In this series I will be answering questions about the gospel.
The key verse for this series is 1 Peter 3:15, which says: "but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence".
A Defense of the Glorious Gospel
Question: Does a lost person need to know and believe that Christ appeared to Cephas in order to be saved (1 Cor. 15:5)? I don't think I knew this (the questioner says) at all when I was first saved. Does that mean I did not have a genuine conversion?
Answer: This is probably one of the most common questions that I have heard - and it is usually rooted in one's personal experience (such as a supposed conversion experience). But is personal experience a solid foundation for one's faith? It reminds me of how Zane Hodges promotes his promise-only gospel by saying:
"Years ago, as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, I washed dishes in the dining hall to pay for my meals. Often after I had finished this chore I hung around and talked theology with another student who swept up the kitchen every night. One night this student made a statement to me that I have never forgotten. He said something like this, 'I know that I trusted Christ for salvation before I realized that Jesus was the Son of God.' I was surprised because I had never heard anyone say this before. But I did not quarrel with that statement then, nor would I quarrel with it now."1
One of the problems with this type of thinking is that it changes the question from "What does the Bible say?"2 to "What kind of experience did I have?" This mindset is more postmodern than it is biblical. Tom Stegall objects to including Christ's resurrection appearances in the gospel because he feels that it "would nullify the salvation of a vast percentage of God's children in the world today".3 A vast percentage of God's children in the world today also asked Jesus into their hearts, but unfortunately they were wrong.4 The apostle Paul says: "Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar" (Rom. 3:4). The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice, not one's conversion experience - or any experience for that matter. J. Vernon McGee is correct to say that "experience cannot be trusted. Experience must be tested by the Word of God. Unfortunately, many folk today are testing the Word of God by their experience. My friend, if your experience is contrary to the Bible, then it is your experience, not the Word of God, which is wrong."5
Now to answer the question in more detail for the sake of further clarification, I would say that if a person knows all about the first three facts of the gospel (i.e. Christ's death, burial, and resurrection), but somehow has absolutely no knowledge that the risen Christ "appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve" (1 Cor. 15:5) - that would be quite surprising since this gospel truth is emphasized in Scripture (1 Cor. 15:3ff; cf. Ps. 22:22, 40:3; Isa. 53:10; Matt. 28:10; Mk. 16:7; Lk. 24:34, 48; Jn. 14:19, 16:16, 20:17, 20:19-21:14; Acts 1:3, 1:22, 2:32, 3:15, 4:19-20, 5:32, 10:40-41, 13:31, etc.).6 The 1 Corinthians 15 passage is almost unanimously recognized as central to the gospel.7 Notice how the resurrection appearances of Christ are emphasized there by being included in the things "of first importance" (1 Cor. 15:3-5). R. J. Sider affirms: "There is no reason for limiting the traditional element to [1 Corinthians 15] vv. 3-4 as does HERING. Since the series of [hoti] clauses depending on [paredoka] continues through verse 5, vv. 3-5 would seem to be the minimum which can be designated with certainty as part of that which Paul had received. The traditio, then, included a citation of at least some of the eyewitnesses....The verification of Jesus' resurrection by the citation of the carefully preserved tradition of eyewitnesses is, accordingly, a significant part of the Gospel which Paul considers of 'first importance'."8
In light of the clear emphasis on Christ's resurrection appearances in Scripture (and quite apart from the question of whether or not they are part of the gospel), I think that even groundless gospel advocates would have to admit that many people at least have a background belief of the resurrection appearances or presuppose them to be true, even if this truth is not at the forefront of their minds when considering the truths of the gospel.9 So although the question under discussion is interesting, it is clearly based on faulty premises. Besides the fact that it is based on personal experience instead of God's Word, the question also assumes that an individual could be cognizant of the passage in 1 Corinthians 15 (or parallel passage) and yet somehow completely miss one of the very truths that is emphasized!
Nevertheless, let's consider for the sake of the argument that this strange scenario could actually happen. If a person has indeed heard and believed the first three facts of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 (i.e. Christ's death, burial, and resurrection) but somehow has "not heard" (Rom. 10:14, NKJV) and has no "knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4) that the risen Christ "appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve" (1 Cor. 15:5) - and hence does not believe this gospel truth, then that person would be like the Ethiopian eunuch or like Cornelius in the book of Acts - a God fearer who is yet unsaved (the individual has believed part of the gospel but not the gospel). Darrell Bock affirms: "In fact, only to speak of Jesus dying for sin - even to speak of Jesus dying for sin and rising again - is to give only about half the gospel message....Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 summarizes the gospel as the fact that Jesus 'died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas.'"10 The Bible teaches that a person must believe the gospel to be saved, not merely part of it (cf. Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:17-18, 15:1-5; Eph. 1:13; 2 Thess. 1:8-10, etc.). Based on the New Testament examples of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:25-40), Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48), and Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), I believe that a lost person who is responding to the truth will be given more truth. This individual will not be sent to hell (as groundless gospel advocates suppose). Instead, this person will be sent more light! The principle is this: Light received brings more light, but light rejected brings night.11 God is not wishing that any should perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9; cf. Ezk. 18:23, 33:11). Therefore in His "perfect patience" (1 Tim. 1:16; cf. 2 Pet. 3:9) He will move to bring more light to a lost person who has received some gospel truth.
So I would say that your conversion was genuine when you believed the gospel, not merely part of it.
