Christian Distinctives

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most important roles that Christian leaders play is distinguishing orthodox Christian beliefs from beliefs from other religions. If our spirituality is practiced theology, then right action follows primarily from right beliefs.

Let me focus on two deviations from orthodox Christian belief. First, why do Christians believe in original sin? Second, why does Christ provide the exclusive path to God’s salvation?

Original Sin

Original sin describes the action of Adam and Eve in breaking God’s command not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17; 3:6). As a consequence of this first act of disobedience to God, God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. A holy God cannot tolerate the presence of unholy human beings.

Ever since, humanity has been tainted by this sin. Because of the doctrine of original sin, Christians are seldom surprised by sinful behavior and the existence of evil and considerable effort has been made over time to promote moral behavior, avoiding sin and embracing godliness.

Recently, some have questioned the doctrine of sin arguing that humanity is basically good and teaching morality is unnecessary because it only induces guilt among those taught.

An important implication of this new teaching is that basically good people have no need of salvation from sin or reconciliation with God. Thus, Jesus cannot have died for our sins, as the New Testament teaches (e.g. 1 Cor 15), and need not have been divine, because no divine intervention was necessary to reconcile us with God. Jesus may be a great teacher or prophet, but is not the son of God.

Thus, original sin, as taught in scripture, is a key to understanding our need for salvation and Christ’s work on the cross to bridge the gap between a holy God and unholy human beings. Unfortunately, those who believe we are basically good cannot be saved because they do not believe salvation is necessary.

The Exclusivity of Christ

Holiness is not the only gap that needs to be bridged between us and God. God creating the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1), which means that God created time and space—attributes of the created universe. Like carpenters must be separated from the book shelve that they built, God stands outside the universe that he created.

Standing apart from the universe is what theologians refer to as transcendence. God’s transcendence implies that we cannot approach God because we are locked inside time and space. Existentially we cannot reach out to God; he must reach out to us. As Christians, we believe that God reached out to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both God and man—a necessary attribute to bridge the existential gap between us and God (Heb 7).

The creation account in Genesis thus eliminates the possibility that the pantheists are correct, that God is in every living and inanimate things, because God stands apart from his creation. Also eliminated is the Jainist notion of multiple paths up the mountain to God—God’s transcendence implies there are not paths up the mountain—God must come down. Christ is also not just another avatar (an incarnation of of Visnu bridging the gap between God and humanity) because his sacrifice on the cross bridged the gap between God and humanity for once and for all—there is no need for God to reach out a second time.

Moving On

Orthodox Christianity grew up in the polytheistic environment of the first century, distinguished itself from many other religions, and thrived to become the one and only truly world religion. Christian leaders today need to understand this history in order to witness in the postmodern world where communication and borders are relatively porous. Fear of other religions stems primarily from ignorance of the strengths of our own faith in Jesus Christ.

Christian Distinctives

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Jesus Christ

Celtic Cross
Celtic Cross

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord.” [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Names often tell a story. The name, Jesus Christ, is no exception.

When we use the name, Jesus, in English, we are transliterating the Greek of the New Testament. Jesus’ given name was actually Joshua which means “he saves” in Hebrew. However, because Greek does not have an “SH” sound, Joshua could not be accurately transliterated in New Testament Greek. Consequently, we borrowed Jesus from the Greek.

Joshua’s role in the Old Testament is instructive. Moses commissioned Joshua to lead the nation of Israel with these words:

And the Lord commissioned Joshua the son of Nun and said, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you.” (Deut 31:23) [2]

Jesus’ given name, Joshua, summarizes his commission. However, Jesus’ salvation arises as he brings us, not into the Promised Land, but into Heaven (Heb 4:1–11). This salvation, furthermore, arises not from law, but from grace (Phil 3:2–11).

When we use the name, Jesus Christ, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Christ translates the Hebrew word, Messiah, into Greek and it means anointed one because during the commissioning process oil was poured on your head. Priests, prophets, and kings were anointed. The New Testament pictures Jesus fulfilling the roles of each of these three types of messiahs.

Jesus’ messianic role is highlighted in the Book of Hebrews where we read:

So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb 5:5–6)

Melchizedek was the king of Salem (later called Jerusalem) and he was also a priest (Gen 14:18) [3]. Saying that Jesus is a priest of the order of Melchizedek expresses the idea that he is also a king. In Matthew 24:1–2 Jesus prophesied the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which occurred later in AD 70, confirming his prophetic role.

When we confess that Jesus is the only son of God [4], we acknowledge Jesus’ divinity and exclusively as savior (John 3:16–17). God’s infinite nature poses a problem for us because we are finite. Only someone divine can cross the divide between the infinite and the finite. In Jesus Christ, God crosses the divide to initiate the conversation and mediate for us—an act of grace—as high priest (Heb 5:1) [5].

[1] The references in this chapter to the Apostle’s Creed are all taken from FACR (2013, Q/A 23). Another translation is found in (PCUSA 1999, 2.1—2.3).

[2] Because of Moses’ sin at Meribah, God forbad Moses from bringing the people of Israel into the Promised Land himself (Num 20:8–12).

[3] In Hebrew Melchizedek means righteous king and some believe it to have been a title given to Shem, the righteous son of Noah (Gen 9:28). Ps 110, which is quoted in Heb 5:6, also associated King David with Melchizedek.

[4] Son of God is also, of course, a kingly title closely related to the title that Jesus preferred to call himself—son of man—which immediately brings to mind the prophesy of Dan 7.

[5] The parable of the tenants highlights the exclusively of Jesus’ role as mediator (Matt 21:33–40). The parable of the wedding feast addresses the problem created when we reject Jesus as mediator (Matt 22:2–14). When we confess Jesus as God’s one and only son, we acknowledge God’s sovereignty in determining the means of our salvation.


Faith Alive Christian Resources (FACR). 2013. The Heidelberg Catechism. Cited: 30 August, 2013. Online:

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.


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