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!


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jamie
    Dec 29, 2006 @ 11:21:48

    I wrote a term paper last month on Christianity in the Roman Empire, and some of my sources touched on this issue. I think you’re right that the conception of faith and what it meant to be a Christian were quite different early on, considering that there was no well-developed system of doctrine.

    One little thing to add to what you’ve said about Jesus vs. Caesar being lord: Religion in the Roman Empire in the first centuries A.D. was highly varied, comprising a patchwork of local pagan cults, mystery cults from the east, and imperial cults. The noteworthy thing about all these religions is that they were inclusive–even if you belonged to one cult, you could still belong to others. Christianity (and its parent, Judaism) were different, in that they were highly exclusive. If you were a Christian, that meant you couldn’t belong to any other cults. You were committed to one God, period.

    This is probably an important aspect of what “faith” meant to early Christians. Not only did “faith” mean choosing Jesus over Caesar, it meant giving allegiance exclusively to the Christian God, and abandoning all others.


  2. McSwain (Cheryl)
    Dec 29, 2006 @ 20:54:34

    An interesting and valid point re. where our primary allegiance should lie. A big problem here in the U.S. is that so many can’t separate God and country in their own hearts and minds. Maybe I believe more strongly in separation of church and state than I thought…


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