What is faith?, part 2

What does it mean to “believe in Jesus”? How shall we define “faith”?

I like to keep things simple. I suggest that we answer the question by using two synonyms:  trust and allegiance.

Faith as trust in Jesus will not surprise anyone. Evangelicals typically encourage people to trust Jesus for their salvation. (The alternative is to rely on your own good works to earn favour with God.) Ephesians 2:9-10, quoted in part 1, provides adequate biblical support for my first synonym (faith = trust).

The second synonym (faith = allegiance) is less obvious. In biblical times, faith as allegiance to Jesus would have possessed a profound significance that isn’t evident to us.

The confession, “Caesar is Lord” was commonplace in the ancient Roman empire. It was a declaration of allegiance:  I am loyal to Caesar. If I am forced to choose between obeying Caesar and obeying some lesser “lord”, I will obey Caesar. I would never betray Caesar, even in the face of a death threat.

Christians substituted an alternative confession, “Jesus is Lord”. Note, for example, Paul’s formulation in Romans 10:8-10 —

The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

I like this text because Paul keeps things simple and defines faith broadly.

Faith is assent to the proposition that God raised Jesus from the dead. (Not a matter of doctrine so much as history, I would argue.) Second, the conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead leads to the confession, “Jesus is Lord”.

Here Paul draws a line in the sand. For Christians, Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord. In the first century, such a confession was a subversive act; it could be construed as an act of treason. “Faith” had nothing to do with abstruse formulations about the Trinity. It boiled down to a question with very practical implications:  Where does your allegiance ultimately lie: with Caesar or with Jesus?

This is important, because Christians are still presented with such alternatives. Some people say, “My country — right or wrong”. In my view, such a confession is tantamount to saying, “Caesar (not Jesus) is my ultimate Lord.”

It is also important because it results in an inclusive understanding of Christian faith. Who is my brother or sister? Anyone who professes allegiance to Jesus Christ (and demonstrates by his or her life that their profession is authentic).

I don’t care whether you are liberal or evangelical, Catholic or Protestant, a charismatic or a cessationist. If you profess allegiance to Jesus Christ, you are my brother or sister. Let’s work together to further God’s purposes in his creation!

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What is faith?, part 1

We often use words without knowing precisely what they mean. Oddly, this is true of some of the most important words in our vocabulary.

To be “in love” is an obvious example. Most of us have had the experience, and we all agree that the experience is profoundly meaningful, but it’s a notoriously difficult concept to define.

“Democracy” is another example. We had a good dialogue about what is essential to democracy here, without reaching agreement.

In this post, I want to focus attention on the word “faith”. Note that I’m going to discuss faith from a narrowly Christian perspective:  What does it mean to have faith in Jesus?

“Faith” is fundamental to Christianity. For example, Jesus once said to a notorious sinner, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”. Similarly, Paul writes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
(Ephesians 2:8-9, English Standard Version)

Evangelicals regard that text as a succinct summary of the Gospel:  we are saved by having faith in Jesus, not by performing good works. Thus evangelicals use the word “faith” all the time; they regard it as the pivot point of salvation.

But what is faith, precisely? Does it necessarily entail agreement with the Chalcedonian creed, for example?

… our Lord Jesus Christ … perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; … to be acknowledged in two natures; inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son.

I must confess a personal bias. I reject the idea that God requires agreement with any formula that goes beyond the language used in the Bible itself.

Paul does not say we are saved by having right doctrine, about the Trinity or anything else. Does he?

(Maybe he does. What does “faith” mean, precisely?)

Here’s another of my personal biases. I think faith should be defined as inclusively as possible. Some people approach things exactly the other way ’round:  they think we should exclude as many people from the Church as possible by defining faith very narrowly.

(Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Is this what he meant — that “faith” must be defined narrowly so as to exclude many? Perhaps, in context, he was referring to something else altogether.)

“Baptists look a lot more like fellow Christians when you live next door to a Hindu,” one of my Bible college professors once said to me. This is one of the lessons Christians ought to learn from globalization, I would argue. Christians who actually practise their faith appear to be a small minority of the population in the West.

Let’s be inclusive in our definition of faith and stand shoulder to shoulder with folks of other denominations. This is important:  after all, Jesus also said, “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”

What, then, is faith? How shall we define it?

(The conclusion will follow, tomorrow.)

For your Christmas amusement

Bing Crosby (in cognito as Santa) meets Sha Na Na (the reindeer). I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.

For interactive fun, go make a snowflake and contribute to a good cause.

(Thanks to my sweetie, Mary P., who found the above two sites.)

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Nutcracker Mary with angels

Very pretty, but someone is confusing their Tchaikovsky with their Bible!

nutcracker-mary-with-angels

Less pretty but more coherent:

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It must be Christmas Eve

Be prepared for magical things to happen!

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Santa DUI

I don’t know who’s funnier:  the depraved Santa, or the dutiful cop.

How the Grinch stole Christmas: a retelling of an Old Testament tale?

I watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas this week, and suddenly it occurred to me:  it is the story of Job, redux.

The GrinchThe residents of Whoville correspond to Job. They are blameless, even pure in heart. On Christmas morning, they gather in the village square to hold hands and sing, as an expression of gratitude. (To whom, Dr. Seuss doesn’t presume to tell us.)

The Grinch corresponds to Satan, of course.

And the Lord said to Satan, Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?

Then Satan answered the Lord and said, Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face. (Job 1:8-11, English Standard Version)

This is precisely the Grinch’s analysis. Those obnoxious villagers only celebrate Christmas because of all the presents they get. If I steal their goodies, they’ll cease to be grateful! But things didn’t turn out as the Grinch smugly assumed.

Then [Job’s] wife said to him, Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.

But he said to her … Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil? (Job 2:9-10, ESV)

Of course, Job’s journey is more turbulent than the prologue of the book implies. He is plunged into despair; he is overwhelmed with (justified) self-pity; he questions God’s justice. But in the end, Job stops short of cursing God, just as the prologue foreshadows.

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small
Were singing without any presents at all!
He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming — it came
Somehow or other, it came just the same.

At the end of the Old Testament tale, God restores the fortunes of Job (42:10). Likewise, Cindy Lou Who and all the other villagers receive back what the Grinch had stolen from them. But that point is not at the heart of either story.

The deeper message is, We aren’t grateful because of all our possessions; we’re grateful for life itself, for loving relationships, for truth, beauty, “spirit” —. These are more valuable than the things money can buy.

In the words of Jesus, “Life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions” (Luke 12:15 — one of my favourite New Testament texts).

Christmas day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to clasp …
Christmas day will always be
Just so long as we have we

It came without ribbons; it came without tags
It came without packages, boxes or bags! …

Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store
Maybe Christmas — perhaps — means a little bit more.

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