23 April 2009

Surety -- How can I know?

Recently a Lutheran acquaintance wondered about the Orthodox understanding of the certainty of salvation. Like many looking into Orthodoxy, this person did not find much of an answer to the question, "How can I be sure that I am saved."

Too often I've heard such a well-meaning question dismissed with the words like these: "That's not the right question." Such a frustratingly typical answer which is often taken to belittle both the questioner and a well-meaning, searching question!

What needs to be understood is that the question is driven by Luther's question ("How do I know that I have a gracious God"). The prominence of this individual quest by Luther has prompted Lutherans and Protestants to place a great deal of stock in the surety of faith. As one who has was schooled by the question and so understands the angst behind it, permit me to suggest that it reveals a need to be convinced that God is merciful, that He loves men as they are, and that regardless of what they've done or their past He accepts, welcomes and forgives them.

There is nothing in those words that the Orthodox dispute. The Orthodox agree that God is merciful, forgiving, kind, and loving, and that we need constantly to be reminded of this since we are prone to forget it or live as if it doesn't matter.

However, we would question why one needs to know for certain that which is a given; namely, that God is gracious, merciful, loving, etc. We would wonder how God could be otherwise since God is (i.e., both essentially and energetically; or metaphysically, epistemologically and experientially) love.

We would also wonder at the hubris of such a question. In other words, the focus of the question is on me (the individual) and my surety rather than on God and His grace. Notice the grammar: How can *I* be certain that God is who He is. Deep down, it seems to suggest that God is gracious only if I find Him to be so. Such a Cartesian method plays well in a post-Renaissance mindset but it, at base, quite prideful and not within the "mind of Christ" (Philippians 2).

Above all, however, we would question what is not said; namely, that this emphasis on the surety of faith quickly leads either to an antinomianism or to an abstraction (or both), and away from the primary narrative in Scripture--that the love God is calls us not to nearness or friendship but to an intimate participation and union; that God invites us to be "wrapped up" in Him (i.e., in the love His gives and does but, of course, not the love that he metaphysically is).

To the first (antinomianism), Luther of course emphasized "faith alone, but faith is never alone." This emphasis of faith and love is seen most clearly in Luther's sermons. However, the most unLutheran notion of total depravity (if not in so many words) has captivated Lutherans and Lutheranism to the point that they apologize for or downplay the necessity for works of love. Furthermore, when these works of love are emphasized, the key works of repentance and humility are not seen as works of love, and are not often seen as the key works.

To the second (faith as abstraction), we would wonder why justification (which is, as Lutherans properly teach, the work of Christ) becomes greater than Christ; to the extent that some would vociferously maintain that not Christ but Christ's justifying work is the chief article (Hauptartikel). The two, we would say, cannot and ought never be separated since the person (hypostasis; essence) cannot be understood apart from His work (energon; deeds), and vice versa. We would maintain that the loss, in late medieval Western theology, of the distinction in one person/nature of essence and energy has led to this abstract understanding of faith in grace. (Note the grammar of the formula: justified by grace through faith--where is God or Christ except as an understood modifier, and all the other words are abstract concepts!) We would further point out that this loss is the result of a de-emphasizing (or, to be precise, a de-personalizing) of the Spirit.

It is precisely the person of the Holy Spirit that Orthodoxy points to as the necessity for the binding together of individuals in love to God and one another. And what is key, then, is not personal surety of one's standing before God, but the relationship that the Spirit calls us to--a relationship of the fullness of love in the God who is love which then, of necessity, binds us to all whom (persons) and which (creation) God loves. Or, to ask it juridically: After one is declared not guilty or righteous (or "made righteous" as the Lutherans sometimes affirm), then what? Does that not evoke a relationship between judge and judged? And if so, what is the nature of this relationship, and what keeps is growing, maturing, deepening? The Orthodox answer, which is only partially (and therefore incompletely, that is, unsacramentally) found amongst the pietists or those oddly accused of Osianderism (often the accusers don't understand the teaching of and charges against Osiander), we would see as an attempt to answer this very necessary relational question. And why is the relational question necessary? Because that is what God made us for--to live in union with Him. But now we are talking of theosis.


Paul said...

Very helpful and wise. Relationship truly matters and defines "faith". Given Luther's prior question that prompts "how can I be sure...", do you find anything in Holy Scriptures that would prompt the question of surety? I have come to think that a much better question to ask, rather than the two Kennedy diagnostics, would be "What do you think of Jesus?" This would draw us to the person and work (inseparable)of Christ. Surrextit Domini, Alleluia!

Paul said...

Quite helpful and wise! Relationship defines "faith" and points to the heart of Christianity. "What do you think of Jesus?" does much better than the two tired diagnostic questions as it draws us to the person and work of our risen Lord. Surrexit Domino, alleluia!

desert seeker said...

Excellent thoughts about this question so important to many. Our questions reveal our hearts. Your post challenges me to find out where my question is coming from before I seek answers to it.

