In this age of ecumenicalism, where millions are uniting together under the banner of "we all love Jesus," one must ask if this is appropriate and if there are scriptural boundaries to be considered.
What are the foundations of our faith? What are the doctrines that we must defend without compromise, even unto death? Is a mutual declaration that we love Jesus enough to declare that we are brothers in Christ?
The Bible answers these questions and clearly tells us what the boundaries are.
Seek neither after a false Gospel or a false God.
The proper definition of heresy is something that compromises either the cross (how it works or the necessity of it), or the nature of God (who He is). These things are central to salvation and compromise in these areas creates a doctrine sufficiently false that salvation cannot be achieved by believing it.
Other teachings that conflict with the Bible that are not sufficient for loss of salvation are not properly called heresy but rather aberrant, non-Biblical, extra-Biblical, or just plain false teachings. In truth however we are to avoid all teaching that clearly contradicts the Bible, and we are to avoid division on peripheral issues in those gray areas where the Bible is not as specific.
Notice that completely accurate theology is not necessary for one to be a brother in Christ. Only the foundations have to be right, or at least right enough to meet the Biblical criteria.
The question of who is God is a foundational one, and Jesus is quite specific that a false God cannot save:
joh 8:24 I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins." (NIV)
Here Paul chides the Corinthians for being willing to listen to false teachers:
co2 11:3 But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve
through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the
simplicity that is in Christ.
co2 11:4 For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.
Not even angelic appearances are to be believed if they pervert the Gospel of the cross. Hindsight tells us that these warnings are there because false angelic appearances are possible and are in fact relatively common.
gal 1:8 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any
other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you,
let him be accursed.
gal 1:9 As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
Even if short-term prophecy comes to pass, which is the normal test of a true prophet, or a miracle worker shows up, you are not to follow them after other Gods. Notice in this one that the Lord Himself allows false prophets and false signs in order to test us to see if we truly love Him or not. Obviously there would be no warnings against such things if they were not possible.
deu 13:1 If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams,
and giveth thee a sign or a wonder,
deu 13:2 And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them;
deu 13:3 Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
What is the true gospel the Bible commands us to preach?
co1 1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
Simple enough, but the Devil parses those words and seeks to corrupt each one just a tiny bit. There are two words that are significant, Christ (God), and Him crucified (the redemptive work on the cross).
Who is God?
So let us explore the fundamental doctrines (and some of the common errors) relating to the nature of God.
God is three co-equal persons in one God, they are one in essence, all are eternal, none existed before the others.
That simple statement has been attacked in numerous devious and subtle ways throughout history by the enemy.
Most false concepts of God attack either the trinity or the person of Christ.
Who is the Son?
Jesus Christ is the eternally pre-existant son-of-God, the second person of the Godhead, incarnated into a man, born of a virgin. During His 33 years on earth He was both fully God and fully human, and His humanity remains. His divinity was what made all those miracles possible. Many false teachings have come and gone that deny these simple biblical truths.
Who is Man?
This is important because the cross is salvation for man. We have to clearly describe why salvation is needed.
The entire gospel can be summarized with a few scriptures:
God is a Holy and Righteous judge. The Bible says that no sinner can stand in His presence and live. God's full presence will annihilate the sinner. Man however does not wish to admit he is a sinner. The law was given for this express purpose, to show us the high view of God's holiness so that we can know that none of us can measure up. Any proper presentation of the Gospel will have the law as part of it. It is meaningless to present salvation without making clear the need for it.
Now this might seem to have presented God with a problem. He lost all of His children to sin, and His holiness does not allow Him to just ignore our transgressions. Every sin is treason against Him, every sin is willful disobedience, and is a crime worthy of death. Many Gospel presentations fail to sufficiently stress how much God hates sin, and that hell represents His unbridled and just wrath poured out eternally on those who so richly deserve it. Becoming a true Christian includes understanding just how far we are from righteousness, and how truly wicked we really are.
Howewever, while God declares we are evil, He admits we will make great sacrifices for our children, and points out that He is good and is therefore willing to make much greater sacrifices than we are.
In fact God planned from the beginning to save us because He knew what was going to happen from the outset. And His plan involved a supreme sacrifice on His part, a sacrifice made for love and made absolutely necessary to satisfy His perfect justice.
Under the Mosaic Law, the vehicle God sent us to show us how wicked and sinful we really are (talented self-deception is part of our sinful nature), God provides for the sacrifice of innocent blood to cover our sins. Animal sacrifice however is just a foreshadowing of what was going to happen.
