James Vs. Paul: Did James Not Believe in Jesus’ Divinity? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

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Did the Apostles Paul and James believe in the same Jesus?

The thesis of Mustafa Akyol’s 2017 book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims is basically this:

The first faithful followers of Jesus (who, like Jesus, were Jews) understood Jesus to be the completely human Messiah who the Jews had been waiting for. These Jewish Christians stayed faithful to all of the Old Testament law and their leader was the Apostle James, brother of Jesus.

Then, the Apostle Paul came along. He taught that Christians didn’t have to follow the Old Testament law and that they are saved by faith alone. Furthermore, mixing in some beliefs of the pagan Romans, these Christians proclaimed Jesus to be God in the flesh.

Clearly, according to Akyol, these two branches of early Christianity were at odds with each other, but Paul’s version won out and survives to this day as mainstream Christianity, which is the corrupted version of true Christianity. Akyol seems quite confident in his theory, even stating that it’s “historical fact that the two men had become the originators of two different branches of Christianity.” (P.5) Yes, you read that right; this, according to Akyol, is “historical fact”! According to Akyol, the true Christian faith of the first Jewish Christians “vanished in history,” condemned as heresy.

Akyol isn’t the first person to try to argue that Paul invented Christianity as we know it or that Paul corrupted the pure Christianity of Jesus. Akyol isn’t even the first person to pit Paul against James.

Akyol puts much stock into his idea that the Epistle of James, which is part of the New Testament canon, demonstrates an “implicit divergence from mainstream Christianity.” (P.4) Christians throughout history have noticed what may be a tension between Paul’s emphasis on salvation-by-faith-alone and James declaring “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), and this has been addressed by many, many Christian theologians and scholars over the centuries (and we’ll take time to address it in a later blog), but Akyol goes even further in suggesting that the letter of James is totally at odds with historical, orthodox Christianity, as if it’s a remnant of the earliest, truest Christianity that has somehow snuck itself into the New Testament canon.

Akyol points out that James’ letter never calls Jesus “the Son of God” (P.3) and elsewhere he states James (and the early Jerusalem Church, which James led) did not believe Jesus was God incarnate (P.35).

If Akyol is right and James’ letter  is representative of the first Jewish Christians – the true followers of Jesus, according to his theory – then the letter would NOT confirm the deity of Jesus. 

Did James believe Jesus was a strictly human messiah? Did James not believe Jesus was the incarnate, divine, second person the Trinity? If the idea of Jesus being divine was foreign to James, we should expect, at least, that he is silent on the issue of Jesus’ divinity in his letter, right?

“LORD” VS. “GOD”

Let’s go to the actual letter of James in the New Testament and see what James has to say himself:

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

So, as we start with chapter one, we are only one verse in and we already run into an issue with Akyol’s theory. (Yes, we didn’t even get out of James 1:1!) Here, James begins by referring to Jesus as “the Lord.”

Here’s the thing: we modern people see the word “God” and we think – well – “God,” meaning a divine being. And when we see the word “Lord,” we think that could just be a human. For example, Lord Byron was just a man. And those familiar with the Bible likely see “Lord” and think, “Well, that could be God, but it could also be just a human.” And how they determine which “Lord” it is – divine or human – they must look at the context of the writing to figure it out.

But there’s the rub: when we read the New Testament and we see “Lord,” it is a divine title. In other words, “God” means God and “Lord” means God. Thus, when Jesus is called “Lord” in the New Testament, he is being called “God.”

Let’s go back to the Old Testament.

The name of the one, true God of the Bible is Yahweh, as given to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is God’s personal, proper name.

In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, adonia is a title often given to the one, truly divine being, Yahweh, but it is a title that can also be given to people. Adonia is usually translated as “lord.”

The Hebrew word elohim is another title, which is usually given to the one, truly divine being, Yahweh. This is usually translated “god.” But, the thing is, elohim can (though not often) even be a title given to powerful humans. For example, see Psalm 82:1 and 82:6 (and Jesus’ comments about this Psalm in John 10:34-35). Yet over time, as we see in our day, the title “god” came to only refer to divine, supernatural beings, and when someone says “God” today, they are referring usually to a specific idea of a divine being and using it like a proper name for that being.

(Important note: Biblical Hebrew and Greek do not have lower and upper case letters; thus, when reading the original languages, we can’t depend on a word being capitalized or not – like in English – to help us interpret the understanding of certain words. We must look at context.)

