Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bad Words in Church: "Saving Faith"

I'm going to start a little series of posts about sloppy church language. You know: Stuff that we say and keep on saying which perhaps at one time offered an important point of clarification but with overuse has become misleading and stereotype-feeding and even detrimental to the Church's self-understanding. When they get that far they become bad words. And for all our infamous concern for swearing, I think these ought to concern us at least as much if not more.

So this series is about pointing out a few places where I think we've coloured way out of the lines, perhaps in the small hope that I can sort out the caricature from the portrait, at least for myself. Feel free to push me, point out the silver lining in the language, rebuke me for my smarty pants cynicism, or praise my genius. Anyone who can do all of that in one comment gets bonus points. I don't know if I'll do this series over time or all at once, but there's your intro. You'll recognize them when you see them. So without further ado, today's bad words are "saving faith".

The other day I was asked what it meant to believe in Jesus Christ, and I described belief, or "saving faith" as essentially a kind of "living trust". Moments later I sat myself down to read and had a decades old challenge land squarely on the chin, dealt by none other than Karl Barth (yeah this is happening to me a lot lately). In Church Dogmatics IV.1, he is preparing to address the issue of "justification by faith alone", and precedes his answer to the question by describing what Christian faith is not. See what you think:

"Justification by faith" cannot mean that instead of his customary evil works and in place of all kinds of supposed good works man chooses and accomplishes the work of faith, in this way pardoning and therefore justifying himself. As his action, the action of sinful man, faith cannot do this.

Nor does it make any odds whether a man means by faith a mere knowledge and intellectual understanding . . . , or an assent of the mind and will . . . , or finally a heart's trust in the significance of the work for himself . . . . It is not in and with all this that a man justifies himself . . .

There is always something wrong and misleading when the faith of a man is referred to as his way of salvation in contrast to his way in wicked works, or his way of true salvation in contrast to his way in the supposed good works of false faith and superstition. Faith is not an alternative to these other ways. It is not the way which . . . . he can choose and enter by the same capacity by which he might go any other way. Even in the action of faith he is the sinful man who as such is not in a position to justify himself . . . .

Even as a believer he can represent himself to God only as the one he is in virtue of his past, only with the request: "God be merciful to me, a sinner."

He is as little justified in faith as in his other good or evil works. He needs justification just as much in faith as anywhere else, as in the totality of his being. . . . The image of himself as a believer---in so far as he has time and the desire to concern himself with it---can only incite and impel him to that other request: "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mk. 9:24). There is as little praise of man on the basis of his faith as on that of his works.

For there is as little justification of man "by"---that is to say, by means of---the faith produced by him, by his treading the way of faith, by his achievement of the emotions and thoughts and acts of faith, by his whole consciousness of faith and life of faith, as there is a justification "by" any other works. Faith is not at all the supreme and true and finally successful form of self-justification.

If it tried to be this, if man tried to believe with this purpose and intention and claim, then even if his faith was not a "dead" faith, even if it was a most "hearty" faith, even if it was fiduciary faith most active in love, it would be the supreme and most proper form of his sin as the sin of pride. . . . It is the enterprise and conduct of a Pharisaism which is the most evil Pharisaism of all: the Pharisaism of the publican [cf. Lk 18:9-14].

It may well happen that the most audacious man of works, the Christian or secular pietist or activist, will go back to his house justified rather than this man: not by his little works but because---who can tell?---there is perhaps behind his works in some hidden form a real faith which is completely lacking in the one who simply justifies himself in all his righteousness of faith (pp. 615-617).

I'm not sure I need to add to that. He didn't use these words, but dispelled them pretty clearly. In terms of Christian speech about redemption, "saving" is not a verb which allows our faith as its subject. Neither is it an adjective which has faith as its noun.

Barth said a lot more there as well, and as a contemporary evangelical I think I must stand under his rebuke and challenge.


Nathan said...