God incarnated Jesus into a sinless body (without sin and without iniquity). The Bible says it was impossible for Him to sin, but states that He was tempted by all things common to man. So Jesus was tempted, just as Adam was, but He did not fall, as being God it was impossible for Him to do so.
This made Jesus able to die in our place as the spotless lamb of God, to shed His blood, to atone (pay for) our sins, all of them we ever have and ever will commit, once and for all in a single act. Put another way, God paid the price for us to satisfy His own law. God could not just ignore His law, for He is perfect, and to do that would make Him into a liar.
It is important to point out that nothing less than a sinless sacrifice would do. Christ had to die, nothing less would have satisfied God's perfect justice (holiness), and nothing less would do to redeem His children to satisfy His love for us. The cross is the greatest act of love in all history. It is a selfless act by a loving and merciful God who loves each and every one of us personally.
That Jesus died in our place is called the substitutionary atonement. It is His shed blood that is the payment for our sins. We are declared legally righteous and perfect before God, this is called justification. This justification is appropriated exactly one way, by faith. The idea that He died in our place and paid the price for our sins, that we are justified by faith alone, is the core doctrine of salvation, the very heart of it, and has come under much attack throughout the centuries.
eph 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves:
it is the gift of God:
eph 2:9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
Jesus' righteousness is said to be imputed to us, that is credited to us by God. There are three imputations in the Bible: Adam's sin imputed to us, our sins imputed to Jesus on the cross, and His righteousness imputed to us.
It is important to note that Jesus died for His sheep, as the Bible says, salvation is technically offered to everyone, but only those God planned in advance to save will actually be saved. Thus the work on the cross secured the definite salvation of those in God's plan, the cross was not just opening a door for people to be saved later, it was all part of an eternal plan from the foundation of the world.
God's proof that Jesus' sacrifice was sufficient is that Jesus was raised from the dead. Without the resurrection the Christian Gospel is nothing:
co1 15:14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
Therefore any teaching that denies a literal and physical resurrection of Jesus is also heretical. Many teachings denying this have come and gone throughout history by various cult groups.
Jesus' death on the cross paid for our sins, but this full pardon does not take effect in our lives until we are born-again, or regenerated as the theologians call it. Contrary to popular belief, regeneration happens first, as a sovereign act of God, a regenerate person will do the following (thus proving they are regenerate):
The Bible makes it clear that nobody can do this without the Holy Spirit, regeneration is a prerequisite for the above, not a result of it as is commonly taught in some circles. The Bible also makes a distinction between those who merely profess Christ, and those who actually obey His commands. They are referred to as wheat vs. tares, and wise vs. foolish virgins. Bible prophecy chronicles the fate of both groups. Suffice it to say that one is good and one isn't.
co1 12:3 Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.
One false doctrine related to salvation is Pelagianism, named after its founder, and is basically full-blown salvation by works, it denies total depravity, and says that anyone can live a sinless life (once their previous sins have been forgiven), and is essentially a Gospel of moral behavior, and earn your way to heaven. Since the Bible declares that any attempt to earn your salvation is to fall from grace (a euphemism for you ain't going to get into heaven that way), it is thus classified as soul-killing heresy and was justly denounced as such by early church councils.
A later version of Pelagianism that wasn't as overtly heretical is Arminianism, although in some ways it is more dangerous because it is more subtle. Unlike Pelagianism, Arminianism admits we need the Holy Spirit's help to come to God, but the the final decision still rests in us, and not in God (again flies in the face of many scriptures).
After that it generally manifests as salvation by works, as a moralistic movement, but unlike Pelagianism acknowledges our dependence on God. It refuses to admit that God does it all for us as a free gift, and can deny that moral living is a consequence of salvation and rather sees it as a necessity to maintain one's salvation since salvation can be lost in Arminian thinking. Often it is reduced to a single element of morality to maintain one's salvation, that of maintaining one's faith in Christ, completely ignorant of the fact that Christ has promised to do that for us.
Arminianism is named after its originator, Jacobus Arminius, although he merely repeats what some early church fathers (who disagreed with Augustine) also said. In practice is is really a refinement of much older Pelagianism and is often called semi-pelagianism for that reason. The doctrine is essentially we can and must save ourselves by responding positively to God's offer of salvation and to the urging of the Holy Spirit. It is most commonly expressed today by asserting that the born-again or regenerative event occurs after one makes the decision to "believe" in Christ.
