November 10, 2008

Christian Faith: It's Object and Content

I'm currently in a class called "Communication as Chrstian Rhetoric." We are assigned two speeches to be delivered in the class. The first speech is to be on faith while the second is to be on love drawing on the idea of faith working through love in Gal. 5:6. Here is the manuscript from my first speech delivered earlier tonight.
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“The only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Such a declaration raises at least a few important questions. To who is this faith directed or to what? What is the content of this faith? How is this faith defined? What sets this faith apart from any other faith? And what does it mean to say faith works through love? After all, isn’t faith personal while love is something that is directed towards another?

As Christians, it is important for us to be clear about the object and the content of our faith. This is especially the case in the present day because faith has become something of a buzzword. We’ve just finished an election season last week. We’ve seen presidential candidates interviewed by preachers. We’ve seen the candidates both associate and dissociate themselves with other preachers. We’ve heard them speak about their faith albeit generally vague. Faith is a buzzword and it seems that in our day, it’s more important to have faith than to be clear about the object and the content of that faith. So, what is Christian faith? To who is Christian faith directed?

When Paul the Apostle wants to talk about the origins of Christian faith, he goes all the way back to Abraham who is the “father of all who have faith” (Rom 4:11). And he keys in on two things. Abraham believed in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. The creator God who gives life to the dead is the object of Abraham’s faith.

You see, Abraham had a problem. He and his wife Sarah had no children, and they were too old to have children. This is a problem because, for Abraham, when he dies, that’s the end of his name, the end of house, the end of his heritage. His property will go to a slave in his home, and he will be forgotten because there is no one to carry on his name. So, what is it that makes Abraham so special? Paul says that Abraham believed a promise. He believed the promise of God that God would give him a family. Now talk about unlikely. Paul likes to point out that Abraham was one hundred years old. He was as good as dead. His wife too was elderly and barren. But instead of wavering, Abraham glorified God. He grew strong in his faith and he believed that God could do what he said he would, namely bring life out Abraham’s dead old body. For Paul, this is the paradigm, the model of Christian faith. Christian faith is faith in the creator God who raises the dead.

Now you and I live in a period of history where God has revealed more than he had revealed to Abraham. The God who raises the dead has given us a concrete demonstration of his power to give life to that which was dead. The creator God has made himself known in history in Jesus of Nazareth who was handed over by the Jews to be crucified by Romans. They put him on trial and put him to death. But the Creator, the one who is able to give life to the dead, the one that Jesus knew as Father, reversed the decision of the court by raising Jesus from the dead. So, you see, to believe in the God who Abraham believed in, to believe in the God who raises the dead, is to believe in Jesus, the one who was dead but now lives. Christian faith is faith whose specific object is the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Now if the object of Christian faith is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, then what is the content of Christian faith? What is the central proclamation, the gospel that Paul says is the power of God for salvation to those who believe? What is the message, that when believed, leads to salvation?

Paul opens his letter to the Romans with a description of his gospel. He says that the gospel is about God’s son, who is descended from David according to the flesh and declared to be son of God with power according to the Spirit of Holiness by resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:3-4). So, the gospel has to do with Jesus’ descent from David, a king of Israel, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead which confirms his Messianic status as Son of God. The gospel has to do with Jesus’ kingly descent and his resurrection from the dead.

This is confirmed later in the letter to the Romans when Paul articulates the “word of faith which we proclaim” (10:8). He says, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). This, then, is the word of faith, the gospel, and the central Christian proclamation: Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. The crucified and risen Messiah Jesus is Lord of the world. Paul says believe that and you will be saved.

So, to this point we have seen that the object of Christian faith is the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the God, who by his Spirit raised Jesus from the dead. We have also seen that the content of the word of faith, the gospel, is Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead.

Now someone is going to ask why this is important. After all, I’ve simply defined Christian faith. Who is to say that some other faith is not valid? Why is Christian faith any better or more important than any other faith?

The answer to such an objection is that the gospel, the word of faith, is the power of God for salvation to all who have faith. The gospel itself is God’s power for salvation to all who believe (Rom 1:16). Well what does that mean? Well, sometimes an example is helpful in trying to understand the scriptures. In 1 Thes. 1:5, Paul says, “Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” When Paul preached the gospel to the Thessalonians, the Holy Spirit went to work powerfully to convict them of sin. So, why is it important to be clear on the content of the gospel? It’s important because the proclamation is the means of grace by which the Holy Spirit goes to work to convict of sin and draw people to the Father through the Son. We need to be clear about the content of the gospel so that we can be faithful preachers of the gospel. We need to be clear on the content of the gospel so that we do not distort the gospel and strip it of its power because we think we know better than the Spirit. This is important because sometimes we are tempted to tweak it because we think if we can phrase it just right, then we can hook ‘em. But our job is not to tweak the word of faith. Our job is to be faithful preachers of the word of faith. When we proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead, the Spirit of God goes to work in power to convict and convert. We must be clear on the content of this word.

So, some will respond that you’ve got your faith and I’ve got mine. The problem is if it isn’t Christian faith in the Lord Jesus and the God who raised him from the dead, then it isn’t saving faith. In fact, Paul says in 1 Cor 15 that if it is not resurrection faith, then it’s futile faith. And we are still in our sins. So, when Paul says that the only thing that matters is faith working through love, he has in mind a very specific kind of faith.

So, the call for us today is a call to clarity, boldness, and faithfulness: clarity in the object of faith, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, clarity in the word of faith, Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead, boldness in our proclamation of that word, and faithfulness in our proclamation of that word despite opposition which will try to relativize faith. There will be voices which proclaim alternatives. Our task is to be faithful to preach the good news: Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead.

1 comment:

Luke said...

Matt, I thought you might be interested to listen to the most recent podcast at the White Horse Inn. They discuss a great quote from Will Willimon on preaching. Check it out.
http://www.oneplace.com/ministries/The_White_Horse_Inn/
You probably can also find an interview Mike Horton did with Willimon at www.whitehorseinn.org
Luke