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Babies in Church (part I): can adults be saved?

05 May

The real question is not whether infants can have faith, but whether “rational” adults can.  All that we receive in our lives is, in the final analysis, a freely given gift from above – whether we recognize this truth or not.  Infants receive the gift.  Further, our ability to use language – even creating new language – to do the *necessary task* of describing as best we can the growth in our lives with the Triune God and His people is also a gift – albeit a limited one that never allows us to simply “fossilize” our talk.    

“I believe in one God…”.  The defining and primary experience of Christians is this: “I am Jesus’ little lamb, for God is reconciling the world to Himself though Christ”.  To say this does not exclude but necessarily includes realizing that one is among the Church, i.e. those who have also had this life-transforming truth imparted to them through precious flesh and blood.  And this truth about who we are – which brings confidence in its life-defining and ambiguity-dispelling words – can only be received like a child in faith, as faith “comes by hearing the Word of God”.    

A wise friend recently said: “Children ask much more interesting questions, the kind we cannot answer, right?” (with us, it is more often “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer”, he reminded me).

Indeed.  So, what is the Church?  Well, as Luther said in the Smalcald Articles, “thank God, [to-day] a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd. For the children pray thus: I believe in one holy [catholic or] Christian Church (Article XII)”

Such an answer seems to me appropriately child-like, rather than childish.  After all, besides asserting that it *is* the body of Christ (chew on that), of whom He is the head, the Scriptures do not spend much time on this question of exactly what the Church is, how it is constructed on the ground, or indeed where one can find it. (they spend quite a bit more time on justification by faith actually).  Surely, we assert there is a glorified “Church triumphant”, made up of those true believers who have gone before us as well as an earthly “Church militant” that still struggles, and yet – among Christians today, many, sensing a lack of deep and meaningful experience, are asking “Where is the Church?” 

Lutherans further define:  Since God’s word are Spirit, and “where the Spirit is there is the Church” (Irenaeus), the Church is where the word is rightly preached and where the sacraments are rightly administered (linger on that second point a bit: I think the sheep know the most profound, great, and intimate expression of their Shepherd’s voice to be that which He speaks and freely gives in the world’s one Eucharistic fellowship, which will reach its apex at the Final Appearing and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb).

But what does this mean?  I think the thesis of a recent book “The Great Jesus Debates” by Douglas W. Johnson that “Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is at the heart of all the great controversies that shook the Early church as it tried to work out its own self-understanding”, gives us a good idea.  Should the question, “Where is the Church?”, not be thought of primarily in this context?

Discussions about the boundaries the visible Church are surely very important.  The Church is, after all, a fleshly and organic institution, much like a marriage, and the Church’s ordained leaders must therefore make difficult doctrinal and practical (as in practice) decisions in triage-fashion – often in the midst of the ambiguities of Christian experience.  But finally, I believe serious Lutherans must say: “We know with confidence where the Church is not (for example, it is *not* where the words “Jesus did not come in the flesh” are confessed, taught, and freely received [believed] without exception), but not where it is”.  I think that what is of greatest importance is that our confidence, surety, and hope is primarily derived from the explicit Gospel message that brings peace (Rom 5:1) and knowledge of salvation (I John 5:13) – or as Luther would say, “forgiveness, life, and salvation” – not from whether we are “in the right Church”.  The Church may be infallible in some sense, as it is surely pure and holy, but our definitions of it are all too fallible. 

Is there a danger here that puts the individual’s private judgment first (“I believe…”) – over and above the very Church (“we believe, teach, and confess…) – God’s chosen instrument – to bring life to the world?  I think it depends.  Surely, the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (who fused rationalist and empiricist ideas, while de-emphasizing experience, tradition, and language) was wrong when he said “have courage to use your own understanding” – for he did not have in mind a properly-formed “rule-of-faith” understanding.  Only this understanding, formed by the Word of God, could both embrace his motto and yet also say with a holy vigor, “lean not on your own understanding…”

For it seems to me that the faithful follower of Christ has the courage to understand that these words “lean not on your own understanding” are most certainly true, as they are constantly reduced to the child-like faith that can only freely receive forgiveness, life, and salvation.  As Luther repeatedly emphasized, we can be glad our salvation does not depend on us.  That, surely, is something an infant can understand.

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Posted by on May 5, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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