Thursday, June 01, 2006

Guest Blog:Why Are There So Many Christian Denominations?

By Frank Marron (Lutheran)

Summary: A straightforward reading of Scripture may lead readers to believe that God intends them to keep His Law perfectly, which is impossible. A proper distinction between Law and Gospel understands such verses as God’s method of making just but unrealistic demands on people in order to lead them to utter despair of their own efforts at salvation - and to point them to the only alternate solution: faith in the perfect life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many conflicting views within Christianity? Why can one denomination interpret the exact same passages of Scripture differently than another? The reason is because not all branches of Christianity properly distinguish between Law and Gospel.

Sometimes God speaks in His Word in direct commands, or Law. At other times He makes plain statements of what He has done and is currently doing on behalf of His creation, or Gospel. However, there are many occurances within Holy Scripture where the Lord speaks in apparent riddles or contradictions, even paradoxes. Regardless of which denomination you belong to, there is general agreement that the bible is about Jesus Christ. This fact is succinctly stated by the Apostle John as follows:

John 20:30-31
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; [31] but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

In order to illustrate how many believers become confused in a striaghtforward reading of the bible, consider the following passages:

Mark 10:17-27
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" [18] And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. [19] You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.' " [20] And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth." [21] And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." [22] Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

[23] And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" [24] And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! [25] It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." [26] And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, "Then who can be saved?" [27] Jesus looked at them and said, "With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God."

To one reader of the above verses, it is quite clear that a man must keep the commandments of God, as originally stated in Exodus chapter 20. To another these same passages indicate that a man must give away all his possessions and not treasure material wealth. To many the above verses indicate that because the man refused to give up all his wealth and follow Jesus, he therefore was not able to enter the Kingdom of God. Superficially, these would be accurate understandings of these Scripture verses.

It should be noted that there are many other passages that make clear statements about what a man must do in order to please God and have eternal life. In Matthew 5:29-30 we are told to tear out our eye or cut off our hand if these cause us to stumble in obeying God’s commandments! How many people take these clear verses of Scripture seriously? Note especially Matthew 5:48, which summarizes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in applying the Law of God to our lives: we must be perfect even as God the Father is perfect. Another way of saying this based upon the previous verses: we must keep God’s Law perfectly throughout our entire existence, in thought, word, and deed. This is impossible with men, but God presents this as one route to eternal life.

Now consider the following Scripture passages which conclude an oration by Peter:

Acts 2:36-39
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."
[37] Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" [38] And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [39] For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself

Notice the difference between the listeners’ reaction to Peter expounding Holy Scripture and the man in Mark chapter 10. This later group were convicted of their sins and were repentant, whereas the man in Mark 10 claimed to have kept God’s Law and did not need to repent of his sins. Obviously there is a great difference in the hearts of the people in these various passages. In fact, closer scrutiny of the Mark 10 verses will show that the original question that Christ is dealing with is contained in verse 17-

"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Everything stated by Christ in response to this question are attempts by Jesus to convict the man of his sins and lead him to repentance. It is obvious that although the man claims to have kept all the commandments of God, that this is false. It is impossible to keep the commandments perfectly in thought, word, and deed throughout one’s entire life. This was highlighted by the man’s inability to no longer be a slave to his wealth and possessions and to follow the Christ. It should be noted that first the Law is given in order to convict a man of his sins and need for rescue. The Scriptures are clear on this issue(e.g. Romans 5:20; 7:7-12; Galatians 3:24). Once this is accomplished, then and only then is the Gospel given to those crushed by the weight of their sinful condition, as shown in Acts 2:38-39. Jesus never gives the man in Mark chapter 10 the Gospel, for to do so would be to cast pearls before the swine(Matthew 7:6); they would not treasure such a great gift from God. The Law is to be given to those who are secure in their sins, while the Gospel is for those who are terrified of their condition.

Thus, if one reads Scripture without realizing the distinction between Law and Gospel, he is hopelessly confused in the apparent contradictions between the two. But this is precisely how God speaks to us - in order to lead us to salvation in His Son, Jesus Christ. If one reads Scripture as a rule book of what he is to do in order to please God and have everlasting life, he misses the point of the entire bible: although it is theoretically possible to inherit eternal life through keeping the Law perfectly, this is a practical impossibility. That is why God sent His Son into the world –so that He would do what mankind is incapable of doing. Christ was born of the virgin Mary and was true man. He lived the perfect life of obedience under the Law, which no man has ever done nor ever will do. Yet He never sinned. He voluntarily took our place under the wrath of God against sin and actually became Sin for us(2Cor 5:21). He died in our stead and His resurrection from the dead is a testimony that our sins have been forgiven. He is the first of many to come. All believers who have fallen asleep in faith in Christ will also rise from the dead on the Last Day. They will inherit new and incorruptible bodies to join their spirits. This is the Christian hope. Unlike the various religions of the world, in Christianity men actually inherit eternal life through the gift of faith alone. They do not earn salvation, but passively receive it as an inheritance similar to an adopted child. The only work believers do is done by God within them through the gift of faith(John 6:29).Simply by believing the promises of God are men credited with the Righteousness of Christ, similar to Abraham(e.g. Romans 4:9). This is the Gospel.

John 3:16
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."


Churchmouse said...

Hey Jim,

Perchance, is Frank Marron "bjbear" from the CARM forums? I've often wondered about my favorite Lutheran :-)


James Swan said...

Hi Ray-

No. Frank posts here under the name "fm483". I met him on a small Lutheran discussion board last year.

I'm going to leave this entry up for a day or so, as the content is very good.

As to BJ Bear, he knows about this blog- and I actually know his "real name" (lol- like a superhero identity!). I won't tell though.