"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Faith = (Matt11:5) + (Matt28:19-20)

Let's start with a pop quiz; why did God become incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth?


Most likely, your answer is something along the lines of "he came to save us from our sins," or as the Nicene Creed puts it;
For us and our salvation he came down from Heaven

Fair enough, but what then are we to make of Jesus' earthly ministry? Does it have value on its own, meaningfulness, apart from the Passion? Does it stand apart or is it entirely an act of prophetic drama meant to give shape for interpreting the Easter story? In other words, is the life of Jesus just one long slog to the cross or is it also something more?

I am prompted to ask this, because, well, it hasn't really ever come up and that strikes me as odd. Confused? Well, let me give an example. When John the Baptist is in prison, his disciples come to Jesus and ask if he is the One or should they be looking for another. Jesus' reply is "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." (Matt 11:4-6, NRSV)

If Jesus life and ministry on earth is only a foreshadowing of his Passion, then these acts of Jesus are only signs pertaining to him and don't necessarily have any claim on us. And despite the claims of many Christians, I don't really believe that they do not have a claim on us. It is inconceivable to me that they could not. Now, if one spends a lot of time hanging out with St Paul, one might get the impression, that the only thing really going on is an overwhelming concern for the eschaton (the full emergence of the kingdom of God on Earth, the second coming, etc) and thus our only concern is that we orient ourselves to Christ right away.

But Paul is living in an anticipation of the imminence of the eschaton. Which is why when you delve deep into some Reformation treatises and confessions who are all very much influenced by the Epistles of Paul, you get them saying things suggesting that all human effort is bound to be wicked and promote evil, so maybe it's better not to try too much – Jesus will take care of it. By these lights, all that matters is the possession of faith (though how exactly one comes to possess it is a matter of some debate). Fast forward a couple of millennia and it is obvious that the urgency under which the Apostle Paul labored may be appreciated in another light. Our task, it seems is to figure out how to live faithful lives in the hope but not the imminent expectation of the eschaton. What do our lives look like if we begin living without fear, if we begin living as though the kingdom had come?

Because if Jesus really is just a lamb sent for the slaughter, then why bother telling anyone about it? Why bother with disciples and teaching and all the rest if we weren't meant to do something with those words and examples?


  1. This is why I don't really bother getting involved in atonement theory. While I am probably closer to the "let God handle it" camp when it comes to these systematic theology issues, I still try to find the meaning for us today: which is not necessarily the meaning the words had when they were recorded.

  2. Ken, God doesn't live in the Bible and Jesus didn't invite us to exegete him but to follow him. I'm pretty sure this means that we have to discern the living Christ amidst us, in our world. To the extent that the Bible gives us some pointers and some ways to evaluate our discernment it is a useful tool; but no more. What I'm really getting at is that Luther's great insight is, I think, not correct. Human's have a role to play, a covenanted role to play. True, it is not the actions themselves that have merit, but the spirit behind the actions themselves. But I have no doubt that action - works - are exactly what Jesus expects of us who claim to follow him.

  3. Jon, you are absolutely right. However, I think that's exactly what Luther was saying. When You said "True, it is not the actions themselves that have merit, but the spirit behind the actions themselves..." You are in essence echoing Luther and other reformers sentiments. Works are required in a resurrected life. "Our people teach that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should count on meriting grace through them but because it is the will of God. It is only by faith that forgiveness of sins and grace are apprehended. Moreover, because of the Holy Spirit Received through faith, consequently hearts are renewed and endowed with New affections so as to be ABLE to do good works. For Ambrose says; 'Faith is the mother of good will and the righteous action.' For WITHOUT the Holy Spirit human powers are full of ungodly affections and are too weak to do good works before God."--Augsburg Confession Article XX
    Similarly John 15:5 "Apart from me you can do nothing." Works are absolutely what Jesus expects of the people who claim follow him. You are absolutely right.