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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Put that way… it’s almost a form of Gnosticism.. Your body, this world, and the things you do in it really are just so much trash… but get that mind and spirit right and everything is all hunky dory… It really almost leads to the whole “It doesn’t matter what I do, just so long as I believe right… and, if I happen to feel guilty, just pray a nice little prayer and I’m all good again.”

    It’s the whole translation of “pistis” as “cognitive belief” as a definition of “faith” rather than “pistis” being a “life changing reorientation around a focus”. Repentance is wrapped up in that… but then so is a praxis of living life following a different code, the code of Jesus… It’s not cognition alone… but a cognition that necessarily leads to a radical change in praxis.

    August 7, 2013
    • Yes, the Gnosticism theme is definitely present isn’t it, Robert? I had a paragraph written about the inherent dualism assumed by this framework, but I decided to chuck it (getting too long, as usual…). I think you’re absolutely right—this understanding of human beings prioritizes mind and cognition over body and praxis, and reinforces a view of humanity that I think falls short of a biblical anthropology.

      Couldn’t agree more with your final paragraph. Well said.

      August 7, 2013
  2. John H Neufeld, Winnipeg, MB #

    Interesting that Jesus nowhere asks people about their beliefs or checks whether they are believing right. On the contrary when he was asked about eternal life, (only twice) he responded that they should do Torah! “Do (NOT BELIEVE) this and you will live.”

    August 7, 2013
    • Absolutely, John! Of course, some in the Reformed camp would claim that things changed post crucifixion/resurrection, that Paul now became the authoritative interpreter of Jesus, etc. Personally, I have never been persuaded by these arguments. I think that if how we frame matters of belief, behaviour, and salvation is at odds with Jesus’ own way of addressing these questions, there is a problem.

      (I always feel a bit presumptuous doing this, but in case you [or others] are interested, I reflected a bit on these themes in connection with the two passages that you are referring to a while back here.)

      August 7, 2013
      • Actually, I found Scot McKnight’s treatment of the Paul vs. Jesus thing in “King Jesus Gospel” a VERY enlightening exploration showing how Paul was most certainly not teaching a cognitive faith… and again, it goes back to that word “pistis” used as “believe” and “faith” and “believed in” rather consistently through out the Greek NT both by the gospel writers and by Paul… heck, Paul used the word himself when the jailer asked him “What must I do to be saved?” in Acts…

        so… to pit Jesus vs. Paul… rather selective theological nit-picking if you ask me…

        August 7, 2013
      • Yup, I found that book to be very illuminating on a number of levels. I think you’re bang on about the “pistis” debate and how that word has historically been translated.

        August 7, 2013
  3. Ryan, you’ve once again put your finger neatly on what makes me uncomfortable with that form of belief. A wise woman I know once told me, “Thought leads to emotion leads to action. But it also works the other way. If you act, it will affect your emotion and then your thought.” She was speaking about mental health, but I think it can apply to theology too. It’s pretty hard to separate thought and action into different spheres. Is it a human condition or our western worldview that makes us want to put things in boxes?

    August 7, 2013
    • Sounds like a wise woman indeed!

      Re: why we try to separate thought and action… I don’t know, it’s probably a combination of the human condition and our western worldview, influenced as it has always been by various strains of dualism. On an existential level, I suspect it has to do with the fact that we know that physical stuff can and does break down, decay, and die, while mental/spiritual stuff does not (so we believe). Thus, it is entirely possible to be a hollow shell of a physical body with a vibrant life of the mind. Perhaps this bare existential reality inclines us toward the view that the really important stuff is immaterial. I don’t know… There are undoubtedly many factors, but that one sure holds true for me. I implicitly see the “real” me, the important me, as the stuff that isn’t going to break down. I understand the temptation of dualism, even if I don’t think it’s biblical.

      August 7, 2013
      • I hadn’t thought of the fact that our bodies break down while our minds don’t usually follow the same trajectory, or at least the products of our minds don’t. That’s a fairly obvious point that I hadn’t seen before. I just heard, the other day, about a friend’s grandfather who is in his eighties but feels twenty-something. Point in case.

