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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Why The Church Scares Me Half To Death

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Have you ever met someone that was instantly the most awesome person you ever met?  They said the right thing at the right time.  They told the funniest jokes but with appropriate tact.  They dressed in the most fashionable ways and liked all the right hobbies.  Compliments poured out of their mouth at every turn and they even volunteered at orphanages and animal shelters.

Then you met their spouse.  .  .who was all right but less than awesome.  But you figured, I will hang out with the spouse if it means getting to know this incredible person all the more.

That is kind of like how it is with Christ and the Church.

But then again, have you ever met someone that was instantly the most awesome person you ever met and then you met their spouse and their spouse was the meanest, most cruel, vindictive person ever?  They regularly drove away well meaning people.  They hated everybody who wasn’t them?  They held extremely controversial political views that they were willing to share, more like yell, at everybody they met?  And then as you got to know them you discovered they moonlighted as a hooker on the weekend, selling their body and soul to the highest bidder?

That is actually how it is with Christ and the Church.

I love Jesus.  I just spent a couple of months getting to know Jesus more in the Gospel of Mark and I am planning on spending the next couple months getting to know the Risen Jesus in the last chapters of all four gospels.  I want to hang out with Jesus.  I want to love Jesus more and be more like this awesome God who has found me in empty tombs and on roads to Emmaus and hilltops in Galilee.

But Jesus’ bride, the church, scares me half to death.

Last week as I journeyed with Jesus to the cross, a professor was terminated at one of our institutions.  This professor was often called Dr. Love as he has written some of the best works out there on theologies and philosophies of love.  He also holds controversial philosophical views, views that I value but ultimately disagree with.  Since the university hired him, there has been a growing group of reformed fundamentalists who have issued all kinds of threats to the university for having him on faculty.

According to official announcements the threats to the university had nothing to do with the termination.  Instead the university needed more money for capitol improvements and marketing.  If I take that announcement at face value, which many are not, it is still quite troubling.  Our university cares more about buildings and raising money than we do about quality professors.

This flows out of a trend in all universities (public and private) to turn higher education into a glorified pyramid scheme.  Over the last 30 years higher education tuition has skyrocketed, fundraising has never been easier and professional sports have poured millions into the coffers.  All this time, faculty wages have remained flat while administrative costs (buildings and executive positions) have skyrocketed.  It seems like higher ed is now a market that raises money so that it can raise money so that it can hire people to raise more money.  As a whole the market has forgotten it is there to educate students, not to raise money and build bigger buildings and win football games.

Our private Christian universities have learned that the best fundraising strategy is to claim that we are not as heartless as the secular universities.  We care about our students.  We focus on giving them quality education.  We like our low student to faculty ratios.  And yet here we are, eliminating faculty to increase our pyramid scheme.

To make it worse, the professor was notified while on vacation in Hawaii.  My father works for a failing technology company who has had scores and scores of layoffs in the last ten years.  In my father’s very dark, somber work place, everybody is afraid to take vacations because they are afraid that the minute they leave town, they will be axed.  I used to take great comfort that at least we respected each other, even our enemies, enough that the church would never do that.  Now I am afraid to take a vacation.

And this latest flare up in the church is only one in a long line.  At another institution, a chaplain was demoted one week, suspended the next.** The spark that lit that fire was a very humble sermon asking people to think about their love for a very violent movie in light of Jesus’ call to peace.  What scares me is that it was a sermon I very well could have preached.

Right before that a friend of mine was forced to resign his pastorate because he asked hard questions about the role patriotism plays in our worship.

Before that a friend of mine was forced to leave our denomination in Wyoming due to ideological differences concerning women in ministry.

Before that another friend was driven out not for any particular ideological “flaw” but just because he was a student of our university and seminary so it was assumed there must be an ideological flaw.

Before that another friend was forced out due to ideological differences with district leadership.

I do not know the full stories in any of these situations, but I do know my friends.  Even if they did make one or two lousy judgment calls (which I am sure some of them did) grace means we should not banish them from our communities.

And all of this makes me wonder, am I next?  It seems like in the Church of the Nazarene, my kind is being killed off quite vehemently.  When will the church’s violent and vindictive sword find me?  What honest mistake or ideological view will it be?  And what will be the price for my family, for my friends, for my soul?

The Church of the Nazarene started as a big tent church.  Every line in our early Manuals was a testament to our willingness to debate, dialog and compromise when needed.  We have always loved and welcomed conservative fundamentalists and progressive liberals.  We have been proud that both could worship under the same tent and engage in fierce but loving dialog with those who think differently.  This means, I have several friends who are very conservative and slightly fundamentalist and I love them and rejoice they are a part of this denomination.  I value their input and opinions and want them to stick around because I love them.

But when members of the conservative fundamentalist group suddenly turn violent and vindictive and start waging ideological wars against those who think differently from them and when they score huge victories through sacrificing the careers and livelihoods of my dear friends I fear for my life.

This isn’t new.  In fact, I remember that one day I was awake in church history class and learned that in the early 17th century, the Calvinists, threatened by Arminian views, banished and executed any followers of Jacob Arminius.  I find hope that it didn’t work because there are still faithful Arminians around today.  Moreover, this event was one skirmish in the middle of centuries of Christians actually killing each other over silly ideological differences.  And I even guess that the fact that today we are just terminating positions and not people is a sign of progress.

Or maybe I am just looking for a bit of that Resurrection hope that says if ever the church should decide it needs my blood displayed on a cross for all to see, at least my Savior hung there first and at least there is the glory of an empty tomb waiting for those whom the mob lynches.

**(I previously wrote that the chaplain above had been terminated, i.e. relieved of all positions, but have since learned he retained his chaplaincy.  I apologize for the mixup.  I thought I had that on good authority.)