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.

No comments: