When Luther said we’re saved by faith alone, he did not mean we’d be alone in our faith.
No, it’s not just nostalgia; faith really has changed.
Long ago, people believed what their community did. If your culture was animist, Buddhist, or Christendom, that was your faith.
All that began to change when an Italian pointed his telescope to the planets and told his community he no longer believed we were the centre of the universe. The keepers of the faith told Galileo he wasn’t allowed to believe that. Their attempt to control him undermined the credibility of the Church’s faith. Galileo became a kind of unofficial saint of independent belief.
Many who lost faith in the church turned to scientific enquiry. They analysed how the Bible developed from the antiquated beliefs of ancient Middle Eastern people. Their documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch’s origins is still studied today. But dissecting a frog in a lab doesn’t give you a living frog, and dissecting God didn’t either. In the 1800s, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche lamented, “We’ve killed God!”
Another German tried to rescue faith from the liberal thinkers. In something like a Jurassic Park reconstruction, Rudolf Bultmann tried to peel away the ancient trappings of faith to get to the DNA, and then reconstitute it into a living personal experience for a modern individual. Demythologize and remythologize were the words he used.
But Bultmann did not bring the ancient DNA of faith to life. Once he stripped away the communal revelation of God to his people, Bultmann couldn’t find much faith in the Old Testament narratives. (See his quote below.) Israel’s communal faith did not yield the individual faith he wanted.
Others were trying to develop an individual faith too. Evangelicals held to the historicity of the ancient communal faith, while redesigning faith as a personal response. Evangelists like D. L. Moody and Billy Graham reframed faith as a personal decision to accept Christ into my heart as my personal Saviour. By praying the Sinner’s Prayer, my personal faith would yield personal forgiveness for what I had personally done wrong, giving me a safe eternity.
A personal decision for a personal Saviour from personal sins? None of these phrases are found in Scripture. They are the changing face of faith, as presented in my lifetime. (Graph below.)
Faith and confidence
The problem with personal faith is that the person is at the centre of it. It all comes down to my decision. The Beatles made a personal decision to explore Eastern faith, so that was their personal faith, at least for a time.
I am at the centre of my faith. That’s the spirit of the age. Julie Andrews delivered the anthem in The Sound of Music:
All I trust I leave my heart to
All I trust becomes my own
I have confidence in confidence alone
I have confidence in confidence alone
Besides, which you see
I have confidence in me
That was 1965, and that message is now everywhere: superhero movies, children’s books, song lyrics, TED talks.
I’ve been watching Australian Idol. Every week the judges affirm the mantra, “Self-confidence is the key. You need to own the stage.” I can’t fault their theology: that is what it means to be an idol. The more difficult contest is convincing others to worship you too.
None of this is new. It’s the oldest trick in the book: Decide for yourself, and you will be like God (Genesis 3:5).
Where faith belongs
If we’re asking people to place their faith in God (not in the self), we need to communicate that well. We can’t gloss over the bit about God’s sovereign authority over us, that earth was intended to be a kingdom of heaven.
It’s not my decision that makes Jesus Lord. He is Lord by divine decree. The reign of death ended the day his Father raised him from tomb to throne. Heaven’s reign is restored to earth in the leader God has given us, and that’s the best news I’ve ever heard.
So God is now calling everyone to recognize the leader he has appointed. God opens our eyes to see his Christ as our Lord. We respond by trusting his leadership. Faith is loyalty to him as God brings us to life in him.
That’s why the language of personal faith is so misleading. Loyalty to a Lord makes us servants in his realm, so it’s never a private matter. In trusting the king, we enter his kingdom, so faith is always communal.
Jesus never proclaimed the gospel of the individual. He proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom and a kingdom is a community under a king. While we were developing a designer faith where individuals could get their personal salvation, God was working on saving his creation by calling us all to recognize his Son and participate in the communal life he is restoring in him.
We probably fooled no one but ourselves. People can see if we’re off for a personal walk or following someone. Like he said, This is how everyone will know you’re my followers: if you love one another (John 13:34).
What others are saying
Here’s a sample of Bultmann failing to find his individualized faith in the Old Testament:
Rudolf Bultmann, “Πιστεύω, Πίστις, …” [Believe, Faith, …] in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament ed. Gerhard Kittel et al, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 6:182–183.
If very generally faith is regarded as man’s relation and attitude to God, the OT statements regarding it are not of primary importance. For the most part anthropological interest is here secondary to a theocentric view. As the OT understands it, faith is always man’s reaction to God’s primary action. Related hereto is the fact that older OT religion was collective in structure, and it was difficult to give expression to the inner life of the community. Thus a wealth of usage begins to appear only when the individual breaks free from the collective bond, and on the basis of his own experience devotes special attention to the attitude of man to God. The prophets, by a deepening of content, gave a new creative impulse to the vocabulary and imagery of faith. The greatest extension of range and colour in the language of faith takes place in the Psalms, where the piety of the individual is most clearly expressed.
Here’s a sample of presenting personal faith as the message:
The only way to be saved is to personally accept Jesus as your Savior, trusting in His death as the payment for your sins and His resurrection as your guarantee of eternal life (John 3:16). Is Jesus personally your Savior?
If you want to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, say the following words to God. … “God, I know that I have sinned against You and deserve punishment. But I believe Jesus Christ took the punishment I deserve so that through faith in Him I could be forgiven. I receive Your offer of forgiveness and place my trust in You for salvation. I accept Jesus as my personal Savior!”
Here’s an n-graph showing how personal saviour and personal relationship with Jesus are phrases that arise out of modern culture, not our longstanding faith:
- Faith that amazed Jesus (Mt 8:5-10)
- The evangelical message (Jn 3:16)
- Losing faith
- Faith versus mistrust
Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia
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