        Maybe, thinking of what you just wrote in your reply, our leaning toward dualism is a symptom of our fallen-ness and evidence of our desire to find some way of living on after death. And if it’s not biblical (and I think you’re right about that), then dualism is another part of the story that God is reconciling to himself. But it’s so hard to see beyond a way of perceiving that’s built in.

        August 7, 2013
      • Hrm… is it built in? Considering that much of what we know of here in the West is heavily influenced by Greek and Roman philosophies, we may see it as “built in”.

        Meanwhile, Eastern Orthodoxy doesn’t play around quite so much with that dualism. And if you go into the Asian lands and even into African tribal understandings, the lines between the material and the spiritual are much blurrier than we in the west are comfortable with.

        Think about the decay of the body… when the brain cells (physical matter) start dying, is the mind left untouched? Are emotions (evidence of spirit and soul) left untouched when chemicals in the brain are left unbalanced? Or is the evidence there, even in our western science, of the blurring of physical and spiritual in the decline of the mind in old age?

        I think the physical and the spiritual realms intersect a lot more closely than we are comfortable with… reminds me of Celtic cosmology with the emphasis on “twilight” and “shores”. Think about it, when you’re at the beach, where does the ocean start and where does the land begin? It’s not quite so sharp… same with the hours of twilight and dusk… Walking into a cave… when does it stop being “light” and start being “dark”? This is a Celtic world view that was supplanted by Roman thought… and perhaps there’s some truth in that Celtic blending and blurring of boundaries that we may need to rediscover.

        August 7, 2013
      • Yes, I think there is much truth in what you say here, Robert. The clear lines we prefer are quite a bit fuzzier than we would like to admit. I think we have much to learn from non-Western cultures about how to understand human nature.

        Having said that, I maintain that there is an intuitive sense in which the separation seems at least partially warranted. Of course, the brain is a hunk of meat and it is a physical organ… When it goes, so does thought, so does the mental life. But the experience of one’s physical capabilities gradually disappearing over time while the mind stays active and sharp is not an unusual one. Of course, there are many exceptions, but I think there is something worth paying attention to in how the experience of this plays into our conceptions what it means to be human. Somehow we know that who we are cannot be contained in the physical bodies that last for a handful of decades (and often spend no small number of these decades in painful decay).

        Indeed, it seems that Jesus even occasionally reinforces at least some kind of dualism (“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul”). Of course the nature of the soul is another huge topic… Probably best to leave that one for another thread :).

        August 7, 2013
      • If you haven’t read it, I’d suggest Stephen Lawhead’s “Song of Albion” trilogy for an exploration of that Celtic cosmology. Lawhead writes fiction… but like Tolkien, it seems that he is a sub-creator and gives some excellent expression to Christian philosophy through his fiction.

        August 7, 2013
      • I’ve heard of the trilogy, but I haven’t read it. Yet. Thanks for the recommendation.

        August 7, 2013
  4. Robert, I couldn’t reply to your original comment on my comment, 🙂 (gets a bit complicated with threads/comments!) but I just wanted to say that my western/Greek way of perception is built-in for me just because I happen to have been born here. I don’t know as much about other worldviews as I’d like to, but I’m sure that as a person learns more about other ways of seeing, one’s own view broadens too. And it’s funny that you mentioned Tolkien – I’ve just about finished reading The Lord of the Rings for the second or third time in my life and, in tandem, his “On Fairy-Stories” essay find myself appreciating the very different way of thought than I’ve been exposed to.

    August 7, 2013
    • I’ve read LotR at least once a year since I was 8 years old… that’s 32 times (you do the math). Add to that several times through the Silmarillion, mulitple readings of a variety of the other “Lost Tales” collections, and (of course) having seen the films.. 3 times…

      I’ve also used On Fairy Stories as a cited source in a paper I wrote on Tolkien’s theological themes in the recent film triology. His expression of being a sub-creator is an amazing insight into the creative mind… and his epilogue on “eucatastrophe” is spot-on, IMO.

      August 7, 2013
      • I guess I’ll have to keep reading! I was intrigued by the idea of “sub-creator” as Tolkien was talking about it, so I’ll have to pay special attention to that. Thanks for your interesting replies – they’ve sparked my curiosity!

