Tag Archives: Faith

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:15-16

JamesJames 2:15-16
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (NRSV)

James now passes onto his third rhetorical question, presenting an illustration, demonstrating that words alone, without deeds that correspond to the words, are empty and useless. Most commentators agree that the illustration is hypothetical, with McKnight referring to it as a “comic example” which “would be humorous if it were not so tragic” (229). Nevertheless, as Davids also suggests (121), the illustration is not one without immediate relevance to the community, and like the illustration in vv. 2-3, may be indicative of attitudes and behaviours which do exist or have occurred in the community.

Like vv. 2-3, the scenario is presented as a two-part hypothetical followed by the question. The first part describes the presence and condition of someone in the assembly whose poverty is indicated by their dress which is not so much shabby (cf. vv. 2-3) as inappropriate for cold weather, and by their lack of daily food. The second part then describes the words and action of another congregational member, before James presses his question. There is a further similarity between vv. 2-3 and vv. 15-16: in both cases there is a concern on James’ part for the unworthy treatment of the poor in the midst of the congregation. The poor person is to be welcomed with the same degree of acceptance and honour accorded to others; they are also to be cared for so that the “needs of the body” are catered for. Whereas in vv. 2-3 it is not clear whether the wealthy and poor persons are Christians, here the poor person is definitely identified as a “brother or a sister.” Finally, the function as well as the form of the two illustrations appears similar: James chooses an illustration relevant to the life of the community, perhaps even occurring in the congregation, since he says, “and one of you says to them…”

James is all inclusive in his description of the poor person, explicitly including both genders: “if a brother or a sister” (ean adelphos ē adelphē) in his description of the poor. These poor hyparchōsin gymnoi (literally, “are naked” as in the NRSV, though variously translated as “poorly clothed,” “in rags,” “in need of clothes,” or “without clothes” [Vlachos, 87-88]). They also lack daily food (leipomenoi tēs ephēmerou trophēs). Vlachos observes that James’ use of the present tense, and the somewhat unusual verb hyparchōsin (“to exist”) indicates an enduring state of poverty and suggests that the individuals suffer constant want (87-88). Their abject need is evident.

“And one of you says to them” (eipē de tis autois ex hymōn) brings this hypothetical illustration close to home: “someone from among your community.” The words spoken are in the form of a blessing: ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ (hypagete en eirēnē, thermainesthe kai chortazesthe). “Go in peace” is a standard Semitic blessing of good will, that the person go on in a state of peace and well-being (Vlachos, 88). “Keep warm and eat your fill” correspond to the nakedness and hunger of the person identified in verse fifteen. These verbs can be interpreted in two distinct ways, either as “keep yourself warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the middle voice) or “be warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the passive voice).

The first option places the responsibility for the poor person’s well-being upon themselves, whereas the second becomes a form of prayer. Vlachos (89) prefers the first interpretation, and because the verbs are in the second person imperative, he is probably correct; the speaker is telling the poor what they must do. Nevertheless, a number of interpreters including McKnight, prefer the second option so that the speaker is saying something along the lines of, “May God’s peace be upon you; may God warm you; may God fill you up.”

This may be an overinterpretation but, if so, not by much: the false piety, the false claims, and the false religion of those who have faith but do not have works are palpable in this letter (cf. 1:26-27) (McKnight, 231).

In the end, as Davids (122) notes, the question makes little difference to James’ main point: the speaker does nothing. “And yet you do not supply their bodily needs” (mē dote de autois ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos). Ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos refers to those things necessary for the body, the physical staples of life, which in this context refer to food and clothing. It would be legitimate, I think, to extend this to other necessities of life including shelter for the homeless.

James is concerned for bodily needs and physical necessities, and especially but perhaps not exclusively, for those in the congregation (cf. Galatians 6:10). To send someone on their way, even with a blessing of peace, is of no use whatsoever, if in the sending they remain cold and hungry. James obviously intends the speaker (and the community—dōte is second person plural) not only wish them peace and welfare, not only have good will and intention toward the poor, not only feel kindly—but to give (dōte) them the things needed for bodily life and welfare. This calls the speakers to use their own substance and share what they have with the person in need. James is concerned with “the need of the body” and not simply the condition of the “soul.” To bless or to pray, and to not give what is needed—“What is the good of that?”

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14

JamesIt has been almost a year since I broke off my study of James. I had worked through to James 2:13 on a verse-by-verse basis, and had hoped to continue to work through the epistle in this manner. However, my year has been such that I have not had the opportunity to continue as intended. I am not sure that 2017 will be much different, but will try to get through to the end of chapter two at least. Before breaking off my study, I did write two posts providing an introduction to James 2:14-26 which provide an orientation to the passage as a whole. Given some of the difficult issues with this passage, I invite readers to consult these posts first. The two posts can be found here and here.

