Back in my crazy Bible college days, like any good Bible college student, I used to have discussions (or debates, depending on who you ask) about big complex theological issues. Often the phrase “salvation issue” would get thrown around. We might be talking about the Trinity and someone would say something along the lines of “It’s important to get this right because understanding the Trinity is a salvation issue.” Or in a discussion about women in ministry someone might say “Look, it’s important but it’s not a salvation issue.” The idea being that there are some Christian doctrines that are important to get right because salvation depends on them while others we can be more flexible with because if you get them wrong you’re still going to go to heaven.
I often struggled with this way of talking and thinking because it always felt like we were saying if you get your theology right you’ll be saved, but I also couldn’t work out any way around this. If you got the central bits of Christian doctrine wrong, say if you believed that Jesus was not God, then how could you still be a Christian? How could you be saved?
Over the years since those Bible college discussions it has become clearer to me that knowledge doesn’t equal faith. I know many people have known this for years, but it has taken me a little while to figure it out. As much as we might act as if it is, correct Christian doctrine is not synonymous with faith. There are not some issues that are “salvation issues”, the correct understanding of which determines one’s salvation, and a secondary category of issues that are not “salvation issue” and therefore do not determine one’s salvation. The only thing that is a salvation issue is trusting in the mercy of God provided for us through Jesus’ sacrificial death. And that isn’t a matter of knowledge but a matter of faith.
Let me put it this way: you can know a lot about a person and not trust them, and you can know very little about a person and trust them with your life. I know more than is necessary about many celebrities and politicians, but I don’t trust many of them. However, every time I board any form of public transport I know nothing about the person driving the bus, train, plane, or taxi, but I am trusting that person with my life. (Though, to be fair, I’d probably let almost any celebrity or politician drive me around if they offered. I’d let John Travolta fly me in his plane.)
In the Bible, time and again, we see faith trump knowledge.
The criminal dying on the cross next to Jesus didn’t know much about him, but he did trust him with his eternal life, and that was enough.
Abraham was unable to put his trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus because Jesus hadn’t turned up yet, yet his faith in the character and mercy of God was credited to him as righteousness.
My disabled sister has rubbish theology, she can’t even tell you where the book of John is in the Bible, let alone quote John 3:16. But I, and all those who love her and love Jesus, have to trust that his mercy can stretch beyond intellectual assent to a specific set of doctrines.
So what’s the point of good doctrine? Is there any point in getting things right?
Of course! Firstly, if you get the knowledge of God wrong, it’s going to be difficult to figure out why you should trust him. If you think that God is waiting for you to live a good life before he lets you into his good books you’re going to be too busy trying to impress him, when you should just be trusting in him. If you’re sure that God doesn’t give two hoots about what you do with your life you’re not going to see the need to trust him or obey him. Or if you don’t think Jesus is actually God then why is his life and death any more significant than any other good person of history?
Secondly, it’s good to know God! Why wouldn’t you want to know and understand as best you can the God who created you and the God who created the universe? And why wouldn’t his kindness and mercy towards you cause you to want to know him more?
Thirdly, knowing God means we know how he created us to live. God as our Father and Creator knows the best way to live and the best way to love him and to love others. We will find this if we constantly seek his self-revelation in his Son and his scriptures.
So what does this mean?
It means you aren’t saved by your theology, you’re saved by Jesus. Jesus and theology are not the same thing.
Those of us who pride ourselves on “good theology” should never get smug enough with our knowledge that we are sure we’re saved. A Bible college degree does not equal eternal security, despite how some of us with degrees may behave. Our pride may keep us from the kingdom much more than any theological misconceptions.
It also means that those of us ministering to others should never mistake well articulated doctrine for faithfulness, nor should we equate poor theology as an indicator of a lack of salvation. We should continually call people to trust in the person and work of Jesus no matter how sure we are of their solid doctrine.
If you’re the sort of person who feels like you’re on the fringes of Christian orthodoxy you can feel like a stranger in your own church, however, your strangeness doesn’t make you an outsider. Despite how we may behave, those of us in the church don’t get to decide if you are in or out. Seek God as he is, and if that means you come out looking a bit odd, so be it. But on the flipside your theological strangeness is not a reason for pride any more than the theologically conservative person’s orthodoxy. Our job isn’t to seek new or interesting ways of interacting with Christian thought any more than our job is to blindly defend old ways of thinking of faith. Our job is to know, trust, and obey God as he wants to be known, trusted, and obeyed – anything beyond that is vanity.
Whoever we are, we need to continually put our trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection to bring us forgiveness for our sins and bring us into new life with God, and continually seek to know and understand God better as he has chosen to reveal himself to us, by his word, in this Son, through his Spirit.
Knowledge can help your faith but it certainly doesn’t save you.