“Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith“ (Galatians 3:21-24)
Have you ever despaired over a certain sin you committed, convinced it was too horrible for God to forgive? Christians shouldn’t go about life doubting God’s ability to forgive, be we certainly should always be contrite and repentant when we sin against God. The Christian life is a constant struggle between our identity in Christ and our sinful nature. Even on our best days, when we put forth every conscious effort to live as Christ lived, we still don’t reach the perfect standard that God has given us in the law. No matter how much we struggle, our sinful thoughts and desires are a part of us until we are taken home to Christ (Romans 7:18-25).
Paul, in his epistles, writes fervently and emphatically about the importance of justification by grace through faith. This is the central doctrine of Christianity, and it is where Christians place all of their hope. The certainty of our salvation does not depend on us. If it did, we certainly would not be able to justify ourselves before God. Rather, our hope of salvation rests on Christ and his saving work. God did this by placing the burden of sin and death on His son, Jesus Christ. As Paul tells Christians in 2 Corinthians 5:21 –
For our sake God made Him (Christ) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Christ died so that we would be released from our captivity to the law and sin. The law is not a means with which we can justify ourselves. The law’s true purpose is to point us to Christ, as said in Galatians 3:24 above. The ESV translation uses the word “guardian” to describe what the law does for us. The KJV translation uses the word “schoolmaster.” Combining the characteristics of both a guardian and a schoolmaster makes an accurate depiction of the original Greek word used,paidagōgos. Strong’s Concordancedescribes a paidagōgos in this way:
“Among the Greeks and the Romans, [the term paidagōgos] was applied to trustworthy slaves who were charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of boys belonging to the better class. The boys were not allowed so much as to step out of the house without them before arriving at the age of manhood.”
This word gives a very accurate portrayal of how the law works. All humans, because of their sinful nature, are under the strict supervision and oversight of the law. Before one is brought to faith, he is chained to the standards of the law and is condemned before God. In this way, the law shows us what we can never live up to. It shows us how we are not free from the law (and sin) unless Christ has freed us. The law gives us the picture of what Christ’s life and death fulfilled. When we sin, and in turn see how sinful our hearts truly are, the law drives us to repentance and draws our hearts to Christ’s crucifixion.
Ultimately, the gospel of Jesus gets the final word in our salvation. If we think we can justify ourselves through the law, then why did Christ die for us? Paul states this very plainly – “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21)
When we compare our sinful selves to the perfect standards of the law, we don’t come even close to perfection. But Christ became perfection for us. His perfection has made us heirs to God’s kingdom, for which we wait humbly and faithfully.
Take a good look at this “family tree” of Christian denominations here. Confusing, isn’t it? And that doesn’t nearly include all of them.
Why can’t there just be one label on there, titled “The Christian Church” founded by Jesus Christ in 33 AD? Why can’t that single Church have a line drawn from it all the way up to 2016 AD, with no other branches? Why can’t it look like this?
Actually, in a sense, it is that way, but it doesn’t look that way. More on that in a bit.
The vast number of Christian denominations is something I’ve heard atheists cite as evidence against the Christian faith. As the argument goes, if Christianity is the truth and the only way to salvation, why are there so many divisions within it? Why would Christians be arguing among themselves? Surely, if Christianity were true, Christians would be in agreement concerning their faith.
Now, this argument mostly ignores that fact that historically, Christians across the entire spectrum of denominations have affirmed many of the same central truths – the importance of Scripture, the work and person of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.
More importantly, this argument presents a bit of a strawman picture of Christianity. The claim that “Christianity must be false, because its own followers can’t completely agree on everything” makes a strange assumption about the nature of religion. In essence, it is saying that “if a religion is the truth, all of its adherents will be in complete unity concerning that religion.” This assertion does not have any foundation. It certainly isn’t an assumption that historical and orthodox Christianity has ever held.
In fact, the New Testament writers anticipated divisions within the Church. The Apostle Paul instructed the Christians in Rome to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17). There were even apparent divisions in the Church within a few years of Jesus’ ministry. The entire book of Galatians was written in order to refute the teachings of those known as the “Judaizers,” a sect of Jewish Christians who taught that all Christians must observe Old Testament Jewish customs in order to be saved.
Whenever talking about “the Christian Church,” it is helpful to make a distinction concerning what we regard the church to mean. Christian theologians have typically described the church in a twofold manner: the invisible church and the visible church. The invisible church consists of all those who have been called by the gospel and justified by Christ. It is termed “invisible” because we as humans cannot see into people’s hearts to discern who has faith and who doesn’t. In this sense, the invisible church is the “true” church due to the fact that all of its members have true faith. The visible church, on the other hand, is a manifestation of the invisible church. We cannot see into men’s hearts to discern their faith, but we can get an idea of who our fellow believers are due to their confession of faith and their works before us. Charles Porterfield Krauth, a great Lutheran theologian of the 19th century, summarized this by saying: “Faith makes men Christians; but Confession alone marks them as Christians… By our faith, we are known to the Lord as his; by our Confession, we are known to each other as His children.”
