Monday, July 24, 2006

Examining "faith alone"


I sometimes listen to Laura Ingraham, a conservative radio talk show host who is passionate about many political issues. Sometimes her passion really hits the nail on the head. However, there is an aspect to her approach to dialogue in politics that makes me cringe. Laura Ingraham counts herself as part of a "red state" American populism that is suspicious of intellectual elites who are fusty with learning, turgid and indecisive. To Laura, these "elites" are so full of binary opposites and relative viewpoints that they are incapable of moral clarity and good old Yankee common sense.

To Laura, when a politician tries to qualify a statement with an exception or a counter-principle using the terms "but", "however", "unfortunely" or any number of other related terms (i.e. "...enforcing the border is good, but we can't afford it...), in her understanding, the politician is being wishy-washy. In her understanding, the politician is trying to "have it both ways" by appealing to the feelings of parties on both sides of an issues while really trying to advance only one side of the issue. She refers to the use of these qualifying terms as "but monkeys", "however monkeys", etc... This sentiment places her in the constituent of GW Bush who, like GW, doesn't "do nuance".

Language is an imperfect way of dealing with issues and concepts that operate multi-dimensionally. To illustrate this, imagine that you were trying to describe a cube to someone who had no concept of a cube. Let's say that this person only knew about the concepts of squares and angles, and you were only allowed to use words to try to describe the cube. Your attempt to describe the cube might look something like this,

"A cube is made of six squares where the edge of each of square meets the edge of another square in the cube. To conceive of this, image that you are looking at one of its squares. Let's call the square you are looking at the "face square". The "face square" has squares adjacent to each of its four edges. Each adjacent square extends out of each edge of the "face square" at a 90 degree angle to the face. Depending on what side of the cube you're looking at, each square of the cube is a "face square". If you look at a face square head on, it will look like a square. However, if you look at a "face square" from an angle you will see what looks in two dimensions like three rhombus' adjacent to each other."

If the person you were describing the cube to were in the mold of Laura Ingraham, he/she might respond saying,

"Ahem. You're saying that each square of the cube is a face square depending on how you look at it? You're saying that a cube can looks like a square. However (monkey!) it can also look like three rhombus'? Seems like you're being a bit wishy-washy to me!"

It should be obvious from the example of the cube that if one habitually criticizes the use of words "but" and "however" by ridiculing them as "however monkeys" and "but monkeys", one is hamstringing one's ability to handle any conceptual complexity. This is a frustrating when it is part of our political discourse. It is also frustrating when a similar mentality is part of the discourse on Christianity.

The complementary idea to hating "but monkeys" and "however monkeys" is to mis-apply the the word "only". In trying to explain the Trinity to a Muslim, a Christian might say, "God is one, but He is also three persons". A Muslim person will confront the idea of the Trinity by saying, "That's blasphemous. There is only one God", thereby treating the Christians use of the word "but" in this context as a "but monkey". For the Muslim, the Trinitarian idea that God is three persons in one perishes on the word "only".

When one uses the word "only", one is attempting to clarify a relationship between two things, the included thing and the excluded thing. If I say that I was only using the example of a politician making a statement regarding the border to illustrate an example, not to hint at my opinion, I am making it clear that the included thing is the example and the excluded thing is my opinion on border security. If a Christian says that we are saved "only by faith" and "only by grace" without explaining what the only is excluding he/she is assuming that the reader or hearer already knows what is being excluded. The problem here is that there is more confusion and ambiguity in regard to these issues as to what is being excluded than the Christian saying "only by faith" and "only by grace" is willing to deal with. It is in this ambiguity that theological issues are at stake.


When a Christians says, "we are saved by faith alone", they are assuming that they are excluding the idea that we are saved by "works" as a quid pro quo wherein we put God in our debt after having completed the work. The problem here is that the idea of putting God in our debt via fulfilling a contractual obligation is not a matter that is debated among Christians.

Here is what is debated. On the idea that we are saved by "faith alone", saving "faith" can mean
a) a person's one time confession of Christ as Lord and Savior in words and in the heart
b) a person's ongoing confession of Christ as Lord and Savior without regard to his behavior
c) a person's one time sincere trusting faith in Christ's lordship over his heart and behavior
d) a person's continual trusting faith in Christ's lordship over his heart and behavior

It is in the context of understanding these different views of "faith alone" that I will explain why a correct Scriptural understanding of saving "faith" is defined by d) a person's continual trusting faith in Christ's lordship over his heart and behavior. I will also explain how "faith alone" is often used to mean something less than that.

