Sole Fide? Seventh Sunday of Luke, 21st Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 8:29-56, Galatians 2:16-20; Genesis 15; Genesis 18

The two readings for this seventh Sunday of Luke provide food for thought concerning the relationship between our faith and Christ’s power. The topic is an important one, as many of our Protestant friends around us are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, with an emphasis upon a key Reformed idea, sola fide (‘by faith alone’). Our Seminary choir will celebrate Reformation Day next week with lyrics taking their inspiration from Martin Luther’s final stand in 1521:

“On faith alone I stand, there is no higher ground; I give You all I am, for my soul will never doubt…”

For Orthodox faithful, such assertions are problematic. Instinctively, we may want to recoil at a Peter-like confession that we will never fall away into doubt, knowing that even the apostle who had seen the many miracles of Jesus did so, and needed to be restored. But there is more to our objection than a knowledge of human frailty. It is that the phrase “faith alone” is found only in one part of the Scripture—not in Paul’s letters, but in James 2:24, where that letter says roundly “a person is not justified…by faith alone.”

Some, looking at the RSV version to Romans 11:20, might argue that is says there “you stand by faith alone,” but in fact the word “alone” is not in the original, and only an interpretation of that version. Beyond that, the whole point of Romans 11:20 is to urge the Gentiles not to become uppity, looking down their noses at the Jewish community, because where they stand has to do with what God has done, and they, too, may be removed from God’s vine if they do not recognize this grace. I must also admit that in St. John Chrysostom’s comment on Galatians 3:6, he uses the phrase “faith alone,” but by the context makes it clear that this is not to suggest that how we act as Christians is unimportant. Here he is encouraging folks to TRUST in Jesus, and not in the Jewish Law, because, as Paul says, the Jewish law is weak, and Jesus has wholly fulfilled it.

We can understand, given the distortions of the medieval Church, why Luther was so encouraged by the apostle’s call to faith, and saw in Paul’s words about the Torah an analogy with his own time, when Church leaders were stressing acts of merit as a way of earning favor with an accounts-keeping God. But the apostle Paul was concerned for over-commitment to the Torah, not with the question of whether faith and righteous living should come together, and whether both are required by God. In fact, the doctrine of salvation or justification “by faith alone,” is not Biblical, though it is proclaimed by those who insist that doctrine is to be established on the basis of “Scripture alone.”

Yet faith in Christ is essential—a faith accompanied by baptism, being fed by the Holy Mysteries, and walking, or living, as Christ as shown us, by the power of his Holy Spirit. What a miracle it is that God comes so deeply within our midst as to help us in our infirmity—even in our moments of doubt! Our faith is not in faith, like Maria von Trapp’s “I have confidence in confidence a-lone!” We believe upon the One who is wholly faithful, and who also modelled for us what a life of trust looks like, even up to his death on the cross. This dynamic is seen both in our gospel readings, and in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Jesus heals two in the gospel—an older woman who had been ill for twelve years, and a little girl just bordering on womanhood, who had been alive for the same length of time.

And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue; and falling at Jesus’ feet he besought him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying. As he went, the people pressed round him. And a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and could not be healed by any one, came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased, And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the multitudes surround you and press upon you!” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from me.” And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
While he was still speaking, a man from the ruler’s house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher anymore.” But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she shall be well.” And when he came to the house, he permitted no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. And all were weeping and bewailing her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” And her spirit returned, and she got up at once; and he directed that something should be given her to eat. And her parents were amazed; but he charged them to tell no one what had happened. (Luke 8:29-56 RSV)

The woman, in near desperation, clandestinely touches the hem of Jesus’ garment, and was immediately healed. This gospel reading only tells us that “no one” could heal her, but Mark’s version says that she had spent all her money on doctors, so that presumably Jesus is her last “hail, Mary!” She might have given up, but she doesn’t—something about Jesus, about the reports concerning him, about his demeanor, about her utter need, drives her to touch. Clearly, though, it is Jesus himself who does the healing, not the woman who heals herself by touching. Into her little corner of Judah, to one who “feared [God’s name], the sun of righteousness [had risen], with healing his wings.” (Mat 4:2). She only touches, and is released. The evangelist makes sure that we understand that the healing comes from Jesus, because He remarks, mysteriously, that he has felt power go out of him. Is this a matter of his feeling weaker, because he has borne her infirmity, or is it simply a statement that he knows that his power has been effective? We don’t know.

