“How far is too far?” Growing up in conservative evangelicalism, that question was common in youth group. Of course, we were talking about physical intimacy. When everything’s reducible to making a rule or breaking a rule, it’s important to know when you’ve “crossed the line.” I’m not downplaying the importance of guiding young people through the mysterious era of puberty—and even in suggesting wise guidelines where there is no clear chapter and verse. But when “How far can I go?” is the main question, we’ve already lost too much. It suggests that character has not been formed by life in a particular community—especially home and the church—when people just want you to net it out for them like that. Usually we ask that question when we’re just about to dive in. We just want to know when to push the eject button.
A similar phenomenon happens when people ask, “How much do you need to know to be saved?” It’s like asking, “How ignorant can I be?” At one end, there’s the official Roman Catholic answer: assent to everything the church teaches. It’s called implicit faith because you can’t possibly know for yourself everything that the church teaches. The Geneva reformer John Calvin described this view as ignorance disguised as humility. At the other end, there is that line from evangelist D. L. Moody: “I can write the gospel on a dime.” How much do you need to know? Enough to lead someone to Christ in an elevator.
We recall the question of the rich young ruler. Assuming that he had so far done everything he knew to do, he asked Jesus, “What’s the one thing I have to do to be saved?” Jesus pressed him to face the full brunt of the law, showing him that he had not even begun to fulfill the duty of loving God with total devotion and loving his neighbor as himself. As confessional “Reformation” folks, we get that. However, we are so good at works-righteousness that we merely shift the bar of merit from things we do to things we know.
According to Scripture, the object of our faith is neither our actions or our knowledge, but the person of Jesus Christ. Of course, trusting a person involves knowledge and assent, but we’re saved by Christ, not by doctrines. The purpose of the doctrine is to direct us to the right person and to keep us looking to him until that day when faith yields to sight.
In his Great Commission, Jesus called his disciples to go to the whole world preaching the gospel, baptizing, and teaching them to observe everything he had delivered. He mentions things in a certain order: faith comes by hearing the preached gospel, converts are baptized along with their children (you knew I had to say that), and then is set for a whole life of learning everything. The “learning everything” part of it is not the condition for salvation, but the wonderful privilege of unpacking the gifts we’ve been given for the rest of our life. Faith is not mere assent to truths, much less blind submission. It’s trust in Christ. To trust in someone, you have to know something about them and have some confidence that they can do what they promise. However, faith is not saving as a virtue in itself, but because it embraces Christ who is our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. A weak faith clings to a strong Savior.
Our faith in people rises or falls with the reliability of their word. We lose our faith in a friend who promises something over and over again but never comes through. We stop believing what he or she says. A broken marriage vow cuts the cord of trust. In many cases it can be repaired, but it doesn’t come quickly. Instead of focusing on our faith, we should focus on the Triune God as the promise-maker and promise-fulfiller. Look at the history of God’s promises and his track-record in delivering. That’s what the prophets do when they contrast the reliability of Yahweh with the breathless idols. Look especially to the one in whom all of these promises reach their goal: Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return in glory at the end of the age. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20).
So we can err in either direction.
The first error is to assume that we only need to know the bare minimum that is necessary for salvation. There are too many exhortations in Scripture to go on to maturity, to grow up into Christ through the knowledge of his transforming word, and so forth. Discipleship is first and foremost a humble eagerness to hear every word that comes from the mouth of our Lord. However untaught and even confused we have been, we are called to grow up by instruction and participation in God’s means of grace. How much do we need to know? Everything.
The second error is to assume that we need to know everything correctly in order to be saved. Who among us can claim that without delusional pride? According to the Great Commission, unbelievers hear the gospel, believe, and are baptized. Then they go on to maturity. If it’s unbiblical to require people to yield blind assent (implicit faith) in everything the church teaches, it’s also unscriptural to require them to have explicit knowledge of and assent to everything Scripture teaches. Indeed, there is no expectation in Scripture that one knows explicitly even everything that is important.
Reacting against the first error, many freshly-minted reformers veer toward the second. We call it the “cage phase,” when those who’ve just discovered the doctrines of grace wonder if they were truly believers before—and question the status of everyone else who remains under the pall of ignorance. After all, Arminians believe in free will and deny God’s electing grace. They believe that people can lose their salvation if they don’t cooperate with God’s grace. How could they possibly be true believers? Aren’t they trusting partly in themselves and partly in Christ? Ironically, we end up advocating salvation by works just as surely as our worst fears concerning others. We’ve just shifted the basis from moral to doctrinal correctness. In my own cage phase I wondered if I was even a believer experiencing the “Romans revolution.” Looking back on it now, I can see how God used those early years at home and in church as crucial for developing a love for and basic knowledge of God’s Word through which God led me to the doctrines of grace. With every growth spurt, I marvel at my spiritual immaturity that, at the time, seemed like quite an advance on the previous stage. Shouldn’t that lead me to a little humility about where I am now?
How much did those folks know in order to be converted in Acts 2? God has fulfilled all of his promises to Israel in Jesus Christ, specifically in his death and resurrection. “What must we do to be saved?”, they asked. Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Ac 2:38). A drowning person doesn’t need to know a lot about the rescuer in order to place his or her confidence in that person.
Question 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” Answer: “Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are [Rom 3:9-10; 1 Jn 1:10]; second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery [Jn 17:3; Ac 4:12; 10:43]; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance [Mat 5:16; Rom 6:13; Eph 5:8-10; 2 Tim 2:15; 1 pet 2:9-10].” Each of these is simple enough to know in order to cling to Christ and yet deep enough to swim in throughout one’s life without touching bottom.
Trusting in a person, based on certain promises this person has made, can coexist with confusion and ignorance. One may trust in the Triune God known in Christ as he is clothed in the gospel without being able to pass a doctrinal exam. At the same time, we go on to maturity, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Savior, because we want to understand the richness, depth, and vastness of our inheritance in Christ. Faith is constantly threatened by doubts, anxieties, and circumstances; it needs to be fed regularly by God’s Word, grounded in his gospel and guided by his law. A knowledge of the gospel that you can write on a dime may direct you to Christ, but it will hardly sustain you during the crises of life. And sooner or later, it will be taken for granted like the alphabet—perhaps even forgotten.
Yes, ignorance and perhaps confusion, but what about outright denial: heresy? I’ll take up that one in the next post.