Repentance and Faith vs. Creeds and Doctrines

Jul 03

In my last post, I looked at the danger of emphasizing works over faith/repentance. You could say this is the fallacy of emphasizing the changing of one’s hands or feet. In this post, I want to look at the danger of emphasizing creeds/doctrines over faith/repentance. You could say this is the fallacy of emphasizing the changing of one’s mouth, or even one’s intellect. Salvation goes deeper than that–it is the changing of one’s heart.

Until I started attending a United Methodist church, creeds were largely irrelevant to me, as my “branch” of Christianity hardly ever made mention of them. Some of the more liturgical branches of Christianity, however, emphasize them quite a bit. In my neck of the woods, instead of creeds being emphasized, certain doctrines were more emphasized. I see little difference between the concepts of creeds and doctrines. I will focus mainly on doctrine in this post, but I think much of this post also applies to creeds.

Since I grew up “evangelical,” and still am content to be labeled as such, out of all the doctrines of the Christian faith, there is one doctrine that is primary for me: the doctrine of the Gospel (or salvation). With few exceptions, I generally am ok with disagreements on other doctrines, as long as we can agree on the Gospel. Here’s a brief definition of the Gospel for the purposes of this post: Everyone is a sinner and as a result no one deserves heaven. No one has any hope, outside of God offering forgiveness of sins. Because God is holy and just, He cannot forgive sin unless the penalty for sin is first dealt with. If He deals with us according to our sins, we are destroyed, and forgiveness is irrelevant at that point. God sent His perfect Son Jesus to die as a sacrifice for our sins, so that the penalty of sin would be carried out on Him instead of the rest of humanity. Jesus defeated the curse of sin, and the proof is His rising from the dead. God offers forgiveness of sins and restoration of relationship with Him to those who repent of (change their mind about) their disobedience to God and put their faith (trust/confidence/hope) in Jesus. As a result, the victory over sin and death won by Jesus is shared with all who become united in Him through faith. We, too, live forever, and sin can no longer be our master. Jesus is now, and forever, our Lord.

So here’s my viewpoint on the place of repentance and faith vs. creeds and doctrines. It follows the same outline of my last post: I believe true faith and repentance will result in one affirming the doctrine of the Gospel/salvation–affirming it with great conviction even! Therefore, anyone who claims to be a Christian ought to affirm the spirit of this doctrine. (I recognize that my exact wording of this doctrine–or any other doctrine–is not equal to Scripture. The same is true for any creed that has been written down through the ages.) Anyone who can’t affirm this doctrine–their salvation is suspect, at best. Yet it is possible to affirm the “Gospel doctrine,” or any creed for that matter, without repenting or putting one’s faith in Jesus. Therefore, the emphasis should NOT be on doctrines/creeds, but on repentance and faith.

A few further thoughts/implications regarding this theory:

While it is true that true faith/repentance should result in affirmation of the Gospel, and if affirmation of the Gospel does not exist, one’s conversion/repentance is suspect, we must also be careful not to become picky “doctrine inspectors.” Paul did say that if anyone preaches another Gospel other than his (even an angel), let that person be accursed. But it’s not our job to determine someone’s salvation based on how much they agree with all of our doctrines. If we have reason for concern over someone’s salvation because we can’t see eye-to-eye over doctrines or creeds important to us, the best thing we can do is pray. In addition, we must also act based on our convictions. If someone’s beliefs aren’t adding up to what we see as a clear reading of Scripture, we must be careful to entrust responsibility or leadership to such a person. It is very likely that someone who has trouble articulating the doctrine of the Gospel hasn’t been converted. At best, they are very ignorant, and not trustworthy. If they are presented with the Gospel in a clear, faithful presentation, and they refuse to affirm it, I think the Bible is pretty clear that this person remains lost, since salvation comes only by faith in Jesus, according to Scripture.

