02 April 2020

You say “faith,” but you mean religion.

FAITH feɪθ noun. Complete trust or confidence in someone/something.
2. Religion: A system of beliefs and practices about God.
3. A strongly-held belief or theory, maintained despite a lack of proof.
4. A name Christians like to give their daughters. My niece, fr’instance.
[Faithful 'feɪθ.fəl adjective.]

I bring up the definition of faith because today I’m addressing the second definition: A system of beliefs. A religion.

A lot of Evangelicals in the United States have this idea that religion is a bad thing. It’s because they mixed up religion with dead religion, and they don’t practice that. They don’t go practice rituals they don’t believe in; they’re not just going through the motions. They have a real relationship with God. Which is why they’re so quick to tell everyone, “I have a relationship, not a religion.”

Since they really don’t wanna use the word “religion” except to rebuke and mock it… how are they gonna describe their system of beliefs and practices? Simple: They’re gonna call it the faith. Or their faith. They’re not religious people; they’re “people of faith.” They’re “the faithful”—by which they don’t actually mean they’re dependable and committed, ’cause they’re often not; just that they firmly believe in that system of beliefs and practices.

Nope, they have no religion; just the faith.

Which creates all sorts of confusion when we’re talking about one of the other definitions of faith, but they mean religion.

For skeptics and many pagans, “faith” means the ability to deny reality, and believe the impossible and ridiculous. So if you “have faith,” you’ve chosen to believe something despite no evidence it’s so, just like people who believe space aliens built the pyramids, or people who claim coronavirus is no deadlier than flu. As an Evangelical is talking about their faith with reverence and awe, a skeptic will think, “What, are you taking pleasure in the fact you turn your brain off? Man are you messed up.” Yep, they’re talking right past one another.

And because so many Christians have totally buggered the proper interpretation of this verse—

Ephesians 2.8-9 KJV
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.

—they claim it teaches we’re saved by faith. Not by grace, like it literally says; by faith. Not through faith; by faith. And when they say faith they don’t mean putting our trust in Jesus; they mean what they usually mean by “faith”; they mean religion. You’re saved by religion. The very opposite of what Paul taught in Acts, wrote in Romans and Galatians and Ephesians; the very reason Jesus kept objecting to the Pharisees’ legalism and loopholes. Because that’s what faith righteousness, this belief we’re saved by having perfect orthodox beliefs, devolves into.

Those are big problems, and I wrote a bunch more about ’em elsewhere; click the links. But the solution to these problems is really simple: We need to stop talking past one another and specify what we mean by “faith.” Which definition are we using? Trust in God? Religion? Wishful thinking? Or women named Faith?

Which definition did the bible’s authors have in mind when they wrote πίστις/pístis?

faith, belief, firm persuasion; 2Co 5.7, He 11.1 assurance, firm conviction; Ro 14.23 ground of belief, guarantee, assurance; Ac 17.31 good faith, honesty, integrity; Mt 23.23, Ga 5.22, Tt 2.10 faithfulness, truthfulness; Ro 3.3 in NT faith in God and Christ; Mt 8.10, Ac 3.16, etc. ἡ πίστις/i pístis, the matter of Gospel faith Ac 6.7, Ju 1.3

William D. Mounce, Greek Dictionary

With few exceptions pístis generally means trust in God. No, not even the verses where we think we can overlay the religion idea on top of it. It primarily means religion in our culture.

Faith meant trusting God—to Jesus, to the apostles, and the folks who came before. When Abraham believed the LORD, and was considered righteous for it, Ge 15.6 this wasn’t at all Abraham’s embrace of religious doctrine. It was a personal trust in a personal God, with whom Abraham held a personal relationship.

In using the word “faith” to mean religion, Christians regularly mix up the definitions in our own minds, and imagine them to all be one and the same thing. When we say we have faith, yeah we mean we trust God, but we also mean we have religious faith: We believe the proper doctrines. We have foundational, fundamental beliefs we base our Christianity upon. Hopefully it’s orthodox—or at least we’ve convinced ourselves it is.

The result will be all sorts of interesting heresies.

Saved by faith?

The most common such heresy, the one I touched upon already, is the belief we Christians are saved by faith.

Yes of course it’s heresy; Jesus saves us, not our beliefs. God, in his generous, forgiving attitude towards his kids, does the entire work of saving us. We don’t save ourselves. We couldn’t possibly acquire enough good karma to make our salvation a possibility, much less a reality. Only God can do it, and only God does it.

But like I said, people quote Ephesians, jumble up the prepositions, and claim we’re saved by faith instead of grace. We’re saved through faith, Ep 2.8 and no that’s not the same thing. If I’m rescued by the Coast Guard ’cause they threw me a rope, what’s doing the rescuing? The rope? Me ’cause I grabbed the rope? Or the Coasties? It’s by the Coasties, through the rope, through me grabbing it: If I don’t have a Coast Guard boat or helicopter at the end of that rope, fat lot of good grabbing it will do me.

Same with our salvation. It’s by God’s grace, and through the faith he grants us, through this same faith we respond in. Don’t get the idea this faith alone saves anyone.

Yeah, Christians’ll easily dig up a proof text to defend the idea:

Luke 7.50 KJV
And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.

