Inklings of Truth


Putting Too Much Faith in Faith

By Audrey Stallsmith

Are we putting our faith in faith rather than in Christ?  That seems to be the question N. T. Wright is asking in his book What Saint Paul Really Said.

In that book, Wright points out that Paul wasn’t preaching a new religion.  He was preaching the fulfillment of a covenant which had begun with Abraham about 2000 years before Christ was born.  That covenant was supposed to redeem the world through the obedience of the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, the Jews kept rebelling against God instead.  Considering the bent to sin in all humans, we can assume that would have been the result no matter which people He had chosen to be his representatives.  Therefore, God had to provide for himself a perfect Jew who would keep the law as it had been meant to be kept.

The death of that flawless Lamb, Jesus Christ, fulfilled the covenant once and for all.  So the Judge can pardon the rest of us because--as in the Old Testament sacrifices--an innocent Lamb has taken our punishment for us.

Although these days most of us agree that works can’t save us, we may fall into the error of believing that the working up of our faith can.  But, as Wright points out, “Faith is the badge of covenant membership, not something someone ‘performs’ as a kind of initiation test.”  He concludes succinctly that, “One is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith.  One is justified by faith by believing in Jesus.”

Since the difference can be difficult to understand, we might better be able to grasp it by imagining the case of Barabbas, who committed crimes worthy of death.  After literally suffering “the agonies of the damned” on the night before his execution, he receives a puzzling message.  Unlocking his cell door, a guard says, “You lucky, so-and-so, you.  They are crucifying some perfectly innocent prophet on your cross, so Pilate has reversed your conviction.  You are free to go.”

Barabbas is not saved by how earnestly he believes the guard’s message.  He is saved by a judicial pronouncement, which pardons him despite his guilt, and by his scurrying out of his cell in acceptance of it.

There are people too proud to accept such a substitution, who would insist on paying for their own sins themselves.  However, I suspect Barabbas didn’t quibble over the details of his release, but just beat it out of there as fast as he could go.    

Making this distinction may seem like quibbling itself.  Granted, most people aren’t going to accept the pardon unless they accept the story of what has been done for them. 

Faith is such an abstract thing, however, that it can be impossible to tell whether we have enough of it, and many over-sensitive Christians agonize about that.  It can be reassuring, therefore, to realize that our salvation isn’t based on abstractions, but on the execution of an innocent Man over 2,000 years ago.