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Faith and Identity
A Reformation Meditation

Dennis Bratcher

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."

I. Habakkuk

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 Exile).

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 you to?"

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 Bible:

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 faithfulness.

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 us.

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 with life!

II. Paul

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!

III. Luther

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 garb!

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.

Luther writes:

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.

Wesley writes:

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 death.-5-

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 l966. 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!

Notes

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. [return]

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]

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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