Just recently I’ve been thinking that we need to reclaim an old grammar of spirituality: a set of words, a language, a mood that we have lost somehow through various movements, revivals, and trends. It’s a tough thing to sum up, but is perhaps best encapsulated by the frantic father of the demon possessed boy in Mark 9:24, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’
It’s a way of honestly acknowledging our unbelief alongside our faith, knowing that Jesus came for the weak. It’s a way of resting in the truth that the gospel is for us when precisely we’re at our worst, and not feeling we need to dress ourselves up or hide behind false triumphalism. It’s a way of expressing our experience in the Christian life knowing that the grace of Christ is great enough to cope with our sin, weaknesses, and doubts. It’s often missing in our preaching and songs, and I’ve found that where I introduce it, people have immediately warmed to it. There’s such comfort when we feel safe enough in Jesus to sing, ‘Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love’ knowing that he still has nothing for us but steadfast love.
In order for us to grasp this dynamic of spirituality, we need to think again about what we mean by ‘belief’ and ‘unbelief’. What is ‘faith’, and how do we talk about it in a way which enables us to acknowledge our constant lack of it, while trusting Jesus entirely?
The dangerous thing about faith
Faith lies at the heart of Christianity. Sola fide. Justification by faith alone. We are saved not by works but by faith. Jesus told people over and over, ‘Your faith has made you well’. Great victories are won ‘by faith’. We hear of people taking ‘steps of faith’, ‘living by faith’, and ‘walking by faith, not by sight.’ Yet it’s faith (and particularly, thinking about faith) that can get Christians into some of their deepest troubles. It’s faith that can cause the greatest doubts, and faith that can often violently oppose the gospel.
Here’s why: faith is deadly as soon as it becomes self-conscious. Phillip Cary brilliantly explains this in his essay, ‘Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin’. He suggests that most of us think of faith and assurance along these lines: I know that if I believe in Christ I will be saved. So, since I believe in Christ, I know I am saved.
To be saved, I must meet the condition– I must believe. In order to know that I’m saved (conclusion), I must know that I have faith (minor premise). All seems fine, except that Cary shows us something terrifying lurking beneath the surface. It requires of us not only that we believe, but that we know we believe. For assurance of salvation, what we tend to look for is faith, and knowledge of faith. ’It’s not enough just to believe;’ he says, ‘You have to believe you believe, maybe even know you believe.’ Doesn’t that strike you as dangerous? Cary calls this ‘the requirement of reflective faith’– a faith that must be self-conscious in order to bring assurance.
The requirement of reflective faith will have haunted many, many Christians. It did me during my younger years. I’d become a Christian, and apparently done what needed to be done– yet at times I couldn’t disentangle my motivations from one another. Did I really believe? Or was I pretending to believe, since that’s what I thought I should do? Had I believed only for self-centred reasons like escaping hell, pleasing my parents? Was I really an unbeliever who’d tricked themselves into thinking they’d believed? These things, along with surprise at my own capacity for sinfulness, meant that I ‘became a Christian’ many times. What if the previous time hadn’t been real? Surely my sin meant it must not have been real faith. Surely what I needed was just to surrender everything this time, and fully trust God. I became a Christian hundreds of times, each time wondering if I was finally safe.
The requirement of reflective faith was just too much. Cary says this,
‘It discourages us from confessing our unbelief and encourages us instead to profess our belief… the Puritans spoke of those who were ‘professors of religion,’ meaning that they professed to know that they had been truly converted and regenerated by faith in Christ, whereas those who were not professors might be baptized Christians, able to confess the creed with all sincerity but not able to profess that they had true, saving faith. Those who thus could sincerely confess the faith but not confidently profess faith were taught to believe they were not truly regenerate or born again… The problem was to attain assurance that you really had true faith.’
Faith that confesses its unbelief
Cary’s answer to this problem is that we become little more Lutheran. What has Luther to offer those of us who are looking for assurance? When assaulted by doubts and fear, Luther famously had scratched-into his desk Baptizatus sum, ‘I am baptized’, and his heart and mind were calmed. At first glance, your baptism seems an odd place to go for your assurance, but Luther’s reason for going here is a brilliantly good one. It’s a different promise to ‘Whoever believes in Christ is saved.’ Cary summarises this way. At my baptism, the words were pronounced over me: I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ These were the words of Christ who does not lie but only tells the truth, and so I may be confident that I am baptized: united with the Lord in his death and resurrection.
When Luther wanted assurance, he turned to the promise made to Christians in baptism, rather than to his own capacity for faith. Luther captured something significant here. He is exercising faith, but he’s not looking at his own faith– only at Christ. The point of faith is always its object. Faith is never about itself, but only ever about the truthfulness of God. Romans 3v4: ‘Let God be true, and every man a liar.’ God is truthful, trustworthy, and right.
‘…to say that God speaks the truth is, of course, to make a kind of profession of faith— but… it is not reflective. We’re not required to talk about our faith, to know we have faith, to profess, ‘I believe.’ We are required, of course, to believe. We must believe that what God says is true, and we must stop calling God a liar (and furthermore, not incidentally, we must believe that Christ who makes the promise is God). But that, of course, is what faith essentially does: it believes in the truth of the Word of Christ. The problem with reflective faith is that it must do more: if reflective faith is required, then believing in God’s Word is not quite enough, because we must also believe that we believe.
‘Here’s where I think Luther’s got it fundamentally right. What faith says, fundamentally, is ‘God speaks the truth.’ Only secondarily, and not fundamentally, faith may also say, ‘I believe.’ But faith may also say, ‘My faith is weak’ or ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief’ or ‘I have sinned in my unbelief and denied my Lord, like Peter the apostle.’ Faith may confess its own unbelief. What it cannot do, if it is to remain faith at all, is stop clinging to the truth of God’s Word. For faith does not rely on faith, but on the Word of God. Christian faith, if Luther is right, does not have to be reflective.’
Doesn’t that make your heart feel very glad? Faith may confess its own unbelief. Though my heart will lie to me every day about my status before God– and with good evidence for its case in my sin!– still God speaks the truth, the gospel is for me, and I am saved! We may weep daily over our sin and doubt, but the grace of Jesus is great enough to contain it. Our salvation isn’t ever threatened by our behaviour, since our justification doesn’t depend on our faith, but on the Word of God. In fact Luther says, ‘…he who doesn’t think he believes, but is in despair, has the greatest faith.’
There is a difference between having faith, and depending on your faith. Faith relies on the truth of the Word, and not on itself. We may have many questions about our faith– its strength, goodness, quality, genuineness, and whatever– and can allow ourselves a healthy dose of pessimism about it. My faith is not good. I’m not good. But I don’t have faith in my faith! Rather, I trust One who alone is good and true. Indeed, ‘…because we find we have nothing at all to hang on to but the bare truth of God’s word, which we scarcely feel we believe, and indeed we mostly feel we don’t believe. And the only comfort is that this word is true, despite our desperately inadequate faith. Let God be true and every man a liar—including myself. Let me recognize as clearly as I may that my own heart is full of lies and unbelief; nonetheless God speaks the truth. That I can believe, even when I don’t believe I believe.’