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The theme of this book is standing firm in the faith. So we need to understand what faith is. In our Western world, faith, or belief, is often thought of as intellectual assent. To the New Testament writers, it meant very much more than that. It meant total trust, total obedience, and total commitment. Faith is what we live by.
Faith, pistis, and the related verb, pisteuo, mean much more than intellectual assent. We believe in our heart and not just our mind (Romans 10:9-10). Few, if any, people have been saved by mere intellectual assent. Intellectual assent, without more, can hardly give us the courage and perseverance to stand firm against obstacles and disapproval. There has to be a faith that is rooted firmly in our heart, in our guts.
Strong’s Dictionary of the Greek Bible defines faith as “persuasion, i.e. credence, moral conviction… especially reliance on Christ for salvation.” He says that the related verb pisteuo means “to entrust (especially one’s spiritual well-being to Christ).” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words says that pisteuo signifies “reliance upon, not mere credence.” Biblical faith is not just believing in a set of doctrines or principles; it is believing, and putting one’s trust, in the person of Jesus Christ. “Whoever believes in Him” is saved (John 3:16). Paul wrote, “I know whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1:12). “Whom” (a person) rather than “what” (a set of doctrines).J.I. Packer says, “True faith is an exclusive, wholehearted trust, a complete going out of oneself to put one’s entire confidence in God’s mercy.” 31 Donald G. Bloesch defines faith as “a radical commitment of the whole man to the living Christ, a commitment that entails knowledge, trust and obedience.” 32 I believe Bloesch has it exactly right. Paul puts it this way, “The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Faith is a matter of our whole being, our whole life.
Actually, all of us live by faith. We all trust our lives, our health, our physical safety, our finances, and much else, to others. The question is, where will we put our primary faith?
We drive into traffic having faith in our vehicle, our driving skill, and the reasonableness of most drivers. We step into an airplane having faith in the competence and physical condition of the pilot, the thoroughness of the plane’s maintenance, and the expertness of the airport controllers. We entrust our life to a surgeon. We entrust our finances to an economic system, and to various financial institutions. Etc. Etc.
The real question is, will we place all of our faith in ourselves and other humans, who are fallible and sometimes deceitful? Or will we place our primary faith in God, our Creator, who is all-powerful, all-wise and all-good?
The religion of humanism, which is so prevalent today, says that we should place all of our faith and trust in man’s knowledge, wisdom, ability, and goodness. Scripture says the opposite. Paul desired that our “faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5). Proverbs tells us, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and depart from evil” (Proverbs 3:5-7). When we trust in man’s ability and wisdom, we are leaning on our own understanding and being wise in our own eyes. Scripture tells us to trust in the Lord.
Jeremiah puts it plainly. “Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the LORD… Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, and whose hope is in the LORD” (Jeremiah 17:5, 7). (Also see Psalms 118:8-9; 146:1-3.) He goes on to explain why this is so. “The heart [of man] is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Only God is worthy of complete trust. Humanism—putting your faith and trust solely (or even primarily) in man—leads to curses and failure. I think we are beginning to see the practical results of that today.
I want to look at some aspects of this faith in God. The faith I am talking about is not just what is called “saving faith,” important though that is. Faith is more than just a matter of deciding to come to Jesus. It is a matter of believing Scripture, of believing all the promises of the Bible, of believing that God is watching over us and guiding us, and much more.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF FAITH
Faith Is Central
As Paul says, we live by faith (Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 5:7). “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). (Also see Habakkuk 2:4.) As Christians, every aspect of our life is based on faith in God. “In Him [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). “Without faith it is impossible to please Him [God]” (Hebrews 11:6).
Faith Is a Decision
Faith is not just intellectual assent. It is a decision that has very important consequences for our lives.
