Posted on March 6th, 2011
Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the Pakastani government, was assassinated last Tuesday for opposing Pakistan’s “blasphemy laws,” which prevent the free expression of religious beliefs. For example, defiling the Quran merits life imprisonment, and speaking against Muhammad is punished with death. There is a moving video from the London Telegraph interviewing Bhatti wherein he predicts his murder and, as he says he is ready to die, confesses: “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given His own life for us. I know what is the meaning of cross, and I’m following … the cross.”
He gives a confession of faith in Jesus, and also an acceptance of his own cross, his assassination. I found it very moving, particularly in light of the tremendous ease with which we exercise our faith here in the free world. I’m compelled to ask myself if I would have similar courage if death was on the line.
Isn’t it very easy, not just in confronting death, but in facing all the other things that trouble us in this life, to ask where God is, and why He does not help? My great sorrow in life may not be the same as yours, but we all have something that causes us sorrow, despair, regret, or anxiety. The religious questioner then asks, “Why does God not intervene? Why does God seem not to care? Why does God evade us? ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Bayer, Living by Faith).
These questions about what troubles us are like open wounds—they hurt. And what we want most of all is to close the wound, so we must find an answer, even if it is a false one, or a sinful one, to make the hurt go away.
“Faith” is seen as that answer, but it is very easy to make the mistake of thinking that “faith” is optimism, a confidence of the heart that everything will be okay. And thus we think also that faith is something we must generate from within ourselves, our working, thinking, feeling, deciding. Think about faith in light of the last couple of Sundays, and the great Solas of the Reformation that we have heard about.
Two Sundays ago we heard the message of Sola gratia, Grace Alone, about God’s abundant grace in giving what is not deserved to the laborers in the vineyard. Then last Sunday we heard about Sola scriptura, Scripture Alone, how God is very generous with His Word, and that only Scripture can be our authority. Now it is Grace Alone and Scripture Alone that give us another one of the Biblical teachings restored in the Reformation, Solus Christus, Christ Alone. Only Scripture shows us the grace, the free gift of forgiveness and life that is found in Christ alone. When we therefore speak about Sola fide, Faith Alone, we are not speaking about some abstract faith, but a faith that must have an object, the faith that looks alone, only to Christ, the Christ of Scripture (and not our imagination) to find God’s grace, which alone is the way we can be saved.
All of that is wrapped up in the blind man, who has faith in Christ because of the Word that he has heard about Him, and so cries out in faith for grace, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Now we don’t know much about this man; but we can be fairly certain his life wasn’t everything he could have hoped for. After all, he is blind, and his source of income is alms, begging by the side of the road. His life is painful, and it can be hard to see how the pains of our lives can serve any good.
But if we look at all the examples of faith in Scripture, we learn this truth: “The experience of faith is painful.” Why? Because before we believe, we take credit for our works, our strength, our powers. As long as we give ourselves credit, we give no credit to God. So God uses our own pain, our own losses and disappointments and injuries and sicknesses, our own failures and finally the approach of our own death to drive us in pain to abandon our pride, abandon our hubris and self-reliance and self-justification and realize that we cannot save ourselves. God through the experience of our crosses is teaching us to say with St. Paul, “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, nothing good dwells.”
Our Lord JESUS is described in Phil. 2 as “emptying Himself,” and we likewise are called to empty ourselves, that is, no longer trust in any of our own works or merit or goodness, but simply know that God works, God does all things. That is, we die, die to self, die to the world, die to our own aspirations for achievement, fame, glory, riches, and pleasure, even die to our own religious aspirations of amazing spiritual feats. In the words of Dr. Luther, “To be born anew, one must consequently first die.”
This kind of faith, that looks to Christ alone, is the real point of demarcation among Christian churches today. Why is there division in Christianity? The divisions do not rest on ethnic groupings, traditions, or liturgical preferences; they do not hinge on views regarding Baptism or the Lord’s Supper, the role of women in the church, or the form of church government. All divisions—and one’s views about those various issues I just mentioned—rest on the matter of justification by faith alone. Other church confessions—and, we must admit, the religious imaginations of our own hearts—say, “Faith is not enough; I must do works” (Luther/Bayer). In technical language, it is the thought, “I must add sanctification to justification in order to be saved.”
But just as faith is not just knowledge, an intellectual assent to a set of doctrines, neither is it some kind of spiritual tool which we wield to obtain enlightenment or self-fulfillment. Faith is not the means by which we can achieve our goals, improve our lives, or even obtain the power to become people good enough for God.
No, rather faith dies to all such ideas and notions and dreams and hopes. Faith looks to the self and says, “There is nothing in me that is good,” and at the same time looks to Jesus and says with the blind man, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And what does Jesus do with the one who despairs of himself and looks only to Jesus? That man, recovering his sight, follows Jesus and praises him. That is not how that blind man gets saved; that is the result of Jesus’ saving work in him. That is what we call passive faith, where God gives us His righteousness, an alien righteousness that is extra nos, outside of us. Luther put it this way: “The righteousness of faith is passive in the sense ‘that we let God alone work in us and that in all our powers we do nothing of our own.’” (Bayer).
When I was a vicar in Norman, Oklahoma, I saw an advertisement for a contemporary worship service at a local church. I wish I had saved it, because it’s almost too much to be believed. These contemporary services have to have catchy titles, and this one had something to do with discovering the self. The logo that accompanied this service was of an androgynous person gazing into a pool of water looking at his reflection. Doubtless without realizing it, this church had chosen for its logo the very picture of the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man renowned for his beauty, who was punished by the gods such that, upon seeing his own reflection in a pool of water, he fell in love with his own picture. So enraptured was he with the image of himself, he died because he could not bring himself to leave the pool. This is not the image we want to present for Christian worship! And yet this is precisely what happens with so much of the self-reflecting, emotion-driven worship of our modern times.
My new favorite theologian, Oswald Bayer, is a German pastor whose works are just beginning to be translated into English. A book of his I’m reading now has a wonderful section entitled, “The Gift of Self-Forgetfulness,” and it lays out a view of the Christian faith completely opposite from the advertisement I just described. “Those who are born anew are no longer entangled with themselves. They are solidly freed from this entanglement, from the self-reflection that always seeks what belongs to itself. This is not a deadening of self. It does not flee from thought and responsibility. No, it is the gift of self-forgetfulness. The passive righteousness of faith tells us: You do not concern yourself at all! In that God does what is decisive in us, we may live outside ourselves and solely in him.” (Living by Faith, p25).
What a wonderful image – to no longer be entangled with the self, forever troubled by the great sorrows of our lives, forever plagued with guilt over our past sins, forever plagued with doubt about our own inadequate faith and imperfect works. The righteousness of faith says, “I am nothing, but my Jesus is everything! He has done all that I need!” This faith is rooted in the doctrine of creation, that God made me, and so we can say with the Psalmist to God, “I am Yours; save me!”
That is what the blind man in essence says to Jesus: “I am Yours; save me!” He doesn’t make an argument to Jesus about why he deserves to see again, how he has been good, or how many times he has prayed for this chance. He simply says, “Lord, help me!” That kind of prayer is given us to emulate: “Lord, help me! Lord, have mercy on me! Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
The blind man’s plea is the cry of faith: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Entering this Wednesday into Lent, God grant you a renewal of this faith in Christ, who alone saves you from yourself, from death, hell, and every evil.