The Gospel of Jesus and Cognitive Dissonance

I remember restless nights and days filled with great anxiety. I was reading about a controversial topic within Christianity for weeks and weeks. All my heart wanted was the truth.

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It was 1989, and the protestant Christian churches in America had yet another controversy about theology on their hands. A prominent church pastor and prolific author, John MacArthur, Jr., had written a book that pierced many with its cutting words about the gospel of Jesus. His intent was to show what the Bible really taught about being a true follower and disciple of Christ. The book was entitled The Gospel According to Jesus, and it attempted to settle just what a person truly had to do to gain eternal life. On one side of the debate were those who preached the simple message of “whosoever believes in me [Jesus]” as the sole act to gain eternal life. The ‘easy-believism’ crowd also said that when the Bible spoke of that harsh word “repentance”, it referred to a change of mind about Jesus being the son of God – – not the repentance of turning from those sinful deeds of the mind and flesh that we all know oh so well.

On the other side of the debate were theologians and pastors who said that the Bible taught a “Lordship salvation”. In other words, if you didn’t accept Jesus as the ruler and Lord of your whole life, then your faith was a sham — it was utterly impotent in being able to save you. According to the gospel writers of the New Testament, Jesus spoke many difficult sayings, such as: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27). These verses, like many other hard sayings of Jesus, created division in the church for centuries.

I was attending Liberty University at the time, and even some of the professors at Liberty were in disagreement on the topic of “easy believism” vs. “Lordship salvation”. I remember some discussions with a few professors and none could provide any real clarity on the controversy.

Have you ever experienced Cognitive Dissonance?

The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feeling of great discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.

This controversy with the gospel message of the Bible was a real cognitive dissonance for me. It shook me and really disturbed me. I realized later that theologians have had previous debates around this topic, but several modern day TV preachers in the late 1980’s brought it back to the forefront again.

Many people experience cognitive dissonance in other areas of thought. For example, someone who feels that global warming is a serious threat to our environment is likely to feel a real conflict if they own and drive a large SUV with a big V8 engine. Their gas-guzzling habit is in conflict with their view of global warming. Another example could involve being a meat-eater (non-vegetarian). Steak and pork is very tasty, but when someone feels strong empathy toward cows and pigs and how they are treated – – this creates cognitive dissonance. People can also feel this dissonance with smoking, or drugs, or fatty foods. All of those things are quite unhealthy, but there’s often an internal conflict because the harmful effect of those substances is in contrast with the pleasure of their consumption.

I have personally found that the most significant cases of cognitive dissonance involve religion and religious beliefs. The controversy with the Gospel of Jesus was a significant one for me. And while I did eventually come to terms with it, it was a conflict that raged for many many weeks.

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