Even though Christians belonging to different denominations can vary in their beliefs about the Christian faith, true believers in Christ can be found throughout the visible church, even with all of its divisions and debates. The invisible church, that is, those who have saving faith in Christ, can be found all throughout the visible church, in all manner of denominations. This does not mean, however, that every individual denomination is correct in its teachings. Edward Koehler describes this well in A Summary of Christian Doctrine:
The visible church is divided into many denominations or confessions, also called churches. There are three large branches of the visible church: the Roman Catholic Church, both Greek and Roman; the Reformed Church, comprising a large number of denominations; and the Lutheran Church, which is also divided into a number of bodies.
These denominations or confessions differ from one another in points of doctrine, and each asserts that its teachings are true. It is absurd to assume that all these churches have the true and right teachings. There is but one truth. A doctrine is either true or false. It cannot be both. . . There is only one true doctrine concerning the creation of the world, the Holy Trinity, the person of Christ, the redemption of the world, the conversion of man, etc. Whatever does not agree with this doctrine is false (323).
So while we recognize that there are true believers (members of the invisible church) throughout various denominations, we also acknowledge that not every denomination can be correct in its public confession of doctrine, due to the exclusive nature of true doctrine. Additionally, there may be those who appear to confess true faith in Christ, yet still do not actually believe it in their hearts. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:21 that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” These individuals would belong to the visible church due to their confession, but not the invisible church, due to their actual lack of belief. Again, Koehler states:
Unbelievers and hypocrites may be active and affiliated with a congregation. However, they do not belong to the [true] church because the terms used in the Scriptures to describe the church indicate that there exists an inner relation and spiritual communion between her members and God. . . All true believers, no matter to which denominational body they belong, are members of this church. However, if one does not have faith, then one is not a member of the church, though he is a priest, minister, or the pope himself (314).
There is only one true and invisible church established by Christ. Anyone who has true faith in Jesus Christ for salvation is a member of this true church, regardless of denominational affiliation. Regardless, denominations are important because they allow Christians of similar conviction and confession to engage in fellowship. We are not to ignore these doctrinal differences, especially those that are blatantly false and harmful. We are told countless times throughout Scripture to avoid false teachers and those teach destructive doctrines.
Why are there so many denominations? It is simply due to the sinfulness of humans. We have a tendency replace God’s words with our own and, in some cases, ignore Him completely. Splits occur because division and disagreement arises along with false teaching. Regardless, God is faithful to His children. The large number of divisions within Christianity are not divisions within the true invisible church, but rather are divisions within the visible church, the imperfect manifestation of the true church.
If you feel troubled by the apparent divisions within Christianity, take heart in the fact that there are true believers throughout many different confessions. Take to heart the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.“
 Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology. Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publishing House, 1913: 166.
 Edward W. A. Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.
Anyone who has spent a good amount of time shopping for a Bible knows that there is no shortage of Bible translations available today. There are hundreds of English Bible translations available today, and I outlined some of the most popular translations in my post “Bible Versions and Translations.”
Upon recognizing the fact that there are hundreds of English translations, the logical question(s) in response would be, “Why are there so many? What can hundreds of translations offer that a single unified translation can’t?” While this kind of questions warrants much more than just a blog post, I will outline the reasons here.
Ultimately, God inspired the text of the Bible as the original writers were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Peter 1:21 ESV) While the Word he has given us is perfect and inerrant, and the Greek and Hebrew words written by the Prophets and Apostles do not contain human error, there are difficulties and issues that come along with text transmission and translation. I focus here mainly on the New Testament, because that is the center of most of this debate:
1. There are different text “types” that differ from one another. As with any ancient document, we do not possess the original copy of the manuscripts. However, in the case of the New Testament, we have so many early copies that we can know with great accuracy what the originals said. Despite this, early New Testament text collections from a city like Alexandria differ slightly from the texts found in Byzantium. There has been a great amount of debate over which text type is closest to the original manuscripts. Because of this, different Bible translations are based upon different text types. This is why a translation like the ESV omits a portion of 1 John 5:7 that can be found in the KJV. In this case, there is little to no evidence that the longer reading found in the KJV is accurate to the original text.
The King James is based on a text type known as the Textus Receptus. However, as more evidence was discovered to suggest that the Textus Receptus contained certain errors, other scholars saw it necessary to produce translations that used a more reliable text. This is one of the reasons there are so many translations.
2. Language is dynamic and unpredictable, and can quickly become antiquated. This is why you’re less likely to encounter a congregation using the King James Version today than you would be 100 years ago. Both the King James and The Good News Translation are written in the same language of English, but render the same words very differently. For instance, see the differing word use between the two in Acts 21:39 –
KJV – But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people.