I've wondered about this lately. I'm increasingly puzzled by the reformed struggle to guard faith against being a righteous work - or a work at all. Mainly because the NT writers seem so much less concerned about this - even (especially, in one sense) Paul. I wonder if we've often confused faith as a righteous act set as a condition of our salvation by God with faith that would actually earn / merit God's salvation. The two are not necessarily the same thing. I actually think that has a lot to do with the univocal scriptural witness that judgment is by works alone, not faith.

That said, I think there's something in what Barth is saying about faith itself being insufficient - that God's mercy is still the primary thing.

Jon Coutts said...

I suppose it is an issue because when faith becomes this act-that-makes-salvation-happen, then it quickly causes one to wonder why Jesus is needed at all. Faith is the point, and it can be something learned.

And to get practical, our concern becomes all wrapped up with making the conditions ripe for that decisive moment of "saving faith" and its perpetuation, so that everything rides on the individual's decision and sincerity, and on the church's ability to conjur that up. Hence the seeker service, the "worship" song, and the testimony of faith, none of which really has to speak of Jesus at all.

Certainly there is something on the human side which appropriates or receives salvation, and it is the reception of faith, but I think Barth is trying to make clear something that gets lost in all the focus on faith among Reformers---and that is that salvation is entirely the work of God, and that faith is not measurable or identifiable in others, let alone even oneself. It is precisely in its helplessness as a non-act that it is faith.

As for the NT, I hear ya. Barth in this section does analyze Paul's preference to speaking of the "righteousness of God" rather than the "righteousness of faith", and says it underlines this very distinction.

Works are always an important part of being saved, since being saved is a life, not a decision that clinches some sort of benefit. However, Barth is going to say, and I'm going to agree with him, I think, that works and faith are of the same genre---thankful, unanxious obedience, active and moment to moment surrender to what is ultimately the work of God. Sharing in it, rather than duplicating, imitating, or multiplying it.

Stewart said...

Oh yes...good post this (as are all your other ones!). The word- faith movement puts much stock in much so that they see faith as a force in and of itself...and thus faith becomes a work in their context. Saving faith is only possible because of a Savior...the faith part is merely our unconditional surrender to a holy, just, loving (etc.) God. So, He is the focus, not the miraculous way He's provided for us to "save" us. I like the Calvanistic flavor to this subject. I do confess some uneasiness with comparing the term "saving faith" to vulgar swearing in this sense: the vulgar swearing is intentional verbal garbage...the other is more subtle and not all the plain to others. I will grant you this though, the effective of both kinds of speech is devistating!

Jon Coutts said...

Swearing's offensiveness has mostly to do with context, in my opinion, which is why it is hard to make a definitive statement about it.

But personally it doesn't bother me that much (aside from totally out of place and degrading vulgarity).

In fact, it was only such extreme circumstances that I had in mind when I said that this theological sloppiness was "at least as much if not more" of a concern. When it comes to regular run of the mill swearing, I think that we ought to be far more concerned with our church-speech (where there is so much potential, on a regular basis, for taking the Lord's name in vain). It really ought to bring us to our knees.

Last week in a seminar we spoke of God's continuing condescension in Jesus Christ, to continue to "inhabit our praises" and allow himself to be testified by our words: We reckoned (with many Reformers) that in one sense he is crucified again every time we endeavour to speak of him, and yet raises from the dead and speaks His words of life nonetheless.

To be fair, I think most Christians would agree with the general thurst of what I'm saying here, but I doo think we sort of fall into a default offendedness far too easily in the ethos of our church foyers, and put up with sloppy God-talk far too often from our pulpits and our music stands.

Generalizations? Yeah. And I'd defend most Christians in this regard as not fitting the caricature, if given the opportunity. But it is still the prevailing ethos (in and out of the sanctuary) that I'm addressing, I think.

Jon Coutts said...

Pardon my "doo".