        August 9, 2013
  5. Greg Harris #

    Hi Ryan,

    I came across your post via Dave Warkentin on Facebook. I don’t think we have ever met, but sounds like if we did we would have an interesting conversation. I have two thoughts.

    (1) I serve at an MB church and try to help people think through how to talk about the gospel in culturally relevant ways to the people they know and love. I use “The Explicit Gospel” as recommended reading because I think Chandler strikes an importance balance between understanding the gospel as both the whole big picture of Christianity and also simultaneously the message of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and reign. The NT authors use the phrase gospel to mean both, and there are pitfalls when we think of it as only one or/versus the other.

    It’s clear you don’t like the ‘neo-reformed’ types. Fair enough. However, your post seemed a bit “straw-man-ish” to me. You essentially critique a book by its cover (albeit the back one), and then launch your attack based on your assumptions of what the book says. I think there is more nuance in Chandler’s book than you gave it credit for. Chandler certainly doesn’t present a ‘mere mental assent’ gnosticism as ideal, and he certainly doesn’t divorce orthopraxy from orthodoxy. Launching into a critique of a book before you’ve read it all, as if you just know what will be said, is unfair. Regardless of my thoughts on your main argument, when your method of argumentation was built on taking shots at straw men, you lost me.

    (2) I sense your frustration with the idea that if we merely formulate words properly during a sermon that people will come to know and love Jesus. That said, exhortations for sound doctrine and faithful preaching have their biblical precedent and foundation in the Pastoral Epistles. 1 Timothy 4 talks about the importance of watching doctrine and life closely because of the effects on Timothy and also his hearers. Furthermore, I don’t actually think Chandler’s book, nor the heart and aim of the neo-reformed movement in general, is trying to persuade preachers to speak so that people can merely assent to a set of propositions so they can ‘get their pie in the sky when they die’. The whole point of Chandler’s book is that it is entirely possible to preach many sermons without ever making the gospel clear, or ‘explicit’. And if people don’t hear the gospel preached clearly, all they will hear from the pulpit is to “do this, do that, do the other.” Orthopraxy is an indispensable implication of a life of true discipleship, it doesn’t allow us to begin the discipleship process.

    All the best in your life and ministry Ryan!

    August 7, 2013
    • Hi Greg,

      Thanks for your comment. I will do my best to address your concerns.

      1) First, I don’t doubt that Chandler’s book is good and useful. I am glad for the good that it has done and will do, regardless of what I may think of his manner of framing things. I was honest that I have not read most of the book and that my impressions were based on the back cover and the introduction. In this introduction, the author indicates a number of times that he is after a more explicit, forceful, etc. verbal proclamation of the gospel (i.e., cognitive content). His focus is on the incorrect, inadequate, partial gospel message that he feels is being preached in many churches. He contrasts the “explicit gospel” with the “attempt to earn favour with God and justify ourselves” (p 13 in my copy). It is precisely this way of framing things – drawing a distinction between earning salvation through correct behaviour and earning it through correct belief that I was trying to probe in the post.

      I will at least attempt a defense against the “straw man” charge. I think I quite clearly signalled in my second paragraph that I was shifting to conversations I had recently had and was no longer specifically discussing the book. The title of the book was a hook, a way in to a broader church conversation and specific conversations that I have had over the last few months. Should I have dragged the title of the book into a post like this without reading the whole thing? Perhaps not. Did I unfairly make assumptions about the book based on the names I saw on the back? Probably. But, at the very least, I did try to be honest about the extent of my engagement with the book and locate some (not all) of its themes in the broader context of other conversations.

      Finally, re: “not liking” neo-reformed types. No, I wouldn’t put it that way at all. I have had good conversations with neo-reformed folks and almost without exception I find them to be wonderful human beings. I enjoy these conversations very much. I have disagreements with this or that aspect of this or that expression of neo-reformed theology, and I have problems with how some (although by no means all) neo-reformed leaders understand and exercise power, but it’s not that I don’t “like” anyone. I do my best to keep ideas and the people who espouse them as separate as possible (although, of course, sometimes I fail). And, as I said in the post, I am sympathetic to many of the critiques of preaching that tend to be offered by those in the neo-reformed movement.

