Peter Kreeft offers this perceptive commentary on Pascal’s Pensees: “We can easily imagine, think of, contemplate, and be attracted to the idea of giving our whole selves and lives over to God without actually doing it, and think we have done it because we have imagined it” (Christianity for Modern Pagans, 234).
The first part — that we can be attracted to the idea of wholly following Jesus without ever finally doing so — is not new. Many start a journey they never finish, sprout for a time, only to get choked out by worldly cares, and eventually go out from us because they were never truly of us (1 John 2:19). Many give much for a time but fall short of giving their whole self to Christ.
But Kreeft observes something further, something that terrifies all who consider it: Some who refuse to give their whole selves to Christ die without realizing it. They think they live as wholehearted disciples because they have imagined it.
“Many give much but fall short of giving their whole self to Christ.”
In other words, they live in a religious dream, unable to see their true condition. They picture themselves picking up crosses, forsaking sin, abiding in Christ, believing promises, loving God, being filled with his Spirit and enveloped in God’s eternal, covenant love — but mainly in their minds. They build and build but upon the sand, because they heard Jesus’s words but never obeyed them (Matthew 7:24–27).
Dreams Built Upon Sand
We all know spiritual fantasy to some degree. How often have we mistaken mere thoughts about prayer for praying, mere remorse over sin for repentance, mere well-wishes toward a neighbor for love, mere hearing the word for doing it, mere imagining for obedience?
D.A. Carson memorably captures this fantasy when he writes,
We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated. (For the Love of God, volume 2, 23)
This spiritual unreality is never safe. Are you currently in a dream? The Pharisees, the disciples, the early churches, and many who await the judgment day have been deceived. Are we?
Many of Christ’s enemies among the scribes and Pharisees suffered under a spiritual delusion. They weren’t consciously evil. They assured themselves they knew God. They fasted. They prayed. They tithed all the way down to their spices. They taught and explained. They even crossed seas to make disciples.
But in reality, they shut kingdom doors in people’s faces. They neglected the weightier matters of the law. They showed a clean exterior but remained defiled on the inside. They made disciples of hell. And irony of ironies, they killed the Lord of glory, hating him without cause.
In their delusion, they went on to persecute the church, killing God’s people in service to God from their perspective. Jesus warned his disciples of such people: “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2). They thought they served the God of the Old Testament, even as they slaughtered his Christ and his sheep.
Many who claimed most heartily to know the God of Abraham and to be the leaders of his people lived in such a devious dream. Are we?
Delusions of His Disciples
Disciples, even while they were saved, still suffered from religious dreams. Up until the day of Jesus’s arrest, the disciples, having debated which was the greatest along the way, imagined great things of themselves. On that fateful Good Friday, they each, to a man, presumed that they were ready to die for Christ, despite their Master’s explicit word to the contrary:
“You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered. . . .’”
Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same. (Matthew 26:31–35)
Peter spoke as the champion of their shared delusion. Here, finally, they found a flaw in their Lord’s teaching: Although Jesus told them so, they would not fall away, even if they had to die. They boasted in an imagined maturity. And each would have fallen fully away like Judas, had Jesus not kept them. The men who walked with Christ for three years imagined a faithfulness unto death that wasn’t real. Do we?
False Conclusions of His Early Churches
Religious imagining not only gets ahold of a few fanciful individuals, but can pervade whole churches. Several of the early churches suffered from religious dreams.
The church of Laodicea thought very highly of itself. Indeed, they found many occasions to talk of their self-sufficiency. Jesus quotes them, “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). They did not know their true condition. In their spiritual blindness and poverty, they boasted of great riches.
“Many who only dreamt dreams of following Jesus will be awakened at the judgment.”
The church gathered at Sardis not only deceived themselves but all those around them. The church at Sardis, a city with a famous necropolis (cemetery) for dead kings, had “the name of life,” but Jesus breaks the spell saying, “but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Others saw life in the church; Jesus did not. Others saw flourishing; Jesus saw only bones. They saw their works complete, their arms strong, their feet at the doorway of heaven; Jesus saw incomplete works, a church in critical condition, with a dim light all but snuffed out. Only a few had not soiled their garments (Revelation 3:4).
Their reputation stood opposite to reality, and their reputation would not save them. If such a delusion infected whole groups of seemingly healthy churches, can it not also infect ours?
Dreams of ‘Many’
Many who only dreamt of following Jesus will be awakened at the judgment.
On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:22–23)
Imagine it. Christ comes in his glory with the armies of angels. They weep and rejoice. They see the manifestly wicked before them sentenced to condemnation. How fortunate, they think, that I am not destined to such a fate. They were not pagans. They engendered the tenets of a Christian ethic and had positive thoughts toward Christ. They went to church, sang the songs with a deceived sincerity, even worked wonders and saw others converted.
But Christ does not have their name in his book. He looks at them and says he does not know them. “Surely, there must be a mistake,” they say. “Did I not attend small groups, share the gospel with my neighbor, give regularly to this ministry?” And yet his words fall, more fatefully than a sky full of arrows, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of iniquity.” They imagined great things, said great things, but lived as workers of iniquity.
“Many” wander through life “as when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating, and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking, and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched” (Isaiah 29:8). Cannot we? Can we not also wake to hear Christ say, “Depart”?
Waking from Dreams
Some truth lies in the statement, “As a man thinketh, so he is.” But there is also weight in the statement concerning professing believers, “As a man doeth, so he is” — even when he thinks himself otherwise. Or, “You shall know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16–20).
Again, the point, as Jonathan Edwards plainly wrote: “Godliness consists not in a heart which intends to do the will of God, but in a heart which does it” (Religious Affections, 348). Warm feelings, best intentions, sincere hopes and wishes about oneself, or positive inclinations toward God and Christ do not in themselves evidence newness of life. Jesus taught, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
Do you obey Christ? This is one way we know we truly love him: “By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3–4). How many dreamers have been awakened by Jesus’s haunting question, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46).
The Christian life summons us to live, day by day, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). And what a sight he is. Never has there been a more trustworthy Friend, never a more wonderful Groom. His love bears wrath on our behalf, his kindness meets our treason with words of love, his benevolence makes the most noble kings blush — what reason can we ever find to disobey such a Savior?
Of the many glances we take toward this Lord — he is the beauty we love to behold, the image that transforms (2 Corinthians 3:18) — Scripture also sends us back to look at another confounding creature: ourselves. “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
We all need such a regular glance. Many before us have wandered through sweet nothings of an empty religiosity to a most dreadful end. May you and I not be among them.