This turns God into a weakling who stands on the sidelines, hoping (or merely foreknowing who will respond to the Gospel). The true God reigns, and decides whom He will save and whom He won't. There are many scriptures to support this.
Arminianism was considered a full-blown heretical viewpoint by parts of the reformation, but is generally considered to be "within-the-fold" but "in-error" by most reformation thinkers. Its greatest supporter is undoubtedly John Wesley whose major contribution was to add a strong evangelical focus to it (as it was lacking that before).
I struggled with the issue of whether Arminians are Christians at all, some periods of the reformation (notably the council of Dort) thought it was soul killing heresy. But Augustine (who first faced it) did not, neither did Spurgeon, and neither does R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and other notables today. Mr Sproul points out that Arminianism in its pure form, affirms sola fide (faith alone), but denies sola gratia (grace alone), and is therefore orthodox on the most important point and does not fall into salvation by works such as Pelagianism does. Like Spurgeon, Sproul acknowledges that Arminians can be saved "but just barely". For the best treatment of it I have ever encountered see Sproul's book "Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will." In it he traces the development of Arminianism, and gives thorough and priceless treatment of it.
Sadly, Arminianism became the majority viewpoint among professing protestants after Charles Finney greatly popularized it in the 1850's, although Finney went far beyond Arminianism in his theology and was fully Pelagian in his beliefs and teachings.
Put succinctly, Finney was a moralist, and believed that one got into heaven by living a moral life. One lost one's salvation everytime one sinned, and had to confess it to God, and ask for forgiveness to regain right-standing. This is identical to the heretical teachings of Rome, except it bypasses the priest by confessing ones sins directly to God.
The main problem with Arminianism is it subtleness, and the fact that most Arminians aren't taught any doctrine at all, it is just a loose unsystematic idea that you pray a sinners prayer and get born again (which reverses what Scripture says about it). So it is difficult to make any categorical statement such as all Arminians are saved or not, because most of them don't know what they believe anyway.
Spurgeon described Arminianism as dangerous ground however, and that very little more false doctrine would be needed before their ship sank. My personal opinion is that false doctrine clings to modern Arminians like barnacles and that many of their boats won't float. In part the origin of this website was to point that out. Like Spurgeon, I also believe that one can be saved and remain an Arminian, but it is dangerous ground.
One reason why these doctrines cause so much trouble is that the Bible clearly teaches that both (limited) free-will and predestination is in full force at the same time, and this is very hard for our natural minds to swallow. The mistake we make is to believe our feelings. It can feel like we decided for Christ on our own, even though the Bible tells us we only acted because we were regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit. Arminians say we have the ability to resist the Holy Spirit, and Calvinists say we do not, but without the convicting power of the Holy Spirit both groups generally admit we have no ability nor desire to come to Christ. Thus, tacitly, even Arminians admit that our free-will is limited.
Martin Luther correctly described the paradox of free-will vs. predestination as a mystery and stopped there and said so we should because that is where the Bible itself stops. He did however write scathing attacks on those who believed that our wills determined who is saved. Luther Considered his "Bondage of the Will" to be his most important work.
Augustine, Luther, and Calvin all described "limited" free-will in scathing terms. They liken us as slaves to our sinful desires. The only freedom we have is which sinful desires we are going to gratify. We are completely "willing" sinners as it were.
However, theology that denies either predestination or (limited) free-will ends up being unbalanced. This may seem like useless intellectualism, but acting on either form of unbalanced theology has real consequences as I shall demonstrate.
In popular terminology we call regeneration a changed heart. He secures the cooperation of our wills by changing our hearts. You will hear it said that only God can change a heart and this phrase describes the core of the orthodox Christian doctrine of salvation.
Put in even simpler terms, God chooses us, we don't choose Him. Any testimony that says "I decided for Christ" is rooted in a false understanding of how one gets saved in the first place.
Unfortunately, much of modern evangelism is built around the decision theology of Arminianism gone too far. We believe we must cajole, coerce, trick, and otherwise entice people to accept Christ, and we try to make the Gospel more palatable to the seeker thinking this will produce more salvations. This is called seeker-friendly evangelism, and the Gospel they preach is called easy believism. It waters down the Gospel, try to make it relevant to cultural norms, and preach a positive, attractive Gospel that in the end is no Gospel at all.
