When we begin a search for that which is truly unique in Christianity (what we term “Christian distinctives”), we may at first be surprised. Many religions believe in a supreme being (Judaism, Islam, many Native American religions). Many religions also understand there is a problem with man (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism). The Christian solution of God reaching down to resolve this problem is shared not only with Judaism and Hinduism, but also some Native American religions. The concept of God becoming man to resolve rampant sin is shared with some forms of Hinduism (although it is the sin of demons that is of concern). The concept of a god dying is ancient in the history of religion. The concept of a virgin birth dates back in pagan traditions before Christ’s birth. Miracles, including raising the dead, are present in may religious traditions. The concept of a judgment is not unique to Christianity. The concept of a mystical union with God is found in many religions, as is an eternal state. It is not these things that make Christianity unique. As Justin Martyr stated:
And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.
Justin Martyr, the First Apology of Justin, ch. XXI, (150-165 A.D.)
Yet, not for a moment should anyone believe that Christianity is essentially parallel to other religions. Elements of orthodox Christian theology stand unique:
- the character of the Christian God (including the way mercy and love are intermingled with holiness and purity),
- the transcendent/immanent God (the wholly other, yet with us),
- the nature of God (including the Trinity),
- the nature of the love relationship between God and humanity,
- salvation by faith alone, imputed righteousness,
- the unique role of works in “true religion”(a manifestation of relationship versus an effort to attain or maintain a relationship),
- the openness and the simplicity of the gospel (the good news is to all, no secrets, no difficult rituals),
- the role of sacrifice in the life of the believer (a reflective role versus an appeasing role),
- the humility and the exaltation of the lowly,
- the ethic of love,
- the community of the church as the body of God,
- and the nature of the eternal state.
These are only a few of the areas where Christianity stands apart from other religions. Even in those areas of shared concepts mentioned in the first paragraph, the Biblical approach is unique. Yet, to focus on any of the above would be to miss the centerpiece of our faith.
At the heart and core of Christianity’s distinctiveness as a religion is a person, Jesus Christ. In the words of Scripture, He is our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption, our life, our way, our hope, our destiny, our friend, our brother, our salvation, and our God. No other religion has a God like our Jesus. Others may follow some of His teachings. We follow Him. Listen to the words of Clement of Rome, written in the first century to the Corinthian Christians:
This is the way, beloved, in which we find our Saviour, even Jesus Christ, the High Priest of all our offerings, the defender and helper of our infirmity. By Him we look up to the heights of heaven. By Him we behold, as in a glass, His immaculate and most excellent visage. By Him are the eyes of our hearts opened. By Him our foolish and darkened understanding blossoms up anew towards His marvelous light. By Him the Lord has willed that we should taste of immortal knowledge . . .
Clement, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (before 100 A.D)
(may have been the Clement mentioned in Phil. 4:3)
What is distinct about Jesus:
His nature: The Hypostatic Union (God and man, united in one person, being fully God (John 1:1, Romans 9:5) and fully man (Hebrews 2:14, 17; 1 Timothy 2:5). He is God who took on humanity (Philippians 2:6-8), to seek humanity (Luke 19:10) This is what Christians have always believed about Christ. This doctrine was not hammered out in later church councils, but came from the apostles and has been the belief of the church from the very beginning. Hear the words of Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch, a man who knew and learned from the Lord’s apostles personally:
There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible — even Jesus Christ our Lord.
Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians (around 100 A.D.)
And again, another link to the apostles, Ireneus, a bishop who listened to Polycarp as a child. Polycarp was a contemporary of the apostles and knew at least some of them.
But in every respect, too, He is man, the formation of God; and thus He took up man into Himself, the invisible becoming visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering, and the Word being made man, thus summing up all things in Himself . . .
Ireneus, Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch.16, section 6. (182-188 A.D.)
We have not improved on these words in 2000 years of theology. Jesus Christ is both God and man. To quote, Tertullian, the first of the Latin fathers and a contemporary of Ireneus:
We must make, therefore, a remark or two as to Christ’s divinity.We have been taught that He proceeds forth from God, and in that procession He is generated; so that He is the Son of God, and is called God from unity of substance with God . . . Thus Christ is Spirit of Spirit, and God of God . . . [T]hat which has come forth out of God is at once God and the Son of God, and the two are one. In this way also, as He is Spirit of Spirit and God of God, He is made a second in manner of existence — in position, not in nature; and He did not withdraw from the original source, but went forth. This ray of God, then, as it was always foretold in ancient times, descending into a certain virgin, and made flesh in her womb, is in His birth God and man united.
Tertullian, Apology, ch. 21. (late 2nd century)
From the earliest days of the church, the God who became fully man has been a distinctive of the Christian church, being taught from Scriptures by the Apostles to the Apostolic Fathers; and is what we affirm today. Long before the councils of the church, this is what the church always believed. That God would become man, fully God and fully man, is uniquely a Christian concept. He was not God walking among men, or God indwelling men, but God and man by the very nature of His birth.
