There are, in fact, only TWO religions in the world when all religions — organized religions and personally-held “religious” philosophies — are categorized according to their simplest characteristics (according to their “least common denominator,” a math term well-known even to our children). There are those which are religions of works (which accounts for all but one of the thousands of religions in this world) and the religion of grace, the true Christian religion, which stands alone according to that characteristic. We could, of course, also use the characteristics of “true” and “false” to separate the various religions; but that would be argued against as a “subjective difference” by those, like Pontius Pilate, who claim that there is no such thing as objective truth (John 18:38), even though “the truth” is a resounding theme and a concept-in-reality throughout the Holy Scriptures. There are, however, three very unique characteristics of Christianity, among also others, that set it aside from all other religions of the world; and our article will treat these three in particular.
The first is that the true Christian religion exclusively preaches, teaches, confesses and practices the existence of a unique God. No other religion has a god that remotely corresponds to or even approximates or imitates the God of Christianity. As we state in our Catechism (CPH, 1943 Ed.), “The only true God is the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, three distinct persons in one divine being or essence.” The Athanasian Creed declares: “The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; and yet they are not three Gods but one God. …And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; but the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal, so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped.” The unity of this Triune God, “the Lord,” the great “I AM,” “Jehovah,” was stated with perfect clarity by Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 6, when he said: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (v. 7); and the trinity in this unity is clearly taught in such passages as Matthew 3:16-17, 28:19; John 14:26; II Corinthians 13:14; and I John 5:7 among also others.
The vast majority of the world’s pagan religions are polytheistic, that is, they teach and profess belief in many gods, deities which are “specialized” according to the needs and desires of the people. We can immediately cite as an example the religion of the ancient Greeks, against which the Apostle Paul in particular had to contend on his missionary journeys. Beside Zeus and Hera, the “father” and “mother” of the god-family which was said to live on Mt. Olympus, there were twelve other major gods and goddesses and a multiplicity of other deities, Titans, giants, and divine concepts in a hierarchy of “supreme beings” which the Greeks worshiped and invoked. They were gods who often quarreled with, plotted to undermine, and even battled against one another. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), Luke reports in Acts chapter 17 that, on Mars’ Hill in Athens, the Greeks there had an altar dedicated to “The Unknown God,” the God to which their conscience bore witness (Romans 1:19-20; 2:15) but the God concerning which they had little if any information and was virtually unknown to them, the God whom Paul identified as “Lord of heaven and earth” (v. 24), the one true and living God, the one God who never appeared in their mythology (vv. 15-32).
There are, of course, also monotheistic religions, religions which profess belief in one god, but a god which is not the Triune God. Among such religions we can mention as examples Islam, Deism (including the Masonic lodges), Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, the Bahá’í faith, and modern Judaism (which rejects Jesus Christ as God – cf. John 5:23). It must be clearly understood that, contrary to the claim made by “politically-correct” modernists that Allah and all monotheistic gods are really the same deity (“God”) as the Christian God, which differ from one another only in their different names, such monotheistic religions as Islam, Deism and Judaism will dispute that, particularly when we insist on Jesus’ declaration: “He that honoreth not the Son honoreth not the Father which hath sent Him” (John 5:23). Therefore, the “God of Our Fathers,” hailed in patriotic songs in the United States, is not really the Christian God at all, but the Deistic “Supreme Being” whose name appears on our coinage, the “Grand Architect of the Universe” of the Masons, and the “God” of the Scouting organizations, clearly NOT the Triune God, as all of those organizations freely admit.
Therefore, as noted above, the first characteristic that sets true Christianity apart as unique among the religions of the world is its confession of a unique God, the Triune God, the only true and living God. “There is none other God but one” (I Corinthians 8:4). “We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost; but the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. …He, therefore, that will be saved must think thus of the Trinity” (Athanasian Creed). Consequently, nominally “Christian” churches and denominations that deny the Trinity do not belong to true Christianity, including therefore all “modernists” in whatever denomination they may find themselves.
The second characteristic of true Christianity that makes it unique among the world’s religions is its unique source and norm of theology. No other religion in the world professes that “Holy Scripture alone is the only source and norm [standard] of Christian faith and life” or “of Christian doctrine and practice.” The canonical Scriptures consist of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, “given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16) to the divine prophets, and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament “in the words which the Holy Ghost [taught]” (I Corinthians 2:13) to the evangelists and apostles. The true Christian Church, St. Paul writes, is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the Chief Cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). Jesus Christ identifies the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments as His Word and declares: “If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). That simple passage adequately describes the adherents of “true Christianity” and the source and norm of their faith.
