If you've ever been confronted by a Mormon at your door, or spent time listening to a Buddhist talk about enlightenment, or sat in a church service of progressives, then you may have wondered to yourself if what was being discussed was true. Maybe your own faith has shaken a bit as you considered the claims of a competing worldview.
Today, I want to set your mind at ease. I'm going to give you ten brief characteristics of Christianity that will enable you to instantly recognize whether what you are hearing is true or false. That's right, I said instantly. Once you understand these characteristics, spotting a spiritual fraud will be easy, and you'll be able to begin holding your ground against a false religious claim. So, let's get started.
All false religions deny, redefine, or supplement some or all of the following truth:
1. Biblical inspiration, authority, and sufficiency
This means that the Bible is more than a book written by average people. Its source is divine. It is the written authoritative source for the practice of our faith and is sufficient for all of our needs in living the Christian life (II Timothy 3:16; II Peter 1:20; 3:15-16).
If you are told that there is another book, also inspired but apart from the Bible, then you can know that scripture's authority and sufficiency is being attacked. If you are told that the Bible is not the Word of God, or that it only contains some of the Word of God, then its inspiration is being attacked. This is a common attack by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses against the Bible.
2. Jesus' incarnation
This means that the fullness of God dwelt in a human body, in Jesus, from conception (Luke 1:35; Colossians 1:19). Attacks against Jesus' incarnation are popular with Muslims. Attacks against the virgin birth are also attacks against incarnation.
3. Jesus' humanity
This means that Jesus was fully human in addition to being fully divine (Luke 2:52; I Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 5:8).
4. Jesus' deity
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament reveal that Jesus was God in human form (Psalm 110:1; Isaiah 9:6; John 1:1, 8:58; Colossians 1:19). Jehovah's Witnesses regularly dismiss Jesus' deity, referring to him instead as a glorified angel. Muslims also dismiss Jesus' claims to deity.
5. Jesus' crucifixion
Jesus' crucifixion is a historical fact, but some religions deny it took place. This is especially true of Muslims and the Quran, which state that Jesus was never crucified.
6. Jesus' substitutionary atonement
Substitutionary atonement is the doctrine that Jesus took our place, our punishment for sin (Isaiah 53:5; II Corinthians 5:21, I Peter 2:24). Forgiveness of sin is made possible because of what Jesus did on our behalf. Atonement is not a picture or type, it is a real event. Without atonement, there can be no forgiveness.
7. Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead
Some religions teach that Jesus rose from the dead spiritually. The Bible denies this and states clearly that Jesus rose bodily (physically) from the dead, never to die again (Luke 24:12; 24:39-43; I Corinthians 15:3-8).
8. Jesus' Lordship (authority)
Lordship is not something that many Christians fully understand. In essence, it means that Jesus Christ has sovereign authority over all things (Matthew 28:18). He has the right to do with us whatever it is that he deems to do, according to his good pleasure. He is Lord (Acts 2:36; Romans 6:23, 10:9; II Corinthians 4:5). Religions which deny Jesus' deity usually deny his lordship as well.
Every religion has a view of man as good, but misguided, or uneducated, or unenlightened, etc. Only the Bible portrays man as having a sin nature that is in rebellion against God (Romans 3:23, 5:12; Ephesians 2:3). Therefore, only God can provide a solution to our sin problem. He did that in sending Jesus to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Denying the doctrine of sin denies the need for forgiveness and salvation, which guts the Gospel. Also, watch out for redefinitions of sin, popular in Buddhism and other eastern religions.
10. Salvation by grace
This means that it is only by God's grace that man receives forgiveness of sin. There is nothing that we can do to earn salvation or forgiveness. Salvation is a gift (Ephesians 2:5). Every religion, apart from Christianity teaches a works-oriented salvation of some kind. Only the Bible teaches a grace model.
A false religion does not need to deny all ten of these doctrines to be revealed as a false religion. Some groups teach a few points, some teach others. However, by denying these things as true, such groups place themselves outside of orthodoxy and are therefore, without salvation, without a relationship with God.
But what about…?
Most religions believe in helping the poor, recognizing a spiritual or other-worldly realm, and doing good works. But these things do not differentiate the true from the false. What is the difference between a Buddhist or a Muslim or a Christian giving money to a homeless guy? None. Their acts of mercy, by themselves, don't verify the claims of their founders. Therefore, it goes to the fundamentals of their faith. What do they believe about the Divine, about salvation, about sin, etc.? Those religions which deny these truths cannot lead a person to God.
Cults, like Mormonism and the Watchtower mainly redefine these fundamentals to include things that are outside biblical truth. In this way they appear genuine, but in reality are just as false as Buddhism, or Islam, or any other non-Christian faith. For instance, the term, Son of God may be used by Mormons. But what that means is different from the biblical usage. The Bible refers to Jesus as an uncreated, divine being. But Mormons refer to Jesus as a created being, the spirit brother of Lucifer. This denies Jesus' uniqueness.
All religions share two things of importance: a person and a practice. The religion reveres its founder and prescribes a set of practices to follow in order to obtain salvation or a higher state of existence. Christianity is different. It has observances like the Lord's Supper and baptism, but the observances themselves carry no saving power. They point to something higher, the person of Jesus, who alone has saving power. When it comes to good works like helping the poor and oppressed, other religions require such work to earn salvation. But in Christianity these works have no saving power. In other religions, observances and practices are necessary for salvation, or ascension, or enlightenment. Essentially, this is works oriented and a denial of number ten, salvation by grace. Properly understood, we do these works in response to what Christ has already done for us, but not to obtain salvation, which is unobtainable apart from God's grace.
All ten of these things are exclusive. The Bible demands exclusivity in its truth and prescriptions. In other words, you can't believe in the inspiration of the Bible and Book of Mormon, or the Quran since they contradict one another. Divine inspiration is for the Bible only. You can't believe in Buddhist rebirth and resurrection, they are mutually exclusive (Hebrews 9:27). You can't believe in Jesus' authority and Mohammad's authority, or Buddha's authority. Jesus' authority is exclusive; and so on. Jesus condemned the blending of false religion and its practices with faith in him (Exodus 32:4,19-20; Revelation 2:14-15). This is called, syncretism, and it is always condemned in the Bible.
If you remember and hold on to a right understanding of these ten things, you will be able to recognize a false religion right away, whether it is old or new, or eastern or western. And from there you can embolden your witness for Christ by helping the other person learn the truth about the Bible, Jesus, and their own need for salvation by grace.