Faith can come in many forms and look as different as the individual who practices it. It can be generally categorized along the lines of the sect of Christianity one follows. Over the centuries the understanding of the dynamics of faith have changed quite dramatically as branches of Protestantism split repeatedly. Ignoring the manifestations of faith which are aberrations of the standard of faith, such as Word Faith or Prosperity Gospel and condemned heresies like “Oneness Pentecostalism” (historically known as Modalism, Monarchianism, or Sabellianism) there remains a somewhat varied approach to it.
In the Beginning
Usually the first glimpse of a sect’s approach to faith is seen in the manner in which individuals become a member of a certain church. For evangelical churches or even those not necessarily associated with a known individual church, becoming a Christian period is simply a matter of saying what’s commonly called “The Sinner’s Prayer”. It has no fixed form and since most evangelical leaning Christians eschew anything labeled formulaic¹, the prayer only contains general bullet points regarding the sinners confession of sin, helplessness without Christ, and a dedication to the Savior. In general though the prayer goes something like this:
“Lord Jesus Christ,
I am sorry for the things I have done wrong in my life. I ask your forgiveness and now turn from everything which I know is wrong. Thank you for dying on the cross for me to set me free from my sins. Please come into my life and fill me with your Holy Spirit and be with me forever.
Thank you Lord Jesus, Amen.”²
However, even though it is not considered a formulaic incantation, most evangelicals consider a sincere soul as having been “saved” after this. In many evangelical circles this is Assurance of Salvation, the loss of which is not thought possible. Afterward, “… all you need to [do is] get into a bible-based church, and study God’s Word. Once you have found a church home, you will want to become water-baptized. By accepting Christ you are baptized in the spirit, but it is through water-baptism that you show your obedience to the Lord. Water baptism is a symbol of your salvation from the dead. You were dead but now you live, for the Lord Jesus Christ has redeemed you for a price! The price was His death on the cross. May God Bless You!”³
Slightly overwhelming as a new Christian, don’t you think?
Most of the time, though, one is already in attendance at a church and there is what is known as an “Altar Call” (This is bit of ironic vernacular since evangelicals eschew the concept of an altar in the church) where the entire church is invited to bow their heads and “ask Jesus into their hearts” then the individual can come forward to the front of the church in front of God and everybody while they’re singing a hymn to speak with the pastor and afterward it is announced that the individual has prayed this prayer and accepted Jesus and afterward they go through a symbolic Baptism.
For mainline Protestants this is a much more private matter. They do not have altar calls and it is up to the individual to decide to follow Jesus for themselves. They would refer to the act of committing one’s life to Jesus as “following Jesus” or some such similar nomenclature but usually they do not follow the vernacular of referring to the act as “being saved”. There isn’t a concept of Assurance of Salvation with mainline Protestants therefore the Sinners Prayer isn’t really utilized or used in any matter unless an individual prays privately to God declaring themselves a believer and a follower, but most don’t really have a formulaic expression for the decision to become a Christian. In addition to this, children are normally Baptized at birth in theses churches, and for much different reasons than adult Baptism in evangelical churches, but an individual coming into these churches can also speak with the pastor and then be Baptized as an adult.
For Lutherans, Anglicans and Catholics if one decides to become a member of one of these communities they usually first take classes which teach people about the intricacies of the faith. For Lutherans it’s called a catechism class. For Anglicans, if you’ve already received the Sacrament of Confirmation in a Roman Catholic Church or an Orthodox Church you don’t need to do much of anything except be received by an Anglican bishop although they do have inquirers courses for those interested in reception or Anglican confirmation. For Catholics there is a program called Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) which typically lasts for around nine months, but interested individuals can go at their own pace and go through the process for as long as it takes. On average the longer participants will remain in RCIA classes for a couple of years or so.
