Thursday, July 17, 2014

Salvation by the Correct Ideas

In a recent interview with Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer claimed that “salvation by correct ideas” was one thing that had turned him away from biblical Christianity. After all, thinking the right thoughts in order to be saved seems so removed from everything that we regard as meaningful – love, justice, goodness, and relationships. Also, damnation by having the wrong ideas or beliefs seems completely unfair, unjust, and beneath the dignity of God.

There is even some basis for Schaeffer’s indictment. The Bible claims that we are saved by grace operating through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). Faith, to some degree, entails embracing right ideas about Jesus. Doesn’t this mean that we are saved by having the right ideas? Besides, this would also mean that, to some extent, we are damned by having the wrong ideas, right?

Behind Schaeffer’s charge is the assumption that what we believe is arbitrary and therefore, should not carry any moral weight or guilt. Along with this, he asserted that, “Knowing doesn’t make you a better person.” Why then should anyone be penalized for not knowing, especially since knowing isn’t really possible, as Schaeffer claims.

But is there a moral dimension to knowing? Should we be held responsible for not knowing? Sometimes, not knowing is justly punishable. If a student fails to regurgitate the right answers on a test because he didn’t study, he is understandably penalized. However, does this principle also pertain to the Christian beliefs about Jesus? Should we know these facts? Are we accountable when we don’t have them?

What if there is a God who loves us and died for our sins, and what if these truths are knowable? Many say:

  • I am content to know that there is a higher power. I don’t need to know all the specifics. In fact, I don’t think that there is anything we can really know about God.

But what if God is knowable! He was certainly knowable during the ministry of Jesus. He had performed so many miracles that they are acknowledged even by His detractors and their Talmud. These miracles were so compelling that His adversaries wanted to put Him to death because of them. After Jesus brought forth Lazarus from the dead after four days, these adversaries reasoned that He had to be stopped:

  • Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him.” (John 11:45-48)

If miracles did not speak persuasively about Jesus’ divine identity, they would not have constituted a threat to the religious establishment. Nor would the people have believed. Instead the evidence would have to be extinguished.

Clearly, belief and non-belief represented two sides of a great moral divide. Belief loved the light and came to the light. Unbelief detested the light of the evidence – the truth - and wanted to eradicate it.

Unbelief is equated with a refusal to believe despite the overwhelming evidence. The evidence was so compelling that Jesus stated:

  • “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father.  But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:37-38)

Knowing was more than a possibility; it was a duty, a moral obligation to accept the truth. To reject the light of truth brought guilt, as Jesus affirmed:

  • “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin… If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’” (John 15:22-25)

To reject the evidence of Jesus’ miracles, was to hate Him “without reason,” and this carried moral culpability. However, many argue:

  • Well, I have no way of knowing whether or not these miracles really happened. I haven’t seen any, and so I can’t be held accountable for what I don’t know.

As Jesus indicated, ignorance is an adequate excuse, but are we really ignorant? The Apostle Paul argued that we are not:

  • The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20)

God is angry because we do know a lot about Him and yet reject Him. He has stocked our conscience, mind, and the creation with adequate evidences, and yet, we “suppress the truth by [our] wickedness.” In light of this, we are, in a sense, saved by correct thinking, but this correct thinking is available to all. Some will acquiesce to the truth, while others will reject it. Of course, many protest:

  • I don’t have this knowledge of God, and it is not right for you to indict me as if I do have this knowledge.

The Book of Proverbs also affirms that we have the truth but reject it. Wisdom surrounds us, but it tells us uncomfortable things about ourselves, and so we reject it:

  • “Then they will call to me [wisdom] but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me, since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord. Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them.” (Proverbs. 1:28-31)

Wisdom is available but disdained. It’s painful and exposes the truth about us. It carries a “rebuke” that informs us that we are sinners who need the Savior. Therefore, we reject wisdom in favor of our own narrowly self-serving thoughts. We harden our heart against the truth. However, when we do this, we blind ourselves and stumble to our own destruction.

In fact, Scripture hints that, even in the next life, we freely choose the place of darkness because we hate the light (John 3:17-20). How does this great tragedy occur? We cannot stand to face ourselves – our inadequacies, our moral failures, our guilt and shame. We therefore suppress the truth about ourselves in favor of comfortable fictions and self-justifications. We also suppress the knowledge of God along with His judgment of our sins.

You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize these things. So many psychological studies indicate that we are self-deluded. We hate the light and will take extreme measures to avoid or suppress it. We then conveniently cloth ourselves with an exalted, self-serving set of beliefs about ourselves. Psychologist Roy Baumeister reports:

  • There are now ample data on our population showing that, if anything, Americans tend to overrate and overvalue ourselves. In plain terms, the average American thinks he’s above average. Even the categories of people about whom our society is most concerned do not show any broad deficiency in self-esteem.

We do not want the truth if it interferes with our self-esteem. We would rather feel good than think rightly. However, when we reject truth, we also reject God and any correct thinking about Him.

I talk to hundreds of people, even thousands, about God. Although many will admit that the question of the existence and character of God is foundational to all other questions – questions of meaning, morality, behavior, relationships – they refuse to seek God. They protect themselves with excuses like, “No one can really know.”

However, such an excuse is actually a claim to great knowledge, the very kind of knowledge they claim that we can’t have. How do they know that “no one can really know?” Instead, this is a mere excuse, a culpable excuse. In reality, they do not want to know. They correctly sense that the truth might just be too demanding, too confining, or even too accusatory.

In a sense, we are saved by correct thinking and damned by our incorrect thinking. However, this thinking is not devoid of moral significance. Instead, it reflects the very depths of our being, our desires and choices – choices that will either draw us to God or separate us from Him.

No comments:

Post a Comment