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The Heart Of It All (Part 7): Salvation By Trust & Our Faith Response

The Heart Of It All (Part 7): Salvation By Trust & Our Faith Response

Christian claim #7: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

I have long appreciated this fascinating quote from Reinhold Niebuhr:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;
therefore, we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
therefore, we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone;
therefore, we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint;
therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

It’s that phrase “saved by faith” that has become etched in our minds. The Reformation cry challenged believers to locate the ground of their salvation in “sola gratia” (grace alone) and the appropriation of God’s grace gift through “sola fide” (faith alone). There is something truly powerful–and right–being urged here. As we saw earlier, the Scriptures are clear that salvation of sinful humanity is rooted in the loving kindness of a gracious God. And while Christ tasted death for everyone, he forces his grace on no one: “faith” (the usual translation of the Greek word pistis) is presented as the proper response to God’s gracious gift. But many important thinkers–across the broad sweep of the Christian tradition–have suggested that there is more here than meets the eye, and that the full range of Christian teaching in terms of proper response to God’s gracious call can be summarized as “sola fide” only if we explore the deeper–and richer–meaning of pistis in the New Testament. Borrowing phrases from Richard Hays and Matthew Bates, I would like to explore the idea that Christian teaching affirms “salvation by trust” or “salvation by allegiance” — which includes a whole-hearted, whole-life response incorporating personal volition and public identification, personal commitment and communal initiation. In short, salvation by pistis points to Christ’s action, the church’s identity, and the individual’s response; properly understood, “responding in faith” does not separate “interior belief” from “appropriate action.”

Salvation by Trust Points to the Life-Surrendering Allegiance That Jesus Offered To God

First, we must not think of “faith” primarily as something I do that adds to the work of Jesus. That kind of thinking leads people to assume that Jesus did 50% of the work, and we do the other 50%. Even if we think of it as a 95/5 split, this wrongheaded approach to salvation often arises from thinking that “faith” is always entirely about me, and what I offer to God. But to help us get clearer on the subject, we should remember that, for the Apostle Paul, pistis often refers to the allegiant life of Christ, culminating in his finished work on the cross. Following the arguments of Richard Hays and others, it is important to note that sometimes when our English Bibles speak of “faith in Christ,” the author actually had in mind the “faithfulness OF Christ.” Let’s begin the discussion with the word “faithfulness.” Just look at Galatians 5:22 in virtually any English version: you will see that the fruit of the Spirit includes “faithfulness.” The Greek word here is simply pistis — the same word translated “faith” in other places. So, the word pistis can be “faith” or “faithfulness” depending on the context.

“Salvation by trust” reminds us that God’s loving action in Christ is the beginning, the middle, and the end of our salvation.

So what passages might speak of pistis as referring to the active allegiance Jesus paid to the Father through his faithfulness? The main place to look is in the book of Galatians, though it helps to have the Greek text in front of you. If you don’t read Greek, open up biblegateway to Galatians 2:16 in several different versions. While the NIV tells us that a person is justified “by faith in Jesus Christ”, other older versions (such as the KJV, The Geneva Bible of 1599, and the Wycliffe Bible) reveal that one is justified “by the faith OF Jesus Christ.” God “demonstrated his righteousness” when he “presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement” (Rom 3:25 NIV). On the basis of this important claim, some translations (I think rightly) declare that righteousness and justification are given to us through “the faith of Jesus Christ” (Rom 3:22). On this reading, the new life “in Christ” is one that I live “by the faith of the Son of God” (Gal 2:20), and the righteousness which I claim is not my own, but “that which is through the faith of Christ” (Phil 3:9) because the righteousness of God is “by the faith of Jesus Christ” (Gal 3:22). “We have boldness and access” to the Father, says Ephesians 3:12; possibly “by faith in him”, but other versions render it “by the faith of him.” To summarize the argument, one important facet of pistis–for Paul–is that we are saved by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, and through the faithful operation of God in raising Christ from the dead (Col 2:12).

Why does this matter? Because by emphasizing the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, we can speak of “salvation by trust” or “salvation by allegiance” without taking our eyes off of Christ! “By grace through faith” does not have to be a transition from “God’s part to my part.” It can be spoken of–in the most fundamental terms–as referring to God’s work in initiating a relationship, and Christ’s work in securing that relationship. Only the faithfulness of the righteous one could secure salvation. “Salvation by trust” reminds us that God’s loving action in Christ is the beginning, the middle, and the end of our salvation.

Salvation by Allegiance Points to the Public Confession & Profession of the Community of God

Second, the phrase “salvation by faith” can too often be thought of in individualistic terms, when the New Testament writers thought of “the unity of the faith” to bind believers together in one body–the body of Christ (Eph 4:13). Most New Testament letters were written to groups, not individuals; and most of the “you” pronouns are actually plural. “It is by grace y’all have been saved through faith” is not a bad translation of Ephesians 2:8! And, as members of the community of Christ, we all share in the “one faith” (Eph 4:5).

