Belief is a Something (And You’d Better Get it Right!)
A few months ago, a book with the ominous sounding title, The Explicit Gospel crossed my desk, quickly assuming its position among all the other sad, neglected books strewn around my computer. “What an interesting title,” I initially thought. Then I read the back cover and noticed that the recommendations came mostly from A-list members of the neo-Reformed crowd (Mark Driscoll, et al). My interest began to wane. I read the introduction where the author diagnosed the church’s problems as not preaching or adhering to an “explicit” enough gospel message. I began to suspect that I had seen this movie before. Another withering critique of the “soft” state of current preaching, of the mushy, squishy Jesus that people tend to prefer, of the social gospel, of the dangerous departure from salvation by grace alone, another clarion call from the young, restless, and Reformed to return to true biblical preaching. I haven’t gotten much further in this book.
I’ve been either a participant in or an observer of a handful of conversations over the past few weeks where similar themes have emerged. We need to get back to true biblical preaching! This is what will revive moribund churches! This is what will lure the coveted Millennial crowd through our doors. Isn’t it obvious? Liberal churches are dying! Conservative churches with “biblical” preaching are bursting at the seams! We’ve tolerated theological laxity and biblical illiteracy for far too long! We’ve allowed the true gospel message to get fuzzy, confusing it with ethics. We need to get back to the truth—we can’t earn salvation by what we do. We need to accept and believe the explicit gospel!
I’m partially sympathetic to these concerns. Really. I don’t like the way that much preaching reduces Jesus to some kind of proto-Gandhi who preached love and tolerance and open-mindedness and general niceness. I don’t like the way that many traditions tend to edit out the nasty parts of the Bible, emerging with a Jesus that roughly conforms to their preferred vision of good citizen of a Western twenty-first century liberal democracy. And churches are becoming more theologically and biblically illiterate. I get that people—especially younger people—would be drawn to a more bracing and demanding message. In a world where so much seems uncertain and ambiguous, I get the attraction to strong personalities who claim to just tell it like it is, just preaching the unvarnished truth, the “explicit gospel.”
I get all of the above. But I think there is a deep incoherence in the very call to embracing a more “explicit gospel.” And while I think that better preaching is always a target worth aiming at, I don’t think that preaching a better and truer gospel message is the key that will magically swing wide the gates of revival. In the end, calls to preach truer information about God tend to rely on the very logic that they reject in perceived mushy, squishy, social gospel-ly attempts to “earn salvation.”
When I was a kid I would often puzzle at the following set of statements that I would frequently hear in church settings.
- You can never earn salvation through what you do. You cannot earn salvation by your righteous deeds. You can never do enough to make God accept you. There is no one righteous, none that seek God… and all that.
- The solution to the above problem is to accept Jesus and what he did for you. It is to embrace that God did for you what you couldn’t do for yourself, and believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins.
Pretty standard stuff, right? Justification by grace alone. But something like the following scenario would often leap across the synapses of my young brain: Okay, so I can’t behave rightly enough to make God accept me. But I can, apparently believe rightly enough to make God accept me. Indeed, I must! If I did not manage to understand and accept the correct set of propositions about who God is and what God has done for my salvation (so that I didn’t have to do anything… except believe… which is kind of like a something…), well then I was in very dire straits indeed.
I see a similar problem at work in these calls to just get back to good theology and preaching. The men (it’s almost always men) issuing these calls have a very dim view indeed of our human capacity for goodness. We are wretched and poor, depraved and rebellious, and have no ability whatsoever to impress or compel God with our righteous deeds. But in the next breath they are often claiming that a great deal indeed depends upon these wretched, poor, depraved, and rebellious souls getting their theology pretty much exactly right. Doctrinal clarity matters a great deal to these guys! If you have the wrong theology of gender and sexuality, for example, or the atonement, or the scope of salvation, or the social implications of the gospel, or any other divisive issue, well then God help you, you’d better find some good biblical preaching… and quickly! The state of your soul hangs in the balance.
Perhaps I’m missing something blindingly obvious, but the message seems to be, “Your behaviour will never be more than a collection of filthy rags, but your beliefs? Well, they had better be all cleaned up and shiny and pristine and coherent and unwaveringly accepted and proclaimed. The cognitive content in your head about God and sin and salvation and humanity had sure as hell better be right! Your salvation doesn’t depend on anything you can do… Except believe correctly.
But belief is a something we do. Isn’t it?
We can’t have it both ways. If the good news of the Gospel is that God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves, this has to apply both to our behaviour and our beliefs. Grace is grace, and God how we need it to be comprehensive.