On Bare Christianity
“Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…'” – Acts 16:30-31.
The Philippian jailer’s exchange with Paul and Silas presents one of the easiest and best scriptural summaries of what we must do to be saved: just believe. Faith in what Jesus has done, and trust in nothing else, is all we bring. We merely respond to what Christ has accomplished.
The clarity and simplicity of this exchange have also been used as part of evangelicalism’s problem of mere Christianity. It is not uncommon for an evangelical theological discussion to barrel towards the question, “Well, is that belief essential to Christianity?” Or the variant, “Is believing that necessary for salvation?” And what is really being asked is, “Does coming down on different sides of this issue mean that one of us is not saved?” with the implied answer being in the negative. The thought is that this is the attitude of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” This is the biblical foundation for the idea that there are doctrines of primary and secondary importance, rather than all being of equal weight.
In practice, the application in evangelicalism is if the issue does not impact our salvation, it is something over which we can comfortably disagree or be indifferent. If the doctrine is not essential to the reply of Paul and Silas, there must be liberty. It is the spirit of, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity”, which is the motto of my own denomination, often erroneously attributed to Augustine. All of this tends to be a cultural reality, rather than being de jure theological position of most evangelical groups.
However (with me there must always be an however);
There has been a smuggling in of conclusions into the question. Now, this is question of a general evangelical posture towards theological difference rather than specific work or denomination. But I think it is true that many Christians pursue a theology of the lowest common denominator, a merely Christian faith that is mistaken for a pure faith stripped of its trappings.
Humanity was created to glorify God and enjoy him forever. God establishes, and then reveals by his word, how that is to be done. Redemption in salvation is God restoring a broken people to himself so that we may glorify him. To ask the question, “Is this belief essential to salvation?” as if that settles its importance, is admitting to believing (consciously or otherwise) that all that is necessary to glorify God is to be repaired by him. As John Calvin put it, “To debate about the mode by which we obtain salvation and say nothing of the mode of worship in which God may be duly worshipped [glorified], is too absurd!”
The question that needs to be asked is, “Is this doctrine and practice presented by God in scripture as central to glorifying him?” Having that question direct how we handle theology and worship will inevitably lead away from a bare Christianity to something much richer.