Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Little Faith: Sure Goes a Long Way

There are few words spoken and heard more often in the Christian community than faith. Perhaps love would be the only one I can think of that is in the running to head up the top of the “most frequently spoken words on Sunday” list. In fact, the word faith appears 246 times in the NASB. Love appears a meager 215 times. Just to satisfy your curiosity, because I know you were wondering, God appears 1303 times and if you include Jesus, it moves up to 2290 times if my math is right. That is correct, God is mentioned 10x more than faith or love and 5x more often than faith and love combined. Just as I suspected, the Scripture talks a lot more about God than it does about faith or love. That is very interesting. What can this mean? Perhaps you would know if you could read the sarcasm I hear in my head while I pin type these words to paper electronic document.

With all the attention the word faith receives, one would think we would understand it better than we do. After all, we are saved by grace through faith according the great apostle Paul. (Eph. 2:8-10) Moreover, since faith is so fundamentally important in Christian praxis, not to mention theology, it follows that Scripture is acutely lucid on the subject. The great confessions all uniformly and consistently give it its rightful place of prominence in their works. In fact, it appears in many confessions as part of their title. From the Westminster Confession of Faith to the modern “Baptist Faith and Message” of the world’s largest protestant denomination, it occupies a place of prestige, honor, and emphasis.

In spite of all the attention faith has received for centuries, even millennia now, and despite the attention it receives in contemporary times, for many professing Christians in the Christian group, faith is sorely misunderstood. If you ask three Christians to define faith and you are fortunate enough to get an answer, it is likely that not one answer will resemble the other. More than that, it is very likely that the variance in each definition will be alarmingly wide. What is even more disturbing is that of the three answers, it is highly improbable that a biblical definition of faith will emerge. There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon. This brings us to the purpose of this post. It is to ask and answer the question, “What is faith?”

Scripture says the righteous lives by faith. (Rom 1:18) Men are justified by faith (Rom 1:28) Christians are introduced into grace by faith (Rom. 5:2) Pagan Gentiles obtain righteousness by faith. (Rom. 9:30) Christians conduct the entire course of their lives by faith. (II Cor. 5:7) This dispensation of God is by faith. (I Tim. 1:4) We understand how the worlds were framed by faith (Heb. 11:3) By faith the patriarchs performed numerous noble tasks. (Heb. 11:4-40) Men gained the approval of God through faith. (Heb. 11:39) The saints persevere through faith. (I Peter 1:5) Faith has proofs. (I Peter 1:7) Without any hesitation or doubt, we understand that faith is a highly important concept in New Testament teaching. It would seem that at least one priority of the Church would be to inculcate its members in a deep and rich understanding of this word. Why many, even most Christian communities, fail at such a manifestly crucial task is quite puzzling in light of the fact of faith’s importance to the very existence of the community throughout its long history.

The Two Faiths of Scripture
The contemporary idea of “faith” suggests that the word has more to do with mental assent or psychological agreement than it does with anything else. Modern evangelicalism reduces faith to a psychological decision. If a person decides that going to church, signing the membership card, getting baptized and learning a little Christian vernacular is the right thing to do, they are, for all intents, and purposes, a Christian. However, becoming a Christian is never presented as a decision of the will in Scripture. The best place to investigate this question is James. James tells us that God chose the poor of this word to be rich in faith. The reason men possess the kind of faith that matters is because God chose them to possess it. Hence, it follows that those whom God did not choose to be rich in faith are not so endowed. According to James, there is a faith that is useless and one that is meaningful. James tells us in his argument of “mono-faith” versus “ergo-faith” that there is a remarkable difference between the two. Mono-faith is faith that is alone. It is the kind of faith that merely gives psychological assent to something, but takes no action regarding it. James asks us, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith, but he has no works? Can faith save him? The idea is “does that kind of faith have the capability of saving him?” The answer is obvious to James. However, it is not so obvious to modern evangelicals in many cases. The concept of “mono-faith,” which is a distortion of “faith alone,” has served to corrupt the gospel of Christ and contaminate the Christian group with more false converts than one can count. James went on to say in 2:17, workless or fruitless faith is dead faith. Many evangelicals rightly say that we are saved by faith alone. However, what many of them really mean is that we are saved by dead faith. Nothing could be further from the gospel of Christ than such a concept.