These classes for these faiths are done because there is much incorporated in the faith of these three traditions and it is vital that one understand what they teach. They are also distinct in their beliefs therefore other individuals who have not been a part of them need to understand that there is much more involved in being a part of these traditions than there is, say, at a storefront church started five years ago. These are formal – sometimes called “high church” – traditions and they’re steeped in deep historical elements of faith. Therefore, instruction is normally necessary for someone who wishes to join them.
On a personal note, I believe it would be most helpful, no matter what your faith tradition, to offer newcomers classes on exactly what the specific faith community believes. While I do think that Christ can move on the heart of any individual affected by an emotional plea for Salvation, or a particularly well delivered sermon, what is long lasting is an individual’s understanding of what exactly they’ve become a part of. Simply telling an individual, “Okay, now you’re saved. Get a Bible, start going to Church, and good luck with that” does not inspire confidence in a long term commitment in new found believers faith. As a wonderful priest I once had commented, “Those easily saved are not saved for long.”
Plumbing the Depths
In a short five hundred years man has taken enormous leaps in changing the essential face of Christianity. Following the main branches of Christianity we see it slowly becoming far less complex as man steadily reduced the essentials of faith to the least common denominator. The innate desire in men to create ease and accessibility for all things produced a continual decision to make faith obtainable to all people by reducing the amount of essential factors necessary to the bare minimum in order to obtain the greatest number of converts as possible. This served two purposes: to comfort the individual’s soul with some sort of assurance that their efforts produce fruit without straining the individual conscience while simultaneously reducing the amount of effort necessary to conform to an idea. Today the concept of “stay in your own world, we’ll bring Christianity to you” produces a rampant slew of niche branded Christian products (including the very Word of God) designed to create faith in an individual while at the same time conforming to the worldly trends to which an individual relates. The whole concept is derived from a philosophy of conforming the presentation of the message to preferential tastes thus creating relatability and thereby producing converts. The individual no longer is required to conform to the Good News of Truth in all its intricacies and nuances, the message of faith now conforms to the individuals comfort level and understanding.
Let me make clear here that there are a great number of people who do not have the mental and spiritual capabilities to hurdle through multi-layered theological concepts. There are individuals whose very nature prevents their reasoning of faith on a level that continues beyond the basic measure of faith. I am not referring to mentally challenged or handicapped individuals. I mean very specifically, without malice, people who, by their very make-up, are just simple people. Simple thinking, simple understanding, simple concepts. I do not believe that those for whom the Gospel is believed in its most basic form are excluded from Salvation simply because they cannot do mental gymnastics through theology.
HOWEVER most people can, if they applied themselves, take to understanding faith beyond the measure with which they first obtained understanding of it, but since they’ve been taught “stay where you are” or more importantly, “this is all that you need in order to be ‘saved'” most people do not choose to venture beyond the basic structures of faith and understanding and remain in a simple mindset about Christian doctrines and faith. There are individuals who will say outright that they have no desire to deepen their understanding of doctrine, theology, faith, etc. and that they’re perfectly resolved to maintain a simple idea because deepening it requires too much effort. Ultimately, God judges the heart and those who loved him with all their “heart, soul, strength, and understanding”4 will be afforded the same measure of grace and reward as anyone else. The indispensable word contained in this is “understanding”. Most can understand so much more, but many willingly choose not to utilize their strength to do so.
This is merely a surface level idea of the kind of transformation Christianity has seen in the last five hundred years. The real concept of changing the essentials of faith have to do with the actual approach to faith (as discussed in the last section), but more importantly what that garners the individual, what is required of that individual as a Christian, and how much the individual is required to believe about faith and understand about it. Major conceptual doctrines have been changed over the last centuries which were done so because the concept was too difficult to grasp with the human mind such as transubstantiation (the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ although the elements are unchanged) water containing the power to wash away sins as in Baptism, or simplifying the approach to faith that seemed most elementary because the concept seemed to make more sense, like adult Baptism. Ultimately, for the latter set of Protestants, it seemed to follow the mindset, ‘if it doesn’t make sense or we cannot grasp the full reason for it then there must be a simpler more direct explanation.” Especially in the obtainment of Salvation.
