I keep mulling two recent blog posts in relation to one another. One, inspired by Seth Godin, reflected on being patient with people who are not yet convinced. Patience is the fruit of hopeful expectation (and impatience a signal of weakness and fear).
The other was a springboard from an article on abstinence campaigns. The title says it all: Abstinence is death. And, we shouldn’t try to dress it up otherwise.
It strikes me that both draw on a common reservoir of faith. Faith walking the way of the cross.
To walk the way of the cross is to trust that God can and will bring about a better end by God’s own power than I could orchestrate on my own.
When we embrace ways of death, we entrust ourselves to the God who gives life to the dead. And this means relinquishing the power we have (all too often do actually have!) at our disposal to bring about the future we envision for ourselves and, let’s face it, the future we envision for the people around us.
One of the most important debates in NT scholarship for the past 30 years or so has been the interpretation of the Greek phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ (pistis christou; “the faith of Christ”).
Basically, it comes down to this: is Paul talking about “faith in Christ” (objective genitive) or “the faithfulness of Christ” (subjective genitive) when he uses this phrase?
In this case, “faithfulness of Christ” would mean Jesus’ faithfulness in going to the cross.
Can pistis mean “faithfulness”?
The answer is decidedly, “Yes.”
In fact, the most unequivocal use of pistis in the book of Romans is one in which it clearly means “faithfulness” rather than faith, and is used in a “subjective genitive” construction.
In Rom 3:3, Paul is reflecting on the “faithlessness” of some who did not believe the gospel. He contrasts this with the faithfulness of God. “Their faithlessness cannot nullify the faithfulness of God, can it?”
Faithfulness of God is the English rendering of τὴν πίστιν τοῦ θεοῦ (ten pistin tou theou; “the faith of God”).
Might this help with the conversation we’ve been having here since the end of last week?
The starting question was what we do with final judgment based on works within a system of theology that strongly emphasizes justification (initial judgment?) based on faith.
On Saturday I suggested that we rethink “faith in Christ” as “faithing into Christ,” or “believing unto union with Christ.”
Today I want to raise the question of whether thinking in terms of “faithfulness” might better capture what Paul is after than our normal idea of “belief”?
In order for this to work, we’ll have to rethink the faith versus works contrast. In Romans and Galatians, there are particular works that Paul is eager to deny are at the heart of justification–those that define Jewish people as a particular set-apart people; works that indicate conversion to Judaism as such.
No, says Paul, Gentiles don’t have to become Jewish. Faithing into Christ is enough.
Within this framework, Paul’s claim in Romans 1 makes much more sense. The goal of his ministry is to bring about “the obedience of faith” or, “faithful obedience” among the Gentiles.
Not faith alone, but an obedient faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If we are saved by Christ’s faithfulness in going to death on the cross for us, perhaps our part in continuing the story is to respond with a Christ-shaped faithfulness of our own.
Believing into Christ means faithfulness to the Christian story, a lived faithfulness that puts that story on display in our own communities, our own lives.
Yesterday we did a bit of thinking about the apparently strange juxtaposition of justification by faith and final judgment based on works.
I’ve been wondering if there are a couple of roads we might run down to reconceive what saving faith looks like.
The first facet worth exploring is the conjunction of faith with our union with Christ. Put simply: what if we started thinking less of “believing in Jesus” and more of “believing that brings us into Christ”?
How would this help? A couple of thoughts come to mind.
First, being “in Christ” is in part about occupying a certain kind of space. It is not simply the space in which we are united with others in the body of Christ–though that is true as well.
It is also about occupying the cosmic space that has been freed from the rule of sin and law and death (Rom 5-8). This means that faithing into Christ means being part of the new creation in which faithfulness to God is the only possible way of life.
Second, being “in Christ” here on earth entails not simply occupying space, but occupying a defining narrative. To be in Christ is to be united with Christ in his death and his resurrection.
To be united with Christ in his death entails a calling, a core identity, that demands a certain way of life: laying down our own lives so that others might live. Faithing into Christ means entering a story of salvific self-giving.
But it also means being part of a story that resolves in salvific resurrection life. If “occupying cosmic space” is part of the “already” aspect of being united with the resurrected Christ, what I’m talking about here is the “not yet” aspect. We will one day be united with Christ in full and final resurrection life.
But you see–this is the reward, extended at the final judgement, for those who have been faithful to God. Faithing into Christ means that the story we enter and live out in our communal and personal narratives will meet the same climactic conclusion as Christ’s own self-giving story of love.
When we think of “belief resulting in union with Christ,” we are speaking of a narrative of salvation rather than a one-off moment in the past that can be dissociated from what comes next.
There is a necessary way of life that results in a final judgment that affirms the cruciform story of the faithful.
It falls to me to pick the worship songs for our house church.
This, as you might guess is something of a liability for me, and perhaps my group. I comb through the song sheets, looking in vain for “Praised Be Thou, Inaugurator of Participationist Eschatology” and the like.
So instead, I have to go with what we have.
Today, as I thumbed through and picked out a few things, I did so with a little bit of an internal eye roll. I grabbed a song that I knew was little more than a compilation of scripture verses. I knew it was a theologically and pastorally apt conjunction of scripture and real life.