James goes on to pit one imaginary man against another with one claiming faith without works while the other shows he has faith by his works. In other words, faith is quite visible. Perhaps those who think that faith can be without detection should consider what Jesus meant when He referred to the Christian group as a light on a hill. That analogy says we can be seen and that we are clearly distinguishable from darkness. How can we be light if we live just as those in darkness live? James’ point is that many people say they have faith, but those who really do show that they do by their actions, their deeds, their lifestyles.

James goes on to say that even the demons believe that God exists. So what, he says. If all you do is mentally assent to Christ, then you are no better off than the average demon. In addition, James says that the person who contends that dead faith is something special is empty-headed. Quite literally the word kenos means empty, one that is without any understanding or insight. This was really quite an insult to the one holding the view. James was far too concerned with God’s truth to lighten up a little for the sake of the senses of wicked men.

Abraham serves as James’ prime example. This is not surprising for Paul also referred to Abraham to the very same end. The idea is that Abraham’s faith was visible for all to see. Suppose Abraham told God he believed Him, but then did nothing. Would modern evangelicals think that Abraham possessed real faith? Genuine biblical faith? Ergo-faith? We know Abraham believed God because he acted. In accommodating language, what we would call theophanic language, God told Abraham that now I know you love Me and will not withhold anything from Me. Of course God knew this beforehand. Still, the point is that God’s revelation regarding Abraham’s love comes after Abraham’s act. According to the modern theory on faith, God would have said the same thing even if Abraham had not obeyed. If this were actually true, James’ words would be complete nonsense.

What then do we make of those who say they have faith in Jesus Christ, but whose lives do not indicate that their faith is a useful living faith? What do we owe these individuals? Indeed, we are indebted to God on their behalf to be sure. We are not free to allow them to exist in such a plight without loving them as Christ commanded. Paul tells the Corinthians that they are to judge those within the visible Church while God judges those outside. So much for the anti-judging at all cost view. In addition, in that same chapter, I Cor. 5, Paul tells the Corinthians that they are not to associate with anyone who wears the title “brother” if that person is immoral, covetous, an idolater, etc. In other words, if someone is claiming the title “Christian,” as if they are in the Christian group, saying they have faith in Christ, and living a life that contradicts this claim, we are told to reject their claim and not associate with them. This is the NT practice of honor-shame. The idea is that the person will be shamed by the Christian group until they repent of their shameful behavior or leave the group permanently. Members of the body of Christ are charged with protecting the body from “dead-faith imposters.” They are not good people just looking for relationships. They are plants of Satan placed there specifically to aid the roaring lion in his desire to devour the godly! Loving confrontation is the only way to deal with people who possess a dead, useless faith. This kind of individual does nothing but honor God with his lips while is heart is filled with the darkness of sin, held captive by Satan and when called upon, he will do the devil’s bidding.

We do the Christian group a terrible disservice when we turn our head the other way in the name of peace. We expose the group to hostile threats by the very enemy we are supposed to overcome. Moreover, we are not helping people by withholding the truth of their spiritual condition from them. I once had a pastor tell me he would not engage in church discipline because it was not his job to be that person’s Holy Spirit. To add insult to injury, he had a post-graduate degree from a reformed seminary. Another reformed pastor once told me that a woman could separate from her husband, repent and be forgiven and accepted in the church, and still proceed with an illicit divorce and that her repentance was true and just. He also refused to engage in discipline. Can you imagine what it will be like when we all stand before God and have to answer questions around why we withheld the truth from someone all because we didn’t want to hurt their feelings, or cause disharmony, or be perceived as overly critical? I realize some engage in this sort of practice filled with self-righteous hate and legalistic arrogance. Still, that is no excuse for us to avoid the right exercise of loving confrontation with those who claim to have faith in Jesus Christ, when their works clearly demonstrate they do not.

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