What Makes a True Believer?

I had a conversation with an older gentleman after church today. He told me about his experiences with other denominations while looking for a church. Hearing his story, I invited him to Pub Theology next week because the topic is “Christian Unity and How to Deal with ‘Those’ People” (we needed a catchy tag-line that people would remember).

The gentleman politely rejected the invitation because, as he put it, he had serious problems with the church. The faith that he had grown up with, instilled in him by his grandmother, was faith in God Almighty alone; no Jesus, no Mohammed, nothing else. I was puzzled that his belief in God included rejecting Jesus Christ. I knew that he had been baptized as an adult and had chosen to become a Christian of his own free will. How did that fit with his current beliefs?

I remembered an Episcopalian veteran I met during my Clinical Pastoral Education unit who, relating a conversation from his past, stubbornly asked me, “What does my belief in Jesus have to do with me being a Christian?”

I remembered a girl I once worked with in a confirmation class who admitted that she didn’t believe that Jesus was God. At that point, I figured, she was still working on articulating her faith and still had to work it out. But she was going to be confirmed while professing the Apostles’ Creed, a creed she did not hold.

All three of these people professed to be Christians, yet did not believe what I considered to be a foundational doctrine of Christianty—the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.

And as I puzzled over these situations, I asked myself, “What makes one a true believer?”

Immediately, I began to wonder if that was the right question. I have spoken in the past about a needed shift from the narrow focus on doctrine to a broader focus on mission in the world. Strict orthodoxy, in my view, is not as important as the mission.

I have questioned my own beliefs in the past. The Trinity simply oozes of philosophical nonsense trying to make sense of itself. The Nicene Creed professes many statements with no explanations. Paul has a lot of great ideas, if you can wrap your head around them. How can I know I’ve gotten it all right?

Sometimes I wonder if I haven’t completely missed it all. What if Arius was right, and Jesus is not God? What if the Monophysites were right, and Jesus is not both God and human? What if the Bible is not as inspired as I believe? What if the Book of Concord isn’t the faithful explanation of Scripture that I confess it to be? What if Rabbinical Judaism has it right? Islam? A single change in history at any number of points would significantly alter Christian doctrine and what I consider to be orthodoxy.

My faith tells me that these are valid fears. It also tells me that there are no answers to these questions. It’s possible that I have it all wrong, but I trust that in two thousand years of history, God has been present and active in some way, guiding the church catholic. How deeply that influence and guidance reaches, though, I cannot say.

Still, I get through it. How?

I take comfort knowing that God’s own people didn’t have it right. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I have discovered a love for the Hebrew scriptures that I never knew I had. The Hebrew Bible is full of examples of the Israelites having the wrong idea—they followed other gods, they tried to contain God in a building, they rebelled in the wilderness, and so on. And yes, sometimes there is a price to pay for those mistakes. They lost their kingdoms, their homes, their land, and their religious establishment. But do you know what I find remarkable?

They are still God’s people. After everything that God endures at the hands of these people, a people chosen and loved, they are not abandoned. God loves them so much that they are never left behind. God comes back and picks them up, saying, “I want to try again.” Now that is faith, hope, and love if I’ve ever seen it.

I wholeheartedly trust that, being adopted as a child of God in baptism, God loves me the same way. I certainly don’t have it all together. I am a Trinitarian, Nicene, Pauline, Reforming, Lutheran Christian. I probably don’t believe all the right things—the ELCA is probably not a perfectly-orthodox church. I would be so bold as to say that the ELCA has many wrong ideas. I cannot hope to be perfect.

What makes me a true believer, then?

I am a believer because my love for God compels me to act out my faith in the world.

I am a believer because I trust that God loves me even when I am completely wrong.

I am a believer because I am able to “sin boldly”, taking risks and chances, trusting that when I screw up (and boy do I screw up), I can count on God waiting for me to realize my mistake and shame, holding out a hand and saying, “You learned something today. Come on, let’s go home and get back to the basics.”

