Faith and Identity
A Reformation Meditation
Many people experience a crisis of identity. There is value in
questions of identity. Sometimes knowing who we are helps us know what
to become! As we think today about heritage, I would like to explore one
dimension of identity. A verse in the Book of Habakkuk can provide a
reference point for that quest, Habakkuk 2:4: "The righteous man
shall live by his faithfulness."
The year is 605 BC. It is a time of unrest and anxiety among thinking
men and women in Israel. The balance of world power is shifting. The
Empire of Assyria, the master of the world for nearly a century, is
crumbling before the armies of Babylonia. The tiny state of Israel is
caught between the jaws of Babylonia to the north and Egypt to the
south. War and horrible catastrophe loom on the horizon of history (see
Old Testament History- The Rise of Babylon and
But the people of Israel are oblivious to these events. They are
relying on a distorted sense of God’s protection that has grown up in
the days since Isaiah some 100 years earlier. They have developed the
idea that protection and deliverance and blessing by God could be
controlled by them!
"Just offer the right sacrifices, say the right prayers, go to the
proper festivals; nothing will happen. We are chosen! We are God’s
people! We know how to work God. God is obligated to our theology; He is
bound to our systems!"
The prophet Jeremiah sees the folly of such a narrow view of God and
tries to help the people understand that God is not bound to such human
notions. Yet, few listen to Jeremiah and still fewer believe him!
But Habakkuk believes! Habakkuk, too, sees the coming cataclysm but
struggles with another problem of faith raised by the clouds gathering
on the horizon of history. Habakkuk struggles with the eternal question
of WHY? "Why, God, do you work in the way that you do? Why do you allow
the world to fall into such apparent chaos? Why do you not just
intervene and exert your control for all to see? Why do you not act like
a sovereign God should? Why, God, do you not act like our religious
systems say you should? Why, God, do you not do things the way we want
By his questions Habakkuk is expressing the popular theology of his
day. "If God is going to be any good to us, he has to act according to
our rules. He has to be controllable!" How can you trust a God that does
not play by your rules?
Their problem, you see, is that they are putting their trust, not in
God, the Sovereign Lord, Creator and Master of the universe, but in
their idea of what God should be. In so doing, they are really trusting
the creature rather than the Creator. They have created theological
idols, idols of the mind. They have based deliverance on human religious
activity, on right belief and right behavior. They have exchanged the
truth of God for a lie and have worshipped God so that the Creator might
serve the creature.-1-
Here Habakkuk brings to bear one of the most profound truths of the
Behold, the one who is puffed up [who
thinks he is in control instead of God], his life is crooked and
sick; but the righteous will live by his faithfulness.-2-
Habakkuk’s insight is not new, but he expresses it in a new and
unforgettable way. God’s answer to Habakkuk, as he waits before God, is
that God can be trusted despite appearances to the contrary. Trust in
God must be trust in God and not in any idea of
God. Ideas of God, no matter how lofty or well intentioned, are too
often human ideas and can become idols of the mind; and idolatry leads
to death (Hab. 2:18-19). But for one who would be truly righteous, his
hope for life lies in trust: The righteous person will live by his
Yes, the Babylonians will come. Yes, the temple will be gone. Yes,
the nation will perish. Yes, the religious systems will fail. Yes, God’s
people will suffer. But that does not mean that God is not God. None of
these things are ultimate, only God! God will someday exercise his
sovereignty over the world in visible ways, but until then Habakkuk
says, "Be faithful."
Habakkuk goes on to define the kind of radical trust about which he
is speaking (3:l6-19):
In my place I tremble because I must wait
quietly for the day of distress, for a people to come up to attack
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and
there is no fruit on the vines; though the olive crop fails and the
fields produce no food, though the flock vanishes from the fold and
there are no cattle in the pens; Yet will I rejoice in my God of
salvation. The Lord Yahweh is my strength!
That is what it means to be faithful! When all our religious
security offered by right belief or right behavior or religious systems
is shattered, we are cast upon the mercy and grace of God, and nothing
else.-3- We have nothing left but God. But
that is enough! Habakkuk’s response was total and radical trust
expressed in a life lived as if God really were sovereign in His
creation! That is faithfulness. That is life! Life for the creature is
totally dependant on the Creator. Faithfulness is trusting the Creator
More than 600 years after Habakkuk another theologian would pick up
this truth and apply it to a different community of Faith in an even
more profound way.
The apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome and expounding for
them the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The year is around AD
55. Paul is drawing together a wide range of ideas to explain the
meaning of the new action of God in history, Jesus Christ. As in the
time of Habakkuk, God is again at work in the arena of history; he has
again broken into history in a new and unexpected way. Again, the people
could not understand God’s new action because it did not fit within
their religious system. They have bound God to a set of human
expectations. They want a God that is manageable, predictable by their
own standards, a God that is controllable.
Their problem, you see, is that they are putting their trust, not in
God, but in their idea of what God ought to be. They are trusting in the
creature rather than in the Creator. So, many of them missed Jesus. He
did not fit into their system.
In the first chapter of Romans, Paul expands this mind set to include
the whole world, not just Jews. Paul says that any perspective that
allows ultimacy to humanity or to human systems is idolatrous before
God; any creature that tries by human efforts to control the Creator has
created an idol. And such idols bring death.
Here in Romans Paul brings to bear the insight of Habakkuk and
expands it in a new direction (l:16-17):
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because
it is the power of God for the purpose of salvation to everyone who
exercises faith, first to the Jew and also to the Greek; for in it
the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is
written, the righteous by faith shall live.
If God has acted anew in Jesus Christ as a pure act of mercy and love
for the redemption of humanity, then God has again exercised his
sovereignty over the world. If the claims of Jesus are true, and of
course Paul believes them to be, then God in Jesus Christ has again
broken through all human religious systems. He has shattered all the
ideas of God that have restricted His Lordship over Creation and has
offered life, salvation, to all humanity, not based on human effort or
human control, but based on trust in God’s Lordship.
Paul understood that when all the security offered by right belief or
right behavior or religious systems is shattered, we are thrown upon the
grace and mercy of God and nothing else! Not obedience to law, but
total, complete, radical trust in God. No more! That is life!
The year is 1517. A young priest by the name of Martin Luther is
struggling with his faith. He is trying to serve God and the Church but
has profound doubts about the religious system in which he finds
himself. The church has allowed its religious systems to become more and
more elaborate and important. Finally the church can declare that it
actually holds the keys to the kingdom of God and that no one has access
to the kingdom of God except through that religious system. The doing of
good deeds and obedience to the ecclesiastical structure is the way to
God. Again, God is in control of humanity.
The young priest, through the study of Scripture, gradually
understands that such an elevation of human religious systems to the
status of ultimacy is idolatrous. Luther understands that the church has
exalted itself too highly in its own understanding of God’s ways with
humanity. Their problem, you see, is that they are putting their trust,
not in God, but in their idea of God. New idols of the mind in religious
And it is here that Luther, as he studies Romans, understands the
significance of the affirmation made 2,100 years earlier by Habakkuk.
The only hope for the creature is total dependence on the Creator.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave
heed to the context of the words . . ."He who through faith is
righteous shall live." There I began to understand that the
righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift
of God, namely by faith.-4-
Luther understood and experienced a grace in which security offered
by right belief, right behavior and religious systems was shattered. He
was thrown upon the grace and mercy of God, and nothing else.
The reformation was born! At its heart was the belief from the
insights of Habakkuk, Paul, and Luther, that nothing human can have
priority over God. The Reformers were committed to the sovereignty of
God in divine grace and not to any particular human expression of it,
nor any theological reflection upon it, nor any religious system’s
attempt to control it. God reveals his power, not through human efforts,
but by the response of faith, and faith alone, in the ultimate
revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
The gospel, then, is an expression of the sovereignty of God and his
will to redeem. Its proclamation becomes the power of God for salvation
to anyone who puts their faith in it. Anyone! No human situation is
final and nothing human can be ultimate. No dogma, no ecclesiastical
structure, no person, no board, no creed, no idea, no theological
system, no philosophy, nothing human may have primacy. Only this: The
righteous by faithfulness shall live.
IV. John Wesley
The year is 1738. A young Anglican priest in England is struggling
with his faith. He has followed the religious system of his day. He has
done all the right things. He has studied. He has even gone as a
missionary to the wilds of America. But he can find no peace, no
assurance of God’s forgiveness in his service to God.
Under the influence of rationalism, as well as social and political
pressures, the religious system of the 18th century Church of England
offers only a bland Christianity that relies on ritual and outward
observance. There is no life. The problem, you see, is that they are
putting their trust, not in God, but in their idea of God. Religious
system has become its own idol.
