Archive for September, 2006

LUTHER AND FAITH

Saturday, September 30th, 2006

The deepest problem that faces the church today is what is meant by faith. Salvation by faith was the catch cry that came out of the Reformation and, to this day, it is supposedly the Gospel that is preached the length and the breadth of the land. Luther is the man that most claim to be responsible for steering Christianity back to where it ought to be, anchored on scripture, preaching a gospel of faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins. But what we must ask ourselves however is, "Is this really the case?" Did Luther really steer the church back from where it had strayed? Has the church through his reforming zeal arrived back to mirror the faith that was visible in the early church? Do we look back at the Protestant beginnings and feel a sense of awe because of the mighty working of the power of God, or do we see a man bravely standing against the might of a powerful corrupt church, giving others the courage to break free from the chains of oppression and to begin to look again at what is contained in scripture. A bit like King Josiah in the Old Testament rediscovering the books of the Law and then needing to consult the prophet as to what they meant.

It must be luminously clear that a man can see the error of a particular way of belief without necessarily knowing ultimate truth. We see this every day in the world. Just because, for example, I can see the error of communism or fascism it does not mean that I know the way to life. So too, just because Luther knew that the Catholicism of his day was wrong, does not mean that he knew God, or that his subsequent struggles to understand scripture mean that he arrived at inerrancy concerning faith. It is strange that Protestants, who deny the very concept of Papal infallibility and for this and other doctrinal reasons have rejected Catholicism, do not observe that their tenacious clinging to the doctrinal positions of their particular founding reformer have all the hallmarks of the errors of the Catholic tradition they reject.

The text that seemed to enlighten Luther was the line from Paul's letter to the Romans, "The just shall live by faith." This then became the defining statement, the cornerstone of modern theology – faith. Luther's obvious delight in this dawning light was, in no small measure, due to its damning of the Catholic tradition of the need for penitential works to receive full forgiveness of sins. As this Catholic practice was leading the ignorant and the poor to give their wealth, however mean that might have been, to the church to obtain indulgences, was good reason for Luther's delight in finding scriptural authority for his abhorrence of such blatant evil. However, as so often happens, the reformer exchanged one bad practice for another. While the reformers found they were free from paying a tax to the church for its sacramental forgiveness, they adopted in its place a practice that meant an individual's conscience could too easily believe it had peace with God through "faith", never fully facing the horror of the depth of their stumbling and therefore making light of what it cost Jesus to forgive sin. Repentance comes when we gaze upon Him, in His suffering love, and truly know the complete horror of our sin and how He suffered to forgive us. In other words you cannot say you love Christ and continue to do the deeds that caused Him so much grief. I may know that God is merciful and just and have faith that he is willing to forgive me my trespass, but until I have finally faced the full depth of my sin and repented I will not receive His forgiveness. The reformers had freed the people from their bondage to Rome but had they brought them any closer to God?

This is an important question and one that the reformers failed to ask. Was the faith that Luther preached "real faith"? After all, it can obviously be argued that the Catholic Church preached faith, but it was a different understanding of what faith meant from what the reformers clearly held faith to mean. Luther taught a new faith, a better faith, but was it the faith that Paul himself lived by when he wrote the letter that Luther now claimed to understand and live by? Had the Reformation really discovered the faith that was revealed at Pentecost or not?

Luther was a man who had become a monk, a servant of God, out of fear rather than love. He saw himself as a victim of the Church's teachings, albeit a willing one (he didn't after all have to become a monk). He felt in this some affinity with Paul who was once a Pharisee. However, whereas we know little of Paul's feelings and beliefs concerning God before his conversion, we do have some understanding of Luther's spiritual state before he felt justified by faith. Basically he felt anger and resentment toward God, whom he felt to be unfair, a hard taskmaster and a harsh judge. So in a sense we see his hypocrisy and his desperation. While serving the Church with his mouth he was hating God with his heart and desperately seeking reconciliation for his troubled conscience. He wanted peace for his soul, but did he ever really find true peace? Did he ever arrive at the faith of Paul?