Love and trust make me a true believer. The rest, well… that’s up to God.



To make up for missing a post last week, you get two posts this week!

In researching and writing my last post, I kept asking myself, “Will Osama bin Laden be saved?” If you ask most Christians, the answer would be a loud, resounding, NO.

There are a few ways of approaching the issue. John Calvin, the father of the Reformed tradition, taught double predestination: that is, God chooses some to be saved, and chooses others to be damned. The righteous are elected to go to heaven, the wicked are condemned to damnation. The Roman Catholic Church famously teaches that “outside the church, there is no salvation.”

What do Lutherans believe? Well, that depends on who you ask. First, I present a few quotes from the Book of Concord* which address the issue.

It is also taught that our Lord Jesus Christ will return on the Last Day to judge, to raise all the dead, to give eternal life and eternal joy to those who believe and are elect, but to condemn the ungodly and the devils to hell and eternal punishment.
The Augsburg Confession, Article XVII

That doesn’t sound very helpful. But what about other parts of the Book of Concord?

“God imprisoned all in unbelief that he may be merciful to all,” and that he wants no one to be lost but rather that everyone repent and believe on the Lord Christ [Rom. 11:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; cf. Ezek. 33:11; 18:23].
Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article XI: Election

Therefore, we reject the following errors:
1. When it is taught that God does not want all people to repent and believe the gospel.
2. Likewise, that when God calls us to himself, he does not seriously intend that all people should come to him.
3. Likewise, that God does not desire that everyone should be saved, but rather that without regard to their sins–only because of God’s naked decision, intention, and will–some are designated for damnation, so that there is no way that they could be saved.
Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article XI: Election

And we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his power.
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article IX: Concerning Christ’s Descent into Hell

It seems to me, then, that salvation is not quite so black-and-white as some Christians make it out to be. What the Formula of Concord outlines could be considered to be an almost-but-not-quite form of universal salvation. This teaching is commonly called a heresy, but from what I can gather, this may not be the case. The Second Council of Constantinople did condemn Origen and a form of apocatastasis, the “restoration” of all things, but scholars are divided on whether Origen actually believed in universal salvation. More research is required here.

Regardless of what Origen did or did not believe, many Christians today consider universal salvation to be heresy. And it doesn’t take too much effort on the internet to find out that lots of people believe that the ELCA teaches universal salvation and condemn us for it (among other things).

Not withstanding the fact that the ELCA website is difficult to navigate–I used to say impossible until I ventured onto the Vatican website–I have found that the ELCA teaching is in line with the Formula of Concord: we teach and believe that it is truly God’s will and desire that everyone be saved. But are they?

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” We are praying that, no matter how often we screw up and try to sabotage it, God’s will will ulimately, in the end, will be done and brought to fruition. If I believe that the redemptive work of Christ on the cross was complete, then I am forced to conclude that salvation should be for everyone. Nothing can outlast God’s will.

However, we don’t know. Lutherans are particularly comfortable with not understanding every mystery of God. Martin Luther’s advice was to simply not worry about it. We don’t know who (if anyone) is saved, who (if anyone) is damned, and how the end of the world will look.

Instead, we hope. We have hope that God will get what God desires. We have hope that God’s will will be done, that will that desires all to be saved. What we don’t know, we take on faith. Is that universal salvation? Perhaps. But it is Lutheran.


*The Book of Concord is a collection of Lutheran documents, including the paramount Augsburg Confession, along with Apology of the Augsburg Confession, The Smalcald Articles, Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, The Small Catechism, The Large Catechism and Formula of Concord. The documents outline and explain Lutheran theology and are considered to be faithful interpretations of Holy Scripture. They themselves are not scripture, and are not to be held on the same level. Adherence to the Augsburg Confession is generally accepted as the requirement to be considered a Lutheran Church. The ELCA accepts the entire Book of Concord as a faithful witness to the Gospel, and ELCA Pastors are required to teach in accordance with it.