In ancient Israel, in order to not accidentally break the commandment to not use Yahweh’s name carelessly (one of the Ten Commandments – Exodus 20:7), the ancient Jews would avoid saying “Yahweh,” even when reading Scripture, and would instead substitute it with adonia (Lord). They would do this in writing as well.

This tradition carried over into the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament). So, where the original Hebrew reads “Yehweh,” the translators of the Septuagint instead wrote the Greek word for LordKyrios.

This tradition continues into our modern English translations today. If you open up your English Old Testament to a random page, you’ll likely find “THE LORD” written in all small caps. This is to signify that the original Hebrew reads “Yahweh.”

The evidence in the New Testament shows that when Jesus and the first Christians quoted Scripture, they quoted the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. Scholars confirm this. Thus, the Septuagint was the translation of Jewish Scripture primarily used and read by Jesus and the Apostles, and the Septuagint refers to the only one, truly divine being as Lord (Kyrios).

My point?

Just as “god” became a word to exclusively mean divinity, the word “lord” (kyrios) to the New Testament writers was a word to describe divinity as well. In other words, when the New Testament authors write that Jesus is “Lord,” they are saying Jesus is the God of Israel.

Read the New Testament letters carefully. You’ll notice almost exclusively (with some exceptions), God the Father is called “God” and Jesus/the Son is called “Lord.” (And, yes, sometimes, Jesus is called “God” too!)

So, James 1:1 should be understood as follows:

“James, a servant of God [the Father] and of the [God] Jesus Christ.”

The New Testament writers understood the Father and the Son as two persons (of three) of the Trinitarian Godhead; they were different persons sharing the same divine substance. Thus, they referred to one divine person by the title “God” and the other by the title “Lord,” yet both were titles for divine beings.

If you don’t believe me, let’s let James speak for himself…

 

JAMES SPEAKS FOR HIMSELF

Make a short, short jump from 1:1 to 1:5-8, and we already see this in James’ letter:

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Here, James first says to ask for wisdom from God. Then, James explains how to ask properly, saying we shouldn’t assume we’ll “receive anything from the Lord.” James is clearly using “God” and “Lord” as interchangeable synonyms; God is the Lord, and the Lord is God. Who did James call “Lord” in 1:1?

Later in Chapter 1, James refers to God as “the Father” (1:17) and also writes “God, the Father” (1:27). Though God is referred to as a father in the Old Testament, referring to God as “the Father” and as “God the Father” are unique titles given to God by the writers of the New Testament, implying the Trinity.

Chapter 3 of James’ letter begins with the famous “taming of the tongue” section, where he warns of the dangers of careless talk. Using the tongue as a symbol of human speech, he writes:

9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. (3:9)

Already, we saw how “God” and “Lord” are interchangeable in 1:5-8 and also that “Father” is a title for God. Here in 3:9, we see that “Lord” and “Father” are interchangeable. Not only that, but the whole point of 3:9 is that humans are not to use the same mouth they use to praise God to curse humans, who are made in God’s image. Clearly, the Father, the Lord, and God all share an identity.

Moving on to Chapter 5, we see “the Lord” throughout. Should we understanding these to be references to the strictly human, non-divine Jesus of Akyol’s theory or as references to Jesus, God the Son, second person of the Trinity? Let’s see what the context tells us:

Verses 7 and 8 speak of the end times coming of “the Lord.” If what we looked at above is ignored, a Muslim like Akyol could likely argue that this reference is to Jesus and nothing about it implies divinity; it’s a common Muslim belief that Jesus was a human prophet of Allah who will also return at the End Times. But as we read on in Chapter 5, we see “the Lord” (which is how Jesus is referred to in 1:1) is clearly God, Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament:

10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (5:10-11)

Take note, James refers to the prophets (which can only mean the Old Testament prophets) “who spoke in the name of the Lord,” i.e. Yahweh, i.e. God. Next, we have a reference to the book of Job of the Old Testament and Job’s encounter with “the Lord,” which can, again, only mean Yahweh, i.e. God.

Thus, the “Lord” of verses 7 and 8 who will return at the End Times is Yahweh, and both Christians and Muslims agree that it is Jesus who will return at the End Times. Further, again, who is called Lord in James 1:1?

