I wrote a blog on July 7th, “What do you need to believe about Jesus to be saved?” You can see it here.
Mike then sent in the following question, one that I’ve found is on the minds of many:
In light of this blog, please address these thoughts on the deity of Christ and eternal justification. I believe many passages including John 3:16 and 20:31 declare the deity of Christ. In most cases, it is not something I emphasize because the passages I present declare that He is Christ, the Son of God. When I was 16, I believed in Jesus Christ, and I believed I had eternal life. I gave very little thought about the deity of Jesus Christ. However, there is a great difference in not fully understanding that Jesus is God and rejecting it. If I am talking to a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness, I always talk about the deity of Christ. I find it impossible to see how anyone can place his faith in Christ for eternal life and reject that He is God. When I placed my faith in Christ, it took me time to really understand the humanity and deity of Jesus Christ in hypostatic union. Isn’t that a far cry from saying that He is not God? Of course, these are not the only issues Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have, but I do see it is a huge stumbling block.
I reread my blog and I did not mention the need to believe in the deity of Christ to have eternal life or to be justified once and for all. While I did not intentionally fail to mention that Jesus is God, I did intentionally avoid saying that one must believe in the deity of Christ to be born again.
First, I do not agree that there is a difference between having a faulty view of the deity of the Christ and rejecting the deity of Christ. Mormons do not reject the deity of Christ. They have a faulty view of the deity of Christ. Mike admits that he once had a faulty view of the deity of Christ. In light of the concerns he raises, I do not see how he thinks he was born again before he had a correct understanding of the deity of Christ.
When I went to seminary, I took a course in Christology, the study of the Person and work of Christ. I and my classmates took multiple quizzes and exams, including lots of questions about the deity of Christ. Guess what? Even after hearing lectures and reading books on the deity of Christ, we still got things wrong. Before the semester began, we would have failed an exam about the deity of Christ.
Second, the disciples did not believe in the deity of Christ when they were born again. When He stilled the storm, they wondered who this could be. Even though they said, “Truly You are the Son of God” (Matt 14:33), they meant that He is the Messiah, King of Israel, not that He is God in the flesh. Not until after Jesus rose from the dead did any of the disciples indicate that Jesus is God (John 20:28).
Third, John 3:16 and John 20:31 do not teach the deity of Christ. In an exam on Christology, if a question said, “What does the expression the son of God mean in John’s Gospel?” the answer “It means that Jesus is God in the flesh” would be marked wrong. Nathanael said, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49). Nathanael, like the other new believers in John 1 (Andrew, Peter, Philip) did not yet believe in the deity of Christ. He clearly indicates that by “the Son of God,” he means that Jesus is “the King of Israel.”
John 20:31 clearly equates the expressions “the Christ” and “the Son of God.” The two phrases are appositional. It does not say, “Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God.” It says, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” In John’s Gospel, the expression the Son of God is a Messianic title.
Fourth, if belief in the deity of Christ is needed to be born again, then where in the Bible are we told what one must believe about His deity to be born again? The answer? Nowhere. There is not a single passage in the NT that lists all of the orthodox truths about the deity of Christ.
I spoke at a church in Starkville, MS. After the message the pastor and I were having a little debate. He was convinced that people had to believe in the deity of Christ to be born again. While we were interacting, a recent graduate of Mississippi State broke in and said, “Pastor, I came to faith in Christ a few years ago from your preaching. But at the time, I thought that Jesus was the Son of God. Literally. I thought that God had a Son, and Jesus is the Son of God like I’m the son of my father. Only some time after I was born again did I realize that Jesus is actually divine.”
Next September I will have been a believer for 50 years. I have a master’s and doctorate in theology. And yet I’m confident that my understanding of the deity of Christ is very limited. I know and believe what the Bible says about His deity. But that is far from exhaustive. I’m confident that we will learn more about the deity of Christ during the kingdom.
Finally, I think it is a terrible mistake to focus on the deity of Christ with Mormons and JWs. Yes, their view of His deity is heretical. However, even if you can convince them of the orthodox view of the deity of Christ, they remain unregenerate. Mormons and JWs believe in works salvation. That is the bullseye to focus on. They need to learn about the promise of everlasting life to all who simply believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for it.
Sadly, many people get into a debate about the deity of Christ and never are able to get around to proclaiming the promise of life.
Better to proclaim the faith-alone in Christ alone message first. Then, if you have time, you can explain that the reason He can fulfill such a promise is because He is the second member of the Trinity, God in the flesh. But if you start with the deity of Christ, you likely will end there since both Mormons and JWs are well trained to debate that subject.
Great question, Mike. I’m glad you raised this crucial issue.