James 2:14
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? (NRSV)

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (NASB)

With this verse James begins a new section in his letter, although there is continuity with what has gone before. In verses 1-7 of the second chapter, James has admonished his hearers against partiality in the congregation, reinforcing this admonition with a reflection on the love command and the reality of divine judgement (vv. 8-13). His listeners are to live in accordance with the royal law of love which is characterised especially, by mercy. Just as chapter 2:1 begins with an acknowledgement of the hearers’ faith and calls for works of mercy and love, so this section also considers the nature of genuine faith, and similarly calls for works of mercy.

The fourteenth verse sets forth the first two questions in a series of three, the third question being longer in form and posed in terms of an illustration. The verse is again addressed by James to “my brothers and sisters” (adelphoi mou), a device, as we have previously noted, that James uses to frame his various exhortations and to signal a new phase in his argument. The first question poses a hypothetical based on someone’s claim to have faith: James does not say the person has faith but no works; rather, they say they have faith (ean pistin legē tis echein) but they have no works (erga de mē echē). Of what use—or good or benefit—(Ti to ophelos;) is such a claim? The expected answer to the question is, “no use whatsoever.” The second question, also anticipating a negative answer, confirms this, and also shows the kind of “use” or “good” James has in mind: “Can that faith save him?” (mē dunatai hē pistis sōsai auton;). That is, when a claim to have faith is not supported by works, the claim is empty and useless. It provides no use or good or benefit whatsoever to the person making the claim; it cannot save them.

This verse raises many questions: What does James mean by “save”? What kind of works does he have in mind? What does it mean for someone to claim “I have faith”, if they have no works? What is the significance of this claim? What is the nature of this faith? What good or benefit does the person derive from their claim? Why would someone claim to have faith if such faith has no other effect in their life?

James questions the viability of someone making this claim and in so doing, questions the very reality of the faith itself. Such “faith” is no-faith, and therefore it can bring no benefit, and certainly no salvation into the life of the person making the claim.

A person may make such a claim because it is expected of them—like a candidate for the American presidency. Others perhaps because they wish to appear religious or spiritual if such qualities are culturally valued and approved—hardly the case in contemporary Australia! Some may claim faith on the basis of tradition or heritage, whereby the remnants of a faith once held by one’s forebears still clings to their life, though perhaps not the faith itself.

For James, such “faith” is not faith at all. The claim does not equate with the reality. A faith which has only the claim as its evidence is not genuine. True faith penetrates one’s life, shaping and guiding it. Faith in God issues in a life characterised by those priorities which characterise the life and being of God: love, mercy, etc. Thus, faith determines the life of the one who has faith, whereas the claim, by itself, is fruitless: it cannot save.

Scot McKnight speaks very bluntly to James’ point in this verse and its implications for many in our churches:

Salvation, then, is regenerative, morally transforming, and eternal—and the tragedy for James is that those who claim to have faith but do not have works will not be saved. Most Protestants do not believe this today (229).

Scripture on Sunday – Isaiah 38:1-5

Prayerful Tears
Desmond Cole wipes away tears as he takes part in a prayer service in the aftermath of the police shooting in Ferguson, USA. Picture: Portland Press Herald, November 29, 2014.

In those days Hezekiah became mortally ill. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.’” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, and said, “Remember now, O Lord, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, saying, “Go and say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of your father David, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will add fifteen years to your life.

Several things in this passage have always arrested my attention. First, Hezekiah was at the end of hope: when even God says you’re finished, you’re finished. Second, Hezekiah did not ask God for healing, or to save or lengthen his life. He asked God to ‘remember’ him and he wept. The imagery of Hezekiah turning to the wall is evocative: he is turning away from all other support, help and comfort. He is confronted with God whose word is as implacable as a wall. But he turns.

The word of the Lord which came then to Isaiah said, “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears.” It appears that Hezekiah’s tears were as much a part of his prayer as were his words, and perhaps, more so. Perhaps his tears were the greater part of his prayer, a soul vulnerable and broken-hearted before God; honest.

Jesus, too, prayed with tears:

In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety (Hebrews 5:7).

Such prayer is a world away from the polite and professional prayers of which I am so often guilty. Prayer can become so routine and run-of-the-mill it loses its heart. Hezekiah’s tears were his prayer as much as his words were. Although tears of brokenness and disappointment, they were not tears of despair: his continuing faith is revealed in the very act of prayer itself, in his turning away from all else to God alone.

Some expositors have suggested that the extra fifteen years given to Hezekiah were not a blessing but a judgement, for in those fifteen years seeds were sown which later led to the downfall of Judah. Miserable commentators!

This is one of those biblical texts that hints at the awesome privilege, power, mystery, and responsibility of prayer. God heard his prayer. God did remember. God changed his mind! God gave him his heart’s desire. We sometimes hear that God never changes, and that prayer does not change God. “Prayer changes things,” we are told. Or, “prayer changes us.” Certainly. But in this instance, God himself had said, “You shall die and not live.” And that which God himself had declared was turned when this man prayed.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 16 (Part 2)

The Path of LifeLast week we studied the first six verses of this psalm and found a single-minded, whole-hearted declaration of allegiance to the Lord. The psalmist looks to God himself as his inheritance, rather than to God’s blessings and gifts. And yet, the Lord does give blessings as well as his own presence; the second part of the psalm enumerates these many blessings that the faithful might experience. For the psalmist, these blessings include counsel and guidance, defence, security, and deliverance. Nevertheless, to have the Lord is to have all there is, every blessing and more besides.

