If you have heard this once, you have heard it a million times:
Christianity is not about believing the right set of doctrines, nor about following the right set of rules; Christianity is about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
We need to get away from theology and quibbling over doctrine. Theology only divides Christians from one another. Emphasizing doctrine too much causes quarrels and splits among Christian brothers. Surely we are grieving our Lord and breaking His heart when we let merely intellectual beliefs separate us from one another.
Christianity is not a matter of the head; it is a matter of the heart. We need to stop using our heads, stop trying to understand God, and just start loving Him instead. The body of Christ is made up of everyone and anyone who loves Jesus. How can we criticize and call “wrong” anyone whose heart is given over to Him? To criticize people who don’t agree with us just because they have different beliefs is so un-Christian.
There are all kinds of Christians, but we all love Jesus, which is all that God requires. Jesus told us to strive to maintain our unity, and the way to do that is to set our theology aside and get on with the business of loving our brothers and sisters no matter what they happen to believe. As long as a person says he loves Jesus, and as long as he really does, we have no choice but to accept him as our brother without question, without criticism, and without hesitation.
This is a fictional quotation. But it expresses a whole set of widespread sentiments, attitudes, and beliefs in the Christian culture today. Yet nothing in this quote even begins to reflect an understanding of the nature and complexion of true biblical faith. Ultimately, everything about this quote is wrong, rooted in worldly foolishness. Nevertheless, most of us modern Christians are not far removed from the beliefs and sentiments it expresses.
Not long ago, when I was channel surfing, I chanced upon a television Bible teacher sitting on the steps of an ancient building among the ruins of Ephesus. He discussed Jesus’ message to the church at Ephesus as recorded by the Apostle John in Revelation:
…The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you, and will remove the lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God. (Revelation 2:1-11)
Ever since that program I have been reflecting on Jesus’ message to the Ephesians. How different His response to their situation is from how many modern Christians would typically respond. And, indeed, how different what Jesus actually said to the Ephesians is from how His message in Revelation is often construed. Some modern Christians think Jesus is saying something like this:
You Ephesians have been very busy exposing and censuring evil people; you have worked very hard to maintain doctrinal purity by exposing and condemning false versions of Christianity; you have persisted in your belief in the truth and your pursuit of good deeds. But that is precisely what I have against you. Doctrinal and moral purity have been your gods; doctrinal and moral purity have been your pursuit and your obsession. But they are false gods and false pursuits. You should have pursued me instead; you should have learned to love me instead. I am what the Christian life is all about. There is nothing to the life of a believer but to love me, to get to know me, and to grow in a personal relationship with me. You have strayed from that focus; and if you don’t find your way back, you will die as a church and, as individuals, you will forfeit eternal life. So don’t worry about the truth; the truth will take care of itself. Don’t fight with one another about whose doctrine is correct. Tolerate one another’s beliefs. Cut one another some slack. Concern yourself with nothing but loving me.
All too often, the modern Christian assumes that Jesus, like himself, believes that the Christian faith is a matter of the “heart”—not the “head”; he believes we must forsake the rational pursuit of truth for a fervent “love relationship” with Jesus that is rooted in one’s emotions, creativity, imagination, and spirit rather than in one’s intellect. But on closer reading, that is not at all what Jesus was saying to the Ephesians. Rather, He was saying something like this:
I am intimately acquainted with all the good and noble things you have done and the good and noble truths you have stood up for. They have not escaped my notice. I know full-well what credentials you would bring to recommend yourselves to Me: you have faithfully kept the faith in the midst of difficult circumstances; you have worked hard at doing good for others; you have courageously exposed and denounced evil men; you have thought critically about what teachers have taught you and have exposed lies and deceptions when they were advanced, and you have denounced those who sought to propagate them. All these things are true of you; and all of these things are noble, right, and good. But they are not enough; they do not recommend you to me. They do not incite me to praise you. I cannot praise you; for I have this against you—you have left your first love. You have lost the love that you initially had for the promises of the gospel.
When you first believed the gospel, you loved its promises; they were personally meaningful to you; you had a passionate desire to see the fulfillment of all that the gospel promised. But you have lost that initial passion; your hunger and desire for the Kingdom of God has faded; your primary longings have drifted toward other things. You still believe that the gospel and its promises are true; you still acknowledge that, objectively speaking, they are important. You deem them to be so important that you are willing to defend the true gospel against falsehood. But those same promises are no longer subjectively and personally important to you. You no longer have a passionate longing for what they promise. That is seriously wrong. I do not and cannot accept you. You are not pleasing in My eyes. You are children of the devil and not children of the living God. Unless your initial passion for the Kingdom of God still exists and can be rekindled, you will forfeit eternal life.