The true Gospel is offensive to our sensibilities. It calls us wretched, worthless sinners who must flee from the wrath of a holy and righteous God who hates sin. It hurts our egos because it does not embrace self-fulfillment and self-esteem but rather it expects self-denial and self-hatred. And it is demanding, only those who follow Christ, that is obey Him, submit to Him, and surrender their lives totally to Him will be saved. Lip service will count for nothing on judgement day.
Those who shy away from teaching the hard teachings of the Bible demonstrate they don't really believe that the Gospel message itself is the "power of God unto salvation". Rather they place their faith in the clever arguments of men.
One of the key points many don't understand is that it is hard to get saved. John MacArthur rightly points out that until you have completely abandoned all hope in self (self-righteousness) you haven't even entered the narrow gate.
Jonathan Edwards wrote the same thing, pointing out that God often lets a person try to reform themselves for years, before they finally come to the end of themselves, realizing their complete spiritual bankruptcy, and are finally ready to bow the knee and trust in Christ alone as their savior.
Many a modern Arminian says (wrongly), just invite Jesus into your heart and you will be saved, the Calvinist says (rightly), without repentence and acknowlement of your total spiritual bankruptcy there is no salvation.
Deviating in the other direction are the Hyper-Calvinists, who like the Calvinists are named after John Calvin who was a great theologian and was accused (wrongly) of overemphasizing predestination. The Hyper-Calvinists are not wrongfully accused however (unlike mainstream orthodox Calvinists).
Hyper-Calvinism comes in several forms, some Christian and some not. Extreme hyper-Calvinistic views (similar to fatalism and fully heretical) seperates faith from salvation, saying the "elect" of God are predetermined regardless of what the "elect" say, believe, or do. In milder forms (generally called high-Calvinism) it overemphasizes the sovereignty of God at the cost of the responsibility of the believer. In its mildest form it merely asserts that God created some people expressely for the purpose of damnation to glorify His holiness and righteous judgement (Arthur Pink held this view for example).
The only real problem of the mildest form is that it denies God's love towards sinners, and verses that God desires that nobody perish, that He takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner, and so on. In fact that is the chief distinguishing mark of hyper-Calvinism in my mind, it over-emphasizes God's hatred towards sinners.
Various things associated with hyper-calvinism include the idea that little or no preaching of the Gospel is needed, since what is going to happen is going to happen anyway. It is also accused of encouraging a mechanical presentation of the Gospel. In some forms it also demands rigid acceptance to theological details in order to be saved at all, and often asserts that only Calvinists go to heaven, and denies that Arminians can be saved.
A particularly rabid form that seems to be growing in popularity today is the idea that only Calvinists are saved, and that if you accept Arminians as Christians, you have embraced a false gospel and are therefore unsaved yourself. This viewpoint brands all the people I mentioned (Augustine, Spurgeon, R.C. Sproul, not to mention myself) as "dead calvinists", those who have refused to repent of accepting Arminians as brothers in Christ. While the divisiveness they cause is lamentable and even sinful, they do appear to be Christians otherwise. My recommendation is to flee from any such teachings, and to treat them as under church discipline, that is avoid association with them.
Hyper-Calvinism frequently denies that your faith is your primary subjective evidence of salvation and asserts rather that you must have some other experience in order to be saved. Hyper-Calvinism also tends to preach a seeker-hostile gospel, overemphasizing the sovereignty of God, and saying there is nothing you can do if God has not chosen you for salvation. This ignores Jesus' statement that He would reject none who came to Him. Jesus said this right after He said that nobody could come to Him unless the Father draws them, thus the case for mainstream Calvinism is made in those few verses (John 6:39...).
The correct viewpoint is that if you believe in Christ enough to follow and obey Him through temptations and trials, since faith is a gift of God, then you are one of the chosen. It is that simple.
I was wrongfully lead to believe that mainstream Calvinism overemphasizes predestination until I read some of the great Calvinists themselves. They teach (as the Bible states) that predestination and (limited) free-will are simultaneously in full force. In answer to the charge that Calvinists are not evangelical enough It can be mentioned that the greatest evangelists of the reformation (spanning centuries) were all Calvinists (with a few exceptions, notably John Wesley, and Charles Finney).
It has been observed that Hyper-Calvinism only thrives during revivals of Calvinism, I think the same thing could be said of Pelagianism vs. Arminianism. Thus Pelagianism is to Arminianism, as Hyper-Calvinism is to Calvinism, they are the Devil's extreme viewpoints that corrupt the more orthodox positions and are designed to corrupt and destroy those who seek to be loyal to Christ.