What we do know is that Jesus called her out—for him, it was not enough that she believe that He could heal her. He requires that she confess the faith outwardly, comments upon the importance of her faith, and sends her away in peace. In this entire episode, we see the importance of synergy: Jesus’ power, the woman’s faith, the woman’s declaration, Jesus’ blessing, all coming together.

When we look to the greatest Old Testament example of faith, the one pointed to in Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and James, we see the same thing. These New Testament writers repeat the statement of Genesis 15:6 that Abraham believed God “and it was credited to him for righteousness.” That statement in Genesis comes after the LORD has promised the childless patriarch that he will have innumerable and brilliant offspring, like the stars. God speaks to him, and he believes. Later in Genesis, God himself speaks about Abraham’s whole life, and says, “I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen 18:19 RSV). Here is a remarkable thing! The Lord both CREDITS Abraham with righteousness because he trusts His word, and He speaks about Abraham and his whole household “doing righteousness and justice.” Both the belief, and the keeping of the way, mean that the “LORD may bring…what He has promised.” There is no play-off here between our belief, our action, and God’s action. They come together.

So, too, with the NT vision of how God acts, for He doesn’t change. This woman believes, Jesus acts, Jesus calls on her to confess, and Jesus sends her away. The power of God does the healing—but somehow our human trust in God is interconnected, as well. God does not compel our healing. So, too, with the little girl, who could not herself believe, but whose parents are encouraged, “Don’t fear, just believe.” And she is raised: raised to act in the power of Christ.

It may seem as though St. Paul is not aware of this in the letter to the Galatians. But look carefully at what he is putting in contrast to faith. He is not speaking about good actions in general, but about “the works of the Torah”: circumcision, the keeping of ritual holy days, and abstinence from non-kosher food. A reading through of Galatians will make this clear. Some Jewish-minded leaders have come into the Galatian setting, and thoroughly confused these new converts from paganism, telling them that they have to be circumcised, and keep food laws, even though the Jerusalem council has ruled against the continuation of these Jewish practices. Jesus’ perfect life, death and resurrection has brought in a new situation in which those special identity markers are no longer the signs of God’s presence with people. There is a new creation, in which Jew and Gentile are joined together in Jesus, the One who is both “son of Adam” and the new Israel. To be circumcised is not merely to be rigid and old-fashioned, but to doubt what God has done in Christ, to doubt that he has undergone a complete death for us, hallowing the whole of our humanity, and making it clean—as well as the whole of creation, and making all foods clean.

We know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not!
But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor.
For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God.
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:16-20)

To insist that the works of the law justify, or make one right, is to dishonor Christ, to suggest that he is actually an agent of sin. Our direction can only be towards Christ, and our identity in him. But St. Paul by no means therefore clears us to act however we like, with bare-naked “faith”. That would be a mere intellectual assent, not the kind of faith that allows the Holy Spirit to work within, stirring up love so that we live, robed by Jesus’ own faithfulness, and give ourselves up for Him and for others. As Paul says elsewhere, there is “the law of Christ,” and this involves the showing forth of fruit—“Love, joy, peace, faithfulness, self-control” and all the other good things that we see in Jesus himself.

What, after all, is a Christ-shaped faith? It is recognizing that Christ our God is the Creator of all good things, and the One who raises from the dead. Abraham, says Hebrews 11:19, knew that God could raise the dead, and therefore boldly obeyed God in the matter of his son Isaac—only to receive him back, at the hands of a loving God, with a sacrificial animal taking his place. Faith is simply believing in God, and acting upon that belief—and so Faith was made perfect by good actions, as James puts it!

