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This is a terrible first question to ask.

But it is not an illegitimate question to answer if we care about sound doctrine and the salvation of souls.

The great Puritan theologian John Owen (1616-1683) wrote:

Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny;

and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed. (The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone in Owen’s Works 5:163-64)

Owen’s position seems dangerous. After all, Scripture makes a strong connection between sound doctrine and assurance. And couldn’t Owen’s position encourage doctrinal laxity?


But not necessarily.

John Piper agrees with Owen’s assessment but adds this qualifier:

The clearer the knowledge of the truth and the more deep the denial, the less assurance one can have that the God of truth will save him. Owen’s words are not meant to make us cavalier about the content of the gospel, but to hold out hope that men’s hearts are often better than their heads. (The Future of Justification, 25 n. 30)

I think this is what J. I. Packer meant when he tries to analyze distorted doctrine from a pastoral perspective:

It is certain that God blesses believers precisely and invariably by blessing to them something of his truth and that misbelief as such is in its own nature spiritually barren and destructive.

Yet anyone who deals with souls will again and again be amazed at the gracious generosity with which God blesses to needy ones what looks to us like a very tiny needle of truth hidden amid whole haystacks of mental error. . . .

Every Christian without exception experiences far more in the way of mercy and help than the quality of his notions warrants. (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 21-22).

Jonathan Edwards offers a similar statement to Owen’s but goes into greater detail with various options regarding the denial—emphasizing how dangerous false teaching is but also hoping that such a person may be teachable when confronted with his error:

How far a wonderful and mysterious agency of God’s Spirit may so influence some men’s hearts, that their practice in this regard may be contrary to their own principles, so that they shall not trust in their own righteousness, though they profess that men are justified by their own righteousness—

or how far they may believe the doctrine of justification by men’s own righteousness in general, and yet not believe it in a particular application of it to themselves—

or how far that error which they may have been led into by education, or cunning sophistry of others, may yet be indeed contrary to the prevailing disposition of their hearts, and contrary to their practice—

or how far some may seem to maintain a doctrine contrary to this gospel-doctrine of justification, that really do not, but only express themselves differently from others;

or seem to oppose it through their misunderstanding of our expressions, or we of theirs, when indeed our real sentiments are the same in the main—

or may seem to differ more than they do, by using terms that are without a precisely fixed and determinate meaning—

or to be wide in their sentiments from this doctrine, for want of a distinct understanding of it;

whose hearts, at the same time, entirely agree with it, and if once it was clearly explained to their understandings, would immediately close with it, and embrace it:—

how far these things may be, I will not determine; but am fully persuaded that great allowances are to be made on these and such like accounts, in innumerable instances; though it is manifest, from what has been said, that the teaching and propagating [of] contrary doctrines and schemes, is of a pernicious and fatal tendency. (“Justification by Faith Alone,” in Yale’s Works of Jonathan Edwards 19:242.)

In a recent post on this subject, Michael Horton quotes the Reformed theologian Herman Witsius who thought carefully about this:

To point out the articles necessary for salvation, and precisely to determine their number, is a task, if not utterly impossible, at least extremely difficult. . . .

It does not become us to ascend into the tribunal of God, and to pronounce concerning our neighbor, for how small a defect of knowledge, or for how inconsiderable and error, he must be excluded from heaven. It is much safer to leave that to God. It may not be safe and expedient for us to receive into church-fellowship a person chargeable with some error or sin; whom, however, we should not dare, on account of that error or sin, to exclude from heaven. (Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010, 16, 27-29)

Horton offers his own conclusion:

Paul reminds all of us with Timothy that only the Lord knows his elect. Pastors and elders in council may approve valid professions of faith and guard the ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline, but only the Great Shepherd can separate the sheep from the goats on the last day. Until then, our calling is to entrust ourselves to faithful shepherds and to long earnestly and prayerfully for the repentance of those who have strayed from Christ’s Word.

For more on this, see Horton’s posts “How Much Do I Need to Know?” “How Far Is Too Far?” He is especially helpful in identifying two common errors: (1) assuming that we only need to know the bare minimum that is necessary for salvation; (2) assuming that we need to know everything correctly in order to be saved.

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30 thoughts on “How Much Doctrine Can One Distort or Deny and Still Be Saved?”

