Part of what it means to grow as Christians who love the Lord with all our minds is to be constantly reflecting on our beliefs about God, our selves, and the world in light of what we are learning from our study of Scripture, tradition, and reason. In this second part of a three-part series, I will demonstrate some ways that my theological formation has probed the assumptions of cultural Christianity, challenging some of my earlier thoughts about the Christian faith.
Example #2: Faith: How Do I Get Saved?
My initial, simplistic view of Christianity was that it was all about us having “faith,” which primarily entailed “asking Jesus into your heart.” Once this was done, your eternal destiny was secure, and nothing else mattered. The “gospel” was thus reduced to the following: we try to get to heaven by our own merits, but we are sinners incapable of making heaven on our own, so thankfully Jesus died for our sins, and by praying this prayer we can be sure of eternal life.
I even had a seminary professor, a notable “global evangelist,” whose approach to sharing the gospel was to strike up a conversation with a non-believer and hand them a card that they could sign when they were ready to believe (had “faith”), guaranteeing them eternal life. In much of popular Christianity, this is further reduced to an emotional experience that either sets aside, or stands in outright opposition to, the call to a life of right beliefs and right actions. As the Christian singer-songwriter Jason Gray puts it (“More Like Falling in Love”),
I need more than / A truth to believe
I need a truth that lives / Moves and breathes
To sweep me off my feet, it’s gotta be
More like falling in love / Than something to believe in
More like losing my heart / Than giving my allegiance
Caught up, called out / Come take a look at me now
It’s like I’m falling, oh / It’s like I’m falling in love
While well-meaning, this understanding of the gospel and salvation ultimately fails because it misunderstands the nature of “faith,” which we will unpack further below. Part of this misunderstanding, I think, stems from how this gospel presentation incorrectly identifies the purpose (telos) of the Christian life, missing out on the call to discipleship that is at the heart of the Christian proclamation. An additional part of it, I suspect, is that approach reduces the gospel (which is about Jesus) to something all about me, totally losing the communal and even cosmic aspects of God’s purposes and rendering Christianity to a slick, well-packaged set of comforting religious ideas that can be easily sold to religious consumers of whom precious little is asked.
Indeed, by dismissing the idea of faith as “giving my allegiance,” Gray in fact gets things exactly wrong. As Matthew Bates has demonstrated in his Salvation by Allegiance Alone, if the gospel is all about Jesus becoming king (which it is; note the initial kerygma “Jesus is Lord” in contrast to “Caesar is Lord”), we are called to respond with allegiance to this king. Thus, “faith” cannot be reduced to reciting the words of the sinner’s prayer, signing a card, or having a warm and fuzzy emotional experience, but it is rather a sweeping concept that joins together notions of mental agreement, professed fealty, and embodied loyalty (so Bates, 82; see my full discussion of Bates’ book here).
In other words, we are called to a life of discipleship, one that of necessity involves intellectual assent to the gospel of Jesus as king, publicly confessing our loyalty as at baptism, and obedient action to Christ’s commands (cf. Matt 7:21-23; Mark 10:17-23 pars.). Again, more careful attention to what Scripture actually says, rather than what popular Christianity often presents, would have benefited my theological method and my understanding of this issue.
Furthermore, bringing in the second source of authority in the Anglican tradition, which is the tradition of the church, would have been helpful. It is hard to read any of the church fathers and come away with the notion of “free grace” (or, per Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace); the invitation has always been, come and die. In other words, a life of discipleship is not an “optional add-on” for the really serious Christians; it is, rather, the heart of the gospel message.