Archives For Seven Truths that Changed the World

20130521_TORNADO-slide-HIJ2-hpLargeThe death toll in Oklahoma, many of them children, prompted me to repost this reflection from the summer.

I’ve been rereading David Bentley Hart’s little book, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? It’s a life-changing kind of book.

In it, David Hart recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? 

 

Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Or “It’s okay, God is mourning too” which is only a more sensitive-sounding but equally deficient explanation precisely because it still attempts an explanation.

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy to talk like that to the father (though my experience tells me Hart would be surprised how many people in fact would say something like it).

This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

Silence is the best thing to (not) say when there’s nothing to say. 

Hart goes on to reflect on The Brothers Karamazov. In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God. Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry.

Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.

What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering. He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.

Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering.

Ivan admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun.

Ivan just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

So, Ivan doesn’t so much disbelieve God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan. He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes.

When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan. I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.

The irony, I suspect, is that Ivan’s siding with suffering of the little ones is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that Ivan’s compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true, Hart says then, isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

Hart’s axiom shows, I think, how only God-talk that’s centered in the crucified and risen Christ passes the test.

This coming weekend we conclude our fall sermon series, Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas, with the theme of Suffering.

The author of the book whence we got the idea for this series argues that Christianity’s unique claim is that ‘not all suffering is bad.’ I’ve already mentioned how I think this book is crap (yes, it seems you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover). I’ve come clean about disliking this book but this week it’s different. This week I find its positive treatment of suffering to be both morally repugnant- and the god implied therein- and a profound misunderstanding of the Gospel, in which Death and Sin are the enemies God battles and Christ’s cross is the ‘sacrifice to END all sacrifices.’

The author’s clumsy, tone deaf theology reminded me of an analysis that is the exact opposite in sensitivity: The Brothers Karamazov.

In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God. Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry.

Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.

What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering. He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.

Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering. Ivan admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun; Ivan just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

So, Ivan doesn’t so much disbelieve God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan. He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes.

When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan. I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.

The irony, I suspect, is that Ivan’s siding with suffering of the little ones is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that Ivan’s compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

 

 

This past weekend we tackled the theme of Imago Dei in worship, the belief that we are, as Genesis 1 declares, made in God’s image.

Exactly how we’re made in God’s image has been the subject of diverse interpretation through the centuries. Does it mean that every human creature looks like God? Or is it that every creature from womb to tomb is precious by virtue of having their origin in God? Is it our conscience or our soul that resembles the divine? Or how about our love? Or maybe it’s our reason or our language? Maybe we reflect God in that we have dominion over the earth just as God has dominion over us?

Through the centuries the Church has understood the imago dei in all of these ways and often such understandings owe as much to cultural assumptions as they do to the scriptural narrative.

Here’s one way to think about our being made in God’s image that you may not have heard before; in fact, it’ll surprise and maybe offend some of you.

Gregory of Nyssa, a brilliant ‘Father’ of the early Church, understood the imago dei in even strict Trinitarian terms. If God is community, Gregory believed, and if Adam and Eve metaphorically represent humanity (‘Adam’ just means ‘the man’ – see even the ancient Christians didn’t have a problem interpreting Genesis allegorically), then it’s not simply the male-female relationship that constitutes the divine image it’s the totality of the human community.

It’s the human community that reflects the divine community. All of us. To leave someone from the human community out of the imago dei is no different then than excluding either Father, Son or Spirit from the divine community.

This is where Gregory’s thought takes a logical, if surprising turn.

Gregory’s understanding of the imago dei unfolds in a way that has unavoidable, universalist implications for any definition of salvation.

If the human community in its entirety makes up God’s image then redemption can not be accomplished unless Christ saves the entirety of the human community through his incarnation, life, cross and resurrection.

If all of us together constitute the image of God then salvation, the reversal of Sin and the healing of our nature, cannot be complete without all of us. Together.

All will be saved, Gregory speculates, because all have been made in the image of God.

