A Creed for the 3rd Millennium Believes It Cannot Believe
People in general believe many falsehoods about believing: Believing is a decision, a choice. Once you believe you cannot lose that faith. Believing something means you have knowledge about something or agree that certain facts are true. Against all of these misconceptions about believing a Creed for this 3rd millennium believes it cannot believe.
So you think faith, coming to believe, is a choice, a decision, something you can be argued into or convinced that it is true. Well then believe this! Believe in a king who Himself says His kingdom is not of this world. Why that's like a middle school kid who wants you to believe his dad is a big shot but always has a reason for why he didn't do this or couldn't do that.
Go ahead chose to believe a man is innocent when he won't proclaim his innocence. Sure Pilate says, "I find no basis for a charge against him" three times. Sure he declares that King Herod didn't either, and then Pilate's own wife comes bursting on to the scene saying, "Don't have anything to do with this innocent man." But last week Jesus didn't answer the charge that He wanted to tear down the Temple. This week He doesn't answer the charge that He opposed payment of taxes to Caesar, and while Herod plied Him with many questions and the chief priests and teachers of the law stood there vehemently accusing Him, Jesus gave no answers. Would you believe in my innocence if I was charged by the Synod before the State with many crimes and I didn't answer a single one of them?
If you think you can be persuaded, sold, argued into believing in a Savior who won't save Himself, go ahead and do it. Can you make yourself trust that Jesus can save you from the pain of physical ailments when He doesn't save Himself from the whip? Can you be convinced to believe that Jesus can save you from guilt, from shame, from punishment for your sins when He doesn't save Himself from these for sins He didn't commit?
And can you decide to believe that your God is the One Pilate brings out saying "Here is the man?" Search for the painting titled with the Latin of what Pilate says: Ecce Homo. Go ahead decide to believe that the Man wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe, with a face swollen from being savagely beaten, arms and torso lacerated from whip lashes, and spit dripping off His face is your God. If you think you can make that choice, you don't remember middle school. You could choose to know the boy or girl everyone else picked on. You could decide that they would be your friend. How many of you chose that?
Believing that Jesus is the King of all kings, trusting that Jesus is innocent of all charges brought against Him, having faith that the One who doesn't save Himself is nonetheless your Savior, believing that the Man who is so pitifully abused by other men is your God is not a belief you can choose to have, decide to have, be persuaded to have.
That's not quite true. You can decide to have a human trust, a manmade faith, a believing that comes from within Little Engine that could-like, but such a faith is no more than a candle you light in the wind. One good gust of Jesus' kingdom not being of this world, of suffering even though you are innocent, of not being saved from pain and dying, of your God standing by and doing nothing, and man-made faith goes out candle in the wind-like.
Yet only those with faith, only believers are saved. That's what we confess in our Creed for the 3rd millennium. To whom do we say on the Last Day eternal life will be given? "All believers in Christ." How many saving faiths are there? How many true faiths are? One. And it's not believing in yourself; it's not believing in a higher power; it's not believing in a supreme being; it's not believing in being spiritual. It's believing that Jesus is the King of all kings, suffers innocently, and is your Savior and God.
Only believers are saved who believe in the one true faith. Such faith isn't a decision, a choice, something you can be persuaded, convinced, or argued into. That would be a man-made faith which is only as strong, as firm, as sure as the man who made it. Saving faith is miraculous. We confess this too. We say that not only ourselves but the whole Christian Church has to be kept in the true faith. That means left to ourselves not only would not we come to the faith we could not remain in the faith.
Here then is the grand paradox of this part of our 3rd millennium Creed. Saving faith is not something we can bring ourselves to or keep ourselves in. That's why we begin this part of our confession with, "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord or come to Him." We confess point blank: I believe I cannot believe.
How this should comfort you! How this should cure you from being preoccupied with your believing or faith: Do I believe enough? Is my faith strong enough? If I had stronger faith, I would be doing this or that. How silly such things sound to ears whose mouth has said, "I have faith that I cannot have faith by my own reason or strength." Moreover, how silly Billy Graham, Charles Stanley, and others who talk about making a decision to believe in Jesus sound. They sound as silly as someone asking blind people to decide to see or dead people to choose to live.
