Is your faith less than lively? Closer to what the Bible confronts than to what it affirms? Francis Chan is a rascal in his Letters to the Church as he asks hard questions! He’s especially tough in chapter four, “The Gang,” in asking if we Christians are known for our deep mutual love. A love so clear and devoted that it causes the world to want to join in, to believe in Jesus.
If we’re at all open to his questions we all need to start with what it means to believe. Especially this: is faith a response, or a responsibility? An act of our will, or having the eyes of our hearts opened by the Spirit? Chan holds to the latter. But the question goes back to a time long before he raises it. It stood at the heart of Augustine’s debate with the Pelagians in the fifth century. Augustine believed every soul is dead in sin from the start. Pelagius dismissed this.
Both men used the same Bible prooftexts, but they differed on what key words mean. For instance, take Paul’s intent in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Both sides gave “grace” different meanings. Augustine took grace to mean God’s divine work of awakening dead hearts. While Pelagius saw grace as God’s gift supplied to every soul so that everyone is free to choose whether or not to follow God.
Another word-meaning competition is in Galatian 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” In the middle ages this verse was taken to mean, “Faith represents a human determination to love God.” So, the question of whether a person has faith was always answered by how hard a person works on loving God and neighbors.
Martin Luther absolutely disagreed. Yet because of this interpretation Luther avoided the language of love and worked around it as he called his church to Augustine’s view that faith is not based on human effort, but represents a response to God’s heart-awakening words. Something, in other words, only God’s Spirit does because all souls, from Adam onward, are “dead in sin.”
He was right. Long before Luther arrived Augustine dismissed claims that a human love for God is a product of the human will—as if God requires our decision to love as his basis for salvation. So he dismissed Pelagianism and any similar versions of faith. Here’s what he wrote:
“On the lips of the Pelagians the darkness says, ‘We have love from ourselves.’ If they had true, that is, Christian love, they would know from where they had it, as the apostle knew who said, ‘But we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God in order that we might know what God has given us’ (1 Cor 2:12) And the Pelagians say that they have even God, not from God, but from themselves, and though they admit that we have from God the knowledge of the law, they want love to come from themselves.” [“Grace and Free Choice,” in The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, I.26, pp. 36-37].
He was right! The Bible tells us in 1 John 4 that we only love God because he first loved us. And his love, alone, draws our hearts away from self-love into a new, loving spiritual life. So that faith comes alive as the love of God motivates a soul with new and heaven-ward desires. It’s his miracle, by his Spirit working, that awakens us to see God’s love in Christ awaiting us.
So how should we deal with Francis Chan’s challenges? Let’s agree with him! Let’s grieve if a New Testament quality of love is missing among us. And instead of despairing, and trying to work harder, do just the opposite. Turn to God and ask, “Dear Jesus, I still don’t see you very clearly, or love you very dearly! And I can’t solve the problem—it’s up to you!”
Turn, in other words, to the Bible’s basis of faith working through love: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” [Ro 10:17]. We need words about Christ, accompanied by the Spirit of Christ, to awaken our love for Christ. And he gets all our praise!
So I’m thankful for Francis Chan. He gets it. And so did Augustine and Luther. Let’s respond with them, and invite the world to a love that so many find unbelievable!