Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Logic of Faith, Part I: The Problem of Protestant Theology

[If you haven't done so, please read my previous post first.]

The question that was tormenting me (at least when I did think about it seriously) was Do I really believe in Jesus? Do I believe enough? I suppose that was due in part to the traditional Protestant "logic of faith," as Phillip Cary of Eastern University calls it:*

Major premise: Whoever believes in Jesus is saved.
Minor premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

This major premise is rooted in texts such as Mark 16:16, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." Much of current Protestant evangelicalism revolves around this and its minor premise, which introspectively seeks and discovers, "I have faith." I think that John Calvin and subsequent Reformers had a lot to do with this. They teach that God has chosen from before time a fixed number of people for salvation: "God chose you from the beginning to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. To this he called you through the gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; cf. Ephesians 1:4-6; Romans 8:28-9:24; 11:5). All those whom God has sovereignly chosen to save, he does so by bringing them into fellowship or "union" with Christ through faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This faith is created by the preaching of the gospel, through which the Spirit "calls" people into new life with Christ (cf. Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 1:9).**

This "calling" is usually referred to in some sort of conversion experience when people become aware of their need for a Mediator and God's perfect provision of one in his Son. The situation then becomes: If only the elect have faith by means of their spiritual calling and conversion, how can I be sure I have faith? Assurance of my salvation becomes a matter of discovering whether or not I'm among the elect, which I would know by whether or not I have faith.

Now Scripture presents a lot of evidence that someone is genuine in his faith, and I hope to address some relevant passages later (most notably, perhaps, Romans 8:12-17). But the problem of this "Protesant logic" is this: To know that I am saved I must not only believe that God's covenant promises are fulfilled in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20); I must also know and be aware that I believe. In essence, to find rest in God's redemptive mercy and know that it encompasses me, I must not only possess faith but also be aware that I possess it. Faith is therefore a subjective and self-reflective act. Protestants therefore await some sort of "inner call" or testimony of the Holy Spirit which confirms our calling and election or, "the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8:16). (Calvin would, of course, insist that this "inner call" is simply the act of regeneration itself, a one-time event that believers need not seek out again. It has been more the work of later revivalists who have brought one's "inner life" into greater focus.)

The first problem with this, as I see it, is that it causes us to look at ourselves entirely too much. Faith is no longer looking away from myself to Christ--away from my own resources, commitments, and decisions and toward those of the living Son of God. It is now directed toward both God and myself. I must know that I am "doing what faith would do" and living how a "true believer" would live. And if I'm not looking to my works and deeds, fruits of the Spirit through they may be, then perhaps I'll be alternately directed to find assurance of salvation/election in my feelings and emotions.

It's not that there is no place for these things. The apostle Peter stresses that by increasing godly character we may confirm our calling and election (2 Peter 1:3-11). Paul says much the same. We also read in the Bible that true believers have love toward God and joy in him. But are these, in fact, what the Scriptures teach as to the true source of our assurance? I'm not sure. Hang on and find out (I hope).

*Much fodder for this comes from Dr. Phillip Cary's essay "Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise" (Pro Ecclesia 14:4, Fall 2005), 447-486.

** See John Murray's excellent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied for a sound description and defense of election, effectual inner calling, and regeneration.

How do I know I am saved?

In a ridiculously lengthy but fruitful series of comments left on a recent post on Susan's (a.k.a. Halfmom) blog, the topic of "assurance of salvation" was brought up in this way:

People who have been saved seem to know they have been saved. Since I have no idea whether I am saved or not, I presume I am not.

My sympathies go out to Estelle and all those who wrestle with such painful doubts. The reason is: I too was torn up over this very issue. All my life I grew up believing that everyone who believes that Jesus Christ died for the forgiveness of his sins (the believing person's sins, not Jesus') would have the gift of eternal life (e.g., John 3:16). But during my freshman and sophomore years at Michigan State, a nagging doubt crept up from time to time: Do I really believe that? What does it really mean to believe? Do I believe it enough? Faced with the reality of a hell of eternal torment that would never, ever cease, I had cause for alarm.

In addition, a few things I've read recently have really provoked me to think more deeply about assurance of salvation and the nature of faith. If we are justified through faith, if faith is what unites us to Christ and keeps us in communion with all his benefits, then what is such a "saving faith"? Can I or should I know that I possess saving faith? This is a matter of no small importance, for it is our Father's desire that we "draw near [to God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (Hebrews 10:22). We as rebellious covenant-breakers need assurance that we have found pardon and rest in Christ if we are to rightly glorify God's mercy at the Cross.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Alpha and Omega

I'm in a little bit of "deep water" right now. Whether due to miscommunication or misunderstanding, I'll have to wait several weeks before obtaining an Illinois provisional teaching certificate. (I was told it could be up to eight weeks.) What that means for me is that until I receive it, I'll be working only a "substitute" for decreased pay and no benefits. But just when I find it easy to freak out in anxiety and forget my Father, I need to remember a "bumper sticker" from my friend Jenn's Facebook profile:

(Sorry it's kind of small.) I don't know if this is some sort of kitsch slogan, but either way I believe these are sound words to live by. When we live by Jesus' words, that he is the Alpha and the Omega, we have to acknowledge that no matter how big are our problems or how perilous our evils, it is God who got not only the first word, but also the last. The reality of every evil, difficulty, and anxiety is encompassed by even greater God-reality. He conquers over all our woes, and he will bring all those who trust in his Son with him to outlive them all in the end. We won't live bump-free lives, but we know that the bumps aren't the whole story; God, our loving and supremely powerful Father, is. Even now he weathers storms with us and carries us through, and in hope he will bring us home in the end.

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God?"
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
(Isaiah 40:27-28)