It also seems to me that we can too easily become fixated on doctrines/creeds. Becoming picky doctrine inspectors is one example of such preoccupation. Another example is the claiming that someone who affirms certain truths about God/Jesus/salvation has surely been saved. To me, this is ludicrous for a couple of reasons. First, people can affirm any or all of these things in the Gospel doctrine without being converted by Christ or repenting of their sins. They may do so simply to gain the favor of someone else. They may do so simply as a “get-out-of-hell-free” formula. They may do so simply because someone is requiring everyone present to affirm various truths. I could go on and on. James could easily remind us that demons would affirm the Gospel doctrine as I’ve presented it. As a result, emphasizing an affirmation of the Gospel message as the indicator of one’s salvation leads to a false sense of security for people. It causes them to think that if they affirm certain propositional truths about God/Jesus/sin/salvation, they will go to heaven. While the idea of being a moral person in order to go to heaven is the biggest lie I see in our culture today, this idea of affirming the Gospel doctrine is probably the BIGGEST lie I have seen in our churches today. It is everywhere. People who attend church faithfully routinely hold this view. (“I asked Jesus into my heart when I was 7 years old. Therefore, I am going to heaven, not hell.”) I think it is COMPLETELY irresponsible for anyone to feed this belief by emphasizing the words one spoke at one point in time, or any words they would affirm even today. I try to regularly tell my congregation that just because they said a prayer at some point in their life doesn’t mean they are saved. I don’t think I’ve gotten through to many people yet. Sometimes, I find myself slipping into that mode of thinking. Affirmation of the Gospel message is NOT a trustworthy basis for salvation. The Bible says if we confess with our mouth AND BELIEVE IN OUR HEART…

If salvation is the result of faith and repentance (which are matters of the heart), and not any particular declaration of the tongue (such as the ABC’s of salvation, the Apostles Creed, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, etc.), then we must keep preaching this message of faith and repentance over and over and reminding one another of this truth. Since we are so easily preoccupied with doctrines and creeds (and since only God sees people’s hearts with 100% clarity), it is easy to see why we default to focusing on getting people to make a particular affirmation instead of putting the emphasis on the only hope for humanity–a new, changed heart. If someone’s heart hasn’t been changed and been made anew by Christ, it doesn’t matter how well they can articulate the Gospel message. Heck–some people can even preach the Gospel message with great clarity and persuasiveness–this doesn’t guarantee they are saved. Without our spirits being made alive once again, we are lost forever, regardless of our creeds and affirmations.

One of the most frustrating things about being a pastor is noticing how difficult it is for people to give themselves over to Jesus, and let Him have control over their lives. It is difficult to continue preaching that message when it seems no one is budging. It’s much easier to tell people to recite a certain creed, to “repeat these words after me…”, etc. People are willing to say what they are told they need to say in order to feel better about themselves. Yet, I am convinced that the message of turning one’s life over to Jesus must be the central message.

Salvation occurs when God changes a person’s heart. When a person’s heart has been changed, they don’t just affirm the doctrine of salvation. They lean on that doctrine. They cling to it. They are in awe of God’s plan for salvation. They throw themselves at the mercy of Jesus and find healing, forgiveness, power, grace, redemption, resurrection, life, joy, hope, purpose, destiny, treasure…

In a miraculous, unexplainable way…God has placed His Holy Spirit in them. In a miraculous, unexplainable way…they have repented and put their faith in Jesus. In human terms, this is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.

THAT is the basis of salvation. Let’s not reduce it to the works we do or the words we profess. Like everyone else, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions —it is by grace you have been saved. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Of course, let’s affirm the doctrine of salvation, and let’s do those good works that spring from salvation!

After all…What a miracle! What a mystery! What a life we have in Jesus!

2 comments

  1. I’ll affirm and agree with this. 🙂

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    • LOL, glad to hear that. If God asks what your position on my blog was when you lived on earth as condition of entering heaven, you should be safe.

      Clearly, I don’t have any false sense of self-grandeur…

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