      2) As I said in the post, I am all for good preaching. I think preaching ought always strive to be clear, coherent, and faithful to the purposes of Christ, the one to whom all Scripture points. Words and how we use them are very important to me. All I was saying in the post was that there is a structural incongruity between, a) the firm belief that we can never do enough to be saved; and 2) we can, apparently, believe enough (or rightly enough) to be saved. The same sinful nature that affects our desires and actions affects our brains and our cognition, after all. It seems odd to me to rule out doing enough as a matter of theological principle, yet simultaneously almost demand that we believe enough. There is an asymmetry in how things are often presented and it was this asymmetry that I was exploring in the post.

      I don’ t know if this ameliorates any of your concerns or not. If not, I’m happy to dialogue further with you on this. Again, I thank you for taking the time to write, and wish you all the best in your ministry as well.

      (Incidentally, do you serve at an MB church in BC? I was a pastor in the BCMB conference for three years [2008-11]. I wonder if perhaps we would have ran into each other at some point…)

      August 7, 2013
      • Greg Harris #

        Hey Ryan,

        Thanks for responding! I appreciate your feedback and the clarity you provided for me. It sounds like if we had met before that I would have understood you better in the first place. Sorry for misreading your perception of the neo-reformed types, I likely read too much into your post.

        I serve on staff at Northview, so maybe we bumped into each other at a conference meeting at some point.

        Thanks again for your gracious response.

        All the best!

        August 8, 2013
    • Hey Greg,

      Since my Facebook post brought you here, I thought I’d chime in.

      I definitely think we need to avoid either/or approaches. But I wonder in these discussions (and I’m just thinking out loud here) if in our desire to get beyond either/or we still haven’t moved far enough. We now approach faith as “this/then” – e.g. if I do this (good works), then I will come to know Jesus. Or if I believe this (forgiveness of sin), then I will live a life of discipleship. I find the language of “gospel implications” to communicate this ordering.

      A both/and approach is different. It accepts all aspects of the gospel together, at the same time. Ordering of salvation becomes dependent on the situation and the person (and I think there is biblical precedent for such variety). Right beliefs; right actions – all together in the wonderful complexity of the good news of Jesus.

      August 7, 2013
  6. Laura Kalmar #

    Thanks for your post, Ryan. As a children’s pastor, I found myself asking these same questions. When you work with young people who haven’t reached the “age of assent” – yet can experience authentic faith – you begin to ask what faith really is. Is it just about cognitive understanding? (Then how can a five year old pray with absolute trust and fervency, and express a desire to follow Jesus as their “forever friend”?) Doesn’t pistis have to do with our faith IN Christ as well as the faithfulness OF Christ? If faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9), why do we spend so much time trying to manufacture and perfect it ourselves, rather than simply nurturing and growing it by fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2) and marvelling at the mystery of who he is? I think children are quite comfortable with the mystery of faith while adults…. well… we just want to figure everything out! We don’t like messes (unlike kids!) And that’s where the drive to get our beliefs “just right” comes in.

    While I was pastoring in Abbotsford, I had a friend named Dennis. Although he was in his 50s, his mind was that of a child. Dennis had Down Syndrome. He came faithfully to the church twice a week to dust the pews. I’m sure Dennis never once thought about atonement theories or women in ministry leadership or denominationalism. But Dennis knew Jesus. And his genuine, unimpeded worship and prayer – which the staff could hear coming (loudly) from the sanctuary while he cleaned – put us all to shame. Oh, to understand and live the gospel as Dennis did!

    August 7, 2013
    • I like what you say about children, Laura. How very true and important for us to remember. I have learned more about God and faith from my kids than countless theology textbooks. There is a reason that Jesus pointed to the faith of children as a model. Imagine that!

      Thanks also for your story about Dennis. I think God can and does speak loudly through some of the people we are most inclined to overlook or dismiss. We looked after a man with an undiagnosed developmental disability on weekends for a number of years. I would often look with envy upon the simplicity of the way he lived. He smiled a lot, he enjoyed simple things—shovelling snow, mowing grass, taking out the recycling, playing with our kids—and seemed to approach life with a hands-wide-open gratitude. We have no idea how much he could understand, but I don’t think it really matters. He taught me about mercy, about forgiveness, and about trust in countless ways. As you say, oh to understand and live the gospel in this way!

      August 8, 2013

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