David blesses the Lord “who has counselled me.” If we recall that this psalm was probably composed in the midst of desperate circumstances, we might assume that this divine counsel specifically addressed David’s present need. That may be the case. But it is also true that God’s general counsel provides the foundation for his wisdom in specific circumstances. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), and unless one is instructed first in this initial wisdom which learns to view the world from a theocentric centre, it may be that they cannot discern the specific direction required in particular circumstances. David’s allegiance to Yahweh, and his whole-hearted trust in him, provides the framework within which he receives the divine counsel.

It is also of interest to note the manner in which this counsel came: “Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night” (NASB). The counsel did not arrive in some spectacular manner such as via an angel or a vision, but by means of his own thought processes as David prayerfully pondered his circumstances. God can and sometimes may use more spectacular means to convey his wisdom and will, but it is good for us to be reminded that more often, it seems that God uses very ordinary channels to accomplish his purposes. Of course there remains the twin requirements of learning to distinguish the divine counsel from the counsel of our own hearts, and of learning to test and confirm this guidance by means of the other gifts of grace God has given us in Scripture and the community of his people.

The final verses of the psalm are a celebration of confidence in God, again, in the midst of the most desperate circumstances. Craigie (153) titled his exposition on this psalm, “Confidence in the Face of Death.” Convinced that Yahweh is his only good, and thus his only hope, the psalmist sets the Lord continually before him, giving his attention to the Lord, placing his hope and confidence in him. More comforting still is the thought that the Lord himself is at his own right hand: even in dire straits he will not be shaken (cf. 15:5). Therefore, the psalmist rests in God, his whole being rejoicing in God’s presence, power and promise—heart, soul and even flesh.

Craigie reads these final verses as applying directly to the psalmists own immediate circumstances:

With respect to the initial meaning of the psalm, it is probable that this concluding section should not be interpreted either messianically or in terms of individual eschatology; … The acute concern of the psalmist was an immediate crisis and an immediate deliverance. His body had been endangered and his life threatened with untimely termination in Sheol. … The psalmist acknowledges that God makes him know, or experience, the “path of life,” not the afterlife, but the fullness of life here and now which is enriched by the rejoicing which emerges from an awareness of the divine presence (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 158).

In this interpretation, verse ten is simply the psalmist’s assurance that his present circumstances will not result in his death, while the eleventh verse portrays the ongoing life that God gives as one of joy and satisfaction. This joy is grounded both in who God is and what God gives: the joys of his face (“presence”) and the joys of his right hand (“in your right hand”; see Kidner, 86).

Craigie’s conclusion helps make sense of the psalm in its original context, with the added benefit of instructing our hearts in the ways of faith, especially when ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ loom large. The path of life issues from a steadfast allegiance to God in faith, a recognition that only in him is our good to be found; seeking our good and deliverance elsewhere is to embark on a different path where hope is vain and sorrows multiply.

Nevertheless, from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has been read messianically. In his great Pentecost sermon, the apostle Peter argues that David indeed died and was buried. But David spoke as a prophet of the resurrection, for it was Christ who was neither abandoned to hell and whose flesh did not suffer decay in the grave (Acts 2:25-31). And so from the earliest days of the Christian church this psalm has also been read in terms of individual eschatology: the “path of life” transcends the bounds of this world and its hopes, extending beyond the grave to the life to come, evermore in the presence of God and the fullness of joy.

The Christian reception of Ps. 16 illustrates a reading strategy that quite transforms the original pedagogy. The general counsel for a morally flourishing and satisfying life with God morphs into a uniquely Christian vision of adhering to the risen Lord … Christianity is born by wrestling with ancient texts in light of startling events that require textual grounding in order to be theologically warranted. The Christian reading of David’s psalm is a fresh instruction for people in a quite different context than the one the psalmist originally attributed to David. But the underlying hope is the same (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 76).

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 13

Airplane-passes-over-an-eclipse-resizecrop--Read Psalm 13

How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?           
How long will you hide your face from me?    
How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long will my enemy be exalted over me?

In these first two verses, the psalmist cries plaintively to the Lord who seems absent and unhearing, removed and uncaring. The words carry a sense of duration—interminable drudgery and aloneness, the fourfold repetition of ‘how long’ emphasising the silence and inactivity of God. The reader feels the tension; on the one side an unrelenting enemy and on the other an unresponsive God, the desperate psalmist caught helpless in the middle.

The enemy is singular, though the psalmist’s adversaries are multiple (cf. v.4). Craigie has no doubt that the enemy is “death” which is fast approaching, the singer being struck down with a life-sapping illness of some kind (Craigie, 142). Whether or not Craigie is correct, the circumstance is common in these early psalms of David: his enemies are ever present, and it seems they have the upper hand, their triumph assured. He has a sense of being alone and vulnerable in the world.

