A Guide to Examining the Way We Believe So That What We Believe Will be Secure

I remember being out one night with a friend in Arizona. I was 20-years-old. My friend and I were about the craziest guys in town, with little good reputation to boot. Yet, this guy was worse than me. He had a death wish and swore he would not live past 24. But I loved him very much. This particular night, we were bar hopping, looking for trouble. As was typical for me in those days, I would get drunk and start to talk about Jesus. For better or worse, I was ready to lay it on this guy. This night was his night to get saved if I had anything to say about it. The Holy Spirit would have to work through my slur; we’ll just say I was speaking in tongues. Either way, I was not going to stop until this guy was in the kingdom.

To make a long story short, the guy started the night as an atheist, he ended the night having “believed” in Christ. Now, don’t get too excited, for that is not the direction that this story really goes. Let me make a long story just a bit longer. Here is how it all turned out. After many hours of discussion, I kept telling him, “All you have to do is believe that Christ died on the cross for your sins and rose from the dead.” He said, “Michael, I don’t get it. So your saying that all I have to do is believe that Christ died for my sins and I will be saved?” “That is it,” I responded. “So,” he continued, “I don’t have to stop drinking or living the way I do?” “No,” I said, “It is not about that. It is just about belief. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” I could tell that he was a bit confused about this way of believing that I was attempting to get him to commit to. It felt like I was trying to get him to sign on the dotted line. “Fine!” he finally responded with an exhausted laugh, “I believe. Now I’m going to heaven. Can we quit talking about it now” “Yep,” I responded with relief, “You are good.”

What you can probably see is that there was no conviction, but a lot of concession. He just wanted to get me off his back. But at the same time, I think this minimalistic idea of belief, was attractive to him. He was able to “believe” without really believing.

Over the years, nothing changed with this guy, but I wanted to hold on to the idea that he really had an encounter with true Christian belief that day. I simply hoped that it “took.” But years later, when we talked about Christ again, there was no conviction and no concession. It had all vanished.

So far we have talked about the three aspects of faith that must be present:

1. Content: Knowledge

2. Conviction: Persuasion

3. Consent: Trust

My friend’s “faith” is what content and a bit of concession look like without conviction. True faith cannot be present without some degree of real conviction.

Cultural Christian Faith

Notice that there is sufficient content to produce a Christian faith (it raises above the yellow). Notice as well that the consent is present to some degree. However, the big faith meter (representing true faith) is still at zero. Why? Because there is no conviction whatsoever. This type of person is a Christian of convenience. 

There are many reasons why someone would possess a faith of convenience or a “cultural faith”, but let me list two common (and related) reasons:

Family heritage:

Many have grown up in a Christian home. Mom and dad were Christians so they are Christian. Mom and dad prayed before meals, so they pray before meals. Mom and dad went to church, so they go to church. This is a sort of “genetic faith.” From very early, many are indoctrinated with the content of Christianity and never question its reality. They simply assume it to be true. This assumption may produce an emotional consent, but, more often than not, no conviction is present. Conviction is not passed on from father to son. Conviction is very personal and cannot be indoctrinated. This type of person may never really believe all the stuff they “believe” is true, but it is “in their blood” nonetheless.

Cultural habit:

For many in the Western world, their faith is a part of the will-and-testament of their society. They celebrate Christmas because it is deeply part of their tradition. They sing Christmas carols because they grew up hearing them. The pathways in their brains have endeared them to everything to do with Christianity, but their faith is nothing more than a habit, born out of the societal norms. Their confession is a habit. Their prayers are a habit. Even their Bible reading is a habit.

The most important thing to understand here is that culture and family heritage can produce a consent to the basics of Christianity that look (and often feel) very real, but may not be representative of true faith at all. Without some intellectual conviction, biblical faith is not present. There has to be a time when a person is convinced, at least to some degree, that the basic truths of Christianity are actually true, not just culturally convenient.

