Monday, September 10, 2018

TTT #24 Who We Believe In is More Important than What We Believe

Although I have sought to make my as yet unpublished book Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT) of interest and of relevance to people who are not Christians as well as to those who are, this chapter speaks mainly to those who are (or have been) a part of the Christian faith.
Shifting Away from Jesus?
In recent years it seems that there has been an increasing shift away from the centrality of Jesus Christ in the thinking of some Christians.
It would seem that for Christianity to be considered as primarily about faith in Jesus would be a foregone conclusion, but there are now some Christians who seek to downplay the significance of Jesus for the sake of fostering better relations with people of other faith traditions
Christ and Christianity are largely relativized.
It is a shameful historical fact that Christians have often mistreated those of other religious faiths, and the move toward a position of respect for those who embrace different views is highly commendable.
But to what extent can one downplay the divinity or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and still be a Christian in any meaningful sense?
Believing in Jesus
As I was working on this chapter, I just happened to read (again) the story of Augustine’s conversion. Upon hearing a child’s voice saying, “Take and read, take and read,” Augustine picked up the Bible and opened it at random to Romans 13:13-14. 
Those verses renounce the type of profligate life Augustine had lived for years. But they also, significantly, contain the words, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Augustine went on to become a committed Christian and then a great theologian. Some call him “the father of Western theology.” But his conversion experience was not nearly as so much in what he believed as in whom he believed.
His faith was “putting on” the Lord Jesus Christ. It was not his belief about Jesus but rather his belief (trust) in Jesus that formed the foundation for all he later wrote about belief about Christ.
When I was a teenager, I remember hearing Baptist preachers emphasize, fairly often it seems, the difference between believing in and believing that. The latter, of course, is about what we believe, but the former is about whom we believe.
Believing that has to do with intellectual assent to statements or propositions. Believing in has to do with trust in a person. That was, and is, an important thing to emphasize, and people still need to recognize that difference.
Trusting in Jesus
In many of those church services where believing in was emphasized, “Trust and Obey” was often sung as a congregational hymn. The words of that old hymn were based on a testimony given by a young man in an evangelistic meeting led by the famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody.
It was quite apparent from the young man’s words that he knew little about Christian doctrine, but he finished his testimony by saying, “I’m not quite sure—but I’m going to trust, and I’m going to obey.”
Belief that is merely intellectual assent and often has little relationship to how one actually lives. Belief equated with trust, however, is much different: it means commitment to the one in whom that trust is placed—and when belief is trust, it includes obeying.
For Christians, what they believe about Jesus—and the many other doctrines of the faith—is important. But as human beings, whether people believe/trust in Jesus or in some other savior, teacher, guru, or whomever is of the greatest importance.
Truly, who we believe in is more important than what we believe.
[Here is the link to the entire 24th chapter, which I encourage you to read.]


  1. Thinking through this one. Hopefully God extends grace to those who pursue the Unknown God/ Creator. CS Lewis seemed to think He would. I have watched many "Christian" friends punt the faith. I observe "Christian" European exchange students express their belief in (non-militant) atheism. This morning I was reading a posting by an Anglican Priest friend quoting J Sidlow Baxter - "Fundamentally, our Lord's message was Himself... He said, "I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.""

    Most religions seem to be pretty exclusive. In the early stages (first four years) of my sojourn, I was able to isolate the truth claims down to Jesus Christ. (a Messianic Jew, a Lutheran biology teacher, a Catholic Priest, and a Baptist missionary were helpful in that - plus direct observation of several religions - pagan, Suni Islam, Hare Krishna, Hindu, Baha'i, and many brands of Christian - Friends, 7th Day Adventist, Presbyterian, Lutheran (German and American), Baptist (fundamental and evangelical and Swiss), Methodist, Anglican, Church of Christ, Roman Catholic, St Thomas (India).

    Although settled on Christ, I still struggle in the sojourn, like Moody. Sometimes I would like to pitch it all - there is so little of "Love One Another", or unity among those devoted to Christ. What we believe effects how we live and behave. And yet, like most of them, I cannot reject Him.

    1. This article is not about those who are cultural Christians but about those who believe/trust in Jesus. If those who claim to be devoted to Jesus don't love others, whether other Christians or just other humans, it is doubtful that they really trust in Jesus, whose central teaching was about love--which I will be writing more about in my 9/20 blog article.

      My central point is that it is not what we believe, but who we believe--that is, Jesus for those who are Christians--that determines how we live and behave. And I am convinced that the more we believe/trust in Jesus, the more we will love others.

    2. Thank you. I look forward to 9/20.

  2. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky shares this brief, but highly pertinent, comment:

    "I agree fully, Leroy. Anyone who reads the Gospel according to John will understand this very decisively from his formula 'pisteuein eis,' which means 'commit yourself to' rather than 'believe that.'"

    1. I agree. I sometimes translate "pisteuein eis" as "believe into." There is this note of incorporation, perhaps even baptism in the background.

  3. This is an important point you've made, Leroy. I've long thought that the best synonym for "faith" is "trust." However, I'm at a bit of a loss to say precisely what that means. "Trust and obey" is a marvelous old gospel tune, but I've argued elsewhere that we in Christianity need to discard the concept of "obedience" because of the understandable difficulty of distinguishing between obedience to God and obedience to some representative/representation of God. My best guess is that it boils down to the call to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as oneself, which was probably Jesus' central message. The latter part of that call is quite clear and clearly understood, however difficult to execute in the complexity of real life, but the former part -- love God with one's whole being -- is much more problematic in terms of saying what that means for the sentiments and the practical actions of one's life.

