Where should we draw the line on salvation doctrines?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: How do we differentiate between important doctrines, salvation based doctrines and heresy? It seems like there are several beliefs some people say are essential for salvation — for people to be true Christians — but that aren’t really about salvation. How do we know where do we draw the line?

Answer: That’s an important question. In Christianity (as well as in any other enterprise ) it is important to know what is important and what is not. Armed with that knowledge, we can distribute our limited resources optimally. You see, God is like any other stakeholder or manager. He wants us to be good stewards (1 Peter 4:10) — but part of that is knowing where to place our focus (Matthew 28:19-20).

That being said, let’s proceed carefully… because all doctrine is important… and we do not want to draw lines arbitrarily. But not all doctrine has to do with salvation, and it seems as if this is the line you are defining in your question. So, let’s look at a few minimal salvation experiences in the Bible and see what is critical and what is not.

The thief on the cross had a minimal salvation experience. He went from despair to hope in just a few hours — perhaps even minutes! All he did was recognize Jesus for whom he was — the person who had a kingdom… and Jesus brought him to paradise that very day (Luke 23:39-43).

Note that this thief was saved without being baptized; he was saved without anyone reading him the salvation verses from the King James Bible and he was saved without believing that the earth was only 6000 years old. His was a pretty bare-bones experience.

My assumption here is that Jesus knew what was important… and we could take a lesson. No one is better than us contemporary Christians at multiplying doctrines and wrongly assigning them salvific importance. The problem is, we often do this at the expense of church (Church) unity (1 Corinthians 1:10).

We have another example of a bare-bones salvation experience with the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34). What I love about this passage is the unmistakable handshake that the question-and-answer format sets up. The jailer asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…” Salvation is no more complex than that. The only “work” that God requires is to believe on the one whom he has sent.

“Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28–29, NIV)

Now, I am not saying that other issues are not important for the Christian… or that other issues do not support or explain salvation. What I am saying is that salvation can occur with nothing other than belief… and that’s where I would draw the line described in your question.

I have written an article called Leaning Against the Gates of Hell that explores salvation’s line more thoroughly. But rather than paste all that in here, just click on the article's title, and this will take you to a webpage where you may examine it at your leisure.

There is another issue, though. Some churches have very expansive statements-of-belief in their official documents. In fact, some of these are so detailed that they are virtual copies of whatever systematic theology book the founding pastor used in seminary! I hope this goes out of fashion — but not because I am against a firm and expansive statement of beliefs. It’s just that I wouldn’t want to belong to a church where I was “forced” to believe specific things about secondary issues… and there are many areas where I’m at variance with the typical evangelical believer.

Some churches have seen the light, however. Take Faith Church in Auburn, Massachusetts for example. Faith Church has fit its entire Beliefs section onto one webpage — and I applaud this! Below is its final paragraph (entitled Denomination). Note their stand on secondary issues (highlighted below).

Faith Church is a member of the Conservative Baptist Association.  The Conservative Baptist Association is a Christian association of churches in the United States with each local congregation being autonomous and responsible for their own way of functioning.  There are some non-essential beliefs that there may be some disagreement on from person to person.  These may include interpretations of end times, the creation account in Genesis, etc.  However, the essentials of what we believe are everything listed above.​


I’d only be guessing at what drove your question, but it sounds like you’ve run into some fundamentalist style people who insist that if you don’t use the King James Bible… or if you don’t believe the earth is merely thousands of years old, then you can’t be saved. Forgive them, forget them… and get on with your Christian life.

If all truth is God’s truth — and if no falsehood can be God’s falsehood — then you should feel free to explore truth vigorously within and without Scripture. At the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10), you won’t have to account for Bob Jones... but you will have to account for yourself. So, be the best “you” you can be… and the best way to do this is through an honest pursuit of the truth — wherever that takes you… even if it takes you back 4.6 billion years!

You see, God built us to be curious beings. This is part of our human exceptionalism — and we should rejoice in this! If only we could learn not to beat each other up over secondary issues. Instead, we should share our discoveries with love and respect… and in the spirit of helping each other grow in God’s truth.

I pray this helped you. God bless you.

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