A story is told of a high wire performer, who stretched a wire across Niagara Falls and planned to push a wheelbarrow on the wire from one side to the other. He asked a bystander, “Do you believe I can do it?” “Oh yes,” said the man. “Fine,” said the performer, “Get in the wheelbarrow.” That’s what faith is. It’s not just assenting intellectually to something. It’s getting in the wheelbarrow. It’s making a decision and committing your entire life to it. Intellectual acceptance is not enough. It takes commitment.
Faith Shows Itself in Our Actions
When we come to Jesus Christ, and accept him as our Savior and Lord, it should result in a changed life. Jesus began his preaching by saying, “…Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15 NIV). To repent, metanoeo, is to change directions, to turn around. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are transformed (Romans 12:2). If we do not see this kind of transformed life, we are entitled to question whether a person’s faith is genuine.
Scripture speaks over and over of the fact that our faith, to be genuine, must show itself in our actions. Jesus said, “…anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these…” (John 14:12 NIV). Genuine faith results in action. Jesus said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). He spoke, critically, of those who honor God with their lips, but their heart is far from him (Matthew 15:8, quoting Isaiah 29:13).
James wrote, “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17 NIV). Paul would not disagree. He spoke of those who “…claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him…” (Titus 1:16 NIV). He described the purpose of his entire ministry as “…to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1:5 NIV). He preached to Jews and Gentiles alike that “they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20). He admonished believers to “…live a life worthy of the calling you have received…” (Ephesians 4:1 NIV), to live a life controlled by the Holy Spirit of God (Galatians 5:16, Romans 8:13), and to have “an abundance for every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). (Also see Titus 3:8.) He emphasized that the Bible is useful “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16). The author of Hebrews prayed, “Now may the God of peace… make you complete in every good work to do his will, working in you what is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20-21). In Hebrews, chapter 11, we see over and over how faith is shown by action, and results in action.
When Jesus commended people for their faith, or criticized them for their lack of faith, it was usually in the context of their actions. The centurion told Jesus that he did not need to come to his house; saying, “only speak a word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). Jesus responded, “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel” (Matthew 8:10). The centurion showed his faith by his action. When the friends of the paralytic took the extraordinary step of lowering him through the roof, “Jesus saw their faith” (Matthew 9:2) and healed their friend. When the woman with an issue of blood pressed through the crowd to touch his garment, Jesus said, “your faith has made you well” (Matthew 9:22). When the Canaanite woman persisted in asking that Jesus heal her demonized daughter, Jesus said, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28). When blind Bartimaeus persisted in calling out, despite every effort of the disciples to silence him, Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 10:52). (See Chapter 21.) In each case, it was their action, their persistence, their pressing in, that showed their faith.
When the disciples feared that they would drown in a storm, Jesus said, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26). Peter walked on the water for a while, and then became afraid and began to sink. Jesus said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). When the disciples could not heal a demonized boy, Jesus said it was “Because of your unbelief” (Matthew 17:20). In each case, their actions showed their lack of faith.
I want to make one thing very clear. We are saved by faith, and only by faith. “Not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:9). (Also see Titus 3:5.) But if our faith does not affect our actions, if it does not lead to action, if it is not demonstrated by our actions, then it may be doubted whether it is genuine faith. Our actions cannot save us, but they are evidence of the faith that saves us.
Faith Implies Trust
Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1 NIV). Paul wrote, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13 NIV). “I will wait on the LORD… I will hope in Him” (Isaiah 8:17 NIV). “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2). “Commit your way to the Lord; trust also in him” (Psalm 37:5). (Also see Psalms 25:2, 37:3, 62:8, 115:11; Isaiah 26:4; Jeremiah 39:18.)
Because God is all-powerful, all-wise and all-good, we can put our trust in him and we need not fear anything. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1-2). “Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in you… In God I have put my trust; I will not fear. What can flesh do to me?” (Psalm 56:3-4).
It is by faith that we overcome fear. When Jairus heard that his daughter was dead, Jesus told him, “Do not be afraid; only believe” (Mark 5:36). When the disciples feared the storm on Lake Galilee, Jesus said, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26).
When Joshua was about to invade Canaan, God told him, “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). When God is with us, we have no reason to fear.
