Inevitably, when discussing the Trinity and other opposing theologies, the question comes up, what must we believe to be saved? Ask Trinitarians and you will likely get various answers. Some at least sound like they believe a correct understanding and belief in the Trinity is necessary for salvation, while others think it is completely irrelevant, and of course everything in between. And of course, if you ask a non-Trinitarian who does profess to be a Christian, you will hear them often attack this belief that the Trinity is essential, since they don’t even think it’s true.
Among non-Trinitarians, you will find the same disagreement about whether their own theology is essential for salvation. So, on the one hand, you will see some say that everyone who claims belief in Jesus is a Christian, whether they are Trinitarian, Unitarian, Oneness, etc. Then, at the other end, you have those who say that the Trinity is an idolatrous doctrine of demons and anyone who believes it is damned, and anyone who rejects that particular group’s theology is certainly not saved.
As always, I believe we should turn to Scripture for the answer. It is an easy thing to accuse someone you disagree with that theirs is a doctrine of demons. It is another thing entirely to prove it.
Now, it is difficult to tackle this question without either assuming a lot of things or explaining so much that I end up writing a book on soteriology to answer a question about the Trinity. So, let’s assume some things about this hypothetical non-Trinitarian Christian, so you know where I’m coming from on this. I will assume:
- This person has heard the Gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
- This person has repented of his sins and put his faith in Jesus to save him from the wrath of God for his sins.
- This person does not rely in any way on his own works to save him, but leans entirely on the work of God in Christ to justify him before God.
Someone who wants to make sure his own theology of God is the only one that allows salvation will likely object to these items of belief being effective, since I haven’t defined what I mean by “Christ” and “God”, but since that is what I’m here discussing, I will get to it.
My belief is that, if someone believes the statements above and their theology is correct to a certain point, they are saved. The issue to discuss is what that point is.
Now, I am a Trinitarian, so I believe to be completely correct about God requires being a Trinitarian. I don’t believe one can have exhaustive knowledge of God, of course, since He is infinite, but we can at least be correct in the beliefs we have. That might be a whole study in itself. Now, the question is, how wrong can you be about God and still be saved?
For starters, one must believe God exists.
Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and is a rewarder of those who seek him.
Also, to cling to false gods while claiming to be a believer also prevents salvation.
2 Corinthians 6:15-16
And what agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what share does a believer have with an unbeliever? 16 And what agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said,
“I will live in them and will walk about among them,
and I will be their God and they will be my people.”
So, atheism and pagan idolatry are out. This verse even seems to say that one can’t just add their idolatry to the faith and be saved. The assumed answer to all of these questions is “none, nothing, etc”. So if Christ can have no agreement with false gods, then we cannot just add Christ to false religion and think He will save us.
But this isn’t the main point of this article. The issue we are addressing is God and Christ. What about those who define God and Christ incorrectly? We get an allusion from Paul to the fact that He was concerned for the Corinthians because they would tolerate someone preaching “another Jesus”.
2 Corinthians 11:3-4
3 But I am afraid lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds may be led astray from the sincerity and the purity of devotion to Christ. 4 For if the one who comes proclaims another Jesus whom we have not proclaimed, or you receive a different spirit which you did not receive, or a different gospel which you did not accept, you put up with it well enough!
This would not be a concern if it didn’t matter that you had a different Jesus. Now, the New Testament doesn’t have a theology checklist for salvation listed anywhere, but it is clear that we must have some things correct, theologically, in order to be saved. Not that there is some kind of theology test, but that our beliefs about God affect how we relate to Him, and sometimes, they affect that relationship in a way that is not forgivable. Atheism and idolatry are some clear examples of this.
Now, we don’t know exactly what sort of other Jesus Paul was talking about, but there are hints as to at least one possibility. Both Paul and John write concerning the proto-gnostics who were infiltrating the church, and are very clear that these are not believers. Paul’s sections on them deal mostly with their practices, and how they rob the Christian of his liberty, while John deals with their erroneous view of Christ. For John, the key issue is that they do not believe Jesus truly came “in the flesh”. This is because they believed Jesus just appeared to have flesh but it was an illusion. They believed Christ was one of their gnostic pantheon of deities, actually higher that Yahweh, who they saw as evil for having created the physical world. So, they didn’t believe Christ would pollute himself so as to be fully human. John said this belief was from the spirit of antichrist (2 John 1:7), and those who promote it are deceivers.
