Fill in the blank. “You can’t be a Christian if you ______.” Judge people? Use drugs? Drink alcohol? Believe in evolution? Believe in billions of years? Believe in a young earth? Oppose gay marriage? Support gay marriage? Vote Democrat? Vote Republican? Support abortion? Oppose abortion? Reject Calvinism? Accept Calvinism? Attend a Catholic Church? Attend a Protestant Church? Use the NIV Bible? Don’t believe in eternal punishment?
The list could go on and on, and I believe I’ve heard or read every single one of these—that so and so cannot be a Christian because he or she believes or says _____. Think carefully before answering the next question. If you filled in the blank with any of the options listed above, would the statement be true? Let me ask it another way. Which one (or more) of the above beliefs is required to be a Christian?
Obviously, some of those positions are contradictory, but before you jump to conclusions about my point, let me hasten to add that many of these issues are very important, so this article is not a watered-down message calling for unity at the expense of truth. And it isn’t about how two contradictory views can both be true—they cannot. Instead, this article is about helping Christians think carefully about what we truly believe and how we communicate those beliefs to those who disagree with us, whether fellow believers or unbelievers.
Would any of the above options make the statement true? I don’t think so. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the issues are unimportant or that Christians should not hold some of those views because quite a few of them are incompatible with Scripture. For example, I believe the Bible clearly teaches that the unredeemed will suffer eternal punishment, so I think this is what a Christian should believe. But if someone interprets these passages in a different way, does that mean they cannot be a Christian? If you believe that to be the case, then you have just added to the simplicity of the gospel message by claiming that one must also have a proper understanding of the eternal fate of non-believers.
Let’s try another one. I believe the Bible is extremely clear that God created everything in six normal-length days just thousands of years ago—not millions or billions. I’ve written a whole book about this (Old-Earth Creationism on Trial). But if someone believes that Jesus Christ died for their sins, was buried, and rose again (1 Corinthians 15:3–4), and they also happen to believe that God created over the course of billions of years, would that disqualify them from the faith? Is it impossible for them to trust in Christ if they reject and reinterpret the clear teaching of Scripture regarding the timing of creation? If you think so, then you have added the age of the earth to the gospel message.
For the record, I work at Answers in Genesis, and the ministry and its founder, Ken Ham, are frequently accused of doing this, but we have consistently rejected such a view. We have never taught that one must believe in a young earth to be saved. It’s true that some of our followers have done this—I’ve seen plenty of comments making such a claim in response to old-earth creationists on the ministry’s Facebook page. In some cases, the ministry’s emphasis on and passion for this issue is probably misunderstood as teaching its essentiality. But we do not teach one must believe in a young earth to be a Christian.
The Correct Answer
Let’s look at what Scripture teaches about becoming a Christian. After telling Nicodemus that he “must be born again” (John 3:7), Jesus told him the most famous words in Scripture.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
When the Philippian jailor asked Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved, they replied, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:31).
Near the end of his Gospel, the Apostle John stated the following was his purpose in writing the book.
“And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:30–31)
So Jesus, Paul, and John all stated that to be a Christian one must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is, they must put their faith in Him to be saved. God’s gracious gift of salvation has been provided by Christ alone and has always been, and will always be received by faith alone.
Notice that these passages do not add requirements to faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible does not say that to be saved you must vote a certain way, use a certain Bible, be on the correct side of a social issue, and have all your theological ducks in a row.
How Did We Get Here?
So why do so many people make such strong statements about what is required if one is to be a Christian? There are surely many reasons, so let’s explore a few of them.
In many cases, Christians study the Bible and believe what it seems to plainly teach about a given topic (say, eternal punishment), and they assume that all true believers will naturally accept it. So, if a person rejects this teaching (let’s call him Bob), then he is demonstrating that he does not really believe God’s Word (at least about this matter). And since Christians should believe the Bible, Bob’s rejection of eternal punishment means that he must not be a Christian, right?
While I wholeheartedly agree that Christians should believe every word of the Bible, I also recognize that all Christians make mistakes, and some Christians make the mistake of not believing all of Scripture, and we are all guilty of improperly interpreting parts of it at times. The same thing is true when it comes to matters of practice. There are some things Christians should do and others that they should not do. However, even Christians make terrible mistakes, and it is possible that a genuine believer does not always live consistently with the beliefs they profess.
Another reason some believers conclude that someone cannot be a Christian is that they assume that all Christians have thought through the logical implications of a certain belief. If Bob, the hypothetical character mentioned earlier, does not accept all of those implications then he must not be a genuine believer. For example, when we speak of being saved, it’s natural to ask what Jesus saves us from. The Bible teaches that He saves us from our sin and the consequences of that sin, including eternal separation from God in the lake of fire, which is called the second death (Revelation 20:14). So if Jesus saves us from eternal punishment then how can Bob truly believe the gospel message if he does not understand what he is being saved from?
