Saved by Faith, not Knowledge
Knowledge, they say, is power.
The world today seems fixed and oriented around this old adage. Modern man presumes to be far better than his ancestors because he has acquired greater knowledge about his environment and has developed greater capabilities. Fortunes are made and lost on the basis of obtaining knowledge. Billions of dollars are invested in scientific exploits to gain further knowledge, and mostly to what end? Despite whatever humanitarian pretense is maintained, and apart from the profit motive, such learning is always designed to enhance humankind’s ability to control and manipulate his environment.
Knowledge also seems to be the key to social power. Society expects every one of its constituents to spend between fifteen to thirty-three percent of their lives dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge. The level of formal education remains determinative of a person’s earning power; while today advanced degrees are not a guarantee of a decent income, few are the opportunities to obtain a decent income without them or without their skill equivalent. Entrance into many social circles or spheres of influence requires having the right kind of knowledge and/or knowing the right people. As the body of human knowledge has expanded well beyond the capability of any individual person to understand it all, we have become more dependent on experts and their expertise, and those with expertise maintain greater social standing than those who do not.
In many respects this is the world bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment. According to the precepts of the Enlightenment, the world beforehand was “pre-critical,” enslaved to superstitions and ignorance. Ignorance was man’s big problem; the solution was to dispel ignorance with the shining light of knowledge obtained through observation and reason.
The Enlightenment succeeded far beyond anyone might have expected. Academia and scientific inquiry have been entirely subsumed by it. Whenever we are confronted by any kind of problem, our immediate impulse is to try to learn all about it so we can try to solve it. When we see or hear of terrible events, we impulsively want to access some kind of information so we can do something about it. When someone acts unbecomingly, we are tempted to imagine they should know better. In fact, “to know better is to do better” is a major theme in modern society.
Christianity has also been significantly impacted by the Enlightenment and its idolization of knowledge. Yet, in Christ, we are not saved by knowledge; we are saved by faith.
Many will immediately challenge such a statement: how can anyone be saved without knowledge? Must one not come to a knowledge of what God has done in Christ in order to be saved?
Before we provide assurance regarding the importance of at least some knowledge, we do well to pause and consider such a reaction. Why would we, upon hearing how we are saved by faith and not knowledge, immediately presume such a statement demands a faith without any kind of knowledge? Why would we see it as denigrating knowledge? Such a reaction confirms the modern sentiment: any time any question is raised about the efficacy or ultimate nature of knowledge is automatically suspect. As a result, we should not be surprised to discover many Christians have, however consciously or unconsciously, put their confidence in their knowledge for their salvation.
Knowledge, on its own, has never been the problem; the challenge is how we view knowledge and its importance in the grand scheme of things.
While the Enlightenment has been overwhelmingly successful in framing ignorance as the problem and knowledge as the solution, it should not take us terribly long to see while ignorance is a problem, and knowledge is a solution, ignorance is not the problem, and knowledge certainly is not the solution.
Christians of all people should recognize this; the Apostle Paul has reminded us how we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and all of our faculties have suffered from corruption (Romans 5:12-21, 8:17-23). In Romans 7:5-25 Paul presented his grand soliloquy on how knowledge of the Law provided the opportunity for sin to enter and lead us to transgression. Ironically, according to Paul, knowledge itself can sometimes lead to and perpetuate the problem of sin. Americans of a certain generation can attest to Paul’s wisdom in this matter when considering what was the popular “Drug Abuse Resistance Program (DARE)”: while informing small children about the nature of drugs certainly led many to resist drugs, it also opened horizons previously unknown for many others! After all, even in our days of speaking of “knowledge as power,” we still confess how sometimes “ignorance is bliss.”
Paul would not have us fall prey to the worldly wisdom of the Enlightenment (Colossians 2:8-10): ignorance is not the problem; sin is. Knowledge is not the solution; faith in Jesus is.
Does this mean we never sin in ignorance, or that we cannot come to learn of anything good? Not at all. Sometimes ignorance leads us to sin. God has called all of us to come to faith through learning of the Gospel and to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17, 1 Peter 3:18). At the same time, Christians would be commended for remaining ignorant of the “deep things of Satan”; and Paul rightly warned us how knowledge makes arrogant while it is love which builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1).
Thus we do not inherently commend ignorance and cast aspersions on knowledge; but we must come to grips with how we have, however consciously or unconsciously, imbibed the spirit of the age. As humans we are finite, created beings; there are many things beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9). There are forces far greater than us at work in this creation; we cannot manipulate or control our environment to resist all of them (Ephesians 6:12). In the face of artificial and/or natural disaster, the search for knowledge and understanding can never satisfy. How can we endure in the face of all such things? It will not be through knowledge; it can only be through faith in God our Creator, His covenant loyalty, and the hope of resurrection through Jesus.
Knowledge, therefore, is not the answer. Sometimes it is an answer, as part of something more, but it can never be the answer. As Christians, we should stop acting as if knowledge is the answer. People will learn about Jesus but turn away from Him. People “raised in the church” will know right and wrong, and some will choose to do the wrong. They may indeed know better; such never demands for them, or us, to do better. The church will always be beset with difficulties; we should not assume or presume the problem has come from a lack of preaching or teaching on the matter, as if every problem can be reduced to a lack of information. Likewise, we should not be surprised when after preaching and teaching on a matter, a problem still endures; far better preachers and teachers preached and taught on matters which still led to difficulties, as exploration of the pages of the New Testament makes evident.
Toward the end of the first century there was a group of people who held belief in Jesus of Nazareth but claimed they had received additional insight and understanding and considered themselves the truly knowledgeable and elect. Today we call them Gnostics and rightly recognize them as heretical. Ever since there has been the impulse to put great confidence in our knowledge or insights, as if by having an encyclopedic knowledge of the Scriptures we would obtain our salvation, and the confirmation of our standing in Christ would be evident by how much we know about the Bible. We have presumed we are the ones who have come into the right knowledge, and excoriate everyone else for being in the wrong, seemingly presuming how the standard for entering into eternal life is exactitude in accurate knowledge. Yet on what basis do we have any right to believe our salvation or standing before God in Christ is based on what or how much we know? Knowledge indeed makes arrogant, but it is love which builds up: the one who knows little but loves much far better reflects the Lord Jesus and His purposes than the one who knows much but loves little.
The Scriptures provide no suggestion we will stand before the Lord Jesus only if we have passed a knowledge test; and woe to us if such were the standard, because do we really know all we think we know? How much more could all of us learn? What if such a test were not graded on a curve, but on the same kind of exacting standard we have imposed upon ourselves and/or others? Mercy triumphs over judgment according to the Lord’s brother; but to those who show no mercy, no mercy will be given (James 2:12-13).
Christians are saved by faith, not knowledge. We therefore cannot assume or presume our knowledge will save us or grant us standing before the Lord Jesus. Whatever standing we have was secured not by our own efforts but the magnanimous display of grace and mercy manifest in the cross; our hope cannot be in learning enough to gain mastery, but in overcoming sin and death by following the Lord Jesus Christ who overcame sin and death. Knowledge perishes; Jesus endures forever. May we put our trust in the Lord Jesus, not in our knowledge, so we might obtain salvation in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry