The “I” in Faith
It may have sounded prophetic at one point, but now it’s rather prosaic. Everyone knows (or is supposed to know) that individualism is bad. An emphasis on the individual — such a common theme in the West — has been blamed for myriad problems, including everything from friendlessness to consumerism, from contemporary praise music to gated communities. And no doubt, individualism has its downside. For the church, it’s meant an aversion to authority, a reluctance to accept certain elements of covenant theology, and a community life that isn’t everything it could be. Problem duly noted.
But let us not forget that the reason for individualism in the West is, among other factors, that Christianity taught the West to prize the individual. After all, God did not start by making a community; He made a man, Adam. And He gave to that man dignity and worth as a creature made in the divine image. The individual matters because each individual matters to God.
There’s always a danger in the Christian life of dealing only with generalities. The temptation is to float in the fog of general truths and general promises instead of seeing with laser sharpness the specificity of God’s truth and God’s promises. The truth is not just that all men are sinners and therefore we must be sinners too. The truth is I am a sinner and I sin, not general, theoretical sins, but actual, condemnable, particular sins. Conversely, the promise of God’s love is more than a general blanketing of good will toward all people, like the t-shirt that says, “Jesus loves you. Then again, he loves everybody.” We need to know that God’s love does not rest upon us at the end of a syllogism. He loves us — loves me, loves you — specifically, particularly, uniquely, and individually.
As much as some newer songs abuse references to the self, we should never forget it was the Psalms that first stuffed church singing full of personal pronouns. Our faith is not private, but it is certainly personal. Christianity is much more than “me and Jesus,” but it is not less.
If the Devil cannot stop the truth from being known, his next strategy is to stop it from being felt. He wants to keep the truths about election, providence, redemption, sin, forgiveness, heaven, and hell neutered with theories, principles, and generalities. The last thing he wants is for the Christian to understand that his sins are his sins and his Christ is his Christ. The Devil will gladly allow us a broad knowledge of godly propositions. It’s the I-memy of the gospel details he wants us to avoid.
True faith does more than believe gospel pronouncements — it believes gospel promises. According to the Heidelberg Catechism: “True faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is truth; it is also a deep-rooted assurance, created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel, that out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ, not only others, but I too, have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation” (Q&A 21). This is Christian individualism at its best. Faith isn’t faith if it merely believes that God exists and God is good. True faith believes that God is and that the God who is will be good to me because of Christ.
When you come to the end of your life, what do you want buried in your heart — a general truth that God is gracious and merciful or the particular promises that your sin is forgiven by Christ (1 John 1:7), you have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), and in death you will gain Christ (Phil. 1:21)? John Calvin maintains that the knowledge we want in our last days “is not merely of a general kind, as though believers were merely in a general way persuaded, that the children of God will be in a better condition after death.” In other words, we will have no consolation in death unless we find assurance individually. “Everyone must have a knowledge peculiar to himself,” Calvin goes on to say, “for this, and this only, can animate me to meet death with cheerfulness — if I am fully persuaded, that I am departing to a better life.”
There may be no “I” in team, but when it comes to claiming the specific truths of Scripture and God’s particular promises for the individual believer, there is an “I” in faith.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.