This makes it fairly clear that there are aspects of Christ you can get wrong and not be considered a believer, even if you are saying you believe in Christ.
On the other hand, the very fact that the New Testament authors write anything about Christ to the congregations they are writing to assumes that some there will need to know these things. The New Testament never condemns people for their ignorance about minor details about Christ. So, what counts as a major detail about Christ? Well, from what we’ve seen, denying His true humanity is a detail we must not get wrong.
What about His deity? First, let’s consider an earlier question we asked. How does our belief about Jesus affect our relationship to God? Without considering which is true, we already have three ideas on the table. The first was rejected by the apostles, that Jesus is divine only, but not human. That divinity was different from how Jews see the divinity of Yahweh, but was Jesus’ only nature for these early gnostics.
Now, even with that one out, there is still a variety of beliefs about Jesus concerning His nature out there. You have the Trinitarian view that Jesus is God, possessing the very same nature as the Father, while also possessing a complete human nature. Then, you have the Arian view, which sees Jesus as an exalted being higher than any other who was made before the universe, through whom God made all the universe. He became human, really just being human during that time, but then was restored to his former glory after the resurrection. Then there is the Oneness view that Jesus is just the same person as the Father, and so the “Son” actually didn’t exist until Jesus was born, followed by the existence of a man who was both God and man, much like the Trinitarian believes, who became just God again on some views of oneness theology, or remains the God-man on others. Finally, there is the Unitarian view of a human Jesus from beginning to end, that He did not preexist in any sense, and remains human today, but with great power that has been given to Him.
Now, I do believe each of these views is really a “different Jesus” from the rest. None of these views of Jesus is compatible with the others, and all of them differ at the level of the very nature of Jesus. Was He human? Deity? Both? Something in between? And logically, it matters greatly what we say about Jesus on the subject of His nature. It matters for our religious practice. For example, if Jesus is God, and we deny that, then whatever God we worship isn’t Jesus and we are denying worship to God when we deny it to Jesus. On the other hand, if He isn’t God, and we worship Him as if He is, then we are engaging in the same idolatry that was condemned in Scripture.
Now, that’s just a reasoned out way of looking at it, but I think there is Scripture that not only answers who Jesus is, but reinforces the fact that we must have Him right to be saved.
Thus I said to you that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I am he, you will die in your sins.
I don’t have time to dig into the “I am” statements of John in detail here, but will point out several things to make the case that these are claims to deity. First, the parallel statements in the Old Testament are those in Isaiah where Yahweh says “I am” over and over and John points to Jesus speaking the same way. Second, part of the way John does this is to record seven times when Jesus says “I am” with a predicate, as in “I am the true vine”, and also seven times when He says it without a predicate, as when he says “before Abraham was, I am”. The sevens are a frequent motif in John’s Gospel, and so it is not coincidental that this happens with “I am”. This removes any argument that “I am” is just an unimportant phrase in John. Because of the connections to Yahweh, it is apparent that when Jesus says you must believe that “I am” to avoid dying in your sins, deity is part of what is meant here.
For the Father does not judge anyone, but he has given all judgment to the Son, 23 in order that all people will honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. The one who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.
A couple of things here. First, the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, but the Scriptures are clear that Yahweh will judge, making Jesus Yahweh. This judgment is given to the Son specifically so that everyone “will honor the Son, just as they honor the Father,” which, again, proves Jesus is God, since that is the only way to honor Him just as the Father, but then notice the last phrase, that, in this context, of honoring the Father and Son the same, the one who does not do this does not honor the Father. I simply ask, does someone who does not honor the Father have any grounds for believing himself to be saved?
So, there is evidence from Scripture that belief in the deity of Christ is part of what it means to believe in Him and be saved. Beyond this, it is less clear how accurate we must be about the Trinity. As I have said elsewhere, the Trinity is a collection of teachings found in Scripture that we just put together under one word. The question of how many of those teachings we must believe to be saved is one that I don’t think the Scriptures are perfectly clear on. And certainly, I don’t believe that one must subscribe to a certain explanation of those teachings to be saved. As I’ve said, there is no theological test to enter the kingdom that includes explaining the Trinity.