A Pastor Without Conviction

I talked to a pastor the other day on the phone. While I will leave his identity anonymous, I will share his story. When I talked to him he was very disturbed. He said that he had been in the pulpit for over 30 years, loved his job, loved preaching, and loved his congregation. “So what’s the problem?” I asked him. “I don’t know where else to turn,” he said. “You seem like a person who will understand without judging.” “Go on,” I responded. It took him a while, but he finally was able to put the words together that he was too scared to utter out loud, “I don’t think I believe.” “You don’t think you believe what?” I responded. “All of it,” he said. “All of what?” I asked. “Christianity, the Bible, Christ, everything! I have been in the pulpit for thirty years. My dad was a pastor. My granddad was a pastor. It is all I have ever known!” “What happened?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “It all started a few months ago when someone challenged me about the inspiration of an Old Testament book. It all seemed to make sense. From there I began to question everything. Now I don’t think I believe anything that I preach at all. And I don’t want to lose my faith.”

This is what his faith looked like.

Notice that while the content and consent was very high, they were beginning to fail. Without the aid of conviction, these two will burn out very quickly (unless you can obscurantize your faith). When they finally crash, the big meter will go all the way down.

As we talked over the next few weeks, I began to discover that he was never really convinced that Christianity was true. He never took the time to examine his faith and ask Is this really true? That is the process we began together. I am relieved to say that today his faith has been restored. Through critical examination of those beliefs he took for granted for so many years, he realized that it was really true. More importantly, I believe that his belief is stronger than it has ever been, and so is his preaching!

Blind Faith

Here we have a little conviction brought into the mix. Notice here that the content is very high with this person’s faith. As well, the consent is high. But the main faith meter does not raise too much since there so little conviction.

Many Christians have been indoctrinated with large amounts of content. The word “indoctrination” is often used in a very pejorative way. It normally carries the assumption that there is no critical thinking present. “Oh, you only believe that because you have never allowed yourself to consider alternatives.” Synonyms for this  are “brainwash” and “propagandize.” Indoctrination is often thought of as the opposite of education, but, in reality, it is simply a type of education that is void of critical thinking.

I find this type of faith quite a bit in fundamentalistic type churches. In fact, in many people’s minds, critical thinking is an enemy of true faith. To question one’s beliefs is anathema. It is the very antinomy of faith. Some from this ilk actually promote and celebrate blind faith. The blinder the faith, the greater the faith. Here, there is very little, if any, true engagement in alternative options. Growing in faith simply amounts to confirming one’s prejudice. “Study” and “research” is the process of reviewing your belief by listening to and reading others who already agree with you. 

This type of faith can produce the most dogmatic and unpleasant type of faith there is. By dogmatic, I mean emotional. Those who have little or no intellectual conviction, but a lot of content and consent, often have a very pronounced closet insecurity. This insecurity will sometimes surface when their faith is challenged. Since they don’t have any valid reasons for their faith, they resort to emotional defenses which are feuled by dogmatic methodology. These emotional defenses usually show themselves not through well argued and informed responses, but through belittling and shallow attacks on those who hold to alternative beliefs. This is often seen through the extreme rhetoric utilized. All who don’t agree with them are heretical, godless, hell bound, Satan blinded pagans. To these, everything is black and white, true or false, right or wrong. Why? Because without critical engagement, there is no reason to nuance your faith with pesky and confusing uncertainty. You either believe or you don’t. To these, it is that simple. 

Those who possess this type of faith are normally blind to their own insecurity. Mistaking emotional commitment for intellectual conviction is a very dangerous thing. But this is exactly what happens here. And this is not just a characteristic of fundamentalistic type Christians. It is the same in any faith. In fact, most atheists I meet (not all) have more blind and uncritical faith than anyone else. They have very little true intellectual engagement of the issues, but a lot of emotion which drives them to demean anyone who believes in God. Ironically, their main accusation is that those who believe in God are not thinking critically.

Faith without conviction. Blind faith. Baseless faith. Fundamentalist faith. Cultural faith. Family faith. All of these share the same characteristic: they have no true conviction. This is the type of faith that I brought my friend to. He had no conviction that Christianity was true and I gave him no reason to think he should. I just wanted him to take a leap of faith. I just wanted him to make the commitment without really believing in that which he was committing to. I promoted a blind faith which was devoid of any value and could not save.