But it wasn’t me. I wasn’t feeling it. I felt like a bit of a hypocrite singing first person singular lyrics about myself that didn’t reflect my reality, how I actually have responded to life as late.
You get it? I didn’t want much to do with the song. But I picked it anyway, inasmuch as “The Galatian Praise Song” is something I try to save for Lent.
When it actually came time to sing the song, I found myself able to sing it, to believe it, to celebrate the reality of what I was singing.
How do you think about worship?
Usually, I think of it as an attempt at an authentic response to God, reflective of where I was when I came in.
And that’s an important piece of it.
But there’s something else going on in worship as well. Worship becomes a tutor to our hearts. We sing what is true, even when we don’t believe it, or didn’t a few seconds before, in order to enter into the belief that we lack.
Worship isn’t just about experience, it is also about ultimate reality. Or, perhaps better, is about creating an experience that expresses and embodies–and therefore summons us into–the reality into which God has called us in Christ.
When we gather as one and with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we participate in the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises. We speak truth again, we catch a glimpse of reality.
The context within which a dearly held conviction is challenged, and the way that faith is depicted in relationship to that challenge, can make all the difference in whether that challenge leads to a lost faith or a reconfigured and strengthened faith.
In response to my open letter, several commenters voiced their concern that critical reconfiguration of what the Bible is and what it says do not happen more in the church. And I think there is something tremendously important about this call. Yes, we have to handle the issues carefully and not unduly disturb the faithful.
But here’s the problem with pretending that the Bible is something it is not: if the context of faith depicts the Bible, or science, or belief in one way, and then a student enters a non-faith environment and discovers that the Bible or science or belief are entirely different it creates an apparently clear choice. Either stay with the faith and reject the learning or hold fast to the learning and reject the faith.
The reason why NT Intro destroys people’s faith in college is because the community of faith has not been forthright about what the Bible actually is, and so the student is confronted with a choice between belief or knowledge.
In general, communities help create and perpetuate systems of plausibility. This can be a bad thing or a good thing, depending on the truth and benefits of how the group is perceiving and articulating reality.
If Christianity is true, then the calling of the church is to articulate, and demonstrate, a coming reality that is often not visible to human eyes: Jesus is the enthroned and coming Lord. We need community to keep making that reality real, to help us be renewed by the transforming of our minds, by the conversion of our imaginations.
This means that when we’re struggling, we need the community. If we leave it, we are placing ourselves on an interpretive grid where this true reality is not accounted for in the interpretation of the world. And its unbelievability can quickly become unplausibility, and the faith withers.
It is precisely because context is crucial for wrestling with faith-challenging issues that I think it is a seminary professor’s duty to deal with all the difficult issues in class. The fact that Christians, in a Christian setting, while confessing Christ as Lord, can acknowledge these things is, itself, tonic against the notion that certain realities about the Bible or history tear apart the very fabric of Christian faith.
In the film Gods and Generals, Stonewall Jackson utters this provocative line to a dying man who confesses to unbelief: “Well then, I will believe for the both of us.”
When we’re struggling, we need people to believe for us. We need people to carry our belief when it cannot carry itself. We need ourselves to be infused with the gift of faith that comes from the participation in the body of Christ. And we need to know that our struggles can be Christian struggles, modes of living and doubting that honor the Christ whose faith saves us.
Today I’m at the Fuller Faculty retreat. During our time of worship this morning, a couple of things grabbed me.
First, we sang “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Well, we sang, “Crown him the Lord of love, behold his hands and side.” I never stop wondering how different Christianity would be if we could remember that this is love. The cross is love. The self-giving of Jesus, the son-giving of God.
If we loved the world like Jesus loved us, how would we be different? How would we be differently seen?
My second moment came while singing, “Great is thy faithfulness.”
While my mouth was singing the words, “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,” my eyes were looking at this:
And my mind was thinking, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Christianity lives in that dialectic. The faithful God is the God hidden in the cross. Great is thy faithfulness is the song we sing to the same God we confess as ours while we join our voices with Jesus’ Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.
When we last left our hero he was contemplating his own ministry as filling up what’s missing from Christ’s sufferings (Col 1:24). As striking as this articulation of his ministry is, I suggested that its significance was intrinsic to his two-fold conviction that Christ’s death reconciles all things and that this reconciliation is not yet complete. Thus the suffering, as much as the reconciliation, must be extended.
In the latter half of the paragraph about Paul’s own ministry, the formation of Christ in the Gentiles is the goal. Paul extends Christ’s death by going to the Gentiles, and the goal is that Christ Himself is formed in them. This is the hope of glory.
The story Paul tells is one in which there is a sure and certain line to be drawn between the cross of Christ and the eternal hope that lies ahead. “Hope” is Christological, and begun by participation “in him.” Paul’s own work intends to “present each person mature in Christ” (1:28).
The transformation that lies ahead is begun now. It begins with the cross, is reenacted in the community’s cruciform life together, plays out in acts of faithful obedience and love, and resolves with hope being realized in glory.