 

Married in the Image of God

Jason Micheli —  October 11, 2012 — 1 Comment

Marriage counseling isn’t one of my favorite parts of ministry. It’s not that I’m bad at it, I don’t think. I’m a passable counselor. And it’s not that I mind being available to couples during stressful junctures in their marriage.

Mostly its that whenever I find myself offering advice to couples, I can’t help but imagine my own wife listening in, smirking lovingly, knowing full well I’m less than a perfect spouse and hardly one to qualify as an expert.

A while back though I gave a couple advice. I seldom give out and out advice while counseling. I was trained not to advise but to offer active listening, which I know can seem passive to couples starved for something to try and salvage their relationship.

Having no other clue how to help them stop the spiral of resentment and recrimination in which they found themselves trapped, I told them:

‘I know you have every reason to think you’re right and every reason to be angry. I know you don’t he understands how he’s hurt you and you don’t think she’s ever going forgive you and let go. I want you to put that away for a week. Forget about it and instead just focus on loving and serving the other. Whenever the old words and feelings creep up, do something, anything, to pour yourself out and serve the other instead.’ 

In truth, I was desperate, had no clue how to help them and thought this sounded just Jesusy enough to leave them thinking I’d done my job. I was surprised when they told me the following week that trying to do that had been the best week in their marriage in  longer than they could recall.

‘Why is that?’ the husband asked me.

This week for our fall sermon series, Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas, we’re talking about the Imago Dei, the scriptural notion that having made everything good in creation God creates us in God’s image.

The Imago Dei often gets treated vaguely- ‘we’re all children of God’- and left at that; however, Imago Dei cannot be abstracted from Trinity.

Christians often fail to recall that the God in whose image we’re made is three-personed: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore the relationship that marks God’s own life, the love shared between Father, Son and Spirit, is the prototype for the kind of life and love we’re intended to share.

Theologians call it perichoresis. It means ‘mutual self-emptying’ or ‘mutual self-giving.’

When we talk about the Trinity, who God is internally and eternally, we believe God is perichoretic love. God is in God’s own life a community of self-giving, vulnerable love. God is a community, Father, Son and Spirit, where love is eternally given as a gift and nothing is expected in return.

We’ve been made in the image of this three-personed God. Moreover, as Karl Barth argues, we’re not made in God’s image as individuals. Rather it’s Adam and Eve together- their relationship- that comprises the image of a God who is, in himself, relationship.

Back to that couple.

The reason, I think, their vow to put resentments aside for a week and focus on loving and serving the other ‘worked’ is that such loving service best captures who, at their core, they were created to be. This is the image of God in them and that can mean no less than this is what it means to be fully alive. Any lasting healing that might come to their marriage surely must come by this route alone.

 

Are Atheists Blind?

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2012 — 1 Comment

Even after I became a Christian, I found the traditional, philosophical arguments for God’s existence to be dry and unconvincing: ‘God is that which no greater can be thought; God is the first cause of all that is.’

To my mind, there could never be satisfactory ‘proof’ for a God as paradoxical as the one we find in Jesus Christ. Still, if I were to attempt an apologia for God I would point not to the human genome or the Big Bang but to Beauty.

That we’re all imbued with an aesthetic, with an appreciation, love for and visceral need to create beauty- even as we define it in a diversity of ways that is itself a kind of beauty- has always seemed, to me at least, the best argument that there is a God from whom we owe our existence.

I understand the purely ‘natural’ explanation behind the blue glow that shimmers over mountaintops, yet there is no ‘natural’ explanation for why I would find such an occurrence radiantly beautiful. In other words, there’s a sense in which its grammatically incorrect for Christians to use the word nature. It’s created, all of it, and as created it’s all gift that should evoke gratitude and enjoyment.

As a former atheist and recovering cynic, I think I’m correct in saying that atheism’s biggest drawback is how boring it is. In trying to prove what isn’t, atheism too often misses out on what IS in all its splendor.

This weekend we continue our fall sermon series, ‘Seven Truths that Changed the Word: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas,’ with the theme of creation as a signpost to the Almighty.

