Explaining Our Christian Faith
To explain our faith we must be clear about how we understand scripture to affirm:
We begin by showing how the Bible supports these teachings. Then we examine, in the light of our biblical understanding, three claims made by some Christians:
In the first book of the Bible we find references to the "steadfast love" of God (Gen. 24:12. 14, 27; 32:10; 39:21), and this same affirmation appears also in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings. The saying that Godís "steadfast love endures forever" appears six times in 1 and 2 Chronicles, and is repeated over and over in the Psalms. (In Psalm 136 this acclamation is made 26 times!)
The steadfast love of God is also affirmed by many of the prophets. Isaiah 54:10 proclaims to the exiled people of Jerusalem: "My steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the LORD, who has compassion on you." Jeremiah also writes that Godís "steadfast love endures forever!" (Jer. 33:11) Daniel confesses in prayer, "Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances." (Dan. 9:4-5)
Danielís words remind us that the love of God in the Old Testament is understood as the core of the covenant with the Israelites. In response to God's love, the people of ancient Israel are to love God by keeping the commandments God has given them. So, after these commandments are summarized in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, we read, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." (Dt. 6:4-5)
This understanding of the covenant between God and the Israelites, as an intimate relationship of love, is the reason why the Song of Solomon is included in the Old Testament, although it never mentions God. This Song begins: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wineÖtherefore the maidens love you." This secular love song is read through the eyes of faith as a metaphor expressing the love of God for the people of ancient Israel.
Jesus and his followers, as Jews, were familiar with this teaching of Godís love. The books in the Old Testament were their scripture. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find the teaching of the Great Commandment in the gospels of the New Testament. The gospels report that when Jesus was asked, "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?" he answered, "ĎYou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.í This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ĎYou shall love your neighbor as yourself.í On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Mt. 22:36-40, and also Mk. 12:28-32 and Lk. 10:25-28) Here Jesus affirms that Deuteronomy 6:4-5 is the greatest commandment, but he also links this commandment to a teaching in Leviticus 19:18, which says we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
In the gospels of Matthew and Luke the commandment to love our neighbors is extended to include our enemies. In Matthew 5:44-45 Jesus says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." In both the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus teaches what has become known as the Golden Rule: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Lk. 6:31, Mt. 7:12)) Moreover, Luke 10:29-37 tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what it means to love others, even those who seem to be our enemies.
The gospel of John does not include these teachings, but in the fourth gospel Jesus says to his disciples, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Fatherís commandments and abide in his love." (Jn. 15:9-10) Moreover, the gospel of John concludes with the risen Lord asking Peter three times, "Do you love me?" (Jn. 21:15-17) In the fourth gospel the love of the disciples for one another is to be the mark of their faith in the love of God they know in Jesus.
The love of God and the call to love God and others, including our enemies, reverberates throughout the New Testament. Paul writes, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." He says, moreover, quoting Proverbs 25:21: "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink." And he proclaims, "Godís love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." (Rom. 13:10, 12:20, and 5:5)
Paulís most famous teaching about love is in 1 Corinthians 13, where he says that: "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never endsÖfaith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love." (13:4-13)
Perhaps equally well known are words from 1 John 4: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is loveÖGod is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them" (4:7-16) As with the gospel of John, the teaching emphasizes the love the disciples have for one another, which reveals to others the love of God for those who are faithful.
It seems clear that this revelation of Godís love is at the heart of the story of faith in the entire Bible. The love of God is what makes sense of both the Old and New Testaments. This love is certainly expressed in different ways in each Testament, but it is love throughout. Perhaps in the Old Testament story God expresses more anger than in the New Testament story, but Godís anger is always because of Godís love. Anyone can understand this. Because we love our parents or our children, we may easily become angry with them.
The God that Jesus knew was the God of the scriptures we call the Old Testament, which in the time of Jesus were the only scriptures. Obviously, Jesus knew Godís love! We cannot doubt that his experience of Godís love was shaped by his knowledge of Jewish scripture. Also, the New Testament was written by inspired followers of Jesus who saw Godís love not only in Jesus, but also in the teachings of the Jewish scriptures. This is why the New Testament is filled with quotes from and allusions to the Old Testament. There may be two Testaments, but there is one story of faith and one God of love.
Is this teaching of Godís love not only crucial for any interpretation of the Bible, but also for understanding how we are to live? Nothing could be clearer! The teaching that we are to love God comes from our faith that God is love. We see this in the covenant God made with the Israelites, but even more vividly in the teachings about love in the New Testament. Christian ethics begins with the Great Commandment to love God and our neighbors, and lessons in the New Testament calling us to love even our enemies have inspired courageous and compelling acts of witness and service throughout history. This is the heart of our Christian faith.
