Modern Reformation Newsletter © 1991
A young woman has just learned that she has a life-threatening illness which will require immediate surgery and her general physician has offered a few names of competent surgeons. She has two friends who will be walking her through this traumatic experience and each has a different philosophy about it all. One friend suggests that Jane (we’ll call her that, though it’s a terribly common name for ficticious persons) simply take the “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” approach and select the surgeon at random. The other objects to this strategy as “irresponsible.” No, Jane ought to examine the credentials as well as the track records of the various surgeons to select the one who will be most likely to provide successful results. Nervously, Jane finally settles on her surgeon. He is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and has years of successful results in this particular field of surgery. The surgeon even sits Jane down and explains the success she has had. Jane is relieved; though there is the one percent unknown, she is convinced that everything will work out.
Now, Jane had two choices. She could have simply made a blind leap in hope that everything would work out (option number one), or she could have listened to her other friend and made an informed choice that everything would work out. Option number one could have led to her death, but the second resulted not only in a successful operation, but in the very confidence that Jane needed in the first place.
The reason I use an illustration like this is that these two approaches compete for our attention in the Christian life. Some brothers and sisters will try to get us to simply “make a decision for Jesus,” often without giving much content about who this Jesus is, or why he’s worthy of our trust. But, just as the evangelical bumper sticker, “Jesus Is The Answer,” was countered with the world’s more insightful, “If Jesus is the Answer, What’s the Question?”, so the existentialism of decision-oriented religion is similarly flawed. Our faith will only be as strong as we perceive its object to be. For instance, if the first surgeon Jane considered was really a “magna cum lucky” graduate of a mail-order institute in Haiti, the suggestion to “Just have faith” would ring a little hallow. This is because the degree of our trust depends on the trustworthiness of the person in whom we place that trust.
From Genesis to Revelation, we have the record of God’s credentials. The Psalms are especially good at pulling us out of slumps by recounting God’s saving events in the past. “Life stinks,” the Psalmist will say (paraphrased, of course), and then he will turn his focus from himself and his circumstances to the Lord–“But You have delivered Your people from Egypt and even when they rebelled in the wilderness You….” The Psalmist always has something to fall back on. He doesn’t say, “Oh well, praise the Lord anyhow,” or “Keep on keepin’ on,” or “Well, you just ‘gotta believe.” He goes to the file and looks over the old, yellowed clippings that prove God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness not only to him but to a thousand generations.
We will always have brothers and sisters who will wonder if they “really” believe and who will despair of failing to trust God enough for their salvation. During the Medieval period, not only was faith “insufficient” ; it was also “implicit.” In other words, when the Church charged, “Jump!”, you were supposed to ask, “How high?” You needn’t understand what it is you believe, but should just accept it at face value. Calvin complained about this approach by saying, “Many foolishly invent for themselves a faith confused and without any understanding of the Gospel. No word is more commonplace among the Papists than ‘believe,’ but it is said without the knowledge of Christ gained from hearing and understanding the Gospel.” Indeed, we too struggle with these same misunderstandings about the nature of faith. Nevertheless, the “abundance” of that kind of insecurity among contemporary Christians suggests the possibility that we know much less about God, about Christ, and about redemptive history today than we should. Because we do not have the resevoir of knowledge from which to draw concerning God’s attributes, Christ’s person and work, the events of saving history–in other words, the objective, cognitive content of the Scriptures–we lack confidence in God. And so, lacking that knowledge and confidence, we simply will ourselves to believe, in spite of our ignorance.
This is why foreign observers have remarked that “faith in faith is a characteristically American heresy.” One popular bumper sticker sports this proverb: “You’ve got to believe in something–I believe I’ll have another beer.” Jimmine Cricket sings, “When you wish upon a star, it matters not just who you are, everything your heart desires will come to you,” and similarly the church sings, “Only believe, all things are possible, only believe.” The answer is not to have a well-meaning, but misguided brother or sister tell you, “Just believe!”, but to take the advice to check out the credentials of the one whom we call Savior. Is He really worth trusting?
In the end, faith does not save. God will not judge us by a “faith meter,” as if with the angels we were to watch with baited breath to see if it hits the 51% mark. No, faith does not save us, but Christ does by his doing and dying in our stead. And God grants to us these gifts through the means of faith. But it is not on the basis of the act faith, or quality of faith itself, but due the strength of faith’s object.
So take the time this week, this month–make it a priority this year, to dig deeper into the Scriptures to learn more about God and Christ’s mission. Read some nourishing books with a bit of tough theology in them. Check the credentials! Your faith will grow only in proportion to your growth in knowledge. “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God” (Phil.1:9).