There are other times “Lord” appears in James, but I think you get my point. James calls Jesus “the Lord.” James calls God “the Lord.” Thus, James believed Jesus is God.

 

OK, ONE MORE VERSE

Finally, let’s jump back to James 2:1:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

If this is a proper translation, here we find James explicitly stating that Jesus is God. To a good Jew like James, only Yahweh is “the Lord of glory”! Now, to be perfectly transparent, this is a hard sentence to translate, and other translations do not translate it in the same way as the ESV quoted above. Here are other ways to translate it:

“…faith in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“…faith in our Lord of glory, Jesus Christ.”

“…faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory.”

“…faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”

Some of these translations may be giving Jesus a divine title more overtly than others, but in David P. Nystrom’s commentary on James, he states, “In any event it seems clear that in this rare case of Christology in the book of James, Jesus Christ is identified with the Shekinah, the visible manifestation of the divine. James believes that in Jesus God is revealed… the very manifestation of God’s glory” (James: NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan P. 114).

In support of this understanding, see 1 Corinthians 2:8, where Paul speaks of Jesus as “the Lord of glory,” and Acts 7:2, where Stephen describes Yahweh as “the God of glory.”  

Ironically, Akyol actually quotes 2:1 in his book to emphasize how Jesus is only mentioned by name twice in Jame’s epistle, not realizing the significance of Jesus being called “Lord” in both passages where Jesus is named and “the glory” in 2:1.

 

WRAPPING IT UP

To wrap up, Akyol makes a mistaken assumption when using James’ letter to argue that James did not believe in the divinity of Christ: he assumes that just because James’ epistle is in the New Testament, that the letter must explicitly declare the divinity of Christ. Think about it: if – for example – a pastor was writing to his church, which he already knew believed Jesus was God, would he need to lay all that out to them again?

Yet, Akyol does not take into account the specific purpose, audience, or even genre of the writing. If James is writing to Christians already familiar with Christian beliefs, why would he need to explicitly declare Jesus’ divinity? Why assume every letter written by an Apostle will lay out the whole of Christian theology?

The truth is, most letters in the New Testament are not theological manifestos. They are written to specific churches about specific topics and issues. With this, James’ epistle more closely follows the genre of Proverbs than the theologically heavy letters of the New Testament, such as Romans or Hebrews.

Finally, as we’ve seen, what Akyol misses is that James does declare Jesus to be God. Does James explicitly proclaim it? No, he assumes it. This implicit proclamation is weaved throughout his letter, and once noticed through careful reading, it is just as powerful as any explicit declaration of the God-man Jesus Christ.

 

Christianity Through Roman Eyes (Part 2) The Absurdity of the Cross – Would Ancient Jews or Romans Invent a Crucified God?

Alexamenos Graffiti

As we explore what the ancient Romans thought of Christians, it’s worth taking a little more time to speak of the absurdity to Roman sensibilities that Christians would worship a crucified person.

Crucifixion – It Ain’t Pretty

One doesn’t have to contemplate crucifixion long to grasp the ultimate horror of it. Simply imagine being laid out naked on a rough wooden beam and spikes being driven through your wrists or forearms and feet or ankles. Some ropes may be used to prevent your flesh from ripping to prevent you from falling from the cross once it has been stood upright. As gravity pulls your bodyweight down on the stakes that have been driven through your flesh and bones, then begins the long wait for your slow death to play out – in public for all to see, in the heat of the sun and chill of the night.

A small, slanted piece of wood for your feet to sit on helps support a bit of your weight. Some studies say the weight of your body and the position of your outstretched arms may have made it hard to breath, and thus, the crucified would have to push up on the spikes piercing their feet and pull up on the spikes through their arms to raise their bodies enough to a position to take in good, deep breaths of air.

Torture usually preceded crucifixion. With the Romans, this often came in the form of being beaten by a leather whip with bits of metal and bones weaved into it to rip the flesh, exposing muscle and bone. Once hung on the cross, the cause of death could be many things: shock from loss of blood, exhaustion, suffocation, exposure, or any combination.

What Did Ancient People Think of Crucifixion?

Martin Hengel in his book Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross looks at ancient historical sources and brings to light several things about this cruelest form of execution.