To begin to understand why "faith alone" often leads to jaundiced doctrine and discipleship and people not having the "obedience that comes through faith" that Paul calls us to in Romans 1:5, one must understand that "faith alone" is a Calvinist salvo in a battle between Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinism emphasizes God's exclusive agency in our salvation, while Arminianism emphasizes the role that our ongoing choices play in our salvation. Arminianism is anathema to Calvinists because it diminishes God's sovereignty. Calvinism is anathema to Arminianism because it diminishes the gravity of our choices and actions. Though this may sound like anathema to both Arminians and Cavinists, Arminians and TULIP Calvinism both contain aspects of Scriptural truth. Going back to the cube described in words analogy, pitting the idea that a cube can look like a square against the idea that it can look like three rhombus' is a debate in two dimensions that is silly and irrelevant in three dimensions.

That is precisely how the truths in Arminianism and 5 points Calvinism are now. The truths that are contained on each side are pitted against each other because there is a dimensional perspective on Scripture that is missing in this debate. The solution to reconciling the truth in each side and the Scriptures that are used to buttress each side is to understand that Scripture presents us with a dual reality, both metaphysical and existential.

Make the best decision you can make so that you end up doing what God knew you were going to do all along. God is sovereign over all reality, but on the existential level of our experience, we experience the mystery of the unknown and the very real consequences of not making the right decisions. Jesus said that he who perseveres to the end with be saved. Jesus also said that God is the one who draws people to Him according to whom He has written in His book of Life. Here, one Scripture seems to emphasize man's need to persevere, while the other emphasizes God's exclusive agency in one's discipleship, sanctification and salvation. How do we reconcile this paradox for the purposes of our discipleship? It is in the dual reality that Scripture presents to us.

In the dual reality, God has chosen whom He will draw to Him -- the pull-- and God has chosen who has the "nobility of heart" as Jesus spoke of to steadfastly follow through on that calling -- the push. It is those who have been given the grace of both push and pull who are saved. Metaphysically speaking, the grace is irresistable in the sense that it is authored only by God, since God is the one who unconditionally bestows both the grace of push and pull on His elect. Existentially though, we do not always experience that grace irresistably in our daily lives. In the existential reality, we must employ our will to push as hard as we can to confront powerful temptations (Luke 13:24 and 2 Peter 3:14). As C.S. Lewis said, we can only "not try"-- in the sense of experiencing God's sovereign power coming along side us to free us from temptation-- when we are in the midst of trying as hard as we can.

In the dual reality, it is "too wonderful" a thing for us to dwell on who has or who has not been given this combination of pull and push from God. What is essential for us to dwell on is how, today, in the dual reality, we can better push to engage and follow the pull of God that is within us. Existentially, the consequences of our choosing are real and the outcome of our salvation on a personal level--as we experience it existentially, will contain an element of uncertainty until the day we die, even as God may have been certain about it all along.

The central problem that many 5 point Calvinists have is improperly importing the ultimate metaphysical reality of God's sovereignty into the existential realm of our existence. God, being certain to himself and mysterious to us, perseveres to pull those whom he has fore-ordained to have the "push". Calvinists who import that certainty that God has in regard to His elect into their existential existence of their discipleship can have an undue confidence in the certainty of their personal salvation, i.e. that God has chosen me and will persevere with me. This is a theological flaw that improperly imports the idea of God unconditionality into one's discipleship.

Now it may, in fact, be true that God has chosen me and will persevere with me as one of His unconditionally chosen elect. However, as an existential reality, my daily receiving and engaging the pull of God is not unconditional on my part. Metaphysically, God may have fore-ordained my ability to push to the end on the basis of no prior merit on my part--unconditionally--and may have given me justification of my sins through Christ' s death and ressurection on the basis of no merit on my part -- unconditionally. I, in the existential reality, nevertheless need to choose to consummate the pull of God by pushing as hard as I can. I need to engage in this push daily to "make my election sure" (2 Peter 1:10) lest I prove to be one who was never fore-ordained with the adequate amount of push and pull to begin with.

Here, "my election" is not my election from the perspective of God's ultimate metaphysical reality but from my existential reality. I cannot make God's election of me sure in a pure metaphysical sense -- only God can do that, having predestined His elect at the beginning of time. I can, however, consummate God's pull in me as I push into God. There I find assurance in God that His pull in me is indicative of His metaphysical election of me, thereby making His metaphysical election of me "sure" to me from my existential vantage point.

