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By Micah Latty | For the Clarion
I was reminded the other day that 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The central idea of the Reformation is that we are saved by faith and not by works. No need to purchase get-out-of-purgatory-free vouchers for self, family, or friends from your local priest. Through faith, Christ’s righteousness is your righteousness. “There is now no condemnation for those who dwell in Jesus Christ” (Romans 8:1).
Of course, the connection between works and salvation is not completely severed in the Average Protestant’s psyche. Faith without works is dead … even the demons believe … so we run the race of faith … and we know that X-ers and Y-ers and Z-ers will not enter the Kingdom … etc., etc.
If not for the Covenant’s prohibition of gambling, I would bet that very few Protestants (perhaps excluding vaguely-annoying-Hyper-Calvinists) actually believe that their salvation is absolutely independent of works. Prompted, most of us would say, yeah, we’re saved through Christ’s work, not our own. But few of us—day to day, moment to moment—believe that there is now nothing damnable in us (Romans 8:1, again).
There’s another problem, though. Isn’t faith work? Wouldn’t the more accurate Protestant slogan be: “We are saved not by works, but by one work”?
Perhaps belief isn’t work for everyone, everywhere. But I suspect it’s work for all thoughtful Christians living in America today. It’s work to convince yourself that you think something if that thing is as objectively uncertain as many elements of the Christian faith. It’s work to read and understand Christian apologetics that counter the default unbelief in our culture. It’s even work to defend your beliefs from other Christians who embrace a brand of Christian faith different from your own.
One is, of course, free to tap out of rigorous theological/philosophical/historical/scientific reflection on Christian faith. Perhaps this would take the “work” out of faith.
But isn’t isolating oneself from questions about ones belief itself a form of unbelief? Besides that, doesn’t checking out of reflection on Christianity and its connections to philosophy, science, and history harm one’s ability to evangelize (see Acts 17:16-34)? And besides that, doesn’t the impulse to avoid troubling ideas tend to make one less joyful, peaceful, forbearing, kind, and gentle (Galatians 5:22)—and less reflective of the qualities praised in 1 Corinthians 13:4-6?
Of course, faith isn’t supposed to be a work, it’s supposed to be a gift. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). The problems I’ve sketched above aren’t necessarily inherent in Protestant thought. They are symptoms of a slide into rather un-Protestant habits of mind.
I don’t think the Average Protestant views faith as a gift, just like I don’t think the Average Protestant understands his or her salvation to be independent of works. This is less argument than observation. We (Protestants) rarely have the air of people who have been given a gift (of faith) that we need do nothing to preserve—a gift that cannot be taken away. We fail to fully embrace the defining claim of the Reformation. The claim that we are saved through faith, not works—and not through our own faith, but through Christ’s. The good news that Christ’s righteousness is our righteousness—because Christ’s faith is our faith, bestowed upon us as an unearned gift of grace.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. . . . It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. . . . I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation [certainly not a few history or philosophy courses], will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8).
On a more-personal-than-I’m-comfortable-with ending note, I don’t know if I believe. I find that I start believing whenever I start talking to people who don’t. A strange fire kindles somewhere under my lungs, and I want them to believe—even if I don’t. And in those moments, I do believe. Perhaps I’m “just one of them old people God’s got a hold on.”
Oh love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee.