Sunday, September 25, 2011

Doctrine Matters for Life, not Just Theory (“Believing that” rather than “Believing in”)

There have always been two ways to look at theology. The first is to see theology as a set of doctrines to which one must give assent in order to be considered a Christian. For these people, what one believes seals their identity as Christians. In other words, they believe that Jesus died for their sins. Hence, this belief makes them Christians, regardless of how that belief affects their life decisions. It’s the club pledge that makes them a member. To them, belief that the Christian message is true makes them believers. The difference, therefore, between these “believers” and the unbelievers with whom they are acquainted is simply in terms of theoretical knowledge that has been reduced further to a simple opinion or preference of belief, sort of like believing that Chicago Style Pizza is better than New York Style Pizza. It may determine what you personally believe is true, but no one is going to actually drive to either city in order to get their preference if they live in Dallas, Texas.

This is what we call dead orthodoxy. It's mere belief that has no real influence in a person's life. This manifests itself in two ways: (1) the person merely looks at their "conversion" experience when they believed the gospel and prayed a prayer as evidence of their Christian status. (2) the person looks to particular doctrines that they believe as evidence of their Christianity. Both of these forms of dead orthodoxy give a false conviction that one is a Christian merely by his assent to the truth, without his submission to it. In either case, dead orthodoxy fails to note that Christianity is found in the person of Christ. In other words, there is a personal destination to whom the path of orthodoxy leads. Michael Horton sums up this way:

It is the view that faith is in propositions rather than in a person. Instead of Jesus Christ being the object of faith, the doctrines about Jesus become our hope. This is hardly a living relationship with a person, so it is understandable that people with this defective view of faith show little personal interest in God or Christian faith and practice. They've given their assent to all the right things and that is their religion. In fact, they will often fight vehemently for their orthodoxy, but in actual practice, their hearts are far from the One to whom their words refer. (We Believe, 14)

Dead orthodoxy, of course, does not describe someone's emotional state toward their form of Christianity. The person can be excited about Christianity, or simply melancholy toward it. The point is is that their identification as a Christian is due to what they have technically believed to be true, not their employment of those beliefs as a means to serve God in their thoughts, actions, and relationships. So they may appear without joy, or they may be bouncing off the walls for Jesus. Either way, their religion has nothing to do with their daily decision-making, especially in terms of how their lesser relationships are affected by a relationship with God.

The second way of seeing theology is to see it as the definitions that provide boundaries for a relationship with the true God through the real work He has actually done in the world. In other words, right theology only shows the way to a submissive relationship with God and shines the light on our humility toward God to believe in what He has said, so as to destroy, reorder, and rebuild our lives so that they are prepared to receive God’s supremacy in everything we think, say, and do. Theology tells me if I am worshiping the true God or a false one. It tells me if I am approaching Him through the means He has provided for me to do so. It let’s me know how close or how far away my thoughts are from His, so that I can reorient them toward Him. In other words, doctrine isn’t merely something I believe is true, but something that guides my entire way, my whole life, with Christ at the helm. It is relational, and it therefore affects all of my subsequent relationships, as they too must be reoriented toward my worship of God through the truth. Horton again notes:

What we have to realize is that genuine faith-- as knowledge, assent, and trust-- is the act of casting oneself on God's promise in Christ. Faith, this ability to say, "I believe . . .," in more than either an experientialist or intellectualist way, is a gift from God, but it is we who believe. God does not believe for us and the truths do not save us simply by being true. We have to take a risk.
Unlike the detached observation with which a biologist studies organisms under a microscope, the knowledge we have of God is personal, like the knowledge we have of other people. Without knowing something about a certain person, we can hardly entertain a relationship, and yet, knowing things about someone is not the same thing as knowing a person. Knowledge of truth is a means to a greater end, the end of actually enjoying God's fatherly goodness and forgiveness in Christ. In Christian faith, we do not study God and Christian truths as observers, but as players. It demands self-involvement, as we take our stand . . . here we risk ourselves, not merely in terms of being right, but in terms of being saved. God is my God. (We believe, 14-15)

In the former view of theology, I believe the content of something distant from my real life. It’s like rooting for a particular football team. I may have some debates about it, but it largely doesn’t interrupt or interfere with my relationships, as it does not define my primary relationship with God. 

In the latter, however, every lesser relationship is determined by my primary relationship with God, which itself is defined by the truth I believe. Hence, my being a Christian is a label gained from God’s rule over all of my relationships in life as it is itself a designation reserved only for those who have a relationship with God in the truth. In other words, I believe in the truth that Jesus died for my sins as a vehicle of repentance through which I enter a relationship with God that will change all of my other relationships with people, especially my romantic ones. The truth changes my life. It is not merely a list I must believe to be in a club that largely does not affect my most important decisions in life (like with whom I choose to enter into a romantic relationship or even think about doing so). My love for God as a Christian precludes certain types of relationships, as well as certain people with whom I might have had a relationship had I not become a Christian. 

It’s not only the case, therefore, that a genuine Christian can’t pursue a relationship with an unbeliever that does not honor his or her relationship with God (that much is true), but that he or she doesn’t even want to in the first place. The desire to do so evidences a lack in one’s relationship with God, and likely indicates either an unstable immaturity or a complete absence of a genuine relationship with God altogether. 

Hence, many “Christians” who pursue romantic relationships with unbelievers do so because they are, in terms of what makes a real Christian according to the biblical relationship defined therein, unbelievers themselves. They merely have a different set of beliefs about God, but those beliefs do not lead them to the ultimate relationship with God that orients all other relationships toward an obedient worship of Christ. Hence, there is simply no Christ in their Christianity, and that causes there to be no Christ in their other relationships either.

The gospel is simply something one puts in his pocket for judgment day. It is not good news today, since it has not been received in love, and today it seeks to take from me a life I have built in worship of myself. It will be good news then, because the self is in danger of hell. Hence, the reception of the gospel was never to repent and turn over one’s life to Christ as Lord, but to merely preserve an ongoing selfishness to get what we want out of life and to not go to hell for it. It exists as fire insurance, rather than a means through which we must rethink our entire lives (including all relationships that make up our lives).
We can, therefore, begin to understand the seriousness of what kind of romantic relationships we choose to pursue, as well as with whom we pursue them, as they do not simply identify what we do as Christians, but whether we are Christians at all.

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