One of the strangest things I know is how far evangelical Christians can wander away from the truths we have chosen to embrace, and still believe ourselves to be soundly evangelical.
There is sometimes an amazing gulf between what we say and what we actually mean. I do not want to explore this whole area, but simply to look at one small but significant aspect of it: what is the gospel?
The classic summary of the gospel message comes straight from scripture: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved. That is quite straightforward. It says believe in the person - not believe in a set of doctrines about the person.
There is a common miracle today which enables people - quite ordinary people - to do the seeming impossible. You can speak completely normally, and someone miles away - even hundreds or thousands of miles away - can hear you as if you were standing next to them.
It gets even more amazing: you only have to speak, to make sounds, and the person you are talking to can hear those same sounds, but the sounds themselves do not travel from one place to another. Instead, something else happens: strange messages travel at nearly the speed of light through cables and complex machines. Unbelievable, isn't it?
The strange thing is: not one person in ten thousand understands even in principle how this works. Not one person alive fully understands how every part works: how electricity is generated, how it moves through the wires, how the transistors in the electronic switches work, yet we are quite happy to apply it. We are quite happy to enjoy the benefits.
We may well discover that our current theories about the nature of electrons (or electron clouds, or electron probability distributions, or whatever we understand them to be this week) are completely wrong. We may well discover that electricity behaves the way it does for completely different reasons. If this happens, we will revise our understanding of the way electricity works, but we will probably not revise the way we use the telephone as a consequence.
You are saved by the death of Jesus. But this salvation is applied, becomes effective in your experience, gets applied to you, through faith. Faith in Jesus. Not faith in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
In the same way, the sound gets to you by the cables and machinery supplied by the telephone companies. In order to become effective in your experience, you have to believe it will work: you have to pick up the phone, dial the number and speak. You have to believe those cables and machines will do what is promised, no matter how incredible it sounds.
What you do not have to do is understand how those cables and machines work. You do not have to believe the equations used by the engineers as they built this complex system.
Maybe the engineers misunderstood what they were doing, made assumptions which turned out to be totally wrong. It does not matter: what they built works. If the theory is mistaken, it can be corrected. We will not stop using the telephone until the theory is all worked out.
In the same way, you do not have to understand the theology of how and why the death of Jesus saves you. You do not have to understand how events in Palestine nearly 2000 years ago can restore you to a relationship with the living God.
Even if we were to discover that all the theologians who have written shelves of books on this subject have completely misunderstood everything and all those books are completely wrong, it would make no practical difference at all: you would still be saved through the death of Jesus. His offer of salvation is real; the new life He offers us really works - whether our theology of salvation is clear or clouded, whether our doctrine is sound or unsound. Whether we think we understand it or not, what really matters is whether we are prepared to trust what He tells us and live accordingly.
Of course, we have the practical question: who is this Jesus we are to have faith in? It is sometimes suggested that we need the doctrine to tell us who it is we need to have faith in.
But this is completely the wrong way round. We do not identify the Jesus we follow by examining a set of doctrines. The Jesus we follow is a real person. He really lived in real places in the Middle East; He really died on a cross; and He really lives today. He is not an abstract principle of goodness or a set of doctrines; He is not a subjective experience; He is not a moral example, showing us how we should live.
He is a real person. The question of how we can get to know Him must be addressed as we would get to know any other person: by discovering things about Him, and by interacting personally with Him. In other words, by reading about Him in the Bible, and by meeting Him in prayer and in the lives of His people.
The doctrines may be useful, but any real person is infinitely more complex and more interesting than any finite set of ideas or beliefs.
What does this mean in practice? When Jesus comes and says Follow Me, there are a number of possible responses we can give. We can say the cost is too high; we can even say that, despite all the evidence, we believe He was not sent from God.
But He does not give us the option of asking for more time to decide because there are things we dont fully understand. We dont follow Jesus because all our questions have been answered, or because all the paragraphs in our systematic theology have been neatly tied together: we follow Him because of who He is and what He has done.
As evangelical Christians, our theology may be sound - but that is not what saves us. Our theology is still inadequate and incomplete, because there is still so much more to discover. Anyone who claims to have all the answers is either lying or mistaken.
What matters is that we have responded to His call, and chosen to follow this amazing man. We do our best to follow Him, to live the way He did. He promises to help us live this life, but He does not promise to answer all our questions the moment we ask them.
The bottom line is that Jesus is a real person: we choose to follow Him, or not, and this simple choice has far more significance than the details or state of our theology.