But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God
Once the Reformation made faith the linchpin through which our entire justification or salvation is appropriated, the question then turned to what is the nature and shape of this faith upon which our status before God is decided. The answer has been legion and many, tied up intricately with many other theological issues, saving faith and sanctification, the object of faith, etc.
However, I think it would be most instructive to consider this issue from the issue of infant baptism, wherein the question of “saving faith” can be made more concrete, and shape of faith be more clearly understood. It is in the disputes about infant baptism between the Reformed and the Lutherans whereby the nature of faith can be decisively demonstrated. Once we have a clear and right understand of what faith exactly is, we can understand clearly how “assurance of salvation” truly works, and faith’s relation to sanctification, and also how Lutherans and Reformed theology differs in their understanding of both.
Faith as a Gift Received in Baptism
In the disputes about infant baptism and baptism in general, Luther insisted against all the Reformed theologians like Calvin and Zwingli, that baptism saves and that anyone who has been baptised, even infants, are born again and are made children of God by virtue of baptism. Evidently this claim was rejected by the Reformed theologians who argued that this was inconsistent with the material principle of the Reformation whereby one is justified, and thereby saved, by faith alone. How can infants who “clearly” have no faith, be born again and justified and saved?
Luther being one of the principal fathers of the Reformation clearly did not simply forget about the material principle of the Reformation. But the answer which he gave both baffled and outraged his opponents. He argued that since baptised infants were born again and saved and since one cannot be born again and saved without having faith, therefore, infants had saving faith which the infants received in their baptism!
This claim would be puzzling if not completely weird to most of us. But then again, to provide a little historical context, we have to remember that in past in the Pre-Reformation era, baptismal liturgies begin with the following interesting exchange,
Priest: [Name of sponsor or catechumen], what do you ask of the Church of God?
Priest: What does Faith offer you?
Sponsor/Catechumen: Life everlasting.
Faith is something which we receive from the Church of God. It is something which is offered and givenby the Church, through baptism, and which we receive. So for Luther, since faith is a gift of the Church and it is as a matter of fact given in baptism, therefore it logically follows that an infant does receive this gift of faith by virtue of his or her baptism.
If this seems strange, then perhaps this analogy might help. If a king dies and his son is merely an infant or a child, then the infant or son, becomes the next king, by virtue of the laws of succession and the ascension ceremonies instituted therein, and also by virtue of the royal lineage of the father who had just died, the son’s status as king does not depend on whether he knows or is conscious of what’s going on and what is his status or role. He is king and receives the crown by virtue of the laws of succession and the lineage of his father, not upon his psychology.
Thus, we are born again and made children of God and receive remission of sins, the Holy Ghost and salvation, etc, by virtue of the baptismal covenant and the “lineage” of the baptism ordinance, i.e. by virtue of the fact that sacrament of baptism and it’s attendant promises of salvation have been given to the Church by the Apostles and from the Apostles ultimately from Christ himself. Thus, just as the son is the king by virtue of his father lineage and the laws of succession, independently of his psychological state, so is the baptised infant a child of God and justified before Him by virtue of his “lineage” to Christ and the baptismal covenant and promises attached to it by Christ.
Thus, our salvation is an external objective fact, grounded ultimately upon the act of God in Christ through the Holy Ghost in our baptism. It is entire “gracious” dependent upon the act of God alone, external to ourselves, not upon our works, who we are or what we do, but upon what God does, his regeneration of us via baptism, which we passively receive.
Therefore if one is born again, a child of God, receives the Holy Ghost by virtue of baptism, and if part of the gifts of the Holy Ghost is faith, which the child also receives in baptism, then the logical conclusion is that a child does have faith.
Faith as a Divine Mystery, beyond Psychology and Consciousness
No doubt we moderns who are so used to the idea of identity of faith with consciousness would find this completely absurd. But we must remember, the Holy Scriptures does not operate according to the categories of moderns, for doth not Christ himself declare, “Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?” (Matthew 21:16) If from the mouth of infants comes praise of God, then dare we deny them the faith necessary for such praiseworthy, erm, praise?
This identity of faith with consciousness has its origins not from the Sacred Scriptures but from Cartesian philosophy and it’s “I think therefore I am” and equation of consciousness with being which today colours our understanding of faith as a psychologically/consciously discernible phenomenon. As Hermann Sasse, a Lutheran theologian, puts it,
… when does faith begin…? Is it at the age when we nowadays have confirmation or when small children are able to make some confession of faith, as Thomas Müntzer wanted? We would be making a psychologically perceived fact out of the wondrous working of the Holy Spirit if we here set a temporal boundary on the sway of the Holy Spirit.