As the Psalmist puts it, this week we’re exploring how the ‘heavens declare the glory of God.’ This is same principle is what theologians and ethicists refer to under the category ‘natural law,’ the idea that creation itself bears the fingerprints of the Creator and from those marks we can deduce certain beliefs.

Here’s a beautiful essay by David Bentley Hart on leaving the mountain that towered above his home:

For two years, we have lived in a forest on the convergent lower slopes of two mountain ranges, and above a shallow wooded ravine that descends to a narrow streambed on our side and rises up on the opposite side towards the high ridge that looms above our treetops to the west. During our time here, that mountain has been a commanding and magnificent presence for us, seeming at times almost impossibly near at hand, at other times forbiddingly remote, but always silently, sublimely watchful.

Nearly every morning, no matter the season, it is mantled in clouds, sometimes so heavily that it disappears altogether behind opaque walls of pearl-gray mist.

And nearly every evening, as the sun descends below its ridgeline, the whole mountain is briefly crowned in purple and pale gold, and the southwest horizon, where the ridge descends, is transformed into a gulf of amethyst, rose, and orange.

When the darkness falls, moreover, there is none of the dull rufous pall that the glare of city lights casts up to hide the stars in heavily populated areas.

On clear nights, the sky becomes a deep crystal blue for perhaps half an hour—and then the sky becomes an ocean of stars.

Here in our shady submontane seclusion, cool breezes constantly blow down from the peaks above, and through the southern pass, even during the hottest months of summer. The soughing of the trees rises and falls as the gusts strengthen or weaken, but never wholly abates, and the sunlight—reaching us through the filtering leaves—incessantly flickers and undulates around our house. The birds are so numerous and various that their songs blend inextricably together, and only occasionally can one momentarily recognize a particular phrase—a goldfinch, say, or a cardinal—before it merges back into the larger polyphony. Then only the short, sharp staccato of the woodpeckers is immediately recognizable.

Just now, however, the more dominant music here is the oddly sweet mixed chorus of the woodland frogs, especially at night, but throughout the day as well. The rain this spring, here as in much of the country, has been heavy and regular, and so the ditches are full to overflowing, and gleam like silver when viewed at an oblique slant. The smaller depressions at their edges, also full of water, catch the reflections of overhanging leaves, and the green mingles with the gray of their silt in such a way that they often look like pools of jade. When one comes nearer, however, all the standing water is quite clear and filled with small black tadpoles. Next year’s frog choruses will be louder.

Life abounds under the brow of the mountain. All the woodland creatures one would expect, great and small, are here—deer and black bears, glistening black snakes and tawny foxes, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and owls and Blue-Tailed Skinks, and so on. The butterflies at the moment are becoming quite plentiful; there are Black Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails, Tiger Swallowtails, but also Red Admirals, and Painted Ladies, and a host of others. And azure and emerald and opalescent beetles and flies are now appearing as well.

The mountain ridge can be reached by foot, if one is willing to make the effort. The best passage to the top lies northwest of our house, and one must follow it first down into the ravine, into its green depths, through the shadows of its deciduous trees and immense Loblolly Pines, over carpets of moss and ferns and creeping juniper, and across the narrow stream that just now is coursing quite vigorously. The best path—not the easiest, but the most idyllic—lies across a small waterfall created by a thick tangle of oak and Asian Tulip roots over a minor subsidence in the soil. Mountain laurel is extremely plentiful in the ravine, and at present is in full blossom. Bronze and golden box turtles lurk in the shade and by the water.


The ascending slope from there is quite gentle at first, and only becomes an arduous climb at a few places. In all, it takes only about two hours to reach the ridge if one keeps moving. If one sets out well before dawn, and arrives at the top in time to see the sunrise, one will find oneself walking as much in the clouds as through the trees, and there is a brief period (twenty minutes or so) when the sunlight first reaches the ridge, at a sharply lateral angle, and one is all at once passing through shifting veils of translucent gold. Unfortunately, it is an effect that no photograph can capture: invariably, it is not only the rich aurous lambency of the scene that is lost, but the impression of depths within depths, layer upon layer.