What Jesus actually said to the Ephesians is so very different from how we are sometimes inclined to understand it. Jesus did not say that the intellectual pursuit of truth is bad; He said it is not enough. He did not say that we should cease to strive for doctrinal accuracy and moral purity. He said that doctrinal and moral purity alone do not justify a person and qualify him for eternal life. Something else is required—specifically, a genuinely profound passion to have what God is offering. If that passion, that love, is not there, then one is not God’s child, and one will not enter into eternal life. But one need not reject theology, doctrine, and intellectual inquiry to enter the Kingdom of God. On the contrary, theology, doctrine, and intellectual inquiry are right, good, noble, profitable, and commendable. (Jesus takes that for granted.) But if they do not ultimately reflect a passion for truth and a passionate hunger for the Kingdom of God, then they are not enough; they are of no avail. They will not justify a sinner before God.
The “just-love-Jesus-and-don’t-worry-your-pretty-little-head-about-doctrine” mentality—which is all too common among us today—has led to a virtual famine of biblical understanding in the modern world. We no longer know what the Bible says, and we no longer care. We are becoming a biblically illiterate culture; and that at a time when we are patting ourselves on the back for our rediscovery of spirituality.
We live in very dangerous times. As I watch Christian culture, read its books and magazines, and listen to its sermons, I am dismayed. The established Christian culture in the world today is becoming shameless in its worldliness; it is becoming silly—to the point of idiotic—in its foolishness; it is becoming openly hostile to what is true; it is becoming proud of its pseudo-virtues—anti-intellectualism, opposition to doctrinal purity, and theological relativism; and it is becoming unreachable in its blindness. Modern Christian culture has lost its way. I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that modern Christian culture has completely cut itself off from the faith of the New Testament and has fashioned for itself an entirely different faith—one the apostles would not recognize. Consequently, life is becoming spiritually treacherous. There are fewer and fewer support structures for those who want to believe and hope in the truth of the gospel as taught in the Bible. It will be manifestly miraculous if any of us persevere in a straightforward, uncompromised belief in the biblical gospel in the days that lie ahead.
From a human perspective, the only way any of us is going to survive is by grounding ourselves in the truth; the best way we can become grounded in the truth is by becoming grounded in the teaching of the Bible; and the only way we can become grounded in the teaching of the Bible is by making its study a priority. And I do mean its study. To a quick and casual glance, the text of the Bible is utterly opaque. A surface look at the text only shows me the reflection of my own prejudices, pre-conceptions, doctrines, and beliefs bouncing back at me off the seemingly impenetrable surface of the text’s incomprehensible language. But to understand the Bible’s actual message, I must work hard to see past the seemingly impenetrable surface to the text’s intended meaning and the Bible’s intended message. I know that it is difficult. I know that it takes time—a lifetime is not time enough. I know that it is painful and arduous and tedious and scary—it is all of that. But the reward could not be greater. It is worth the effort, and we desperately need to make the effort.
We live in a culture that values a fit and trim body so highly that we will exert great effort and devote a tremendous amount of time and energy to whipping our bodies into shape. But relatively few of us will exert an equal amount of effort and devote an equal amount of time to whipping our souls into shape. We are not compelled to study the Bible and assimilate its truth into our souls. We devote more energy to the maintenance and adornment of our houses doomed to be gone tomorrow than we do to our souls which will last forever.
Christian leaders today emphasize spiritual disciplines and worship. These same leaders are largely silent about the importance of Bible study. If they mention the Bible at all, it is as a prop for their spiritual disciplines; it is not the centerpiece of their strategy for promoting spirituality. That is a huge mistake. “Worship” and “spiritual disciplines” are false short-cuts to a pseudo-spirituality. They are hip and trendy. But they are worthless as real solutions to what spiritually ails us.
An “encounter with God” in worship is not going to save my soul; a receptive response to the truth of the gospel will save my soul. A deeper consciousness of the eternal is not going to impart wisdom to me; a thorough grasp of the divine understanding of reality revealed in the Scriptures will impart wisdom. Beating and starving my body will not feed my soul; reflecting on the truth of the gospel in the midst of the sorrow and suffering of everyday life will feed my soul. A fresh and dramatic vision of the transcendent face of God is not going to cleanse my soul of impurity; rather, the hard, existential decision to make righteousness the defining essence of my life will cleanse my soul.
The lack of spirituality in our culture is really a very simple problem. We are a people who stubbornly refuse to confront the truth and do business with it; we are a people who refuse to acknowledge the truth as truth and embrace it with all our soul. The solution, therefore, is simple: we must repent! We must change our minds and make a different choice. We must decide to pursue truth (and the best and most direct way to do that is by pursuing an understanding of the Bible), and we must decide to embrace it with our whole being and to live our lives in the light of that truth. Nothing more—and nothing less—is needed. May God help us all to make that very choice for ourselves.
At McKenzie Study Center, we desire that, by God’s grace, we might lead any of you who are interested into an understanding of the truth that Jesus said will set you free. Our desire is that somehow, by God’s grace, we might stoke the fire of your passion for knowledge, for truth, and for the coming Kingdom of God, and that—upon finding your heart burning for God’s Kingdom—you will discover that you are a child of God, destined for eternal life. That’s why we exist. Let us know if we can help.