Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Faith And/Or Works

When I was in college I liked to pass through the main mall going by the food court and library.  Sometimes I would take the long route just to see what was going on.  There were usually a handful of demonstrators and preachers and it was always an interesting diversion.  I remember one time I heard a preacher yell out: “for all you people who think you’re gonna get to Heaven by being nice people and doing good I’ll tell you the only way to be saved is through Christ.”  The college kids weren’t responding very well.  It might have been because his friend had another poster detailing why every group and subgroup on campus was going to Hell.  But regardless of what people may think, college kids are pretty morally conscious, sometimes hyper-morally conscious.  College kids are always getting involved in efforts to help alleviate poverty and protect the environment out of altruistic, idealistic motives.  And here was a guy telling them that all these good works were a waste of time and that they should instead be focusing on Jesus.

It’s great to testify of Jesus, but why downplay the importance of good works and good character?  Are good works and faith in Christ mutually exclusive?  The question is often framed “are we saved by works or by grace?”  This has been a big theological debate for hundreds of years.  Augustine was probably the most prominent theologian to discuss it in early Christianity.  During the Reformation Martin Luther brought this question to the forefront and it was continued by John Calvin.  But I think this whole discussion is presenting a false dichotomy and actually distorts the meaning of faith.  We don’t have a choice of either faith or works.  If you have faith in Christ you have faith and works.

This whole debate seems like a distraction to me.  Why worry so much about this?  Doing good is never bad.  It sounds silly to even say such a thing but it sometimes seems necessary.  Good works, genuinely good works are never bad and they are never condemned in scripture.  Scriptures only condemn pride, doing good things for glory and honor.  Jesus never said not to help the poor.  He just said to go and do it in private rather than make a big scene for the appearance of piety (Matthew 6:1-4).  Even Paul never condemned good works.  Paul just stressed that despite our efforts to do good work, we fail; but we can still be accepted by God through his grace (Romans 7:19-25; Romans 8).  Paul also warned about pride: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

There is a certain nuance in the scriptures, especially in Paul.  We sometimes have a difficult time with nuance.  But the tension is this—we are saved by grace and not by our works, but good works are still essential.  We can’t just say “I’m saved” and then live a life of sin.  “What shall we say then?  Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?  God forbid.  How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer in therein?” (Romans 6:1-2)  This is nuance taught in the seminaries and is well understood by the educated clergy.  But unfortunately the message sometimes get’s lost on the rest of us.  It’s easier to avoid the tension and break things down into black and white—faith or works, take your pick.

Theologian J.I. Packer said: “Faith cannot be defined in subjective terms, as a confident and optimistic mind-set, or in passive terms, as acquiescent orthodoxy or confidence in God without commitment to God.  Faith is an object-oriented response, shaped by that which is trusted, namely God himself, God’s promises, and Jesus Christ, all as set forth in the Scriptures.  And faith is a whole-souled response, involving mind, heart, will and affections.

Reformed theologians actually had a very developed understanding of faith.  They broke down faith into three parts: notitia, assensus, and fiducia.

Notitia is the knowledge of the content of the gospel.

Assensus is the agreement, recognition that the gospel is true.  We usually focus primarily on this aspect of faith. 

Fiducia is trust and reliance in God.  It is trusting that although we sin and fail at times, we can trust in the grace of God and in the Atonement of Christ.  This is the element of commitment and dedication.

The idea that we don’t need God or God’s grace is the heresy of legalism.  The people the get all worked up and condemn the idea of salvation by works are very wary of the doctrine of legalism.  The danger of legalism is that it can be very damaging to our individual esteem.  If we think we have to be perfect we are apt to compare ourselves to others and feel we are not good enough.  Or we might get an inflated ego and feel like we are better than everyone else.  Both attitudes are alienating God.

The opposite end of legalism is antinomianism.  Antinomianism (literally “against+law”) is the idea that after we declare our faith in Christ we no longer need to abide by any rules.  The dangers of this doctrine should be obvious.  My big question to antinomianism is—what’s the point?  So God saves a bunch of vile, wretched people who stay that way forever.  That doesn’t even seem like salvation at all.  There is no progress.  It is eternal degeneracy.  I find it hard to admire a religion that doesn’t uplift and ennoble people’s lives or somehow make the world a better place.

