Car dealers speak of the trim levels available in every car model—meaning the features automatically added to a given version of that model. Options range from the very basic to the fully loaded. And salesmen know that the appetites and wealth of buyers vary so a successful salesman learns how to nudge a given buyer to higher trim levels until they reach the buyer’s limit.
The same is true of Christianity. Christian teachers or leaders try to find what their audience is ready to hear. And I’m not immune to it myself: when I teach or speak I’m conscious of how a classroom or congregation is responding and I tend to trim my talks to where I think they are. So this is a bit of a confession.
The point is important and it has a dark side. Jesus, his Father, and the Spirit—the Triune God—is not a commodity we’re trying to sell. Instead we are speaking of our creator and keeper who offers his heart to us. And he looks for those who are after his own heart. So any notion that we can offer a variety of trim levels in Christianity is wrong-headed.
I think, for instance of Paul warning Timothy against those who have the “appearance of godliness, but [are] denying its power.” Jesus, too, warned that not all who think of themselves as followers of God are authentic believers. In John 5, for instance, Jesus dismissed the Bible scholars of his day because in their research and teaching they failed to love God. As a result they misread the biblical evidence that Jesus was the promised Christ.
Jesus also warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”—even some who offer prophesies or exorcize demons—because, in fact, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Faith, instead, forms around a relationship with a God who has a real personality: real desires, delights, distastes, and purposes. According to Jesus the key to getting God right is to actually meet him; to get to know him for who he is, and for what he offers about himself: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Now let’s return to the analogy of auto trim levels. How do we offer trim levels in our churches and Bible colleges? The process is called accommodation in which faith is reshaped to suit what works in today’s accepted social-moral environment.
What are some of these faith levels?
First we have the entry level “S” model of faith that stands for a bare bones “Starter” faith. This is just your “get into heaven” faith that requires a basic affirmation of creedal truth: “I believe that . . . .” No added features are necessary, including an appetite to get know more about Christ through Bible reading, or a change in lifestyle. Any fruit of the Spirit will seem out of place. It’s just a basic model meant to get us from here to eternity.
Second we have the very popular mid-range “EX” model that features some richer personal “Experience”. It might be the experience of Christ himself, but often it’s the experience of being stirred by emotive worship songs and the felt benefits of lively talks or sermons that promise us ways to reach greater personal satisfaction and more enjoyment of this life. Heaven is an add-on feature that isn’t given much notice because this life is treated as an end in itself.
Third we have the high-end “LX” faith that features many academic elements such as a “Lexicon” to wow other Christians with how much we know about Jesus, whether we’ve actually met him or not. This model features high intellectual horsepower and a sense that few other Christians can keep up with our brilliance. These Christians love to lead all other models up the highway of life: they glory in how much they know and look for approval from other LX drivers.
But Jesus—the Jesus we meet in the Bible—isn’t very good at accommodation. And with his devotion to truth he’s ill prepared to be a bait-and-switch salesman. Instead he insists on being God to us. He calls on us to respond to him with every dimension of who we are and what we do.
Listen, for instance, to one of his x-rated ideas that most churches refuse to touch: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:49-51).
This is stuff that just doesn’t fly . . . so, Jesus, get with it! It’s time to repent!
Or maybe we should.