Salvation by Ideas? God Forbid!

Paul repeatedly warns people about having a "Christian Faith" that is simply about knowledge.

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.


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.”

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