Tuesday, May 10, 2016

How do you know you are saved?

If you've got it all figured out, and are settled on all the answers, you're doing it wrong.

If you're doubting and struggling and questioning and inquiring, you're on your way.

It's unfortunate but appears to be the case that what used to be called theological inquiry is now considered by many Christians to be doubt. I wish more people who actually wonder how Jesus could be both God and man or whether he was born of a virgin could trust that, rather than this being a hindrance to their Christian faith, it is part and parcel of it, placing them in the long line of Christian theologians throughout the millennia who have contemplated such things.

I am always amazed that the dominant form of Christianity in the United States seems driven by a double sense of over-confidence in being able to judge who is saved, and who isn't, coupled with an exceptionally anxious fear concerning life after death.

It seems to say, "Don't doubt, do not question, or you may not be saved. Just believe what we believe, and judge who we judge. Faith is not about freedom, but conformity..."

As a non-conformist Lutheran, even I have to be careful that my pushback against this kind of rigid religiosity doesn't become its own kind of fear-mongering and inverted hubris.

The use of fear is, of course, an incredibly manipulative, effective and powerful tool for conformity. Make people doubt their own salvation, and you can get them to cave to many other things. They're even willing to doubt that it's okay to doubt.

One way Lutheran theology stands apart from this dominant strain is in its uncompromising commitment to the idea that faith is not our own, it is a gift, and what faith does is free us from concern for our own salvation that we might focus on our neighbor and their need instead (and so in this way is a doubled and extended gift).

For this reason, we understand the consolations of faith, the shape of faith, differently from some other traditions. For one, we understand the blessed exchange between Christ and humanity quite differently.

In the conformist tradition, God is by nature wrathful against sin and needs appeasing. We are the deserving recipients of such wrath, so God sends Jesus to cover us in his blood, and takes the brunt of God's wrath upon himself on the cross.

So there is a rupture in God--a wrathful God who needs to kill, and a gracious Jesus willing to suffer at the hands of his own Father that humanity might avoid such a fate.

This substitionary atonement model is appealing for some reason, even though it "breaks" Trinitarian theology in so many ways.

Consider an alternative. God creates all that is and calls it good. Part of that goodness is creation made in the image of God. But the image is tarnished, it falls away from the image at least in part because it is free to do so. God, in great love for that which God has created, send God's heart, the Son, to make that creation part of Godself.  Creation itself, and humanity in particular, so distanced by its own turpitude from its creator, rejects the Son, and kills him.

No need to blame God for the death of Jesus. We did a fine job killing him ourselves. He still takes our place, but he takes our place in a different sense, not as a buffer for God's wrath, but instead rejected by us precisely because he is in himself the restoration of full humanity and creation itself.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:21). This sentence makes all the difference, and how we hear it depends in large part on whether we think it Christ against God redeeming sinful humanity in spite of God, or whether it is Christ with God taking on sin in order to gather all things up into God, occupying our place that we might occupy his.

So in this sense, what is faith? There's kind of an old mystical model around that thinks that faith goes from reading and hearing the gospel, to meditating on it, and then in comfortable contemplation ascending towards some mystical union with God (either now or in eternity).

That's a nice picture, but it doesn't comport much with the biblical witness. Which is why Luther tended to correct that divine notion with an alternative one, that faith is not about rapture with God, but rather faith is about hearing, meditating, and then suffering the text (tentatio). Faith is tension and struggle because inasmuch as we are gathered up into Christ, we now participate in Christ's redeeming work of restoring the fallen creation.

This is why Paul can go so far as to say, "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col. 1:24).  So...

  • Faith is not about escaping punishment when we die. This turns belief or faith itself into a work. This is the kind of thing the Protestant Reformation tried to correct rather than perpetuate. You aren't going to be saved by having especially strong faith. 
  • Faith is not about heroic facility with our intuition of the ultimate. I think a lot of us keep wishing we felt like God were closer to us more frequently, having deep mystical communion with God. But watch out what you hope for. Such mystical communion often comes with a price. And in any event, it is the ordinary of life that will be the majority of our lot, and we're wiser finding God there than when we're high or caught up to the seventh heaven. 
  • Faith is not a constant sense of God's proximity. Remember that many of the great saints of the church remarked how distant they felt from God, not how close. There are likely many reasons for this, including the fact that they were willing to engage in struggle, and go serve among the people and in the contexts where the world assumed God wasn't. But feeling distant from God is not a mark of unbelief. Instead, it's an example of call, and struggle, and prayer. 
So then what is faith, if it isn't these things?
  • Faith is curiosity and questions. If you're really inquisitive, and wonder whether you can believe certain things or how particular aspects of Christianity work, then kapow!, you're actually in a relationship, you're interested, you may even be in love. You're on your way.
  • Faith is a turn to the neighbor. I think often people assume that faith is supposed to turn us towards God. Quite the opposite, inasmuch as faith leads us to deep trust in God, the result is a turn towards the neighbor, set free to serve them in their every need.
  • Faith is struggle. Faith is not relaxation, or ease, or inaction. True faith turns us so far towards the neighbor that we are dissatisfied with the current world as it is in its continuing separation from God. "The gospel is the announcement of the arrival and power of God's right-wising, transformative justice in Jesus Christ" (Becoming the Gospel, 8).
If you think faith means you've got it all settled, and you're all good, then try again. The best of the Christian tradition indicates that true faith is faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum).

You aren't saved if you're ignoring this life and simply waiting for a salvation to come.

Heaven starts now.

Faith is struggle.


  1. I like to think about faith in this way: faith is relational trust.

    A messenger arrives and says; "There is this person, this living person named Jesus, and he is at this moment addressing you and saying "Don't be afraid. I've got you covered. Everything is going to be okay. Trust me."

    The hearer receives that message, and somewhere within their anxiety decreases. Why? Why does their anxiety decrease? Because they believe him (Jesus). They trust that what he is saying *to them* is true *for them.*

    That little sigh of emotional relief is the outward sign of the inward reality of trust, of faith, in Jesus.

  2. This post....wow...thank you.

  3. "No need to blame God for the death of Jesus. We did a fine job killing him ourselves. He still takes our place, but he takes our place in a different sense, not as a buffer for God's wrath, but instead rejected by us precisely because he is in himself the restoration of full humanity and creation itself." Exactly -- although I suspect God knew all along that human beings (especially powerful human beings) could not handle God made flesh in Jesus. Jesus came anyway in spite of the welcome he was sure to receive.