In the past decade and a half in one particularly small pond, a whole lot of folks have spilled a whole lot of ink on the question of what, exactly, one has to believe in order to have everlasting life. Some folks favor a focus on the promise of eternal life itself; others prefer to focus on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus; there’s debate about whether someone has to understand the deity of Christ; whether repentance is required (and what exactly repentance would mean in that context), and so on. Stacks of arguments have been exchanged, and–more’s the pity–not a few anathemas.
But the presumption of the whole debate is that there’s a magical Stack ‘O Propositions somewhere in the platonic aether: believe all the propositions, and “Achievement Unlocked!” A trumpet sounds in heaven, angels dance, and you’re saved; miss one, and you’re not there yet. The whole debate is just about what’s in that stack.
The whole debate is fundamentally wrongheaded. Propositions are necessary, but they’re not stained glass; they’re plate glass. You’re not meant to look at them, but through them, at Jesus. The evangelistic passages in Scripture are a series of windows in the same wall, with Jesus standing outside on the lawn waiting for you to look and live. Does it matter which window you look through? Start anywhere; look through them all eventually. Certainly they’re all profitable — we should be interested in looking at our Savior from every angle we can reach.
He, not the propositions, is the object of your faith. However defective you may be, however defective your theology may be, if He is the one you’re trusting, you will be saved. Conversely, however flawless your propositions, if in the end you’re trusting your theological acumen for assembling the right set, you are failing to grasp the heart of the gospel. Eternal life is knowing a person, not theological safecracking.
Now, to some people, “knowing a person” sounds hopelessly vague and subjective. And you know what? It is subjective! Knowing a person can’t be purely objective; there’s no way to take the personal element out of personal knowledge. But it isn’t vague.
When you know a person, you know that particular person. When you know Jesus, it’s Jesus that you know: a particular person, the one that John baptized and that turned water to wine and that died for your sins and rose from the grave and ascended to the Father’s right hand where He intercedes for you — that one, not not Frank or Harry or Susan or Hay-zoos the taco truck guy.
“Ah,” says the proposition-meister, “but all those are propositions about Jesus.”
Well, let me be the first to say duh. Again, propositions are windows. You look at Jesus. He’s the one you’re knowing. Peter got some of those propositions wrong, once upon a time. Argued with Jesus about whether He was going to die. He still knew Jesus, didn’t he?
So why does this concept of knowing a person feel so hopelessly vague to some people? I’d suggest it’s because they have a prior commitment to a philosophical construct wherein faith is defined as persuasion of a proposition, and can’t be conceived of in any other way. From that vantage point, talking about faith in a person is at best shorthand for an implicit proposition, and at worst hopelessly vague.
There’s two problems with that view. The first is that the Bible regularly talks about faith in a person. We can’t be critical of how God actually says things. The second problem is that there’s not necessarily a good reason to concede that philosophical construct.
Moreover, if we follow the proposition-hunting to its logical conclusion, it necessarily leads down a particular road. If saving faith is nothing but faith in a saving proposition, then what’s the “saving proposition”? That question can only take us to one of two places. Either we conclude with Gordon Clark that there appear to be multiple saving propositions, any one of which will suffice (an option Clark seems to have found embarrassing), or we end up in a bitter fight over various options that can’t be ruled out. The latter option has been rather thoroughly explored over the past decade and a half, and I think we can safely say it sucks. If you end up down a road where there’s only two forks, and both of them are wrong, then you took a wrong turn a ways back, didn’t ya?
The wrong turn was taking faith as merely propositional. Faith is irreducibly personal; saving faith is trusting the right Person to save you. “Believe in Jesus” is the precise statement; the various “believe that” statements are looking at the same Person through different windows.