Sola Fides: A Wesleyan Pastor’s Return to Faith

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I grew up in what some people still call a faith tradition.  I was taught that it is by grace we have been saved (read Romans) and that grace is sort of activated through faith.  That is standard 4 year old Sunday School terminology in the Evangelical world.

It was reinforced in every grade and every age until I went to college where over time faith took a back seat to every Wesleyan’s favorite buzz word, “love.”  In college and seminary we talked a lot about love.  Love became that word that both began and ended all theological discussions and debates.

So now when I read Scripture my head just naturally bolds and underlines the word “love” in the text.  If love appears in any pericope, I know what my sermon is going to be about.  If it doesn’t appear, I try hard to make it appear, sometimes a bit too hard.

And I think our tradition is justified in that hermeneutic.  After all the great Apostle Paul himself said, “Now three things remain:  Faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is more important than faith, more important than grace, more important than doctrine and knowledge and data.  Love is the crowning virtue, the eternal truth, the reconciling doctrine.  See, just that one verse is enough to get me waxing poetic about love.  I guess you could say that I am in love with love.

And to my great frustration, it would seem the other half of evangelicalism, namely the Calvinist half, doesn’t agree with us Wesleyans on that.  Actually the Calvinists have become so numerous in Evangelical circles that they are not half of us.  They are 9/10s of the movement.

And this huge majority just likes faith better than love.  They talk about it more.  They bold and underline “faith” in the text.  if faith isn’t in the text they find a way to put it there.  And every one of their sermons quickly follow behind, adopting the mantra, “believe or be damned.”  Now, I know that is not a fair generalization but it does seem to at least describe the majority of their tradition.

Lately as I have been reading and studying Exodus, and through Exodus revisiting what Paul has to say about laws, works, circumcision, Abraham, Moses and the old covenant, I have rediscovered they may be onto something.  Faith has incredible value.  After all, “Abraham had faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

As I have studied that one verse and how Paul uses it, I have come to believe that faith didn’t allow God to overlook Abraham’s sins, but faith made Abraham stop sinning.  Faith is what makes us holy and righteous.  Faith is what makes us innocent, though we be guilty.  Simply put, as a good Arminian, this is imparted righteousness, not just imputed.

If I am right about this, that means faith is about holiness and holiness, in turn, is activated by faith.  If we want to express holy love, we must first trust God.  In fact, love without trust is not very loving.  You might say that faith without works is dead and love without faith is six feet under.

And therein lies one of the problems of the entire Evangelical tradition.  The great Reformers, Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, fully understood that faith meant trust.  But their heirs, gradually over many centuries, started defining faith as a mental assent to doctrine.  So now when we talk about faith, we are not preaching trust, we are instead claiming that “by correct doctrine you are saved, not works.”

As I have talked to people who preach this false faith, I have come to believe that they think the entrance room to heaven is going to be an SAT exam room.  You will be given a test with a bunch of true false and multiple choice questions and if you don’t pass it, you are going the other way.

But faith isn’t about doctrine.  It is about trust.  We trust God like we would trust any employer, any parent, hopefully any spouse.  We trust that God has our best and the best of the world in mind.  We trust that God created the cosmos and so can save said cosmos.  We trust God to provide for us when we are starving in a desert.  We trust God not to kill us for petty reasons.  We trust this God to heal us, if not in the present, than in eternity.  And, yes, we trust God to raise us from the dead after sin has claimed our mortal lives.

Faith is all about trust.  And when we trust God enough to enter into a loving relationship with God, we become holy.  God’s holy love emanates out to us and saturates us so that we become a people not defined by our hatreds or lusts but by a trusting obedience in the God who created us and everything else.

Correct doctrine will not save you.  The tongues of men and of angels will not save you.  Good works definitely won’t save you.  Only God will save you and only if you trust Him and out of that trust, obey.

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Lessons Learned From Answering “Why?”

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My daughter turns 3 on Thursday.  This brings to a close a wonderful year full of growing and learning.  Last year she had mastered the words “no,” “daddy” and “mommy.”  Now she is an expert at the English language, even beginning to read it.

Last Summer we went through the “no” phase where every hour was littered with the infamous two letter “n” word.  During that phase she tried all kinds of tones and volumes, sometimes screaming, “NO!”, other times lengthening the word to “NNNNNOOOO!” and still other times whispering, “nah.”

Then we went through the “mine” phase where she laid claim to all the objects of our house.

After that her vocabulary broadened and she flled our days with, “let me do it!”

Then last November came, “why” and this phase is not going away.

“Can you please close the door?”

“Why?”

“It is time to go home.”

“Why?”

“Stop strangling your brother with a blanket!”

“Why?”

And so I am learning what every parent learns around this time, that a lot of our lives are not well philosophically thought out.  This has become evident during the 3rd round of “why” when I find myself resorting to a one word answer, “BECAUSE!”  Of course, that is not an answer at all, just a cop out.

It is unclear whether she is genuinely curious about why I do not want her to strangle her brother or if she just wants to keep doing it and knows that the one word, “why” will prolong the enjoyment.

At other times I try to figure out if she knows how annoying the question is and if she is asking it to infuriate me.  Regardless, 2 year olds do tend to be evil geniuses.

Still, I have become fascinated with how many times the answer to her “why?” lies in my personal comfort or preserving the comfort of others.

For example, earlier today we walked in our house and, with full hands, I said, “Can you please close the door for me?”

“Why?”

“Because if we don’t close the door it will let all the heat out and living in a cold house is uncomfortable.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t like the cold!”

A few days ago we had a similar conversation.

“Can you please clean up your toys?”

“Why?”

“Because I really don’t like messes.  They make me frustrated and uncomfortable and angry.”

“Why?  Why do I have to pick up my toys?”

“Because I told you I don’t like messes and also because your mom hates them as much as I do and I don’t like it when mommy gets mad.”

Or consider this conversation:

“Stop hitting your brother?”

“Why?”

“Because hitting people is mean.  It hurts them and we don’t like it when other people get oowies.”

“Why?”

I don’t know if there is actually anything lying under the surface of these conversations but thinking about them has made me wonder a lot about comfort.

Is the impetus of most of my actions the creation or preservation of comfort, either for myself or others?  Is this a bad thing?  Is the chief end of love providing for the comfort of others, or even yourself?

Be that as it may, my children are growing up in an incredibly comfortable world.  They have 3 times as many toys as the average child.  They have a warm house, good food and lots of hugs and kisses from relatives and church friends.  They have coats to keep them warm.  They have parks to play at and coats to wear if the temperature is below average.  They have warm beds and plenty of clothing.  More than that, through the internet, my wife and I have access to thousands of research studies that let us know just exactly how to increase and preserve the comfort of my children.

And I don’t know how much of this is a good thing.

Meanwhile I am reading a great book called “Renovating Holiness” that was just released this week.  The book is a compilation of essays that seek to begin new conversations on Christian Holiness.  Not surprisingly, the essays talk more about love than they do holiness because most of the contributors (myself included) believe holiness is rooted in the love of God, neighbor, enemy and all that is in between.

But I have been mindful as I read through the essays how much our theologies of love takes us back to comfort.  In the book there are upper class hipsters arguing that the 1st world hasn’t done enough to make the 3rd world comfortable.  There are internationals arguing against the evils of apartheid, slavery, terrorism and the like by making the case that those evils made people less comfortable.  And there is my essay on alcohol that considers drinking in light of how comfortable and uncomfortable alcohol makes people.  I argue that alcohol decreases comfort for addicts but for casual drinkers it increases it.  Then I call both to a holy community where their love for each other respect the comfort of both.  Now, I did not use the word comfort in my essay and I don’t think the word appears in the book.  Yet my daughter’s questions have made me realize comfort really is at the heart of the matter.

And I like comfort.  I am a big fan of warm blankets and soft beds and comfy couches.  I hate stuffy noses, headaches and sore muscles.  I like feeling water run down the back of my throat, especially first thing in the morning.  Hot showers are just short of heaven, especially after cold runs.  Caramel Brulee Lattes and Pumpkin Spice Lattes are even closer.

But is holiness really helping other people experience this level of comfort?  At its heart, is love really about forgoing a warm shower or an expensive latte so that someone else can have one?

I think, probably, yes.

But I am not quite so sure I could tell you “why?”

What’s Pastor Kevin Listening To: Mumford and Son’s “Not With Haste”

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I was at the county fair this morning and ran into a wonderful family from my church.  Their sons were in the sheep showmanship competition and did rather well.  While we watched the kids and the sheep (no pun intended) their mom gleefully informed me that there had a been a singing competition the night before and that the winners had both sung “Christian” songs.

I was delighted that the Christians had thrown down on those lousy non Christians.  I was even more delighted to find out that these songs had invited Jesus into their hearts to be their personal Lord and Savior.  I am so glad to know that the sins of these songs had been forgiven so that they could go to heaven when they die.  Certainly this is a sign of God’s great grace because most Christian songs I know have a lot of sins that need forgiving, like generic melodies, random key changes, less than clever lyrics and annoying vocals.  Still I am less excited about the prospect of these songs getting into heaven, or thinking these songs are the only ones we will sing there.

But it got me thinking about N.T. Wright and how he argues in “Surprised By Hope” that many expressions of every culture will survive Jesus’ second coming and be performed and enjoyed in the New Jerusalem.  I don’t think that will be limited to “Christian” music.  In fact, the lines we draw between secular and religious are weak human attempts to divide God off from the world that God wants to save.

Mumford and Sons’ album “Babel” does a lot to undo those frivolous lines.  Are these songs about a religious pilgrimage or a broken romantic relationship or both?  You can find scores of internet forums debating that question.

Being a pastor I have found the songs speak to my faith in ways “Christian” music seldom does.  And while I could write a 2 week long series in which I review each song individually, I will stick to the one that brings that album home at the very end.  After the highs (“I Will Wait” and “Lovers of the Light”) and lows (“Hopeless Wanderer” and “Broken Crown”), a brilliantly simple ballad called “Not With Haste” proclaims, “We will run and sing.  You will dance with me.  We’ll fulfill our dreams and we’ll be free.  We will be who we are and they’ll heal our scars.  Sadness will be far away.”

While many hear in those words the benefits of a healthy romantic relationship, I instead hear echoes of the New Creation.  In fact this week I told my wife that it might be one of the best songs about heaven I have ever heard.  For when we talk about the kingdom that is coming we are talking about being free and fulfilling dreams and sadness being far away.

And when Jesus comes we will certainly “be who we are.”  God didn’t create us to bear the scars we bear or wound others the way we do.  True humanity is not sinful.  We were made for love.  So when Mumford and Son’s proclaim, “we will be who we are” they might be talking about the freedom that arises from being and doing what you were created to do.

Beyond that the song is ultimately about hope.  Both secular and religious alike agree on that.  One internet comment I found proclaimed, “These are such unashamedly hopeful words. It’s not a reckless, foolish hope, but a hope that’s grounded in what he’s learned in the past. He’s not throwing caution to the wind, he’s believing with faith that the hopes that he’s clung to so tightly, even through the storms, will now come to pass.”

This week I needed unashamed hope.  Over the last two weeks I have experienced a lot of pain and suffering.  I have seen the scars in this battered and broken world.  I have talked to abused children, spoken to heartbroken parents, seen friends use and abuse each other, and watched a church do further harm.  I have been broken and on my knees (which are more beautiful lines from the song).  I have been tempted to put up a guard and struggled to keep my candle bright.  So I needed Mumford and Sons’ “Not With Haste.”  And I believe with faith that the hope I cling to as a Christian pastor will come to pass, even through these violent storms.

In that glorious hope, I long to see God save the entire “Babel” album and let it into the New Creation.  Otherwise we will be stuck singing “Jesus Freak” for all eternity and nobody wants that.

Until His Return, cling to hope.

 

Christian Fundamentalism Part 3: What is the Harm?

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This post is the third in a four part series based off of my very real interactions with Christian fundamentalists.  You can read posts one and two here and here.

Two days ago I wrote about my real life experiences with fundamentalists and defined them for the purposes of this conversation as those Christians among us who believe in the absolute inerrancy of Scripture and that 1950s America was the perfect expression of God’s kingdom.

The question that inspired these posts was, “what is it about fundamentalists that makes me so eager to hate and judge them?”  As I pondered that question it led to a greater question:  “What actual harm are fundamentalists doing to the world and to Christianity?”  Yesterday I answered the first question by saying, “there is not much that deserves my eager angst.”  Today’s and tomorrow’s posts are the answers I have arrived at to that second question.

I believe there is real harm being done by the fundamentalists among us.  As I have interacted with them I find that they are doing harm to the Christian doctrine they claim to defend and to the fellow Christians they try to convert to their thinking.  Today I will talk about the harm to greater Christian doctrine.  Tomorrow I will talk about the practical, personal ways they violate others.

First I want to tell about a conversation I had with one of the most hardcore fundamentalists in town.  Like most of my conversations with fundamentalists it began with me complimenting him and ended with him insulting me and calling me not Christian.  The conversation began by me sharing that I feel like some Christians worship Scripture instead of Jesus.  He was baffled by that comment because, as he explained, “Scripture is the Word of God and Jesus is the Word of God so Scripture is Jesus and we must worship Scripture.”  I was shocked by that statement, not only because Scripture never calls itself the Word of God but always reserves that title for Jesus but also because it proved to me that fundamentalists really believe that the Bible is God.

By contrast, in historical Christianity Jesus has always been the absolute revelation of who God is.  After Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit continued and continues to reveal Jesus in several means.  Scripture over time (a lot of time) became the primary (but not the only) way the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus to us.  And in my tradition, it is a necessary book to keep the church from getting off track.  By metaphor it is the chief tool in our tool belt and we desperately need it because without the Bible a congregation is a carpenter without a hammer or a barber without scissors or a writer without a computer.

But the Bible cannot do for us what Jesus did on the cross and the Bible cannot replace the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth using many means.  Scripture can only remind us about what Jesus did and encourage us to enter into life giving relationship with Jesus through the other means of grace.  Those means are things like prayer, congregational worship, Christian conversation, academic study, and exercise, among many others.  They, along with Scripture, sustain our right relationships with God and others.

But for fundamentalists Scripture is God, particularly King James’ Version of it.  It is God’s arm instead of the church’s hammer or scissors or computer.  They think Scripture is fully God, or at least the only part revealed to us.  Thus Scripture becomes the only work of the Holy Spirit and fundamentalists end up with no room for Jesus or the Holy Spirit.  To them God is just a book and interestingly a book they talk a lot about but seldom ever read (but that is another post for another day).

Then they read Scripture as if it provides correct logic to us.  But logic will not save the world in the way that the very human and very God, Jesus saves the world.  I have not had one honest debate with a fundamentalist that didn’t end with their insistence that if you think the wrong thing about God you are going to hell.  So their evangelism often takes the form of displaying right logic instead of Godly love.  But Scripture, the very Scripture they claim to protect, claims that people will only know Christ by our love.  It is not doctrine or logic that saves us, except the doctrine and logic of right relationship with God and neighbor and enemy.

Therefore Scripture, in their thinking is God itself, a God who is as small as a logical system and cannot do anything but be words on a page.  Put another way, they don’t use Scripture to worship God made flesh.  They worship Scripture as God made paper.

To end with another story that illustrates these points, the Baptist church in town sent out a mailer that invited people to come to their events.  The mailer was a wonderful idea with the church’s calendar of events and mission statement.  It even had a letter from their pastor that spent three paragraphs explaining how their church was all about Scripture:  How Scripture tells us how to be better parents and how to manage our finances and all the right rules and wisdom to live a happy life.  But not once did the pastor or the entire packet mention Jesus.  The church seemingly doesn’t need Jesus because they have the Bible.  For them evangelism isn’t about introducing people to Jesus.  It is about introducing people to Scripture.

But what Christianity has always had to offer is not petty moralisms or God given self helps or divinely revealed logic.  We have always offered the very presence of the resurrected Christ through the Holy Spirit.  But fundamentalists believe they have all they need in the sacred words of Scripture, so they don’t need or want Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

This is how the fundamentalists are killing themselves.  They cut themselves off from the presence of Jesus by choosing to worship the created Scriptures instead of the creator God.  And now they have empty doctrine that cannot sustain itself.

Come back tomorrow to see how this plays out practically.