Salvation by Ideas? God Forbid!

Recently, I've had three conversations that all circle around one significant topic: Christianity as a mere intellectual exercise. In the first, a seminary student told me of a conversation with his son:

"Dad, I believe in the Christian faith. I have sat under your teaching and under mum's teaching for years. I am still convinced that it is true. I also believe what the leaders of our church have taught. I believe in the Christian faith. The problem is, it just doesn't mean anything to me. It's all just ideas."

In a second conversation, another student confided in me that he has felt dry ever since arriving at school. He came expecting to know of God better, but has felt more distant. In a third (more hopeful) talk, a friend called from England to tell of an epiphany he had, which followed a season of study-related dryness. He was struck by the contrast of knowing God and being known by God (1 Cor 8:3; Gal 4:9).

I'll return to the rich insight of my dear friend, Bruce Pearson, later. But first, I'd like to think about the young man who saw the Christian faith only as a system of beliefs.

How are we saved? Is it through believing a fact of history, i.e. that Jesus died on the cross for our sins? Or does salvation occur through a deep personal relationship of trust in Jesus? If we say "both", we run the risk of avoiding the issue, leaving people to fend for themselves in working out the balance. For many--maybe most--this will mean landing hard on the side of intellectual assent, because when we think of "believe" in English, we often mean "assent".

If belief means assenting to ideas, several things follow. In the first place, this prompts a follow-up question: "How do I know I really believe?" The answer is fruit; true belief will show up in action (Matt. 7:16). But since relationality with God is no longer at a premium, this will boil down to rugged effort, an assurance by works.

In the second place, this leads to a question of spiritual growth. What can I do to move forward, which may also help me feel assured? Again, if someone lands hard on the side of salvation by assent, what follows is more of the same: Growth through knowledge. So the person will seek to learn more... and more... and more! But one day, perhaps, they will wake up to have the same conversation as the young man mentioned above.

Third, this will affect our view of Christian service. If belief means assenting to ideas, then it follows that what God desires most is for everyone to know more. So ministry amounts to teaching and learning. And "evangelism" comes to mean correcting those who have got it wrong. In my tradition, for example, I've heard people speak of winning other Christians over to "the Reformed faith."

All this, of course, describes an extreme. But it's an extreme with a paper trail, tracing back to a misunderstanding of faith when people are left to fend for themselves.

Let's rewind. Is faith mainly about believing facts, or is it primarily about a relationship of trust with "the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20). Here's where the rubber hits the Scriptural road, because over and over again when faith is used in Scripture it is not about intellectual assent. It is more often about trusting a real person, God, and the "messiness" that comes from relating to him personally. Think of Romans 10:9. Paul says:

"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

At first glance, that first part may sound mechanical, since it's literally "lip service." But to confess Jesus in public is to honor him in public, to acknowledge him as your own... to own him, and to claim to be owned by him. As Jesus tells us in MAtthew 10:32, "everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven". As for the second part, this is not simply belief in the fact of resurrection; it is belief in the one who raises Jesus from the dead. Paul was at pains to point out this out earlier in Romans 4. Abraham had faith in the God who can be trusted, the God who keeps his promises... the God of the living. Here then we see that faith is intrinsically relational.

What's neat is how this fits with a recent exceptional study by Teresa Morgan, a Classicist from Oxford, who makes a compelling case that faith in both Greek and Latin, at the time of New Testament, was intrinsically relational. It was not simply about belief in ideas or trust in an impersonal object; it was about a deep personal relationship of trust towards another:

When I place trust in my sister, I do not trust her, as I do my phone, simply to have certain capacities and perform certain functions. She has her own subjectivity and her own view of me which she brings to our association, complicating it with thoughts, feelings, and actions beyond my control. When I trust her (whether or not she trusts me), the interaction of our subjectivities is liable to affect both our lives unpredictably and correlatively. In other words, we have a relationship (Roman Faith and Christian Faith, 28).

Paul repeatedly warns people about having a "Christian Faith" that is simply about knowledge. In 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 he warns knowledge-loving Christians that it puffs up while love builds up. He also points out that what really matters is loving God and being known by God. Then in Romans 10-11, Paul warns the Gentiles not to be arrogant over Jews who know less than them (10:2). What counts? "Reasonable religion" (as Dieter Betz translates it), that is found in offering one's body together with others as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1-3). Then in Romans 14-15, Paul stresses how the strong, having greater knowledge of God, need to not quarrel with the weak over opinions (14:1).

Now we come to my friend's epiphany. Do we believe for all intents and purposes in "Salvation by Doctrine", because we essentially boil everything down to assent? To put this in language famously associated with the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (but adopted too by Dietrich Bonhoeffer), do we perceive of our relationships as an "I-It" relationships, wherein God/Christianity is essentially a "thing" to be interacted with. Or do we have an "I-Thou" relationship, where God is a real person of equal importance to me in my relationship with him? Consider again Teresa Morgan's comment: My sister "has her own subjectivity and her own view of me which she brings to our association". This is the essence of the epiphany of my friend Bruce. It is not simply (though of course it is this) about me knowing God.  It is about God knowing me, which is staggering and is something that needs pondering, deeply and carefully. 

Here is a relationship. It is a true relationship. It has always been about a relationship, and must always be about one, in everything, at every moment: In saving faith, in assurance, in growth, in ministry and evangelism. God sent Jesus so we might have a living relationship both with him and with others.

Bruce Lowe (PhD) is Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta.

Related Links

Romans by James Boice [ Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Full Set ]

PCRT 1980: If God Be for Us [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download  ]

Up Close and Personal by James Boice [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download  ]

Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw