Chapter 3: Steps of Faith. 4, Clarifying the Good News

As I leaf through my old Bible, I find still more verses and passages (in addition to the ones I listed above) that I underlined or yellow-lighted all those years ago in this very text—things I was trying to understand, to explain to other people and to myself.

Of course, there is good old John 3:16-17, and John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Such wonderful words!  And this:

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).

And this:

…since all have sinned and falls short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith… (Rom. 3:23-25a).

And these:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2).

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance….Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10).

He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness (Heb. 5:2)

A related, long passage, 1 Corinthians 15:35-58, practically bursts with joy and anticipation. That passage is appropriate for funerals, but why should we limit the passage only to situations of grief and loss?  That scripture provides wonderful confidence for day-to-day muddling-along, too: what a wonderful life God provides for us, now and always.

If we’re going to articulate our faith—if even to ourselves—-we need to understand why this good news is momentous: it’s the good news of God’s favor and love for us, the power God provides us for living, and the life that God gives to us which never ends.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it well, “There is nothing you can do that will make God love you less. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. God’s love for you is infinite, perfect, and eternal.”[1] We don’t necessarily need a crisis in your life to feel that love—sometimes that’s true—but we often find God’s love especially meaningful at different situations, or when we’re feeling unlovable or vulnerable for some reason.

Have you ever thought of “relief” as an essential Christian emotion?  I mean relief that you are justified before God, the kind of relief you feel when your medical tests come back negative, or when the lawsuit against you is dropped, or when a good job comes your way after a time of unemployment, only more so?

One thing that puzzled me was the fact that the disciples gave up significant things, and in some cases everything, in order to witness to God’s love in Christ.  In many cases, these people chose misery and suffering over comfort, as for instance in Acts, where the disciples suffered abuse, rejection, and imprisonment, and in the case of Stephen, death. Their choice of God’s love was far from the comparatively domesticated versions of discipleship today: joining a particular church, pursuing a particular career path, perceiving yourself as persecuted when someone disagrees with you on a political or cultural issue. Christian faith could be catastrophic—yet it was something that people chose eagerly and freely.

Why did they? The early Christians realized that the truth of God’s righteousness, love, and mercy was better than any momentary comfort (Rom. 5:9, 2 Cor. 5:10, 1 Thess. 1:10). They saw the opportunity for a loving, eternal, abundant relationship with the creator of the universe—a relationship filled with power, not only for “the next life” but for service and transformation in this life, too.[2]

For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power (1 Cor. 4:20).

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom. 1:16).

…because 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 (1 Thess. 1:5a)

There have always been times in my Christian life when I wanted the Spirit’s power and conviction but nothing seemed to happen.  We should realize that the Spirit doesn’t always exercise divine power at the moment we want, or in a way that registers with our emotional feelings. Sometimes the Spirit does so, and sometimes the Spirit works through us to plant seeds in another person’s life that will grow imperceptibly. Or alternatively, we may be a positive influence upon someone else for Christ, but their “soil” is not ready for God’s power (Matt. 13:18-23), at least for the time being.

Whether or not we “feel” God’s faithfulness is, in a way, irrelevant. Feelings can be poor barometers; for instance, you might have many friends but, for one reason or another, you feel lonely. The reality of your life is God’s divine life that is given to you and for you.

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20)

Because I live, you also will live (John 14:19).

Why does God share his divine life for us? According to Paul, God wanted to “prove himself.”

But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26).

In Paul’s letters, righteousness is God’s quality of his own faithfulness to the covenant: now, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  God declares us righteous “in and through Jesus.”  It has nothing to do with us or our deservedness or our own righteousness. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8-9).

But we Christians mess this up so often by being judgmental and unloving. We’re too self-focused on those promises that “there is no distinction” and “this is not your own doing” (and, as Paul also said, “God shows no partiality,” Romans 2:11).  We’ve difficulty showing love to people who are different from us—whose race or sexuality or talents or economic standing or denomination or religion is different from us–because we still think, at some level, that we’re more deserving than they, that we are more righteous than they, that “there is no distinction” is still a kind of club to which we were fortunate enough to be included. The grace we’ve received, and the meager victories we may have won over our own sinful hearts, gives us some kind of privilege—so we think. But there is no privilege in the Gospel. We don’t have to be exclusive, because God is partial to no one.[3] That is Good News, indeed.

"but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). Schultz Hall at Eden Theological Seminary

“but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18)

All these underlined and “yellowed” verses in my old Bible were important as I tried to articulate the Gospel in head, heart, and life.  Over thirty years later, these passages (and others) still have tremendous power as I reread them and allow them to true my faith in difficult times.

