What is the “True Gospel”?
In other words, how is a sinful person justified before a holy God?
The answer to these questions was the hallmark of the Protestant Reformation. It was in meditating upon Romans 1:17 (“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'”) that Martin Luther gained his understanding that the Christian is justified by faith alone and not by any works of righteousness. And out of this understanding rose the Five Solas of the Reformation: Sola Fide, by faith alone; Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone; Solus Christus, through Christ alone; Sola Gratia, by grace alone; and Soli Deo Gloria, glory to God alone. And Protestants have understood ever since that any understanding of justification that includes meritorious work by man constitutes a false gospel.
The apostle Paul was clear throughout his epistle to the Romans that Christians are justified by faith and not by works. He used as his example Abraham, showing that Abraham was declared righteous by God because he believed God’s promises, not because he obeyed God’s commandment to be circumcised. In fact, Abraham was declared righteous through faith many years before God issued the commandment to be circumcised (see Romans 4).
In Galatians, Paul warns of those who would preach a different gospel – a gospel, not of faith, but of works. In the 11th chapter of Second Corinthians, Paul warns of those who would preach “another Jesus” than the one proclaimed by Paul and the other apostles. This “other Jesus” saves no one, and no one is justified by way of a different gospel.
Yet works-based “gospels” abound. And many false belief systems that call themselves “Christian” are based on these “different Gospels,” and follow “other Jesuses.” One such false belief system is that of the Coptic Christians of Egypt. They are, without a doubt, a very ancient sect, and they profess to be genuine followers of Jesus Christ. But, as is also the case with Roman Catholicism, they emphasize meritorious works and liturgical ritual rather than justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
This has become a large topic of conversation these last few days because ISIS recently released a video showing the brutal and barbaric beheading, on a beach in Libya, of 21 people identified as Coptic Christians from Egypt. This heinous act has garnered worldwide condemnation, and rightly so. We at Pulpit & Pen denounce ISIS as the enemies of all civilized peoples that they have clearly demonstrated themselves to be.
But what we have found most puzzling and disturbing was the instant and almost universal declaration that these Copts, murdered by ISIS, are martyrs to the Christian faith. Our question is, “Martyrs to what faith?” If the Coptic Church has a different gospel, then faith in that gospel is not a faith which justifies.
So what are these differences? What works does the Coptic Orthodox Church add to their different gospel?
In the Q&A section of their website, the The Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States (chosen as representative because it is an official website in English) addresses the following question: “Does the Orthodox Church have a stand on the salvation of Protestants? Can we say that people who believe that Jesus Christ came for our salvation will not be saved because we disagree with their dogma?”
Their answer is illustrative of their different gospel.
Believing in our Lord Jesus Christ is just the very first step towards salvation. The dogma and the sacraments are not a formula but are the means by which we have a life with the Lord. There are some sacraments that are essential for Salvation. Baptism, which is considered by the Protestants to be just a sign of accepting the faith, is essential. The Lord Christ said it clearly, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk 16:16). Baptism here is not to be a sign but the threshold to a new life without which one cannot enter the kingdom of God; as our Lord explained to Nicodemus “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Eucharist, repentance and Chrismation are also necessary.
Here we see clearly that the Coptic Church teaches a works-based system of obtaining forgiveness of sins (though not, strictly speaking, justification as Protestants are used to thinking about it, as the notions are not identical) based on observance of sacramental rituals. This sacramentalism is undeniable, as we see in another question in their Q&A: “What are the 7 Sacraments existing in the church and which are mandatory to reach Heaven?”
All seven church sacraments are essential. We touch all of them on our path to heaven through the church.
- Baptism (the gate of the path of salvation)
- Chrismation (anointing of the holy Myron Oil—oil which includes remnants of the spices laid upon the body of our Lord Jesus when He was in the tomb)
- Confession (with repentance)
- Holy Eucharist (Communion)
- Unction of the Sick
- Holy Matrimony (no one is obliged to marry, but without holy matrimony, the next generation would be alienated from the church)
- Priesthood (without the priesthood, none of the other sacraments could be administered)
According to the article SALVATION: Why be a Christian? From a Coptic Orthodox Perspective by Coptic Orthodox Priest Fr. Pishoy Wasfy, the “Conditions (prerequisites) for salvation” are faith, the “saving sacraments” of baptism, confirmation, repentance & confession, communion, and good works.
It is clear that the official doctrine of the Coptic Orthodox Church is a different gospel, a works-based gospel, the type of gospel condemned by Paul in his epistle to the Galatians when he wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8-9)
This article on the salvation of the thief on the cross, written by Shenouda III, 117th Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, expressly to refute the Protestant confession that justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, is another example of the differences between the Protestant and Coptic understandings of the gospel. In the introductory paragraph, we read:
”Protestants, in their attempt to emphasize that salvation is not dependent on human achievements, say that good works play no role in our salvation, and to stress the point that salvation is not due to human merit, say that evil works will not affect the salvation of a believer! Thus, their views regarding salvation turned into a heresy that needed to be refuted.
The Coptic Orthodox Church holds to a different gospel and they know that they do. And, historically, Protestants have known this, as well.
But now, in light of the mass murder of these Copts, their departure from the Protestant understanding of the Gospel is being minimized. Very quickly, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention removed anything from their website that would call into question the validity of the beliefs of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Multitudes of well-known evangelicals issued statements proclaiming these 21 slain Egyptians to be “brothers in Christ,” and anyone who questions the beliefs of the Coptic Orthodox Church are being vilified. Are these men simply ignorant of differences between Biblical Christianity and Coptic beliefs? For some, perhaps. But since the IMB scrubbed their website as quickly as they did, that does not appear to be the case for all. So what is causing this reaction?
For some, it is political expediency. The “cause du jour” is claiming solidarity with the victims of ISIS’ brutal actions. But, for most, the reasons seem to be purely emotion-driven. They “died for Christ!” But, if they believed a “different gospel,” if they followed “another Jesus,” then were they Christians? They died for their beliefs, certainly. That cannot be denied. But, just because they died for their beliefs, do their deaths validate those beliefs? When we look at the beliefs of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and if we hold to the Protestant understanding of the gospel, our answer to that question must be, “No.” We respect the beliefs of these 21 men, but their beliefs are not our beliefs.
We want to be clear that, in pointing out the gospel differences between historic Protestantism and the Coptic Orthodox Church, we do not wish to minimize the deaths of these Egyptians nor the guilt of their murderers. We are as outraged as any by the actions of ISIS. But we strongly believe that we must maintain Gospel clarity, as well.
[editor’s note: Contributor Seth Dunn recently released a vlog on this subject. It was removed because we decided to save aspects of this conversation for an upcoming Contributor Hour podcast. We hope to get together and discuss this topic on the podcast soon.]