There must be a point where true intellectual engagement happens. The maturation of our faith cannot happen without it. The you-ask-me-how-I-know-he-lives-he-lives-within-my-heart type faith, while it sounds nice, is not a Christian type faith and we should never promote it. Yes, it is much easier to get people to sign on the dotted line when we minimize what faith is, assigning it to mere consent to content, but this is not the faith we are called to.

You must ask yourself if you really believe that it is true. Your conviction does not have to be perfect (no one’s is), but it does need to be present.

Next, I will examine this issue of intellectual conviction a bit more by adding three sub-meters to the conviction meter: certitudo, firmitas, and evidentia. Yes, I am going to complicate things a bit more. For this, I am sorry. But in order for us to examine our own faith, we must pull out the exacto-knife so that we can have some clarity. My hope is that this will serve many of you in building your conviction.

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C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    20 replies to "The Anatomy of Belief (3): Belief Without Conviction"

    • I am convinced that one of the reasons for blind faith is we have sometimes bought into the secular propaganda that if we look at the facts we will find the secular position is really what reason must lead to, so we throw out reason. Having started out as an agnostic, I realize this is not true. But I think sometimes it is hard for people to face their fears long enough to examine the fact that there really is evidence for the Christian faith.

    • Ounbbl

      The triad – Content, Conviction, Consent – seems what constitutes ‘belief’ (as you have it the title ‘anatomy of belief’) rather than ‘faith’ (as you labeled ‘three aspects of faith’). What other element is need for ‘faith’?

    • C Michael Patton

      I am using faith and belief synonymously.

    • John

      Don’t forget Anatomy of Belief (4): Belief without a decent NT text.

      Ever since Hort mutilated the text, and rationalists and Unitarians took over the publication of “modern versions”, we’ve had a lame text full of doubt-inspiring but false and near-useless, uniformative, but fashionable footnotes. That led directly to nobody in the last 100 years taking the printed word of God seriously except for a few fundamentalists.

      The unwashed masses may not be going to hell, but they can’t build a stable faith on a “maybe it is, maybe it isn’t scripture” Bible.

      Thats as bad as preaching the gospel while drunk, and approving of recreational drug abuse.

      – the Dean

    • Lynn

      Did the pastor obtain this conviction by reading Christian apologetics or those plus books by atheists or agnostics?

      Maybe it just came across this way, but the story re the pastor sounded like he was very disturbed, yet in only a short time became strongly convicted that it IS all true. It sounded a little too neat and tidy.

    • C Michael Patton

      Lynn,

      It is a bit neat and tity. I did not want to go into all the conversations that we had over this time. What it came down to was this: He had been reading a lot in areas outside Christianity. It shocked him as it was the first time that he had been exposed to any type of intellectual defense of anti-Christianity (whether atheism, agnosticism, or simply the problems with Christianity). He had been talking to a man who was an atheist quite a bit.

      He continued to read in these areas and was asking me questions from the other side. It was a matter of reorientation. He was very disturbed that Isaiah may not have written the entire book of Isaiah. This opened the flood gates. My reorientation came back to, as it always will with me, an establishment of the resurrection of Christ (which he did not know if he believed anymore). It was very hard to convince him that this was THE issue he needed to deal with. I told him to put the others in his back pocket for a while. Then this is all we focused on for the next few weeks.

      Through study (on both sides), he became convinced that Christ had risen from the grave. Once this happened, the other issues were not quite so monumental. After all, a donkey talking is not quite so critically disturbing once you believe that a man raised himself from the grave!

      Most of the time, that is where I go with people. So many of Christians build their faith on this “house of card” mentality where if the smallest thing goes (i.e. who wrote Isaiah), then the rest falls. Sometimes its the WAY we think that is the problem, not WHAT we believe. Once we get our way of thinking right, it is much easier to navigate through doubts.

      Was his “conversion” back to the faith a true conversion? All I can work off is our conversations. I believe it was simply because the guy had nothing to lose after he confessed his doubts to me. He truly wanted to believe though. This is a big factor for everyone and skews how we interpret all the data. I will be getting to that soon when I write on consent.

      Hope that helps.

    • Lee H

      I’m still not sure what the difference it between conviction and consent is.

      Obvously conviction is if it makes logical sense to you.