So where is the center of orthodoxy you ask? All I can offer is is this: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, not to mention John Calvin, Martin Luther, Saint Augustine, Saint Paul, and Jesus Himself all taught a theology that could be essentially branded as Calvinism.
Arminianism may not seem like that big of a problem, but it is essentially salvation by works (minimally a single work of responding to God, and is usually mixed in with worse things). It also denies the sovereignty of God (they say God knew in advance, but this falls short, because the Bible says God planned in advance and makes the decision of who will be saved and who won't).
Arminianism appeals to pride in that you made the right decision and others have not. It encourages pride when through your efforts others also make the right decision for Christ. It instills fear in that you have the possibility of losing your salvation (works become required as a requisite to maintain your salvation).
Decision theology (Arminianism) also encourages us to cajole, lure, and otherwise coerce people into making a decision for Christ. The Gospel-lite (a perverted watered down Gospel) is what is preached by many Arminians today. It bears little resemblance to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, since to make the gospel more "palatable" or "seeker-friendly" they minimize sin, hell, and God's righteous judgment and overemphasize God's love and grace and mercy.
John MacArthur created a huge controversy about 15 years back when he came out and said that those who preach easy believism (failing to stress the necessity of repentance and facing your own sinfulness) are ravening wolves and not ministers of the true Gospel at all. He also earned himself the status of hero to those of us who still cling to an orthodox view of salvation.
The proper balance is that God is both righteous judge, and loving and merciful. God will never compromise either aspect of Himself, and neither should we.
The Gospel properly presented covers both sides of God. We preach the (moral) law first, to awaken man to their awful state as sinners, that the eternal wrath of God will be poured out on all such people. Then we preach grace, that their only escape is through repentance, and taking up their cross and following Jesus, and that they will share in His sufferings by doing so.
Another interesting fact is that Arminianism (or any more serious kind of works thinking) prevents assurance of salvation. When it was your decision to "accept" Christ, you remain on the hook to maintain that decision. Fear and doubt will ever accompany the Arminian, which breeds striving to maintain one's righteousness and salvation.
By contrast Calvinism is more correctly described as the doctrine of grace. We are saved by grace through faith - not of ourselves that no flesh may boast. Since Arminianism is essentially a philosophy of pride and salvation by works, it quenches grace, and hence the spirit.
In honesty I have met Arminians who seem to be true converts, who are loyal to the Bible and do not engage in many of the things I have mentioned here. Most Arminians, at least the ones I accuse of preaching a watered down Gospel, don't focus on doctrine at all, but rather they focus on a feel-good, self-help style of christianity focussed on self-gratification and even self-deification, and thus Arminianism is only the first of many errors that they engage in. This is better described as Arminianism gone too far, where the thin line has been crossed into unorthodoxy, and the true Gospel of repentance has been all but forgotten.
Another hallmark of modern Arminianism is its emphasis on experience and emotionalism (which crosses easily into gnosticism unfortunately). Finney (the heretic) was really the father of modern emotionalism. Since emotionalism appeals more to women, critics call it the feminization of the church, and it is no surprise that more women than men attend such churches (which is the majority of protestant churches today). Finney was the first to discover that women could be seduced with emotionalism and that they tend to bring their men with them. The practice is mainstream now.
Sadly, when it was once considered heresy, Arminian thinking is the majority view today. Virtually all charismatic thinking today is Arminian. There are also non-charismatic denominations today that are Arminian in their thinking. John Wesley, who influenced Methodism to hold this view, was an Arminian. Catholicism is more Pelagian (although not fully Pelagian either) (and has other more serious heresies in its theology), there are others but I do not have an extensive list.
Other (serious) errors in the area of salvation include errors such as the cross was somehow not enough. This is the cross plus something else mentality and is generally full blown heresy. There are a lot of variations on that (false) theme, Catholicism is a cross-plus theology for example because of their Pelagian reliance on holy living, their dependence upon the sacraments and the virgin Mary as co-redemptrix with Christ. The word of faith movement teaches that Christ went to hell after His death on the cross to fully pay for our sins and that any born-again believer could have done that just like Jesus did by dying on the cross for our sins. It also deifies Christians and marginalizes God and by all appearances is identical to New Age teaching.
The Cost Of Salvation
While nothing man can do can earn salvation, nevertheless the cost is high, that is it will cost you everything. Abandoning all hope in self is more than just a realization of your own worthlessness, you also have to be willing to abandon anything and everything for Him.
