Alp Upon Alp
by Lon Gregg
Director of Chaplains
Denver Rescue Mission
As a Coloradoan whose hobby is climbing the Fourteeners, the 54 Colorado peaks above 14,000 feet in elevation, I’ve many times experienced the heartache of Alp upon Alp. Just when I think I’m cresting the summit ridge and I’ve reached my goal, my heart sinks to see another difficult ridge (or two!) remaining to ascend before reaching the top.
Tragically, thoughtless evangelism can also place Alps between people inquiring after Jesus Christ and the goal of eternal life. When someone draws near to Christ and wants to know what he must do to be saved, some presentations require agreement with long lists of Biblical truths along the way as a necessary precondition for attaining to that life. But these Alps, thrown up no doubt with good intentions, may instead have the effect of prohibiting all but the hardiest seeker from ever believing Jesus’ promise. Surely our loving Savior did not intend to keep people from the life He offers!
At the inner city rescue mission where I work, understanding—let alone believing!—even the most rudimentary doctrines can sorely try the capacities of those we help. For some time, I’ve struggled with Alps that sometimes barricade the way to faith for these dear folks. At the mission, the issue boils down to a question: Just how correctly informed need one be about Jesus before believing in Him for eternal life? Is there some “right” Jesus whom I must come to know before my faith in Him will be effectual?[i]
I’ve found that the evangelism tool that is the choice of rescue missions everywhere, the Gospel of John, has clear answers to this question. Following is a quick review of just a few of these answers.
According to John, one need not necessarily know much about Jesus Christ to obtain eternal life. The famous Samaritan woman, apparently knowing only that Jesus knew all about her (John 4:29), drank living water—believed in Him—and received eternal life. The blind man in John 9 lacked only the knowledge about the identity of the person standing before him (John 9:36-38) before he came to faith. At his very first moment of meeting Jesus, the disciple Nathanael believed in Him (John 1:50) on the basis only of a single remark from Jesus about His pre-acquaintance with him. Not a whole lot of content was demonstrated in these new believers! They knew virtually nothing about Jesus’ Person or work other than that He is the Messiah who gives eternal life to all who believe in Him.
Further, according to John, the little bit one does know about Jesus need not necessarily be orthodox to be effective. Speaking on the first day of his acquaintance with Jesus, the disciple Philip expresses what for John is a saving conviction about Him (John 1:45; cf. 20:31). In the same breath, however, Andrew calls his Savior “son of Joseph,” a patent unorthodoxy. While this ignorance about Jesus’ true parentage could surely be expected of someone in his very first day of faith—this ignorance even helps mark the story as genuine!—the fact remains that the Jesus whom Andrew believed was not, to his mind, virgin-born. But John did not consider Andrew’s ignorance to be an obstacle to faith in Jesus. Indeed, John felt Andrew’s faith was substantial enough to hold it out as a model; misunderstanding Jesus’ Person need not keep the believer from the truth of His promise.
Finally, according to John, one need not necessarily be aware of later or other revelation before claiming eternal life. Some think that John’s gospel was written before the developing church settled on the message that delivers eternal life for the rest of the age. John’s book, however, does not allow for this; this book ends with its Guarantor, Jesus, still on earth (21:22)! As far as the reader of this Gospel knows, John 3:16 and its many sister promises are still available, from His very lips. As far as this book goes, Jesus is still here guaranteeing those promises; what teacher of the time would dare contradict a living Jesus?
No, according to John, one need not be an expert about Jesus’ Person. The issue in the Fourth Gospel is Jesus’ promise of eternal life to all who believe in Him. In John, believing Jesus’ promise of life to the believer resulted in irrevocable, eternal life. The intended outcome of Jesus’ witness in this book was not necessarily orthodoxy about Jesus,[ii] but that the reader believe Jesus’ unorthodox offer[iii] to give every believer eternal life (John 20:31).
Isn’t this really just common sense, though? Does the teenager need correct carburetor truth about Daddy’s T-Bird before turning the key to go see her friends? Does the airline passenger need to understand and believe aeronautical physics to be sure he’ll get to Dallas? While carburetion and aerodynamic lift are in fact the operative principles, the auto and airplane passengers can be fully and blissfully unaware of them and still have full confidence of arriving safely at their destination. Likewise, for eternal life, Christ need be known only as its Giver, no matter how that conviction arises, no matter how ignorant the believer may be of the underpinnings of the promise, and no matter even if he may hold to errors about Christ at the same time. The only Alp that stands before any person hungry for eternal life is the persuasion that Jesus’ promise of it is true.
In short, as we tell our inquiring friends at the Denver Rescue Mission, you’re believing in the right Jesus if, whatever you may know—or not know—about Him, you’re convinced He gives you eternal life when you believe Him for it. The more information the better, of course; the more we know, the easier it is to believe. But if we never rise to the level of full orthodoxy about the bodily resurrected, substitutionally offered, fully divine, fully and perfectly human, virginally conceived Son of God,[iv] thank God the simple promise of eternal salvation He has made to us is true for the taking, now and forever!
[i]I’m speaking here not of those characteristics of Jesus that had to be true in order for Him to be the Savior. Instead, I’m speaking about whether a person must have a fully informed understanding of Jesus in order to believe savingly in Him.
[ii]Many key Christological truths are not even mentioned in John, including the virgin birth, His birth in Bethlehem, His sinlessness, His immutability, His omniscience, His omnipresence, His ascension, and His present seating at the right hand of the Father.
[iii]That His promise was unorthodox is seen in the fact that “His own received Him not” (John 1:11). Even most of the religious leaders in Israel opposed Him and His offer of eternal life to all who believe in Him (John 7:45-52).
[iv]It is puzzling why those who come up with a restricted list of truths that must be believed about Jesus pick the truths they do and leave out other essential truths like His eternality, His sinlessness, His truthfulness, His virgin birth, etc. Possibly they do so because they don’t think people should have eternal life unless they at least have a semi-informed understanding of Jesus? But there seems to be no rationale for how they decide how informed a person must be.