Sunday, 9 March 2008

What is saving Faith?

John H from Confessing Evangelical a Lutheran Blog, has been blogging about some of the differences between Luther's and Calvin's thoughts regarding faith. While the term (Sola Fide) Faith Alone comes from Luther's major stance in that we are justified by faith alone, John mentions some very important nuances between what Luther and Calvin meant by the term.

He engages with Phillip Cary who says in his lecture at a Lutheran Conference,
Let me start with the more Protestant kind of promises—the promises that come to mind for theologians who are, in my terms, quite Protestant. They belong to a larger pattern of thinking that I will call "The Standard Protestant syllogism.”
The Standard Protestant Syllogism
Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.
I don't think there would be many of us evangelicals who would disagree with Cary's statement regarding our standard system of belief, after all according to the author of Mark 16:16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved! Cary carries this important protestant thought through to its logical end in that the only way we can be saved and know we are saved is by knowing what we believe; which is Faith.
So the logic follows from this condition: you are saved on condition that you have faith, so if I am to know I am saved I must know I meet the condition.
Cary calls this reflective faith in that it's only because we truly believe that we are truly saved and herein lies the rub in that we have to believe that we believe, or know we believe to be saved. There is a very subtle but important nuance in this as the subject of our faith turns from trusting in Christ and His promises - to ourselves in what it is we believe.

He then turns to what Luther believed which was more based on the sacramental promises of Christ.
Luther’s Syllogism
Major premise: Christ told me, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
Minor premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).
For Luther his faith came from believing in Christs promises more so than basing it on what he believed. Therefore for Luther his premise was that faith was accepting the truth of what Christ had promised and therefore because he was baptised he had new life in Christ. Therefore for Lutherans it didn't matter so much as to what they believed, God never lies and therefore His truth was and is enough.

This means that there is elbow room for doubt and unbelief to to be part of the Christian's walk with God, in that we are free to be able to say, "God I doubt, help me in my unbelief" I believe these are important points for us to take note of, particularly for Christians like myself who come from a more charismatic / pentecostal strain of Christianity where the slogan, "Just Believe" is a common theme. Carey continues making the important distinction that there is not much difference between good works for salvation and working at making sure our belief is enough to be saved!
Don't you agree? Isn't it much easier to confess, "Christ is no liar" than to profess, "I
believe"—especially if what that is supposed to mean is: "I have true faith in my heart, I truly, really trust in God," etc. For this reflective faith, faith relying on itself, is how faith becomes a work, something we must do and accomplish in order to be saved. And then it has exactly the same problems as justification by works. You can always wonder if your works are good enough, and if you're honest, the answer will be: No, they're not good enough. In exactly the same way, you can always ask: Do I trust God enough? Have I really, unreservedly, surrendered my whole heart in faith to Christ? Is my faith strong, sincere, unhypocritical, un-self-serving? And the proper answer to all these questions is: No. My faith is never good enough, and thank
God, I am not justified by such works of faith but by the truth of the word I believe in. My faith is not good enough, but the one I have faith in is.
He then moves to Calvin's doctrine of election, predestination and perseverance and some of the issues arising from it in that the believer can never truly know for sure if we are truly a member of the elect and every time we sin we wonder if perhaps if God is withholding his promise of perseverance and we become anxious about whether our faith is strong enough to carry us through. Here Cary comes to the point, its in those times we must trust not so much in what we know we believe, rather that it is Christ who has promised us salvation, that he cannot lie and its in Him we believe.

However I think at times Cary is building a straw man caricature of protestant Christianity as I believe that our faith is built on Christ and trusting him alone for salvation and that our faith goes from faith to faith as we study Gods word and believe it to be true.

John H quotes Luther's counseling technique for those who were having doubts of faith,
If you want to build people up in faith, you have to direct their attention to the Word of God, not to their faith. But don’t direct them to some general principle - direct them to their baptism, and remind them that when they were baptized it was Christ himself who, through the mouth of the minister, said “I baptize you” and he meant you in particular.
And here lays the major difference of understanding the sacraments between Luther and other protestant thoughts. We believe and are baptised in response that we do believe and not because we believe in what we believe in. The basis of our two beliefs are no different to believing that Christ said we are saved because we are baptised and therefore we remember Christs promises when we remember we are baptised. Then it is for us to believe the promises Christ made in that who ever believes in me will be saved.

There is a good case however to be made that indeed for many Christians our salvation depends on what exactly it is we believe, and therefore many denominations, congregations, church groups etc become suspicious of each other when they don't tick the right boxes about their own statement of faith and understanding of the Gospel. Its in these cases that we need to heed Luther as our faith must be based on Christ Christs death and resurrection and the simple promises he made - rather then making a PHD understanding of the atonement, the 5 solas, etc.

This then gives us more breathing room to interact with all who call Jesus Lord, in that we base our faith in what Christ has done, more so than what we believe he has done and how he has done it.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Terrific post, Craig.

You handle the subtle distinction between reflective faith and faith based on belief in Christ's promises well.