Monday, May 21, 2012

Is "Faith" Really a Verb?

Obviously, the word "faith" is a noun.  It is a "thing."  Any dictionary will tell you that.  But it is often stressed, in books or sermons or what-not, that faith should be thought of as a verb.  Why?

I get the intent.  The teacher is trying to show how faith produces action.  Faith isn't something static.  It yields fruit.  It produces a direction in a person's life.  It changes how they live, what decisions they make, what they do with their will, etc.  All true.  James certainly makes that point in his New Testament epistle.

But sorry.  Faith is a noun.  In fact, while I definitely agree that faith will prompt action, I think it is actually very important to understand that faith isn't itself an action or an act.  Why?

Romans 4:4-5 is why.

"Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.  However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness." (emphasis mine)

Then comes the anticipated reply from those who try to guess where I'm going with this.  "Well... you gotta find a balance, see... blah blah blah.  You can't exclude works.  You don't want to go toward 'anti-nomianism.'"  Most conservative Christians will reply with something like that.  This is because they are terrified that faith, alone, will lead to laziness (an idea bred in by the Wesleyan roots of modern evangelicalism).  We gotta "add something" to it... a little "reminder." 

I'm all for encouraging people to keep the faith and continue in well-doing, and no, you don't want to go toward anti-nomianism, which is to say, a lack of concern for God's will and for following Jesus.  But I don't think the antidote for anti-nomianism is to inject a little legalism.  I don't totally buy that walking in grace is a balancing act between legalism and anti-nomianism. 

It may feel that way, but I think that walking in the grace of the Gospel is something on a different plane from both.  Why?  Because the whole legalism-to-antinomianism spectrum really is just a rebranding of the old ladder system that the old Adam in us loves so much.  In this case, we want to make sure we are climbing the ladder to heaven, but not with so much emphasis that we appear legalistic.  A little ladder climbing, it is believed, is necessary, otherwise all hell would break loose (we imagine).  But the cross of Christ came to destroy the ladder system and create a new creation in its place.  It is a mistake, I believe, to try to fit the cross, the Gospel, onto that spectrum, into that scheme, when the cross came to do away with it.  The cross came to replace that old system with its own system!

But back to the text.  Can you see what Paul is getting at?  Regardless of what comes out of faith (which Paul would undoubtedly agree with, but which isn't discussed in that section of the epistle), faith itself is explicitly shown to be the opposite of work.  It is not something you offer to God to get something back.  It is not a good work which God requires and is thus obligated to pay "wage" for.  The Gospel is not a business agreement or transaction whereby you give God something (your good works, your "faith", or your whatever..) and then God gives you your due in response, like working at a job.

Faith is not working for a wage.  Faith is trusting the One who promises to deliver, to catch you, to justify you for the sake of the One who died to save you.  It is the recognition that I have nothing to offer and that, even if I thought I did, trying to do so would ruin the whole thing.  It is letting go of control, letting go of trying to control God through my good deeds, and resting in His grace and promise.

And I think it is here, in this different plane, in this trust, that something new is birthed.  It is here that God is no longer a boss or a task-master.  It is here that trust informs our perception of His will to the point that we want to obey Him; we trust that He has our good at heart.  There is no ladder here.  There is no, "Well, I need to be climbing at least this much (some undetermined Christian standard) so that I can be sure I'm still going to heaven."  There is only, "Do I trust Him?  What is it that He has done and promised which I trust in?  Now, what shall I do out of that?"

Incidentally, it should be noted that what James was saying in his epistle is that if there is something wrong with the fruit from your faith, then the solution isn't to add a little more works to it.  In other words, the problem isn't, at the root, a lack of works or effort.  The problem is with the faith, itself.  That faith is "dead," James would say.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Relationship or Religion?

Christianity.  Jesus.  The Christian Faith. 

How do you explain it?  Is it a religion?  Technically, it is a religion, isn't it?  The dictionary definition basically fits, and the etymology of the word (from Latin) certain fits, as well.

"No!  It's not a religion -it's a relationship" many Christians will say.  And they are right, too, in some ways.

You know... while there is major truth about it being a relationship, I really think the statement as a whole is cheesy and lame.

But even if we don't use those words, exactly, I think the distinction is important to make, though. I personally think the use of the word "relationship" is cheesy. "Relationship" in this context has become another word in the book of Christian jargon. And the phrase has, itself, become "religionized." And regardles of the etymology of the word "religion" or what the dictionary definition is, I have found it true in talking to people that "religion" generally means some kind of theism or spiritual truth that is coupled with a moral code, rituals, and rules. It is about doing, making the grade, trying to approach God or climb some kind of moral or spiritual ladder.

But Jesus didn't even come to get us "up the ladder". He came to show that there is no ladder, just a dead-end, and to die under that dead-end system and create something new when He rose. I find it almost a sign of God's sense of humor that He destroyed our "ladder" systems by coming down to us in an "eathen vessel."

So, however we want to distinguish it, I think it is important that if we are in a situation where we are explaining what it means to be a Christian that we differentiate our faith (which may technically, according to the dictionary, be a religion, and which most definitely is a relationship, an ulra-close, vulnerable, relational soul-union with a relational, tri-personal God) from "religion". Although, with how over-used "relationship" is and all the baggage that carries with it, maybe we want to differentiate ourselves from *that*, too! :)
My point is that language is tricky within the context of culture.  Words and phrases have one meaning one moment and then, some years later, that meaning is slightly (or largely) different.  Words gather dust.  They get heavier with time with all kinds of baggage and connotation.  It is just the way it is.  Take the phrase "It's not a religion, it's a relationship."  Many people have heard that a lot -I know I have.  It has lost its appeal.  It sounds empty and cheesy to me.  I don't want to describe the faith by presenting with something that I find empty and hollow and shallow.  Do you?

The tendency toward using jargon and buzz-words is understandable.  We generally assume that people in our culture are either too busy to listen to long explanations or have the attention-span of a small bunny -and we are usually right.  But one thing that is great about the Christian faith is that it transcends culture, and therefore the way it is communicated into culture should be fluid and able to meet with the culture like it has in ages past.  I think fancy people call that "contextualization."  We should be able to communicate our faith in the culture by knowing how the culture sees things and sees us.  We should be able to communiate our faith in such a way that we don't have to rely on buzz-words -at least not for more than a moment.

God Bless those info-mercial folks like the now-gone Billy Mays, but that is not how I want my faith presented to people.  I believe my faith is worth more than a few slogans and buzz-words.  I believe it is deeper, I believe it is more personal, and I believe it is more life-encompassing than a product to be sold.

Religion or relationship?  It depends who I am talking to.  But for most people I meet, I would take the time to differentiate myself from religion.