Wineskins Archive

January 22, 2014

Faith Must Be Personal (Jul – Aug 1993)

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by Rubel Shelly
July – August, 1993

Let me tell you the story of two people’s faith. These are real people. And my hope is that their stories are uncharacteristic of Christian people.

The first is the story of a preacher who was fired when it was discovered that he had sexually abused three children in his church – his eleven-year-old daughter and two of her friends. When I learned he had moved to Nashville in search of a job, I tracked him down and invited him to lunch. We met at a restaurant and made small talk while waiting to be seated. While trying to find the right opening and words to let him know that I cared about him and wanted to help him get things back on track with his life, he took the initiative. “There are some things you believe that I need to let you know I disagree with,” he said. “I understand you have a chorus at Woodmont Hills and that your people applaud at baptisms.”

The second is the story of a college student. She grew up in a Christian home. Both the people back home and her teachers here think highly of her. But some things had been going wrong in her life. She had been experimenting with alcohol and marijuana – and had done cocaine once. She said she really didn’t see as much danger in any of them as her parents did. Her immediate problem was she had found out three days before that she had gonorrhea. She had slept with three different guys a number of times during the past year. “But I haven’t missed church a time since leaving home. Even when one of the guys and I would spend the weekend in Knoxville,” she told me, “I’d make him get up and go to church with me on Sunday morning.”

What’s wrong with these stories? Both reflect real-life instances of church members who lack personal faith. One was living a tradition-bound faith that could perpetuate and put up with child molestation for over three years but could not abide a piece of special music or applause at a baptism. The other was living her parents’ faith about the importance of attending religious services while her own lifestyle was blatantly contradictory to the values those services are meant to undergird and affirm.


The late Paul Little distinguished three kinds of faith. The first two can be, in his words, “strictly environmental, an outgrowth of your surroundings.”

Some people have indoctrination faith. They have gone to the right places, sung the right hymns, and can give all the right answers about what they know as the plan of salvation. They wouldn’t think of missing church without a really good reason. They can quote a lot of Bible verses. But they have never really met the Christ they have studied about and have made no personal commitment to him.

Then there are people with conformity faith. These people do reasonably well when they are in Christian surroundings. When they are in a church meeting, in a school or work situation surrounded by Christians, or with family, they do all the right things and practically none of the wrong ones. Put them with people whose values and behavior are sub-Christian or leave them to make their own decisions about what to do, however, and – using Little’s words – they will “shed their faith like a raincoat.”

The third kind of faith is called commitment faith. This is the faith which goes deeper than tradition, family, or mere intellectual acceptance of the facts about Jesus and salvation. It is life-changing commitment to Christ as Lord. It is serious obedience to the Word of God. It is self-giving love to people who are hard to love.

Do you remember the Old Testament story of Daniel? When he was carried off to Babylon while still a young man, he faced temptations the like of which he had never faced before. Instead of caving in to them and using his unfriendly circumstances as an excuse, he overcame them. Instead of conforming to his environment, he had a redemptive impact on his environment. That’s an example of commitment faith.


Socrates was the Greek thinker who insisted, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And an unexamined faith is not worth having. It is not your own. It is not grounded in integrity. It will not survive the serious challenges that lie ahead for you.

A hundred years ago, William Clifford wrote an essay titled “The Ethics of Belief.” He imagined a ship owner who was about to send one of his vessels to sea. He knew it was old, not well built at the beginning, and needed several repairs. An inspector told him it was possibly not seaworthy.

The doubts troubled him. Perhaps he should overhaul and refit the ship. But that would have been very expensive. So, before the ship sailed, he overcame his melancholy reflections and saw off its crew and passengers. He would put his trust in Providence. After all, the ship had made scores of voyages safely and weathered many a storm. Surely God would protect the happy families with small children who were aboard. He waved at the excited travelers from the dock, expressed his strong faith that they would have a safe voyage to the people standing nearby, and collected his insurance money when the ship went down in mid-ocean.