In the midst of this ‘dark night of the soul,’ the psalmist prays (vv. 3-4)—“lament is pointless unless it culminates in prayer” (Craigie, 142)—his faith evidently deeper than his experience, a bulwark against despair. Nevertheless, only the Lord can rescue him from the ever-present threat of death, and so he prays for God’s attention and action: “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!” Kidner (77) notes that in the Old Testament “God’s ‘remembering’ and ‘seeing’ are not states of consciousness but preludes to action” (cf. Exodus 2:24-25). Thus the prayer is for deliverance, that God would turn again toward the psalmist, rather than ‘hide his face.’

Given the desperate tone of David’s lament, one is unprepared for the final couplet, where optimistic praise and trust seem incongruous with what has preceded. David has trusted in God’s lovingkindness, and so his heart shall rejoice in God’s deliverance. Because he has trusted, he will rejoice and he will sing. David’s faith is deeper than his experience because God is a deeper, more enduring, and more encompassing reality than his suffering. God’s love is steadfast despite his seeming absence; his salvation is assured; his grace is bountiful: therefore David will trust in anticipation of deliverance, and even rejoice and sing.

If the path is prayer, the sustaining energy is the faith expressed in verse 5. … However great the pressure, the choice is still his to make, not the enemy’s; and God’s covenant remains. So the psalmist entrusts himself to this pledged love, and turns his attention not to the quality of his faith but to its object and its outcome which he has every intention of enjoying (Kidner, 77-78).

The idea of being forgotten by God haunts us—could God, would God, actually forget us? Could God utterly overlook us or cast us behind his back? Does God hide his face from us, turn his back, keep his counsel, and ignore our hurt and dire straits? It is likely that no one who has tried to live a life of faith has not had the experience the psalmist describes here. It is an experience that Jesus, too, endured when on the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Our experience is often at odds with our expectation, and to the extent that a Christian’s expectation is that their faith should exempt them from the common trials of life, their expectation is unrealistic. Our expectations with respect to God, however, are another matter entirely. We expect God to care—and not only to care, but to act. Is this also unrealistic? Not according to this psalm.

Kidner captures something crucial with his observations about God’s covenant and David’s faith. David’s faith was not a vague or amorphous hope, but conviction born of a lifelong awareness of God’s covenant love toward his people, including himself. Because God is the ultimate reality of all things David cannot help but pray. His being caught in the tension between God and his enemy is an inevitability on account of his faith.

Even if it makes sense to be a practical atheist, as Ps. 10 suggests, distrust of divine oversight is not psychologically possible for those who cannot but believe in both the loving-kindness and punishing judgement of God as the moral grounding of society. To believe otherwise is to succumb to a morally chaotic reality in which might makes right and personal agency is denied, further robbing the sufferer of power (Ellen Charry, Psalms 1-50, 64).

David laments because he has faith, and prays for the same reason. Indeed the power and astonishing boldness of his prayer lies precisely here: God’s own integrity is at stake. In this psalm there is no confession of sin, no self-blame or condemnation, no blaming of the victim: the reason for divine silence is not judgement on the psalmist’s sin. “On the contrary, God’s failure to act reflects badly on God, for it enables the enemy to gloat” (v. 4; Charry, 63). And so David calls God to account with a boldness born of a faith so deeply embedded in his soul it contradicts the seeming finality of his experience.

Years ago the Corrs, an Irish singing group sang “forgiven, not forgotten.” The words, if not the song, catch the reality of covenant existence with God. We are forgiven. We are never forgotten. God’s covenant lovingkindness is the deepest reality of our lives, and of all reality, something upon which we can trust, and so also rejoice and sing. Lament turns to praise because God’s covenant love and grace is the defining reality of the psalmist’s existence.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14-26

James(I know it is late Monday, but I will keep the regular title of this post for continuity’s sake!)

Read James 2:14-26

Before I tackle this passage verse-by-verse, I want to stand back a little to get an overview of some the issues connected with this most central and most controversial of sections in James’ letter. The central message is unambiguous, being repeated three times: “faith without works is dead” (2:26; cf. vv. 17, 20). The issue is not so much understanding what James has said, as it is the apparent conflict between what James says here and what is said in other New Testament texts, especially Paul. A comparison of two key texts sets the issue in stark relief:

James 2:14, 21          
What use is it, brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but he has not works? Can that faith save him? … Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?

Romans 3:28
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

The centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith for Luther, and in Protestantism generally, caused Luther famously (or perhaps infamously) to relegate James to the least of the books in the New Testament:

Which are the true and noblest books of the New Testament? … In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it (Luther, “Preface to the New Testament” in Lull, T. F. (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 116-117).

