Jesus has done on their behalf (John 3:16; Romans 3:21-26; Eph 2:8-9). Although there are many other valuable points to be made about Jesus, these key points seem to be at the heart of the Gospel presented in the New Testament.

Fourth, our ultimate goal is not simply to present the “minimum” possible content, but to make lifelong disciples of Jesus. For that reason, our task does not end after we present the basics of the Gospel message. With our children, for example, we begin with simple concepts and words, but our ultimate goal is for them to have a rich and deep understanding of God’s Word. One danger of focusing too intently on the question of who is “in” and who is “out” is that we fail to consider the years of discipleship that ought to follow one’s initial profession of faith. That’s not to imply that the question of one’s eternal destiny is unimportant — it’s hard to think of a more important topic. However, we are called to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) and to “press on to maturity” in our Christian faith (Hebrews 6:1-3). Only God really knows when a person moves from spiritual death into life, but we do know that that moment is only the beginning of a person’s relationship to Jesus. For that reason, we ought consistently present the Gospel to everybody and¬†consistently encourage people to move forward in their spiritual life.

(On a tangential but related topic, this is why I present the basic message of the Gospel in every sermon. First, I don’t know the spiritual condition of everybody present. Second, for those who are believers, the reminder of Christ’s death and resurrection is always necessary. However, each sermon ought to also present the implications of Christ’s work for the maturing believer, and should do so from the biblical text at hand).

What are your thoughts and questions on this critical but difficult subject? 

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