English translations of the Bible have only a few references to "grace" in the Old Testament, and most translations do not use the word in the first three gospels of the New Testament. The author of the gospel of Luke, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, does use the word frequently in Acts. And the gospel of John twice refers to the "grace and truth" that came through Jesus Christ. (Jn. 1:14, 17) However, it is primarily the letters attributed to Paul that make grace a central concept in the witness of the church.
Grace is not a teaching that Jesus gave to his disciples, based on his understanding of the scriptures of his people. Grace translates a Greek word used by Paul and others in the early church to explain for Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles the saving power of God in Christ.
The letters attributed to Paul begin with a greeting in Greek that is often translated into English as "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." (Rom. 1:7, 1 Cor. 1:3, 2 Cor. 1:2, Gal. 1:3, Eph. 1:2, Php. 1:2, 2 Th. 1:2, Phm. 1:3) In a few of these letters the greeting varies slightly, but conveys the same message. Paul says, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father" in Colossians 1:2, and "Grace to you and peace," in 1 Thessalonians 1:1. The two letters to Timothy begin, "Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord." (1 Ti. 1:2, 2 Ti. 1:2) And the letter to Titus begins, "Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior." (Tit. 1:4) Moreover, most of these letters end with a prayer that "the grace" of God and the Lord Jesus Christ will be with all of those reading these letters.
For Paul, grace refers to the ongoing presence of God in Jesus Christ in the life of the church. Paul says this grace is Godís gift (Rom. 3:24, 5:15, Eph. 3:7) for all who have sinned, which includes Gentiles as well as Jews. Grace is Godís act of love forgiving the sins of the world, and this act of forgiveness is revealed in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Grace, for Paul, is proof of Godís righteousness, for the death of Jesus, who was a righteous man, reveals that suffering and death are not Godís eternal punishments for violating the commandments of the law of Moses. Paul argues that "sin came into the world" (Rom. 5:12) through Adam, and that the sin of Adam led to the dominion of death. He argues, "Just as one manís trespass led to condemnation for all, so one manís act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all." (Rom. 5:18) And this life, for Paul, is "eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rom. 5:21)
Grace refers to the power of God, a dominion that does not require us to keep religious laws. God alone saves us from our sin, Paul teaches, and the saving act of love in Jesus Christ offers life even for the Jews who opposed him. Paul affirms that God has not rejected the people of Israel, for by rejecting Jesus as their Messiah they made it easier for Gentiles to accept Godís grace in Jesus Christ. (Rom. 9-11) Grace is offered to all, Jews and Gentiles, because grace frees us from the impossible task of earning our salvation. Grace is the new covenant ĺ new life "according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:5), new life "in Christ" (Rom. 12:5), new life "by faith" (Rom. Gal. 2:20, 3:24).
Paul makes it clear that our faith is from God. "Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed." (Gal. 3:23) Faith is the result of Godís grace. Faith is our acceptance of the gift of grace. Faith is our embrace of the dominion of the Spirit made available to all through Godís love. If grace plants a seed within us, faith is our nurturing of that seed by the way we live.
Like grace, the word "faith" is rarely used in English translations of the Old Testament. Unlike grace, however, the word for "faith" appears frequently in the first three gospels of the New Testament. The disciples of Jesus, we may be surprised to learn, are often said to have little faith (Mt. 8:26, 17:20, 18:8; Lk. 12:28). However, Gentiles occasionally are complemented for their great faith (Mt. 8:10, 15:28; Lk. 7:9). And those, who have been healed by Jesus, are told their faith has made them well (Mt. 9:22; Mk. 10:52; Lk. 8:48, 17:19, 18:42).
In Greek, the word translated as "faith" has its own verb, but in English there is no verb form of faith. Instead, in English the verb "believe" means faith when expressed as "believe in" and belief when expressed as "believe that." Because the noun "belief" is rarely used to translate the Greek word for faith in the New Testament, we know faith is not merely a mental state but an action, which is what the verb "believe in" means. Faith is not holding the right beliefs, but trusting in God.