In any event, I can do none of this any justice. To describe the place with anything like the detail or lyricism it merits would be a long, and perhaps interminable, task. I have relied on pictures simply because I do not quite have the words right now. In a week, we will be gone. Family responsibilities necessitate our moving to a larger house—one very pleasantly set in a grove of tall tress, but not watched over by our mountain. I simply feel as if it has been a rare privilege to live here for the time we have had, and that I ought to pay some tribute to the place before leaving, out of some sense of honor or natural piety.

So one last photograph. I actually took it soon after our arrival here, as my son (age ten at the time) was watching the sunset for the first time from our porch, over the small open glade to our southwest. But at the moment it seems to capture something for me, a mood at once of delighted wonder and deep sadness. It comes as close as I can at present to expressing the farewell that I want to wish this house and that mountain. It is a melancholy with which I suspect we are all familiar at some level, as individuals and as a race, something that haunts us and of which my sadness is only a fragmentary reminder—the feeling of having lost paradise.

You can find the article here.

For our sermon series, this weekend I’ve been thinking about Justification by Faith Alone (vs Works). There’s no way to talk about Justification without talking about Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Reformation.

Luther carried this understanding of justification one step further.

Because the Gospel is God’s declaration to us and because this is a grace that is totally outside of us to which we can only respond with trust, there is no discernible interior change in us.

God looks on us with favor. God declares the Gospel to us: ‘For the sake of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.’ And the only response possible to such a promise is trust.

What Luther understands happens in justification then is that God chooses to see Jesus when he regards us. And God always does choose to see Jesus when he looks upon us. For Luther, even after we’ve responded in trust (even after we’ve had faith for a lifetime) we never cease essentially to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Fundamentally, sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’ Properly understood (and logically) Luther does not have a doctrine of sanctification, whereby God’s grace works within us to grow us in holiness. Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian in the Reformed tradition, emphasized this point by using the term ‘vocation’ rather than ‘sanctification.’ Christians have a calling in the world even though living out that calling does not effectively change or heal our sin nature.

Thomas Aquinas (and John Wesley after him) would argue this point. While admitting our sanctification can never be complete this side of heaven and so we retain a proclivity to sin, they would argue that once we respond to God in faith we truly do begin to heal. Wesley would even make the plain point that Jesus’ teachings seem superfluous if our nature never heals sufficiently that we can live out those teachings. Jesus’ teachings, for Wesley, were attainable expectations for Christians, but for Luther-convinced of our permanent sin nature- saw such an expectation as a depressing command (‘Law’ in Luther’s terminology as opposed to ‘Gospel’) we can never meet.

To be fair to Luther, his doctrine of ‘simul iustus et peccator’ wasn’t intended to recommend Christian passivity in the face of sin. We shouldn’t just resign ourselves to our sin nature; however, many of those who followed after Luther argued precisely this perspective.

 

By Grace Alone?

Jason Micheli —  September 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

For our sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs. Works).

In Thomas Aquinas’ three-fold understanding of grace, grace begins with God. On that starting point there’s no difference between the Catholic perspective and what Luther fleshes out in his re-formation.

The second procession of grace, sanctifying grace, is grace that is in us. But how do you know if you have sanctifying grace? That question starts to get at Luther’s criticism.

The third procession of grace, according to Thomas, is our response of faith, hope and love that sanctifying grace makes possible. Again, if you don’t really have sanctifying grace- if perhaps you’ve deceived yourself and only thought you did- then necessarily you can’t possess genuine faith, hope and love.

Thomas’ formulation of grace, though it boasted a pedigree that went all the way back to the church fathers and though there appears to have been no other reformation era critics of it, in Luther’s mind placed for too much on us.

Whereas Thomas believed sanctifying grace is bestowed upon us in baptism and through the sacraments, Luther re-conceives grace’s movement.