I have digressed into the errors of others when at this point we must focus on our own. I've said, as we confess, that only believers are saved, yet it's also Biblically true to say believing does not save. This is another paradox. It strikes us so violently because we, even me, often use the phrase salvation by faith. But we're really speaking theological shorthand. Salvation is by grace for Christ's sake through faith.
If believing in itself saved then put the Muslims or the Mormons first in line. The Muslims believe seriously and ferociously that there is only one god Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. Allahu Akbar they chant, they shout believing tenaciously that their god Allah alone is great. Mormons too are big on faith. They believe so much in their religion that they forego caffeine, stockpile food, and wear special underwear. Yet all the believing of all the Muslims and Mormons in the world doesn't save one of them.
Believing is not what saves us, and our Creed doesn't say it does. After the Apostles' Creed takes us through creation and then redemption, how does it say redemption becomes ours? We wrongly think that Luther's Explanation summarizes the Apostle's Creed in this fashion. "God created me; Jesus is my Lord, and I believe." No, we confess, "God created me; Jesus is my Lord; and the Holy Spirit calls me." It's not our believing, our faith, that gives us access to Jesus' kingdom, salvation, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. It's the Holy Spirit.
The Third Article of our creed is not about faith. We make that clear from the outset by saying in short, "I believe I can't believe." The Third Article is about what the Holy Spirit does. He calls; He enlightens; He sanctifies, and keeps me even as the does the whole Christian Church on earth. The Holy Spirit richly and daily forgives my sins, and on the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead and give out eternal life.
The Holy Spirit does all these things. What we see in our Passion reading is Jesus winning the Spirit for sinful, fallen man. Jesus is a king. He's the King of this sinful, fallen world, and as the King He's answerable to Almighty God for all this world has done against God. That's why He stands there closed mouth while He is accused, blamed, shamed with every imaginable sin under the sun. He's not guilty but I sure am. Jesus is innocent but I'm sure not. If King Jesus should defend Himself He would make all of His subjects guilty.
Jesus could have saved Himself. He could have broken the cords that bound Him as easily has Samson did. He could have ripped apart those who slapped Him as David did a lion and a bear. He could have placed His foot on the necks of Pilate and King Herod easier than Joshua had his commanders do on their enemies. If Jesus had used His divine powers as a man, He could have caught the whip in mid-air before it hit Him, the crown of thorns would have broken when they tried to jam it into His head, and the Romans would have shattered every bone in their hands when they slapped Him. But if Jesus had saved Himself, you wouldn't be saved. Your sins would still need paying for, suffering for, dying for, damming for.
Jesus, God in flesh and blood, allows Himself to be abused, punished, and suffer without mercy because only the blood, sweat, and tears of God would be sufficient payment for a world's sins. Jesus is winning the Holy Spirit for the entire world of men. As true God He provided sufficient payment, and as true Man He truly won the Holy Spirit for mankind. Now He pours out the Spirit on all flesh. Where? In Word and Sacraments. Every Word of God is Spirit and it is everlasting life. Every drop of Baptismal Water has the Word and Spirit attached to it. Every Word of Absolution breathes out the Holy Spirit that Jesus breathed into it Easter evening. Every morsel of Jesus' Body and every drop of Jesus' Blood has all of His Spirit in them.
The Holy Spirit distributes the salvation Jesus won. Believers receive that salvation. Our believing doesn't cause the salvation to be there but receives the salvation that Jesus paid for and the Holy Spirit puts there. Don't go looking inside of you for faith. It's hard to find the mustard seed of faith amid the coconuts of doubt. Look for Jesus there and know He must be there since in Baptism you've put Him on; since in Absolution He entered your ears, and since in Communion you ate and drank Him. And Jesus can't be anywhere without His Spirit, and where the Spirit is He is constantly doing His thing. So while the Creed for the 3rd Millennium believes it can't believe, it also believes the Spirit daily and richly calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps me in the one true faith. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers IV (20130306); Passion Reading IV, 3rd Article