A couple of weeks ago I visited the YLI TEAM Conference at APU. As always the conference was a blast and the Students were learning great things and being changed for the better. Robin Dugall and staff did a wonderful job.
When I was there I attended the session being taught by my good friend Mike Devries and, as usual, he got me thinking. He was talking about two ways we answer the question: who’s a Christian? There is one school of thought that sees being a Christian as being inside a certain boundary of thought or mental ascent; the boundary being a belief in Christ and/or mental ascent to a list of particular doctrines. This way of thinking leaves us judging based on weather or not someone agrees with us on who Jesus is, what the Bible says, etc. How someone lives their life is incidental (though one might ascribe a level of importance to someone’s conduct). The real question in this school of thought is what’s the box? What do you have to believe?
In another school of thought there is no box at all. There is Jesus and people, some people are closer to Jesus than others and others are farther away and still others are very far away. Every person’s life is headed in a certain direction toward Jesus, away from Him, or something in between. Since there is no box then the primary question of importance isn’t one’s proximity to Jesus or which doctrines one believes in. What someone believes is incidental (though one might ascribe a level of importance to someone’s beliefs). The real question is what direction is one’s life headed; toward or away from Jesus? Then it’s what role does belief and action plays in influencing the trajectory of people’s lives? This School of thought leaves it up to God because only God truly knows the intensions and the trajectory of a person’s mind. Our role as Christians is to guide that trajectory as best we can.
So does Gandhi get to go to heaven? It depends on the school of thought you’re in but if you’re in the latter it depends on the trajectory of his life.
Mike got my thinking started but Philip Jacob Spener made me realize this tension between judging by how someone thinks and how someone lives is nothing new. Spener lived in the 1600’s and the beginnings of the Pietism Movement are mostly attributed to him. I’ve been reading his work: Pia Desideria or Holy Longings. In it he criticizes the preachers of his time for knowing their faith but not living “the life of faith”:
“to be sure, as others have acquired knowledge in their fields of study, so these preachers, with their own human efforts and without the working of the Holy Spirit, have comprehended and assented to true doctrine, and have even known how to preach it to others, but they are altogether unacquainted with the true, heavenly light and the life of faith.”
He also quotes Gregory Nazianzen, the 4th century theologian, saying:
“We are all godly people for this one reason that each one of us condemns the rest as godless… we judge who are good and who are evil, not according to their life but according to their doctrinal agreement or disagreement with us… There are some who quarrel about trivial and useless things, rashly and foolishly claim as many adherents as they can find, and then put up a defense as if the faith were at stake; thus this excellent name is weakened by their own strife and contention.” (Pia Desideria, p. 49-50)
Spener also quotes Dr. David Chytraeus from the 1500’s saying “That the study of theology should be carried on not by the strife of disputations but rather by the practice of piety.”
Even in the 4th century, the 1500’s and the 1600’s people were sick of the fighting over who’s in and who’s out. They desperately wanted to see Christianity lived out rather than argued about. For them it was all about the direction of one’s life not merely mental ascent to doctrine(s).
Spener later says “we are so far from a sincere practice of real brotherly love that we can hardly believe what is requires” (p. 62.) And how true is this for us today. We hide behind doctrine so that we are free from actually having to live out what it means to follow Christ. As the great theologian Soren Kierkegaard put it:
"The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obligated to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget anything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the Living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament."
What if we stopped arguing about who is in and who is out just long enough to embrace the mystery of actually following Christ, just long enough to love people?
“If there is any prospect of a union of most of the confession among Christians, the primary way of achieving it, and the one that God would bless most, would perhaps be this, that we do not stake everything on argumentation… I adhere to the splendidly demonstrated assertion of our sainted Arndt in his True Christianity, ‘Purity of doctrine and of the Word of God is maintained not only by disputation and writing many books but also by true repentance and holiness of life.’” (Pia Desideria, p. 99-100)It’s all about trajectory of life, actually living the faith, which is a dangerously mysterious thing.