  1. Charles Twombly says:

    Alexis Khomiakov, the great Russian lay theologian of the 19th century,used to chide his Protestant friends in Western Europe (where he travelled extensively and knew deeply)that their claims for doctrinal truth unmediated through priests and “church” were an illusion since Scripture was always mediated through “preacher and teacher” and the average lay person based his faith on whatever form of confesssionalism mediated to him through preaching, catechism, or whatever. Doctrinal accuracy is vital, but at the end of the day it often involves issues that require great learning and that even the “learned” disagree about, even within confessions. Where does that leave the bloke in the pew? A non-doctrinal (and perhaps anti-theological) pietism is one response we see. Turning to “false teachers” is another. Seems we’re left with a bit of a paradox: doctrine is vitally important; lots of the Good Shepherds “true sheep” are theologically confused or otherwise lacking. In the parable of the wheat and the tares (in Matthew 13), our Lord says, “Go easy on separating until the final day.” But he also recognizes that there’s a difference between the two–wheat and tares–and that some are going to be thrown into the fire. My own “solution” (highly debatable, I’m sure) is to go easy on secondary issues and to label “secondary” to those issues that have never reached the level of universal acceptance that, say, the Nicene Creed has. At this point, some may fall out of their chairs and say: What about justification? What about election? What about the sacraments? Etc. To which I’d have to say, “secondary” doesn’t mean unimportant. Issues like the nature of faith, including its relation to works, are vitally important. But they often entail on-going complexity (think of reading Romans 1-8 in light of Romans 2 and vice versa)that seems to many to suggest that, when we look at Lutheran and Reformed and even Catholic interpretations (a la the Council of Trent) of justication and other matters, it’s not simply a “Bible versus Tradition” discussion. What we have are different proposals for construing the biblical text (yes, even with Trent!) and an ongoing search for how best to do that. Confessionalists often go at these things with unwarranted levels of certainty. The bloke in the pew either buys what the local “authority” is saying or chooses to bracket off the “hard stuff” or turns to some other “authority” in reaction.

    Thanks for this post, wise words from Owen, Edwards, Piper, Packer, and Horton.

  2. Dane says:

    Good post Justin. Thanks.

    This morning I read this statement from Vos, as Princeton began to depreciate ‘dogma’ in the name of ‘life':

    ‘To join the outcry against dogma and fact means to lower the ideal of what the Christian consciousness ought normally to be to the level of the spiritual depression of our own day and generation. How much better that we should all strive to raise our drooping faith and to re-enrich our depleted experience up to the standard of those blessed periods in the life of the Church when the belief in Bible history and the religion of the heart went hand in hand and kept equal pace, when people were ready to lay down their lives for facts and doctrines, because facts and doctrine formed the daily spiritual nourishment of the souls. May God by his Spirit maintain among us, and through our instrumentality revive around us, that truly evangelical type of piety which not merely tolerates facts and doctrines, but draws from them its strength and inspiration in life and service, its only comfort and hope in the hour of death.’


  3. mike r. says:

    this alone was worth the price of admission: “With every growth spurt, I marvel at my spiritual immaturity that, at the time, seemed like quite an advance on the previous stage. Shouldn’t that lead me to a little humility about where I am now?” i’ve started reading “saving power” by peter schmiechen – a pretty detailed analysis of TEN – count ‘em, 10 – ways the atonement has been viewed; i doubt we need to know all of those for the test… one of the pros in my mind of calvinism is that you’re somewhat freed from having to know what the actual transactional sequence is at justification. “it is finished” – now get busy. of course, i’ll look back at this comment in a few months and marvel at its spiritual immaturity… :)

  4. z says:

    While I think doctrine is important, I think we sometimes overestimate just how much we really know about the details and mechanism and scope of God’s grace, and as I’ve participated in many heated and intense arguments over what are really, in the grand scheme of things, fairly trivial minutia, I’ve come to believe that we are all probably wrong most of the time. We’re arrogant, and we think we know a lot more than we do, and we don’t act in humility and consider others more significant than ourselves. But God still loves us, and, thankfully, our salvation hinges on Christ alone.

  5. anaquaduck says:

    A helpful question considering the conflicting ideas of men & women throughout the ages.

    Doctrine is important, but is nothing without love, wandering away from sound doctrine can have eternal consequences.

    Often a church may preach from its denominational perspective,at other times from the international & universal church perspective.It can be very puzzling at times as the church experiences trial & tribulation.