So, I think the barest minimum I believe I can say for sure is that one must believe God exists, and that Christ is both God and human to be saved. I would add to this that, because perfect theology is not ever a requirement for salvation, these requirements factor in both progressive revelation and progressive enlightenment in the life of the believer. So of course, it was not a requirement to believe Jesus is God for the Jews before Jesus came. That hadn’t been revealed. Also, when a person becomes a believer, there is still growth and learning going on for the life of the believer, and it may be that someone hears the simple story of Jesus and puts their faith in Him, without having studied all of the Scriptures to know that He is God. I don’t believe that person is unsaved until having learned those things about Jesus.
For some, a good analogy for this is baptism. Some believe it really is necessary before someone can be saved, and there are Scriptures that appear to make it that important. However, there are others that really point to the fact that, important though it is, baptism is not necessary before someone can be saved. I believe it is important enough that if someone says they believe in Jesus, but refuse baptism, I wonder about the authenticity of that person’s confession. It is the first act of obedience and it declares to a watching world that your allegiance is now with Christ. Refusal to submit to this simple command casts doubt on the confession itself.
Likewise, I believe that if a person confesses belief in Jesus, but then consciously denies His nature, refusing to honor the Son just as they honor the Father by denying He is God, I doubt that person’s confession is truly born of the Spirit.
Now, my assessment here may seem to leave some gaps that a lot of apologists may be uncomfortable with. I know I am. What I’ve laid out here does exclude some non-Trinitarians from the faith, but not all. While Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Mormons would logically be excluded from the faith based on these criteria, it is debatable whether Oneness Pentecostals or other modalists who believe Jesus just is the Father would be so excluded. On the one hand, Oneness people do believe Jesus is fully God and fully man, even though they are wrong on other things. Indeed, their view can’t really account for John 5 above, since you can’t really say the Father judges no one and has given judgment to the Son, when they are really just the same person. On the other hand, it may be that Paul’s concern regarding the Corinthians’ willingness to put up with preaching of another Jesus applies to any aberrant view on Jesus, including believing He is the Father. It’s possible, but I don’t see that it is perfectly clear.
So that I am being clear, I believe that Oneness theology is certainly erroneous and can prove that from the Scriptures, but whether that error is so egregious as to prevent a person from being saved is not so clear. To put it in language that maps onto the Trinitarian truths I’ve talked about before, I think one must believe God is unique to be saved. I believe one must believe that the Son and Spirit are God to be saved. I believe one must believe Jesus is also human to be saved. As for the distinctness of the persons, I believe that to be the clear teaching of Scripture, but I just don’t know if we can say that a conscious modalist is truly outside the faith. I know that historically, Christians from the time of the second century have deemed this belief a heresy, but fallible people agreeing that a belief is a heresy doesn’t mean it is. I agree with them that it is wrong, but have to suspend judgment if it is truly heretical based on the Scriptures.
It would certainly be easier for me to make clear categorizations, and I may change in the future, but at this time, in answer to the question, do you have to believe in the Trinity to be saved, I would say that most of it is necessary, and possibly all, but I’m just not sure. Salvation, I believe, is a work of God in the life of the believer, and so it would seem that the Holy Spirit would guide all of His people to the truth, but I can see that not every Christian believes the same thing by the end of their life, so I have to conclude that God is not necessarily going to fix all of our theological errors before we die. If someone is truly saved, then I do believe that, given a long, normal life, God will fix anything that is necessary. When it comes down to it, I think that if someone continues holding a false theology of God after searching the Scriptures, if that person is doing so to serve one or more of many selfish motives, such as trying to keep God simple enough to explain easily or not losing connection to family or friends who still hold wrong theology. Jesus made it clear we must love Him more than anyone, and so it could even be that the theology isn’t necessarily heretical, but the reason for holding it is something that proves a person has not truly bowed the knee to Christ in full submission.
These are things in a person’s heart that we cannot see, so that is why I hesitate to ever say for sure that someone who claims to follow Christ is not saved. In some cases, I believe Scripture gives me good reason to think that, but sometimes it just isn’t as clear.