Paul was struck blind by Christ. The repentance he found was not an assurance that he was justified by faith, but rather he was confronted with the total reality that he was living a lie. All of Paul's feelings and beliefs, all of his pursuits done in the name of faith, were revealed to him in that one action, as being without foundation.

Paul was left with nowhere to turn, he had no one to lean on, his own understanding had been revealed to him as bankrupt, he knew himself to be entirely at God's mercy. He knew he was a dead man, caught out in a lie, because he had lived a life based on his own understanding of the words of God without knowing God Himself. Repentance in him was absolute, for the entire ground of his being was placed before him as being untenable. He knew that to live he had to totally turn to God; for he knew there was nothing in himself that was trustworthy. That is not to say that he went from being Saul the blasphemer to Paul the Apostle in the twinkling of an eye, for he had truly just become a babe. A man who has just been caught out in that level of deceit has yet to grow to maturity in a new relationship based on real faith, before he can go out with any confidence to preach. The point I am making is that there is repentance and there is repentance, just as there is faith and there is faith.

I don't get any feeling that Luther arrived at that total devastation of self. He certainly wrote that a true Christian needs to be naked before God, stripped of all that he calls his own. But there is a vast difference between knowing the principle, even feeling you have experienced the truth of the statement, and actually knowing the absolute nakedness of your life as Paul experienced. The reason I ask this question concerning Luther is because he writes, "Man is always in not being, in becoming, in being, always in privation, in potentiality, in act, always in sin, in justification, in righteousness, that is, always a sinner, always penitent, always righteous." Which all makes him sound like one of those "weak women weighed down with sins", spoken of by Paul in his letter to Timothy, "always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth." But a man who has fully faced his shame, does not keep returning like a dog to his vomit, but rather in full repentance seeks mercy and is fully clothed in God's loving forgiveness.

This faith that believes in forgiveness without perfect repentance is the malady that besets the entire church. Not only do they lack repentance but also they have made this lack of repentance a doctrinal necessity, for the church preaches, as does Luther, that it is impossible for a man to reach perfection before he dies. This in effect means that it is impossible for man to love God as he ought, as if Jesus dying for me is insufficient to really make me change and keep from sin. Luther presents this as his conviction in the introduction to his commentary on the book of Romans where he writes, "The gifts and the Spirit increase in us every day, though they are not yet perfect, and there remains in us the evil lust and sin that war against the Spirit." Now I know this to be an untrue statement, for God gives us His Holy Spirit without measure. How will the Father of Light give less than perfectly to his children? So if the gift is given perfectly, without measure, then what is lacking in our receiving is our faith. In other words the faith that says, "I cannot receive the fullness of forgiveness in this life" is not faith at all, for it is spoken from an unrepentant heart. I cannot by the power of the Holy Spirit say it is impossible to arrive at perfect obedience and love and trust and goodness in this life. For Paul prays in his letter to the Ephesians, "For this reason. I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives it name. That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen."

Now if that isn't a statement of the perfection of the power of the grace poured out toward us in Christ, then what is? If He is able to do more than we ask, then let us ask nothing less than we could dare hope. With sincere longing let us ask that we might walk in full fellowship with Him as He has promised. For if God is for us who is against us. Let us pray then for perfect unity, perfect trust, perfect love that we might walk in the perfect worship of God, which is the sum joy and glory, the fullness of life.

If we claim we cannot attain to these heights in this life because of the power of sin in our members, then who are we serving? What is lacking is desire on our part, for God does not deprive us of any good thing. This then is the heresy that has crept into the church imperceptably, unchallenged and unnoticed in the midst of the euphoria of the Reformation – a faith without repentance. It is as if a new commandment has been written, "I must sin, I can do no other!"

Faith

Monday, September 11th, 2006

Faith is that which links us to those things upon which we are necessarily dependent. I would like to say that faith is that which links us in our understanding to those things upon which we are necessarily dependent but this is not always the case for many do not consciously register that they even have faith. Before any of us could reason we had faith. Faith precedes all reason. It is apparent that a child has to put faith in another to survive. We were once completely dependent on others to meet all of our needs. The process of growing to adulthood is the process of being able to function in the world independently of our parents and our teachers. Whatever we have come to know, or think we have come to know, is entirely dependent on others than ourselves. How much of what we come to believe or actively put our trust (faith) in is dependent on how faithful we have come to know those things to be. Our reasoning about the world is directly related to our experiences in it. Once we have been weaned from our parents we are entirely dependent on the wider world for our sustenance, for our companionship, in fact for all of our social, intellectual, and emotional needs. Hence how we relate to the world is fundamental to how we fare in it.

The birth of our knowledge of our own faith is linked to this process of independence. The things upon which we were necessarily dependent (hence that which we trusted to fulfill our real needs) have changed. Our situation has really been in a state of flux from the time when we were born. Those things upon which we thought we could trust have a built in use by date so it is inevitable that we have a need to reason our way forward from one step to the next. Very much like a child taking its first steps the process though new and adventuress proves successful. In other words there is an inbuilt trustworthiness (faithfulness) built into the process. A child doesn't have an intellectual-philosophical reasoning process that leads it to take its first step. The child simply feels some desire, at the appropriate time in its development, to begin to walk and so it takes it first faltering steps. Before it begins to have conscious faith in its ability to walk the child has already responded in faith. We invariably confuse our reasoning about things with the truth of the thing.

The confusion in our understanding of faith comes about because, not only are we dependent upon the world we live in for our food and shelter, but we are also dependent upon an unseen power that sustains both us and the world and all that it contains, and it is with this unseen power that the meaning and the purpose of our life resides. In other words, while we are unconsciously trusting in an unseen power which provides us with all the material necessities of life, at the same time we are blind in our understanding as to what that power is. The proof of this blindness is that all of our scientific and philosophic enquiry is an admission that we haven't arrived at truth. But the fact that we do seek means that we have faith that truth can be found. In other words though we do not know truth, we both believe that truth is and hope that it can be found. It should not surprise us then that the same thing is written in scripture “…for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him”. (Heb 11:6).

It is easy for us to accept the faithfulness of the world, the very fact that it is here every morning that its laws are reliable, but when it becomes necessary for us to have faith in something beside the tactile we begin to have great difficulty. Although we can see the beauty and the wonder of the world, marvel at its mystery and its abundance, be transported in awe at its most spectacular splendour, feel a sense of majesty in the presence of its mountains or magnificent rainforests or mighty rivers, we seem to find it difficult to trust that there is an even greater unseen glory that sustains it all. While we learn to have an unspoken faith in all of our living and breathing we cannot find it in our hearts to have faith in a Provider to thank for all of this good fortune. It would seem that we often find it easier to believe that life is the result of gamblers luck rather than a gift of Divine love. What is it in our hearts, in our understanding, that is hostile to the notion of a loving faithful Father of our lives? For us to reason for a contrary belief system we must already be, in our hearts, dissatisfied. There must be something in our understanding of life, which makes it impossible for us to reconcile a faith in God's love for us with the reality of what we have received. A man who is content doesn't look elsewhere for his comfort. You don't think about looking for a new job if you are happy with where you are currently employed.

All of our pursuit of knowledge is predicated with dissatisfaction. There are many areas that are open to us to pursue but few are essential for life. The basics of life are really constant. What a man believes concerning the origins of the universe does not affect a man's ability to live his life successfully, to prosper materially and leave descendants. So why do we pursue knowledge? It must be at heart because we feel a need for something more than we thus far know. This need to know is an interesting subject. In scripture the word know is used in the intimate sense of knowing your wife, that is having sex with her. So it can be seen that there are depths to what it is to know. What I am getting at is that we can believe we know something without really arriving at knowledge. So a man can recognise a woman from afar be attracted to her, become acquainted, become attached, love her dearly, believe he knows her but until their love is consummated he hasn't really known her as a wife. The point I am making is that we can confuse the gathering of information with the gaining of knowledge. Deeper still we can be consumed with what we consider to be gathering knowledge without ever really been known in return. By this I mean that in the relationship of a man with his wife the woman gets to know the man and the man the woman. So you know what it is to know and be known. In the pursuit of the knowledge of the universe and all that it contains we are left at the end unsatisfied for it is a one sided relationship for we never get the feeling that the universe knows us in the intimate sense. Concerning faith we feel a need for a deepening expression of faith, more specifically we feel an emptiness concerning God; for of what value is it to put our faith in someone whom we believe we cannot know. The faith that the church teaches seems to be merely an exchange of gift vouchers, which is hardly deeply satisfying to the heart, or for that matter inducive to real faith.