Going back to J.I. Packer he says: “But if ‘good works’ (activities of serving God and others) do not follow from our profession of faith, we are as yet believing only from the head, not from the heart, in other words, justifying faith (fiducia) is not yet ours.  The truth is that, though we are justified by faith alone, the faith that justifies is never alone.”  A good way to get a deeper understanding of faith is to observe the different comments by Paul and James.  James famously said, “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17).  So does James contradict Paul?  Well, it’s possible that the two themselves got into arguments over this; we don’t know for sure.  But even if they did, they didn’t have to.  J.I. Packer said: “When James says that faith without works is dead (i.e., a corpse), he is using the word faith in the limited sense of notitia plus assensus, which is how those he addresses were using it.  When he says that one is justified by what one does, not by faith alone, he means by ‘justified’ ‘proved genuine; vindicated from the suspicion of being a hypocrite and a fraud.’  James is making the point that barren orthodoxy saves no one (James 2:14-26).  Paul would have agreed, and James’s whole letter shows him agreeing with Paul that faith must change one’s life.  Paul denounces the idea of salvation by dead works; James rejects salvation by dead faith.”

This leads into another key concept in Christian theology—sanctification.  Sanctification is “an ongoing transformation within a maintained consecration, and it engenders real righteousness within the frame of relational holiness” (Packer).  The “born-again” experience is regeneration.  But regeneration is just the beginning.  Sanctification is the continuing process that follows.  As Packer says: “Regeneration is birth; sanctification is growth.”  If you stop your spiritual progress right after you’re born again you remain a spiritual infant.

So maybe someday I’ll run out to the University and start preaching “All you people out there trying to live good lives and do good works, keep it up.  And don’t be discouraged when you make mistakes, God loves you anyway and wants to help you.  Trust God and follow Christ and you can have a great life.”  Or something like that.  We don’t need to have these extreme distinctions, choosing either a life of faith or a life of good works.  It’s not faith or works; it’s faith and works.


Packer, J.I. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Children of Abraham

Although it was a week ago I wanted to talk about my experience at the interfaith event in Tempe on September 11th.  The Islamic Community Center of Tempe hosted the event.  The night was centered on the sacred stories of our traditions and was inspired primarily as a response to a plan by a church in Florida to burn copies of the Qur’an in mass on that same day.  The pastor conducting put it well—that rather than burn books of scripture we should let the words of scripture burn in our hearts.

There was a moment of silence in which everyone stood as the Torah, Bible, and Qur’an were carried around the courtyard for everyone to see.  They were then placed on the front table for everyone to look at for the rest of the evening.  It turns out that this Torah scroll had a very interesting story.  It came from Czechoslovakia and was confiscated by the Nazis during the Third Reich.  The Nazis preserved it as a relic to be held up for contempt.  After the war it was salvaged and eventually made its way to Arizona where it is kept today.

Reverend Reller of the United Church of Christ showed us his family Bible that had been passed down for over 200 years.  He said that it looked like it had never been read but had a lot of interesting documents inside the front cover from his family history.  For example, an 18th century newspaper clipping revealed that they descended form Jewish immigrants.  This Bible was given to him by his grandmother.  He told story of his childhood when he asked his grandmother why she loved her grandchildren.  She said that God loved them so she should love them too.  Then he recounted the story of Hagar and Ishmael, ancestors of the Muslims.  When Hagar and Ishmael were about to die in the desert God sent and angel to save them.  Then years later when Joseph’s brothers were about to kill him they decided to sell him instead to the Ishmaelites who were passing by.  So if there are too many Jews and too many Muslims we can thank the Muslims for saving the Jews and we can thank God for saving the Muslims.  And since God loves them, we’re just going to have to love them too.

The Imam shared a story of a young Russian boy who participated in a competition in Dubai for reciting the Qur’an and won.  The young boy told about his father and grandfather who lived under the communist Soviet Union that prohibited owning a copy of the Qur’an.  The grandfather had taken this boys father to a cave in his youth where they had hidden copies of the Qur’an and taught him to memorize it.  Going to and from the cave the grandfather would blindfold him so he would not know where these illegal books were hidden.  This boy passed on the Qur’an orally to his son.  It was found that in Russia copies of the Qur’an were often hidden in dry wall and buried in empty caskets.  Decades of communist oppression were not able to wipe out the words of the Qur’an in Russia.  They killed 30 million people but couldn’t destroy the Qur’an.  Then the Imam said what we need to burn are candles of love and peace.