  6. T. E. Hanna says:

    I am a bit of an inclusivist, but I tend to think that it is not our doctrine or theological accuracy that carries the power of salvation, it is the person and work of Jesus Christ. That is, what we THINK about who Jesus was and what Jesus did is secondary to the REALITY of who Jesus is and what Jesus did. In this manner, even if my doctrine is incredibly flawed, it is not the veracity of my doctrine that my salvation rests upon, it is Jesus.

    Having said that, I will also go on to say that accurate theology brings freedom, and that part of the discipleship process entails living into a historical theology which envelops us, invites us into the Christian narrative, and transforms us into a people of God.

  7. Bill Hughes says:

    I asked my wife, “how many women could I lust after and still be married to her?” She said emphatically, “NONE”
    Why do we play this game with our creeds???
    “All things were created through Him, and for Him.”

    1. T. E. Hanna says:

      Yet we see incredible theological diversity within the body of Christ. We have numerous different atonement theories, multitudes of varying theological frameworks from Reformed to Wesleyan-Arminian to Openness to Liberation theologies.

      We even have more than one creed.

      Not all of these theologies can be accurate, yet these are the best attempts we have at trying to comprehend an incomprehensible God. Either we accept the idea that God is only going to accept a sliver of the Christian body, or we recognize that God is bigger than our theology, and that His grace is not limited by the accuracy of our intellect.

      1. mike r. says:

        >Either we accept the idea that God is only going to accept
        >a sliver of the Christian body…

        well, of course he is: only neo-con, neo-calvinists.

        t.e. – you should know that by now…

    2. Gary says:

      Glad to know that your wife is all about grace and also glad to know that in your entire married life you’ve never once lusted after a woman.

  8. Michael says:

    Johnny: How Much Doctrine Can One Distort or Deny and Still Be Saved?

    Paul: But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

    Johnny: So anyone adding something to faith alone in Christ alone is not saved?

    Paul: “accursed, separated from Christ”!

    1. Gary says:

      So I guess you’re not a fan of James chapter 2?

  9. Good question. This much I know:

    1) We are saved more by our trust in Christ than we are by our adherence to doctrine.

    2) The intentional if unconscious distortion of doctrine is due to the desire to justify sin outside of the Atonement of Christ.

    3) Our obedience to doctrine is a matter of that portion of Christian epistemology otherwise known as “assurance”. This is what John’s first letter is about.

    4) Therefore, being saved will typically result in attempting to understand doctrine more accurately. This makes trends in Christian anti-intellectualism troublesome.

    5) Nevertheless, we should expect that even the elect will reach limits of understanding of true doctrine in this lifetime, but never so much as to be uncertain of salvation.

  10. Michael says:

    Jim, “trust in Christ” is a doctrine. Two doctrines actually: What is trust? Who is Christ?

    1. Charles Twombly says:

      Jim, put in those simple terms, they really are “first-order discourse,” not doctrine as such, since the latter (doctrine) is an expansion of and reflection on–first order discourse. When “trust in Christ” is theologized, then we have the more than the raw materials for doctrine. The phrase itself isn’t self-explanatory, since it could take on quite different meanings in the mouths of Jehovah’s Witnesses or newly converted tribes people in the Amazon or Roman Catholics and Primitive Baptists. Doctrine comes in to help us hold the parts of our faith together in coherent ways, ways that attempt to be faithful to Scripture.

    2. There is a difference between understanding doctrine and doing it. We are saved by doing the trusting, not by understanding the trusting. Ideally we will understand, and certainly come to understand better, but there are those who cannot fully understand who may nevertheless trust. I’m thinking of people affected with various types of mental retardation as the central example or even small children who Jesus indicates believe in him (Matt 18:6).

      1. Michael says:

        Yes but that faith is in Something and Someone, not in 5 letters on page. Who is this Jesus? What did he do? Why should we put our trust in Him? The answer to these questions is theology, the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. A basic understanding of these answers (doctrines) is required for saving faith. Without them our faith is not genuine.

        1. Look, I’m not advocating some sort of anti-intellectualism here. I’m all about knowing the truth. Faith in the wrong God is false faith. So you’re making the case to the wrong guy.

          But I’m making a distinction that it seems like you are missing, and it seems that way because you refuse to address it. We all fall short of understanding God perfectly which is what Justin’s article is addressing: How much can we get wrong? Now, I don’t want to get anything wrong, but I know I’ll not stop growing in my understanding until I see the Lord face to face.

          Likewise, there is a minimal knowledge required. If someone is less capable than that, then they don’t have the ability to trust anything and they are subject to judgement by a God who is both just and gracious. We can put people who are brain-dead or killed before they are born as central in that category.