The obvious answer to this riddle is that the faith that the church teaches and the faith that the rationalists among us lampoon is not the faith that Jesus, the apostles and the prophets walked in. Jesus said concerning the Father, “And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee (the Father), the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” (John 17:3). To get to know God is not merely to believe He exists or that Jesus died as the result of the sins of the world but it is to know Him in the intimate depths, to love Him truly for Himself alone. You cannot love someone whom you don't know or whom you only think you know. Real love can only be lived and experienced in truth, in real knowledge. We can only have real faith in what we know to be true. The recognition of truth is not an intellectual exercise although the intellect may very well be involved. Rather truth is known from the heart. That this is so can be demonstrated by the fact that it is not an intellectual argument on its own that convinces us but whether or not we are prepared to believe the argument. In other words there has to be a predisposition of the heart to be open to receive the argument. What we are willing to believe is the truth for us. It might not be infallible truth but it is the truth as far as we're concerned. For us to know truth we have to have faith to receive it. For us to receive truth we must have the heart to accept it. Whatever satisfies our heart determines what we are capable of believing. In the case of the war against Iraq, for example, because everyone knew that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy everyone was willing to believe that he had weapons of mass destruction based on very flimsy evidence. In the same way a person who does not know God but has tasted some of the bitterness that can come upon us is predisposed to not believe that there is a loving God.

Belief doesn't equal truth, and what we are willing to believe opens up for us a world of speculation to build upon. This is Jesus parable about the need to build your house upon the rock, for if you do not, eventually it will be swept away by the torrents and floods that befall us in life (Matt 7:24 – 27). The rock is the faith we have built our world upon. If the axioms we have believed as truth are in fact false then the house (i.e. of our speculative reasoning), which we have built upon that faulty foundation, will eventually be swept away. The trouble with our perception of truth is that it takes time for our errors to be exposed, sometimes generations. For example we might believe that our modern democratic way of life is the pinnacle of human fair-minded achievement in how to govern and live our lives, but like any empire before it, one day it will lie in ruins destroyed by its own failings. Those who are living at the time don't usually see what is coming just around the corner, like the depression that followed the heady years of the 1920's.

Faith is not an optional extra in our life; it is an essential foundation for all of our beliefs, whatever they may be. Faith in something outside of ourselves is essential for our survival and the reliability of what we put our faith in is of supreme importance. Seeing all of our life is a gift and that we are made to be dependent it would appear logically obvious that there is both a giver and someone whom we can depend upon to fulfill us in our life. The fact that we are made dependent and yet find that no other human, or created thing, can fulfill all of our needs, for everything in which we have trusted is transitory and thus in the end unreliable, and this means that we necessarily have to look elsewhere for the completeness which we lack in ourselves alone. The search for knowledge, for wisdom, for whatever it is that drives man on, is the search for what is faithful. Or if you like it is the search for the rock.

But here is a riddle; equality with God is not something to be grasped. To fully receive all that truly is we need to let go of all that we think we are. For just as we came into this world blind and knowing nothing, so we remain, to this day, in the true knowledge of God. Until we can truly face our complete ignorance concerning truth and accept our complete dependence on God to reveal Himself, and thus truth, to us we shall remain blind and alone. When a heart is desperate and in need, when it knows all else has failed and proved unreliable, when in anguish it knows it is as naked and as blind as the day when it was born, then on that day the words of Jesus will be water to the soul and it will know that He truly is the door to life. But the way is narrow, and full of affliction, which leads to life and few there are who find it!