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Faith to live by

WE BEGIN this month with a new series of reflections based on the Apostles’ Creed. Traditionally the Apostles’ Creed is recited weekly in Christian worship as part of the liturgy. The Apostles’ Creed provides a summary of the teaching of the New Testament.

 

Although the Creed was not written by the apostles themselves, it is deemed apostolic because it contains the main tenets of the Christian faith that the church received from the apostles. The present form of the Creed can be traced to the 8th Century, although variations can be found as early as the 3rd and 4th

centuries. The earliest form of the Creed was the one used by the church in Rome in connection with baptism. The Greek version is found in the writings of Marcellus of Anycra in AD 340 and Rufinus used the Latin version in about AD 400.

As a baptismal formula, the Creed is structured according to the three-fold question format in Hippolytus’s “Apostolic Tradition” which was composed in the early years of the 3rd Century. In the early church, three questions were put to the baptismal candidate: “Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, our Saviour? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, a holy church, and the forgiveness of sins?” To each of these questions, the candidate must reply “I believe” before he or she was baptised in the name of the Triune God in relation to which the three parts of the Creed were structured.

 

The Apostles’ Creed, in its present form, is not the only creed that has been formulated by the church. Other creeds, some of which are more ancient, like the Nicene, the Athanasian, the Ephesian, and the Chalcedonian, were also formulated with the view of articulating the essential tenets of the Christian faith. On the last few pages of “The Methodist Hymnal” there can be found a number of creeds, some of which are very recent, and of Korean and African origins. These creeds are similar in substance to the Apostles’ Creed even if their language is somewhat different. Like their older counterparts, these contemporary creeds serve as attempts to enunciate the teachings of the church.

 

The Apostles’ Creed begins with the simple statement “I believe.” Theologically, this statement serves as the prefix to all that follows, the fundamental presupposition of all the other assertions made in the Creed. Every statement in the Creed is therefore a faith-statement: faith is their basis, and only in faith may they be understood and grasped. Faith is therefore the indispensable presupposition for our knowledge of the being and acts of God.

 

What then do we mean by faith? Faith is trust: it is trusting in the God who has revealed Himself to be absolutely trustworthy. Faith finds refuge in God. The German theologian Karl Barth stresses that faith cannot be understood except relationally because faith has primarily to do with trust. “In God alone,” Barth maintains, “is there faithfulness, and faith is the trust that we may hold to Him, to His promise and to His guidance. To hold to God is to rely on the fact that God is there for me, and to live in this certainty.” To have faith is to en-trust oneself to God.

According to the Bible, faith is a gift from God. This means that faith is not something that man can harness or develop – it is not intrinsic to man but its possibility is grace. Faith and grace are therefore inseparable. Faith can never be seen as the contribution on the part of the human being, which establishes for him some sort of claim on God. Faith is an undeserved divine free gift to man, and therefore can never be seen apart from grace – as something “natural”. But faith at the same time is also a real and personal decision on the part of the believer.

 

Faith is not the passive consequence of some irresistible grace, but an active movement God-ward on the part of the believer. This decision, it must be stressed, is a free decision of the believer, the result of divine persuasion, not coercion. In the same way, faith is the decision of the individual, although that decision has as its locus the Christian community. Thus the great Reformer Martin Luther could say that “the Christian is a person in his own right; he believes for himself and not on behalf of anyone else”.

 

Faith, however, also implies knowledge and understanding. Faith trusts because it knows; it has knowledge of the God whom it trusts. So faith is never a leap in the dark, never a mindless religious fanaticism. Neither is faith a blind trust that asks no questions. Here the thought of Anselm, the 11th

 

Century theologian and Archbishop of Canterbury, was enlightening. For Anselm, true faith was characterised by its quest for understanding, for true faith is a form of knowledge. The knowledge of faith, to be sure, must not be understood as purely cognitive knowledge.

 

Without faith, knowledge of God is impossible

The knowledge of faith is profound as it is intimate, mysterious as it is personal. The knowledge of faith is analogous to our knowledge of another person, and not our knowledge of inanimate objects. It is a knowledge that results from an I-Thou rather than an I-It relationship.

 

Faith, then, is exclusive: its trust and its loyalty belongs to God alone – to this God, the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, and no other god. Barth again makes this point with unusual clarity: “… faith is concerned with our holding to God exclusively because God is the One who is faithful. Similarly, the knowledge of faith is also exclusive knowledge – it is the knowledge of the One God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ”.