          So I think that minimal knowledge and distorted doctrine are related in that there must be something that cannot be compromised. Now, I know my parents, but I don’t all the facts about them and I’m sure I probably have some facts about them wrong. But even if I have many facts about them right, they are still my parents and I have a familial rapport with them. I can call them up and trust them to leave my kids with if the need arises, and they would be happy to have their grandkids over. I know that much about them and it’s enough at this point. God is ontologically more substantial than the mere facts about him. Someone out there might know my parents better than I do, but they don’t have the ability to pick up the phone and expect a positive response when asked if they can keep their kids. God isn’t just true: he has reconciled himself with his children.

          The question for people of normal knowledge is if they desire to distort or distort out of ignorance. If they desire to distort, it can be attributed as faithlessness. If they desire to get God right but distort out of ignorance then I think they’re probably okay. They have a long way to go, as do we all, but their hearts are in the right place. They likely have saving faith.

          1. T. E. Hanna says:

            I’m with Jim on this one, and I think the idea that you can be theologically wrong and still be ushered into the Kingdom is very Biblically grounded.

            I’m reminded of the disciples, who spent an inordinate amount of time getting their theology wrong, even getting Jesus wrong. I am reminded of a delightful little conversation where Peter finally (FINALLY!) recognizes Jesus as the son of God, only to turn around and rebuke Him and, in turn, be identified with Satan.

            I’m reminded of disciples who turned away children and women, only to be corrected by Jesus and taught about what the Kingdom of Heaven really is. I am reminded of these same disciples who spent their time arguing, vying for positions of power within this same kingdom, only to have Jesus reframe their understanding of servanthood.

            I am reminded how often the disciples witnessed the miraculous only to mutter among themselves, “Who is this man, that even the wind and the waves obey Him?” I am further reminded that in the Gospel of Mark, the first person to really recognize Jesus’ divinity (without the accompanying “get behind me Satan!”) was not a disciple, was not even a Jew, but was a Roman Centurion gazing upon his crucified Lord.

            Yet, despite this, I am further reminded that Jesus never expelled these disciples, never cast them out, never took their ignorance as a barrier which eternally separated them from the Kingdom. Instead, He taught them, grew them, shaped them, and sent them out.

            It was never about their theology; good theology came with time. It was always, and will always, be about a heart that is willing to follow.

            And a heart that is willing to follow what it does not yet understand… isn’t that what faith is all about?

            1. well said says:

              “It was never about their theology; good theology came with time. It was always, and will always, be about a heart that is willing to follow. And a heart that is willing to follow what it does not yet understand… isn’t that what faith is all about?”

              This. is. excellent. Thank you!

            2. Michael says:

              You guys aren’t using a correct definition of theology. you’re using the term to mean only the advanced or secondary issues of the faith. Based on your reasoning, all Roman Catholics are saved, since it’s not big deal if they get the gospel wrong. The gospel is a doctrine. In your attempt to throw out the word “theology” and “doctrine”, you’ve left the gospel open to be changed (see Gal 1 for the effects of that). We are not saved through faith alone in the Christ of our own making, but in the Christ of the Bible.

              Jesus said “believe in Me”, not in the 5 letters that make up His name. He also didn’t say “believe I existed”. Who is this Jesus? How can we know Him? What did he do? These are the basics of the gospel (doctrines!), without knowing them you cannot be saved.

              In the modern church’s attempt to offer easy-believism, they’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water.

              You would not agree with me if I said “it’s okay if you get God wrong, as long as you believe in Him”. Who is the God you believe in? How do you know Him? The answers to the question are theological answers.

              Theology matters, no matter how much you don’t want it to.

              1. T. E. Hanna says:

                Actually, no. I’m not using theology wrong. Do I believe that Roman Catholics can be saved despite a theology we term as inaccurate? ABSOLUTELY.

                Salvation is about following, not accurate belief. Jesus’ call was to “come and follow” not “come and believe accurately.” James emphasizes that even the demons believe, and the gospels make it very clear that they believe accurately (certainly moreso than the disciples did).

                Don’t misunderstand me, I am not throwing out the value of theology. Good theology is freedom. The better we know who it is that we follow, the better we are able to follow Him. But we don’t start – ever – with deep theology. We begin by trusting, by following who we are only beginning to know. We grow along the way… this is discipleship. Some of us do not have the intellectual capacity to understand even the basics, others may have bought into theology that is flawed or even heretical. Thankfully, “we are saved by grace through faith, and this as a gift from God”. Ie. God’s grace is about His attributes, not ours.

