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03 November 2017

Not faith, but a faith.

And we’re not saved by faith.

Faith /feɪθ/ n. 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/ adj.]

I bring up the definition of faith again ’cause today I’m writing about the second definition: A system of beliefs. A religion. The word most people tend to mean when they talk about faith: “Oh, you believe in that stuff because you have faith.” By which they often mean the magical ability to believe in goofy rubbish. Or, if they’re being more generous, they mean we have a religion—and the religion requires us to believe in goofy rubbish.

So that’s what pagans mean when they speak of “people of faith”: People who have a religion. Particularly the people who like to insist, “No I don’t have a religion. I have a relationship.” (Which implies they’re not consistent in their religion, but I wrote on that elsewhere.) Okay fine: If these people wanna insist they have no religion—even though they totally do—we’ll just use the synonym “faith,” which they appear to have no beef with. But we all know it means “religion.”

For such people, “religion” only means dead religion—all ritual no relationship, all actions no beliefs, all behavior no trust. But call it “faith,” and emphasize the living part which should be at the core of living religion, Jm 2.26 and they’re fine with it.

Here’s the problem (’cause you knew there was a problem coming, didn’tcha?): In using the word “faith” to mean “religion,” Christians often mix up the two definitions and imagine them to all be one and the same thing. When we say we have faith, we don’t merely mean we trust God. We mean we have religious faith: We believe doctrines. We have foundational truths which we base our Christianity upon. Hopefully we’re orthodox—or at least we’re pretty sure we are.

Is that the definition the scriptures use to mean pístis/“faith”? Not even close. No, not even the verses where we think we can overlay the religion idea on top of it. Faith always means trust, and usually trust in God. It only means religion in our culture.

Not Jesus’s, nor the apostles’, nor 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.

But like I said, Christians’ll mix the definitions together. The result will be all sorts of interesting heresies.

Saved by faith?

The most common such heresy is the belief we Christians are saved by faith.

Yes this is a heresy. Because we’re saved by grace, remember?

Ephesians 2.8-9 KWL
8 You’re all saved by his grace, through your faith.
This, God’s gift, isn’t from you, 9 isn’t from works; none can boast of it.

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 achieve enough good karma to make our salvation a possibility, much less a reality. Only God can do it, and only God does it.

But Christians regularly misread this verse. Here, I’ll put it in the King James Version:

Ephesians 2.8 KJV
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.

People who fell asleep during their grade school grammar classes tend to skip the “by grace” bit and focus solely on the “saved through faith” bit: We’re saved through faith!

True. But what’s that mean? Are we saved by we’re saved by, or by what we’re saved through? If I’m rescued by the Coast Guard through them throwing me a rope and me grabbing it, who’s doing the rescuing? The rope? Me ’cause I grabbed the rope? Or the Coasties?

In the case of our salvation, it’s by God’s grace. And it’s through the faith he grants us, and the faith we respond in—but don’t get the idea this faith saves anyone. Even though you can easily find a proof text to defend that idea—

Luke 7.50 KWL
Jesus told the woman, “Your faith cured you. Go in peace.”

—with sésoken/“has cured” frequently translated “has saved” to bolster this idea—the fact is, in context, Jesus is talking about curing a hemorrhage. He’s hardly talking about eternal salvation, nor even temporal salvation: This wasn’t a fatal disease! But it made the woman miserable, and in an act of desperate faith she touched Jesus, and God cured her for it. The woman’s act of faith provoked God’s response. But 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. We gotta live like he’s brought us into the kingdom already: Our lives must reflect this faith. If they don’t, it implies we don’t trust him and aren’t saved. But 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 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 figure 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, of abandoning well-loved but heavily flawed beliefs, of 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-held, deeply-ingrained beliefs. Sometimes they still bubble up when we least expect ’em. But whether we’re on one extreme or the other, religious orthodoxy is still work. Our faith—and I remind you I’m using the culture’s definition, not the bible’s—is still work.

So are we saved by work? No. Only God’s grace. He doesn’t save people ’cause they’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 in goofy 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. They need to get over that. It’s 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.