Grace, first of all, names God’s favor, loving inclination, towards us. This is where Luther and Thomas agree. Second, grace is a Word addressed to me, a declaration. For Luther this declaration is the Gospel. Rather than a gift God implants within us, this Word God declares to us is the gift. Third, this word-gift is what enables me to respond in faith.

Part of the difficulty in the reformation debates is the confusion of terms. Thomas and Catholic theology in general use the term ‘justification’ to name the entire process of God’s favor towards us, God’s sanctifying grace and our response. Luther and the reformers after him instead use ‘justification’ to refer exclusively to God’s inclination and declaration to us. Our healing and response tend to get treated separately as ‘sanctification’ or ‘vocation’ or, in Wesley, ‘perfection.’ So, often, when Protestants accused of Catholics of ‘works righteousness’ it’s because Protestants thought Catholics were speaking of justification when, really, Catholics were talking about sanctification. And when Catholics thought Protestants were eliminating any role for works of faith and making faith totally passive it’s because Catholics thought Protestants were speaking of sanctification when, really, Protestants were speaking specifically about justification. That both sides tended to be led by stubborn, recalcitrant men didn’t ameliorate the confusion.

What’s essential in the divergence of views is how, for Luther, there’s nothing inside me that is different or changed. There’s nothing inside me that empowers me to respond to God with faith, hope and love. Luther did believe that eventually our trust in God would create a new life but that new life would never be the basis of our justification. It would never be why we’re pleasing to God.

Again, this gets back to Luther’s spiritual crisis. For Luther, what’s important is that we don’t look within ourselves to determine if we’re saved.

For Luther, looking within is the problem because, basically, inside we’re messed up. Within us, no matter how much we trust God, is a whole stew of conflicting motives. Obviously this is an incredibly autobiographical insight on Luther’s part. According to Luther if we want to know how we stand before God we look, not within, at the promise of God.

Justification, then, in this classical Protestant formulation is objective (in that it depends not on our apprehension of it) and it is passive (in that it God’s act outside of us).

 

We’re in the midst of a sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.’ This week we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs Works) Alone.

The usual way Christians talk about being saved by faith owes to Martin Luther.

For much of his monastic career Martin Luther was plagued by the question ‘How can I get a gracious God?’

The question began to crystalize for Luther thanks to the help of a mentor, the abbott of his monastery.

The abbott, knowing Luther well, believed (correctly, I think) that Luther’s relentless introspection and agonizing over his contrition was, in a fundamental way, in conflict with the simple, gracious message of the Gospel.

Luther had an epiphany. He attributes it to close readings of Paul’s letter to the Romans. At some time, in confession, Luther heard the priest offer the words ‘Martin, your sins are forgiven’ and his experience was to stop focusing on the authenticity of his contrition and to listen to the priest’s words and to trust them.

And when he trusted that, Luther’s world changed and it had a ripple effect through his whole understanding of the Gospel.

For Luther, what became critical was that the priest said something. This is essential- for Luther now the Gospel is a word that gets said. The Gospel isn’t dormant in the pages of scripture. The Gospel is a promise that is proclaimed.

Fundamentally, what Luther came to understand is that the Gospel is a statement. It’s a spoken word that takes the form of a declaration: ‘Martin, for the sake of Jesus Christ, your are forgiven.’

The Gospel is a declarative statement. It’s not a command (‘Go and do…’). It’s not horatory (‘Let us…’). It’s not an imperative (‘We should…’).

It’s critical to see this because it leads Luther to ask: how can you respond to a promise? You can’t obey a promise. All you can do is trust it or not trust it.

What Luther realizes in the confessional is that God doesn’t ask anything of us. God makes a declaration to us.

This is what Luther meant by ‘justification by faith alone’ which gets clarified later as ‘justification by grace through faith alone.’ It’s not the case, as is often misunderstood, that our faith justifies us. Luther instead means that God has declared us forgiven, we’re justified. (Indeed John Calvin and Karl Barth will say this declaration happened on the cross and is perfect, meaning it applies to you whether you want it to or not.)

