Faith vs. belief (Pt. 4)

January 28, 2015 | Viewpoints | Number 3
Troy Watson |

When I first started hanging out with Mennonites in the 1990s, I noticed a lot of them talked more about the Sermon on the Mount than the cross. They seemed to have a different gospel than the one I was raised with. The gospel of my childhood was simple: Jesus died for my sins, and if I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour I was saved from everlasting hellfire.

My conversations with these Mennonites rekindled suspicions I already had about this version of the gospel. For starters, nowhere in the Bible does it mention accepting Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Saviour.

So I asked my new Mennonite friends about their gospel and one of them summarized it this way: “The gospel is the totality of Christ, not just his death and resurrection, but also his example, his teachings and his life. His being is the essence of the gospel.”

At first, this seemed obvious. Of course, Jesus is the gospel! However, upon further reflection, I realized this Anabaptist approach had a substantially different focus than my childhood faith. And I found it very compelling.

You see, as a teenager I was consistently puzzled by Jesus’ teachings. His message didn’t sync with my fundamentalist understanding of salvation. I was repeatedly told the only thing I needed to do to be “saved” was to believe that Jesus died for my sins and accept God’s free gift of salvation. But Jesus seemed to add a lot of confusing clauses to this alleged “free” gift.

Here are a few snippets of my conversations with Jesus during high school:

• “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Wait, I have to do God’s will? I thought I just had to believe? This sounds like a salvation based on “good works” to me.

• “An expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What is written in the Law? What do you read there?’ The man replied, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.’ Jesus replied, ‘You have answered correctly; do this and you will live’ ” (Luke 10:25-28).

Wait a minute, Jesus. Loving God and other people is how I inherit eternal life? That doesn’t make sense. I thought eternal life was a “free” gift I received by believing?

• “I tell you, on the day of judgment everyone will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36).

Excuse me, Lord? Did you say, by my words I will be justified or condemned? I thought I was justified by faith alone, by believing in you and your redemptive work on the cross. Isn’t that what faith is? What does the way I talk have to do with justification?

• “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).

Seriously? I thought I received God’s forgiveness by believing that you paid for my sins on the cross? Are you saying God’s forgiveness depends on my extending forgiveness to others? It seems like you’re much more concerned with what I do than what I believe, Jesus.

• “Then Peter said, ‘Now I understand that God doesn’t play favourites. Rather, whoever respects God and does what is right is acceptable to him in any nation’ ” (Acts 10:34-35).

Is Peter out to lunch here, Jesus? He seems to be saying God accepts anyone from any background as long as they respect God and do what is right. No mention of beliefs whatsoever. Don’t some people from other religions fit this description? This sounds like heresy, Lord.

These are just a few of the Bible passages I struggled with as a youngster that eventually planted seeds of profound mystery and transformation in my mind, heart and soul. I’m now convinced that whatever Christian faith is, it’s definitely more than believing a bunch of things about God and Jesus.

Troy Watson is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church, Stratford, Ont.

—Posted Jan. 28, 2015

See others in the series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3 

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