Crucifixion, wide-spread in antiquity, was seen as the ultimate deterrent. A risk that may lead one to be put up on that cross was a risk not worth taking. The cruel and public (not to mention inexpensive) nature of crucifixion was an appealing tool in keeping order. After being tortured, the Romans made the victim carry his own cross to the crucifixion location. After death, the executed was left on the cross as food for wild animals and birds of prey. To ancient people, the victim going unburied would have grim religious significance. It was all a brutal, public spectacle.

In the Roman Empire, the elite inflicted crucifixion primarily on the lower classes (especially slaves), violent criminals, and rebellious upstarts. Such criminals held no rights in the Roman world, and any challenge to the Roman authority would not be tolerated.

What Hengel displays convincingly is that crucifixion was the ultimate humiliation and offense to the Romans. It was a slave’s death. It had such a stigma, the word “crucifixion” itself was not used in polite company. Even writings mentioning this horrible practice avoided using the word. Among the lower classes “crux” was considered one of the most derogatory, offensive things you could say to a person. Having a family member hung on a cross was disgraceful. In no uncertain terms, crucifixion was scandalous to the ancient Romans (and Jews) and a source of dread.

Why is this significant to Christians today?

First, if the first Christians of the first century had decided to invent a story so they could start a new religion (for whatever motivation), creating a story about a crucified God-man who rose from the dead would not be the way to do it. In fact, it would be a good way to make sure your new religion died a quick death. The idea of following the teachings of a crucified man would have been scandalous and offensive to the extreme. If a Jewish or Roman family would have been ashamed and humiliated knowing one of their own family members had been punished by crucifixion, why would anyone want to adamantly declare that they worship a crucified person?  The idea of worshiping a crucified God-man would sound more absurd to ancient Jewish and Roman ears than to modern, secular ears.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… 

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Our second concluding point is this: when we get a clearer understanding of the terror and dehumanizing nature of crucifixion, we understand more fully the length Christ went to because of his love for us. Hengel writes, “Death on the cross was the penalty for slaves, as everyone knew; as such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture.”

“Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6-11)

Read Part 1: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

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Christianity Through Roman Eyes (Part 1) The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

Alexamenos Graffiti

The above photo is of the earliest known visual depiction of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly, it doesn’t come from an ancient church or even from Christian hands. It’s a piece of ancient graffiti scratched into a wall in Rome, dated to just before 200 AD. In it, a man looks upon a naked man with a donkey’s head crucified on a cross. The Greek reads, “Alexamenos worships god.”

When studying history, what is sometimes called “enemy attestation” is considered the strongest sort of evidence. The idea is that all historical writings have the bias of the authors, so a historical record from a certain people about themselves will likely have a positive spin. On the other hand, historical writings about those same people by those who opposed them will likely have a negative spin. Thus, enemy attention is valuable when it affirms the same information as the other side. Such harmony is of high value to the historian.

The ancient graffiti above appears to have been created by a Roman mocking Christian beliefs. The graffiti artist degrades the beliefs of the Christian Alexamenos for worshipping a crucified man, going so far as to portray Alexamenos’ God with the head of an ass.

This piece of enemy attestation from just before 200 AD not only confirms the crucifixion of Jesus, but also confirms that ancient Christians worshipped Jesus as a God. (This is confirmed in the earliest Roman writings about Christians as well.)

This is significant to Christians today because many modern skeptics often explain away Christian beliefs about Jesus as legends that developed long after Christ walked the earth. A popular claim (which is not argued in the academic world but lives on thanks to the internet and the book The Da Vinci Code) is that Jesus was deified at the Council of Nicea over 300 years after Jesus’ ministry or, at least, some time after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD and – as the dead theory goes – mixed pagan beliefs with Christian beliefs. This simple piece of scratched slander on a Roman wall alone disproves that theory.

Another point of interest about this piece of crude ancient art is that it gives us a glimpse into what the ancient Romans thought of this strange new cult that worshipped a crucified God-man.

In this series, we’ll look more at what the Romans thought of Christians and see how it helps us to understand our faith today.

NEXT: The folly of the Cross continued…

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The New Paganism (Part 6) Are the Old Testament Faithful Damned Because They Lived Before Christ?

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The Old Testament Saints

Are the people faithful to God in the Old Testament still damned because they lived before the saving work and death of Christ? This is a question often asked by both Christians and skeptics. The quick answer is: No, they are not damned. The Old Testament faithful are saved by the work of Christ.