Sasse would earlier describe the faith of children,
this faith of children is not yet a conscious faith that they can confess themselves
Thus infants have faith, even though this faith is not yet conscious. Faith is not a phenomenon, open to psychology or our own consciousness, but it is a divine mystery which we possess by virtue of the act of God in baptism. If we want to know this child’s status as king, we do not ask a psychologist, but we consult instead the lawyers and historians is check the laws of succession and the royal lineage of his father through which the child receives his kingship.
But here we can legitimately object, but is one’s status as a Christian determined in the same way, simply by virtue of baptism? What about infants who are baptised but later renounce their faith or deny their faith through unrepentant sinning? Can it be said that they are still children of God, justified before God, simply by virtue of their infant baptism?
Innocent, until Proven Guilty
We must first insist that one is a Christian by virtue of the objective, external acts of God in Christ through his own ordained means of salvation, and that one ceases to be a Christian only through unrepentant sin. This seems to be obvious, but it’s application to our present case isn’t that obvious which we shall need to elaborate.
Let’s go back to our analogy. Now the child maybe the king, but because the child is still too young to rule, normally what happens is that a privy council rules in the stead of the child, and holds his ruler ship in trust. And in the mean time, the child is instructed in ruler ship, politics, etc. When the child comes of age, then the child shall simply assume the duties and responsibilities of kingship. But the child does not need to be crown again, he is already king by virtue of his coronation as a child, the laws of succession and his lineage. Thus, his crown is received not by any act of his but by the laws of succession.
However, and this is the vital point, the child who grows up, only ceases to become a king if he openly abdicates his throne and renounces the crown. Otherwise, the child is king, by default, by virtue of the laws of succession, etc. The child doesn’t need to do anything more to become king, he only needs to assume his role as king which we has already received.
Thus, likewise it is with the baptised infant. He has faith, and he is a child of God, unless proven otherwise by unrepentant sin. So, the parents of the child holds his/her “Christian life” or role in trust and instructs the child of the Christian faith, until the child reaches the age of discernment and assumes his Christian life for himself. Thus, if the child grows up and at some later point of his life, renounces his faith and refuses to repent of this sin, then by this unrepentant sin, he ceases to become a child of God and a Christian. Or if the child who grows up lives in sin and refuses to repent of it even when confronted by the preaching of the law, then this child also ceases to be a child of God and a Christian by virtue of unrepentant sin.
So to put it another way, one is presumed Christian until proven otherwise. Thus, one is a Christian, not because one can “prove” his faith by his works or can discern some psychological state within himself, but simply by virtue of his or her baptism and the promise of God and benefits which flows through it, and one forfeits those benefits only when one refuses to repent of one’s manifest sins.
On “Assurance of Salvation”
Hermann Sasse summarise the relation of faith to baptism in these terms,
… Luther goes his lonely way between the hierarchial safeguards of Rome and the psychological safeguards of the Enthusiasts. It is the lonely way of the Reformer, who heeds only the Word of God and counts on this Word for everything, even for what is humanly impossible. Only in this way can he and the Lutheran Church hold together the objectivity of the sacrament and the sola fide, whereby we do not forget that justifying faith is not the matter of a single moment, but the substance of our whole lives. Such faith is not some act of our commitment to God that is particularly perceived and experienced in some isolated moments of our life. Rather it is the constant though always clouded reliance on the Gospel’s promise of grace.
So, faith is not any mental act of ours, consciously discerned or experience in discrete moments, but is the constant but clouded reliance on the Gospel’s promise of grace. Luther has always insisted on the passivity of faith and of Christian righteousness, which is merely passively received through faith in hearing the preaching of the Gospel, especially as administered in the sacraments. Faith is merely an instrument of reception, and as Luther and even the early Reformers have never ceased to point out and emphasize, it is not our act of faith itself which justifies or saves or merits salvation, but faith is merely the instruments or means of appropriating the merits and righteousness of Christ.
Thus there are vast divergences between the Reformed and Lutherans regarding the “assurance of salvation”. For the Reformed, because faith is a psychological and consciously discernible phenomenon, one “assures” oneself of one’s salvation by turning inwards to find out whether one has “true and saving faith” and by making some mental acts or some psychological journey, as exemplified in the search for the ordo salutis or order of salvation of later Reformed orthodoxy and the “experimental religion” of the puritans (experimental, not in the scientific sense, but in the sense of an experiential faith). Because for the Reformed, one’s salvation or remission of sins is not grounded upon an external objective truth, in God’s act, but rather it is based upon some internal psychological fact, therefore for the Reformed, their “assurance of salvation” remains elusive and uncertain and ultimately, subjective, since it is grounded upon a subjective fact about ourselves. This is why the Reformed can never be certain of their salvation, because it is fundamentally contingent upon their subjective state which requires constant affirmation and mental maintenance, and gives rise to “fruit inspectors” and searching out of the fruits of the spirit to “prove” one’s Christian state or faith. For the reformed, one is not a Christian, until otherwise proven by conscious “faith”.
But for the Lutherans, since faith isn’t the focus of our salvation, but the objective, external act of God in preaching and in the sacraments is, the “assurance of salvation” for Lutherans is the question of, where is God working infallibly to grant salvation, remission of sins and eternal life to me and from where can I receive these benefits. Thus, the objective external acts of God is the focus, and faith is merely the instrument whereby one receives those benefits. Thus, when it comes to question of, what makes me a Christian, the answer has to be baptism! Nothing uncertain here, completely sure and objective. That’s because in Lutheranism, one’s Christian state is not proven by one’s subjective state, but is completely grounded upon the act of God in baptism. Remember, in Lutheranism, one is a Christian, until proven otherwise, thus, by default, we are Christian and justified and God’s child until otherwise proven by manifest sin. To which upon repentance, one can know for certain one is forgiven, not because of the act of repentance, which ours would always be weak and insufficient, but because of absolution, whereby one is concretely forgiven of that particular sin, and absolution, as the Lutheran confession puts it, is the very voice of the Gospel itself, commanding remission of sins. To be assured about the one’s future continuance in the grace of God, one simply needs to eat the true body and blood of Christ and trust in the bread of life to give strength to live the Christian life in the days to come.
But yet, is it not true, that we sin daily, hourly minutely, in both thought, word and deed, we can’t possibly be constantly seeking absolution all the time! Herein is where we can understand Luther’s freedom with regards to absolution. The Catholics formalised the distinction between venial and mortal sins into a very complex listing and categorisation. According to the Catholics, venial sins can be forgiven by confessing directly to God and prayer, but mortal sins which are much more serious, can only be forgiven via priestly absolution. And the identification of both is very complex and complicated and have burdened many a consciences which can’t identify which sins to confess since the formula of identification is too complex.
But Luther simply pointed out that this distinction between venial and mortal sins is an artificial category which is merely created by man. Thus he “subjectivised” the distinction. For Luther, within the promise of baptism is contained all the graces and power to forgive any sins, serious and not so serious, in so far and as and when we repent of our sin and turn to God and re-appropriate the baptismal covenant which God has made to us to forgive us our sins. But yet Luther recognises that sometimes the devil may be too strong for us and that our conscience may not leave us alone and be uncertain, especially in cases of “serious” or “severe” sins, in such cases, absolution exists to give peace to consciences and to declare by an objective external voice that one’s sins has been forgiven by the command and authority of the keys. As Luther puts it in his small catechism regarding confession, “But before the confessor we should confess those sins alone which we know and feel in our hearts.” Thus, those sins which subjectively bothers us and which we can feel plaguing us, we can and should confess to a minister or priest and thereby receive absolution grounded upon the sure, objective and external voice of the Gospel. Thus, the line between “mortal” and “venial” sin is simply a line drawn between those sins which plagues our consciences and those which do not.
Thus, for daily reoccurring sins, we turn to our baptismal covenant and the promise contained therein to forgive us our sins and to bear with our constant infirmity and the weakness of the flesh, and we appropriate through faith the benefits given there. But for much more serious sins, whilst there is no necessity to confess to a minister or priest, for the baptismal covenant can forgive any kind of sin, minor or severe, but from a subjective point of view, because of the strength of the devil and our conscience and the weakness of our flesh, we need as much support and help we can get, and more serious sins tend to shake our conscience and cause us to fall prey to the accusations of the devil, to such, absolution exists to ward them off and to receive from outside of ourselves, the absolution and remission of sins.
Ultimately from beginning to end, it must be constantly maintained that our salvation, remission of sins, and yes, even our faith, is a gift of God, grounded upon the objective, external and sure acts of God for us in the Word and Sacraments, not upon an uncertain psychological phenomenon. And it is upon these promises, given to us objectively in the sacraments, whereby we can firmly rely and trust for our remission of sins and salvation.