What is orthodox Christianity? More exactly, what is the truth of the Gospel?
This was a major concern of the apostles. When Judaizers sought to corrupt the Gospel, Paul told the Galatians, "We did not give them subjection, not even for one hour, so that the truth of the Gospel might remain with you" (2:5). Jude adds, "You should earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (v. 3).
The true Gospel is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16). The Gospel is about changing lives. A false Gospel won't do that.
The true Gospel has a true power. In it, "the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith" (Rom. 1:17). Faith in the true Gospel will produce a righteousness that is "revealed." In other words, it can be seen.
Orthodox, according to the dictionary, means "of, pertaining to, or conforming to the approved form of any doctrine, philosophy, ideology, etc."
What is the approved form of the Christian Gospel? Can it be anything else than what Jesus Christ approves of?
Jesus is the beginning and end of the Christian faith. Clement, an early bishop appointed by the apostles Paul and Peter, writes:
The early churches believed that the authority behind the Gospel was simple. Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, came to earth with a message, he committed it to his apostles, and the apostles committed it to the churches. It is this Gospel that Jude is referring to when he mentions a faith "once for all" delivered to the saints.
The Reformation rightly emphasized faith as the sole source of power in the Gospel. Jesus emphasized faith as well. He tells us:
However, don't be mistaken. Jesus meant something by faith that most American Christians do not understand. They're not the only ones. James had to correct Christians in Jerusalem as well:
Jesus answer to that question is a resounding no. He warns believers that he has been appointed as Judge of the world, and it is only those who have done good who will receive life at the resurrection (Jn. 5:27-29). Paul echoes this, having learned the Gospel from Jesus himself, telling us that God will repay eternal life to those who pursue it by "patiently continuing to do good." (Rom. 2:6-7)
Jesus' idea of faith is not the typical American one. Even though he's told us that God sent his Son to save those who believe, he also tells us that unless we "hate" our family and even our own soul, we can't be his disciple. Not satisfied with that, he adds that we must also carry our cross, come after him, and even "forsake everything we own" (Luke 14:26-33).
Orthodox Christianity, as we have seen, is the Gospel that Jesus preached, which is the same one that the apostles received from Christ and gave to the churches.
That Gospel is a Gospel of faith, but we need to understand faith correctly.
It is not just any old faith that will save us. It has to be the faith that Jesus spoke of, and a faith that does not obey is not a saving faith. As we saw James put it, "What profit is it, brothers, if a man says he has faith but doesn't have works? Can such faith save him?" (James 2:14).
Jesus' idea of faith meant a complete commitment to himself. He tells us that the person that seeks to save his own soul will lose it. Only those who lose it will keep it to life everlasting (Matt. 16:25; Jn. 12:25).
It is the apostle Paul who is most known for preaching justification "by faith apart from the works of the Law" (Rom. 3:28). So let's focus on him rather than on the other apostles.
Paul does not only speak of faith. He talked about works, too. He says that it is those who pursue immortality "by patiently continuing to do good" who will inherit eternal life (Rom. 2:6-7). When Paul describes his Gospel in Acts, he tells us that he told the people of "Damascus, at Jerusalem, throughout the coasts of Judea, and to the Gentiles" that "they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance" (Acts 26:20).
Which of us Evangelicals would describe Paul's Gospel in this way?
None of us would because we don't understand faith. We don't understand that Luke 14:26-33 describes the faith that Christ expects. We don't understand that Paul thought of faith in exactly the same way.
Why did Christ die? Did Paul believe that Jesus died so that we could believe, without doing any good works, and still go to heaven?
That's not what Paul said he believed. Paul said Christ died:
The "doctrine which is according to godliness" was important to Paul. He said that those who would not consent to it "is proud, knows nothing, and is obsessed with arguments and debates" (1 Tim. 6:3).
"Sound doctrine," to Paul and the churches to which the apostles committed their Gospel, involved holy living (e.g., Tit. 2:1-10). The righteousness of God should be revealed in the Gospel, he said, from faith to faith (Rom. 1:17).
Paul spoke of those who taught otherwise. He described people who professed to know God, "but in works they deny him, being abominable and disqualified for every good work" (Tit. 1:16). Jude spoke of men who turned the grace of God into loose living, and he referred to them as "filthy dreamers" (Jude 4 & 7).
The apostles' churches understood this. Ignatius, a bishop appointed by the apostle John, tells us:
If we are going to hold to orthodox Christianity, then we, too, must contend earnestly for this faith, for it is the one that has been "once for all delivered to the saints."
Orthodox Christianity knows that good works are the product of the Spirit of God. It is "by the Spirit" that we must put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:13).
However, Orthodox Christianity also knows that this is not optional. God is not mocked. It is only those who sow to the Spirit who will reap everlasting life from the Spirit (Gal. 6:7-8). If we live according to the flesh, Paul says, we will die (Rom. 8:12).
This, not a carefully outlined and accurate statement of faith, is what marks orthodox Christianity. Those who have done good will receive a resurrection of life (Jn. 5:27-29). Those that have cared for Jesus Christ in the person of the naked, homeless, hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned will enter everlasting life in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 25:31-46).
We are to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior with good things, not good theology. Good theology is good, but it is not what we will be judged for. We will be judge by our works (Matt. 25:31-46; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10; etc.).
It is possible to deny Christ not just with words but with works (Tit. 1:16). Let us be found those who are living orthodox Christianity, the doctrine which is according to godliness, so that the world will know us as "a people zealous for good works" (Tit. 2:14). This is the light that we are called to shine (Matt. 5:13-16; Eph. 5:8-10).