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The heart of revival

IMAGINE what would happen if John Wesley’s heart-warming experience on May 24, 1738 is reproduced thousands of times among us.

Most of us would say that we would have a revival or great awakening or renewal. This is because following this experience, Wesley began a long ministry of revival in Britain which later spread to America. Methodism became a renewal movement which John Wesley hoped would strengthen and renew the Church of England.

To reflect on this and seek greater understanding, let us look again at Wesley’s own description of his experience:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

In these much-quoted words, we discover two essentials or foundations for revival. This is also captured in Wesley’s understanding of the Methodist movement as one called by God to spread “scriptural holiness”. In that phrase we have the dual foundations of revival – Scripture and holiness.

Notice in Wesley’s description of his Aldersgate experience that he was listening to Luther’s preface to Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Revival is connected to the discovery and rediscovery of Scripture. It is no surprise that Wesley gathered a group of preachers to proclaim the Gospel. They were essentially called to a ministry of the Word. Wesley, who recruited, appointed and supervised them, expected them to share his great regard for the Bible when he described himself as homo unius libri (a man of one book – the Bible). We cannot escape noticing the centrality of Scripture in the Wesleyan revival.

The early Methodists were not the only ones with this experience. When the Jewish exiles returned to the Promised Land from their Babylonian captivity, God sent Ezra, the man of God, to encourage them. Ezra brought before the people the Word of God and read from it and explained it. A great change came upon the people that day (Neh. 8). Again, notice the centrality of Scripture.

The other foundation for revival is a focus on holiness. Wesley defined salvation as being saved “from the law of sin and death”. For long he was an earnest seeker of holiness and he had now found a deep experience of the freedom that comes from the Holy Spirit. He now had a deep and profound assurance that his sins were forgiven by God through Christ and that in Christ he had been given victory over sin. Holiness was to be an essential part of his life. Wesley saw this holiness to be seen in both the personal as well as social spheres of life. If you recognise that sin has to do with both doing the wrong thing as well as not doing the right thing, then you can appreciate why holiness has to do with both personal piety (being good) as well as social involvement (doing good).

Wesley’s experience echoes the biblical Ezra’s. The people in Ezra’s days responded with weeping and tears as they realised their sinfulness and repented with much humility. A God-led revival will always produce repentance and humility in the people’s hearts as they seek to be holy.

Scripture and holiness are therefore the hallmarks of true revival. We must remember this, for revival can come in many forms. The 18th century saw several revivals (or awakenings) in Britain, America and Europe.

Richard Steele has noted that there were at least four different models of revival. Firstly the spiritual awakening that took place in the New England area in America, centred around the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, was characterised by a revival in a local community spearheaded by the local pastor. The second model had to do with the ministry of George Whitefield, an early associate of Wesley. Whitefield preached to the masses in a period characterised by the beginning of increasing commerce, social anonymity and rootlessness, and the birth of the private self. Revival here took place over a large area and addressed private individuals in large crowds. The third model is associated with Count Zinzendorf, leader of the Moravian Brethren in Saxony, Europe. The focus here was on renewal taking place through dynamic small groups. Steel’s attributes the fourth (hybrid) model to Wesley, who followed an eclectic approach.

If Steele is right, then there are different shapes and forms of revival. How then do we know true revival from false ones? Wesley offers some answers when he describes five characteristics: There will be new discernment (judgment about the self and knowledge about holiness), direction (purpose) in life, desire (holy passions and inclinations), dealings (relationships with others), and deeds (actions springing from love of God and neighbour).

It is still helpful to return to where we began. The two key characteristics of true revival are a return to Scripture and the evidence of personal and social holiness. Revival is often mistakenly thought of as finding something new. It is in fact the result of rediscovering something old. The ancient ways of God are rediscovered with the freshness of immediate experience.

Another misunderstanding of revival is manifested when revival becomes an end in itself. In that case, it is revivalism more than a revival. Revivalism is the need for constant novelty, an insatiable restlessness that people try to feed by superficial stirrings of the soul. That is not true revival. True revival is not like the surface waves and ripples on the face of the water. It is more like the powerful deep currents and produces lasting transformation of the soul that brings forth humility, holiness and love.

We who follow Christ can pray to God to revive us (Ps. 80:18), and show that we mean it by rediscovering Scripture and holiness. Then God can put His wounded hands deep in our frozen souls and bring new life in us, among us, and through us.

TRUE REVIVAL

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