How do you know you’re in the faith?

I think Paul gives us a somewhat unexpected answer in 2 Corinthians.

I’ll return to the subject of this post after a (possibly irrelevant) discursus here. This morning in Sunday School we went over a passage in the last chapter of 2 Corinthians. Throughout the epistle, Paul makes repeated references to the fact that some of the Corinthians are challenging his authority as apostle. Although some of his critics apparently been questioning his courage and boldness to resolve problems (10.1), here near the end of the letter he warns that when he comes, they’ll see that he can be severe in person.

Something struck me as I looked at chapter 13 verses 2 through 5, displayed in PowerPoint on the screen this morning. It occurred to me that there was a slightly disjointed thought between verses 2 and 3. Read those verses as I saw them this morning (in the NIV):

2 I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others,
3 since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you.
4 For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you.
5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?

Now let’s center on what I found a little disjointed, or rather, awkwardly joined, between verses 2 and 3: “On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me.” To me, this did not follow very naturally. Proof that Christ is speaking through Paul would be seen by his acting harshly? This attitude did not really seem altogether congruent with his defense of his apostleship, which he made at least partially on the basis of his humble and suffering service to Christ (11.22-30). In fact, the next few verses seemed to undermine his own argument, for if Paul was required to show up in order to harshly reprimand them, why would he then go on to claim that Christ was already dealing with them powerfully?

Bearing in mind that Greek has no punctuation, I looked at other modern translations as well as my copy of NA26 and found that, with the exception of Darby, they all followed basically the same path: v. 3a is Paul’s rationale for why he anticipates having to be harsh when he returns. “I will not spare those who sinned because you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me.” Most of them (Darby and NKJV being exceptions) also turn the participial phrase in v. 3b, lit. “who is not weak toward you but powerful among you,” into an independent sentence, “He is not weak…” In other words, 3b is dependent grammatically upon 3a in Greek but usually not translated as such (this is not itself an unfaithful rendering).

I suggest that it reads more naturally to take v. 2 as ending a sentence and understand v. 3 as a clause dependent upon the imperative in v. 5, completed in v. 6. I break it down as follows: “Since you are demanding” requires a little explication (v. 3b), which in turn continues into another clarification (v. 4) before continuing the main idea in v. 5. In prose, “Since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me (3a) … (3b-4), examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith, and if it turns out that you are (v. 5), I’m pretty sure you’ll see that my ministry is valid (v. 6).” Extended, grammatically awkward rocks in the stream like vv. 3b-4 are quite typical of Paul (and indeed, of handwritten discourse in general, I’d imagine, especially before the advent of the eraser).

A couple other points of grammar help reinforce this reading. Although the ἐπεὶ clause ‘since…, because…’ is often used as resultative of the preceding main clause in the sense of ‘and that’s why X‘ as v. 3 is indeed translated in the majority of translations, it does however occasionally introduce a rationale for the topic of its main clause as I am proposing here, most notably in the case of the only other NT instance of an imperative in the main clause, 1 Cor 14.12. In addition, the original of v. 5 puts “yourselves” in emphatic first position in the first two clauses: “Yourselves test, yourselves examine. Or do you not recognize for yourselves that you are in Christ?” This makes his logic clear enough: if you are not sure about the legitimacy of my ministry, try examining your own selves, and if you find yourselves to be in the faith, you’ll probably recognize that my ministry is of God.” After all, if the ministry that converted them from paganism is illegitimate, what would that say for the legitimacy of their faith?

Here is the entirety of my somewhat dynamic equivalent translation of vv. 3-6:

I have warned and am warning, as I did when I was there the second time so also now while I’m absent, those who sinned earlier and all the rest, that if I come again I will not hold back.

Since you are seeking proof that what I am saying is of Christ, who, by the way, doesn’t act weakly toward you either, but rather is powerful among you — for in weakness he was crucified but lives by the power of God and we likewise are weak in him but will be alive with him by the power of God, all for your sake — try testing yourselves to see whether you are in the faith! Examine yourselves! Do you not know for yourselves that (unless you do not prove genuine) Jesus Christ is in you? But I trust you will discover that we are genuine.

Now, back to the regularly scheduled post topic…

The thing I found interesting about this passage (and it’s not really dependent on my reinterpretation) is the answer to the question I ask in the title of the post: How do you know you’re in the faith? It seems to me that Paul’s answer to that question wasn’t quite what many evangelical Christians might think it should be. One of the primary tests they’d present would be to ask, “Do you believe in XYZ?” with an affirmative answer resulting in a pronouncement, “Then of course you’re saved.” But this would have been entirely inadequate in the Corinthians’ case, since determining which XYZ beliefs were correct was what they were having trouble doing, given the dispute between Paul and his opponents in Corinth.

In contrast, it occurs to me that Paul’s actual answer here is quite subjective — intolerably so for those who insist that our sole source of what-to-believe, the Bible, must be somehow flawless or else we might as well not believe at all. Here Paul turns that on its head: you’ll know what is genuine based upon whether it makes a genuine difference within you. “How do you know whether what I say (and you believed) is true? Why, perform a self-test, of course! Examine yourselves. Look inside yourselves and see if Christ is there. If he’s not, you’ll know it because you won’t find anything.” Even Paul the doctrine hound, who emphatically insisted that false beliefs be torn down and replaced with his own teaching, seems to acknowledge here that what God does in a person was not so much dependent on what they believe as vice versa.

No, we can’t prove faith like this to anyone. But wasn’t that the thing about Abraham’s faith that made it so astounding? When did God ever provide Abraham a real smoking gun to present to his pagan neighbors in order to convince them to believe? God “tested” Abraham by requiring of him something he couldn’t understand at all, yet, if I may echo Kierkegaard a little here, he was asked to take that wild leap of faith in God based upon what he subjectively knew of God. Could it be that faith that pleases God is not “believing the right stuff” but mere “trust and faithfulness in a relationship with Him”?

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