The trick, it seems, is to hold onto all these things simultaneously: to be of sure hope, possessing Christ, while not embracing a triumphalism that neglects the cross; to be confident that we are a reconciled people, while still recognizing our need for transformation; to see the cross of Christ saving us, but not to leave it behind as we seek out how to best love and serve the world in which we find ourselves. There is no hope without the cross, but there is no maturity or love without it, either.
Colossians presents an all-embracing picture of reconciliation. The whole cosmos–things in heaven and things on earth–are reconciled to God through Christ (Col 1:20). And people participate in this reconciliation.
Before the Christ hymn, Paul says that God rescued us from darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the beloved son (1:13). And immediately after the Christ hymn we read, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies… But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death.”
The focal point here we too often miss: the place of our reconciliation is not our own hearts when we come to rest in Christ. The place and time of our reconciliation is Jesus’ death on the cross for us.
Similar things appear in Romans, for example, when Paul says, “Having now been justified in his blood…” and “Having been reconciled to God through the death of his son.” The Christ event itself, not the application of it to us, is the transformative reality of the Christian story and the “center” of Paul’s theology.
Reconciliation happens on the cross–and it transforms us. The purpose is to make us before God what we could not be in God’s presence in any other way: holy, faultless, blameless (Co 1:22).
This is one of those points in Paul’s letters where the sweeping power and transformative breadth of the Christ event seems to encompass each and every individual. But to my mind, Paul always seems to step back from this possibility.
This purification and holy standing before God is to be had, “If indeed (εἴ γε) you abide, in faith.”
The person’s union with Christ, and persistence in Christ through faith, hope, and love, seems a necessary prerequisite to participating in the reconciliation won by Christ. God has done the work, in Christ, of reconciling an alienated humanity to Himself. But for as cosmic as its scope is, there is still, it seems, a need to be united to that saving Christ, a reconciliation to be had by faithfully responding to and living into the gospel by which we are called.
The main point, however, is not to limit the application of the salvation or to downplay its breadth. The significant factor is that God has acted to create a reconciled cosmos, and invites us into that cosmic space. It is a place where we stand, not as reconciled individuals, but part of a reconciled humanity freed from enslaving powers that work against God, God’s good, and God’s people.
Cosmic freedom is won, and God transfers us into the space that is once again one with himself.
Last week I had some reflections on “faith” in Colossians 1: perhaps the defining aspect of Christian faith is that this faith that exists in Christ. In the opening, thanksgiving section of the letter the triad of faith, hope, and love, as it is embodied by the Colossian church(es), is Paul’s source of celebration.
He then moves into his prayer for them: that they’ll be filled with the knowledge of God’s will so that they can lead lives worthy of the the Lord. Please God; bear fruit; grow in knowledge; endure with patience; give thanks.
Protestantism has created some odd heresies. One of these is an elaboration of justification as by “faith alone” that renders the works, i.e., the everyday life of a Christian, inconsequential. For the Pauline letters in the NT, nothing could be further from the case. Paul’s missionary goal is to bring about, not faith alone, nor even faith in Christ per se, but “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1). Paul celebrates the Thessalonians’ work of faith (1 Thess 1).
The reality into which Christians enter is not merely a different set of heart thoughts (I now believe in Jesus) but a whole new sphere of life.
The paragraph ends with Paul’s affirmation that God has freed us–we are now in the kingdom of the beloved son. Not merely freed from condemnation, we are now freed to learn, to grow in the knowledge of God. Not merely free to learn, we are free to act in accordance with what we know.
To be one who exists in Christ is to have a life defined by a certain kind of actions. This is not merely the repetition of “belief” in Christ, but a whole life lived so as to please our God and Father.
The triad of faith, hope, and love, is common fare in the Pauline correspondence. Not only does it appear in 1 Cor 13, from which we’ve all heard it read at weddings, it also appears as the basis of Paul’s celebration of the Thessalonians’ reception of himself and the gospel in 1 Thess 1, and the celebration of the Colossians’ faith in Col 1.
In Thessalonians, the “faith” is specifically associated with “work”. In Colossians, it would seem to be faith that has Christ as its object. “Faith in Christ Jesus,” it would seem, is roughly equivalent to “believing in Jesus.”
But is this so?
The phrasing is πίστιν ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ.
When talking about believing in someone or something, εἰς is more common than ἐν. It raises the question for me as to whether we’re supposed to see ἐν Χριστῷ as the object of our faith (as it’s most often taken) or as the cosmic space within which the believer exists.
In parallel with Paul’s pervasive “in Christ” language, is this about “faith that we have in union with Christ”?
Romans 4:12 uses what might be a parallel expression. Speaking there of Abraham’s faith, Paul says, “The faith which was in uncircumcision,” τῆς πίστεως τῆς ἐν τῇ ἀκροβυστία.
“Faith in the uncircumcision” is not a description of the object of Abraham’s faith, but of his status at the time of belief.
So, perhaps, in Colossians 1: “I’ve heard of the faith that you have as you are in Christ Jesus, the love that you exercise toward the community of saints, and these because of the hope that is awaiting you at the consummation of all things.”