Anonymous said...

when faith becomes this act-that-makes-salvation-happen, then it quickly causes one to wonder why Jesus is needed at all.

Very interesting.

I feel closer to you now that you have embarked on this exploration of terms. I have found time again in my studies that these kinds of explorations lead readily to new ideas.

Anonymous said...

Jon, thanks again for taking the time to think and write and share here.
"Saving Faith"
The thing about the term that strikes me is the baggage that it carries in regard to our desire/need/obsession to be sure that people are "getting it" and "getting in".

I really struggle with the systematic way that many evangelicals have dispensed this "saving faith".
They gladly extend grace to infants who can't muster up that saving faith.
And they extend grace to those who have serious disabilities that keep them from professing that saving faith.
But then in the next breath they (some) deny it to Catholics and other Christian streams - because their faith isn't "personal".
And what about those who are bi-polar? Isn't that a serious enough "disability" to deserve an out from producing that saving faith?
And what about those who haven't heard? Being born in the "wrong place at the wrong time" seems like a pretty crappy disability to live with... There's just too many holes in the neat and tidy system that I grew up with.

The better I get to know God and get to know myself, I can't help but conclude that we're all lacking when it comes to comprehending the grace of God and properly responding to it. But yet, the Spirit gives me a peace that God's grace covers me...

Jon Coutts said...

Jon: I'm actually in a reading seminar right now which looks at profound disability in the approaches of various anthropologies and in theological anthropologies and finds them all either unsatisfying or deeply unsettling. And it tries to offer a theological anthropology and soteriology that takes a Trinitarian tack. We're not done the book yet, but it has been very illuminating---showing gaping holes in so many of presumptions of worldview.

Eric said...

Jon - I like this post a lot. It seems to me that Barth is picking up on the way we/I innately try to make faith something we do - i.e., the question instinctually becomes for a nervous, self-justifying sinner like me, "Am I really having faith? Am I thinking and feeling and intending the way a person of faith would/should?" And Barth is insightfully correcting me: faith just isn't like that. You can't set faith in the same category of good/bad works as an alternative to them; it's something quite different.

At least, that's how I understand it - am I getting him?

That being said, I wonder what's the problem with talking about "saving faith" - as long as we define what we're talking about? Annoying, I know, but anything in Christianity can be abused. Surely there's nothing with talking about that abject self-surrender and call for mercy which is true faith, which God looks on in mercy?

Or perhaps the term "saving faith" is just too easily confusing--to easily lends itself to us thinking, "It's by my faith I'm saved," rather than God looking on always-imperfect faith in mercy. Is that what you're saying?

OK, gonna stop now. Sorry for the long comment.

Jon Coutts said...

yeah, i need to probably be understood in this series that I'm not necessarily saying the words in all cases, as put together, will be useless or even bad (even though I'll push them within an inch of it to point out the problem with them). Rather, it is the way they come into common usage, and perhaps more importantly the way they lean way too heavily into what are already conceptual problems of self-understanding in (and out of) the church.

So I don't disagree that the term could be used. Barth uses it later with many qualifications, actually.

And most certainly there is the most proper used of the term "saving faith", which is to apply it to Jesus own substitutionary faithfulness on our behalf, most prominently shown to us in the Garden of Gethsemene, but extending like shockwaves from there both backwards over his whole life and the history of Israel and forwards over his death and resurrection and reconciliation of the world with himself. His faith, his faithfulness to the Father to be exact, is what ours could never be: SAVING.

As for your first paragraph, where you are saying what you like about Barth's deliniations, yeah, I think you've got him exactly. At least that's how I'm taking it and using it.

Cameron S said...

I'm very late to comment but... I wonder if this lesson from Barth helps to break down the traditional Catholic-Protestant debate between faith-alone and faith-and-works. By placing faith and works 'in the same genre' as you put it Jon, we avoid both errors of attributing the salvation of Christ to our own efforts, and divorcing Christian faith from Christian life.