In Philippians 2:5-11 Paul quotes an ancient Christian creed that dramatically rehearses the central events of the historia salutis:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (ESV).
Do we believe that this grand, cosmic drama really happened in this world, in our world, and that Jesus really is God’s obedient and exalted bond-servant? It may seem easy to believe the basic facts of the gospel. How hard is that? And yet, when you reflect on it further, you realize how little we really do believe. We go about our daily lives, going to work, taking care of our kids, watching TV, surfing the web, listening to our iPods, Facebooking and Twittering, and so on. But how firmly do we really believe these amazing, earth-shattering facts? We spend so much of our lives acting as if, for all practical purposes, these things are not true, or at least only true in some vague spiritual way, but not absolutely factually true in the same way that our daily lives are real. We think we believe, but believing is harder than we think. It is hard to believe the facts of the drama of salvation. The incarnation, humiliation and exaltation of Christ are not easy facts to accept. They are totally alien to reason and experience.
Since real faith is too hard, we grasp for faith substitutes, things that are close enough to faith, that we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we really do believe when in fact we struggle with unbelief. There are three main substitutes: Church activity, piety, and theology.
We throw ourselves into serving at church. We keep ourselves so busy with church activities, that we don’t have time to stop and reflect on the person of Christ. We are going a mile a minute, running to this church meeting and that church activity, doing Bible studies and evangelism and missions and small groups and children’s ministries. But often we’re so busy, we’re running on fumes. Our hearts are empty, so we pour ourselves even more into church activity to make up for it. When Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching and Martha was distracted with much serving, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). There is nothing wrong with serving the church. But it is no substitute for faith.
The second substitute for faith is piety. Many Christians are addicted to having certain spiritual experiences and feelings, because it makes the faith seem more real to them if they can feel it and see it. Some Charismatics take this to great extremes. They think the Holy Spirit is a physical force that literally knocks them to the ground or fills them with ecstasy. They get into a trance-like state as they speak in tongues or sway to the powerful beat of the music. There is nothing wrong with spiritual emotions, and from time to time God grants us deeply moving experiences. But they are no substitute for faith.
The third substitute is theology. We think that if we study theology carefully and come to all the right doctrinal positions, then we will be safe and right with God. This one hits closer to home for me. There have been times in my Christian walk where the only thing I had was theology. The emotions and spiritual experiences had waned, so I spent all my energy on studying theological issues, reading different views, and seeking the truth. But what I was really seeking was not the truth itself, not Christ himself, but the self-satisfied feeling that I had figured out a complex issue and grasped the absolute truth of God. Again, theology certainly has an important role to play. But it is no substitute for faith.
Paul said, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). In other words, faith comes from hearing the message, the good news, concerning Jesus, his self-emptying love for sinners to the point of death on a cross and his exaltation by God. Faith arises in your heart when you hear this awesome story of the drama of redemption, and you find yourself attracted to this humble, obedient, and exalted bond-servant. You find yourself drawn to him, drawn by his love, by his humility, and by his grace. You are enthralled with the fact that he is now exalted as Lord, not merely as if he were a master with his boot on your neck, before whom you cower in fear. Rather, your heart is ravished by the beauty of this humble bond-servant, who did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped and used for his own advantage, and who, because of his self-surrendering obedience in love for humankind, deserves to be exalted to the highest place. Because of his utter lack of grasping after glory, he deserves the highest glory. Because he made himself nothing for us, he deserves everything from us. We do not submit to his Lordship simply because he is Lord and demands it. We gladly submit to his Lordship, we gladly hail him as our loving King, because he has won our hearts - creating faith within us - by his humble service in our behalf.