Many Christians have for centuries followed Luther’s lead, subordinating James to Paul and as a result not hearing James’ distinctive message as clearly as they might. Some modern scholars have suggested that the New Testament documents represent different forms of Christianity; thus Paul’s writings express the faith and experience of a law-free Gentile church, while James expresses the faith and experience of a law-affirming Jewish Christianity (see Moo, 45, who cites as an example, Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 251-252). The question we face is whether there is a fundamental disjunction between the message of James and that of Paul, with respect to this central issue.

The major part of the problem revolves around the language and imagery used by James, including the key terms faith, works and justified, as well as his use of Abraham as an example of one who is justified on account of his works. Paul uses these same terms in his letters when discussing justification, and also uses Abraham as an example of one who is justified on account of his faith without any works. A careful examination of the passage, however, shows that James and Paul are approaching this topic from different directions and use the same terminology in different senses.

Thus, when Paul speaks of faith, he has in mind personal, whole-of-life commitment and allegiance to Jesus Christ. James, too, can speak of faith in this sense (cf. James 1:3, 6-8; 2:1, 5; 5:15). But in this passage, James is speaking of “faith” in an entirely different sense: he is speaking of one who claims to have faith, probably understood in the sense of right-belief, but whose life shows no evidence of genuine whole-of-life allegiance to Jesus. In this case, their life contradicts their profession. James mocks this kind of “faith” which is limited to doctrinal correctness: “the demons also believe!” (v. 19). For James, this kind of mental assent which does not penetrate to the heart and find expression in the concrete action of life, is no faith at all.

When Paul speaks of “the works of the Law” he usually has in mind the ceremonial works including such things as circumcision, Sabbaths and holy days, food laws, etc., although it is also true that he repudiates all and any kind of work whether ceremonial or moral as the basis of one’s justification by God (e.g. Ephesians 2:8-9). But, and this is important, Paul never diminished the abiding validity of the moral demand of the law. So in passages such as Galatians 5:6 (“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love”) or 1 Corinthians 7:19 (“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God”) we find a message very similar to that which James presents in this passage. Significantly, James appears entirely unconcerned about the issue of circumcision, perhaps because he was writing to Jewish Christians. More importantly, however, and despite the portrayal of James in Acts 21:18-26 and Galatians 2:12 as one who continued as a law-abiding Jew even as a Christian, in his letter James never appeals to or affirms any aspect of the ceremonial law, even while he assumes the continuing validity of the law itself. Even in this passage, James’ emphasis is on works of mercy toward the poor—continuing the theme of 2:1-13, the work of obedience to God in the case of Abraham, and faith itself as a work in the case of Rahab. The key for James is that genuine faith is active, issuing in obedience to God.

Finally, James and Paul are using the term “justified” (dikaioō) in different ways, something also illustrated in their different appeals to the example of Abraham. Paul speaks of justification as one’s initial transfer into right relationship with God on the basis of Christ’s atoning death, received through faith, just as Abraham also was justified by God on the basis of his faith prior to receiving the covenant sign of circumcision. James in this passage is speaking of one’s ultimate justification at the final judgement where the authenticity of one’s faith is demonstrated by the works and activity of one’s life (so Moo, 46-47; Seifrid, “Righteousness” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 624). Thus, although Abraham was initially accepted into right relationship with God, his faith was tested and proven—even by God—over the course of his life, and so demonstrated as genuine.

Outgrowing Christianity?

candle-blown-outA couple of weeks ago I was browsing blogs and read Rachel Held Evans’ post “On ‘Outgrowing’ American Christianity.” Evans is speaking of a particular kind of evangelical Christianity, and notes especially, the situatedness of all theological reflection. One of her correspondents, however, goes further, and speaks of outgrowing Christianity, and not simply a particular expression of it:

Leaving the evangelical church for a more liturgical church (Anglican and Episcopal) was my first step towards atheism. What began as an earnest soul-searching attempt to deepen my faith, thanks in part to the gay marriage debate, led our devout Christian family towards the search for another denomination. In researching the various denominational stances on gay marriage and other issues, we ended up towards the Episcopal end of the spectrum. Eventually, after months and then years of searching for the right church for our family, we gave up on organized religion. Our search exposed the same ugliness and patterns in every denomination we explored. Letting go of organized religion was shocking and absolutely the last thing I ever expected would happen to us. But I’ve never felt so FREE – so in love with humanity for the sake of humanity, itself. A Christian can ABSOLUTELY “just stop being religious.” I did. My husband did. Our family did. As I grappled with why my soul felt so liberated, and continued to study and search and read, I had no choice but to become an agnostic, and ultimately an atheist. I see the world through a much clearer lens now. Ironically, letting go of religion, and eventually any concept of God, has given my heart the capacity to love others like never before.

