Growing up in a good ol' Independent Fundamental Baptist Church (well, quite a few of them), I learned a lot about the Christian Faith. I think that--no, I know that--any sort of love I have for the Faith was imparted to me by the Grace of God through my mother, father, siblings, and many of the churches I attended. From Sunday School teachers with their flannel boards to crazy Youth Directors at in-church all-nighters to Hellfire Preachers screaming and spitting on the first three rows of pews, many of them instilled within me a love for Christianity, a love for God, a love for my Savior. I am eternally thankful for them, each one, and the good that they taught me.
However, no one (well, except Jesus and any completely sanctified Saints) is perfect. I certainly am far from perfection, myself. There are some things taught that, while given with the best intentions and the greatest love and respect for God and the Church, were either not taught with the correct emphasis or were simply in error. Far be it from me to be the Judge of all the earth. While I state what I consider to be erroneous doctrines, understand that I am not doing so as an arrogant authoritarian who assumes that he is right on target with everything (some of my friends might be snickering; hey! I'm working on humility, k?). If you find these different angles opposed to your understanding of the Faith, please challenge yourself and delve into the Scriptures, the Spirit, and the History of the Church--that cloud of witnesses we have before us--and be willing to ask yourself what may or may not be tough questions. I had to do that myself, obviously.
Many of these, while taught by many IFBs, are not exclusive to them. Many in modern day American Christianity are teaching these things as well. I want to preface that I don't think any of these are cause for division save the last one, depending on the intention and understanding of the one(s) teaching it. If nothing else, think of them as different perspectives on the various topics.
What I believed then:
The Gospel was the "good news". Jesus, who was God, died on the Cross for our sins and if I pray the Sinner's Prayer and ask Jesus into my heart, I can go to Heaven when I die. Once I ask Jesus to come into my heart and save me, no matter what I do, I'm still going to Heaven when I die.
What I believe now:
The Gospel is not about me. It is not about my salvation, at least primarily and directly. The Gospel is about Jesus. It is about the Incarnation: that God Himself would take the form of man and dwell among us. It is about the establishment of God's Kingdom on earth, started by the Ministry of Jesus Himself. It is about the death on the Cross: Jesus takes upon Himself the sin of the world. It is about the Resurrection, the conquering of both sin and death. (Oh death, where is thy sting?! Oh grave, where is thy victory?!) It is about, as N.T. Wright so elegantly says, "How God Became King".
The Gospel is about the establishment of God's Kingdom on earth, starting as a mustard seed. The center of that is the Cross, but the Cross is not all that was done. The Incarnation, Life, and Resurrection of Jesus are all integral to the Gospel. FROM that, we are given salvation from our sin, and ultimately salvation from death when we are Resurrected. But we are given salvation from sin specifically because we are called to be ambassadors of God's Kingdom. We cannot represent our Lord if He is not our Lord. Repentance and Faith, powered by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, is what brings us to Him as His representatives. That translates into a very pragmatic need for emulating the life and morality of our King. We are not all called to be single, but we are all called to be devoted entirely to Him. We are not all called to be homeless, but we are all called to be aliens in a foreign land. We are not all called to be executed, but we are all called to carry our Cross.
What I believed then:
In my childhood, the Gospel and salvation were essentially the same thing. The emphasis was on going to Heaven when we died. With my then-understanding of salvation as a child, it was a one-time act done at the moment my Sinner's Prayer was finished.
What I believe now:
It is arguably true that there is not a single passage in Scripture that says when we die we immediately go to Heaven, or even go to Heaven at all prior to the Resurrection. That is a topic for another post, though. While I can certainly argue that Scripture is not as clear as we'd like to think on this point, for the sake of this article I will not bother with making the case against it. Regardless of what happens immediately after we die, there are two things we need to keep in mind:
1) Salvation is not primarily about going to a disembodied spiritual place called Heaven when you die. As the angel said in the Gospel of Matthew,
"She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." (Matt. 1:21, ESV)
Salvation is from sin. Salvation is from the imperfections that plague us, that contradict our status as Image Bearers, that make us a perversion of what we are supposed to be. It is not an escapism from a sinking ship known as the universe. We need to remember that, lest we decide that we do not need to worry about expanding God's Kingdom on earth. "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven," is an important reminder of where the Kingdom is and is supposed to be.
2) Our hope is in the Resurrection. Without it, we are worthless.
The entire 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians is one of the most under-preached chapters in modern day American Christianity. It puts in perspective the priorities and hopes of St. Paul. Look at this passage for a moment:
"But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, ESV)
Do you understand? St. Paul's hope was not that when he died he would go to Heaven. Far more important to him, the "make or break" of Christianity if you will, is the Resurrection. If, in St. Paul's eyes, we are not Resurrected, if there is no Resurrection, if Christ has not been raised, and from that we will not be raise, if everything that he taught about Resurrection was not true, then Christianity is worth absolutely nothing, and its adherents are worthless, pitiful liars and fools.
That means you. That means me. The Resurrection is far more important than going to Heaven when we die. St. Paul did not place the truthfulness of Christianity on going to Heaven when you die; he placed the ENTIRE Faith upon two facts intricately connected: the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, and from there the future bodily Resurrection of the Saints.
Why is that important? Why make a fuss over going to Heaven when you die vs. the Resurrection? Well, that's another topic for another article for another day.
Also, salvation is a process, not a one-time decision for us. But that's another topic...well, you know the rest.
The Lordship of Jesus
What I believed then:
You don't need to make Jesus the Lord of your life when you pray the Sinner's Prayer; you only need to make Him your Savior. If you make Him Lord of your life, you're trying to do a works-based salvation.
What I believe now:
Whether actively taught or passively taught, this is something that hurts much of the Church in the U.S. today. Jesus Himself demanded repentance repeatedly in the Gospels. Romans 11:11-26, James 2:14-26, Hebrews 10:26-31, and a myriad of other passage speak emphatically against this error of believing that you can make Jesus your Savior without making Him your Lord. This easy-believism is quite possibly the worst error hurting the Church today, and it fits so well with our American mentality of getting the "best deal": a little prayer for eternal salvation, and no need to repent or abide within the Messiah. If you are wondering why so many Christian children leave the Faith once they get out from under their parents' roof, you can in part thank this erroneous doctrine right here.
If you are under a pastor actively teaching this last one, my advice is to confront him first about it in a humble way. If he refuses to, speak with the deacons or elders of the church about it. If no changes occur, then it may be time to rethink what church you are attending.
If there are hints of this being taught in your pastor's sermons, he still needs to be confronted. Remember, any talk to or with him needs to be done humbly, with meekness. Abrasiveness is not what solves the problem; humility and love will.
These are some of the larger differences that I have shifted to, having learned from men and women much wiser than myself. I do not claim to be perfect, or right, even with every aspect of all that I have said here. At the least, this will spark a discussion within the Body of Christ concerning just what we are teaching our disciples.