                God is not limited by our limitations. We follow to the best of our ability, in accordance with the best understanding we have of who He is and what that means. If we don’t understand Him, we still follow. This is faith. If we understand incorrectly, we grow as we follow. This is discipleship. Following, however, precedes understanding. It is in following that we find our salvation.

              2. Michael says:

                But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!

              3. There’s a difference between preaching and believing. A preacher will be held accountable for not preaching the true gospel. But not evey preacher is as clear as his hearers need him to be. How many people come to faith misunderstanding aspects of what even a good preacher preached?

                Can those with covenentalish ecclesiologies (paedobaptists whose ecclesiology confounds their soteriology a little bit) like Lutherans and Presbyterians be saved?

                Can charismatics who believe in multiple baptisms of the Holy Spirit be saved although they may only baptize once with water?

                Are Calvinists, Arminians, Amyraldians or some other such group in the sovregnty-freewill matrix the ones who get saved, but no one else?

                At what point does the grace of God require the legal amount of knowledge for someone to be saved?

                What is the minimum IQ for someone to be saved?

                Must years of discipleship occur prior to being saved such that once someone is saved they need no more knowledge of God?

                When churches were confused by false teachers, did they lose their salvation until Paul was able to straighten them out? Even Peter got caught up once with the circumcision crowd while out on the mission field and had to be corrected by Paul. Did he lose his salvation for it? At what point would we have had to conclude that Peter was never really saved if he continued unrepentant?

                You are concerned about error and you should be. But who among us is fully sanctified? At what point in our sanctification can we claim certainty in our salvation while we still have some erroneous beliefs or blind spots either due to sin or aiding to perpetuate unmortified sin?

                Ministry is messy. Thank God for the grace to navigate it from day to day and the discernment to build up the Church in spite of the flaws of her members.

              4. mike r. says:

                i think, michael, the question the should be presented back to you: just exactly what is the extent of the doctrines and ‘theology’ you believe must actually be fairly presented, understood, and believed in order for salvation to occur? i see this as a topic where it’s easier to provide an answer using exclusions – “no, that’s not something which needs to be on the list” – than inclusions. but is what paul summed up in six verses in 1 cor 15 sufficient? more and more i’m leaning towards believing that God took the work of salvation out of our hands exactly because of what we are trying to distill here.

              5. Gary says:

                But Michael, when you say “theology matters” I immediately think…which theology and which interpretation of theology?

  11. Charles Twombly says:

    “Justification by works” gets an automatic “negative” with virtually all protestants, but JI Packer, with an on certain doctromaniacs perhaps, refers to those who seem to make salvation a matter of “justification by words.” Since we don’t have windows into men’s souls, perhaps it would be better to see saving belief in fairly simple terms (“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved…….I believe, Lord; help thou mine unbelief”) and see “dogma/doctrines/theologies” as aimed at the spiritual health of individuals and congregations and (at least by intention) seen as safeguards against forms of error that could lead someone seriously astray. The thief on the cross didn’t get a catechism lesson or have to sign the WCF; he knew enough (apparently) to know Jesus had a (future) kingdom and that he (the thief) needed “remembering.” The details could be left to others.

  12. Charles Twombly says:

    Missing from second line: the word “eye” in the phrase “an [eye] on certain doctromaniacs….”

  13. Charles Twombly says:

    As an Eastward-leaning Anglican, I’d like to pass on to my doctrinally concerned Reformed friends what I heard from Presbyterian theologian, George Hunsinger, recently. He noted that there are over two billion (real/nominal) Christians out of six/seven billions now living (ie roughly one out of three humans). Out of that number, roughly half are Roman Catholics and perhaps up to 300 million are Eastern Orthodox or “Oriental.” Of the total, Reformed Christians account for only 1%. That 1% has fragmented into 750 separate groups, mainly having split off from other Reformed groups. So what may we conclude? One point of view might say, numbers don’t matter. If you if have the truth, you can be a “majority of one” (a la Elijah or Jeremiah)and see the millions and billions as those who are on the broad path of destruction. The narrow path is found by few and double-predistination and limited atonement vouch for the fact that lots aren’t going to make the final cut. Others might wonder if there isn’t more than a little theological overdetermination and even excessive fractiousness that account for the miniscule Reformed groups. “Judge nothing before the time.” We may have to wait for the Judge of all men himself to render the verdict at the Last Day.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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