It’s Not What You Know; It’s Who You Know
The core proclamation of the Wesleyan tradition is “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8a). One of John Wesley’s most important sermons, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” is an extended meditation on the meaning of this text and its implications for Christian discipleship.
A basic question this text raises is “What is faith?” Judging by what I hear from United Methodist pulpits and see in Sunday School and small group curriculum it seems that faith is equated with belief in God and the affirmations about God found in the historic creeds. The goal of much Christian education and worship is to give people good information about God, Jesus, the Bible, church history, tradition and theology. It assumes that a regular diet of information will result in believing. If simple affirmation of the information is faith then the people will be “saved.” If faith is simple belief in Christian affirmations then this approach to Christian education and worship is all we need to make faithful disciples of Jesus Christ; salvation, then, all about what you know.
When we reduce faith to affirmation of or assent to a set of beliefs and doctrines, it then becomes a private possession. It demands very little in the way of response. It becomes one more thing to posses and control.
Such “faith” is also the result of individual effort on the part of the believer. It is the result of work done by the believer for the believer’s own benefit, on the believer’s terms. Grace has very little to do with such “faith” because it is not a gift that has been received, it is an object that has been obtained through work and study. This means that salvation by faith becomes salvation through works. Believers then believe they have earned their salvation and place in God’s household. Grace has little to do with it.
Is that all there is to faith? Certainly learning and study are good and important to faith development. But they are secondary. Scripture and tradition clearly teach that salvation is not about what you know; it’s about who you know. This means that faith is, first and foremost, a relationship with the living God who became one of us in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Because it is a relationship with Jesus, faith is also a gift. It is grace. It is God’s work in, with, and for us to love God and to love those whom God loves. God is not an idea or a concept to be studied, discussed and dissected. God is a living person. God is personal. Therefore, faith is a relationship with the living God.
All this is to say that we need to take a close look at our philosophy of Christian education. We need to give more weight to teaching the practices required for participating in the divine-human relationship that is faith: prayer, worship, the Lord’s Supper, Scripture (reading, hearing, & studying), fasting, and Christian conference (mutual accountability and support for discipleship). Rather than focus on developing beliefs and opinions, focus on the whole person.