In a follow-up comment answering a question from a second correspondent, the woman continues:

I will tell you that my experience, including the order of events towards agnosticism and ultimately atheism, is a very common one among those who de-convert from Christianity. The actual desire to deepen one’s faith/study apologetics/sharpen one’s ability to defend one’s beliefs intelligently has led quite a few down the path I’ve taken. I have read many, many stories of Christians who were searching and ended up on the exact same path: at first bandaging the issues with a new denomination…which eventually revealed the man-made ugliness and restrictions of all denominations…which led to questioning organized religion…which led to abandoning organized religion…which led to embracing agnosticism…which ultimately led to atheism. I’m grossly oversimplifying this, of course. It was an agonizing journey, full of late nights and sleepless weeks. It started three to four years ago for me, but really ramped up over the summer and early fall. I lost my faith ultimately in a matter of months. It is one of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, times in my life.

The woman who styles herself, “Lost My Southern Graces,” is a closet atheist. She has not yet told her extended family or friends of her de-conversion: she is sure they will not understand, and that she will certainly lose her friends. She jokes that her community will “eat me alive.”

Why do some people walk away from the church? More deeply, why do some people walk away from faith itself? Although every person’s story will be uniquely theirs, I also imagine that there are some common threads which unite many of these stories. I certainly recognise aspects of my own story in hers, although ultimately, I ended up with faith renewed rather than faith lost.

In a recent sermon I identified five reasons for doubt including lack of opportunity, disillusionment with the church, moral, experiential and intellectual factors. It seems the second and fifth factors have played a role in “Lost My Southern Graces’” loss of faith. I resonate with her desire for a more aesthetic worship experience; evangelical worship is sometimes akin to a dry cracker biscuit at dinner time. But aesthetics alone are unlikely to sustain a rich and mature faith. The root of my own quite profound experience of doubt had its genesis in an intellectual approach to Scripture and faith. After being raised in a Roman Catholic family, I found my own faith in a quite fundamentalist Pentecostal sect which emphasised the truthfulness of the bible but in a very naive and idiosyncratic way. After about fifteen years with that group I began broadening my theological horizons, eventually taking a degree in theology during which I was introduced to critical study of the scriptures. “Lost My Southern Graces” is right: many a Christian’s faith has floundered on these shoals.

My boat almost capsized. For about two years I thrashed about this way and that, now so very uncertain of the sureties I had previously held. I no longer knew whether or not I could trust the Bible, believe in God, Jesus, heaven, or anything else. In hindsight, my faith was real enough. What was utterly insufficient for the impact of formal theological studies was the intellectual framework that surrounded and supported it. When that intellectual framework began to collapse, it felt as though my faith would also fail. But for the grace of God, it may have. It is possible to tear down and substitute a Christian intellectual framework with a more rationalist or secular worldview, and in so doing depart from the faith one once held. My problem was even more basic: my Christian intellectual framework was under-developed. I liken it to a primary-school understanding of Christian faith trying to withstand the assault of tertiary-level critical studies. In cases like this, something has to give and often, it is the faith that gives. This is part of the reason (not the only reason of course) why so many young Christians flounder when they enter university studies.

What helped me tremendously was undertaking a directed study programme toward the end of my undergraduate degree on Scripture, Revelation and Authority during which I had to research and write two major papers. The first was an analysis and assessment of various Evangelical approaches to biblical authority, and the second an analysis and assessment of Karl Barth’s doctrines of revelation and scripture. The first paper helped me discover that one can hold a high view of scripture in a number of different ways, and that some models, indeed, are much better than others. But it was Karl Barth who really helped me. Although I do not go all the way with Barth, it was his trinitarian and christological approach to revelation and scripture that gave me the intellectual framework I needed for a more adequate doctrine of scripture capable of intelligent engagement with the world of critical study and of sustaining a devotional practice whereby the bible functions in a sacramental way in my life, a vehicle for the presence, wisdom, and encounter with God.

That was almost twenty years ago. I still face doubts from time to time but do so now from a position of greater understanding. My faith has been deepened and enriched. I am quite aware of the contingent nature of faith now, and hopefully I no longer exhibit the triumphalist and somewhat arrogant note that once I think I did.

“My” faith? Yes. My faith is genuinely mine in the sense that it is my response to, and decision in the light of, God’s initiating movement of grace toward me. But in a deeper and much more wonderful sense, it is not mine at all. More than anything else I have come to realise that it is not me that holds onto him, but he who holds onto me.

I have found that God is greater, even than our unbelief. “Lost My Southern Graces” has outgrown the church, outgrown Christianity, outgrown even, she says, the concept of God. My hope though, is that she can never outgrow God himself.

As for me, I found I could not outgrow Christianity, but my understanding of Christian faith had been outgrown and needed to grow up. When it did grow up, I found a large and roomy house, and even some of those rooms which still hold difficult questions find a place in this lovely and light-filled house.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-29)

A Sermon on Sundays – Matthew 13:53-58

Brown, Nathan & MelissaIt has been a pretty busy couple of weeks, so I apologise for the lack of posts. I have just had the privilege of preaching at Church at: Collective, a relatively new church plant in Hawthorn, Victoria. Although I had to suffer the indignity of going to Hawthorn (think Dockers 2014; Eagles 2015), it is a blessed church, with a wonderful sense of God’s presence in the worship and Lord’s Supper, and rich community amongst the folk there. Pastors Nathan and Melissa (pictured) and their team are providing rich and substantial ministry for the congregation and people in their district. The church has been working its way each Sunday through Matthew’s gospel, and so my appointed text was the little story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, at the end of the chapter on parables. Here is an outline of my  very first message in Melbourne…

1. Jesus Goes Home
The parables of Matthew 13 paint a vibrant picture of the coming and way of the kingdom. Its coming is inevitable, irresistible and progressive, but it is not necessarily easily. The kingdom faces resistance, opposition, and rejection.