His birth: Foretold in great detail: Lineage (Abraham — Genesis 12:1-3, Judah — Genesis 49:10, David — 2 Samuel 7:16; Isaiah 11); Nature (of woman, not of man — Genesis 3:15; Isaiah 7:14); Place (Bethlehem — Micah 5:2). There have been other religions that claim prophetic utterances for a birth, but none has the precision and verification of the birth of Christ. With the Dead Sea Scrolls, we have conclusive proof that the Scriptures that foretold Christ’s birth were written long before His birth.
His life: Marked by unprecedented miracles (39 particular ones and allusions to many, many more), unparalleled teachings (the supremacy of love), and unimpeachable character (a true friend). You will find very few people in the world who do not hold Jesus in high esteem, even if they do not like Christians. While others have claimed miracles, none has matched the control over events that Christ Jesus had. Listen to the words again of Tertullian:
[E]xpelling devils from men by a word, restoring vision to the blind, cleansing the leprous, reinvigorating the paralytic, summoning the dead to life again, making the very elements of nature obey Him, stilling the storms and walking on the sea; proving that He was the Logos of God, the primordial first-begotten Word, accompanied by power and reason, and based on Spirit — that He who was now doing all things by His word, and He who had done that of old (a reference to the Creator), were one and the same.
Tertullian, Apology, ch. 21 (late 2nd century)
And here are the words of a non-Christian. Josephus was a Jewish writer and historian.
Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 18, Ch. 3, para. 3. (70-90 A.D.)
There has never been anyone on earth who has lived a life that came close to that of Jesus Christ. When we follow Jesus Christ, we clearly follow the greatest person in human history. We are blessed to have Him.
His death: supreme love (Romans 5:8-10; Ephesians 2:4-6; 1 John 4:9-10); substitutionary atonement (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18). Nowhere, in religion, do you have a God who dies in love on behalf of those He despises. Yet, in Christianity, that is precisely the fact that stares us in the face. In our sin, in our obnoxious sin, acts of uncleanness that are revolting to the very core of God’s being, and while we were fully at war with Him, He loved us so greatly that He immersed Himself in that which He abhorred and died for us. All we can do is say, “Hallelujah, for His amazing love.”
And in His death, He substituted Himself for us to pay the penalty for our sins. All other religions of the world falter on this point: What do we do with our sins? Many hope that our good works will outweigh our bad ones. But how many truths does one need to tell to balance out a lie? If I tell you a lie today and a truth tomorrow, am I now okay? Will you now think I can be trusted? If I tell you a 1000 truths, will it outweigh the one lie? How many people do I need to spare to outweigh one murder? The idea is ludicrous.
Other religions teach a sort of penance. But what can I possibly do to pay for one sin? If I live sinless, that is only what is required. If I sin, what is there left for me to do. The prophet Micah asks the question:
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
Only Christianity has a workable solution for the problem of sin. In the death of Christ, He was made sin for us, He was substituted for us, that we might go free.
His resurrection: Proof of His identity (Romans 1:4) and our own resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). Other religions have sometimes taught resurrection, but they have been nebulous and without good proof. Here is what we know. Christianity rises or falls on whether or not the bodily resurrection of Christ happened. We have the testimony of Peter, of John, of Paul, of Matthew, of James, and of Jude. We have the early historian, Luke, who looked into the matter and concluded the evidence was overwhelming. We have the words of Josephus. We have a church that exploded by preaching the resurrection in the very city and in the very year when Jesus died, even in the face of strong and persistent opposition. We have something that emboldened a group of cowards into unstoppable mission 50 days after the crucifixion. And the resurrection of Christ had been prophesied. (Psalm 16:10; Isaiah 53:10-12). In no other religion is the resurrection so real, historically supportable, and crucial to the faith. The resurrection stands as a unique aspect of Christianity. It is the greatest Christian holiday of the year.
His present work: High Priest (God’s own Son pleading for us) (Hebrews 4:14-15; 7:24-8:2). I know of no other religion that establishes God as the high priest for man. The writer of the Hebrews develops this point richly. Jesus became man in part so that He could identify fully with our temptations, weaknesses, frailties, and sins. Now, as the man Christ Jesus, He ever lives to make intercession for us, as our High Priest. This is an incredible benefit to us. He not only took our place, the just for the unjust, but He now appears as our advocate before the Father. He is a merciful and faithful high priest. Thus, we have confidence to approach holy God, because of the priestly work of Jesus.
His plan: The gospel (Union with God by faith alone in Christ.) (John 5:24; 14:6; 17:20-26). The gospel (literally the “good news”) is that we can enter into a love relationship with the most incredible and most awesome person in the universe, simply through trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The relationship He wants with us is deep and intensely meaningful (John 17:20-26). The intensity, the desire, the plan of God for a deep, intimate, personal, and abiding love relationship with humanity through faith in His Son Jesus stands all alone among religions.
These are things that have been at the very core of Christianity from its very inception by the apostles. These things were not “discovered by later theologians or church councils.” They were believed from the very beginning. Again, let us hear Ireneus making the point that this is what the church always has believed:
The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father ‘to gather all things in one,’ and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess’ to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send ‘spiritual wickednesses,’ and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.
Ireneus, Against Heresies, Bk. 1, Ch. 10, Section 1
These statements were made long before there were any church councils, made by those who knew or knew those who personally knew the apostles. These are the distinctives of our faith, a faith once delivered to the saints and believed by the church for nearly 2000 years. No other religion has a God like our Jesus.