My favorite album as a kid was by the Royal Guardsman; and it featured at least eight absolutely incredible songs, songs I still cherish today like an old treasure. Sing along if you know them. There was “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (“He was the bravest of them all”); “The Battle of New Orleans” (“We took a little bacon and we took a little beans and we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans”); “Li’l Red Riding Hood” (“You’re everything a big bad wolf could want.”); “Snoopy and the Red Baron” (“In the nick of time, a hero arose, a funny-looking dog with a big black nose”); and the super classic, “Peanut Butter” (“Well there’s a food goin’ round that’s a sticky sticky goo — Peanut, Peanut Butter — Oh well, it tastes so good but it’s so hard to chew — Peanut, Peanut Butter — All my friends tell me that they dig it the most — Peanut, Peanut Butter — Early in the morning when they spread it on toast — Peanut, Peanut Butter — I like peanut butter, creamy peanut butter, chunky peanut butter, too!”). That’s right. A whole song about peanut butter. Why? I can only hope because the composer actually had a passion for peanut butter, a passion that overcame all good sense.
You can say what you want about Kierkegaard, but one thing is certain: Kierkegaard was all about passion. Now, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Dave Breese, in his book, Seven Men Who Rule the World from the Grave, dislikes Kierkegaard for this very reason. He sees Kierkegaard’s emphasis on passion throughout his writings and criticizes him strongly saying,
“Many of Kierkegaard’s interpreters suggest that Kierkegaard seems to be saying that passion is everything.”
I guess Breese believed that we ought to be controlled by our thoughts, not our feelings; our rationality, and not our passions. And while there is certainly some truth to that as a general statement; but when writing to an audience devoid of passion, it may actually be necessary to take up the anchor and go full speed ahead into passion. And this was the situation for the Danish church. Kierkegaard quipped that in his day, “one became a Christian without noticing it,” and that becoming a Christian was “as simple as pulling on one’s socks.” In Kierkegaard’s day, much like our day (even though we may deny it), faith had been reduced to a list of things we are to believe; and as long as we have right beliefs, all is well for (we believe) it is with our right beliefs we are justified and it is with our mouth that we profess these beliefs and are saved! Now, Kierkegaard wasn’t against right beliefs, but he knew that believing the right things, like putting on the right socks properly, never saved anyone. What we needed was to attach passion to our right beliefs. Mark Tietjen explains:
“Kierkegaard assumes Christian truth to be true. He simply takes seriously the biblical view that the faith that transforms a human life beyond the mind to one’s heart, soul and strength – to one’s passions.”
But make no mistake about it. Kierkegaard’s passion was not overt emotionalism. It was a passion for Christ. Kierkegaard wrote: “Faith is the highest passion in a man.” And since we are trying not to make any mistakes, Kierkegaard’s faith was not some blind faith in a God who is totally other who resides out there somewhere. No. His passion was for Jesus. In his journal, he wrote:
“I owe everything to my father from the very beginning. His plea to me was: See to it that you truly love Jesus Christ.”
But what does it mean to “truly love Jesus?”
Most of us would quickly claim to love Jesus, but what that means to us may vary person-to-person. For some, if we love Jesus, it means we believe in the gospel because we know it is true. For these people, to love Jesus is the same as knowing about Jesus. Mark Tietjen writes:
“Every reader of Kierkegaard’s day knew two things just as confidently as they knew what they ate for breakfast. First, they knew God became a human being in the incarnation of Jesus. Second, they knew this to be true because God revealed it in Scripture, not through logic and argument. The problem, as Kierkegaard sees it, is subtle and lies in the word know. In ‘knowing’ that God took on flesh and entered human history, the belief had become trivial, rote and passé.”