It was a really great night and it just felt great being with so many people of good will.  It is easy to be depressed with all the negativity in the news about religion but being with this people just wiped all of that away.  This is what America is really about.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Upcoming Event: Children of Abraham

The Islamic Cultural Center of Tempe is hosting an event September 11, 2010.  It is called Children of Abraham: A Celebration of Our Sacred Stories.  Some fliers were passed around in my fiance's ward and that's how I first heard about it.  So Heather and I will be going and I will write about it afterward.

The event participants include Reverend Doug Bland, Rabbi Andrew Straus, and Imam Ahmad Shqeirat.  It is a gathering of the three Abrahamic faiths--Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  It should be really interesting.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Zion: A Radical Vision

Jesus taught of two ways.  “Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.  Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)  Lest any disciple fancy the possibility of dual loyalties Jesus said this: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.  Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Matthew 6:24) 

“Mammon” in both Late Latin and Greek meant “wealth” or “riches”.  Mammon was personified here as another master, another god beside the Lord God.  Jesus followed up by illustrating the way God cares for his creations.  “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.  Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?  Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.  Are ye not much better than they? …But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.  Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”  (Matthew 6:25-26, 33-34)

Living this way takes tremendous trust.  I don’t think many of us have that kind of faith and it seems quite opposite to the way we actually live.  But this is the way of the Lord God.  The other way is the way of Mammon.  Mammon has been a very popular god and has had very charismatic and powerful prophets.  The god of Mammon promises power and influence.  Worshippers of Mammon see the world in way that makes these things seem most important.  All other norms and standards are contingent and can be altered and amended if needed in the drive to pursue wealth.  Murder, theft, plunder, laundering, extortion and other heinous acts become virtues in a world-view dominated by the love of money.  But in the way of the true God the love of money is the root of all evil.

Consider this passage from Paul.  “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.  And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.  But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.  For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.  But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness” (1 Timothy 6:7-11).

The story of Cain is a parable to us about the root of evil in this world.  We have accounts in Genesis and Moses.  Cain loved Satan more than God and Satan commanded him to make an offering unto God.  However, this offering was not accepted and Cain was very angry.  Thereafter, Cain made an unholy covenant with Satan.

“And Satan swore unto Cain that he would do according to his commands.  And all these things were done in secret.  And Cain said: Truly I am Mahan, the master of his great secret, that I may murder and get gain.  Wherefore Cain was called Master Mahan, and he gloried in his wickedness.  And Cain went into the field, and Cain talked with Abel, his brother.  And it came to pass that while they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel, his brother and slew him.  And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands.” (Moses 5:30-33)  Cain’s reason for covenanting with Satan was to “get gain” and he murdered his own brother so that he could take hold of his flocks.  The next verse is instructive.  “And the Lord said unto Cain: Where is Abel, thy brother?  And he said: I know not.  Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Moses 5:34; Genesis 4:9).  Cain’s question is an important one.  Though most of us have not murdered to get gain we have neglected to be our brother’s keeper.  What is the responsibility we have to our brothers and sisters in this world-wide family?

We often think of the Law of Moses as cold and unfeeling.  In truth, the Law of Moses was in many ways more compassionate than the norms of our modern society and culture.  Under this law, all debts were released every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:1-2).  There could be the temptation not to lend near the time of the seventh year because the debt would never be repaid.  But the Lord admonished thus: “If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, not shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.  Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest nought…” (Deuteronomny 15:7-9)

Under the Law of Moses, strangers passing through someone’s fields could eat their grapes or pluck of their corn (Deuteronomy 23:24-25).  But they could not carry it away in a vessel because they would already have sufficient for their needs.  Jesus reminded the Pharisees of this law when they tried to corner him (Matthew 12:1).  Under the Law of Moses everyone was his brother’s keeper.  “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray, and hide thyself from them: thou shalt in any case bring them again unto thy brother.  And if thy brother be not nigh unto thee, or if thou know him not, then thou shalt bring it unto thine own house, and it shall be with thee until thy brother seek after it, and thou shalt restore it to him again.” (Deuteronomy 22:1)  “Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates.” (Deuteronomy 24:14)  Even punishments were restricted: “Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee.” (Deuteronomy 25:3)  There was reservation for human dignity even for criminals.  Always, in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, the people were asked to remember the mercy of the Lord upon them in the days of their captivity and so show mercy to each other.  “Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 10:19)