This is why the New Testament both affirms and assumes that the shared experience of “salvation by faith” includes the public declaration and initiation into the community of faith. Those who chose to trust in Caesar for salvation made a public vow and/or were incorporated into the citizenry and protection of Rome or a Roman province. Those who chose to shift their allegiance to the teachings of a cult–such as Isis or Mithras–would undergo initiation rites and identify as a member of a new community. In fact, it is hard to imagine how giving one’s trust or allegiance can be divorced from a willing entrance into a new life situation or vocation.

The story is old, but still very good. Charles Blondin was a famous Frenchman who, in the mid 19th century, amazed crowds by walking the tightrope. The first person to cross Niagara Falls, the Blondin stunned onlookers by crossing in a sack, on a bicycle, and even while blindfolded. “Do you believe I could carry a person across in a wheelbarrow?” Blondin asked the crowd. “Yes of course, we believe that!” came the reply. “Then who will volunteer to climb in the wheelbarrow?” asked Blondin. As you guessed…no one stepped forward.

The Apostle John seems to hold a similar understanding of faith as involving a public act of commitment or trust in which one both declares their trust in and identification with a new person, group, or system; this response of faith includes crossing over from ones old way of life to a new way of thinking and living, complete with the blessings and dangers that come with leaving the old and entering the new. John mentions Nicodemus on three occasions; the unsuspecting reader might get a rather positive impression. After all, the first time we meet Nicodemus he comes to Jesus, praising him and entering into a conversation about the new birth (John 3:1-2). The second time we hear of him, Nicodemus speaks a good word on Jesus’ behalf at a crucial moment (John 7:50-51). Finally, we encounter Nicodemus after the death of Christ, where Nicodemus helps anoint the body of Jesus for burial (John 19:39-40). All sounds good, right?

See the whole Christian story of salvation–cross, resurrection, community, incarnation, Spirit-empowered holiness, and whole-life surrender–encompassed in the public crossing-over confession that is the baptismal event.

Not so fast. John leaves four important clues that suggest he sees Nicodemus as a negative character–a cryptobeliever–which, for John, is no believer at all. The first clue is the phrase “by night.” In at least two (and in some versions, all three) of the accounts, we are reminded that Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night.” For John, there are two options–light and darkness; day vs. night. The imagery of light and day contrasts with darkness and night throughout his gospel. The positive characters walk in the light, while the negative characters walk in darkness. The second clue is that Nicodemus is called “a ruler of the Jews” and when the group of skeptical leaders antagonistic to Jesus begin their insults, Nicodemus is still identified as “one of them.” The third clue is found in connecting the end of chapter 2 with the beginning of chapter 3. Remember, the original gospel of John contained neither chapters nor verses; they were meant to be read together. Chapter 2 ends with John reminding us that Jesus while many people “believed” in Jesus because of the signs that he displayed, Jesus did not “believe in” or  “entrust himself to” any man, because he knew what was “in” a man. The very next statement builds on this point: “Now there came a man…by night…who was a ruler of the Jews…who said ‘no one can do these signs unless God is with him.” Nicodemus is introduced as an example of the kind of people Jesus did not “entrust” himself to (because they did not “entrust” themselves to him; they simply enjoyed being onlookers, rather than jumping in the wheelbarrow, so to speak). The fourth clue makes this point vividly. The last time Nicodemus is mentioned, he is in league with another man who is described as one who claimed to be a disciple “but secretly for fear of the Jews.” Taken together, all of these clues paint a portrait of Nicodemus as an interested onlooker–maybe even an amazed and enthralled front-row ticket-holder; but from beginning to end of the gospel, he is publicly known as being on the side of those unwilling to commit to Jesus, unwilling to suffer the consequences that come as a result.

Not everyone did. John makes it clear that those who publicly identified–those who crossed over–would be thrown out of the synagogue (John 9), face the real possibility of death (John 14-16), and be hated by all people. It is not a coincidence that the topic under discussion when Nicodemus is first introduced is the new birth “of water and spirit”–a passage which would remind later Christians of their experience of baptism (see Titus 3:5 referencing the “washing of rebirth” and the “renewing of the Holy Spirit”). In John 12, John puts all the pieces together:

  • Walk in the light; the one who walks in darkness (i.e., at night) does not know where he is going (12:35)
  • The call to clearly identify with Christ meant that simply being an onlooker would not be enough (12:37-40)
  • “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him [such as Nicodemus-ng], but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (12:42-43).

There is a reason the Christian church has long acknowledged “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” When John the Baptist put people under the water, he called them to publicly identify with the only one who could possibly save them. He called them to cross over and become part of the people waiting for the kingdom of God (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3) When the early Christians spoke of “responding in faith,” they called people to cross over–to make a public declaration that included an initiation in which they transferred their loyalty to King Jesus and joined the band of followers who were now marked for death (Acts 2:38; Rom 6:1-4). This connection with death is emphasized by St. Augustine: 

[B]aptism in Christ is nothing else than a similitude of the death of Christ, and that the death of Christ on the cross is nothing but a similitude of the pardon of sin: so that just as real as is His death, so real is the remission of our sins; and just as real as is His resurrection, so real is our justification (Enchiridion 52).

