Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What having faith really means

We talk a lot, especially in evangelicalism, about the need for faith. I speak frequently in this blog about the radical nature of God’s grace—that faith alone makes us right before God, not our actions. Yet this is a concept which is of great confusion to many people. Some say that we are made right with God through faith plus actions. Many more say “We are saved by faith alone” but then say that good works are the evidence of your faith…so if you don’t have works then you don’t have faith. (This is rather a distinction without a difference, as you still end up ‘requiring’ faith and works.) But one thing that everyone agrees upon is that the Bible is quite clear: faith in Jesus Christ is the necessary path to being made right before God.

Which begs the question…what is faith, exactly?

Like so many things, context is the key to understanding faith. It is valuable to understand what faith, pistis, meant to the Jewish readers of the first century Biblical texts, because then we can much more clearly comprehend the passage’s meanings.

One of the most intriguing discussions on the difference between how Gentiles and Jews defined faith can be found in Dr. Kohler’s Jewish Theology: Systematically and Historically Considered. (My wife really rolls her eyes when she sees the stuff I buy on Kindle. I really need to unlink our accounts before I buy another Jewish theology book; she looked at me like I was insane when that one came across her email.) Kohler points out that for Gentile Christians, the concept of “faith” is primarily creedal: have faith is the same as saying, “I believe in doctrines X, Y, and Z.” Kohler argues that this concept would have been largely foreign to the ancient Jew, which is why the New Testament is notably lacking in creeds. The Christian Church did not develop a creedal approach until after becoming an increasingly Gentile congregation, because Gentiles (being philosophical by nature) tended to want to understand this new religion philosophically.

There is nothing wrong with creeds; indeed, they are quite valuable as statements of faith. But belief in a creed is not the same thing as what the Jewish Biblical authors called “faith.”

To the ancient Jew, faith was not “a list of philosophies in which we believe”, but something far more intimate. Kohler says that to the Biblical Jew, faith was “a confiding trust in God, His messengers, and His words”. That is, faith was neither a set of works nor a confession of belief in a certain set of doctrines. It was, ultimately, about transferring trust from yourself to God and His words and leaders.

The Jews saw the Gentile tendency to philosophize faith as strange and foreign; they saw faith an intimate relationship in which they choose to trust in the guidance of the Creator who developed a special covenant with them and gave them His Law to demonstrate for the world. This is perhaps the motivation for James’ famous statement, “Faith without works is dead”. He is not saying that faith plus works is needed to make one right with God; he is decrying the philosophy-only faith which allows one to agree with a set of principles yet change nothing about how he views the world.

So while the ancient Gentile saw faith as predominantly the acceptance of a philosophy, the ancient Jew saw faith as predominantly the trust of God and His teachings. This helps explain the different feeling that one gets reading the parts of the New Testament. Those parts which were written primarily to Jews (Matthew, Mark, 1&2 Peter, 1-3 John, Revelation, Hebrews, James, Jude) tend to focus the story of God as Creator and Messiah. But when we see the works written for Gentiles (the Pauline epistles, Luke/Acts, and John) we see largely philosophical and historical works written to demonstrate the philosophy of Christianity. This gives such a different feeling that people sometimes speak of “Pauline Christianity” as being different from the Christianity Jesus taught. This, however is untrue: it is not Paul’s Christology which is different, simply his audience—Paul writes theologically and philosophically because that is how his audience tends to think about faith, while the Jewish audiences want to hear the story of God the Creator and how this relates to them, so that they may transfer trust to Him.

This is, to me, one of the dangers of what I call “drive-by evangelism”. It has become quite common in post-revivalistic evangelical Christianity to spend our evangelical efforts not on building relationships and teaching people how to trust in God, but rather in generating a “conversion event”. We want the person to accept the theology of Christianity so that they can be “in the club”. Then we leave them alone to grow on their own. But so many times that someone “walks the aisle” or is converted during a drive-by evangelism event, what really happens is a person having an emotional response but ultimately failing to ever really love and trust God with all of their hearts, minds, and souls.

So then we see that faith is something altogether different than what some people think. Faith is neither the emotionalism of an evangelical revival nor the logical detachment of theology nor the works-centered self-righteousness of piety. Faith is the trusting in God’s divine sovereignty over your life—a point which many confessing Christians never actually reach.

I cannot help but think about my children. My children have faith in me as their father: they believe that I am trustworthy; they believe that I love them and want the best for them; they believe that anytime they are in trouble they need only turn to me to help them through the difficulty. This is faith. Their faith in me is not simply an intellectual belief that I exist and am their biological father; it is an intimate belief that I want the best for them, will help train them to be better than they are today, and will be there to guide (and help fix the screw-ups in) their lives. That is faith.

Faith, then, is not an intellectual endeavor (although intellect is a part of it—you cannot trust Someone whom you do not really think exists!). But it most certainly also is not works-based, for works are the antithesis of faith: works is you saying to God, “I got this”, while faith is trusting that God already has it.

Ultimately, friend, this is the key point around which all of your eternity pivots: do you trust God? The question is not if you think He really exists (though this of course is a prerequisite to trusting in Him); it is not if you think He cares about you; it is not what you believe about homosexuality or the age of the universe or predestination or a hundred other debatable points. The key question of the Gospel is simply, “Do you trust God?” Do you think He has a plan for your life? Do you think He will do the right things? Do you think that, if you let go of the reigns and stop trying to do everything yourself, He will make a glorious future for you? If so, then you have faith as the Bible uses the term.

It is this faith--this trust and loyalty, not some combination of creedal confession and works--which Jesus demands of us.

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