In his spiritual pilgrimage, John Wesley finally came to a
realization that it is neither a religious system nor his efforts on
which his salvation depends. It depends on God and God alone.
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 my 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
Wesley applied the insight of Habakkuk, Paul, and Luther that when
the security offered by right belief, right behavior or religious
systems is shattered, we are cast upon the mercy and grace of God and
nothing else. And the response is Faith!
Although Wesley would go on to develop other expressions of that
Faith, he was no innovator. Wesley clearly saw himself in the
theological tradition of Luther and Paul, and ultimately back to the
prophet of Israel 2,300 years earlier!
V. Faith and Identity
The year is 1966. A college freshman is struggling with his faith. He
has tried to be holy before God. He has been raised in the church. He
knows all the proper things to say. But there is no peace. He tries to
live a good life but fails. He constantly struggles to be righteous
before God. If he could just deny himself one more thing. If he could
keep just one more law. Maybe if he read his Bible more? So many trips
to the altar. So often he has tried. His problem, you see, is that he is
trusting, not in God, but in his idea of what God ought to be. He bows
before idols of the mind.
Until one day the realization comes that he can never in his own
effort be righteous. That day in a chapel service, that young man
finally experienced a grace in which his security offered by right
beliefs, right behavior, and religious systems was shattered and he was
left with nothing but the mercy and grace of God, nothing else.
The struggle ended that day in the realization that real life does
not come by being Nazarene, nor by being pious, nor by being orthodox
nor even by being Protestant. True life comes by radical trust in the
Creator and his sovereign grace.
That college student stands before you today to bear witness to you
of who he is! I am Nazarene, not by birth, but by choice and by
heritage. But I am more than that. I am Wesleyan, not of necessity, but
by choice and by heritage. I claim the heritage of Wesleyanism as an
expression of my faith. But I am more than that! I am Protestant! By
choice and by heritage. I willingly and gladly claim the heritage of
Luther, and, yes, even of John Calvin, because I understand that
Nazarenes and Wesleyans are never other than or different from
Protestants in their basic faith. That is part of my spiritual ancestry
as it was for Wesley. I am a child of the Reformation and acknowledge
the debt I owe to Luther and others who paid dearly, some with their
lives, that the church might have new life.
But I am more than that: I am Christian! I am a part of the church
catholic. I can freely recite the Apostles’ Creed and claim the heritage
of the holy catholic church. Augustine, Jerome, Clement, Paul are my
co-workers in Christ. We are brothers! I can worship with Roman
Catholics and Southern Baptists and Mennonites because, finally, no
matter what divisions have separated us, we are still brothers and
sisters in the Faith and belong to the same Church!
But I am even more than that! My heritage goes back to men like
Isaiah, Jeremiah and Habakkuk who gazed deeply into the realities of
God. I am part of the People of God! I stand in a line of tradition that
goes back 4,000 years. God has worked in human history 4,000 years
that I might be His child. How can I neglect such a heritage? I can
trust a God like that!
Finally, though, my salvation does not rest on heritage or on loyalty
to a tradition or even on the truth of a religious system. Ultimately my
salvation rests on the God who has guided that heritage, on the God to
whom the tradition bears witness, on the God who stands above all
religious systems. His grace and His mercy. Nothing else!
1 This attitude Paul Tillich terms
'man-made-God': " . . .a 'man-made-God' has been substituted for the
true God, a God that is either enclosed in a set of doctrines or is
believed to be accessible through morals and education." Paul Tillich,
The Protestant Era, University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 169.
2 For a more complete discussion of this
verse and its theological implications, see Dennis Bratcher, The
Theological Message of Habakkuk, University Microfilms, 1984, pp.
111-136. All Scripture citations are the author's translation. See also
the Lectionary Commentary on
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 for Year C, Proper 22. [return]
3 This formulation of Paul Tillich’s
"Protestant Principle" is Paul Bassett's in "The Holiness Movement and
the Protestant Principle," Wesleyan Theological Journal, 18
(Spring, 1983):8. [return]
4 Martin Luther, "Preface to the Latin
Writings," in Luther's Works, vol. 34, "Career of the Reformer
IV," ed. Lewis Spitz, Muhlenberg Press, 1960, p. 337.[return]
5 John Wesley, "Journal," in The Works
of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 1, Beacon Hill Press, 1979, p. 103.[return]