GNT – Paul answered, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city. Please let me speak to the people.”
The King James uses certain words that would not be used in English communication today. The GNT uses “an important city” instead of “no mean city,” uses “please” rather than “I beseech thee,” and uses “let me” instead of “suffer me.”
It seems rather obvious that the average new convert to Christianity would have a difficult time understanding some of the wording found in the KJV. In terms of being able to communicate God’s Word to modern people, newer translations like the GNT are very important. I think it’s important for translators to maintain the balance of using modern language while still preserving some “theological” sounding words that are necessary to accurately communicate Christian truths. For instance, some people have advocated for replacing words like “grace” and “justify” from the Bible with more common English phrases like “undeserved love” and “make righteous.” While this may be warranted in some contexts, theological words like “grace” carry far more history, connotation, and nuance than modern equivalents like “undeserved love.”
The dynamic nature of language has led some to go so far as paraphrasing the Bible, retaining the “meaning” of the words while using modern phrases and deviating from the original wording of the ancient text. The popularity of paraphrased Bibles has contributed to the large number of Bible translations.
3. Societal norms and values change, which leads to “updated” translations. This one goes hand-in-hand with point 2. As cultural expectations shift, the change eventually is reflected in our language. The most glaring example of this phenomenon is the recent trend of Bible translators using “gender inclusive” language. For instance, the New International Version, originally published in 1984, was edited an re-released in 2011 with updates in language and inclusivity. Many of these changes amounted to words like “brothers” being changed to phrases like “brothers and sisters” in hopes of sounding more inclusive to females.
Some of these changes may be warranted, such as when the original text actually is meant to include both genders, but there are times when the change is questionable. For instance, see the change in Acts 6:3 between NIV 1984 and 2011 –
NIV 1984 – “Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them.”
NIV 2011 – “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them.”
We know from historical context and the rest of the New Testament that women would not have been involved in the choosing of the men as described here. The change here appears to be for no other reason than political correctness. Whether or not these “updates” are warranted, these kinds of changes are another factor that leads to more and more Bible translations. Well-established Bible translations are constantly being edited and re-published for reasons like this.
4. Translator bias finds its way into many translations. As with any two languages, there is not always a one-to-one correspondence between Greek words and English words. There are times when the immediate context of the verse does not adequately inform the correct translation, and the translator must look to the rest of Scripture for clarity. However, this becomes increasingly problematic when the translator does not hold to a “Scripture interprets Scripture” philosophy. Pastor Jordan Cooper, in his review of the Modern English Version, emphasizes this point well –
There is one place, however, where the MEV completely mangles a text: 1 Peter 3:21. The text reads: “Figuratively this is like baptism, which also saves us now. It is not washing off the dirt from the body, but a response to God from a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The text is now completely incomprehensible. The first half states that baptism saves, but the second states that it is a human response to God for cleansing the conscience. Compare this to the NKJV which states: “There is also an antitype which now saves us–baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
In the NKJV, baptism is part of what constitutes a good conscience toward God. In the MEV, it’s a response of having a good conscience. The first half of this text demonstrates where the MEV is a much easier read than the NKJV, but the second half is theologically incomprehensible, and grammatically confusing. [Full article here]
In this case, the translator of the MEV had their personal convictions influence the way they translated the text. Because the translator does not believe that baptism actually is effective for regeneration, they translated the text in a way that downplays baptism’s significance in the spiritual wellbeing of the Christian.
Biases like these can be found throughout the most controversial texts of the Bible. Some translators unfortunately refuse to let the text speak for itself, instead importing their own convictions into the translation of the text. If you want to see more examples of this, compare translations of verses like 1 Timothy 2:12 that outline the roles of men and women. Some translators will soften the clear message of these verses to make them more appealing to readers who don’t hold to traditional stances on the roles of men and women.
The amount of denominational bias in translations is what leads many to undergo their own translation of the Bible. However, in crafting a new Bible translation, the same kind of bias occurs once again in different forms, and so the cycle continues. This is one of the many reasons it is helpful to have access to multiple translations when studying a portion of Scripture.
If you look back at the four point I listed, they all have something in common. All four of them have to do with the imperfection of mankind:
Humans have made mistakes in copying the original manuscripts.
Humans, unlike God, change often. So does our language. This causes issues when we are trying to convey unchangeable truths with a changeable tongue.
Human nature is selfish. When certain things in the Bible aren’t stated the way we expect them to be, we naturally want to change it.
Humans constantly seek self-gratification. If we believe something about Scripture, we will want a translation of Scripture to articulate that same belief back at us. This leads to bias in translation.
Nevertheless, God is gracious to His people and has promised to preserve His Word, telling us that it will never be lost, despite the sinful humans hands that handle it so often. Take heart and listen to God’s promises:
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Matthew 24:35)
“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:24-25)
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (1 Timothy 3:16-17)