In the information age, people define themselves primarily by their opinions rather than their actual behavior. This is not only the case for hard-core partisan ideologues, but also moderates who define themselves as more “reasonable” by balancing “conservative” opinions with “liberal” ones. While it used to be said that treating others with respect and integrity was the measure of one’s character, many today evaluate their moral courage according to how willing they are to stand up for their opinions (ESPECIALLY IF THEY DO SO IN ALL CAPS). I don’t know to what degree bad Christian theology contributes to our society’s ideological wasteland and to what degree it is the product of it. But I do think there is a basic problem in how we understand the faith that saves us. Many Christians today think that “faith” amounts to believing the right things (holding the right opinions) about Jesus’ death and resurrection so that He will respond by “saving” us and accepting us into His kingdom. But I think it’s more in line with Biblical teachings to say that our faith is the result of God winning our trust through what Jesus did so that we could be saved from the impossible hell of trying to prove our worth to God, whether through deeds or rituals or opinions.
Ephesians 2:8-9 is the most succinct summary I’ve been able to find of the critical Christian doctrine about our salvation that we call justification by faith: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Throughout Paul’s New Testament epistles, faith and works are put into contrast. Paul emphatically makes the argument that no work we perform will ever be adequate to earn God’s favor. Our one critical task is to accept the faith that God freely gives to us as a gift and live the rest of our lives on the foundation of this faith. But what is this faith that we receive from God? Many Christians have been taught that faith means simply “believing in things you cannot prove.” Under this definition, “faith” very quickly turns into a set of propositional statements about Jesus that we’re supposed to accept without proof: born of a virgin, died on the cross for our sins, raised from the dead, coming again at the end of time, etc. To have faith comes to mean simply that you agree with whatever the Bible says about Jesus. I don’t think this is unimportant, but is it really what the Bible is talking about when it says the word faith?
Here’s the problem with this definition of faith: it’s really a work even though it’s not supposed to be. I am saved by works rather than faith if my salvation is contingent on anything I do, whether it’s living a life free of sin, faithfully partaking of the sacraments of penance and Eucharist every week, making a “decision” for Christ, or believing all the right opinions about theology. Calvinism tries to get around this logical problem by saying that God predestines us ahead of time to have the right opinions about Him so that we can fulfill the requirements of His entrance exam for heaven. But what if the reason that faith saves us is completely different? What if faith saves us from the anxiety of trying to measure up to God’s entrance exam and all the sins we fall into as a result of rebelling against our self-perceived need to prove our worth to God?
Faith is truly not a work derived in us if it is the result of God winning our trust that He really is perfectly gracious. We don’t have to invent a doctrine of predestination to explain how our fulfillment of God’s entrance exam is His work and not ours if there is no entrance exam. That’s what is most difficult to accept. If there were an entrance exam, I could figure out what it is and how to fulfill its terms while maintaining my own autonomy. It is much harder to trust God and renounce my control over the situation. And that is the one requirement: to repent of trying to prove my worth to God so that I can receive my worth from Him as a gift and then spend the rest of my life proving God’s worth to everyone I meet.
People who really trust that God’s grace is sufficient for them are not going to exploit it by continuing to live selfishly because self-preservation is ultimately a lack of trust. To trust God means letting Him reign over everything about me. I may not always obey God perfectly; I will still fall into sin; but I know most fundamentally that I am insufficient and untrustworthy as an autonomous individual. I need God. I trust Him to be my guide and master. The more this trust shapes who I am, the more the Holy Spirit is able to transform all the ugly qualities about my character that I would otherwise be defensive about. When we are grounded in this trust, God empowers us to “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). He draws us into His light, an experience that would be terrifying without trust.
The reason I can enter into God’s presence and participate in His divine nature is because of Christ’s sacrifice for my sins. It is not that God needed Christ to die in order to tolerate my presence as a sinner, but rather that I needed Christ to die in order to tolerate God’s perfect holiness without fleeing in terror. Hebrews 10:19-21 is very helpful in explaining this distinction:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
Notice what the writer doesn’t say. He doesn’t say that we can enter God’s presence because God has been satisfied by the blood of Jesus. He says that Jesus’ blood serves the purpose of giving us confidence and sprinkling our hearts to cleanse us from a guilty conscience. Jesus’ cross is not God’s personal anger management strategy in response to our sin as so many Christian pastors have mistakenly described it. God doesn’t have emotional needs like that since He is perfectly holy and loving. The cross is rather the means by which God wins our trust, because He can say, “Look, I paid for your sin, so stop lying, stop hiding from me, and accept my love.” If we trust God, then His love is infinite comfort; if we refuse to trust Him, the same love becomes torture from which we flee, seeking some outer darkness to hide in. We may never have all the right opinions about God, but trust is what saves us from the misery of rejecting His grace, and trusting in our opinions about God rather than God Himself is damnation.