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Honoring a Man without Dishonoring Christ

Today, Christians across the nation, including many who hold a thoroughly biblical understanding of the gospel, will be celebrating Martin Luther King as a Christian leader, and will object to any assertions to the contrary. Although I understand the importance of King as a leader in the civil rights movement, it is important for Christians to understand why this is wrong.

Martin Luther King was not a Christian by any biblical definition. I am well aware of seriousness of this statement, and how jarring it is to a “judge not” culture, but for the sake of the gospel and the integrity of the church, it must be said.

At this point, you may be wondering how I can make such a serious judgment; you may be demanding justification for such a horrific—and it is truly horrific—claim. I might correctly respond that I need not prove a negative, that the burden of proof lies with the positive assertion, and would come in the form of a credible profession of faith in Christ, expressed in biblical terms. Lacking such a profession—and I would contend that it is lacking—from such an historically well-known man, universally titled “Reverend” and known for preaching “sermons,” is evidence enough.

Although I do believe that is enough (it would certainly bar anyone from membership in any biblical church), there is ample proof, in King’s own words, that his faith, if it may be so called, may not be considered a biblical, saving faith. Take a look for yourself.

1. The death of King’s Jesus actually made atonement for exactly nothing. (A View of the Cross Possessing Biblical and Spiritual Justification)

First we may say that any doctrine which finds the meaning of atonement in the truimph of Christ over such cosmic powers as sin, death, and Satan is inadequate. . . . Such views taken literally become bizarre. Merit and guilt are not concrete realities that can be detached from one person and transferred to another. Moreover, no person can morally be punished in place of another. Such ideas as ethical and penal substitution become immoral.

What, then, was the purpose of the cross?

The cross represents the eternal love of God seeking to attract men into fellowship with the divine. . . .the death of Christ is a revelation or symbol of the eternal sacrificial love of God.

Although that essay makes references to both incarnation and resurrection, the following denies both.

2. King’s Jesus was not the biblical Jesus. He was not God incarnate, born of a virgin. He did not rise from the dead. (What Experiences of Christians Living in the Early Christian Century Led to the Christian Doctrines of the Divine Sonship of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Bodily Resurrection)

A more adequate explanation for the rise of this doctrine [of the virgin birth and divine sonship of Christ] is found in the experience which the early christians had with Jesus. The people saw within Jesus such a uniqueness of quality and spirit that to explain him in terms of ordinary background was to them quite inadequate. For his early followers this spiritual uniqueness could only by accounted for in terms of biological uniqueness. They were not unscientific in their approach because they had no knowledge of the scientific. They could only express themselves in terms of the pre-scientific thought patterns of their day. No laws were broken because they had no knowledge of the existence of law. They only knew that they had been with the Jesus of history and that his spiritual life was so far beyond theirs that to explain his biological origin as identical with theirs was quite inadequate. We of this scientific age will not explain the birth of Jesus in such unscientific terms, but we will have to admit with the early Christians that the spiritual uniqueness of Jesus stands as a mystery to man.

. . .

The root of our inquiry [into the origin of the doctrine of the resurrection] is found in the fact that the early Christians had lived with Jesus. They had been captivated by the magnetic power of his personality. This basic experience led to the faith that he could never die. And so in the pre-scientific thought pattern of the first century, this inner faith took outward form. But it must be remembered that before the doctrine was formulated or the event recorded, the early Christians had had a lasting experience with the Christ. They had come to see that the essential note in the Fourth Gospel is the ultimate force in Christianity: The living, deathless person of Christ. They expressed this in terms of the outward, but it was an inner experience that lead to its expression.

King’s lack of a positive confession, his grossly immoral life (which I have not described, but is a matter of historical record), and his explicit denials of the gospel, should tell us all we need to know about his alleged Christianity. It is not a point on which we need to dwell in discussions of his historical contributions, but we do need to stop affirming this fiction. I honor and even celebrate the lives of many people throughout history who were not Christians, but not under the gospel banner. To do so obscures the gospel message in the church and to the world.


And now, why should it be thought a breach of charity, to affirm, that those who deny the divinity of Jesus Christ, in the strictest sense of the word, cannot be Christians? For they are greater infidels than the devils themselves, who confessed that they knew who he was, ‘even the holy one of God.’ They not only believe but, which is more than the unbelievers of this generation do, they tremble. And was it possible for arch-heretics to be released from their chains of darkness under which (unless they altered their principles before they died) they are now reserved to the judgment of the great day, I am persuaded they would inform us how hell had convinced them of the divinity of Jesus Christ and that they would advise their followers to abhor their principles, lest they should come into the same place and thereby increase each other’s torments.

—George Whitefield, “What Think Ye of Christ?” in Lee Gatiss (Ed.), The Sermons of George Whitefield (Crossway, 2012), 1:406–407.

Posted 2019·01·21 by David Kjos
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