Jesus’ reception in his hometown is surprising: those who know him best reject his ministry. In a series of seven questions bookended with “where does he get this stuff?” his friends and neighbours conclude he is no one special, perhaps even a fraud. And they were offended at him. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus has pronounced blessing upon those who are not offended with him (11:6). Why were they offended? Why did they refuse to believe? Perhaps their doubts arose when they started considering all these common-place questions, contrasting what they have heard about Jesus with the everyday “facts” of who they “knew” him to be.

2. Reasons for Doubt
a) Some people doubt because they do not have sufficient background and simply cannot believe. They need first to be inducted into the life, knowledge and tradition of the community so they are prepared by the Holy Spirit to believe;

b) Some people doubt on account of the “family” of Jesus—just like in this passage. Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

c) Some people’s doubt is experiential—unanswered prayer, difficulties of life and unmet expectations have left them wounded or disillusioned.

d) Some people’s doubts are moral: they resist the call and the claim of the kingdom.

e) Some people’s doubts are intellectual: the enigma of evil challenges their confidence in the goodness or even existence of God; or the prevalence of scientific naturalism seems to provide explanation enough of the world with the result that God is not needed.

Moments or periods of doubt are quite normal in the Christian life, and may even be the proof of an underlying faith, that in one’s hearts of hearts, one actually believes. Nonetheless doubt is a serious threat for like a wound, doubt can fester into unbelief which is a hardness of heart and a refusal to trust God. In our text tonight, that is just what has happened.

3. Revelation (Matthew 11:25-28)

Although each kind of doubt may require a different response, in each case what is most required is an experience or deeper appropriation of revelation—something easier said than done. Revelation of God is not something we control but something we receive. It is, however, something for which we might pray, both for ourselves and for others. Earlier in his gospel Matthew speaks of the revelation of God given to those who are children (Matthew 11:25-28). This text shows first, that revelation has an aspect of divine sovereignty; it also insists that whosoever will respond to Jesus’ call may come. Unbelief is not inevitable: we may come. Second, the text also shows that God remains hidden, even in his revelation. The treasure of the gospel always comes clothed in an earthen vessel (Bruner). The glory of God was hidden in the humanity of Jesus. When the people of Nazareth stumbled over Jesus’ apparent humanity, they were not open to receive the knowledge of his divinity.

God’s revelation, whether in Christ, Scripture or the proclamation of the church, works in a similar way: it comes clothed in the weakness of humanity. If we stumble or become offended at this human weakness, we will miss the revelation God gives of himself to us.

4. Faith
And Jesus did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief (cf. Mark 6:6). According to Frederick Bruner, “Faith is the ordinary way to Jesus’ help. When faith is not present…not much happens” (2:62). The corollary is also true: where faith is present, it just may be that we will see and experience the saving presence and power of God. Faith occurs in the hearts of those who hear the word of the kingdom, receive it gladly, and understand it. It is amongst those that the word of the kingdom brings forth fruit.

And so Jesus says, “Come.” Will you come? Will you trust? Will you trust on the authority and confidence of others who have gone before you? Will you open your heart to Christ?

Millard Erickson on the Spirit, Faith & Doctrine

Erickson_MillardErickson’s three chapters on the Holy Spirit are not the strongest section of his work. Nevertheless, in his chapter on the person of the Holy Spirit, he argues effectively on the basis of indirect biblical testimony that the Holy Spirit is a divine personality, at once fully God and fully personal. This is crucial, for the Spirit is the God who in a supremely personal and intimate way, is God with us. “The Holy Spirit is a person, not a force, and that person is God, just as fully and in the same way as are the Father and the Son” (786).

The deity of the Holy Spirit is not as easily established as is the deity of the Father and the Son. It might well be said that the deity of the Father is simply assumed in Scripture, that of the Son is affirmed and argued, whole that of the Holy Spirit must be inferred from various indirect statements found in Scripture (782).