      Is consent when it is your heart rather than your head that is convinced?

      How can you have high conviction and low consent, and if you have high consent you must be convinced mustn’t you?

    • ruben

      I have a pet doctrine that I’m not sure will hold water: faith should be placed on Christ and not His salvation. We should believe in a person and not in a doctrine. So presenting a way of salvation without introducing someone to Jesus, the things He said and did, is probably not enough in most cases (not all because in our age most people have a general idea about Him).

    • C Michael Patton

      Consent is an act of the will more than anything else. But, as we will see, the will can greatly affect whether we are convicted or not.

      For example: Take a chair.
      I can see the chair and know that the chair has four legs, a seat and a back to see if it has the attributes of a chair. (Content)
      I can also examine the chair, check the screws, test the wood for termites, and even have someone else sit down in it in order to make sure it can carry the function of a chair. (Conviction)
      Finally, I have to come to the point where I sit in the chair. (Assensus)

      Without sitting down in the chair, one does not really trust in the chair to hold them.

    • John From Down Under

      Sir Patton 🙂

      I would be interested to hear your view on who do you think the ‘smoldering wick’ that will not be quenched is in Matt 12:20 and the multiple epistle refs to the ‘weak’ of faith (e.g. Rom 14:1) Not a trick question, I promise!

      Are they the ones on spiritual life support, and where do they fit in your instruments?

    • Lynn

      Michael,
      Thanks very much for explaining further. I think your story can illustrate a couple things. People-even pastors-can be in Christianity many years and somehow not ever come upon an atheist and have deep conversation with them.

      Plus many Christians can find themselves in the ridiculous position of the atheist knowing more about Christianity than they do. Or the atheist knows the Bible problems better.

      I was thinking about this recently. I had a couple Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to my door a few times, and we talked some. It suddenly struck me that if I decided to become a JW (which I’m not)-I would have to learn all about that group. Why? Because I’d be required to go door to door and talk to people-all kinds of people-and I would have to be very well-informed re my religion. I would have to know the answers.

      That is very different than spending your life in a regular church. You can remain quite ignorant very easily. I know I did.

      As you said, you can’t know the man’s heart, but he seems to be convicted. I would tend to doubt that conclusion somewhat. I think doubts can be put on the back burner, but they can pop up again. He may decide that he should worry about talking donkeys (because it’s so silly) or all the other problems because they make him distrust the Bible.

      I think all this is complicated, but I’m glad you are posting on it. Helps me think the various facets through some more.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Hi Pastor CMP,

      Guh-Rate Post!

      Also,… without wanting to derail the thread the illustrations you provide lend anecdotal support to the Calvinist contention that an apostate was a person who was never really saved.

    • Jay

      Fascinating blog and discussion, and it’s helping me honestly discern my own faith. Upon describing the aspects of faith and how they effect the whole of belief, will their be a follow up post on how to grow our faith given the various states our belief can be at?

    • John From Down Under

      Hi CMP – (in case you missed post #10)

      Where does the ‘smoldering wick’ & the ‘weak’ of faith fit in your instruments? Are they low on conviction, consent or otherwise, in your opinion (if they fit the bill).

      Thanks

    • C Michael Patton

      John, I don’t know. I imagine it would be different for everyone. What do you think?

    • John From Down Under

      Hi CMP

      I’m almost reluctant to say what I think because I’m not a theologian. Don’t wanna put my foot in it! I’ll give it a shot though…and once again I’m not trying to trip you up.

      Without engaging into any sophisticated exegesis of those texts, it would seem that those categories can be broadly described as spiritually disabled (permanently or temporarily) or may have had a case of arrested development spiritually. They perhaps represent the lower/st common denominator of spiritual growth.

      One can only be delighted to know that God cares for the weak ones and doesn’t frown upon them (anthropomorphically speaking). This is very gospel-ly in a good news sense.

      The motive for my question was trying to reconcile my antithetical reactions to your ‘anatomy of faith’ series. As a nut-n-bolts guy I relish such level of deconstructive analysis. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I can’t help thinking of those ‘walking wounded’ whom I’ve come across over the years that would have very little appreciation for such an article. Not only they don’t have it ALL together, they have very LITTLE together, yet despite their shortcomings and their instrument’s near-zero reading, God extends his compassion to them.