Here’s the issue: How do we know Jesus is the Son of God? That’s easy. The Bible tells us. This is where Kierkegaard takes issue. Without a doubt, the Bible tells us this truth, but if that is the only way we know this truth, then our faith is only rooted in our head; and a faith rooted only in the head, is passionless and incomplete. Think of it this way. How do we know we are sinners? That’s easy: the Bible tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). True enough, but if this is the only way we know we are sinners, we will never feel the need to do anything about it. Yes, the Bible tells us we are sinners, but isn’t seeing our own sin in our own lives, in something we did, far more convincing, more affecting, and more meaningful. When I see in the Bible that I am a sinner, I recognize that I need God’s forgiveness and grace and poof! It’s all done. By reading one paragraph, I become aware that I am a sinner, that God has forgiven me and that I now stand justified. Just like that, I go from being a sinner to being righteous. But when I see my own sin as a result of something I did, I truly realize I am a sinner and I feel the shame of my sin and my guilt. Now, the Bible’s news of my forgiveness actually is good news. It is freeing news. It is healing news. Now, Jesus moves from being an accountant somewhere who has fixed my records so that I am no longer in debt, to being my actual savior who died for me. Kierkegaard’s point is clear here: true knowledge comes from living, not from absorbing facts. But even more so: true salvation doesn’t come from absorbing facts that Jesus saves, but from a relationship with the savior. And you know you are saved, not when you know everything about your savior, but when you know (and love) the teacher. In one of Kierkegaard’s most insightful quotes, we read:
“The object of faith becomes not the teaching, but the teacher.”
How often we forget this.
There is a second way people redefine what it means to love Jesus. For many of us, if we love Jesus, it means that we admire Jesus. We admire all that he did, all that he taught, all that he believed. For us, Jesus is our hero. But there is a huge difference between an admirer of Jesus and a follower of Jesus. Kierkegaard writes:
“The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires.”
Here’s the bottom line: I can say I like Jesus and even admire him, but unless I am also following him, those words are meaningless. Again, if we love Jesus, our lives will show it by giving ourselves over to being transformed by Jesus, transformed in the way we think, the way we feel and the way we act.
Thankfully, we are not left on our own to accomplish this. Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and that means transformation is found in Jesus alone. Think about it. If the way is a person (and not something I do), then salvation isn’t the result of my trying harder, but the result of entering into a relationship with Jesus and trusting in him alone (or as Tim Keller says,
“Religion says, ‘I obey; therefore I am accepted.’ Christianity says, ‘I’m accepted, therefore I obey.’”).
And if truth is a person (and not a list of facts), then salvation isn’t the result of gaining more knowledge, more Bible study, or more theology, but rather the result of entering into a relationship with Jesus and following him. And if life is a person (and not some ideal), then our salvation isn’t shown in what we say, but rather in how we live. We express our new life primarily through our lives as we seek to follow Jesus in everything. In other words, our only hope is found in a relationship with Jesus. But there is even more good news. Tietjen reminds us of this truth:
“Put in Christian terms, one needs Jesus, who is ‘the truth,’ but what is more – one needs Jesus to see that one needs Jesus.”
And here’s the good news. Jesus comes to seek and save us. He comes to us. Kierkegaard writes:
“Jesus Christ is not only the pattern for us to follow, but is also the Redeemer, lest our failure to follow him faithfully disquiets us to the point of despair.”
To love Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life is to love Jesus as our gracious redeemer and savior. And here is the best news. Kierkegaard writes:
“And if you are conscious of yourself as a sinner, he will not question you about it, he will not break the bruised reed even more, but will raise you up when you accept him; he will not identify you by contrast by placing you apart from himself so that your sin becomes even more terrible; he will grant you a hiding place with himself, and hidden in him he will hide your sins. For he is the friend of sinners.”
En Garde with Kierkegaard
At the end of every post in this series, I want to drive home a few points by asking a few questions and give you one great Kierkegaard quote to ponder.
- How big is the knowing (where you believe that right thinking and right doctrine is what is most important) and being (where you trust and rest in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life) gap in your life?
- What difference does your view of Jesus make on all the different aspects of your life?
- How do you keep God at arm’s length so that he doesn’t get too close?
- How do you try to win God’s approval and earn his acceptance?
- Where is your faith mainly centered – in your head (intellect), in your heart (emotions) or in your feet (will/doing)? How has that shaped your spiritual life?
- Do you admire Jesus or follow Jesus? How would you demonstrate your answer?
- How does Jesus, the friend of sinners, encourage your heart?
And one last quote to ponder:
“Christianity is not a doctrine to be taught, but rather a life to be lived.”