As I look through my Bible, I think about how “remembering” is a theological concept, too.  Remembering God’s blessings and mercies is inextricably linked with those described in the Bible, bridging the centuries so that those mercies and blessings are within our own comparatively meager stories. That little verse Acts 10:38—my first memory verse—-is itself a portion of a memory of who Jesus was and the things he did, told to other people who subsequently knew the living Christ. Reading and hearing the scriptures are ways we remember Jesus, and certain passages—Ephesians 2:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:5, 2 Timothy 2:8, 2 Peter 3:1-2, and others—are specific calls to remember. Likewise, the liturgical words of the sacraments.  The words of the Eucharist include the reminder to remember Christ, his death and resurrection, and his promise to return; otherwise we don’t have a sense of why we’re sharing the elements. The sacrament of Baptism evokes the name of Jesus and thus the memory of who he is and what he did on our behalf.[4]

The New Testament scholar Nils Dahl, who writes about all this, describes Philippians 2:5-11 as not so much a confession of faith but a “commemoration of Christ,” and other early Christian liturgies and practices, including the celebration of the Lord’s Day (Sunday) can be called commemorations of Christ—ways by which we remember Christ.[5]  Remembering Christ in turn involves both an understanding of the gospel and the way God wants us to live, a “rule of conduct.”[6] These passages are very much in keeping with Old Testament calls to remember the Lord and his commandments, promises, and mighty acts, for instance the book of Deuteronomy, thoroughly a call to remember as a means to ongoing faithfulness.

As you read your Bible, and as your pastor preaches on Bible texts each week, try marking passages (or indicate them in notes) that help you, too, remember the Lord. That’s what I’ve done here. After a while, you’ll have your own “canon” of favorite passages by which you can mark your steps of faith, as I did in my old Bible all those years ago. Whatever is the quality of my or your religious life, whatever is the path we each take in our faith, the book provides us promises that we remember and rely upon, as the Spirit guides us amid our times and places.

Link to Chapter 4

[1]  From Lorraine Kisly, ed., Ordinary Graces: Christian Teachings on the Interior Life (New York: Bell Tower, 2000) 192.

[2] Luke T. Johnson discusses the experience and “resurrection faith” of the first Christians: The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, chapters 4 and 5.

[3] Dave Barnhart, God Shows No Partiality: The Forgotten Slogan of the Early Church (CreateSpace, 2012).

Nils Alstrup Dahl, in his book, Studies in Paul: Theology for the Early Christian Mission (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1977), has a chapter, “The Doctrine of Justification: Its Social Function and Implications” (95-120). For the Apostle Paul, the doctrine of justification has social implications in that there is no distinction between persons in Christ—e.g., the famous Galatians 3:28. Paul’s controversy with Peter (Gal. 2:11ff) shows how Paul strongly asserts Christian unity at the Lord’s table because there is no distinction: we are all sinners, but God justifies sinners through faith (108-109). God acquits Jews and Gentiles alike because we all are sinful (111).

“In his requests and exhortations, Paul puts heavy stress on Christians’ relationship with one another. The commandment to love one’s neighbor is interpreted to be a commandment to love one’s brothers within the community (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14-15). In the life according to the Spirit which Christians live and in their mutual love, they fulfill the real requirements on the Law, on the basis of justification (Rom. 8:4)” (113).

We Christians tend to narrow the doctrine, according to Dahl, when we interpret the doctrine mostly in terms of the individual’s relationship with God as part of an ordo salutis: awakening to the Law’s requirement, rebirth in faith and the accompanying justification (acquittal), and then sanctification” (p. 118). But then, the broader implications of justification tend to be lost (118).

As a United Methodist I have to be careful, because John Wesley did affirm an ordo salutis and closely linked sanctification and justification. But I still appreciate what (Lutheran) Dahl writes about Paul’s gospel of justification. Dahl notes, “The revivalist movement and the evangelical world mission provide obvious examples that the doctrine of justification can have far-reaching social consequences….But it is hard to deny, precisely on the basis of the experience of the missionary churches, that a Christianity which limits the doctrine of justification to personal religious experience and salvation is insufficient. Young Asian, African and Indian Christians today ask for guidance to overcome the problems which their societies and their churches confront. Like many Westerners, they have trouble finding the answers in pietistic-evangelical religiosity. Missionaries brought not only the justifying gospel, but also Western patterns of behavior and a ‘ceremonial law’ enacted by the traditions of the different churches. The questions are complication. One example is polygamy. ‘The missionaries preach salvation by grace alone,’ said one African pastor, ‘but in practice that turns out to mean salvation by only one wife’” (118-119).

Dahl continues that justification does tend to move into the background as aspects like social responsibility, ecclesiology, sanctification, etc. are brought to the front. But for him, “The urgent task is rather to rediscover the social relevance and implications of the doctrine of justification…to what extend does the current practice of the church deny de facto the doctrine of justification, because it excludes certain groups of people from free access to God’s grace in his church?” (119).

He uses the example of racial discrimination and asserts that the problem is “not something outside the task of preaching the gospel… It belongs to the heart of the gospel message that God shows no partiality, and that for this reason neither can the congregations which gather in his name, wherever they may be” (119).

“The social implications of the doctrine of justification mean that believers must visibly express their unity in the fellowship of the Lord’s table, as Paul so forcefully insists” (120). But churches continue to disavow the doctrine in practice.  “Has the message of the doctrine of justification, “There is no distinction,” had any impact on the social structure of the churches? Today, does not full acceptance into a suburban congregation presuppose a certain social standard and certain patterns of behavior?  Do I go too far to suggest that middle class social standards and stereotyped forms of conversion experience and of religious expression have become the ceremonial and ritual law of our time?” (120).

[4] Nils Alstrup Dahl, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), the essay “Amamnesis: Memory and Commemoration in Early Christianity,” 20.

[5] Dahl, Jesus in the Memory, 20-21.

[6] Dahl, Jesus in the Memory, 25.


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