Monday, March 26, 2007

The Necessity of Good Works
the Athanasian Creed

The Christian Church has faced many trials and struggles. These have motivated the faithful, that is, those who truly rely upon Christ for their hope of salvation, to formulate statements of faith that speak to the matters of struggle. Three Creeds are counted as Ecumenical in nature: The Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian.

These creeds are counted as ecumenical because they were born of the struggles of the catholic Church. They are the statements of faith of the entire Christian Church. They are not merely compilations of thoughts by men. They are truly statements that declare the doctrine and faith by which the true Christian Church on Earth exists. They are truly ecumenical not so much because of the nature of the councils that adopted them and declared them to be true, but they are ecumenical because they truly do what they claim: they proclaim the true faith by which men receive the everlasting salvation of their souls.

In my contemplations for this past Sunday of Judica, and especially in connection with the text for the sermon, the declarations of the Athanasian Creed came to the fore.

In our daily walk of faith, the true definition of that faith and then also, the right understanding of the practice that flows from that faith, often seem complicated and confusing. They are not complicated or confusing, but we often perceive them as so.

The reason that this appears complicated in our understanding is because we drift from the salutary focus of the creeds to our own focus. Our focus drifts downward rather than upward. Our focus drifts to our works rather than God’s works.

The Athanasian Creed offers comforting words on this matter, yet people often find them to be even more troubling than their own thoughts. The words of the Athanasian Creed seem contradictory, when, as stated above, our focus drifts downward rather than remaining fixed on the things above. (Colossians 3:1-2)

The trouble often begins with the first two sentences of the creed.

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

These words are often twisted by minds that are busy focusing on trying to be good Christians. People begin to think of Jesus’ statement about not judging others and His promise to the thief on the cross. (Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37; and Luke 23:43)

The reason for the confusion is that people hear what they want to hear rather than what is actually said. Jesus said that even He had not come to judge. Yet at the Last Day He declares that He shall return in final and absolute Judgment of the world. Moreover He declares that this judgment will be based entirely upon ONE factor: whether or not a person trusted in the salvific works that God accomplished for us in Christ Jesus.

This is the point of the Athanasian Creed. The creed declares that this true faith can be known and that it does indeed save. It also warns against the fallacy of the notion that faith is our work. The creed demonstrates that this faith is as St. Paul teaches in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

Saving faith is not something that a person does. It is done on the person and in the person. Saving faith is what the Holy Spirit works in the heart, soul, and mind. It is poured out freely from heaven as a gift. This is what the creed rightly emphasizes by declaring that the catholic faith must be kept whole and undefiled or without doubt the person will perish everlastingly. The reason should be plain, though our deluded minds often still misunderstand. The reason that it must be kept whole and undefiled is that if it is corrupted or altered in anyway whatsoever, it is no longer the faith that God works and gives. If it is not His faith, then it is not true and it has no power to save.

This same confusion arises for people at the end of the creed. Again the confusion does not exist in the words of the creed, but in the minds that continue to seek the “things on the earth” rather than the “things which are above.”

The creed declares:

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Then the creed follows the pattern of the previous two ecumenical creeds in their second articles, and proceeds to explain what the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ involves. Most people do not experience difficulty until the creed demonstrates that His incarnation continues to the very last day, and that His works did not end with His ascension into heaven. No, He continues to work His works in His body on earth, that is, in His true Church on Earth.

People have little trouble reciting the works of His incarnation that He accomplished prior to His ascension. Most people don’t have much trouble even confessing the work of His incarnation in returning at the Last Day to “judge the quick and the dead.” But when the creed goes on to explain His ongoing works of His incarnation in the present, in the lives of the saints who are members of His body, suddenly people seem to develop major problems.

This is because they refuse to hear that these are what the Scriptures declare them to be.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

When a person truly hears this, then the words of the creed carry the instruction that gives everlasting comfort and peace.

At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give an account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.

At the Last Day, whose works will the saints hold up? Whose works do the saints claim as their own works?

True saints do not count the works that they have done as anything but filth. True saints hear the declaration of righteousness by which they are justified. God declares the works of Jesus to be the works of those who are baptized into His death and raised with Him in the life that He purchased with His blood.

Jesus declared to those who asked what works we need to seek.

Then said they unto him, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said unto them, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” (John 6:28-29)

By what works will all men be judged? Either they will be judged as having stubbornly continued in their own works, or they will be judged as having lived by faith so that their works were God’s works worked in them. Faith is a gift. Faith is the work of God. Faith is the means by which a person is declared to be righteous with the righteousness of God in Christ.

This is what the creed plainly declares. It truly is very simple.

This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.

How truly comforting this is! God will judge us according to the faith that He gives and maintains in us. He judges us according to His own perfect and holy works. He has provided the means by which this faith is given and kept at work in our hearts, minds, and souls. He has given us His Church, the body of Christ, where these means of faith are readily available. He works all this for us and tenderly calls to us as our heavenly Father to come and enjoy the life that He has provided for us in Christ. Jesus does the work and turns to us and says, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of thy Lord.”

If you would like to read or hear the sermon from this Sunday of Judica, it is available by clicking here.

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