Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, recently created a stir when he publicly identified presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and other practicing Mormons, as ‘brothers in Christ.’ This comes as such a shock to some, because Mormon teaching, particularly concerning the person of Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, falls well outside the orthodox Christian faith.
When discussing matters of doctrine you have probably heard it said, at one time or another, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” The origin of this phrase has been debated, but whatever its humble beginnings, this statement has endured because it contains an important truth for Christians. While we should strive to extend grace in all theological dialog, there comes a time when one has to draw a line in the sand and make truth claims concerning those things which are, and those which are not, essential to the Christian faith.
In the case of Osteen’s take on Mormonism the issue at hand is far greater than the presumed ‘faith’ of the Republican Presidential Candidate or a particular religious group. What is truly at stake here is Christian identity. We live in an age of religious pluralism and “anything goes” spirituality. Our context demands accountability from individual Christians and denominations alike concerning the essentials of Christian belief and practice, particularly those surrounding the person and work of Christ. Fortunately, our forefathers (and mothers) in the faith recorded these essentials in a book and later expounded upon them in the Christian creeds. What then are the essential, and distinctly Christian, beliefs about Jesus Christ?
The following statements offer a short (and incomplete) commentary on the Christological affirmations contained in the Nicene Creed.
1. Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of God. Jesus is not a created being. There is never a time when Jesus was not. Even before his incarnation as a human, Jesus existed as the eternal Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit in perfect Trinitarian unity (one God, three persons). He has existed since before time and, as such, is worthy to be worshipped and glorified. Though we no longer use the word “begotten” outside of the Bible, the term implies that Jesus is intimately related to the Father much like the way a human child and father are related. They share likeness and will and an intimate unity, yet they are distinct persons. Further reading: Isaiah 9:6; John 3:16
2. Jesus is the incarnate Word. The eternal Son is also the Word of God, through whom all things were created. He was not created; he is the Creator. And it is the Creator of the universe himself who became incarnate as the God-man Jesus by way of a virgin birth. It is for this reason that Christians proclaim that Jesus is fully God and fully man. Further reading: Proverbs 30:4; Luke 1:26ff; John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-8
3. Jesus was crucified and died for the sin of the world (and my sins). Jesus was crucified on a cross and suffered physical, bodily death. Many witnesses attest to this historical fact. The Gospels and the whole witness of the Christian faith also point to the spiritual reality that Christ’s willing sacrifice was made as atonement for human sin, in order to reconcile humanity to God. Further reading: Isaiah 53; Four Gospels, John 1:29, Philippians 2:8
4. God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection stands as the proof that Christ’s sacrifice was acceptable and confirms his identity as the Son of God. As the Apostle Paul stated, “[I]f Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. Further reading: Four Gospels; 1 Corinthians 15:12ff.
5. Jesus physically ascended to the Father’s right hand. Following his resurrection, Jesus appeared first to his disciples and then to a crowd of witnesses over a period of time. At the conclusion of this time, Jesus physically ascended into heaven in order to sit at God’s right hand and intercede for humanity. It is important to note that Christ’s ascension was bodily in nature. Jesus is, even now, with the Father in his resurrection body. This means that he will eternally identify with humanity and demonstrates that our future resurrected bodies will be everlasting in nature, not something to be tossed aside. Further reading: Four Gospels; Hebrews 4:14ff.
6. Jesus will return to judge and rule humanity. As Jesus ascended into heaven, he will return in bodily form to judge all humanity and establish the fullness of his kingdom. This is the promise of the Gospel, that those who trust in Christ alone will be resurrected to eternal life in this kingdom of God. Further reading: Matthew 16:27, 24:30ff; Mark 8:36-38, 13:26-27; Luke 18:8; John 14:1-4; Revelation 22:20.
A closing note: The intent of this short article is not to attack Joel Osteen, Mitt Romney or the Mormon faith. The purpose here is to attempt to speak clearly to the question of Christian identity in the midst of confusion over who is a “brother in Christ.” The Church of Jesus Christ must clearly understand and respectfully articulate its distinction from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as it impacts the core doctrines of our faith.