‘By faith alone’ means that the only possible response to God’s declaration is faith, which Luther understands as trust.

Once Luther comes to this understanding of justification the entire foundation of the medieval church becomes useless to him, making a collision with Rome inevitable.

 

Sometimes a preposition can make all the difference.

I remember my first theology course as a freshman undergraduate, Elements of Christian Thought, with Gene Rogers. I’d just become a Christian as a Junior in High School and was only beginning to become acquainted with the actual content of our faith. The topic one week was Justification & Salvation, and I remember another student asking the TA:

‘If Christians believe we’re justified by faith in Christ, then what about people like me who don’t have faith, who’d maybe like to have faith but can’t seem to find it? Is it our fault then if we’re not saved? Why faith is essential why is it so hard? That seems like a pretty limited God.’ 

It hit me then and still does as a very good question. Not only does it make essential something that is sincerely elusive for many people, it also turns faith into a kind of work- the very opposite of Paul’s point- in that we’re saved by our ability to believe.

This week we continue our sermon series on ‘Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ with the theme of Faith vs. Works.

The irony of this historic debate among Christians, however, is that the very idea of justification coming through faith in Christ is premised on a bad translation of scripture. 

Almost everywhere that is written in English is a wrong translation. It is properly translated by the King James. Take a look at this passage from Romans:

“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:20-23

In Greek, the actual wording is “even the righteousness of God, through the faith OF Jesus Christ.”

Grammar Lesson: 

It is a possessive or genitive phrase. Now a genitive means that this phrase can be interpreted as either subjective or objective. In other words, it is like the phrase, the Love of God. That is either our love for God, or the love that God has. In one case it is objective (love for God), in the other subjective (God is the subject) and it describes the love that belongs to God, or God’s love.

In Greek, the faith of Jesus Christ is also a subjective genitive, but has been interpreted as an objective in almost every translation.

Why is this important?

Because it is not our faith in Jesus which justifies us, but the faith of Jesus Christ in us which justifies us. Faith isn’t a work. Isn’t our work at least. The faith that saves us and justifies us is the obedience of Christ.

In other words, it is his faith at work in us and in our hearts which produces righteousness and the God kind of life.

This explains why faith is a gift and why we are saved through faith by grace and not as a work of our own. It is not our faith which justifies, but the faith of Jesus given to us, which resides in us.

The good news is, it isn’t my faith that matters. It is the faith OF Jesus Christ given to me, that when God regards you or me God isn’t measuring our feeble attempts at faithfulness. In other words, when God looks upon us God chooses not to see us but to see Jesus.

The other night I came home late, feeling tired and grumpy. The boys had already gone to bed and Ali was nearly asleep. I sat down to read in bed, still feeling tired and grumpy. I’d read only a few pages when Gabriel got up and stumbled, half asleep, into the bathroom to go potty. After he was done, he stumbled into my room, still half asleep, to give me a hug and a groggy smile. Hugging me, he rubbed my back gently, mumbled ‘I’m glad you’re home Daddy’ and then stumbled half asleep back to his room.

This week we continue our sermon series on ‘Christianity’s Dangerous Ideas’ with the familiar (tired?) debate over Grace vs Works. Typically, the argument via Paul gets framed in terms of our sinfulness and Christ’s awesomeness. There’s nothing we could ever do to earn God’s pardoning love. To think so only leads to more sin and a kind of idolatry. Instead we’re saved purely by the gift of what God has done in Jesus Christ, a gift we don’t deserve (grace) that we can respond to only by faith.

What I’m wondering in the wake of G’s gesture the other night is if the Grace vs Works dynamic need not apply only to God’s gift in Jesus but also all the other gifts God gives to us every day during the day and night: a child’s smile, a friend’s ear, just the right song on the radio when you need to hear it.

If so, then perhaps the reason we’re not, could never, be saved by our works is because if we thought so then we’d be so focused on ourselves that we’d stop looking for or noticing the gifts of God all around us.