Christianity is quite unlike anything else. Fundamentally it is astonishingly simple: the gospel’s core message of the death of Christ as the means of sinners’ reconciliation to God, received by faith, could hardly be simpler. Indeed, to some it seems too good to be true. Others look at Christian theology and see what seems to be an impenetrably complex collection of contradicting doctrines. In these different ways many have rejected Christianity because they have not seen it for what it is—they have overcomplicated what is simple or oversimplified what is nuanced.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners
The gospel is refreshingly simple. Its essence is captured in John 3:16, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
This verse makes three statements that are at the heart of Christianity. First, that God loves the world. He created the universe and made humans in His own image1, and He loves us. It is not the kind of fleeting love that many of us might be used to in our relationships. It is a love so firm, so wide and long and high and deep, that it surpasses knowledge2 and transcends imagination. And it is a love that reaches down from heaven to us; so the second thing we see in the verse is that God gave His only Son, Jesus Christ. Why did Jesus come into the world? In order that, third, we might believe in Him and not perish but have eternal life.
What were we to perish from? From sin— all the ways in which we fail to obey God and fail to love Him as He has loved us. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.3 Jesus came into the world to save us4 because we could not save ourselves. As He died on the cross He took the punishment we deserved from God in His perfect justice, and we can receive God’s forgiveness if we believe in Him. We are saved not by anything we have done, because our sin means that even the best we can do is not good enough, but only by what He has done for us.
In the third chapter of John a Jewish leader named Nicodemus has come to Jesus by night. Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus has come from God because of the signs He performs. Jesus replies cryptically that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. Jesus elaborates that He is referring to spiritual rebirth—one must be spiritually renewed through faith in Christ to enter the kingdom of God. Whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
The paradox of faith and works
Here, in this simple statement about faith, the nuance of the gospel becomes more apparent. If Jesus has set us free5—free from having to try to save ourselves by our efforts, free from the punishment that was due us—one might wonder whether we are free now to do whatever we like. Oversimplified like this, the gospel certainly seems to preach lawlessness. It would seem that Christianity, rather than remedying the problem of sin, makes it worse. And so some have taken it. They have used the gospel as a reason to live lax lives, emboldened by the impression that it does not matter what they do, since Christ’s death atones for their sin. Or they conclude that the gospel is a retrograde force in the world, making people more careless and more sinful; if one may live a better life without the gospel, why bother being reconciled to God at all?
More careful reading would find that lawlessness—God suddenly having developed a laissez-faire attitude to sin—is not what we see elsewhere. Consider, for example, Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31-46:
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we [do all these things]?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then He will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For [you did not do these things]… Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
This passage certainly does not seem to teach that we are free to do as we choose. One might conclude that, rather than bringing freedom, Christianity is really about following rules. The only difference between the sheep and the goats in the parable seems to be what they did: on the one hand, the sheep performed good works and for these Jesus praised them and gave them eternal life; on the other hand, the goats failed to perform these good works and were eternally punished for it. Far from bringing freedom, Christianity seems to bring slavery to rules, on the quality of our performance of which we shall be saved or condemned. Was, then, Christ’s death of no effect? Some have looked at this version of Christianity and decided that perhaps faith in Christ is not what saves people and that really it does all depend on what they do. But in so doing they find themselves in a hopeless position: they feel they must save themselves by their own actions, but they find themselves unable to do so by reason of sin. They have taken themselves in a great circle and fall down in confusion and despair.
A Spirit of power, love and self-discipline 6
All this makes Christianity appear a very unusual, muddled thing. It tells us at once that it is not what we do that saves us, and yet that we might find ourselves condemned because we failed to do the right things. It seems to preach contradictory doctrines. How are they reconciled?
We may begin by drawing an important lesson from all this: that the relationship between faith and works in our salvation, like much of the rest of Christian theology, is a nuanced balance of superficially conflicting doctrines. A heavy-handed or narrow-minded approach creates an unsatisfying caricature. Then we may recognize another element of the nuance of Christianity: that it is more than something simply to be intellectually grasped and applied to our lives. If it were so, what difference would the simple knowledge that Christ died for you make to your life? It might inspire you to try to live a better life, to try to follow Christ’s example. But if the debilitating effect of our sinful nature is true, how would we be able to live that life that we were not able to live before? To remedy the problem of sin Christianity must be able to change you—the kind of fundamental change that transforms a person in their very soul. And I argue that Christianity is able to do it, and that it is in an understanding of how it does it that the apparent contradiction between faith and works is resolved.
God has not left us alone. He has given believers the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us and transforms us. This is what Jesus was talking about when He told Nicodemus about spiritual rebirth and renewal. Who is the Holy Spirit? Here we encounter another of the nuances of Christianity. Christianity affirms that there is one God, but that He exists as three persons. The Holy Spirit is one of these persons, along with the Father and the Son. They are distinct from one another. But all are one and the same God. The Father sent the Son into the world to die for the salvation of sinners, and whoever believes in Him shall not perish. After the death of the Son, the Father raised the Son from the dead, showing His victory over death and giving those who believe the hope of their own resurrection; for whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life. After the resurrection of the Son and His return to heaven until His second coming to finally judge all people and separate the sheep from the goats, the Holy Spirit was sent.
Now the resolution of the faith-works dilemma becomes clearer. We are indeed saved by the death of Christ alone, and not by anything we have done or will do or can do. But we are not then abandoned to our own devices. Our filling with the Holy Spirit enables us actually to become better than we are; to more readily and willingly obey God; to be averse to sin and eager to do good works. It does not mean that we will never sin again, for this transformation is a gradual process. But we will become increasingly like Christ and the results of our salvation will naturally be seen in the good that we do. The sheep in the parable were not saved because they had done good; rather, it was because they were saved by faith in Christ and genuinely changed by the working of the Holy Spirit that they did good; their good works were the evidence of their salvation. So we see that Christianity properly considered leads to neither lawlessness nor slavery to rules. As Christ declared, it brings freedom— not a freedom to do just anything, but to freely choose to do what is right.
The elegance of nuanced simplicity
Christianity’s teaching on faith and works is, then, at once breathtakingly simple and intricately nuanced. So it is with much of the rest of Christian doctrine; I encourage the reader to consider other examples7. If we are not careful we will construct for ourselves something false and unsatisfying, and so miss the beauty and power and truth of the real thing. When we look levelly and deeply we find what G. K. Chesterton observes in Orthodoxy: he compares Christianity to “a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences8 exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.” Christianity is simple in some ways, but not so simple as to make it unable to describe something as complex as the human condition or to tackle something as difficult as the problem of sin. It is nuanced where it needs to be, holding seemingly conflicting, but actually richly complementary, doctrines together at once. But it is not so nuanced as to be unfathomable or impracticable, for the Holy Spirit makes things clear and makes us better. Let us, then, strive to see Christianity for what it is, and so see and know the God it reveals for who He is.
- Genesis 1:26
- Ephesians 3:18-19
- Romans 3:23
- Timothy 1:15
- John 8:36
- 2 Timothy 1:7
- Consider, for example, Daniel’s disobedience to King Darius in Daniel 6 and the apostles’ disobedience to the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:17-42 in light of the teaching that we should obey the governing authorities in Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17; how does Acts 5:29 harmonize these passages? Consider also how we are to be not conformed to this world (Romans 12:2) and yet at the same time be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), and how we are to become great by being a servant as Jesus prescribes in Matthew 20:25-28.
- That is, outgrowths.