“I don’t want a bunch of stuffy doctrines; I just want a relationship with Jesus. Isn’t that what’s more important—to just love God?” The college student sitting across the table from me was earnest and sincere. He was sick of institutional religion and theology and propositional truth statements, and was looking for a spirituality that was more “real” and “authentic” than the dogmatic, denominational church of his childhood. And so he was appealing to a new way of doing the Christian life: can’t I just have a relationship with Jesus without getting hung up on doctrinal specifics?
Have you ever heard that objection before? Maybe it’s the objection that has come out of your mouth in response to someone trying to unpack some theological truth. I don’t want some heady theological mumbo-jumbo; I just want Jesus.
It sounds so good, doesn’t it? What Christian doesn’t simply want more Jesus? There’s a humble-sounding ring to it, too; all I can handle is just Jesus, so don’t distract me with high-sounding arguments and propositions. There’s something attractive about a simple, me-and-Jesus relationship.
And to a certain extent, there’s something true here as well. It’s possible to be so interested in knowledge about God that you could miss the point of it all: actually knowing God. It’s possible to be full of knowledge about the Bible, and affirm a long list of true things about God, and hold to sound doctrine, and be utterly unchanged. It’s possible to know the right things, without letting them change the way you actually think and feel and live. I suspect that it was this empty, head-knowledge formalism that this student was reacting against.
Here’s the problem, though: a relationship with Jesus, without doctrine, is a relationship without any content. Doctrine is just another way of saying, “This is what I know about God.” How can you have a relationship with someone without knowing things about them?
That’s what I told this college student sitting across the table from me. “Imagine that you’re dating your girlfriend,” I said, “but you never asked her to tell you anything about herself. Never asked about her family, or where she’s from, or what she likes or dislikes, what makes her happy or sad, or what her dreams or desires are. What sort of relationship would that be?”
“Not a very good one,” he responded.
“How long do you suppose a relationship like that would last?”
“Probably not very long,” he admitted.
Exactly, I told him. Because having a relationship with somebody means knowing them, and working to know them better. And that’s all that doctrine is; it’s knowing God, it’s knowing what he’s like, his qualities and character, his heart, the things he loves and hates, his plans and purposes and what he does. If you get hung up on the word ‘doctrine’ or ‘theology,’ that’s fine. Call it whatever you want. But don’t jettison actually knowing God, and pursuing a deeper, more intimate, more full relationship, knowing him better and better. Doctrine is just another word for loving Jesus.
EXCITED ABOUT GOD AND GOING TO HELL
There is more at stake in this discussion than just having a certain quality of relationship with God. Eternity—heaven and hell—are literally at stake here. In Romans 10, Paul is lamenting over the fate of his Jewish brethren who have rejected the Messiah. He makes a startling statement about their eternal fate, and the reason behind it, in verses 1-2:
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.
Do you see what he’s saying? First, he clearly implies that his Jewish kinsmen are spiritually lost; his heart’s desire and prayer is that they may be saved, which means that currently they’re not. These are people on the road to eternal punishment and separation from God. That in itself is sobering, but what is really important to see is what Paul says next: the reason that they’re lost: “they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”
That is a terrible and frightening sentence. These people, Paul says, are excited about God, but their excitement is not based on knowing him rightly. And because they don’t know him rightly, their zeal for God means nothing; they are still lost. What Paul is saying is this: you can be excited about God and still go to hell.
The implications of what Paul is saying extend far beyond Jews misunderstanding the Messiah. If “zeal for God without knowledge” was a danger to people in the first century, it’s a plague running rampant in the twenty-first century. “Zeal without knowledge” is an apt description for the primary form of spirituality in America today, perhaps even in the American church. From youth group kids going to a conference looking for an emotional high, to churches peddling Sunday services as “experiences,” to Christian radio marketing “uplifting and encouraging” over biblical truth, this is how we do Christianity today: get excited about Jesus apart from any specific knowledge about Jesus.
But if what Paul is saying is true, we may be doing something far more serious and deadly than just building bad churches or fueling fleeting feel-good moments: we may actually be imparting a false sense of security to millions of people who think they’re Christians because they’re occasionally emotional about God even though they have no desire to actually know him or obey him better.
Don’t get me wrong: the other end of the spectrum, a cold intellectual knowledge of God that doesn’t reach and transform the heart and emotions, is just as deadly as a vacuous emotionalism (and is perhaps more prevalent in some areas of the church). The same Paul who said that zeal without knowledge is damning also said in 1 Corinthians 8 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge of God, divorced from love for him, will only make us puffed up hypocrites. Jesus certainly wants our hearts… but the reality is, he wants more than just our hearts.
He wants our heads as well.