“There has got to be an ‘easier’ way.” Therefore, said Martin Luther, Salvation and Justification is obtained only through grace not by works because works didn’t make him feel any closer to God. [This, incidentally, is why Martin Luther wanted to remove the book of James from the Bible because it contrasts this exact theological belief.5]
“There has to be some way we can know ‘absolutely’ that we’re going to be in Heaven with God” said the first evangelical theologians because not knowing with absolute assurance was terrorizing their conscience. Therefore, they reasoned from a few passages of the Bible that we can understand Salvation to be absolute if we simply say we believe in Jesus and His death and resurrection from the dead and that He is the Son of God.
“Since there is no proof that there is any change in the bread and wine, there is no reason to believe that it actually does change into Christ. This is too drastic an understanding of the text. What Jesus meant is that it is symbolic.” Therefore, the Eucharist became the Lord’s Supper from reality to symbolic.
Not only were these concepts revised, but the concepts of what embodies faith. The real measure of faith is one’s understanding of the elements that comprise it. Not just the Sacraments (or Ordinances as they’re called in most Protestant denominations) but the elements of faith which determine its make-up, what comprises it, what defines it, what its territory and boundaries are. Although this is doctrinal theology in how its defined, it is also composed of how things are understood Biblically. Therefore, while Sacraments are jettisoned or theology is abandoned, it is because those with some, a little, or no theological understanding took to interpreting Scripture for themselves (a claim born of the Protestant Reformation) and determined that if the “plain sense of understanding Scripture” could not be determined by themselves out of their own reasoning and intellectual ability, then it was not a necessary or plausible belief. Therefore, many of the ancient Christian ideas were abandoned. Not only Sacraments and the understanding of them, but beliefs like praying to those who are in Heaven, honor paid to those in Heaven with works of art (statues), Purgatory, merits, works, sacrifice, Salvation… If it was not in the plain text of Scripture in a way that was understood by the individual reader, then it was wrong and thus a new theology was born.
Revised for five centuries, Christianity became a concept that provided a simple answer and a simple Truth, devoid of complex concepts because those inhibited the believer from coming to know Christ and communing with God. Regardless of the proof that lay in the very same scrutinized Scriptures, or even more what lay in the annals of history even as far back as the very beginning starting with the men who were taught by the Apostles themselves, men devised to preach a different Gospel than the one taught by the Apostles and determined that anything beyond the most straightforward explanation of faith was a stumbling block to God. Since they obtained, through their own rendering of the Scriptures, these interpretations, then the only sure truth was that those who had come before had corrupted its message. This was especially true with the Catholics since their beliefs were so completely removed from the “plain meaning of Scripture”. Ultimately, Christianity and faith becomes not what they ought to be, but what we’d like it to be tailored to our own discerning tastes. It’s depth becomes relevant to the depth of understanding the founder(s) of the denomination or church holds in regard to theology.
Apex of Crisis
No one person on earth can claim to have an absolute understanding of every single element of faith. Nor can many even comparably explain certain elements of it. There is something to be said for depth of theology and a more thorough understanding of the components of it which lend itself to a deeper sense of peace, love, and faith when they’re utilized in Christianity rather than excluded from it. Can a Christian have a meaningful relationship with God on the basis of ‘Assurance of Salvation’, ‘literal interpretation of the Bible’, or the “all you need is Jesus” approach? Of course! Millions of Americans live and die on this path to Heaven. The question really lies in, ‘Does the simple approach to faith have the ability to sustain one in a sufficient and spiritually meaningful way in difficult to answer times of life?’ or ‘Does the simplicity of faith lend itself to shallow explanations and answers that do not address a practical human existence or answer, in a logical approach, problems?’ Do its explanations lend themselves to surface band-aid treatments to deep wounds or profound questions?
