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1 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?
2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
3 For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."
4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.
5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
Harrington University has other names: the University of San Moritz, the University of Palmer’s Green, and the University of Devonshire. At Harrington, the campus is small; the class schedule is convenient (In fact, there are no classes at all), and a Ph.D. will only take you 27 days and a few thousand dollars to earn. No transcript from a previous institution is necessary. Instead, you get full credit for what Harrington calls “life experience.”
Harrington University is (or was, until it was shut down in 2003 by the authorities) a “diploma mill.” It was an online “university” selling bogus bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Rather than classrooms and a campus, Harrington University was the residence of an American living in Romania with mail drops in the United Kingdom, printing services in Jerusalem, and banking options in Cyprus. By 2002, some 70,000 Harrington-Palmer’s Green-Devonshire degrees had been “granted” to online applicants, earning the operator more than $100 million.
Using e-mail spam, online advertising and even print advertising in major US magazines, diploma mills like Harrington are a growing phenomenon in our wired world. As jobs become more scarce and competition for them more fierce, many people are turning to quick, albeit illegitimate, ways to pad their rèsumès without the cost or hassle of actually going to class.
A May 2004 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found 28 senior federal executives who claimed degrees from diploma mills, and 463 federal employees with bogus college degrees were hired or advanced in their jobs. Sham scholars with fake degrees have held jobs as sex-abuse counselors, college vice presidents, child psychologists, athletic coaches, engineers and even physicians. Counterfeit colleges and universities make it easier to pull off the rèsumè charade because they provide fake diplomas and transcripts that often seem legitimate.
With all this academic fakery going on, it is becoming harder for legitimate institutions to maintain their reputations, and it is also more dangerous for people in need of professional services.
Take the case of Marion Kolitwenzew, who found out her daughter was diabetic and took her to a specialist for treatment. He seemed like the real deal, with a wall full of diplomas and an office stocked with medical supplies. When Marion followed the “doctor’s” advice and took her daughter off insulin, the daughter quickly became violently ill and died. Later, the “doctor” was sentenced to 15 months in prison for manslaughter and practicing medicine without a license. His wall was adorned with counterfeit credentials.
How do so many people get away with this stuff? The answer is simple: No one seems to check them out, No one calls the references, No one asks for the paperwork. Thus, it can be fairly easy to fake who you are.
The church is not proof against this kind of fraud. A few years ago, right here in York, we had a minister in one of our local churches who did much the same. He had been in his denomination for several years and claimed to have a couple of degrees. No one actually investigated his resume until he became involved in some bitter strife in his church, and someone became angry enough to check up on him, and found that his degrees were fake.
By the way, I do not post diplomas on office walls, but if you want to go down to Erskine and check on my degrees you are welcome to do so. But in church, the real problem is not fake diplomas, it is fake faith.
In Romans 4, Paul is using Abraham the Patriarch as a primary case in a study of God’s dealing with people. Abraham was a hard-driving businessman and a devoted man of God. If anyone had a rèsumè of solid credentials to “boast” about, says the Apostle Paul, it was Abraham. But it was not his righteous rèsumè that made Abraham a prime candidate for the job of Patriarch of the faith. “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about — but not before God,” says Paul in verse 2.
In other words, even Abraham’s best work could not match the standard of holiness set by God. No human rèsumè is impressive enough. Earlier in Romans, Paul puts it more clearly: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Instead, it was faith itself that was Abraham’s one and only true rèsumè builder. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (4:3).
Thus, we Christians are famous for saying that all our attempts to approach God by doing stuff are bogus. That whole way of thinking, which is called “works righteousness,” is counterfeit. The only way to come to God is by faith, by real faith, Abrahamic faith.
Which leads us to the next question then: What is real faith? What is Abrahamic faith? Strangely enough in over 30 years in the ministry, I have never been asked that question. I have often said to people you must be saved by faith. But no one has ever responded by asking, What is faith? But it seems to me a very apt question.
Tillich and Faith
Philosopher and Theologian Paul Tillich wrestled with this question. Tillich said, “There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions, and questionable definitions than the word ‘faith’.” [Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, Introductory Remarks].
Tillich offers us a definition: Faith is “the state of being ultimately concerned” [Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 1]. If we have faith in something, we are dead serious about it. We are not only concerned about it. We are concerned to the nth degree .
Now, we all met people who claimed to have faith in Jesus, but whom we suspected did not. How can I make a statement like that? What grounds do we have for such suspicions? Because they are not much concerned about Jesus. Ask them if they believe in Jesus, and they will say that they do, but what are they really serious about?
The Masters is in session down in Augusta, so let me use golf for an example. If you are always thinking about golf, if every scrap of your time is devoted to playing or watching golf, if you mortgage your house to buy that new set of titanium golf clubs, then golf is your ultimate concern, not Jesus. Your faith is in golf, not Jesus.
Most Americans who claim to believe in Jesus attend church only occasionally, give to the church only occasionally, pray seldom if ever. Do they actually believe in Jesus? If we accept Tillich’s definition of faith as that which we are “ultimately concerned” about, then we suspect that they do not, that they are not really serious about Jesus.