Jesus said repeatedly that if you love parents, brothers, sisters, or anything more than Him, then you re not worthy of Him.
In some parts of the world today, this is hard to understand because the price does not appear that high, but in the parts of the world where Christians are put to death, it makes sense.
The point is you must be willing to give up all for Him, He may not call upon you for that much sacrifice, but to enter the narrow gate, the willingness must be present.
This topic is greatly misunderstood, not so much about what it is, but when it occurs and under whose agency:
joh 3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
The gospel-lite folks tell us that you just pray a "sinners prayer", and boom, you are born again and you will go to heaven. Often that sinners prayer is devoid of the concept of our total depravity and hopelessness before God, it often omits the need for repentance of sins, and fails to stress that only God defines what is sin, and it often omits the authority of scripture, that to accept Christ is to accept the Bible as His infallible literal word. It is often implicitly Arminian in that it says you will be born again after you pray the prayer, thus you must complete that work in order to go to heaven.
Here is a quote from R. C. Sproul (on the John Ankerberg show) that perfectly describes what actually goes on:
"Now in the classical reformed view of Calvin and Luther, the order of salvation went like this: that first, before I can believe and meet the requirement of faith, in order to receive and appropriate the righteousness of Christ for my justification, something has to happen to my heart, because I'm fallen, I'm dead in sin and the Holy Spirit has to change the disposition of my heart, and we call that regeneration or rebirth. As a result of that work of the Holy Spirit, now I am able to and indeed do embrace Christ in faith. So, I am reborn—I have faith. As a consequence of the faith I am justified."
The order is that we are silently born-again by the Spirit of God, usually during or soon after we hear the Gospel preached. Being born-again allows us to believe the Gospel we have heard, to realize our wretched lost state as sinners before an angry God, to repent of those sins, to trust in Jesus for forgiveness of our sins, and to take up our cross, and to follow Him. That is true saving faith.
There is no altar call or sinners prayer in the Bible, there are those who believe and are baptized and follow Christ, and those who do not. Prior to 1850 all new believers were baptized at the moment of confession. The "altar call" was an invention of Charles Finney, a man who denied the basic tenets of the Christian faith. He improvised this method because he had so many people come forward in his meetings to "accept Christ" that they couldn't hope to baptize them in a timely manner. And history shows us that the vast majority of Finney's converts were false conversions. Those who pray a small prayer, often in great emotionalism, but fail to follow Christ and fall away afterwards, were never born-again in the first place.
Jesus is coming again.
This may not seem relevant to salvation but is in fact critical.
ti2 4:1 I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom;
Salvation is entirely about what happens to us on judgement day. We are going to appear before a righteous and holy God and give an account for our lives. Only two possibilities exist: We will be aquitted on the basis that Jesus paid for our sins, or we will be forced to pay the price ourselves with an eternity spent in Hell. Without the return, there is no judgement day, nor is there any need for salvation.
There is a verse in the Bible where it says that when Jesus returns he will reward all according to their works. How do we reconcile that with the clear teaching that justification is only by faith? The idea being expressed is that our works are the evidence we are Christians, we are not in any way justified by works, nor do they earn us the least little brownie point with God, but they are the evidence that we are His, and thus eligible for the full pardon on judgement day. They are the external evidence of a changed heart. Those whose hearts aren't changed, even if they try to emulate some good works, will be condemned on judgement day. Much has been written on this,
Furthermore, Jesus is returning physically to rule and reign on the earth. He is returning to bring His literal physical kingdom to earth.
Any teaching that denies a physical literal return of Jesus Christ is as much heresy as any teaching that denies He came the first time. One example of this view is full preterism which asserts that all prophecy was fulfilled in 70 AD and denies a literal physical second coming of Christ.
Full preterism is a perversion of the more orthodox partial preterism, which asserts that most prophecy was fulfilled by 70 AD, but correctly holds the second coming as still future.
Note: depending on your eschatology (end-times theology) there are either one or multiple judgement days, premillennialists believe in at least two: one for the saved, and one for the damned.
Part and parcel of the second coming is the idea that everyone will be resurrected on judgement day and face judgement. Death is not annihilation, but rather we go to one of two places that represent a holding area or waiting room pending judgement day. Saved people go to Heaven, and unsaved people go to what we also refer to as Hell. Heaven is described as a wonderful place where we are in God's presence.