But that was the old law right?  Now we are supposed to live the higher law brought by Christ.  And what is this new law?  It in no way frees us from our obligations to each other.  In the new covenant we are brought into even closer fellowship.  We are asked to become Zion—the Lord’s people.  “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18)  In the latter days, very early on, the Lord said to “seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion.  Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich.  Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich.” (Doctrine and Covenants 6:6-7)  Zion was always the vision and the goal of the early Saints.  It was for Zion that they worked, suffered, and even died.

Jesus came to fulfill the Law of Moses, to complete it (Matthew 5:17).  It is understood in Latter-Day Saint doctrine that the Law of Moses, though good, was incomplete.  The Lord had originally wanted to give the law in its fullness but was not able to do so because of the hardness of their hearts (Exodus 34:1-2, Joseph Smith Translation; also Jacob 4:14-18).  But Christ brought the fullness though most still could not receive it.  We see this in a famous story.

“And, behold, one came and said unto him [Jesus], Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?”  Jesus said to him, “if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.”  “He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”  Arguably, the last commandment in the list was the most important and Jesus was to expand on it because the man inquired further.  “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?  Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” (Matthew 19:16-21)  The man was saddened and could not follow this commandment.  Jesus was saddened to and lamented that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”  (Matthew 19:24)

Hugh Nibley noted: “The word perfect (teleios) does not mean perfect digestion, perfect eyesight, perfect memory, and so on; it is a special word meaning keeping the whole law.  What remained for the young man, before he could be really serious (teleious), was keeping the law of consecration.  If he did not keep that, he could not be perfect in keeping the others either, in other words, the whole law, for he could not become one of the Lord’s disciples.  So there was nothing but for Jesus to dismiss him—and a very sad occasion it was when they parted… The Lord did not say, ‘Come back: perhaps we could make a deal.’  No, he had to let the young rich man go.  One does not compromise on holy things.” [1]

This is a radical vision and very difficult to swallow in a culture that honors capitalist virtues of self-interest and competition.  In our culture the ideal is that hard work is always rewarded with material success and the lack of it is a reward for slothfulness, or so we think it.  But in the scriptures our independence and self-reliance is called into question.  For are all dependent upon God for all things.

King Benjamin said: “And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance onto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.  Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent… For behold, are we not all beggars?  Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have? …And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain?  Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy… O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.”  (Mosiah 4:16-21)

The great cause of downfall for the people of the Book of Mormon was their treatment of the poor.  To use a modern term they neglected any responsibility toward social justice.  Mormon also saw our day and said this of us: “And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts… For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted…  Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?” (Mormon 8:36-39)

The Lord has high expectations for his people.  He expects us to live the Law of Consecration, to live celestial law and establish Zion.  In a revelation for our day the Lord said: “But behold, they have not learned to be obedient to the things which I required at their hands, but are full of all manner of evil, and do not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them.  And are not united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom; And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself.” (Doctrine and Covenants 105:3-5)

These are piercing indictments of our time—and they are unfortunately perennial.  But if we would be Zion the Lord expects greater things of us.  I in no way endorse or support communism or aggressive seizure of wealth—this is not consecration.  Consecration is the “association with the sacred”.  It is voluntary and it is brought about by pure love.  If Zion is to be established it will be on the principles of love and fellowship.  There are ways in place to impart of our substance—through fast offerings, charities, or general alms.  The true Saints of God are those who have a grand vision of what the world could be like.  To say “Jesus is Lord” is to envision a world in which Christ is king and the present rulers of the world are not.  It is a world of unity where the Lord’s people have “one heart” and “one mind”.  It is a world in which we “lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees.”  (Hebrews 12:12)  It is a world of peace in which the swords are beaten into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks. (Isaiah 2:4)  When these things are realized and lived the Lord can again call his people ZION.


1.  In Hugh Nibley's speech "Law of Consecration" found in his book Approaching Zion.