That is a question for us today: How serious are we about Jesus? Or to put the question another way, What is our ultimate concern? To what do we give our highest priority? What are our most cherished goals? That is where we put our faith.
Faith is an attitude that involves our entire personality. Tillich says, “It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements” [Dynamics, 4]. Our faith is expressed by our whole being. Our faith determines, to a large extent, what we are. Thus, when faith is misplaced, our lifestyle becomes confused and disoriented. If we believe the wrong things, trust the wrong things, we will be screwed-up people. That explains much of what is wrong with the world today. Most people have faith, most people are ultimately concerned, about the wrong things. For example, they are ultimately concerned about a nation, or, they are ultimately concerned about my job or my way of living. But countries rise and fall—witness the rise of China right now. And Jobs come and go—where have all the textile jobs gone? And lifestyles change every few years. So those things are nothing to be much worried about. Ultimately, we are concerned about only God.
The problem people have always had from the very beginning of recorded history is that we become “ultimately concerned” about something other than God. Whenever we elevate something other than God to a level of ultimate concern, we commit idolatry. We put something in God’s place. We have faith in something that is not worth our faith.
This was what happened to Israel during the Exodus in what we might call the Golden Calf Episode. They had received the Law at Mount Sinai. They had all expressed their willingness to obey the Law. They had ratified a covenant with God. Then, when Moses was away for awhile on the mountain, they forgot about Moses, forgot about the law and the covenant, forgot about God and began to worship instead a Canaanite idol. They put their faith in something that was not worth their faith. They elevated a golden image to the level of God and made it their ultimate concern. Thus they broke their covenant with God and brought down God’s wrath upon them.
The question is what is faith? Faith is a way of answering life’s really important questions. Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Everyone asks these questions. I have sometimes been stunned when a person that I did not think had a serious bone in their body begin asking serious questions; What happens when I die? How do I know God’s will for my life? That is an humbling experience because you realize that all of us are pretty much alike in that all of us are trying to make sense of the world around us. But the only way the world makes sense is through faith in God.
And notice what this faith is. It is not only a faith that God exists. We always mean far more than that when we speak of faith in God, we mean that God accepts us and loves us. That is what Jesus taught and proved. Through Jesus, we are made “righteous” before God, to use the Apostle Paul’s terminology. Nothing we do makes us righteous, but by faith in Jesus, by making Jesus our ultimate concern, we are accepted as citizens of the kingdom of God.
The question was, What is faith? My faith is not about me at all. Faith is not about what I have done or not done. Faith moves me out of the picture and focuses on Christ. That sounds so easy, yet it is probably the hardest thing in the world for any human being to do. Even as we say Christ is our ultimate concern, we resort to little stratagems to make ourselves the center of attention.
A few weeks ago, I was over in Easley and my wife and her mother were shopping, so I was given the task of taking my father-in-law’s car to the carwash. I took the car to the Easley Deluxe Carwash, paid my money, and was standing there watching them wash the car. I noticed a little old man nearby and I started up a conversation just out of boredom. After we had exchanged a few words, he launched into a loud monologue about how he loved Jesus. He said that he had started a church and he had raised all this money, and he had talked to so many people and driven so many miles. The little man expounded on how they got contractors for the church, and they ran out of money and he told the people that they had to give more and so on. He had led so many people to Christ and he had done this and done that.
This speech went on and on, and I was a little embarrassed because we were standing in a car wash with other people all around, and this little man just got louder. Finally, I blurted out, “My car is done; I have to go,” and bolted out the door.
But as I reflected on this later, I could not help but observe that though the man said he loved Jesus, the speech was not about Jesus at all. It was about him. You know he never even asked my name. He never asked anything about me. He was too focused on himself.
Under the disguise of loving Jesus, he was talking about himself. It was pathetic really. Here was a little man trying to gain some esteem from a stranger in a car wash by bragging about what he had done for Jesus. But that little man was not so different from the rest of us. Even when we talk about Jesus, we are always trying to somehow slide the focus back on me. That is the great human error, the great idolatry. Most people really have faith only in themselves. The Apostle Paul says we must break that idol, and put our faith in Jesus. That is the only real faith. Any other faith is just a counterfeit diploma. Amen.
Armour, Stephanie. “Diploma mills insert degree of fraud into job market.” USA Today Web Site, usatoday.com, September 28, 2003. Retrieved August 18, 2004.
Bear, John. “Diploma mills: The $200 million a year competition you didn’t know you had.” University Business Web Site, degree.net. Retrieved August 18, 2004.
“Drive-thru degrees.” ABCNews.com Web Site, abcnews.go.com. May 16, 2001. Retrieved August 18, 2004.
Mayfield, Kendra. “Down by the diploma mills stream.” Wired News Web Site, wired.com. August 28, 2002. Retrieved August 18, 2004.
Spencer, Jim. “Fake degrees deserve third degree.” The Denver Post, May 21, 2004.
“World’s biggest diploma mill brazenly steps it up.” Degree.com Web Site, degree.net/news.htm. Retrieved August 18, 2004.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 5/17/05