Dan Woodring said...

So, in other words... it's not the right question. :-)

Is it possible, as well, that the question suggests a form of semi-pelagianism?

Nathan Rinne said...

Pastor Fenton,

Perhaps when you are as sinful as me, you do need to be daily convinced that God is merciful - for I am evil, as Jesus says, and on the last day, He will root out all those who do evil. Why? Because He is merciful to His little children, and is, and will be their Avenger (Protector). As even EO teaches, some will see Him on the last day as gracious, others as their judge – the difference will not be in Him though - the difference is faith indeed. Therefore, when you say, “deep down, it seems to suggest that God is gracious only if I find Him to be so”, there is both something false and yet true about this. No?

“The prominence of this individual quest by Luther...” (leading to the “hubristic” statement: “How can *I* be certain that God is who He is”). It may have started this way, but it does not end this way. I think the question really is what a pastor ought to be doing, and modeling for his people (i.e. what does the “relationship of the fullness of love in the God who is love which then, of necessity, binds us to all whom (persons) and which (creation) God loves)” look like when I deal with my brother afflicted by “the Hammer of God”?) : “Should I, in the power of God’s Spirit, be giving the confidence of faith to the afflicted via the Promise (Christ), actively persuading them that ***they have God’s forgiveness in Christ*** for all their sins – and hence, life and salvation (Rom 5:1, I John 5:13) – even as they tremble?”

Luther was certainly upset when Cajetan told him the way he viewed Confession/Absolution was false. But even though he himself felt he needed the sweet comfort of grace in Christ, he also was in the habit of giving it to others. His whole identity as a minister of God was called into question.

Of course, there is also a time to say, “let us work”, “be who you are”, “the only life we have is our life in Christ and this or that is not a part of that life we’ve been given”, etc. etc. But before we are given all these blessings, we are given and give this first blessing: our sure identity in Him as forgiven children, who take their Father at their word.

When he says “I forgive all your sins”, can we dare encourage people to doubt?

“this emphasis on the surety of faith quickly leads either to an antinomianism or to an abstraction (or both), and away from the primary narrative in Scripture”

I dispute this. On the contrary, I think this is what the primary narrative of Scripture is all about: this is how we are "wrapped up" in Him, to be convicted and filled with the Spirit (John 16:8…), who brings Christ.

David Jay Webber said...

Fr. John,

Thanks for treating this typically "Lutheran" quest for the certainty of salvation with respect, and for seeking to answer it. As I see it, though, your response fails to address an important component of that quest, namely the awareness of hell and damnation as an option for some (most?) of humanity. The "Lutheran" quest for certainty has as its backdrop an awareness of the eschatological reality of final judgment, when individuals (yes, individuals) will indeed end up either on the right, as sheep, or on the left, as goats. So, as people look forward to that day, with an acute consciousness both of their continuing sinfulness, and of their desire to be righteous and to be connected in faith to Christ, the source of righteousness, there is an inner need to know how it will all shake out in the end. The fact that God is gracious and accepting in himself is not everything that a troubled conscience feels that it needs to know, since the possibility of hell and damnation is also a part of the equation as far as humanity is concerned. As someone who both is a Christian and wants to be a Christian, I sense the need to know that God is gracious TOWARD ME, and is accepting OF ME. That's where divine promise, and divine gift, come in to settle the troubled conscience. God does not save us simply by existing. God saves us by giving, and forgiving.

I would add this thought too. Lutherans sometimes may seek to recapitulate the spiritual experiences of their great Reformation hero, including perhaps his Medieval/Augustinian agonizing over whether or not he had a gracious God. But I have always seen the Reformation to be in part a remedy to such agonies. The God who kills and makes alive in his Word takes charge of my "spirituality," and of my spiritual struggles, such as they may be. Ideally, he doesn't leave me in a situation where Luther's question has time to germinate and take root in my conscience. Because as soon as the question is asked, or perhaps even before it is asked, the answer is given in Christ and in his justifying given-ness.

Your thoughts, my friend?

Richsheri1 said...


At least what you wrote, some of it may be true in our sloppy theologizing, that we sometimes separate Christ from His works. But this is more an error that happens that takes place more than an error in our understanding of the one,true faith.

I may have to reread what you have written, but as a Lutheran pastor reading through your post one time, I see no error in what you have written. It may have not been complete, but what you have written in understanding Christ and His work for us, and how that shapes how we live is splendid.

Your comment about how we cannot separate Christ's work for us (justification) from who is is spot on. But if that isn't Lutheran, then I'm not Lutheran. But then I suscribe to the Lutheran Confession and that statement is not contra to our Confessions.

I also like your pointing everything to Christ, even how can "I" know if I am saved. Always point to Christ; it's never about me. That too is profoundly Lutheran.

How different are our confessions after you strip away ecclesiastical tradition, differing vocabularies, etc? I'm sure there are some truly divisive differences, but not as many our our ways of speaking would imply.

Rich Futrell