Some of the world’s pagan religions too have so-called “holy books” — some quite ancient, some of rather recent origin — which they regard either as their sole authority or as an authority in addition to which they have other writings, legends, myths, traditions and folklore from which they draw their principles and teachings. Of ancient books we can cite as an example the Holy Koran (Qur’an) of Islam, dating from 609 – 632 A.D., the revelation of Allah to his prophet Mohammed, verbally committed to him by the angel Gabriel and, according to Muslims, preserved inviolate to the present day. — Of recent books we recognize the Book of Mormon, dating from 1830, as the chief “holy book” of the cult falsely called “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” the book which founder Joseph Smith called “the keystone of our religion.” Its text, say the Mormons, was handed down to Joseph Smith by an angel named Moroni on golden tablets written in an unknown, ancient Egyptian-like language. But Moroni gave Smith the key to its translation; and after the tablets were transcribed and translated, Moroni reclaimed them; and they were never seen again. That book, also known since 1982 as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” (cf. Galatians1:8), together with four other major “sacred texts” and contemporary revelations and statements of the church’s prophets and apostles, form the basis of its teachings. In spite of its outward trappings, which deceive the unwary into regarding it as a “Christian” religion, the Latter Day Saints movement is a cult that does not belong to Christianity.
Within the pale of nominal Christianity, there are denominations that, quite frankly and admittedly, teach that Holy Scripture alone is NOT the “only source and norm” of their doctrine and practice. The Church of Rome, for example, includes Scripture among its “traditions;” but it teaches that its doctrine and practice flow from “the Sacred Tradition of the Church” — including, beside Scripture, the canons and decrees of their church councils and popes, their encyclicals (or official letters), and traditions (including legends) that have been handed down through the ages. When they use Scripture, it’s not sola Scriptura but Scripture “as interpreted by Holy Mother Church.”
And some denominations, including the Reformed bodies, though they claim to rest their teachings exclusively on the Bible, rely upon rationalistic “private interpretation[s]” (II Peter 1:20) of Scripture to support many of their unscriptural doctrinal positions; and the enthusiasts among them (Pentecostal groups and other such assemblies) rely also upon private, extra-scriptural revelations as contemporary messages from God.
There are also denominations which this author unashamedly labels “so-called Lutheran” bodies, church bodies that parade under Luther’s name and claim Luther’s doctrine and practice but, upon closer examination than “name-only” identification, bear little if any resemblance to orthodox Lutheranism because, either in doctrine or practice, they have veered off the unique source and standard of faith and life (sola Scriptura) and have accommodated themselves to whatever is popular, politically-correct, or practically convenient in these latter days of sore distress. Easiest to identify among these is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) — now in fellowship with the Presbyterians and with the Episcopal Church — and practically indistinguishable anymore from generic “community,” non-denominational, politically correct and doctrinally-indifferent church bodies. A purely casual look at its website shocks the orthodox Christian with unscriptural and anti-scriptural positions on Holy Scripture itself, evolution, abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage, open communion, indiscriminate fellowship, whether faith in Christ is absolutely necessary for salvation, and on and on. It is so latitudinarian that just about “anything goes” in matters of doctrine and practice. That church body does NOT represent true Christianity!
Thus a characteristic of true Christianity that makes it unique among the world’s religions is its unique source and norm of theology. No other religion in the world professes that “Holy Scripture alone is the only source and norm [standard] of Christian faith and life” or “of Christian doctrine and practice.”
The THIRD characteristic of true Christianity that makes it unique among the world’s religions is its unique doctrine of Justification. The age-old question of how a mere mortal wins notice, gains acceptance, and earns favor with his “god” (or with “the gods”) is still today, after thousands of years, the “hot button topic” among the world’s religions. Since the fall of man into sin (Genesis 3), “the carnal mind is enmity against God” (Romans 8:7). There is and always has been a diametric disconnect between the will of God and the will of men. And how a mere mortal, who has angered or displeased his “god” or “gods,” can compensate the deity for his failure, for his neglect, for his disobedience, for his rebellion, and re-gain the favor he once enjoyed is still today the question that all religions try to address. As they seek to be the agency of reconciliation between the exalted deity (who demands compliance, undivided loyalty, and uncompromising perfection from his creatures) and the lowly creature (who is incapable of perfection, resentful of authority, and indolent in his behavior), the religions of the world again fall into two camps. In the opening paragraph of our article, we observed that the two camps are, in their simplest terms, religions of works (which accounts for all but one of the thousands of religions in this world) and the religion of grace, the true Christian religion, which stands alone according to that characteristic.