To conclude this series on pluralism and inclusivism, we’ll look at one more inclusivist claim of scholar Clark Pinnock. His inclusivist view proposes that one does not have to believe in Christ specifically to be saved, and one way he supports his argument is by pointing to the faithful who are saved in the Old Testament before the coming of Christ.

Surely, Pinnock claims, many loyal people of God written about in the Old Testament had saving faith long before Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I believe he is correct here, as well see by the biblical evidence below.

Pinnock and other inclusivists name Abraham as a prime example. They are right in that Abraham had saving faith before Christ, but they are overlooking important details. Abraham was not a faithful “pagan saint” who came to salvation through his paganism.

First, Abraham came into a covenantal relationship with God by the self-disclosure of God himself, which is an example of special, not general, revelation. Abraham was likely a pagan before God revealed himself to him in Genesis 12, and all evidence indicates that not only did God initiate this relationship but also Abraham was not chosen for any particularly reason, including any sort of righteous behavior.

Secondly, this means Abraham clearly had correct information about God, which—as we have seen—is a requirement for salvation.

Thirdly, Abraham had faith in God’s promises, which would include looking forward to Christ, a promise going all the way back to the Fall in Genesis 3:15. God promises Abraham that through him all the families of the world would be blessed (Gen. 12:3), and Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Immediately following this in 15:7–21, God and Abraham partake in a clear covenantal-sealing ceremony, and we see another covenantal milestone, symbolized by circumcision, between God and Abraham in 17:1–4.

Finally, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

We also see this idea in the Book of Hebrews: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Take a moment to read Hebrews 10:1-18, where this fleshed out.

Interestingly, Pinnock cites Romans 4:1–25 to support his view, but Romans 4:20–25 actually counters his view. Paul writes, Abraham had “[n]o unbelief… concerning the promise of God” (4:20), and he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (4:21).

Abraham is not an example of an adherent of another faith moved to saving faith by the Holy Spirit; quite the contrary, he is a man in covenantal relationship with the true God through the self-disclosure of that one true God, and a man with complete faith in the promises of God (Heb. 11:17–19), which include the promise of the coming Christ.

If there is any question about this, Jesus himself says to his fellow Jews in John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

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“The Faith Hall of Fame”

Hebrews 11, sometimes nicknamed “The Faith Hall of Fame,” mentions many Old Testament saints who lived in faith. As with Abraham, inclusivists cannot use this to support their case; all those Old Testament saints mentioned knew the God of the Bible, not some generic god or false faith, and believed in God’s promises.

Wellum writes, “[T]he entire context of Hebrews 11 describes a ‘faith’ which is rooted in God’s covenant promises, now brought to fulfillment in Christ.” Hebrews 11 starts by making this clear enough: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation” (11:1–2). “Commendation” is defined as an award involving praise and can be also translated as “approval.” Likewise, Hebrews 11:13 tells us, “These [Old Testament saints] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar.”

Their faith was not in some false religion with some partial truth about God; as in all of the Old Testament, their faith was specifically rooted in the one true God and his promises of salvation.

Thus, Abraham was justified by faith alone, which is confirmed by Paul (Rom. 4:1–25), and Paul confirms believers before Christ are destined to become “sons” (Gal. 3:23; 4:1). Hebrews 11:39–40 confirms that other Jews and pagans were saved by their faith before the coming of Jesus.

Conclusion

In closing, a careful reading of the Bible shows that Pinnock’s inclusivist interpretations of Scripture are not biblical. One must have knowledge of Jesus Christ to benefit from his salvific work, and the Holy Spirit only works in giving saving faith in connection to Christ. The idea of “pagan saints” in the New Testament era is unfounded, and Old Testament saints were saved by God’s self-disclosure and their faith in God’s future promise of salvation through Christ.

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 4: The New Paganism (Part 4) Does the Holy Spirit Work Apart from Christ?

Read Part 5: The New Paganism (Part 5) Saved Pagans in the New Testament?

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The New Paganism (Part 5) Saved Pagans in the New Testament?

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The question Are there non-Christians saved by their pagan faith in the New Testament? many seem like an oddly specific and out-of-the-blue question, but let me explain:

In previous articles in this series, we have been looking at the inclusivistic beliefs of scholar Clark Pinnock. Inclusivism is the belief that Jesus Christ’s life and work (including his death and resurrection) achieved salvation, but one does not have to know of or believe in Christ to benefit from it and be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or pursuing their personal understanding of God or spirituality.

To support his view, Pinnock cites Cornelius in the New Testament (Acts 10:1–48) and other “pagan saints” in the Old Testament like Abraham, Melchizedek, Abimelech, Job, and Abel. God shows no partiality in his love for the world, Pinnock argues, and Cornelius represents that “God never leaves himself without a witness among all people (Acts 14:17).”

On the other hand, Pinnock freely admits that he does not know “exactly what role, if any, a given religion plays,” but he is confident the Spirit is at work “when and where it is possible and appropriate” to use non-Christian religions. Pinnock states, “Everyone must eventually pass through Jesus to reach the Father, but there is more than one path for arriving at this place… All the paths that lead to God end up at Jesus, but they do not all start with him.”

We already explored whether the Holy Spirit works apart from Christ and concluded that he does not. We will look at the Old Testament in the next (and final) article in this series. For now, let’s quickly look at Cornelius, the supposed “pagan saint” of the New Testament.

“Pagan Saints”

Inclusivists like Pinnock often cite Cornelius in Acts 10 as an example of a saved nonbeliever, a “pagan saint” in the New Testament era, but this is not the case. (Take a moment to read the New Testament account here.)

First, the Roman Cornelius and his household are not pagans who have saving faith, but “God-fearers” — non-Jews who follow the Jewish faith. Cornelius is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (10:2). Despite this, Cornelius is not saved; Christ is the fulfillment of the Jewish faith (Matt. 5:17), so to follow Judaism without knowing Christ does not grant salvation.

Secondly, Cornelius and his household are clearly not saved until after learning of Christ. Peter clearly proclaims to them the gospel in 10:34–43, concluding with “everyone who believes in him [Christ Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).

Immediately, as Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit “fell on all who heard the word” (10:44) and they began speaking in tongues and praising God (10:46). Recognizing the Holy Spirit’s work in them, Peter calls for them to be immediately baptized. It’s odd that so many inclusivists appeal to Cornelius when it is so plain that salvation did not come until after learning of Christ and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Some inclusivists may say this episode illustrates how general revelation (that one can know certain things about God through nature and/or their innate senses) can work in non-Christian religions to bring one to saving faith. Perhaps general revelation brought Cornelius from being a pagan to a God-fearer, but his salvation only came about through special revelation (the unique supernatural works of God throughout history) in visions to both him (10:3–6) and Peter (10:10–16), as well as the Holy Spirit speaking directly to Peter (10:19–20), through hearing a gospel proclamation, and through the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting Cornelius and his household of the truth of Peter’s proclamation.

The only part of this episode that may support inclusivism would be 10:34–35, where Peter says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” It is doubtful Peter is speaking here of saving faith. The main point of Acts 10 is to show that God’s salvation extends to everyone, not just to the Jews, as illustrated in Peter’s vision of the animals (Acts 10), symbolizing the ending of Old Testament dietary laws due to Christ fulfilling the law.

Furthermore, the word translated “acceptable” (dektos) is not the word used in the New Testament for justification (dikaioo) — to be made right with God — and Peter goes on to explain specifically in 10:34 that salvation comes from believing in Christ.

Where the episode with Cornelius does not support the inclusivist view that general revelation (that one can know certain things about God through nature and/or their innate senses) can bring saving faith apart from Christ, it does give hope that God seeks out his people and saves them through special revelation, the unique supernatural works of God throughout history, including Christ himself, the Bible, the gospel, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

NEXT: Are all the faithful people in the Old Testament damned to hell simply because they lived before the life and work of Jesus Christ?

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 4: The New Paganism (Part 4) Does the Holy Spirit Work Apart from Christ?

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The New Paganism (Part 4) Does the Holy Spirit Work Apart from Christ?

SERIES INTRO: The New Paganism

As our culture becomes more post-modern—as well as post-Christian—in mindset, both traditional religions and unambiguous atheism are being rejected by many and an undefined spirituality—a fuzzy spiritual agnosticism—has been embraced, which lives by the axiom, “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

For all practical purposes, they live as atheists within secular society but still embrace some self-defined form of spirituality. In many ways, Western Christians are living in a culture that is increasingly like the culture the first Christians lived in: a pagan culture. The only thing forbidden in this new paganism is believing your faith is the only true path.

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Here’s a quick recap for your convenience:

Exclusivism – The traditional Christian view that salvation can come only through Jesus Christ’s free gift of salvation; thus, biblical Christianity is the only true path to God. 