Let us take, for example, the lost art of conversation. The topic turns to something straightforward such as the quality of the food. You ask, “What did you think of the steak and potatoes?” One person answers, “It’s real good. You know. Tasty. Good flavor.” The other says, “I thought the steak had a rare quality of preparation to it that hinted at a fine marinade which seems to suggest hints of pineapple. It retained a lot of it’s juiciness and it’s quality was impeccable.” Which answer feeds your mind better? Which answer inclines you to ask more questions or engage the speaker in further conversation? Who seems to know more about what they’re talking about? Some individuals are intimidated by this eloquent response and will immediately clam up and mutter something like, “mm hmm”. This explanation exceeds their understanding and this explanation exceeds their ability to comprehensively respond. However, in some occasions the opportunity is provided for the questioner to have the explanations broken down in a meaningful way which allows them both to digest what the person answering has said and to comprehend it on a level which they can analyze it and provide their own feedback. Therefore, the more one engages themselves in difficult conversations of this type, the more one comes to understand them.
The same goes for faith.
Look at what the author of Hebrews says. They write, “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.
Everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity…” Hebrews 5:1,2,13,14;6:1
For a believer continuing to live on milk, or the basic principles of faith without advancing into a fuller concept of faith, they remain unskilled in righteousness and are called children in matters of faith. Feed on milk alone and all you are is a child. Subsisting on a “milk-based” faith is truly to look at it with the understanding of a child to a subject and if all you’re being fed and satisfied with is a “milk-based” faith then the apparent shallowness of subsisting on faith of that caliber should be obvious. However, with conscientious enough study and understanding one can mature into deeply theological concepts which grow the believer and create a fuller sense of Christianity on the whole. A measure of spiritual maturity is that it cannot be gained by simply revolving around the same level of circular study since knowing more of the same thing on the same level of understanding doesn’t necessarily grant theological maturity. It doesn’t mean that unless one studies Greek, Hebrew, and Latin that one understands more. There are many ministers who have studied those languages in a theological school and whose Christian faith requirements don’t extend much farther than an unschooled pastors. It also doesn’t mean that one has to subject oneself to an onslaught of seemingly boring antiquated Christian writers or they’re absolutely worthless in their theological development. Not at all! What it does mean is that in order to leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, a Christian should endeavour to study their faith beyond what they’re simply taught in their denomination. I would encourage any Christian to know Christian history first and foremost. Study, at least in brief, some of the most prominent ancient Christian writers extant letters. At the very least research why it is that your church teaches the things that it teaches, what things other churches teach and why or why not you agree or disagree with them. There are a myriad of ‘little’ things you can do in order to deepen your spiritual understanding that are too numerous to list here. Don’t be discouraged but as the verse says, with practice comes discernment and something that I believe stretches beyond just determining ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
Some might say their’s no need, however, the soul craves it as deeply as the stomach craves a good hardy meal rather than being fed junk food snacks. The more one understands, the better they are sustained in their faith. The stronger their understanding of what it is comprised of, the more capable they can be of not only providing an answer for it but finding them as well. It allows for dispensing a wiser command of it’s components while avoiding trite cliches and empty sounding solutions. Ultimately, for a soul craving solid food which is an understanding of righteousness, milk won’t sustain them.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
2 Timothy 2:15
1. Earlier this year the Southern Baptist Convention debated whether or not to continue to endorse the “Sinner’s Prayer” with some saying it had characteristics of an “incantation that results in salvation”. Christianity Today, Southern Baptists Debate Sinners Prayer, Ted Olson / Christian Post, Sinner’s Prayer Can Lead to Salvation, Say Southern Baptist Traditionalists, Katherine T. Phan
2. From Billy Graham’s website in the section Peace With God which walks viewers through a slick four page persuasion for Christ with choice buttons at the bottom “Pray Now”, “I’ve Got A Question”, “Next Step” until one gets to the end where this prayer is located with the choices “Yes, I prayed”, “No, I’ve still got questions.”
3. From Salvation Prayer website
4. Luke 10:27
5. James 2:17-26