Saturday, November 26, 2011

On True Faith (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

"What is more consonant with faith than to recognize that we are naked of all virtue, in order to be clothed by God? That we are empty of all good, to be filled by him? That we are slaves of sin, to be freed by him? Blind, to be illuminated by him? Lame, to be made straight by him? Weak, to be sustained by him? To take away from us all occasion for glorying, that he alone may stand forth gloriously and we glory in him?" -John Calvin

"We must not fancy we are holy because we are human." -C.S. Lewis

The greatest act of faith has nothing to do with the existence of God. It has nothing to do with believing in supernatural occurrences, such as visions of angels or the universe-shaking truth of the Incarnation. It has nothing to do with either God's omnipotence or His goodness. It has somewhat to do with believing in the sufficiency of Scripture, but that is not all. It most certainly never has anything to do with blind "leaps" into the dark, as though faith were foolishness rather than a courageous act of reason. The truth is that the greatest act of faith has to do with ourselves, i.e., that we are sinners.

Think about it for just one moment. There are plenty of people who have never cracked open a Bible or even a catechism who will admit to the existence of God. Plenty of perfectly sane, skeptical people will admit (at the very least) the possibility of angels and other such supernatural occurrences. Still others will allow for the existence of Jesus, and that he was (in some vague, whitewashed way) a "son" of "God". And many others will gladly condescend that the Bible is an important book with many important things to say. But put before them the notion that all their righteousness is filthy rags before God, and you have instantly become bigoted, narrowminded, unprogressive, offensive, and unkind. Nothing sparks indignant incredulousness like the doctrine of Original Sin and the idea of Total Depravity (regardless of how you define "original" and "total"). It runs roughshod over every sensibility we have of ourselves. Even if we will admit that we are not perfect (and there are plenty who do), none would ascribe that we are wholly without merit in the eyes of God. If anything, the very idea reeks of undemocratic elitism.

Yet it is that very idea that is the entrance point to the Gospel. When the apostle Paul wanted to write a great treatise on justification and salvation, he did not begin with our ability but our inability, culminating in those highly offensive words: "There is none righteous, no, not one.... There is none that does good, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10-12). Just ponder those words for half a moment and you will see the all-consuming seriousness of it. No one is "righteous"? No one "does good"? Absurd. We see good deeds every day. Perhaps you have seen one today. Yes, evil abounds, but there are good people out there; you may have just met one not ten minutes ago. How, then, can Paul say that none do good? It goes against all common sense.

Remember, however, that neither Paul nor any part of Scripture is appealing to our sense; he and it are always appealing to God's sense. When we call verses like Rom. 3:12 absurd because we have "seen good" just yesterday, a question must be asked: how do you define "good"? What standard are you using to measure it against? If you are honest with yourself, you will have only two answers: either you don't know, or you are measuring it against your own personal preferences. Your standard is either nebulous or yourself. For Scripture, the standard is neither, for the standard is God; and His standard (in both the Old and New Testament) is simple and unchanging: holiness and perfection (Lev. 20:7, Matt. 5:48, & I Peter 1:14-16). I dare say that we meet "good" people (by our own definition) every day, but have we ever met a perfect person? Of course not, but guess what: if there are no perfect people (including ourselves) then we are all doomed. The standard is unreachable, for the standard is the very glory of God Himself, and we all fall short of it every time (Rom. 3:23).

That is why this is the entrance point to the Gospel. It is not enough to believe that you "aren't perfect" by some vague (and convenient) standard of your own. You must see that the standard of perfection and goodness belongs to God and God alone, and that you are bereft of such glory despite your best efforts. This is why we need a savior, because we are doomed without one. Christ did not come to simply teach us the standard; He died "for the ungodly" (literally, for those not "like" God; Rom. 5:6, 8), lowering Himself to our level so that He could raise us up to the standard: "For [God] has made [Christ] to be sin for us...that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him" (II Cor. 5:21). Did you catch that? Christ died so that we might be made "the righteousness of God," i.e., God's perfect standard. The bar has not been lowered; God is still God. Rather, we have been gloriously raised to the bar, for Christ has died for sinners and raises them to "newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). That is the Gospel, by which if any man believes, he shall be saved; but the very first step of that belief starts on the darkest square. Your very first move must be into the abyss, for only their does your own darkness become apparent, and only there does the light burst forth like lightning trapped in a diamond.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

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