If we look for the Greek verb for faith in the New Testament, we will find that it is everywhere. The gospel of John, which does not use the Greek noun for faith, is revealed to be all about faith, as forms of the verb "believe in" appear more than 95 times in the fourth gospel. Through the adjective "faithful" we find a link back to the Old Testament, for there God is said to be faithful (Dt. 7:9; Ps. 31:5, 69:14, 145:13), and the people are called to be faithful to God. 1 Sam. 2:35 proclaims that God will make Samuel a faithful priest at Shiloh, and Ps. 31:23 affirms that God will preserve the faithful.
The noun "faithfulness" also is common in the Old Testament. The Psalms are filled with references to the Godís faithfulness and to the faithfulness of the people of Israel in their covenant with God. In most English translations of the New Testament "faithfulness" is used only twice, both times by Paul. He affirms the faithfulness of God (Rom. 3:3) and includes faithfulness among the gifts of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). In Paulís letters faithfulness describes a personís response to Godís grace. The old covenant was between God and a people, but the new covenant is between God and each person.
The shift from faithfulness to grace and faith, and from a people to persons, explains how salvation changes in the new covenant, which is marked by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the Israelites and their descendants, salvation was first for their people and then, through their people, for all peoples. In the New Testament, however, the good news is that salvation is for each person, both now and forever.
Does the teaching of salvation through Godís grace in Jesus reflect the story of faith in the entire Bible? Yes, it does, if we see and accept the shift from a people to persons, which is embodied in Jesus Christ, as a person, and in the church, as the body of Christ. Does this understanding guide our living as well as our scripture reading? Certainly, if we accept Paulís argument that faith in response to Godís grace inspires us to witness to the love of God for each person, not only in words but also in deeds of mercy and justice. Moreover, the teaching of salvation by Godís grace through our faith clearly reflects the love of God, for it is a saving manifestation of Godís steadfast love, not only for each person, but for everyone.
We hear of the Spirit of God at the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 1:2, in the image of a wind (or Spirit) moving over the face of the waters. And through the books of the Old Testament we find the Spirit of God (or the Spirit of the LORD) "filling" chosen persons, or "coming upon" or being "poured out" or "resting" on prophets. The Spirit of God also calls, lifts, brings, enters, and abides. In the Old Testament the Spirit of God is the means by which God enables persons to speak and act boldly to proclaim and do Godís will.
In the New Testament the Spirit of God is also called the Holy Spirit. This Spirit conceives Jesus in Mary, in the birth stories told by the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and in all four New Testament gospels descends on Jesus when he comes before John the Baptist,. In the first three gospels this Spirit drives (or leads) Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by quoting from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lordís favor." (Is. 61:1-2)
In the Acts of the Apostles, which is written by the author of the gospel of Luke, the appearance of the Spirit of God again marks the beginning of a new ministry, this time the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ. The author of Acts has Peter quote from the prophet Joel: "In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesyÖ." (Acts 2:17 quoting Joel 2:28) Moreover, the Acts of the Apostles describes how the Spirit guided the growth of the church.
Paul speaks in all his letters of the Spirit of God and, though less frequently, of the Holy Spirit. But it is the author of the gospel of John who lays the foundation for the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. In the fourth gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit, the "Spirit of truth," will abide in them. This "Advocate" (or "Helper") will teach them everything, and will remind them of what Jesus has said to them. (Jn. 14:15-26) Jesus promises: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth." (Jn. 16:13)
There can be no doubt that teachings about the Spirit of God are a unifying theme in the Bible. This Spirit is Godís way of coming to and working through men and women of faith. When Jesus teaches in John 4:24 that "God is spirit," he is teaching from the scriptures of the Jews. Although often the Old Testament describes God in anthropomorphic terms, this language is best read as metaphorical. The Bible identifies God as spiritual power, rather than as a material being.
Like the lessons concerning the love and grace of God, teachings about the Spirit of God reflect the entire faith story of the Bible. These teachings also guide our living as well as our reading of scripture. The Spirit is our guide, for it inspires and emboldens us. Moreover, the Spirit of God is the ongoing presence of God that guides our interpretation of scripture. Christians affirm that the Bible is not just an ancient book, but a source of new insight into life in every time, when read with the guidance of the Spirit.
Does this teaching about the Spirit of God strengthen and support the teachings about the love and grace of God? Certainly, the Bible seems to present the love, grace and Spirit of God as manifestations or ways of touching (metaphorically) our lives. God, who creates and thus transcends the space and time in which "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28), enters our lives and history as Spirit.
Finally, we must ask if these three teachings, which are the heart of the Bible story as well as Christian faith and life, enable us to verify sound Christian teaching. To see if this is so, we will consider the following assertions about the Bible and Christian faith that are popular in our time.
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study Ü Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer