QUESTION: Does true saving faith in Jesus Christ necessarily include believing that he is God in the flesh? Must one believe that Jesus is God in order to be saved? Can one deny his deity and still be saved?
ANSWER: True saving faith is indeed faith in Jesus Christ. When the Philippian jailer asked of Paul and Silas, “’Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’” (Acts 16:30-31, NASB). Jesus himself had already made this clear: “’Whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life…. He who believes in him is not judged; he who does not believe is judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God’” (John 3:16, 18). Here the word translated “judged” is krino, which can have the meaning “condemned” (as the NIV translates it here).
This saving faith requires not just trusting in him, but also believing that certain things about him are true. If you “believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). When “doubting Thomas” was confronted by the risen Christ, he was told by Jesus to “’not be unbelieving, but believing.’ Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed’” (John 20:27-29). Believed what? That Jesus had been raised from the dead, and that this Jesus is LORD and GOD.
In a previous essay I have shown that the Bible consistently teaches that Jesus is God, i.e., that he has a divine nature as well as a human nature. If we are going to believe in the Jesus of the Bible, we must indeed believe that he is God. True saving faith must include this element in its content.
I think, however, that we should make a distinction between (a) being naive and ignorant and simply not knowing enough about the issue either to specifically deny it or to accept it; and (b) understanding what’s at stake but denying it anyway. The former may well be the case with many young or new believers who have not yet been exposed to all that is involved in believing in Jesus. This is something that they will “grow into” as they “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
On the other hand, many individuals and religions and quasi-Christian groups knowingly and deliberately deny that Jesus is the incarnation of the transcendent Creator-God. They think of him either as just a man, or as the incarnation of a created angelic being or some other kind of super-creature. Examples include the influential Arius (flourished early fourth century), from whom Arianism arose. Arius said Jesus was the incarnation of the Logos, but the Logos was a semidivine creature whose essence was created ex nihilo and thus cannot be of the same essence as God. This view was pronounced heretical by the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. A modern version of Arianism is the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult. Another cult with a similar view is The Way International, begun in 1942 in New Knoxville, OH, by Victor Paul Wierwille, who later (1975) wrote a book entitled Jesus Christ Is Not God. Many others have thought of Jesus as nothing more than a man whose spiritual consciousness was more precocious than anyone else’s.
My judgment is that those who consciously deny the divine nature of Jesus do not have a true saving faith and are not truly Christian. I say this for several reasons. For one thing, denying Jesus is God is denying the true nature of God himself, and Hebrews 11:6 says that one does not have true faith unless he believes that GOD exists. This is talking about the true God, the Trinitarian God revealed in the New Testament – not someone’s private speculation of what God must be like. We are not free to design our own concept of deity; we must believe in the God of the New Testament who is the Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. And God the Son was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.
Also, denying Jesus is God is denying the true nature of Jesus as such. When Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matt. 16:16), he was not simply using words into which we can pour any meaning we desire. This is true especially in view of the fact that the contents of this confession were divinely revealed and approved (v. 17). And what was the meaning of the title, “Son of God,” in the Jewish community of Peter’s day? Episodes recorded in John 5 and John 10 show that using this title was regarded as a claim to be equal with God. Also, applying the title “Lord” (kurios) to Jesus (which we must do: Romans 10:9-10) means that we must think of him as God. This is true because the Hebrew translation of the OT (the Septuagint) uses the Greek word kurios (“Lord”) to represent the sacred name for God: Yahweh. When Jews such as the Apostle Paul constantly called Jesus Lord, they could not help but equate him with God. (See my previous essay, “Is Jesus God?”) The bottom line is this: a non-divine Jesus is not the Jesus of the Bible.
A final reason why saving faith must include belief that Jesus is God is this: denying that Jesus is God is denying the true nature of the salvation he has earned for us. The key element in that salvation is forgiveness of sins (i.e., justification). God can forgive our sins (withhold the punishment we deserve) only because that punishment has been accepted by our substitute, Jesus. And exactly what was the punishment Jesus was taking on himself—in a finite period of time—as he went to the cross? Nothing less than the equivalent of eternity in hell for the entire human race. And the only way he could have done that was to be more than a finite man or creature of any kind. His nature had to be divine, because his suffering had to be infinite. Anyone who denies Jesus’ divinity MUST diminish the concept of salvation.
I can imagine someone reading this and thinking, “This doctrine is just too deep. We cannot expect ordinary Christians to absorb and commit to such complicated ideas!” My response is this: “GROW UP!” Study what Paul says in Ephesians 4:11-16. Christian leaders are supposed to be equipping the saints “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result we are no longer to be children” and thus victims of all kinds of false doctrines, “But speaking the truth in love, we are to GROW UP in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.”