Is Certainty a Sin?
By Pastor Tom Anderson
Can there be certainty in matters of church doctrine and ethics?
What is doctrine? Doctrine is the official teaching of the Christian Church derived from scripture and ratified by consensus. One can see how this works in Acts 15. A controversy arose over what was necessary for salvation. Church leaders gathered and appealed to the scriptures to discover that we are saved by grace through faith. The Jerusalem council united around this doctrine and it remains foundational to Christian preaching.
What is the moral law of God? To be sure the Scriptures are full of various commandments. The rabbis counted 613 separate commandments in the Old Testament alone. The early church defined three categories of law in the Old Testament: 1) ritual--those commandments dealing with the worship practices of Israel; 2) Civil--those commandments governing the state of Israel and 3) moral--those commandments enumerating timeless moral principles for human life (e.g. the Ten Commandments) Christians do not follow the ritual or civil laws of Israel but are bound by faith to the moral law.( See John Wesley’s excellent sermon on this here.)
Perhaps no two aspects of church life engender more anxiety than the concepts of doctrine and moral law. In modern times, entire churches are built around a phobia about doctrine and law--one thinks here of the Unitarian-Universalist Church which rejects all creeds yet astonishingly still insists on the search for truth.
I was having a conversation with someone about church doctrine and moral law. He found the very concepts to be dangerous to the human condition. He was convinced that certainty leads to pride and pride leads to arrogance ending in the violent coercion of others. He concluded, “I believe the greatest sin of religious people is the sin of certainty.” The smart aleck in me wonders how he is so certain of that!
But on a more thoughtful note, I’m convinced that certainty is no sin. We all have certainties and we build our lives around them--even if we won’t admit it. The question is not if certainty is a sin, the question is whether or not our certainties are appropriate and justified. I love the creed of the church and I love the moral law of God revealed in scripture. These are the certainties upon which I build my life. I believe them to be essential not just for me personally but for all human thriving. I am convinced that these certainties come from Jesus and lead me closer to Jesus.
Having some certainties does not remove the wonder and mystery of life. To be certain of the character of God, the salvation of God and the will of God does not answer all of life’s questions--just ask Job! Job left his encounter with God with none of his questions answered. What he got was certainty about the goodness of God, the saving power of God and the necessity of a moral life.