With the single exception of the true Christian religion, ALL of the world’s religions — from the polytheistic pagans to the monotheistic but non-Christian and anti-trinitarian religions — ALL teach (and practice) the principle that man, alienated from God (or “the gods”) by disobedience and unfaithfulness, must seek reconciliation and favor with him (them) by performing works acceptable to the deity and in service to it (him, them). It is the religion of the Law, the religion that the unconverted know “by nature” in their conscience, the ONLY religion that is recognizable according to man’s natural knowledge. “When the Gentiles, which have not the Law [the revealed Law of God], do by nature the things contained in the Law, these, having not the Law, are a law unto themselves, which show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another” (Romans 2:14-15).
The mercy and grace of God in Christ are NOT known by nature but art made known [manifested] in the Gospel, the “Good news” which is revealed in the Scriptures, as St. Paul also testifies, saying: “But now the righteousness of God without the Law is manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets [the written Scriptures], even the righteousness of God which is by faith of [in] Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (Romans 3:21-22).
Only the true Christian religion teaches the unique truth that a man is justified in the sight of God (made right with Him) and eternally saved by grace through faith…”not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Only the true Christian religion teaches the unique truth that salvation is the result of God’s merciful justification of sinful man for Christ’s sake. Because Christ’s perfect, all-sufficient vicarious atonement for the sins of “ALL” (II Corinthians 5:15) satisfied God’s immutable justice with respect to the “whole world” (I John 2:2), both as to His demands (Leviticus 19:2; Matthew 5:48) and as to the punishment He threatens against sin and sinners (Galatians 3:10; Romans 6:23; Ezekiel 18:20a), God was able unilaterally to “reconcil[e] the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19). He had already imputed them to Christ (v. 21), both to bear (Isaiah 53:4, 6b, 11b; I Peter 2:24) and to expiate or pay for (Galatians 3:13; I Peter 1:18-19); and He was able to impute the perfect righteousness of Christ to the “ungodly” (Romans 4:5) because, by His active obedience, Christ had earned that righteousness for all mankind (5:18-19). God’s forgiveness and Christ’s righteousness imputed to all is known as “objective” justification. Moreover, only the true Christian religion teaches the unique truth that a man accepts, receives, and has for himself personally God’s justification alone by faith (Romans 5:1), not as a meritorious work but as the receiving means whereby God personally imputes His forgiveness and Christ’s righteousness to sinful men (Romans 4:5; 9:30-32). This is known as “subjective” justification. God’s gift of justification and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness “without the deeds of the Law” (Romans 3:28) are rejected and thus forfeited by unbelief (Mark 16b; II Peter 2:1; Galatians 5:4-5; etc.)
ALL the other religions of the world teach justification and salvation by works — either solely by works (Pelagianism) — the heathen religions, as well as Deists, Unitarians, lodges and Scouts, all unchristian cults, and, in short, all who deny the vicarious atonement of Christ for the sins of the world (John 1:29b, etc.) — OR by grace coupled with works (Semi-pelagianism), such as the Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholic churches, who make man’s works a contributing factor to his salvation, who claim that man’s works done according to his “free will” merit God’s favor and gain His “infused” grace, which in turn enables man to earn his own salvation. Against BOTH of these fundamental errors, true Christianity confesses the unique truth that “a man is justified by faith, without [totally apart from] the deeds of the Law” (Romans 3:28), and that, as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “by grace are ye saved through faith, and that, not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (3:8-9). Every teaching that attributes forgiveness and salvation to works of merit, to improvement in character, to man’s effort (successful or unsuccessful), to lesser guilt in those ignorant of the Gospel, to a cooperative spirit, to lesser resistance to the Holy Spirit in conversion, and even to a sanctified life (justification by means of sanctification) — every such teaching is totally false and sets its adherents outside of true Christianity and on the road to everlasting perdition (Matthew 7:13; Galatians 5:4)!
While there are also other teachings which set true Christianity apart from all the other religions of the world as a truly unique religion, these three stand out as being the most definitive, the most critical, and the most distinctive. All those who have, profess, teach and practice these and all the other doctrines of Holy Scripture in their purity and administer the holy Sacraments according to Christ’s own institution comprise the true visible Church on earth (Ephesians 4:3-6; John 8:31-32; Jude 3b; etc.) and are, by God’s grace, adherents of true Christianity, a religion clearly unique among the religions of the world. May God continue to “strengthen and preserve US steadfast in His Word and faith unto our end,” for “this is His gracious and good will” (Luther, Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer)!
— D. T. M.