I have often thought that among the many pitfalls churchgoers can fall into, one of the of the gravest and subtlest is over-complicating the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3). The human heart is drawn to the elaborate and the complex. We love puzzles, the more convoluted the better. After all, the greater the complexity, the greater the payoff once it’s overcome. (Think of the pride that incites you to refuse the instruction manual and attempt that IKEA bookshelf construction project according to your own wit and wisdom.) We place such an extreme value on the complex that when something appears too easy, we chalk it up to being nothing more than “child’s play.” And the same holds true when it comes to the biblical gospel, too.
I’d say that one of the reasons it didn’t take long for heterodox assumptions and heretical myths regarding the person and work of Christ to begin circulating is because the apostle’s doctrine sounded too simple. Their message was, “Repent and believe” (Acts 2:36–39) — which, as it happens, was Christ’s message, too (Mark 1:14–15; Matt. 3:12; 4:7). At its core, apostasy is nothing more than the abandonment of the simplicity of God’s good news. Satan’s great scam is the notion that the simple gospel is actually not that simple. That when Christ said “Believe” there was actually more to it. His malignant insinuation is that Jesus’s words were grace plus something else. In the wake of such complexity, one finds a bevy of distortions of the truth of God.
Such is what serves as the theme for Sam Bush’s latest article over on Mockingbird, entitled, “Rated G for Gospel,” in which he talks about the simple sagacity contained in the gospel of God’s salvation of sinners. I’d be remiss if I didn’t share a few lines:
When visiting America in 1962, Karl Barth was asked to paraphrase his entire published work of over 600 writings in a single sentence. He responded, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The story, of course, says a lot about Barth, but it says even more about the Gospel — that the greatest theologian of the 20th-century could boil all of Christian doctrine down to a nursery rhyme. It’s a message that speaks to the wisest of elders and the drooliest of crawlers. It somehow treats everyone equally without compromising itself . . .
Our attempts to make the gospel into something more advanced, however, might stem from our own disbelief. Thinking that Christianity is complicated and/or serious business is not only to a child’s detriment, but it runs the risk of not understanding the gospel ourselves . . .
This is where a song like “Jesus Loves Me” reveals its ageless power. Believe it or not, the song first made its appearance in a 19th-century novel when a character sings it to give comfort to an ill child in the waning hours of his short life. What does it proclaim? That the boy is loved and that he belongs to Jesus. Death may be at the doorstep, but Jesus will be there to greet us with a hug. Given the chance, I’m not sure anyone could say it better than that, no matter how old you are.
The gospel’s impartial agelessness speaks divine truth to seasoned systematic theologians and snot-nosed Sunday-schoolers. Its profundity isn’t realized in its complexity but in its simplicity, imparting redeeming grace to 5-year-olds and 95-year-olds alike. To one and all, notwithstanding the generation in which you were born, the Scriptures announce the free and abiding peace and pardon that comes from God through the work of God’s own Son. Unbelief, then, stiff-arms the simplicity of grace. Unbelief is the stubborn insistence to add complexity to what the Son of God made plain (John 3:16–18). “Unbelief,” writes Rev. William James, “to describe it by a figure, is the result of simply closing the eye of the soul against the light which comes to it from God.”1 It’s the shutting of the eyes and the stopping of the ears to the simple gospel.
May you be blessed and enriched by Sam’s article and by the assurance that the gospel saves simply, freely, and wholly — “to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25).
Grace and peace.
William James, The Marriage of the King’s Son and the Guilt of Unbelief (New York: Randolph & Co., 1869), 135.