Summary: Seeking God is a lifelong quest for every Christian.
At the beginning of a new year, I like to get back to basics, to talk about the fundamentals of the Christian faith. What are we really doing here? Why do we get up every Sunday morning and come together with other people, to sing songs about God and listen to a talk on religion? Why do we pray, and read this ancient book? Why do we model our lives after the teachings and example of some guru who lived twenty centuries ago? In other words, what’s this all about, this thing called Christianity? What’s the essence of it? What’s at the root of everything we do?
Don’t you want to make sure you have that nailed down? I do. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find out that I’ve been traveling down the wrong path. I don’t want to become so focused on this doctrine and that doctrine, and this activity and that activity, that I lose sight of the main thing, lose sight of the goal. I don’t want to be diligent, and zealous, and wrongheaded. I want to make absolutely sure that I understand, fundamentally, what I’m giving my life to.
Some people regard true doctrine as the essential thing; right belief, right opinions. They derive confidence from the fact that they are Christian rather than Muslim; or Protestant rather than Catholic; or even Baptist rather than Methodist or Presbyterian. They have the truth! They believe all the right things! And certainly, the content of our faith is critically important. But it’s not enough. Because it’s possible to have accurate views of the truth, and yet for that truth not to become a part of you; not shape and transform you. You could sit in a pew every Sunday, hearing and agreeing with everything that is said, and yet in God’s eyes, be no different, fundamentally, than a good, moral atheist. A person could be a professor in a university or seminary; be fluent in Greek and Hebrew; and even publish learned commentaries on the Bible, and yet completely miss the point, if what he knows never makes it into his heart. If you have any doubt about this, listen to the words of James:
"Do you still think it’s enough just to believe that there is one God? Well, even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror!" – James 2:19, NLT
In other words, the demons, whom God has condemned to everlasting punishment in hell, all have a very clear understanding of Christian doctrine. They’ve been in the presence of God. They’ve seen and experienced what we’ve only read about. But it does them no good. It won’t save them. They tremble in terror at the thought of what awaits them on the day of judgment. And likewise, a clear understanding of doctrine, in and of itself, will do us no good. You can be a diligent student of the Bible, an expert on theology, and still end up in hell, along with the demons. Your correct understanding of the truth will not be sufficient to save you. As the author of Hebrews pointed out, referring to the generation of Israelites who died in the desert:
". . . we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith." – Hebrews 4:2, NIV
It’s not enough just to hear the message, or even to judge it, intellectually, as true. It has to be taken into the heart by faith. It’s more than just giving mental assent to the truth. It’s more than just accepting the Bible as being accurate and reliable. It’s a response of the whole person; an embracing of the message; a receiving of it into one’s life that’s required.
Well, some others, understanding that there’s more to it than just having the right set of beliefs, have settled on right conduct as the expression of genuine Christianity. Following the example of Christ. Obeying his teachings. That’s the essence. And certainly, conduct is important. There is an ethical and moral dimension to our faith. God does expect, and demand, that we conform our lives to the standards set forth in Scripture. But is that really, fundamentally, what the Christian life is about? No. What does Paul say?
"For no one can ever be made right in God’s sight by doing what his law commands. For the more we know God’s law, the clearer it becomes that we aren’t obeying it. . . . So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law." – Romans 3:20, 28, NLT
It’s not just a matter of knowing the truth, or even keeping God’s commands. It’s a matter of faith. Accepting what Jesus Christ did on the cross, giving his life as payment for sins, as your own. Trusting in that act of supreme sacrifice to save you from judgment, and condemnation, and hell. Faith is the essence of Christianity. Faith is built on a right understanding of the truth, and it produces right conduct, but the thing at the center isn’t the head or the hands, but the heart.