There’s always that one moment, most likely in the context of a heated debate concerning an aspect of Christian doctrine within the church, where someone will ask the question: does this issue even matter? does this issue determine whether someone will be saved? … person X disagrees on this issue with us, but he’s still saved, right? If he is, then perhaps the issue isn’t worth debating in the first place, much less is the issue something worth persuading another Christian about.
Behind this question is a genuine and praiseworthy concern. The human mind, with its sinful ego, has certain speculative tendencies. Discussions of theology can at times become so abstract, so above and beyond exegesis, such that one could rightly ask: is debating this issue even important in the first place? In my mind issues of when Christ would return, whether each person has a guardian angel, or whether there are layers of hell, come under this category of unhelpfully speculative topics. Whether an issue is worth debating depends upon the degree to which Scripture is explicit about it, how often it is found in Scripture, and the relation of that particular doctrine to other truths. Whether or not we have a guardian angel, for example, is of a totally different caliber than whether God exists in Three Persons. One is trivial, the other a matter that distinguishes our worship from pagan idolatry. So, whatever I’m discussing here, I do not have in mind overtly speculative topics that the Bible doesn’t address. I have in mind serious issues that do not determine salvation but the Bible nonetheless address rigorously (e.g. our view of the millenium; baptism; predestination; the nature and function of the spiritual gifts; and doctrine of Scripture).
But there is, sadly, another series of hidden and unbiblical motives that often lay behind this question. These motives are often unstated, but time and time again I find that they accurately represent what is in the back of the seemingly pious question. Here are some of the underlying unbiblical motives I detect:
1. Salvation is much like an insurance policy.
Such a question often reveals the false assumption that being saved is much like signing an insurance card. You’ve prayed the sinner’s prayer, you’ve been baptized, or you’ve walked down toward the altar once, and that’s it. So long as we’ve done that, we’re good and we’ll be in heaven. Whatever thoughts we might have of this Savior between then and the future is of little import. Not only does this reveal a faulty operative definition of what faith is, it also reveals that the question-asker has a shallow meaning of what it means to be saved. Being saved is the entrance into a covenant relationship with God in union with Christ. It looks much less like the signing of your name on a dotted line, on a piece of paper that you could forget most of your days, and much more like the day a man and a woman say their wedding vows. Notice the intimate language that describes this covenantal bond between God and his elect in Jeremiah 31:
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord:I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
So, to ask the question: “but is he not still saved?” could very much be analogous to shaking off seeing a couple have an argument, and instead of pressing home to the couple the specific issue on which they disagree, we emphasize that “hey, well at least they are still married.” But that would miss the point. The future health and growth of that relationship might very well depend on establishing an agreement on that very issue. Every married couple can, I think, easily testify that getting married is just the beginning of a long, hard, but enriching path to knowing their partner more and more. Being regenerated, or perhaps, having a good, palpable conversion experience is much like enjoying a honeymoon. But entering into a covenant relationship does not end there. Loving a spouse means that we ought to never stop desiring to know more and more the other person. Love of the beloved entails that knowledge of the beloved is a joyous end in itself. This leads naturally to my second observation. The second operative faulty motive that lies behind the question is also, normally, this:
2. God is not a Person.
Putting the question in terms of a marriage covenant exposes quickly how ridiculous it is to ask “how much do I need to know God?” The person who argues that the only thing a Christian needs to know are the “basic essentials” that are already outlined in the Apostle’s Creed is (it remains surprising to me how few Christians actually know that the Apostle’s Creed even exists!), by analogy, like the husband who argues that all he needs to know about his wife are the “basic essentials.” The wife of the husband would be immediately offended. Indeed, though knowledge of a person and knowledge about a person are two distinct things, knowledge of a person does necessarily include knowledge about the person. God has a distinct name: his name is Christ; YHWH. He is a distinct person, with distinct attributes, loves, and hates. Reflect on the Ten Commandments for a moment with me: what does it mean that we ought not take the name of the Lord in vain or that we ought not erect images of Him? An application of such commandments could be as seemingly trivial as refraining to say “oh my Lord”, or as profound as prohibiting us to think thoughts that are unworthy of God. A man who loves his wife will naturally be offended when an artist draws a painting of his wife that completely distorts her appearance – how much more are Christians to have a holy zeal for the way others describe their Lord. Notice how God rebukes Israel when their functional theology describes God in a way that makes him look too human in Psalm 50:
“These things you have done, and I have been silent;
you thought that I was one like yourself.
But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.
22 “Mark this, then, you who forget God,
lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!
23 The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me;
to one who orders his way rightly
I will show the salvation of God!” (Emphasis mine)
A necessary entailment of being in covenant with God, notice, is knowledge of Him. The third false presupposition, therefore, is this:
3. Love does not involve knowledge
You’ve heard it said before: knowledge puffs up while love builds up. It’s true, people can be driven to pride by their knowledge. And we need to be wary of that sort of prideful tendency. But Paul isn’t against every kind of knowledge. Notice what he says elsewhere: He prays for the Corinthian church so that “in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge” (1 Cor. 1:5). He commends the Romans because “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” (Rom. 15:14) Paul also argued argued that religious zeal without knowledge leads to destructive consequences: “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” (Rom. 10:2) Salvation produces knowledge: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6) On the basis of this knowledge we are called to destroy arguments: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5).
Indeed, Christian maturity necessarily includes knowledge: “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” (Eph. 4:13; See also Phil. 1:9; Col. 1:9-11). Notice in this passage that unity of faith and knowledge of the Son are two inseparable components. We normally think that we ought to abandon talking about truth in order to preserve unity. But alas, unity without truth is superficial, and a facade. Unity and Truth go hand in hand. Christian unity is a unity based on knowledge and truth, and no other.
Behind this is the faulty presupposition also that the Spirit is disconnected from the Word of God. But to the contrary, the Spirit is inseparable from the Word and guides us into the Truth: “13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, butwhatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine;therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (Jn. 16:13-15).
The issue, therefore, is not knowledge but knowledge guided by love. Indeed, love without knowledge is blind feeling; knowledge without love is prideful tyranny.
It will only naturally follow that the fourth faulty presupposition is this:
4. Christian Maturity is undesirable/ Knowledge is irrelevant to maturity
True enough that matters like baptism/ predestination/ covenantal theology may not impinge on a person’s salvation. But these matters greatly impinge on a person’s growth in maturity in the faith. We ought to move from milk to solid food. These topics are expressed explicitly in Scripture and discussed at length for a purpose. And adopting belief in a faulty doctrine will have serious consequences to how we live our faith here and today. Churches are divided on these issues, and thus not all protestant churches are the same. It would be naive to think that these issues do not affect our churches, and even worst that these issues are irrelevant to our lives. God had written all 66 books of Scripture – he did not just write John 3:16. Christians throughout the ages have been known to be people of the book. The Israelites were known for having memorize the law (Yes, this would’ve included Leviticus and Deuteronomy!) by heart. David would meditate on God’s law day and night. It is a shame that nowadays Christian’s fail to know even the basic contents of particular books within Scripture. It is no wonder that Christians are failing to witness effectively to the world: we have often traded in a biblical notion of love to the definition propounded by Friederich Schleiermacher and Oprah Winfrey.
It is, indeed, a great tragedy that churches are split over some of these issues. But to me, as a wise professor of mine said once, it would have been a greater tragedy if the church deemed these issues as not important enough to debate over.