This seems like a natural question to ask, and I think it’s good to consider it. But think about the alternative. If Bob places his faith in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins, but he has not learned about eternal punishment yet, can we really say that he cannot be a Christian? Does God give a theology exam before granting eternal life? Or what if Bob started out believing in eternal punishment, but over the years, someone came along and confused him about the proper interpretation of those passages, leading Bob to conclude that the punishment of the wicked is only temporary. Would Bob suddenly lose his salvation?
Yet another reason I think some Christians condemn others is because we all struggle with pride, and this is just one way in which that manifests. We hold our own views with complete confidence, and some believers think that all good Christians should agree with them. So when they see someone who disagrees with them they conclude that that person must not really be saved. Can you see how ugly our pride can be and how it can blind us to the truth?
Let’s look at one more before wrapping things up. Some views may directly or indirectly impact the gospel. Earlier, I mentioned that some young-earth creationists have accused old-earth creationists of not being Christians because they reject the Bible’s teaching on these matters (for the record, I’ve heard old-earthers say similar things about young-earthers). Besides the fact that we believe the Bible plainly teaches the young-earth position, we also point out that old-earth creationists (to be consistent) must also reject the worldwide nature of the Genesis Flood (which some do). Even more dangerous, their belief inevitably places death, suffering, disease, and thorns prior to Adam’s sin, and yet the Bible teaches that these things are a result of Adam’s sin.
Here’s why this is so dangerous. If Adam’s sin did not bring death into this world (that is, if sin and death have no connection), then why is the only solution for sin the physical death of the Son of God on the Cross and His subsequent physical, bodily resurrection? If there is no connection between sin and death, then the gospel message itself is undermined. However, it is possible that old-earth creationists are simply being inconsistent in the way they read and understand Scripture here, and we need not automatically accuse them of rejecting the good news, even if their beliefs undermine the foundation for that good news.
A Call for Charity and Clarity
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. (Hebrews 5:12–13)
The author of Hebrews admonished his readers for failing to progress in their walk with the Lord. By the time he wrote his letter, they should have grown in their faith to the point that they were ready to teach others. Instead, they were still babes and needed milk instead of solid food.
Unfortunately, the same thing is far too common today. Those of us who have been blessed with the opportunity to read and study Scripture regularly should be eating the “solid food” of the Word instead of relying on milk (just the basic teachings). But for many decades, the church, by and large, has been intellectually lazy. We thrive on devotions rather than Bible study (not that devotions don’t have their place). We desire milk instead of meat, and when that happens, those who are nourished only by milk can be easily led into all sorts of erroneous beliefs. This does not mean that they turn back into unbelievers.
In these situations, we need to encourage the milk-drinker to move on to solid food, to mature in their faith, and to carefully and prayerfully study Scripture. Yes, we are told in the Bible to correct those who are in error, so do not shy away if you hear the common “don’t judge me” refrain. Do not be hypercritical and harsh in your correction, but act in a spirit of gentleness as Galatians 6:1 instructs.
Finally, while it is not wrong to call out error when we see it among our fellow believers, we need to remember that true Christians can believe some bad ideas. We should not, but unfortunately we do at times. So if you plan to correct them, do not say, “You cannot be a Christian if you ____,” because you may be guilty of adding certain theological beliefs or Christian practices to the gospel message. Instead, lovingly point them to Scripture to show them what a Christian should do and think if they are going to be consistent with the faith they profess.
What about those who profess Christianity but in a Universalist way? A close family member is culturally Christian and at least claims to believe Jesus as Lord and that He died to save us. But she also believes that sacrifice to universally apply to all people in some way or another, regardless of their knowledge or belief or faith.
I think that’s a great question. I believe it is similar to the eternal punishment example I gave above. Is it possible for someone to genuinely have faith in Christ and then believe something that is very wrong, in this case the idea that everyone will be saved?
To clarify, the goal of the article was not to decide whether a given individual was or was not saved since only God knows their heart. And it wasn’t to suggest that everyone who professes faith in Christ is a believer. My point is that we need to be careful about assuming someone is not a believer if they espouse a certain belief that is contrary to Scripture. When it comes to matters directly related to salvation, that can get quite tricky because sometimes the person does not seem to even understand what salvation is or why it is necessary. If the salvation brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection is universally applied to all people regardless of belief, then what is the point of believing in Him? What is the point of evangelism? Clearly, universalism is contrary to Scripture. But I would not assume that a person cannot possibly be a Christian if they happened to endorse such a position. The reason for that is that I know that Christians can fall into horrendous error, either in belief or in practice. Some have committed adultery. Some have embezzled money. Some hold to beliefs that I think are very damaging and even slanderous to God’s character, when taken to their logical end. So I can imagine a situation where a person genuinely believes in Jesus and then through certain influences and perhaps an overemphasis (or misunderstanding) of the many passages that speak of God’s love, they end up believing in the sort of universalism that you described.
Whether the person is or is not a believer is not something I can know. The good thing is that our approach to correcting such an error should be the same (or very similar) in both cases. We need to show them what Scripture says about the subject. If they are an unbeliever, we need to use the opportunity to share the good news with them. If they are a believer, then they should be willing to submit to the authority of Scripture, and in this case, the Bible clearly teaches that many people will be lost eternally.
I hope this helps clarify my point. Thanks for the great question.