A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “I'm not just good," Jesus said, "my name is really above the name 'God' when you get down to it. If you want to have eternal life, accept me as your Lord and Savior.” “I do believe in you!" the ruler replied. "I accepted you into my life when I was young!” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “Well, we have to be sure about this. You need to be sure you have a 'saving knowledge' of me. You can't be Catholic or Episcopalian or anything like that, and certainly not Mormon. You have to be a Bible-believing Christian, using and insisting on words that don't appear in the Bible like 'inerrancy' and 'Trinity.' You have to have prayed the 'sinners prayer,' and you have to affirm that you have a 'personal relationship' with me." "Sounds great!" the man said. "I'm a true believer! By the way, I don't have to give my hard-earned money away to the poor, do I?"
Version #1, of course, is the version that actually appears in scripture. So why does version #2 sound so familiar? This story appears in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), and you will search in vain for the place where Jesus gives the common, evangelical answer: "Accept me as your Lord and Savior." Not only that, but there is another passage in Luke 10:25-37 where a different man asks the same question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Greek: zoen aionion. Literally, "life age"). In this instance, Jesus asks the man what he reads in the law. The man answers in the way any good Jewish "expert in the law" would by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 ("Love the Lord your God...") and Leviticus 19:18 ("Love your neighbor..."). Jesus says, "You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live." When the man presses him further and asks, "Who is my neighbor," Jesus proceeds to tell him the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. Today, this is a beloved story, but for Jesus' Jewish listeners, it would have been an appalling story. Samaritans were not just disliked for religious differences; there had been bloodshed. They were the enemy (Amy-Jill Levine, Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2011). If Jesus were here to tell the story today, it might well have been called "The Good Terrorist."
This idea that Christianity is about what we believe has gone unchallenged for too long. Western Evangelicalism continues to relegate Christianity to the realm of abstract belief. Being a Christian, we're taught, boils down to what you believe and know. If you believe and know the right things about Jesus, you are "sanctified" by God and "justified" before God, something that you prove has happened by knowing the right religious lingo, listening to Christian music, and going to church more often. After one "gets saved," it is assumed that they now live with certainty regarding God and their beliefs (instead of the experience of wrestling with God, like Jacob, when God actually messes up our life and has us let go of things once dearly held).
One day I was looking around at different church websites, and ran across a bio for a senior pastor of a non-denominational mega-church. It talked about how he had grown up in the Catholic Church but, through an experience at camp, came to a "saving knowledge" of Jesus Christ. He had found the right version of Christianity.
Let me be very clear: there is no such thing as "saving knowledge." At least, not according to Jesus. No amount or type of knowledge saves us.
First of all, it's a tad arrogant - if not ignorant - to take one small version of Christianity out of the 2000 years and hundreds of denominations of the Christian faith and suggest that you finally got it right.
But the bigger problem is this: Jesus, as he is presented in the gospels, painted a much different and more shocking picture of what "faith" is; what it meant to follow him. His theology (or the lack thereof?) shook up the religious establishment of his day, and it needs to do the same thing in the 21st century.
Before I argue my case from scripture, let's consider this by way of simple examples. If I told you that I believe a chair will hold me up but refuse to sit in it, do I really believe it? If I said that I trust my wife and believe she is faithful to me but I constantly check her phone and email or insist on knowing where she is at all times, do I really trust her? In the same vein, when it comes to faith and belief, scripture puts it quite crudely:
"We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did." (1 John 2:3-6)The distinction here is between abstract or intellectual belief versus manifest belief. Such a disparity is not uncommon in us humans and we are sometimes not aware of it ourselves. It makes for good humor, too. There's a peanuts comic strip in which Linus says, "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand." We may even consciously and sincerely think that we believe one thing, but the real belief - the real truth - can be found in our lived life. I can say that I don't support large corporations that neglect human rights and ethical production, but if I say it while strolling the aisles at Walmart, my actual belief is on display, even though it may escape even me. (Or I'm also reminded of all the people covered by Medicare who showed up at the rallies a few years ago saying, "No government healthcare"). Abstract or intellectual belief is meaningless. Jesus was only interested in manifest belief. For him there was no faith but embodied faith. And he made this clear again and again.
