Johnny was caught off guard by the question, but, somewhat reservedly, he replied, "I guess I would go to heaven because I am a good person, but I'm hoping that the plane makes it to Atlanta and lands safely."
Madam Cleanway had heard this response before. With as much tact as possible, she shared the gospel with Johnny, saying, "The reality is that all of us are sinners and God is just. God will judge sin, and because all of us have sinned, all of us deserve to be punished for our sin. But God is also gracious. He provided a way for us to have eternal life with Him. God sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. If we place our faith in Christ, then Christ has taken the punishment for our sin on the cross. By believing in Jesus Christ, we can have salvation."
"Wow!" Johnny said. "I knew about Jesus and I guess I knew that I was a sinner, but I've never thought about it that way before." Johnny asked how he could become a Christian, and Madam Cleanway told him that his faith in Christ is what makes him a Christian. She told him to pray and ask God to forgive his sins, trusting that Christ had taken the punishment for his sins on the cross. She told him to begin reading the Bible and start obeying the commands of Christ.
Madam Cleanway was excited by Johnny's response and wanted to encourage the development of his faith, but she knew that she'd probably never see Johnny again after the plane landed. She asked Johnny whether he had any Christian friends. "Oh yes," Johnny replied, "There are five people I can think of off the top of my head that are always talking about Jesus."
Madam Cleanway told Johnny to go to his five friends and tell them about his response to her gospel presentation and to ask them about discipleship.
Is Johnny a Christian?
Joe Lowsteen is a proponent of the prosperity gospel.
Ben Kneehen denies the Trinity and believes that tongues are necessary for salvation.
Mr. Watchtower is a Jehovah's Witness who denies the deity of Christ.
John Paul is a devout Roman Catholic who believes good deeds are necessary for salvation.
Bobby Behl is a postmodernist who denies Biblical inerrancy and the doctrine of hell.
All of these characters are teachers of what has historically been labeled as false teachings or heresies. Johnny believed that he had been saved by Jesus, but he has been led astray by false teachings and has himself become a teacher and defender of those things.
Is Johnny still a Christian?
At this point, stop and ask yourself what you believe. Did you think Johnny was a Christian when I asked the first time? Do you still think Johnny is a Christian?
While this hypothetical story represents a scenario that is not as common as it could be because Christians are far too slow to share the gospel, it does represent a scenario that is potentially and probably real for a lot of people. It is an unfortunate reality that, in our culture, an extraordinarily wide range of theologies and doctrines operate under what is called Christianity. The secular culture will call anyone a Christian who labels themselves as a Christian, but most Christians throughout history have labeled people with the beliefs of Johnny's five friends as heretics, not Christians.
Romans 1:16 says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. The implication is that the gospel is sufficient for salvation. If someone believes the gospel, then they are a Christian.
But when this truth is applied to the scenario presented above, a crucial questions arises: did Madam Cleanway actually present the gospel?
Given the way he responded, it's safe to assume that Johnny sincerely believed what Madam Cleanway told him. But if Madam Cleanway presented the gospel and Johnny believed it, then Johnny is a Christian.
1 John 2:19,24, says, "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us...If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father."
If what Johnny's friends believed was heresy, then they are not Christian. And if Johnny believes these heresies and is willing to defend them, then Johnny is not a Christian. There are many Christians that have been taught some of these things incorrectly, but a true believer, equipped with the Spirit, will be willing to receive correction from the authority of Scripture.
In this circumstance, we have a catch-22. Either Johnny was never really a Christian, or he is still a Christian. Both cannot be true.
This leaves two options:
1. What Johnny's friends believe is not truly heresy.
2. Madam Cleanway did not truly present the gospel.
Perhaps Christians are too quick to shout, "heresy!" All of us allow for some leniency in doctrine. Differences in beliefs about ordinances, soteriology, eschatology, and ecclesiology are vast among Christianity, but it is rare for Christians to makes claims of heresy over differences in these areas. Perhaps the umbrella of permissible (not necessarily true, but also not necessarily heretical) beliefs in Christianity is wider than we'd like to think. We are sinners in need of grace. And Christ, who knew no sin, became sin that we might become His righteousness. God sent His one and only son, Jesus Christ, so that whoever believes in him would not perish but would have eternal life. It is possible, and all too common, for people to believe these truths of 2 Corinthians 5:21 and John 3:16 and also believe doctrines that would be considered, by most Christians, to be outside of orthodoxy.
Option one, in certain cases, may be true. Perhaps, in some instances, we are too quick to make claims of heresy. However, the opposite may also be true. Perhaps we allow too much to fall under the umbrella of Christianity.
I don't believe that Johnny is a Christian, but the issue is that, if I had only heard the first half of the story, I probably would have assumed that Johnny was a Christian. Regardless of what I would have thought, though, Johnny denied that Christ was truly God. He believed that Christ was someone who died so that he could have a financially prosperous life. Johnny denied some doctrines that were central to Christianity. He followed a different Jesus.
For this reason, I tend to believe that option two is more likely to be true than option one.
Madam Cleanway is bolder than most of us. She was faithful to call a sinner to repentance and to present the work of Christ on the cross. However, if someone can believe the punishment for their sin to be paid on the cross of Jesus Christ and still not be a Christian, then the gospel that is sufficient for salvation encompasses more than the work of Christ on the cross.
I'm not going to pretend that I can confidently pronounce all of tertiary doctrines of the Christian faith that we can freely differ on and still remain brothers, but the necessary doctrines of the Christian faith are the ones that are fundamental to the gospel. There are some very central doctrines of the Christian faith that are necessary implications of the gospel, so those doctrines are necessary doctrines in saving faith.
Christ was crucified because of his claims of deity; when we present the gospel, we must make it clear that Jesus Christ is God. Christ died because sinners are on a path to eternal destruction; when we present the gospel, we must make it clear that the alternative to eternal life available in Christ is eternal damnation. Christ called his followers to pick up their cross and follow him; when we present the gospel, we must make it clear that following Jesus Christ is costly and requires the denial of our selfish desires and plans. The New Testament is clear that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works; when we present the gospel, we must make it clear that good deeds are not necessary for salvation. Whatever is necessary for a Christian to be called a Christian should be clearly portrayed in our words as we present the gospel. We cannot expect a prospective Christian to be able to count the cost of conversion if they do not truly understand the cost of conversion. So speak the truth, and tell the whole truth.
Do you believe that Johnny was a Christian? Why or why not? What are the things that you believe define a Christian, and what are the things that compromise Christianity at its core?
Furthermore, who do you know that needs to hear the gospel? Who will you encounter in the coming days that you will share the gospel with? What will you tell them? What will you do to ensure that these people will not be led astray by heretics? Who is your Johnny?