Is your faith invisible?

Posted: January 6, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Mission, Pastoral issues, Theology

It goes back to Calvin: the word is good but the image is bad. What is heard is of faith, but what is seen – that is likely idolatrous. It runs through the whole Reformed tradition: the gospel is something spoken and believed, but not visible. The truth of gospel realities is somewhere else, on a heavenly plane – not down here on earth. There has been a strong strand of our teaching which has said, God’s kingdom cannot be seen, only believed.

You get it in The Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian is told of a far off land he must set out to reach. He constantly talks of it along the way, and seeks to persuade others that it is real. But no one ever sees that land until the very end of the story, which is Christian’s death. Faith is ‘the conviction of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11:1).

It goes back beyond Calvin. This same emphasis earlier led Luther to teach that the Christian is simul justus et peccator – at once righteous and a sinner. Sometimes Luther explained this to mean that a man may appear wicked on earth, but in heaven he was justified. He wrote that his churches were often worldly and corrupt, and that he didn’t expect much better from them. At least the people had faith. Justification, like faith, was invisible.

Clearly, this ‘unseen realities’ approach to faith tends to downplay or even deny present transformation in the life of the believer or the community.

Where this strand has loomed large, churches have tended to describe the Christian identity as one of ongoing failure. The main need of the believer is forgiveness. Our best hope is that God will look upon us and see – nothing. No sin. With this view of the believer, the possibility for a renewed community is slight. Not much is expected there. The church is a support group to help the failures keep believing in invisible realities.

Any suggestion of something good or new being established on earth, of something that you could point to and say, look at that glorious thing – such talk worries believers in the ‘invisible’ tradition. It smacks of the idolatrous. For anything seen is likely to be an idol – or to become one at any moment. No one should ever look at us, or encourage people to look at us: we should only look at Christ. Who is apparently to be found elsewhere…

In terms of eschatology, this emphasis on hearing over against seeing pushes the power or effectiveness of the gospel into the future. It leads to an eschatology that is very little-realised – some might say under-realised. All we have now is the promise: we must wait until later for the fulfilment.

In our church life, this approach allows us to comfortably consume gospel sermons week by week, year by year, without feeling troubled if nothing changes afterwards. Without worrying if our church life contradicts the things that were proclaimed. After all, we don’t expect to see any of this – we just hear about it.

In mission, the ‘invisible realities’ approach leads to a stand-alone word ministry, unaccompanied by good works. What we bring to the world is a bare message, unadorned by any other thing. For the vital thing is that the world should hear the gospel. It doesn’t matter much if people see it in action. In fact, if they are going to be believers, they’d better get used to believing things which they can’t see at all. If they still need to see it, they’re probably still idolaters. A word-only ministry is what so many of us evangelicals have grown up with.

As you may have guessed, we have some concerns with this ‘hearing not seeing’ tradition. Tomorrow we will outline them.


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