Erickson helpfully provides a thumbnail sketch of the development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the history of theology, moving quickly through the pre-Nicene period to the controversies which resulted in the creedal affirmation of the Spirit’s deity at Constantinople. He notes in passing issues such as the Montanists and the Filioque, treats minimally developments in the medieval and Reformation periods and notes the long period of decline with respect to the doctrine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “due to a variety of movements, each of which in its own way regarded the Spirit and his work as either superfluous or incredible.” I note with interest his fascinating comment with respect to the first of these movements:

One of those movements was Protestant scholasticism. It was found in Lutheranism, and particularly the branch that derived its inspiration from the writings of Philipp Melanchthon. As a series of doctrinal disputes took place, it became necessary to define and refine beliefs more specifically. Consequently, faith came increasingly to be thought of as rechte Lehre (correct doctrine). A more mechanical view of the role of the Scriptures was developed, and, as a result, the witness of the Spirit tended to be bypassed. Now a Word alone, without the Spirit, was regarded as the basis of authority. Since belief rather than experience came to be viewed as the essence of the Christian religion, the Holy Spirit was increasingly neglected (779).

This problem, unfortunately, persists today—see my post on Paul Helm’s treatment of Calvin’s inner testimony of the Spirit. There are many today who want to establish the authority of Scripture not simply on a doctrine of Scripture, but on an authorised interpretation of Scripture that also presupposes an implicit hermeneutic and application. Erickson is correct to insist that Christian faith cannot be reduced to correct doctrinal belief. This is not to say, of course, that doctrine is unimportant; Erickson would be the first to reject such a view. Good doctrine helps ground, secure and explain our faith intellectually. It protects us in the face of the variety of experiences which we and others have. Nonetheless, this experiential aspect of Christian faith, this reception of the Spirit, is crucial. “Let me ask you this only: did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2).

Scripture on Sunday – Philippians 2:12

Phil 2-12Philippians 2:12
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Paul has just written or included the magnificent “Christ-hymn” of vv. 6-11 which speaks of Christ’s self-emptying, his humiliation, obedience and subsequent exaltation, which he also prefaced with the exhortation to “let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). Therefore, in view of the graphic example of Jesus’ commitment and obedience to the will of the Father, Paul now exhorts the Philippians also to “work out” their own salvation.

As already indicated, the first thing to remember with respect to Paul’s admonition here is to set it in its own historical and literary context. It is possible to treat this text as a piece of general Christian advice separated from its context so that to “work out one’s salvation” can be filled with just about any kind of content. Further, it can be treated in such an individualistic way that working out one’s own salvation is something one does and achieves on one’s own, apart from and without the community of God’s people. Finally, the text can be approached as a theological battle ground where the issues of salvation by faith apart from works, or the relation between God’s work and human work are discussed in an abstract manner as though there were no context at all, and as though we need to carefully explain what Paul really meant, because Paul was not quite careful enough in what he has written here. So the major question for us is: What did Paul mean when he wrote this phrase?

The context for this verse probably goes all the way back to Paul’s exhortation in 1:27 which also includes a reference to Paul’s presence and absence:

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

Paul, imprisoned in Rome and so very far away from his beloved Philippians, writes to encourage them to stand firm in the gospel in the face of persecution and suffering (vv. 28-30), disunity (2:1-4), and the crooked and depraved age in which they live (2:14-16). Whether he is present or absent he wants them to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” So, too, in 2:12 he writes that he wishes them to obey his commands “not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence.”

The particular command Paul now wants them to observe is that they “work out their own salvation” (tēn heautōn sōtērian katergazesthe). It should go without saying that Paul is not here saying that we save ourselves by our own works, as is perhaps suggested by Zerwick & Grosvenor: “do your best to bring about your own salvation in fear and trembling…” (596). Elsewhere Paul insists that believers are saved, not on the basis of their own works, but by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ (e.g. Romans 3:21-26; 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5). Even in Philippians Paul refuses to seek any righteousness of his own, but only that which comes from God alone through faith in Jesus Christ (3:9).

To say this, however, is not to say that the believer is passive, that no response or action is required. Just the opposite! Having been “found in Christ” and having received the gift of righteousness that “comes through faith in Christ,” believers

Must apply to its fullest consequences what is already given by God in principle. The believer is called to self-activity, to active pursuit of the will of God, to the promotion of the spiritual life in himself, to the realisation of the virtues of the Christian life, and to a personal application of salvation. He must “work out” what God in His grace has “worked in” (Müller, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians [NICNT (1955)], 91).

Even Müller’s good counsel, however, is too abstracted from the immediate context. Within the flow of Paul’s argument, to work out one’s salvation means adopting the way of Christ in humility and service to others, in costly obedience to the will of God, pursuing a unity of love and purpose amongst the people of God, offering steadfast witness to the world as we live as the children of God, holding fast to Christ as our only righteousness, and looking forward to his coming as our only hope. To work out one’s salvation entails shouldering our share of the mission, and resisting all attempts to dilute our faith, and all threats to the unity and work of the church.

One of the wonderful features of the letter to the Philippians is the catalogue of vibrant examples presented for the church to emulate; Jesus, Timothy, Epaphroditus and Paul himself, are all set forth as exemplary examples of Christian dedication and service, and all show what it means to work out our salvation. The Christian is called to live the Jesus way today and tomorrow, looking for opportunities to humbly serve others for their benefit, and the gospel for God’s glory, as they long for and await the Lord’s return.