This is, in fact, a deep mystery. Why is it that the Author of all should care how we think or behave? After all, He will always do what is just and good. Why, of course, because part of His character is to bring us, His creatures, truly into His counsel and into His purpose, becoming like Him. C. S. Lewis has a wonderful way of describing how it is that we might not want to be so honored, since it requires much from us:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. (Mere Christianity)

Yes, indeed! He built a household for Abraham, a household out of Abraham’s own “seed” or descendant—Jesus, Son of Adam, and God the Son! We have seen a perfect Man already who is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. For us, our elder Brother and Creator has high hopes—not only to touch and heal, not only to revive, but to make us the very righteousness of God, and a source of healing for others.



    1. Thank you. Of course there are a lot of intricacies in the section from Galatians that I do not deal with at all here–does pistis Iesou Christou mean “faith in” or “faith/fulness of” Jesus Christ, what exactly does St. Paul mean by saying that to adopt the law is tantamount to making Jesus the author of sin, and so on. St. John Chrysostom is very instructive in his discussion of this difficult chapter, the back story, and the force of the rhetoric.

  1. Prof. Humphrey – Thanks for this wonderful article. You have a gift for bringing light and understanding to complex theological questions. I seek to walk in a newness of life by faith in Jesus and what He accomplished on the cross and your writing is of immeasurable help in this regard. Once again I ask your kind permission to repost your article on my own wee blog giving you full attribution and including a link to your original article. Thanks for your consideration in this. Ron <

  2. As a newly-made catechumen in the Orthodox Church and a Moody and Wheaton grad with a wife and 5 kids, reading this post on my first Reformation Day as not a Protestant was of deep encouragement. I thank God for you. I learned as much in the irenic,yet firm, tone as I did the fair critique of a clear excess of our Protestant friends. And make no apologies for quoting Lewis. I incorporated your thesis into evening prayers this evening,and the kids loved the image Lewis sketches of God making us a palace. Ironic you should mention your new book. I plan to buy it for our priest for Christmas. Further up and further in is one of his favorite Lewis quotes! Godspeed dear sister. You have a lot to teach us. Lord have mercy on all of us as we joyfully work out our salvation, demonstrating with our actions the true disposition of our hearts. Prov.27.19 is an interesting OT parallel.

    1. Nate, I am glad that this is helpful. I am sympathetic to the Protestant critique of the medieval Catholic Church, but (as many others have commented), it is not helpful to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Reaction is a necessary thing, but does not make a firm foundation for sober theology. One of the dynamics that I found very inviting in Orthodoxy (and in the fathers) was the ability to hold in tension matters that seem essential to the faith, but that do not cohere easily from the viewpoint of straight logic. That is not to say that sober reason is unimportant–it can get us quite far, and should not be dismissed!–but it does not go the whole way in showing us the truth of our lives, or (certainly) the glory of God. Sometimes, as Lewis says (there I go again!) narrative can say best what needs to be said!

      I am also one of those Orthodox who is not merely dismissive of my Protestant past, but thankful for those who taught me what they knew of Christ–in my earliest formation of the Salvation Army, in my sojourn with the Anglicans, and in my brief detour into a nondenominational Church where my husband was the pastor. It would be churlish not to be grateful to those dear ones, even while I am now overjoyed to have discovered the historic Church. We can be honest with these Protestant friends (and with Roman Catholics, also) even while contending for the fullness of the faith. Sometimes it is my feeling that Orthodox exaggerate the differences, or caricature both Roman and Protestant friends, in an attempt to establish our own identity. This is, to my mind, unnecessary and unhelpful. But it is important, also, not to minimize the differences that really do exist, and to imply that these are important. And so I try to be both eirenic and truthful–no doubt sometimes I miss the mark, and either unnecessarily irritate my Protestant (or Roman Catholic) friends, or seem too soft to my Orthodox brothers and sisters.

      Thank you for the reference from Proverbs, about how the mind of a human being shows the nature of the person. Welcome home, and I hope to hear more from you. I hope, also, that you enjoy exploring Lewis as much as I have.

      1. Thank you for the additional thoughts. You put words to some of my thoughts I’ve had as I process my Protestant yrs. I too have a deep thankfulness for the Protestants (Amish/Mennonite in my case) who taught me as a kid and youth in S.S. , VBS, and by their lives “what they knew about Christ.” I can’t imagine my life without the Hebrew and Greek I picked up at Moody and Wheaton. I truly treasure being “fluent” in evangelical Protestant theologies. It helps me understand where most of my friends and family are coming from. These Protestants are women and men I love dearly.

        The difficulty you express well. I’ve been wrestling with this very thing. The whole idea of identity formation. I’m Orthodox exactly because I’m neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic. Further, I’m Orthodox precisely because as an Orthodox I’m no longer thinking abstractly about a beam of light shooting into the darkness of my tool-shed. Instead, I’m standing in the fullness of the light and I can see and experience the beauty of certain ontological realities that I’ve only been able to experience as I take an Orthodox perspective. This then all becomes challenging when asked for the reason for the hope I now have. I feel duty-bound to be as thoroughly Orthodox as possible because Orthodoxy’s articulation of reality is the fullest hope I know. Having sanctified Christ as Lord in our hearts, may our responses always be with gentleness and reverence. Kurie eleison.

  3. Thank you Professor, very well put. CS Lewis was orthodox in many ways and quoting him is not a bad thing. : ) I look forward to your book. Through attending Church of Christ (no instruments) as a young child receiving a good Biblical foundation, to joyful decades in very a traditional, liturgical and sacramental Anglican tradition (until it went too far astray), a great Presbyterian Church, LCMS and lastly WELS, I have always somehow by the Grace of God gleamed from the scriptures and held a personal belief that is Orthodox. I have studied Orthodox teachings and faith for decades but never was near an Orthodox Church. Traveling with the military we had many friends who were great people of faith. Oddly, despite many of the listed denominations having in their canons or statements of faith the doctrine of original sin and forms of predestination, it was never taught, until WELS. Thanks to the 3 month long, very long celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther and the Reformation (lifted up in their writings as the sole savior of all Christianity), the teaching of predestination came out, that we have no part in our salvation, we don’t even have faith by our own acceptance once called, enlightened and repentant, as that would be a “work”and faith is given by God , no action of our own. We cannot “accept”. Conversely they stated that those, however, who reject God are at fault. Yet, they do not believe in predestination. How can that be. I was shocked. Had this been clearly taught at the beginning we never would have entered the denomination. I was also shocked to read the things that Luther and Calvin engaged in, in their own words nonetheless. While grateful for the places we worshipped and our Christian brothers and sisters therein, I saw more fully the flip side of the Reformation and the damage that has come from the splintering off through sola scriptura, sola fide. I grieved. All things happen in God’s timing. We live in a city where there are two Orthodox Churches. I met with the Antiochian priest and finally I am in the ancient faith. I appreciate the way the Ancient Faith humbly and lovingly is expressed by most in Orthodoxy and teaches how to engage with other Christians and non-Christians in finding the points of Truth that are held in common, and lovingly expressing the full truth that we understand from the Ancient Faith.

    1. Thank you for telling us your pilgrimage, and some of the questions that you had while immersed in the Lutheran tradition. My own background is the Salvation Army, and so I had to come to terms with the question of the sacraments and Holy (rather than Army) Tradition. Then, of course, I had the to deal with the wide variety of Anglican beliefs all joined, supposedly, in one “communion”. It is good for us to think with both gratitude for our past, and also sobriety, admitting where our foundational churches failed to keep the whole counsel of God. Then, of course, there is the joy of being concretely connected to the Church of the apostles, and not simply part of a group that is trying to hold to the teachings of the early Church. In ACts 2, they gave themselves to the communion AND teaching of the apostles–so too, must anyone today who wants the fullness of what Christ has to give.

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