In his Preface to Romans, at the beginning of his discussion of faith, Martin Luther complains that “faith is not the human notion and dream that some people call faith.” As every Christian knows, we can say the same thing today! How often do we hear those who experience struggle, disappointment or sorrow say: “My faith will get me through it!”
My inward reaction is, “Really?” Sometimes, I suppose, this response is meant to be a confession of faith in Christ, couched in other terms so as not to be offensive. Our culture has a hard time tolerating or even understanding an open confession of Christ. Here is the time to be offensive! Christ got me through — and will get me through all that comes to me in this life with His invincible love! In contrast to this confession, our culture conceives of “faith” in a “human notion or dream” as simply believing. It doesn’t matter what you believe, just believe! Whatever works for you! Your believing will get you through. The more you believe it, the truer it becomes, or at least, the truer it is for you. We all have our own “truth.”
It is hard to imagine a conception of faith that is more distant from what we find in the Scriptures! Especially when we open the pages of the New Testament, we find a virtual explosion of the language of faith, as one scholar has observed. The significance — the saving significance — that is attached to faith is not found elsewhere, not in early Judaism, not in the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. Even the Old Testament, which speaks of faith, does not speak of it with the same frequency and concentration that we find in the New Testament.
As Paul tells the Galatians, faith is not merely a general faith, it is a faith that has now come. It has come into the world. And it has come to them (Gal. 3:23, 25). Why is this so? It is because Jesus has come. He came proclaiming the kingdom of God that was present in His teaching and in His work. He came in order to go to the cross for us. He came and died on that cross to be raised in three days. He came that His saving work might be proclaimed. In the Scriptures, and especially in the New Testament that proclaims Jesus’ coming, saving faith is always determined by its object.
The Scriptures recognize that people put their faith in all sorts of things. But only faith in the one, true God, who has fulfilled His promises in the crucified and risen Jesus, is true, saving faith. Faith is a confessional faith. Brief confessions of faith — and calls to such faith — appear throughout the New Testament. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (Matt. 16:16 ESV). “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:42 ESV). “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9 ESV). It would be easy to multiply examples!
This confessional faith is not merely for the head, but also for the heart. As Luther puts it in his Preface to Romans, “faith is a divine work in us that changes us and causes us to be born anew of God.” It is not enough to know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that He died on Calvary, that He was raised on the third day.
Saving faith is the faith that God’s Son “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 ESV). Paul speaks these words not merely about himself. They are for each one of us. He invites each one of us to fill in our name in this verse. The same is true of Jesus’ word to Martha in John 11: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus’ Word calls not only Martha. It calls each of us, as Luther puts it, to a “living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain” that we would “stake (our) life on it a thousand times.”
These confessional invitations serve as calls to faith alongside the earliest proclamation of the Gospel. They are not merely for unbelievers! Mary and Martha already had welcomed Jesus into their home and knew Him. They are calls to return to Jesus afresh, to believe in Him afresh, to grasp afresh the Christ who has made Himself ours in Baptism. The confessions of faith that we find in the New Testament reach into the depths of our hearts. They call us, again and again, to respond in living trust in Jesus and God’s saving work in Him.
Paul calls this response of faith “the obedience of faith.” The very purpose of his apostolic mission is to effect this “obedience of faith” among all the nations (Rom. 1:5, 16:26). According to the apostle, faith is the one true obedience that God desires from the human being. When Paul speaks about the conversion of the Roman Christians, he describes their faith precisely in this way: “You who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17 ESV). True obedience is obedience from the heart. Consequently, as Paul exhorts the Roman Christians in a very practical matter, “For whoever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23 ESV). This same truth appears elsewhere in the Scriptures, as in Isaiah’s confrontation with Ahaz (Is. 7:1-25), Jesus’ call to confess Him before others (Matt. 10:32-33), Jesus’ call to abide in Him as the true vine (John 15:1-8), and the admonitions and encouragement of the letter to the Hebrews.
Luther came to recognize and cherish this truth. For him the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” is the fundamental commandment that is present in all God’s commands. And the sense of this commandment, as Luther instructs us in the Large Catechism, is nothing other than, “to require true faith and confidence of the heart, which fly straight to the one true God and cling to him alone.” If, then, faith is the one true obedience that God requires, am I saved by my believing? Faith is not a work, of course. But if faith is true obedience, am I saved by my true obedience? If that is so, there is no longer a “justification of the ungodly,” but instead, a “justification of those who are godly in their faith.”
As we might expect, Paul himself provides us an answerto this question. We need only turn again to his description of the conversion of the Roman Christians and read a bit more of the context, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17 ESV). Paul gives thanks to God for the conversion of the Romans. It is God who has performed His work in them. They were slaves of sin when they heard the Gospel. They could not free themselves. If they were to be freed from this slavery, God had to free them. And that is what He did: The Roman Christians were delivered over to the Gospel, that “standard of teaching” — the confession of Christ! — that was proclaimed to them. Paul makes his point here by turning the normal expression upside down. Normally one spoke of delivering a tradition or teaching to people. But here Paul tells the Roman Christians: “It was not the teaching that was delivered to you, you were delivered to the teaching.” The Word itself performed its work in them.
Through the Gospel, God created faith in their hearts. Paul conveys the same truth when he describes Baptism earlier in the chapter: In Baptism we are baptized into Christ’s death, so that we may share in the new life of His resurrection, both here and now in our new obedience, and finally in the resurrection from the dead (Rom. 6:1-4).
Our new obedience of faith, the response to the Gospel that has been given to us in Baptism and proclamation is not our work, but as Luther puts it, “It is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God.”
Here is a paradox! We are called to respond, yet our response is nothing other than the Word of the Gospel performing its work in us. We are not saved by our own obedience, but by God’s work in us. And we are not saved by our own little believing, as our contemporaries might think. We are saved by God’s work, which brings us a faith, as Luther reminds us, that is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that we might stake our life on it a thousand times!
Dr. Mark Seifrid is professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.