It is in trying to deal with this tension that Martin Luther said "It is faith alone that saves, but faith that saves is not alone." The essense of the faith that is not alone is the faith is our daily push into God. We push into God trusting that His pull on us is the act of His sovereign love and leading. In this way, we engage God's sovereignty daily in an active way that engages God's sovereignty with the full existential experience of the will and choice that He has given us. It is in pushing into God as an act of trust in His sovereignty that obedience makes any sense in the context of faith. It is our whole selves, body, heart, and mind pushing into God that we "work" and "pick up the plow" (Luke 9:62). It is our push into God as an act of trust in His sovereignty, as our push is manifested in emotional, physical and spiritual action, that our faith-that-involves-work is not the heresy of "justification by works".

Existentially, we push into Jesus not to earn our justification as thing to earned. Rather, we push into Jesus the way a man digs in the ground to find free treasure that he believes is there and knows will save his life. Existentially, we also push to avoid falling into temptation and to thus avoid the very real possibility of our sanctification getting derailed. And, yes, connected to the possibility of losing our potential--as potential is perceived existentially by us -- to be justified. Again, the metaphysical certainty that God has regarding our election one way or the other is not completely available to us. Our justification is not something to be earned as a quid pro quo to God, but we must persevere to in our sanctification to the end -- to finish the race: this, so that our election, and the justification that comes with it, is made sure to us. It is in persevering to the end and finishing the race that we bring the metaphysical certainty--certainty that God may have always had regarding our election--into the realm of our existential existence and through it when our existential existence ends as we pass from earth to heaven (there, in heaven, the earthly distinction between existential and metaphysical will be no longer).

God has created our existential existence with uncertainty built into it so that we must experience the act of choosing, while we also experience the real sense of having been saved. This assurance to us via the peace that passes understanding from the Holy Spirit is our seal of assurance gauranteeing our inheritance of salvation. From a metaphysical perspective, election is unconditional. From an existential perspective, we experience reality with uncertainty, and this assurance from the Holy Spirit confronts our uncertainty with assurance. The Holy Spirit is the deposit gauranteeing our inheritance, though it is, existentially, a gaurantee that is conditional on us remaining in the Spirit and not grieving the Spirit.

Paul says, "...and the peace that passes understanding will keep you in the knowledge and love of Christ." (Phillipians 4:7). Here, the Holy Spirit operating in our hearts is God's "pull", while making every effort to guard our hearts to remain in the Spirit is our "push". Here, the Holy Spirit is an active sealer in our lives, not a passive one, empowering us to persevere to the end. Those who reject the idea of this existential conditionality of the seal read Ephesians 1:13-14 without also reading Ephesians 5:5. It is in Ephesians 5:5 that Paul intentionally repeats the word "inheritance" to connect the consequences of immorality to his use of the word "inheritance" earlier in the passage in Eph. 1:13-14. Those who reject the idea of the existential conditionality of the seal read Romans 10:9 without also reading Romans 11:22. Those who reject the existential conditionality of the seal of our inheritance end up doing to their doctrine what Thomas Jefferson did with his scissors -- cutting out the parts of the New Testament that one doesn't like.

It is the rejection of the existential uncertainty that exists in one's salvation along one's journey to the end of one's life that leads one to look backward at one's first moment of decision as a sign that one has been saved for all time, thereby ensuring God's unending and unconditional perseverance in securing one's salvation. This flawed theology stems from a Calvinist doctrinal emphasis on "faith alone" and the unconditionality of God's love that has gone awry and is not integrated into the rest of Scripture. This "Decision Theology" says that the consequence of the initial decision (confess with the tongue, believe with your heart) determines one's salvation (fire insurance) while the consequence of every subsequent decision determines one's reward in heaven -- meaning that if one only made an initial decision for Christ and did nothing else henceforth, that one would have fire insurance without the reward. This understanding does not place Christians properly in the existential realm of choice and consequence and results in Christians shirking the spiritual work-that-is-not-works that is the saving faith that Jesus calls His disciples to. It is this work-that-is-not-works of obedience in faith that one truly submits to Jesus as Lord and grasps what Paul means in Romans 10:9 to confess with the tongue and believe with the heart (heart in the Hebrew idea as being the center of the will, mind and emotion) as an ongoing practice.

In the intellectual battle to crush the notion of quid pro quo, of working to earn one's salvation, Calvin displayed God as the only real actor in human redemption. This is half true. It is true in the ultimate metaphysical sense but it is not true on a existential level, where there are real consequences to disciples pushing or not pushing properly into God daily. As such, it has inhibited many Calvinists from fully embracing the spiritual work ethic that Jesus displayed and taught that has the right blend of push and pull. This imbalance contributes to the jaundiced discipleship of many Calvinists being the "frozen chosen" who harbor a doctrine of God's sovereignty without embracing push that Jesus calls us to. Here, "faith alone" is the frozen chosen belief that faith that "faith" means merely asserting the doctrine of justification via Christ's death and ressurection on a regular basis.

