Heresy or Ambiguity?
Clearing Up the Confusion
by Bob Wilkin
One day early in my Christian life I was confronted about a heretical statement that I had made—during a job interview no less! Fortunately, the person confronting me was very gracious.
The occasion was my application for a staff position with Campus Crusade for Christ in 1974. Part of the interview process was completing a short-answer doctrinal exam in which one of the questions asked for a list of other inspired works of God besides the Bible.
My answer was something like, "The Four Spiritual Laws, The Holy Spirit Booklet, The Ten Steps to Christian Maturity, and other similar works."
Upon reading my response, the interviewer patiently and graciously explained that by "inspired" they had meant "inerrant, without error." And of course, he said, only the Bible meets that qualification. He then asked, "Do you agree that the Bible is the only inspired book in the sense of being totally without error?" Embarrassed, I realized and acknowledged my confusion and error. That was the last time I ever spoke of any other inspired writings!
Even after that experience, I’ve not always been crystal clear about everything, even about the gospel itself. Especially during the first six years of my Christian life, four of which I was in full-time evangelistic ministry, I said things that I now realize were not crystal clear. Yet they weren’t as bad as my heretical statement about inspiration! They were just ambiguous.
For a while I asked people to pray to receive Christ. I came to realize that was confusing. I remember one Roman Catholic girl who said she didn’t need to pray that prayer. She took Jesus into her life every time she took communion! I also remember a guy who prayed with me. One week later he told me he was Bahá’í and that he had only invited Jesus into his life because he wanted all the prophets there! After reading some of the follow-up literature he became angry. "Jesus isn’t the only way to God!" he remarked, "He is a great prophet, yes. But he isn’t the greatest prophet and he isn’t the only way to God."
When I was six-years-old in the Lord, I went to seminary where I learned the difference between heresy—like my inspiration statement, and ambiguity—like my challenging people to pray to receive Christ.
In a recent newsletter, I made a distinction between statements that are merely ambiguous and those that are out-and-out heresy. Since then I’ve received a number of emails that indicate my answer was fuzzy! So let’s try for a bit more clarification. "How do we distinguish between heresy and ambiguity?"
Heresy is a direct denial of one of the fundamental doctrines of the faith (the deity of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, justification by faith alone, the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, etc.). Ambiguity denotes a lack of clarity about some doctrine, not a denial of that doctrine. Rather, it leaves the readers/listeners not sure what precisely is meant.
"No one can gain eternal life simply by believing in Jesus. You must also commit your life to Christ and persevere in faith and good works." Those statements are heretical because they contradict justification by faith alone.
"Accept Christ as your personal Savior and you will have eternal life." Nowhere in the Bible do we find this terminology, and its meaning is unclear. How does one accept Christ as His personal Savior? Does praying a prayer do this? Inviting Him in? Believing in Him for eternal life? Though this appeal is unclear, it doesn’t deny substitutionary atonement or justification by faith alone. It therefore shouldn’t be classified as heretical.
Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between heresy and ambiguity. Consider the phrase "To have eternal life you must commit your life to Christ." The word commit is the problem here because it has two meanings. One is to promise to do something for another. The other is to entrust something to someone else’s care—as when you commit your money to a bank.
If the person making the statement means that committing your life to Christ refers to promising to serve Him, then his statement is heretical. Promising to serve God is not a condition of eternal life. If instead he means that we must entrust our eternal destiny to Christ, then his statement is fuzzy.
Gospel-Related Test Cases:
Heretical or Ambiguous?
Now I’ll give some examples and you decide whether they are heretical or merely ambiguous. For my answers, see the footnote at the end of the article.1
- You can’t believe in Jesus as your Savior without also wholeheartedly submitting yourself to Him as Lord of your life.
- If you invite Jesus into your heart, you’ll go to heaven.
- Pray to receive Christ and you’ll be born again.
- To gain eternal life you must merely repent and believe in Jesus Christ.
- After you believe in Jesus, you need to put your personal trust in Him in order to be born again.
- To be saved you must accept Christ as your Lord and Savior.
- True faith has three components: intellectual (believing facts), emotional (feelings that come from that intellectual belief), and volitional (a willful decision to respond to Jesus).
- Mere intellectual belief is not saving faith.
- Self-denial is necessary before one can be born again.
- Unless you confess Christ publicly, you cannot be saved.
Why This Distinction Is Important
First, Free Grace people sometimes unwittingly use language that is unclear when presenting the gospel. Clarity in evangelistic encounters is crucial because from a human perspective, the listener’s life is hanging in the balance. (Of course, God might send someone else to clear up the confusion.) Thus we should realize that avoiding heresy isn’t enough. We must also strive to avoid even small amounts of fuzziness.
Second, it is important to make this distinction to avoid making a terrible mistake. It is dangerous indeed to conclude that someone is a heretic because of occasional ambiguity. Even Free Grace people sometimes make slips of the tongue. Old habits die hard.
Third, if we decide to confront someone, we must do so accurately. Use the example set by Paul who reserved his scathing rebukes for heretics, not those who were unclear.
Fourth, in a church context, membership gives you the right to confront. If you hear a heretical message while visiting a church, it is not your place to confront the pastor, for he is probably preaching his church’s doctrinal position. But if you are a member of a church and the pastor says something heretical, then by all means lovingly bring this to his attention.
Finally, this distinction is important because it reminds us to be gracious if we do confront.
By the way, Campus Crusade hired me in spite of my theological faux pas. I now realize that much of what I taught in the first six years of my ministry was fuzzy. Hopefully that makes me a bit more tolerant of others. Thankfully I became clearer over time. So can others.
1The following are fuzzy in my opinion: 2 and 3. Clearly heretical are 1, 8, and 10. I consider 5 to be fuzzy, though many Free Grace people would consider it clear. I always shudder when someone says that believing in Jesus is not enough to be born again. Numbers 4, 6, 7, and 9 are either fuzzy or heretical, depending by what is meant by "repent," "accepting Christ as Lord," "emotional and volitional," and "self-denial."