true faith in a believing world

Explaining Faith to a Believing World

David Saxon is a professor in the College of Bible and Church Ministries. As the teacher of Baptist Heritage and a number of Bible electives, he enjoys interaction with a significant percentage of the Maranatha student body. Read his article, originally published in the 2019 Advantage Magazine.

American Spirituality

A Gallup poll published this year reveals that church attendance in the United States has dropped in the last 20 by about 20%, resulting in the lowest percentage of church attenders since Gallup began collecting data in the 1930s. A natural conclusion might be that faith is failing in America: nearly one in five respondents indicated no connection to organized religion of any kind, a significant increase from any previous poll.

Interestingly, though, Pew Research Center published poll results in 2017 that showed that 27% of Americans reported that they are “spiritual” but unaffiliated with any religion, a substantial increase over previous results. It seems that many Americans are redefining spirituality as a purely personal, existential experience that has no need of religious or ecclesiastical underpinnings. In fact, one wonders if this spirituality even needs God.

This trend is evident in the contemporary use of the concept of “faith.” Oddly enough, our rapidly secularizing world is a big believer in faith. We are regularly urged to “just believe,” usually in a context of expecting the future to be bright and cheery. The implication is that believing the future will improve has some power to actually make the future better. Faith itself can move mountains, we are told; in this complex, rapidly changing world, we all face mountains that need to be moved. So, just believe!

Faith and Knowledge

Our postmodern world has separated knowledge and faith. Science and experience provide knowledge. We know about gravity, gross national products, the population of Tokyo, and a million other “facts.” We can find out almost anything if we have access to the Internet. Faith, on the other hand, is subjective and mystical. What we can’t know, we just believe. Even the “what” in that last sentence is misleading. Faith today doesn’t need a what; it need not believe in anything.

Modern people are conscious that facts do not lead to fulfillment. Most have discovered that science may make today more comfortable, but it will not shield from pain tomorrow. Where it appears that science ought to be able to make tomorrow better—with better medicines, more access to information for decision making, better communication, etc.—it has proven utterly unable to deal with man’s deepest needs. We are told in Hebrews 2:15 that those without Christ live their lives in bondage to the fear of death. That life is short and death is certain is the great specter haunting man, and science has no solution for it—and never will.

How, then, can man cope with this existential anxiety, this numbing sense that everything under the shadow of death is ultimately meaningless? He can either trust in something to deliver him from death—this is the religious option—or he can simply believe—this is the existential option. For centuries Christians went out from the local church into their communities to convince men and women that they were trusting in the wrong gods. They saw people relying on their good works, on the sacraments, on their church, on Buddha or Allah, or even on science, and they tried to convince them that the only Person worthy of trust is the God of the Bible, revealed in and through Jesus Christ. Essentially, we went forth crying, “The Object of my faith is better and truer than the object of your faith. Turn from false faith to true faith. Only God in Christ can save you!”

The Church’s Pre-evangelistic Task

Today, however, our pre-evangelistic task is to convince people what faith itself is. Rather than being focused on an object, people today perceive faith as merely a positive feeling, a sense of wellbeing, a refusal to give in to existential dread but rather to remain optimistic despite massive uncertainty. Satan has skillfully manipulated humankind into this morass through false objects of faith like those mentioned in the previous paragraph. Since there are no good works in God’s sight, sacraments have no power in themselves to save, Buddha and Allah are not real gods, and even the church cannot give us the gospel on her authority (the church, instead, arises from the gospel and stands only on divine authority), trust in these kinds of objects was really trust in nothing.

Paul explains this dynamic in 1 Corinthians 8-10. Although warning the Corinthians that offering “sacrifice to idols” was equivalent to making “sacrifice to devils,” Paul earlier assured them that “an idol is nothing in the world, and … there is none other God but one” (10:19-20; 8:4). In other words, when you sacrifice to false gods, you are sacrificing to nothing; they do not actually exist, although they are empowered by demons who do very much exist.

Similarly, people who erected idols and trusted them, even though under the veneer of religion, were actually exercising trust in nothing. It was the existentialists who uncovered this charade and argued that trust in anything is misplaced. People like Jean Paul Sartre cried, “You are going to die, and you and everything you accomplish will dissolve into molecules and meaninglessness. Deal with it!” The way man has dealt with it is the grand distraction of science—today is better than yesterday because of my new gadget—and the illusion of faith as a feeling of optimism.

Faith Is Only as Good as Its Object

In 1925 Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen wrote a classic little book entitled What Is Faith? that critiqued the idea that faith is a subjective state of the soul that brings benefits apart from any object. In all other spheres, he pointed out, such a definition is nonsense. If I am trusting in an airplane to get me to Los Angeles, my faith will not get me there; only the airplane will. Indeed, if I refuse to buy a ticket, climb aboard, and ride the plane to LA, I am clearly not trusting it for that purpose. Faith fails, then, if it does not have an object and if it fails to rely on the object.

As Christians go out from their local churches into the world, they not only present the right Object of faith to the world, they must show the world that their faith needs an object. If they wish freedom from the oppression of sin, a clear conscience, and hope after death, only one Person can provide these benefits. Just believing will not secure them. They must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.