Post judgement day saints will live in the Heavenly City with God. The post-judgement-day place where people are tormented for eternity is actually referred to as the lake of fire, and appears to be worse than Hell, although Hell is also described as a place of torment.
While not central to salvation, a lot of pain is caused by misunderstanding
sanctification so I am going to mention it here.
Like salvation, it is entirely a work of the Holy Spirit, but it will
feel as if we have to cooperate with it.
It may even feel like we do it alone, just like it might feel like we made
a decision for Christ, but He gets the credit because He claims it fully:
"Without me you can do nothing."
Under no circumstances can we gain anything, brownie points before God, more spirituality, or anything else by works. Remember this kind of thinking is Pelagianism and is ultimately fatal.
Nevertheless we are called to works, and to live a holy life, not to earn anything, but because we are bought with a price. God has given us the free gift of salvation. Jesus calls us to a life of service to Him, which is our joyful response to the wonderful gift He has given us. In fact, as Martin Luther points out (see my bible study on grace ), our works are justified in the same way our lives are, by the atonement. Thus our lives are pleasing to Him, not because of ourselves or those works, but by grace through faith, the same way we are saved.
Another facet of sanctification is that by its nature we become increasingly aware of our own sinfulness and helplessness before God. Sometimes this occurs in spurts and can cause doubts that one was ever truly saved before. This is in fact normal sanctification and whether you get it in spurts or gradually, it is one of the evidences that God is working in your life. You can also expect this awareness to continue to increase during this lifetime. So, paradoxically, for the true Christian, self-esteem actually goes down as we progress, but our faith in God, and our understanding of the depths He rescued us from increases correspondingly.
The end result of sanctification is that we will never be sin-free in this lifetime. There are promises that we can expect to be set free from besetting sins, sins that we are enslaved to or addicted to. The promise is not that it won't be hard, only that it will be possible, although it may remain a struggle for the rest of your life. Paul gives a full description of sanctification in Romans. In the resurrection we will be given new bodies that cannot sin. Since we willingly give God permission to do this it does not violate our free will at all.
Note: While not necessarily heretical, there are a vast number of teachings that add to the simplicity of Christ by adding little rules here and there that you must adhere to in order to be a "good" Christian. If it isn't in the Bible, and part of the New Covenant (the Law is fulfilled), then don't believe it. I don't mean throw out all of the law, as the New Covenant pulls in parts of the law by reference, most of the Ten Commandments (all but the Sabbath day), and the Law's definition of sexual sin for example are part of the New Covenant commandments. But we are not justified by obeying those parts, rather we obey them because we are saved and are being sanctified.
Put another way, only God gets to define sin, traditions of men add to God's commands a thousand little things we should do or not do: no smoking, excercise, avoid movies, avoid TV, skirt length, makup, hairstyle, ... This is called pietism today and is what the Pharisees did, they added many many rules on top of God's law, thus nullifying it in favor of traditions of men.
The pietists are right that the self-indulgent life will not go to heaven, but grafting in the does and don'ts of the world by calling them sin is a false teaching. That said, many of those do's and don't have excellent reasons behind them (such as modern diet and nutrition in a positive example, and the filth contained in many modern movies as a negative one), but they should never be confused with God's prescriptive commands.
On the flip side however, and this is the part the pietists get right, the Bible condemns worldliness, and calls us to live seperated lives. Personally I think this is undertaught here in America. Avoiding worldliness is all but forgotten in many circles, and in many cases the Church is seeking to emulate the world, usually under the guise of seeker-sensitivity.
Why does God save us? This one causes much confusion, the "love" answer is too simplisitic and does not cover all the scriptures. Generally the scriptures say everything is done for His good pleasure and glory, but what about us in particular?
The true Christian is primarily concerned with God's glory, in contrast to the world who are preoccupied with self. Everything we do, how we act, and how we live, has God's glory as its primary purpose. Holiness in living and purity in heart glorifies God, loving each other glorifies God, obedience glorifies God.
More simply put, we are saved for two purposes, to worship and serve. To become both Martha and Mary, and Jesus said to Martha that worship is better than service, thus clearly defining our priorities. Jesus says He desires worship in spirit and in truth. Simply put, as John MacArthur points out (in Worship), we were saved so that we can worship God acceptably. We are saved out of falsehood and from a spiritually dead state into truth and life, and now our worship is acceptable to Him.
The second priority is service, let us not do what Martha did and assume that service is the first priority. The primary purpose in going to church, and how we carry out our lives is for worship, service is the second priority. In Revelation Jesus chides a church for leaving their first love forsaking worship of Him for church programs and service.