    1. Thanks, Anton, for your thoughtful comments.

      Yes, there is a problem with the concept of obedience--especially if or when it gets tied up with obedience to religious (or even political) people of power.

      But I think, as you say, obedience to Jesus means responding affirmatively to Jesus' "call to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as oneself." That is the sort of obedience I have in mind when I think of the old hymn "Trust and Obey"--which I realize I haven't sung for quite a long time.

  4. When our oldest child was four, my wife and I were recruited to teach the kindergarten Sunday School class at our church. Well, that first year we learned more than the children. One lesson I especially remember. A girl in class was struggling with her parents' pending divorce, which left her naturally unsettled, and rather rowdy. Then one day the lesson was about Jesus calling the children to Him. I talked about a large mural in the hallway showing Jesus with the children. I pointed out we had a small version of the same theme on our wall. I talked about "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." My wife started sending signals I needed to wrap up.

    Then the girl suddenly leapt across the circle and jumped into my lap, still looking up at the picture in our room. After that, she was my friend for the rest of the school year. There was no slow, sad "Just as I am" for her. She had heard the good news and came running.. As I said, we learned more that year than the children did. Decades later, I still take a turn every few weeks with the children in preschool during worship, because that girl taught me just how much impact our witness can have on a young life. All the doctrine that girl asked for was "Jesus loves me."

  5. My atheist friends have a slogan: “People are more important than beliefs.” For me, Jesus gives me the reminder and motivation I need to prioritize people. That reminder and motivation would be a lot less powerful if I thought Jesus was just one guy with good ideas among many.

    Though I’ve wrestled over recent years about the historical events in first-century Palestine—particularly “how Jesus became God,” as Ehrman puts it—I’ve come to think that those events, however we explain them, were central to the whole point of the creation of the universe and us. I know of no one else who has spoken so clearly about what the world needs now, and if this isn’t the voice of God … it ought to be.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Fred!

    I am rather negative about what Ehrman, and others like him, says about Jesus becoming God. Rather, I think the key is in understanding the paradoxical claim that Jesus was at one and the same time a first-century Palestinian Jew--and the cosmic Christ.

    Failure to affirm that paradox, I think, leads to a misunderstanding of Jesus and his centrality to not only the Christian faith but to "the whole point of the creation," as you put it.

  7. About an hour ago I received the following comments, which are like a personal testimony, from Thinking Friend Michael Olmsted in Springfield, Mo.

    "Christian faith is not about buying into a specific list of doctrinal statements, being baptized into your family's church, or joining a denominational group. I grew up in a 'Christian' family whose members belonged to several different denominations. I learned it was very important to believe in God and maintain moral behavior. I successfully completed catechism, was baptized, and qualified to participate in communion.

    "But over the next five years, living in many different states and countries, I encountered many different ideas about faith in God and began to be impressed that some 'believers' were very different … their faith in God appeared to be personal … their morality was more than keeping the rules and doing the rituals. I could answer doctrinal questions but the idea that God knew me as an individual and I could love God like I understood love in a family context was an odd idea.

    "The climax came my junior year in high school when I was accosted repeatedly by
    'evangelical' students. They turned me off. The idea of God loving me individually and my
    being 'a child of God' in a personal sense was strange.

    "It literally came down to a midnight struggle in my bedroom, while trying to make sense of this God who loves each one of us. I pulled the Bible my grandmother had given me years before off my bookshelf and began to read the gospels and Paul. There it was! God in Christ became like me, human and wrapped in the events of the real world! I was captivated, surprised, struck by the idea of any kind of intimacy with God. What to do?

    "There was no pastor to guide me to say the right words, craft a full-blown theology of salvation, pass a doctrinal exam. I prayed in a rather stumbling fashion, telling God I wanted to love him back and be one of his children. There was no flash of lightning, no voice in the darkness, only a deep sense that God was with me, really with me for the first time. Looking back, I realized that for several years God had been placing in my path individuals and experiences that gently led me to faith in Christ.

    "After this new birth experience I understood there was much I needed to learn if I was to live a Christian life. And it was clear that this new life, shaped by doctrinal ideas, had to be more than a pursuit of theological ideas. I am still learning (at 76) what it means to be a child of God … but as on that night of spiritual birth, I know this life is more about trusting God in Christ than voicing doctrines. It is important to have a sound theological foundation, but nothing substitutes for faith in the Christ.

    1. Michael, thank you so much for sharing this wonderful testimony! You made it very clear that who we believe is much more important than what we believe.

  8. Thinking Friend Les Hill in Kentucky wrote about the problem he has seen in Baptist circles relating to the downplaying of the centrality of Jesus. In that connection he informed me about the "Jesus Worldview Initiative" developed last year by John Pierce and Bruce Gourley, who are two of my Thinking Friends.

    For more on the need for focusing on a Jesus Worldview, click below to read “The Absence of Jesus: How Christianity Is Being Redefined Apart From Its Main Character” by Bruce Gourley and John D. Pierce (Nurturing Faith Journal, Nov.-Dec. 2017). (John is the editor of the Nurturing Faith Journal, which was formerly published as Baptists Today.)