Now let’s change one feature of the story. Suppose the ship was not unsafe at all and that it made the trip – and many more after it – safely. Do you think better of the ship owner now? Is his guilt diminished in your eyes? Whatever the outcome of the voyage, Clifford argued, the man was a scoundrel. What happened on the trip has nothing to do with the faith the ship owner placed in his ship. Regardless of outcome, he had no right to believe in the safety of his ship on the basis of the evidence at hand. His doubts were not erased by investigation of the facts but by suppressing the hard questions.

Clifford summarized the point of his illustration at the end of his article:

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call in question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it – the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.


The church of Jesus Christ must challenge people to make their faith personal. Every congregation of believers needs to be a place that not only allows but encourages people to ask questions and investigate for themselves. The goal of good teachers is not to spoon feed theology but to give people the tools and methods for getting into Scripture for themselves.

The first step in making your faith personal is immersion in the Word of God. “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The Bible is the mine from which a personal faith is unearthed.

The second step to a personal faith is a willingness to submit your life to Christ as Lord. At the level of knowledge of and consent to the truth, demons are believers. James said they not only believe but believe deeply (i.e., “shudder”) that there is one God (James 2:19). But, of course, they are not believers in any redemptive sense precisely because knowledge is not enough. There must be the surrendering of one’s life in obedience to him.

An interesting phenomenon about the growth of faith is that one must immediately combine action with faith or shut down the process. The first time you resist the truth you are learning and set yourself in disobedience to God, you close off the possibility of growth beyond that point. Just as upper-level courses in college have prerequisites, so the prerequisite to spiritual maturity is faithfulness in the little things you are learning along the way (Matthew 15:14-25).

The third step to personal faith is the ability to tolerate diversity within the body of Christ. The desire to control the developing faith of another Christian is a mark of spiritual immaturity. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” asked Paul. “To his own master he stands or falls” (Romans 14:4a). The day you let another human being control the content of your faith is the day you cease having personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In his The Basis of Christian Unity, Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote: “The ultimate question facing us these days is whether our faith is in men and their power to organize, or in the truth of God in Christ Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.” Unity in the faith must not be confused with conformity. The drive to make people conform is a human agenda accomplished by the flesh; unity is the work of the Holy Spirit among the body’s diverse parts.


Faith must be more than a commitment to the past. In fact, the past is what every Christian is trying to rise above for the sake of a glorious future with God.

As much as I love my godly parents, their faith cannot be transmitted like eye and hair color. As much as I love my children, I don’t want them to have my faith. I want them to have their own. As much as I respect and cherish my heritage in the American Restoration Movement, I want a faith grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ rather than in a historical heritage.

The challenge to the church in this generation is to create an atmosphere for personal faith. Whose faith are you living today?

Rubel Shelly preached for the Family of God at Woodmont Hills in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1978-2005. During that time he also taught at Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, and is the author or co-author of many books, including The Jesus Community: A Theology of Relational Faith and The Second Incarnation. He presently lives in the Greater Detroit area where he teaches philosophy and religion at Rochester College. He is known as a community leader in Nashville and has served with such groups as the AIDS Education Committee of the American Red Cross, a medical relief project to an 1100-bed children’s hospital in Moscow called “From Nashville With Love,” and “Seeds of Kindness.”

He is the author of more than 20 books, including several which have been translated into languages such as Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Russian. He has published widely in religious journals. He is co-editor with Mike Cope of the online magazine New Wineskins. Shelly has lectured on Christian apologetics, ethics, and medical ethics on university campuses across America and in several foreign countries. He has done short-term mission work in such places as Kenya, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Russia. He was educated at Harding University (B.A.), Harding Graduate School of Religion (M.A., M. Th.), and Vanderbilt University (M.A., Ph.D.). He is married to the former Myra Shappley, and they are the parents of three children: Mrs. David (Michelle) Arms, Tim, and Tom. []

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