In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus told a parable of two sons, both of whom were told to go work in the field that day. One said he would but did not, and other said he would not but did; the point being that the one who actually worked in the field was obedient. It's almost as if Jesus says in this parable, "You could say no to me to my face and claim you don't believe in me, but if you turn around and follow my ways, you do believe." Does Christianity boil down to our confessional belief? Such passages suggest that it does not. Unbeknownst to many, C.S. Lewis's theology gravitated in this direction later in his life. The clearest example, funny enough, is a quote from Aslan in the The Last Battle, the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia:
"Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me...if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves."In Matthew 7:21, Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father who is in heaven." On several occasions, Jesus used the analogy of a tree and its fruit, saying that you know what something is by what it produces (Matthew 3:10, 7:17-19, 12:33). In John 13:35, Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another." When Jesus called his first followers, he said to them..."Believe in me"? No, he said, "Follow me." These examples only begin to scratch the surface. Perhaps the most disturbing is Jesus' discourse about "the sheep and the goats" in Matthew 25:31-46. Here, Jesus seems to be referring to the end of the age or his return, and he says that he will separate the sheep from the goats; putting some people on his right and some on his left. How are they separated? By who was a Christian and who wasn't? No, there is not a single mention of anyone's confessional beliefs. They are separated according to who fed the hungry, quenched the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned.
Goodness gracious. Jesus doesn't even know his 4 spiritual laws.
Over and over again, all of scripture - and Jesus in particular - tries to pound home the idea that there is no faith but embodied faith. We are what we produce. Jesus showed no interest in confessional belief; in fact, he often seemed worried it would get in the way. When Peter confessed that he believed that Jesus was the Messiah, one of the things Jesus charged him to do was to keep it a secret (Matthew 16:20).
How often does our Christian faith really transform our material existence? How does it affect what kind of car or house we buy? Does it affect how we budget our time and money? Who we associate with? Are Christians known by our radical self-sacrificial lifestyle or the way we love our enemies? As Thomas A. Tarrants III of the C.S. Lewis Institute put it, "Reams of research confirm the simple observation that in many ways the lives of most professing Christians are not much different from their nonbelieving neighbors."
Some may accuse me of preaching "works righteousness" or "salvation by works." Not at all. The scriptures are clear that this is not true as well. Paul was right in Ephesians 2:8-10 that "it is by grace we are saved, through faith..." The problem is in how we have defined "faith" as confessional belief. We've also, through the old revivalism, switched the order of Ephesians 2:8. Look carefully: the only prerequisite for salvation is God's "grace." "Faith" is the conduit; the means by which. Evangelicals have long preached it the other way. We also have to keep reading to verse 10: "For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works..." Some may quote to me other verses which seem to call for the confessional belief type of faith - "believing in God's son." One might be John 3:16. The first thing to remember about John 3:16 is that, when Jesus said it, he was talking to a well-established Jewish leader - a religious insider - not some prostitute by the side of the road. It was in the context of "being born again" (John 3:3). Nicodemus's problem was not that he didn't believe, but that he didn't have real, transformative faith that had flipped his world upside down. We also have to make sure we keep reading past John 3:16: "Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light..." (John 3:19-21, emphasis mine). Or someone might quote John 14:6: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." This verse is often used to argue the exclusiveness of the religion of Christianity when it actually merely asserts the authority and deciding power of Jesus (a key difference). But again, we have to keep reading. Look at verse 12: "Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing..."
Faith has feet.
In Romans 10:9, Paul writes: "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Clearly, this is a call for confessional belief, right? Not so fast. Context and language are important. The word for "saved" (Greek: sodzo) had a much more literal meaning than it has in Christian theology today. It was the word you would have used to describe someone being "saved" from drowning, for example. Salvation was something to be experienced - beginning in the here and now. Plus, this verse was written to the Christians in Rome, and in Rome, it was very politically dangerous to say something like "Jesus is Lord," because such a title was reserved for Caesar. "Caesar is Lord" was a common greeting, and to say that anyone else was Lord was seditious. Thus, this verse in Romans 10:9 is not a prescription of the elements necessary for eternal salvation but a promise of protection for the Roman believers as they proclaimed their allegiance to Christ.
It's not that confessional belief is not important. In fact, it's important to name our faith and our allegiance. It keeps us grounded. But the problem comes when we use confessional belief as the definition or proof of faith.
Faith has feet. There is no faith but embodied faith. Salvation begins today. The call of Christ is to lose our life in order to find it (Matthew 10:39), to find the joy and purpose in following the one who taught radical love and grace. That's what faith is. And I don't know about you, but I don't want to be among the crowd of Pharisees to whom Jesus said, “Woe to you...hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are." (Matthew 23:15)
This post is adapted from its original version as a spoken sermon, and the ideas expressed herein were influenced by the work of theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins.