I recently read through a book written by Michael Wittmer, who is professor of systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. GRTS happens to be the seminary I earned my master’s degree from and Dr. Wittmer is one of my former professors.
Wittmer wrote his most recent book, Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough, to shed light on the debate between traditional Christianity, which is characterized by its doctrinal statements, and the Emergent Church movement within Christianity, which puts much greater emphasis on how a person lives and much less (or none) on what doctrine a person believes. Wittmer hopes to convince both sides that it is not one or the other (doctrine vs. right living), but instead it is both (doctrine and right living).
True Christianity, according to Wittmer, requires right belief because right belief leads to right action. DSB can be summarized by a phrase taken from the book: “Genuine Christians never stop serving because they never stop loving, and they never stop loving because they never stop believing.”
In DSB, Wittmer attempts to answer the question “What MUST a person believe to truly be a Christian.” He takes up this topic in chapter two and concludes that, at minimum we must “believe that we are sinners and that Jesus saves us from our sin” (DSB, p. 41). According to Wittmer, a person does not have to believe anything about the person of Christ (his deity, humanity, life, death, and resurrection) to come to initial saving faith in Christ. A person can simply trust that Jesus saves them from their sin. Wittmer does go on to say that a person cannot deny the truths of who Christ was and what he did and truly be saved, but those truths are not necessary for initial saving faith.
I have to admit that I am still thinking through Wittmer’s understanding. It seems like there is something that must be believed about who Jesus was when I read Romans 10:9: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Regardless of what you decide the significance of the word “Lord” is (whether it denotes deity or simply “master”), it requires a belief about who Jesus is. Paul seems to be saying here that a person must have a correct understanding about who Jesus is. He is “Lord.” He is not just a sacrifice for sins.
Interestingly, the passage Wittmer uses in DSB when he discusses this topic in chapter two of the book seems to say something similar. In Acts 16:29-31, the Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved. They reply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Again, there is the emphasis on believing that Jesus is “Lord.”
Is it essential to believe that Jesus is God to come to saving faith? Or, can one be saved before understanding the details of who Jesus was as long he believes that he is a sinner and Jesus saves him from his sins (and does not deny the truth of who Jesus was)?
I am not so sure. I am still working through this one, but I would like to know what you think. Leave a comment and share your thoughts.