Continue on to "In Defense of the Gospel, Part 2".
1 Zane Hodges, "How To Lead People to Christ, Part 1: The Content of Our Message," The Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 13 (Spring 2000): p. 5.
2 For example, see John 8:23-24, 28, 58 (cf. Exodus 3:14). Lewis Sperry Chafer writes: "John 8:24. 'If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins.' This is a clear statement that calls for little exposition. It is a case of believing on Christ or dying in the condemnation of sin. It is not alone the one sin of unbelief, but 'your sins' to which Christ refers. There is occasion for some recognition of the fact that Christ spoke these words before His death and, also, that He here requires them to believe that He is the 'I AM' - Jehovah." (Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 Vols., Vol. 3, p. 196, emphasis his.)
3 Stegall, The Gospel of the Christ, p. 566.
4 See the booklet by Dennis Rokser, "Seven Reasons NOT To Ask Jesus Into Your Heart".
5 J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, 6 Vol., Vol. 3, p. 112.
6 F. F. Bruce affirms: "It is evident from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 that the primitive kerygma [i.e. preaching] proclaimed not only the events of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection, but also (and emphatically) his appearance to eyewitnesses named and unnamed; Luke reproduces this emphasis faithfully (cf. [Lk. 24:34;] Acts 2:32; 5:32; 10:41 [etc.])." (F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, p. 308.)
For further discussion see "Getting the Gospel Right," pp. 1-15 (in the PDF document).
7 The preeminence of the passage in 1 Corinthians 15 is normally recognized, and even groundless gospel advocate Dennis Rokser has said that "the most definitive passage in the New Testament explaining to us the very content of the Gospel is found in this same book, 1 Corinthians chapter 15." (Rokser, Seven Key Questions about Water Baptism, p. 5.)
8 R. J. Sider, "St. Paul's Understanding of the Nature and Significance of the Resurrection in I Corinthians XV 1-19," Novum Testamentum 19 (April 1977): pp. 132-134.
9 It seems from Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology (Volume 3, pp. 524-551) that he only requires implicit (as opposed to explicit) faith in Christ's burial and resurrection appearances for salvation. (For Geisler's position on the gospel see my chart: "The Free Grace Gospel Debate," endnote 22.)
But Stegall goes too far when he attempts to equate Geisler’s “implicit faith” with unconscious faith (Stegall, The Gospel of the Christ, pp. 543-544). Notice how Geisler defines “implicit faith” in the context of believing in Christ’s humanity. He writes: “However, again, while the humanity of Christ is a necessary basis for our salvation, explicit belief in it does not appear to be a condition for our receiving eternal life. There is ample evidence throughout the New Testament that implicit belief in Christ’s humanity was a necessary condition for being saved. After all, it was obvious to everyone that He was a human being: He had a mother, was born, grew up as a child, had siblings, and did all the things that human being do, except sin (Heb. 4:15). Since His humanity was predicted, expected [hence believed], and observed, it did not need to be presented as an explicit condition for being saved. Because heretical docetists began later to deny it, the humanity of Christ was explicitly affirmed by the Christian Church, based on Holy Scripture. Hence, all who truly believe in Him unto salvation must have either explicit or implicit faith in Christ’s humanity; none can explicitly deny it and be saved.” (Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, p. 538.)
Clearly, implicit faith can be something as common as a presupposition or background belief. The issue then becomes not the kind of faith but the time of faith. For some people, coming to an understanding and belief in the gospel takes a long time. They get saved in an instant to be sure, but they may not arrive at that point immediately. Concerning this, D. L. Moody has said: “I believe the conversion of some is like the rising of the sun, and of others like the flashing of a meteor. But both are instantaneous, really, in the sight of God. There must be a time when life begins to rise; when the dead soul begins to live.” (D. L. Moody, “What Must I Do To Be Saved?”)
And so we see that at conversion a person often already has had a background belief or implicit faith in certain aspects of the gospel, such as a presupposition that the Scriptures are true (Acts 8:27, 10:1-3, 16:14, 26:9, 27-28; Rom. 3:1-2, 9:1-5; cf. Rom. 1:1-2; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Even Stegall affirms that when conversion involves a “man already being familiar with the Christian story…now he just needs to add the missing piece of the puzzle”! (Stegall, The Gospel of the Christ, p. 83.)
10 Darrell Bock, Recovering the Real Lost Gospel: Reclaiming the Gospel as Good News, p. 3. Similarly, Donald Campbell (currently the president emeritus of Dallas Theological Seminary and professor emeritus of Bible Exposition) writes: "The gospel message is simply that 'Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve' (1 Cor. 15:3-5). Paul said this was the gospel he preached to the Corinthians and it was the message by which they received salvation." (Donald Campbell ["DKC"], The Theological Wordbook, p. 142.)
11 David Anderson, Free Grace Soteriology, p. 269, cf. Ibid., p. 272; Gregory Sapaugh, "A RESPONSE TO HODGES: HOW TO LEAD A PERSON TO CHRIST, PARTS 1 AND 2," The Journal of the Grace Evnagelical Society 14 (Autum 2001): p. 27; Bob Wilkin, "Is Ignorance Eternal Bliss?," The Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 16 (Spring 2003): p. 12; Wilkin, "Zane Hodges: The New Testament Scholar Who Actually Studied the New Testament," The Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 21 (Autumn 2008): pp. 12-13.