It seems such a small point to some, I suppose. Why care whether the Churches of Christ teach faith in Jesus or faith in Jesus’ plan? Well, because the Bible declares that faith in Jesus saves — and nothing else does.
(John 3:18 ESV) 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
There’s no reference to a “plan.” Not in this verse, not in any verse. As Moser notes, the concept is foreign to the scriptures. Faith is in Jesus, a person.
Now, I must add that many who’ve followed in Moser’s footsteps have failed to articulate clearly why this matters, leading some readers to misunderstand and so reject their teaching. Sloganeering and catch phrases can do this. But, then, some things that are obvious once understood can be difficult to explain to those who’ve not yet grasped the concept. Long division is the same way: confusing and senseless until the lightbulb over your head lights up. Again, not because it’s hard, but because it’s foreign until fully integrated into your thinking.
You see, the Reformation approach to Christianity is to write down a list of important doctrines and demand that converts confess agreement with this creed. They are supposed to “believe” that the doctrines are true and confess their “faith” in those doctrines. And the Churches of Christ have drunk deeply from the Reformation fountain. It’s all about having the right positions.
And to people who think in terms of “positions” on “issues,” the “Plan of Salvation” is all about having the right positions on baptism and such. Thus, Phil in his article on faith condemns infant baptism and a failure to have elders and deacons. These are, you see, the wrong positions. Of course, wrong positions lead to disobedience, and salvation is based on obedience. It’s all very Reformation minded. But it’s not how the scriptures speak.
Of course, there are passages in the scriptures that speak of having sound doctrine (teaching) and such, but these are not the core of New Testament teaching — nor are they ends. They are means to an end. And the end is Jesus.
Now, you see, I just messed up. Yes, it’s true that the “end is Jesus,” but a reader from a legalistic background would find that sentence meaningless. For some reason, it’s very hard to express what I’m trying say in terms that speak to someone from a legalistic background. And as a result, we progressive types are often misunderstood — in large part because of our tendency to speak in a shorthand that makes perfect sense to us but can’t be understood by those working within a different perspective.
Let me try again: The goal of sound doctrine is not only understanding Jesus’ teachings, but getting to know who Jesus was and is as a person. Just as it’s vitally important to know your earthly father’s teachings, it’s vitally important to know God’s teachings. But your father would consider himself an abject failure if you never knew him as a person. Just so, God could have carved the New Testament on tablets and handed it to the apostles, but he preferred to send his Son — so we could get to know God as a person. Not just his teachings, but him.
And Jesus didn’t come to earth merely as an object lesson in how to live righteously. He came to show us God in the flesh.
(John 14:9a ESV) 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
By knowing God, his wishes, his passions, his purposes, and his ways through Jesus, we are much better able to understand what his commands mean and to understand which commands are of the highest importance. We can major in the majors, rather than the minors. And — more importantly — we can do it out of love and a shared heart with God rather than fear and obligation.
Let me try another way of saying it. We need to learn to think and to teach relationally. That means we should illustrate our sermons and lessons with relational comparisons — comparing our relationship with God to the relationship of a child to a parent or a wife to her husband. (That’s how the scriptures do it. We should give it a try.) It’s not until we think relationally that we “get it.” And we struggle to get it. It’s just hard to teach a relational truth in propositional logic. That’s why we progressives struggle so! We try to use the language of logic and polemics to teach something best understood relationally.
Alabama law allows an adult to adopt another adult. Unlike the adoption of children, adult adoption is legally very simple. The adopter and adoptee sign documents and they go to the courthouse, where the lawyer persuades the judge to let this happen. It’s not complicated — legally.
But relationally, it’s very complicated indeed. The adopter and adoptee must first form a personal relationship of faith and trust and love that’s so tight they want to bind themselves together in a relationship that’s stronger and more meaningful than mere friendship. The adopter (let’s call him the “father”) must want to provide the adoptee (or “child”) with an inheritance, because adoption means the child will inherit from the father.
The child-to-be must be prepared to live a changed life. He’ll now be someone else’s son, someone else’s heir. His natural father may even be jealous. The child-to-be must be committed to this new way of life.
And then they go to the courthouse to formalize the relationship, but it’s a relationship already forged because the child knows the father and appreciates his generosity. The child can’t buy or earn an inheritance. The inheritance is a free gift of love, resulting from relationship, from love offered and received.
Now, a person who doesn’t understand people and who sees the world through the statutes in the Code of Alabama might write a checklist on how to do this, but it’s really a love story and more about the intertwining of hearts than it is about legal process.
Let’s try it. The child must “hear” his potential father ask him to be adopted. He must “believe” that the promise is genuine and that the father will keep his word. The potential child must “confess” that he believes the adopter’s promise. That is, he must say, “Yes.” The child must be willing to change his life, becoming a son when he wasn’t before; he must “repent.” And he must go to the courthouse and tell the judge all this happened. He must be “immersed” by the judge into this new relationship.
There: if you want your rich neighbor down the street to adopt you and leave you an inheritance, here’s what you do (hold up your fingers): Hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized. True in a sense. But not nearly representative of what’s really going on. If you suck the heart out of the story, you suck the story out of the story. Indeed, you make it hard for the story to even happen.
But what if I told you that your neighbor just gave his son’s life for yours? Would you visit him? Would you inquire of his motives? Would you want to know him as a person? Would you spend time with him? Or would you just read a book he’d written? Well, you’d read the book, but you’d be looking beyond the pages to the author to know what kind of person would do such a thing. Indeed, you might be so intrigued, impressed, and interested that you form a relationship in which you choose to let him adopt you.
Of course, this will dramatically change your life. Your earthly parents might even be upset! He’ll expect you to be a faithful son, who visits and honors his values and joins him in his purposes. Adoption is, you see, vastly more than a legal transaction. It’s a heart- and life-altering event built on a relationship of mutual trust and love. You trust your new father to love and care for you, even to leave you his inheritance, and he trusts you to be a faithful son whose life reflects who he is and what he’s about. He expects to be proud of his new son!
You see, adoption is all about the man. There’s a plan in there. But it’s not about the plan. You don’t trust or have faith in the plan. Sure, you’re counting on the Code of Alabama to make you a legal son, but your faith isn’t in the statutes of Alabama. It’s not in the process. It’s in the person. And if you don’t believe in the adopter and the gift of his son, you won’t forge the relationship that is the heart of adoption — even if you have 100% confidence in the statute that makes it possible.
And so, maybe I’ve given you an inkling of why it’s really more about the man than the plan — and more importantly — why the Bible never, ever even hints at salvation by trusting or having faith in a plan. It’s about faith in a man. It matters because you misunderstand nearly everything in the New Testament if you get this wrong.