Inclusivism – The belief that Jesus Christ’s life and work (including his death and resurrection) achieved salvation, but one does not have to know of or believe in Christ to benefit from it and be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or pursuing their personal understanding of God or spirituality.

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

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Does the Holy Spirit Save Apart from Christ?

Respected scholar and inclusivist Clark Pinnock explains that the work of the Holy Spirit is “central” to his view of salvation. The Holy Spirit proceeds before Christ preparing the way. In other words, the Spirit is at work in non-Christians even when they do not know the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Citing John 3:8 (“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”), Pinnock states the Spirit is “under nobody’s control” and not confined to inside the church and free to grace anyone regardless of their place in life since Christians “do not have a monopoly on the Spirit.”

Interestingly, he makes clear that neither general revelation nor the religions themselves play a central role in his understanding of inclusivism, but only the Holy Spirit, through whom God shows “every person the mystery of his grace, because in their hearts… he works in unseen ways.” [1]

Pinnock’s idea that the Holy Spirit may “work” on someone before they come to saving faith in Christ, to prepare them to be convicted by the truth of the gospel and to receive Christ as their Lord and Savior is not a controversial idea. Yet, his idea that the Holy Spirt may grant someone salvation apart from Christ is controversial, and this idea is what we must examine with Scripture.

 

The Work of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit’s work is certainly essential in bringing one to saving faith – to salvation – in Christ, but the biblical evidence shows that saving faith only comes after the unbeliever first hears a gospel proclamation and, second, the Holy Spirit convicts him of the truth of that proclamation and converts him.

Nowhere in the New Testament do we see the Spirit ever working independently of Christ or in a saving way apart from the gospel of Christ. The Spirit is the companion of Christ “[f]rom womb to tomb to throne,” and the Spirit’s work is as “chief witness” to Christ, leading to saving faith specifically in him. [2] The biblical evidence is clear that no one comes to saving faith prior to hearing the gospel of Christ and being convicted by it by the Holy Spirit. (More on this below.)

In his letter to the Ephesians (1:3-14), we see the work of the Holy Spirit closely connected to the work of the Father and, especially, the Son. Paul begins his letter by writing of the work of the Trinitarian God in bringing one to salvation in sequence: first writing of the work of the Father, then the work of the Son, and then the work of the Holy Spirit:

The Father:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

The Son:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 

The Holy Spirit:

13In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Here, we see the work of the Spirit is not separate from the work of the rest of the Trinitarian Godhead.

Returning again to 1 John 4:2–3, (By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already), Theologian John Stott sums up the message of this section of John’s letter: “Those who deny the Son have neither the Father nor the Spirit.” [3]

The Spirit cannot come before Christ. Contra Pinnock, Scripture says you cannot have the Spirit without having the Son.

First Corinthians 12:3 states,

“Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”

Moreover, “Jesus taught that it is the Holy Spirit’s particular ministry both to testify to, and to glorify, him” [4]:

But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26)

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)

Clearly, the work of the Spirit flows from Christ Jesus, and thus, after Christ Jesus.

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Regeneration: Being Born Again

Jesus taught that one must experience regeneration – being born again – to have salvation.

Jesus says in John 3:3,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Theologian Wayne Grudem points out that in John 3:8 (“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”), when Jesus speaks of “being born of the Spirit,” Jesus “indicates that it is especially God the Holy Spirit who produces regeneration” (though God the Father is also involved). [5]

The Holy Spirit convinces an unbeliever of the truth of Christ, and may even prepare the person to hear that truth; thus, the work of the Holy Spirit is conversion. But an adherent to a religion that denies Christ Jesus, the second person of the Trinitarian God, as Lord and Savior cannot have the Holy Spirit, and without the indwelling Holy Spirit there is no regeneration and no salvation.

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. ‘I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.'” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6)

 

NEXT: But isn’t there evidence of saved pagans in the Bible?

[1] Pinnock, Clark H. “An Inclusivist View.” In Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic Worldedited by Stanly N. Gundry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. Kindle.

[2] Morgan, Christopher W. and Robert A. Peterson, ed. Faith Comes By Hearing. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008. Kindle. Loc 2067.

[3] & [4] Stott, John R. W. The Letters of John. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009. Pages 155-156.

[5] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. Page 700.

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

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