Opening Willard’s book, I read: “The idea of having faith in Jesus has come to be totally isolated from being his apprentice and learning how to do what he said.” In that sentence, I felt, was my diagnosis. I had grown up in an Evangelical Christian home, I “had faith in Jesus,” but what I didn’t have was a sense of how Jesus’ life connected to the practical problems I faced in my day-to-day existence. I had imbibed what Willard memorably calls a “gospel of sin management,” a message that enabled me to be confident of post-mortem salvation but left me largely clueless as to how to handle my troubles as a teenager.
I read on and encountered this, from the same page in The Divine Conspiracy: “How to combine faith with obedience is surely the essential task of the church as it enters the twenty-first century.” Thumbing through my old copy of the book, I see a marginal note from my seventeen-year-old self: “This is one of the most troubling questions… . How to fit together faith and obedience, justification and sanctification, Gospel and Law?” Asking that question was, in retrospect, the beginning of my interest in theology. The urgency of my adolescent angst had led me, unaware, into one of the central issues in the study of Christian teaching: how the forgiveness of sins issues (or fails to issue) in a changed way of life.
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in this world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.
I open the New Testament and read: ‘If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.’ Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).