Usually ’cause they’re ignoring context. This is where Jesus cured a bleeder. He’s talking about getting cured, not saved; σέσωκέν/sésoken can be translated both “saved” and “cured,” and that’s what Jesus means. He’s hardly talking about eternal salvation, nor even temporal salvation: This hemorrhage wasn’t a fatal disease! But it made the woman miserable, and in an act of desperate faith she touched Jesus, and the Holy Spirit rewarded her faith by curing her. If we’re gonna leap to the conclusion salvation works the same way… well, you we need much better proof than the word sésoken misinterpreted in a miracle story.

The deal is this. Faith is a vital component of God’s kingdom. Can’t be our king when we don’t trust him! And when he offers us salvation, we gotta trust he’ll follow through on his offer, and bring us into his kingdom. Which is why we really gotta live like he’s brought us into the kingdom already: If it’s valid faith, our lives must reflect it. When they don’t, it implies we don’t trust him and aren’t saved. But regardless: Our faith is not the cause, and salvation the effect. Faith is the byproduct. The fruit.

When Christians believe we’re saved by our fruit, and not grace, we’ve gone right back to believing we’re saved by good karma.

Saved by grace. Not orthodoxy.

Religion, the practices which further our relationship with God, is work. Good work, but still work.

We believe certain things about God because we recognize he revealed them to us. We sought out the truth, he helped us find it, and we embraced it. That too is a good work. But still work. We had to realize we’re wrong. Had to go through the process of changing our minds, abandoning well-loved but heavily flawed beliefs, and accepting God’s truth. For some it was light work: We didn’t really believe the old crap anyway. For others it was hardly light. These were deeply-ingrained beliefs. Sometimes they still bubble up when we least expect ’em; they do me! But whether we’re on one extreme or the other, religious orthodoxy is still work. Religious “faith” is work.

So are we saved by work? Nope. Only God’s grace. He doesn’t save people ’cause we’re good, or worthy, or have amazing potential. (The only reason we’d ever have potential, is God anyway.) He saves people entirely out of love. He makes that clear. Dt 7.6-8

But in the hands of a Christian who believes we’re saved by faith, it gets clear as mud. They admit yeah, we’re saved by grace… but it’s through faith, and all their emphasis is thrown upon faith. “It is of faith, that it might be by grace,” they’ll misquote. Ro 4.16 KJV The reason we’re saved by grace is because we first acted in faith. Grace requires faith. But we’re really saved by faith alone. Sola fide, remember?

Once they establish we gotta have faith before we can earn grace (yes I know that’s an oxymoron), they’ll remind us our faith is an orthodox faith: It’s the stuff they consider fundamental truths. Stuff the apostles believed, and all the real Christians throughout history—real like them. It’s the faith of our fathers, our forefathers, and our forefathers’ fathers. Once we embrace each and every one of these beliefs, it unlocks the safe to God’s grace, and gets us saved.

And orthodoxy can’t be work, ’cause faith and work are two different things. Paul said so. Ga 2.16 Even James, who insisted the two were carefully linked, said so. Jm 2.14 So if orthodoxy is faith, it’s not work. How much work is it to hold a belief, anyway? It’s real easy. Shut off your brain and just mynah-bird that belief. That’ll do.

This is why these folks go absolutely bonkers when they encounter people they consider heretic. After all, if the only way to be saved is to have all the correct beliefs, any wrong belief will disqualify us from grace, and plunge us into fiery hell. Grace doesn’t make up for our deficiencies; we’re not permitted any deficiencies.

Yeah, I know: This doesn’t sound like grace at all. ’Cause it’s not. We don’t earn it, and we don’t lose it by making mistakes about God. True, if we really are following the Holy Spirit, he’s gonna redirect us away from the false beliefs, and point us to truth. Orthodoxy is, once again, fruit. It’s one of the good works which should stem from an authentic relationship with God. So, work—and therefore it’s not truly faith.

Real faith trusts God to save us. Fake faith insists we gotta earn it through right belief. And in all our striving to get the right beliefs, we nudge ourselves further and further away from the grace that actually does save us. Yikes.

Push away the false definition of faith.

Like I said, this incorrect definition of faith is everywhere. The best way to combat it is to stop using it. Repeat after me: “I don’t have ‘a faith.’ I have a religion. One based on faith in God.”

When people try to talk about “our shared faith,” I like to challenge that statement: “Our shared faith in what?” Usually they get the answer right: It’s in Christ Jesus. It’s in God. Unless they’re pagans, in which case they usually go on about our shared ability to believe nonsense. Or unless they think we’re saved by faith, in which case they talk about shared beliefs.

But faith isn’t about shared beliefs, nor shared abilities. It’s trust. In God. That’s the only definition I care to use.

If you’re using it to describe religion, I’d rather you say “religion.” I don’t care if Evangelicals have a hangup about the word. We need to get over that. Religion is a fine word, and when it’s living religion, an excellent practice.

If you’re using it to describe blind optimism, or a belief in the ridiculous and stupid, or any other form of false faith, I’m gonna object. Those definitions are only meant to malign the real thing, mock Christianity, and make people hesitant to trust God.

And if you’re using the slogan sola fide to describe salvation: That’s sola gratia/“grace alone.” Grace, not faith. Don’t mix your solas.