This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
Hello Dr. Craig,
Until the past few months I had abandoned my inherited faith in Christianity in favor of atheism. This was primarily due to a lack of serious engagement with Christianity. Recently though I slowly became overwhelmed by a feeling that the atheist view was not intellectually or morally sufficient. Now I am working on developing a mature faith in Christianity and I have been studying Christian apologetics and doctrine. I am still learning, but studying the work of yourself and others has raised questions for me that seem more slippery than they ought to be.
What are the cardinal doctrines that one must believe to receive salvation and conversely what sins, if any, cannot be forgiven by God (I.e. they will assure damnation)? You and other modern authors I have read do touch on the answer to this question, but I am failing to find a complete answer. In searching your videos and previous responses for answers to the above question, I have come across statements from you that seem inconsistent with respect to this subject.
In your response to question #592 you state “So belief in Christ’s deity, atoning death, and resurrection would seem to be among the cardinal doctrines which any informed person must believe for salvation. Beyond these central truths, there just don’t seem to be many other doctrines which are, so to speak, “above the cutoff line.”” However, in your response to question #4 you state “Let me say that someone who claims to know Christ but shows no fruit of regeneration has no basis at all for assurance of salvation.”
How can the above two statements be consistent? If they are, what constitutes a sufficient minimum showing of fruit of regeneration for assurance of salvation? To clarify the above question, this is not meant to imply that salvation can be received through works. However I am having difficulty seeing how, on your views, someone can sufficiently commit to Christianity while also doing things like having a job not related to the ministry. Additionally, it seems intentionally misleading to say something to the effect of “faith in God and belief in [xyz] shall grant you salvation” but then to later state that faith and belief in this context actually go far beyond the common usage of either term. If Christianity is meant to be accessible to all, then it seems counter intuitive to go beyond a “face value” interpretation of such a fundamental statement. Should people be sent to hell for their failure to understand the additional nuance that you interpret from this doctrine?
William Lane Craig's Response
It’s always a joy to hear from someone who is finding his way back to Christian faith, Collin! I certainly agree that atheism is an existentially unfulfilling and even unlivable worldview.
Relevant to your question is a distinction drawn by the great Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther between three senses of “faith,” which they called in Latin notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Notitia means understanding. In order to have faith one must first understand what a given doctrinal statement means. This doesn’t involve a deep theological comprehension of the claim, but just an understanding of the linguistic meaning of the doctrinal statement. A grasp of the English language and a knowledge of the meaning of the words suffices for notitia with respect to a statement like “Jesus rose from the dead.” Assensus means assent. That is to say, you agree with the doctrinal statement. This is the same as saying that you believe that the statement is true. For example, you might confess, “I believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” Finally, fiducia signifies trust or personal commitment. We often express this as believing in someone or something. Saving faith involves more than just believing that certain doctrinal statements are true but also believing in Christ, in the sense of trusting in him or committing one’s life to him.
So with respect to your question, when I said that there are very few beliefs above “the cut-off line,” that is to say, very few beliefs that you must affirm in order to be saved, I was talking about the doctrinal statements which you must assent to in order to be saved. Most Christian doctrines, though true, are not essential to salvation. If you deny them, you are wrong, but you are not a heretic, that is, cut off from salvation.
But, as I say, just having correct doctrinal beliefs is not sufficient for salvation. You must also place your trust in Jesus Christ, trusting him as your Savior and Lord. That’s what I was talking about when I said that “someone who claims to know Christ but shows no fruit of regeneration has no basis at all for assurance of salvation.” Genuine faith issues in life-change. A faith which is of no consequence is not genuine, saving faith. Sincere trust in Christ results in a spiritual rebirth that will change your life (obviously, I’m not talking here about a death bed conversion). Paul says that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5.22-23).
So “what constitutes a sufficient minimum showing of fruit of regeneration for assurance of salvation?” It seems to me that the answer is very likely to be person-relative. Someone emotionally damaged as a child may face tremendous obstacles in bearing spiritual fruit, whereas someone with an emotionally healthy childhood may not have similar struggles with anxiety, depression, anger, and so on.
You say, “I am having difficulty seeing how, on your views, someone can sufficiently commit to Christianity while also doing things like having a job not related to the ministry.” Oh, my goodness! Have I expressed myself so poorly? Of course, I don’t believe that God has called every believer to vocational Christian ministry. God’s plan for you may be to become an accountant or a homemaker or a plumber. We’re to bear the fruit of the Spirit in whatever vocation God calls us to.
You find it “intentionally misleading to say something to the effect of ‘faith in God and belief in [xyz] shall grant you salvation’ but then to later state that faith and belief in this context actually go far beyond the common usage of either term.” I hope it’s evident that I am using “faith” and “belief” in the ordinary language sense of those terms, as, for example, in “I have faith in my wife” and “I believe that it is 2020.” I’m just saying that faith and belief have to be sincere, not pretence.
Your question “Should people be sent to hell for their failure to understand the additional nuance that you interpret from this doctrine?” forgets precisely the point I made above, that very few beliefs are above the cut-off line, including beliefs about the nature of faith. What is essential to saving faith is not having the correct views about faith but just having sincere faith in Christ and belief in Christianity’s cardinal doctrines.
This Q&A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig's website.