15. October 2017

Sola Fodes – Faith Alone

‘…Faith is assurance of things hoped for…’ (Hebrews 11, 1a)

The Church of Luther’s day thrived on the inherent uncertainty of the human condition. Whilst Christianity taught that it was God’s will that we should be in a ‘right relationship’ with God, that we should live lives that were ‘acceptable’ to God in return for which when we die we might go to Heaven and enjoy the benefits of an Eternal Life lived out in the presence of God; how could anyone at any moment in time be sure that this was so, is so, and would be so. The Church taught that by adhering to the Church’s teaching, especially concerning the constant attendance @ Mass, the exaggeration of the confessional, the purchasing of indulgences, such certainty could be obtained. But for Luther, it went much deeper than that, he sensed that there had to be more to it than mere ‘salvation by subscription’. He returned to his Bible and he (re)read Romans 1 especially verse 17 – ‘The righteous shall live by faith’. Luther effectively rewrote theology but he was no theologian as such; his writings are far more personal, even intimate but are the better for it. Hence this very moving description of what it means to ‘live by faith’…

“If you want to be comforted when your conscience plagues you or when you are in dire distress, then you must do nothing but grasp Christ in faith and say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me. In his wounds and death, I see my sin. In his resurrection, I see the victory over sin, death, and the devil. I see righteousness and eternal life as well. I want to see and hear nothing except him.” This is true faith in Christ and the right way to believe.” (Martin Luther: ‘Faith Alone, A Daily Devotional).

For Luther, a Christian was somebody who lived the Christian life - not to win God’s favour, not to earn one’s salvation, not to buy oneself into heaven – no, faith of itself, pure and simple has accomplished all of this; rather one lives as one lives in response to what has been already accomplished, to witness to others what it means to live by faith, to live a life that is pleasing to God. So, what is ‘faith’? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews describes it thus: ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ As such, to live the life of faith may be simple but it isn’t easy because it requires of us that we believe that which is impossible to know, to trust that which is impossible to prove. Ordinarily, seeing is believing – Thomas’s story – but Faith demands if us that believe even though we cannot see; ‘…we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen…’ (2 Cor.4, 18). That is the test of faith, but because it is as it is, faith is available to all, regardless. Faith is not dependant on knowledge, nor on one’s capacity to know – you don’t have to understand it to believe it, nor be able to understand it. Indeed, we should note well this comment from one of the most knowledgeable, most intellectual people of recent times…

“I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” (Immanuel Kant: ‘Critique of Pure Reason).

Of course, that does not mean that the Christian faith should not be presented in a way that allows it to be defended against the most robust intellectual criticism and thank God for theologians whose life’s work it is to do just this. But in the end, however ‘clever’ we might be, however ‘worldly-wise’, however ‘knowledgeable’ we might be judged to be, it comes down to this…

‘I am not skilled to understand what God has willed, what God has planned;

I only know at His right hand is one who is my Saviour.

I take God at His word and deed: Christ died to save me, this I read;

And in my heart I find a need of Him to be my Saviour.

And was there then no other way for God to take? I cannot say:

I only bless Him, day by day, who saved me through my Saviour.

That He should leave His place on high and come for sinners once to die,

You count it strange? So do not I, since I have known my Saviour.

And O that He fulfilled may see the travail of His soul in me,

And with His work contented be, as I with my dear Saviour!

Yea, living, dying, let me bring my strength, my solace from this spring,

That He who lives to be my King once died to be my Saviour.’ 

(Dora Greenwall: Hymns & Psalms 221)

It was only at the end of his ministry that Paul exclaimed, ‘I know whom I have believed’ – at the beginning, all he could say was, ‘the life I live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me & gave Himself for me.’ I sense that all of us, everyone of us without exception has a capacity for faith; more than that, that all of us, everyone of us without exception has a need to believe; that all of us, everyone of us realises that we are more than just a mind inside a body – there is more to us than a ‘ghost in a machine’.

“It is hard to see how a great man can be an atheist. Without the sustaining influence of faith in a divine power we could have little faith in ourselves. We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love. Doubters do not achieve; sceptics do not contribute; cynics do not create. Faith is the great motive power, and no man realizes his full possibilities unless he has the deep conviction that life is eternally important, and that his work, well done, is a part of an unending plan.” (Calvin Coolidge).

The Psalmist cautions us lest ‘We put our trust in Princes’, The Gospel dares us to put our faith in God, the God revealed in Jesus...

“It is not great faith, but true faith, that saves; and the salvation lies not in the faith, but in the Christ in whom faith trusts...It is not the measure of faith, but the sincerity of faith, which is the point to be considered.” (Charles H. Spurgeon: ‘Of all Grace’).

By God’s grace we are able to have faith – ‘By Grace we are saved, through faith, and that not of ourselves’ – The miracle of Grace, that God has ‘faith’ in us to fulfil the Divine purpose: God trust us, we should trust God.