When we push into God in faith, pushing into God in obedience thought, word and deed, we are trusting that God has our best interests at heart. We trust God with our itches, the itches that our sinful self wants to stratch with disobedience. We also trust God with our fears when our obedience puts us in places of emotional, physical and material risk. It is this daily act of trusting God in the midst of risk that is the cross that we pick up daily to follow Christ. It is in this place that we encounter God who is the One whom the doctrine points to. Otherwise, we harbor the doctrine about the One. It is the failure to encounter the One behind the doctrine that the "frozen chosen" do not have a faith wherein the Holy Spirit is thawing their hearts into love and obedient action in the midst of risk. The peace that passes understanding is God's supernatural ministry to the itches and anxieties that we confront in ourselves as we place our trust in God daily.

It is primarily in the existential realm of our discipleship and the promises and consequences that lie there that Jesus taught and exhorted. Much of Paul's letters, especially Romans, is devoted to outlining the sophisticated metaphysics of Christianity and has been a primary source for many Calvinists' doctrine. For those who care to read Paul carefully, he does not shrink from dealing with these same promises and consequences, and does not in any way contradict Jesus (likewise Jesus deals with the metaphysics of God's sovereignty). For this reason the Christo-centric and Pauline-centric divide is a phony divide that makes both Paul and Jesus weep in heaven. However, it is a divide made real by those whose flawed theology does not properly reconcile the two. It is from a theological imbalance that Calvinists often emphasize certain teachings of the Epistles and avoid the many difficult, existential promise and consequence laden teachings of Jesus.

Arminianism embraces individual freedom and choice and the consequences that go with it, and so Arminianism does not have a problem with these difficult teachings of Jesus. The problem with Arminianism is that it takes existential truth and makes it metaphysical. Arminians believe that our choices have a direct effect on God's choices in regard to our metaphysical election. Arminianism believes that there is sufficient common grace for anyone to choose to follow Christ apart from being specifically drawn by the Father. It is an improper metaphysical understanding that Arminianism fails to grasp God's sovereignty.

It is for this reason that Arminianism is doctrinally wrong, while 5 points Calvinism is merely doctrinally incomplete. Calvinists, though, need to have humility when confronting the doctrinal wrongness of Arminianism. The doctrinal wrongness of Arminianism is wrongness in the direction of trying to deal with tough Scriptures that Calvinists often avoid in constructing their doctrine. Here, despite the metaphysical wrongness of Arminianism, Arminians often grapple with the existential reality of the Gospel more than Calvinists. It is in this context that the problem with saying "faith alone" as a Calvinist salvo in the Calvinist-Arminian war becomes obvious. "Faith alone" is uttered confidently when it is too often a substitute for dealing with the intricate relationship between faith, obedience, choice, God's sovereignty and consequence that actually exists in Scripture. What "faith alone" doesn't grapple with is this question of which idea of faith is the correct antithesis to the quid pro quo that is justification by works and is thus the saving faith that is alone. At issue is the very question of our assurance of our salvation.


blogsurfer said...

What are you looking for today?

Greg said...


Greg said...


Jackie Grumbacher said...


Jackie Grumbacher said...

Laura Ingraham is paid to push teh Republican meme that anyon who actually thinks is an intellectual who should be dismissed if not scorned. The last thing people like this want is someone who questions the absolutes that these kinds of radio personalities dish out. Thank God those who founded this country didn't have radio or we would have neither a Constitution nor the brilliant concept of a balanced government.

Ingraham's pathetic contempt for nuance reflects the attitude of the current administration, which has led to a six-year war on science with disastrous consequences for our country and the environment and to a stupifyingly awful foreign policy that uses war as the only tool of international relations.

The Christianity discussed in this blogpost is a reflection of mature thought and consideration, full of nuance and careful, although faithful, thought. It is the kind of Christianity that we are all called to reach for so that we do not enter into a relationship with God as perpetual little children. To make the most of the gifts God gave us--not the least of which is a functioning brain--is the obligation of those "made in his image."

Were we to approach our faith the way Laura Ingraham approaches the world, we would memorize little catechisms and blindly obey any self-designated earthly leaders who chance to come along. When we behave this way in politics we become blind partisan nationalists who question nothing. When we behave this way in religion we sin against the very faith we profess to believe in.