When we talk about faith do we begin with ourselves, our ability to believe something unbelievable, or with the unbelievably dead and risen God Himself? If we begin with ourselves, how come? Even if we could figure out our problem for ourselves, could we forgive our own sin? Could our minds ever stop justifying what our selfish hearts desire, even if it is a reprieve from divine judgment? How about baptizing ourselves? Could we decide to make a new beginning, a new life that, with some words and a sprinkling of water, convince us we're in dutch with the Almighty? But, maybe faith is a matter of proof. You've got your faith, I've got mine. Let's put our cards on the table and see who was dealt a winning hand. You've got your works, I've got mine, but not all works are equal. Some are more equal than others!
So you haven't lied or cheated anyone this week? And I see you're quite pleased with yourself that you haven't murdered anyone, or cheated on your wife? Four of a kind! That's a good hand, I must admit. But, ignoring all that Jesus said in Matthew about those things, check out my royal flush of works! I earned degrees in education and theology. I successfully navigated seminary and went on to write a graduate thesis on my theological hero that was the envy of the other students. And now, I'm a minister who's revered by his congregation, respected throughout my church body, and in the community people who aren't even religious hold me in high regard. Our family sets aside a fifth of my salary to give back to the church. And, here's the trump card... my sermons are going to be collected and published in the Spring! I hate to say it, my friend, but if God is going to be pleased with a show of faith, it's most definitely mine.
Or maybe, faith is a matter of knowledge. Can you say the Small Catechism forward and the books of the Bible backward? How much have you read of the early Church Fathers? Do you even appreciate the hypostatic union? Can you distinguish between first and second wave pietism? What about Erlangian theology? You've got to understand the influence of Erlangen on post-war American Lutheranism.
Maybe faith is measured by repentance, whether we are truly, sincerely, heartily sorry for crossing God. Or maybe it's a matter of charity, or believing in our ability to believe, or how stirred up we get in our worshipfulness. Or maybe faith isn't in us at all.
You have faith? Then your sin is forgiven entirely, all of it, for Christ's sake. Pronounced to you by a preacher whom God sent to make it clear: you can't work yourself up to an acceptable level of faith, not even close. It's not even possible for you, so quit lying to yourselves.
"You have faith? It's because I baptized you. My Spirit, My Word, and as at the beginning so too now, I work through water, Word, and Spirit to make a new you.
Your works? What of them? I gave them to you as free gift. Why are you getting all lathered up inventing stuff to do, as if I'm impressed by your exertions? You didn't have to do anything. I predestined you to walk in good works before I created anything.
Oh, you know the Bible backwards and the Catechism forwards, well good for you! I have numbered every hair on your head and I chose you in Christ before the foundation of the world. I have written your name in the Book of Life, Christ Jesus.
It's time you give up the charade. You don't have saving faith. You never did. In fact, this whole time you've used your notion of faith to knife each other in the back. That's what your faith has gotten you. Not a winning hand, but more sin and finally, death. Nothing could be more opposite the faith that I give you than death."
When it comes to faith, God runs all the verbs. God's Spirit calls us by the Gospel. He enlightens us with His gifts. He sanctifies us. He keeps us with Christ in the one true faith. He daily and abundantly forgives our sins. He will raise us up at the Last Day and give us believers in Jesus Christ eternal life. It is all God's doing for we who find it impossible to believe something as unbelievable as God dying, going through hell, and rising from the dead for us. In fact, it's so unbelievable we invent our own version of saving faith to protect ourselves from God's work for us.
But no matter what obstacles we throw up to protect ourselves—belief in our ability to believe, our works, knowledge, repentance, and so on—God will have the last Word about faith. It's His coming to us, His faithful, loving, kindness, that speaks saving faith into us. When we believe the Gospel, when we trust in its life-changing, life-giving message about Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us, it's God who's sought us out, saved us from ourselves, and set us free to be people of God.