      So, while they might be unable to participate in such a theollectual feast, there are no less Christian than the theological heavyweights. Moreover, we are expected to carry them “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Rom 15:1) and rally for them from the sidelines “…encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thes 5:14)

      Don’t know if I made much sense, hence my initial hesitation to say what I think.

    • C Michael Patton

      John,

      I think it makes sense. However, as I have said (in not so many words) in my next post in this series (posted just now), there are not really any theological heavyweights out there.

      I am breaking apart the WAY people believe. People don’t need to read this or know about these concepts to follow this. It is pretty intuitive in most people’s lives. However, when it comes to faith, many people, at least in theory, throw all intuitive descriptions out the door, opting for something more mystical. The mystic ideal, while it sounds nice, is that which, I would argue, is unattainable for most and, more importantly, the most intimidating of all.

      Like the complexities of the anatomy of the body, we may find these things to be very complex. But for thousands of years people did not know about the anatomy of the body and faired well. Where it comes into play is when we are sick, it can help us diagnose our problems. It is also a preventative measure. The same goes with the anatomy of faith. This series is for healing the sick and preventing ailments.

      Hope that makes sense.

    • John From Down Under

      Thanks Michael, it sure makes perfect sense.

      Couple of closing comments (and I know it’s getting pretty late over there, still hot, humid and daylight here).

      As a post-Pentecostal I can relate to the ‘mystical’ appeal of the faith. Had a gutful of it and had to vomit out in the end. I can certainly appreciate its dangers and nuances that confuse the naïve.

      Finally, regarding your ‘anatomy’ series, I find it VERY constructive because it encourages orderly and structured thinking. For those of us that have come out of weirdville and Confusion Meadows, this is quite nourishing and therapeutic.

    • george57

      hi michael, great post, some of the big names in usa, in other places who have large mega churches, and now in a bible sense left truth far behind, got themselfs in some big problems, in false teaching, yet the people still come and come to listen to those false teachers , looking at your post, putting it in a large picture, many of them might not be saved at all, or what is the answer to the problem, Judas Iscariot, walked and seen great things with christ, yet he was never a believer, this post has opened up many questions, being born again has lost its meaning today. god bless all .george.

    • Jonathan Bock

      Sorry, it sounds like a LOT OF WORK! Salvation is without work:

      Ephesians 2:8-9
      King James Version (KJV)

      For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

      Not of works, lest any man should boast.

      You’re using man-made logic on how person is saved based on conviction alone. And you’re using your meter to determine just that. It’s pathetic, really.

      Do you believe Jesus Christ came to earth to die for sinners on the cross, buried, and rose on the third day?

      Atheist would say: NO! EVOLUTION EXIST! GOD DOESN’T!

      SINNERS: YES/NO (depending on which they choose). If they say, “yes” then they’re saved. It only take a small faith, size of a mustard seed, to be saved. Simple. If they say no, then they’re lost.

      Unbelievers: NO! JESUS CHRIST?! HE’S A FAIRY TALE! PFFFT! I BELIEVER IN HIS GOD, THAT GOD, OR WHATEVER RELIGION I WAS BORN INTO (imagine YOU being born into a Muslim family.. you would never be saved to begin with otherwise you would completely reject the doctrine of Christ (aka sound doctrine)).

      As for me: do I believe in Jesus Christ that he came down on earth to die for sinners on the cross, was buried, and rose on the third day? YES! I don’t professionally speak through my mouth, but that’s what is written inside my heart. You have to open your heart to let the Holy Spirit in. Simple.

      I have my doubts, but that doesn’t wavier my faith. Do I sin horribly at times? Of course. Do I feel chastisement from God? Yes:

      1) My uncle is a ultra-conservative Seventh Day Adventist. He tore my Super Nintendo in half, he threw all of my punk music in the trash scolding me with scriptures, smashed my heat into the wall (blood all over the wall, egh), constantly asked me if I ate pork at Deaf school, scolding me for dying my hair pink, and etc. Everytime I listen to punk music, I feel chastisement from God knowingly full well that it’s a sin against God. Lust too.. I am still saved.

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