But baptism is not simply a death, but a birth into a new life. The fourth century Christian thinker Cyril of Jerusalem is credited with describing the baptismal font as both a “tomb” and a “womb.” As Olivier Clément has expressed it, 

Baptism is the total immersion into the choking water of death, from which we emerge in the joy of breathing once again, of ‘breathing the Spirit.’ For the water, changed from lethal into life-giving, embodies the resurrectional power of the Spirit, of which it is a natural symbol…The Spirit, then, shapes the person who has been renewed in water, which has become maternal, just as [the Spirit] brooded over the original waters, but this time his work is re-creation. In the water, the hard growths of the soul, the callouses of the heart, are dissolved. The person becomes once again tractable and receives a form of life, which is symbolized by the white garment put on after he or she emerges, the symbol of the glorified body (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, 103-104).

The Anglican theologian, N. T. Wright, speaks of baptism as the Christian’s “exodus moment” when they leave one community (the community of sin, selfishness, and personal merit) and enter the new community (of grace-infused kingdom life with the people of God). In this sense, as Bonhoeffer biographer Paul House puts it, “baptism creates a breach between the believer and the world.” Wright notes that while we may have lost the significance of this moment in the West, there are places in the world where the visible public “crossing over” moment makes an announcement as clearly as it was meant to make in the first century. The first century included a “good confession” made before many witnesses, which often put one on the outs with their former circles. In baptism, we transfer our allegiance and pledge our loyalty to King Jesus, joining a new community of willing martyrs who stand with Christ.

Cyril of Jerusalem: Baptism is both a 'tomb' and a 'womb.' tell the world

While the practice of Christian initiation is found throughout the Christian tradition, there are good reasons for encouraging the church to adopt a “thick grammar of baptism” (to borrow a line from Conor Sweeney) in which we see the whole Christian story of salvation–cross, resurrection, community, incarnation, Spirit-empowered holiness, and whole-life surrender–encompassed in the public crossing-over confession that is the baptismal event. In short, we would do well to heed Timothy George’s salient wisdom: treat baptism “as the decisive, life-transforming confession, witness, and event it is supposed to be.”

Salvation by Faith Points to the Virtuous Pattern of Life Which is the Christian’s Vocation

Finally, to claim that we are “saved by faith” is to describe a new orientation, a way of life that characterizes every believer. The Apostle Paul truly does give us reason to rejoice by speaking of salvation as a completed act; but other times, he reminds us that we are on a journey, and engaged in a process, in which we are “being saved.” This is a reminder that the life of faith is a constant declaration that our loyalty belongs to King Jesus. The author of Hebrews calls Christians to walk “by faith”, and every illustration offered in Hebrews 11 reminds us that to act “in faith” and to walk “by faith” involves obedient recognition of God’s call upon every aspect of my life. 

Peter Leithart has summarized this facet of “salvation by faith” very well:

Paul, in short, sees baptism not only as a rite of entry into the body, an engrafting into the death of Jesus, a gift of the Spirit. Baptism is also a standard by which our performance as baptized people, and as a baptized community, are to be measured. Baptism is a canon of Christian living.

To put it another way, as George Weigel points out, the day of your baptism ought to be “the font from which everything else” in your life flows. The Apostle Paul warns his readers repeatedly in Galatians 5 & 6 that certain patterns of life simply do not–and cannot–characterize people of faith, for they betray where our true loyalties lie. This is why Jesus doesn’t simply call us to know that he is our Savior; but we are called to claim him as our Lord. We are called to genuine repentance, which is a turning from our former ways, and adopting a new lifestyle characterizing the lead of God’s Holy Spirit.

The day of your baptism ought to be “the font from which everything else” in your life flows.

It is in this context that we can understand and affirm the multiple passages of Scripture that claim our “works” will play a role in future judgment (Matt 25:31-46; Mark 10:17-31; Rom 2:6; Gal 5:16-6:10Rev 2:23). Salvation is by Christ, in Christ, because of Christ, for the sake of Christ. The life we live reveals where our loyalties lie. We are not saved “by our works” or “by baptism into Christ” or “by being part of the community of faith” or even “by faith alone” if we understand these terms solely as “our human gift to God to add to his finished work on the cross.” No! But in its proper context, salvation by trusting allegiance places the emphasis where it belongs: on the finished work of King Jesus, displayed in the community of faith, and witnessed by our walk of life.

Resources For Further Reflection
Article: Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (Lima document, 1982): ecumenical agreement on baptism.
Article: Christian Studies, Vol 28Vol 29 (Austin School of Theology) on the subject of baptism.

photo credit: Mosaïque de la Porte impériale de l’ancienne basilique Sainte-Sophie de Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey).

Categorized: Christ & His Kingdom , Healthy Theology: A Starter's Kit , The Gospel
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