The last priority is what we get out of it. If we go to church to be ministered to (to be "fed" as some call it), to get a blessing, or even to hear a great sermon, then we have missed the point entirely. Some people worship expecting to get an emotional charge out of it, and wrongfully attribute their emotions to the "presence of God." Those same people seek out churches with the best entertainment, and call it seeking "His presence", when in fact they are only seeking self-gratification.
While strong emotions can accompany true worship, they are not the evidence of it. Ecstatic feelings in fact tend to be associated with the occult and the apostate churches who place feelings as higher priority than truth, and so do not offer acceptable worship at all.
It is a humble heart, sound doctrine, and an attitude of reverence to God that are the marks of true worship.
The Authority of Scripture
Allow me to apologize for putting this one last, as it is actually the foundation upon which all the rest is built.
Conservative Christians believe that the Bible is exclusively God's literal infallible word to us (the orginal languages only). Thus they can be trusted as infallible and authoritative on everything and anything that God wants to say to us. The Bible itself makes these claims, we merely acknowledge them to be true.
One must accept the Bible as God's word, and submit to it as God's expression of His will and authority. Failure to do this, effectively means denial of God's authority which effectively means denial of Christ.
Another important thing is to never go beyond scripture. Revelation itself is quite clear about that hard and fast mandate. And yet Charismaticism for example is filled with extra-biblical revelations and teachings. It also encourages it's people to seek private revelations from God on a regular basis, in direct violation of Scripture.
Vast apologetic materials in support of the inerrancy of scripture exist. If you look for them you will find them, so I suggest you look if you have doubts in this area and are at least willing to examine the evidence. May I suggest Josh McDowell's work "Evidence that Demands a Verdict." in two volumes. It is a bit overwhelming, but it is thorough and complete. It is organized as an encyclopedic reference work, look up your pet objection, and find the information refuting those arguments. For the same reason it is a highly useful source of apologetic material.
To summarize the foundations of the faith, let me quote John MacArthur talking about one of his appearances on the Larry King show: He said there are two things (and only two) he tries to say every chance he gets whenever he appears on LKL: "The Bible is the only authorititative word from God, and Jesus is the only savior."
While not directly related to the Gospel, these ideas are necessary for the Gospel to have meaning.
The Nature of truth.
Truth is objective and knowable by all. This is in direct opposition to postmodernism, the philosophy predominant today that says truth is relative and is in the eye of the beholder. Effectively post-modernism denies that there is any absolute truth (or at least any that we can know as humans). It is a defeatist and fatalistic philosophy at its core. It is also hedonistic and self-seeking which is why it is popular.
Put another way, ever hear the famous question: "if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to see it, did it really fall?" The postmodernists would say not, or at least you can't know for sure that it did. Those who believe in objective truth would say of course it did, and add that the question is stupid and meaningless. Since when is pitiful man needed to be present for reality to exist? Truth and the universe go on regardless of how twisted or ignorant our misconceptions of it may be. Put another way, gravity works whether we believe in it or not. It works whether we understand it or not, and it does not care in the least about our opinions of it.
Postmodernism also bears striking resemblances to gnosticism, a heresy the Church faced for the first three centuries (well it never truly went away, gnosticism spawned many forms of false thinking that persist to this day). One of the things gnosticism taught was that truth is learned experiencially. In other words, each person has to walk their own path and discover the truth for themselves. And everyone would discover their own truth.
In that respect gnosticism is identical to postmodernism in that it denies objective absolute truth. I have read so-called Christian books that claim Christians only perceive as much truth as the Holy Spirit reveals to them, and that this varies from person to person.
You will find gnostic thinking throughout the Church today, as people tout their own personal visions over the Bible, and value what "God said to me last week" over what God says in His Word.
The Bible teaches however that the foundations of the faith are absolute, and are to be known by all.
Postmodernism and gnosticism are a direct fulfillment of the following Scripture:
pro 21:2 Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the LORD pondereth the hearts.
In other words, every man does what is right in his own eyes because each is the keeper of his own "truth".
Without absolute truth that is knowable by all, there is no Gospel.
Jesus went so far as to claim He is the truth:
joh 14:6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
Everyone can understand the truth, since the Gospel is simplicity itself, what is at stake is whether you believe it, whether you accept it as the power of God unto salvation or reject it as foolishness (1 cor 1:18).