When a vast army attacked Judah, King Jehoshaphat prayed to God, “…we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.” Then a prophet declared, “…Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours but God’s.” The King declared to his people, “…Have faith in the LORD your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful” (2 Chronicles 20:12, 15, 20 NIV). The next morning they went out to battle and God gave them the victory. It was their faith that enabled them to trust in God and in the prophetic word he had given, and to have the courage to go out against a greatly superior force.
Paul writes, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). The key to overcoming worry and anxiety is to trust in God, and to put our problems in his hands, confident that he will work them out.
I am not saying that we should sit back, do nothing, and just say, “Let God take care of it.” That is never God’s way. He expects us to do all that we can. But when we have done all that we can, then we can call on him for help, knowing that ultimately “the battle is the Lord’s.” This is made clear in Ephesians 6:10-18. Paul tells us to “…be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10 NIV). Then he tells us to “…stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13 NIV). We stand in God’s mighty power. But we also need to do everything we can.
Faith Implies Obedience
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Because of his faith in God, Abraham, at age 75, took his wife, and other relatives, associates and servants, on a journey of over 400 miles through difficult county, to a land he knew nothing about and where he had no acquaintances. “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” as a sacrifice (Hebrews 11:17), in obedience to God’s command.
“By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household” (Hebrews 11:7). Scripture tells us of Noah’s total obedience. “Noah did according to all that the LORD commanded him” (Genesis 7:5). (Also see 6:22.) This involved building a boat 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high out of cypress wood (no small task for a man 600 years old and his three sons), in order to find safety from an event which had never before occurred on earth. Until the flood, there had been no rain.
We see the other side of this. “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12 NIV). The reference is to the time when the Israelites, responding to ten of the twelve spies, refused to go into Canaan even though God, by prophetic words given through Moses, had promised that they would conquer it. Scripture refers to this unbelief (lack of faith, apistia, from a, without, and pistis, faith) as rebellion and disobedience (Hebrews 3:16, 4:6, 11), and contempt for God (Numbers 14:11).
Faith Implies Total Commitment
“Commit your way to the LORD; trust also in Him” (Psalm 37:5).
Paul wrote to believers, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). Paul lived this total commitment. He gave up a great opportunity for worldly success and approval in return for a life of extraordinary hardship and suffering. (See Chapter 16.)
Paul expressed this total commitment in another way in the following passage, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Paul’s faith led to a total surrender and commitment to Jesus Christ.
I am not saying that every Christian is expected to live the same life of total commitment that Paul did. But faith implies that we need to be prepared to commit ourselves to Jesus Christ in whatever way, and to whatever degree, he calls on us to do.
Faith Means Trusting God Rather
Faith is based on the unseen, eternal things rather than the visible, immediate circumstances. Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Hebrews tells us, “…faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1 NIV). Paul tells us, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). “We do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
This is not easy to do for those of us who live in our Western materialistic world. Most of our training is to focus on the “facts,” the things that we see, feel or hear around us. My father grew up in this tradition, and all my early training was based on it. The only things my father considered real, almost the only things he was able to deal with, were material facts, such as what could be measured or detected by scientific instruments, and the “facts” of business and commerce. I think many of us in the United States have grown up in that tradition. But Paul says that all these “facts”—“the things which are seen”—are only temporary, and that the real truth, the only permanent truth, is to be found in “the things which are not seen.”
Scripture gives us a number of examples of this principle. I shall mention three.
God promised to Abraham that he would bear a child who would bear innumerable progeny. Abraham “believed in the LORD, and he accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). (At the time, Abraham was over 75 years old, and his wife, Sarah, had been barren all her life.) At first, Abraham tried to do this by human means. This was a mistake. He had a son, Ishmael, by his maidservant, of whom God’s angel said, “He shall be a wild man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (Genesis 16:12). This was not the son God wanted. Later God renewed the promise, saying specifically that Sarah would have a child (Genesis 18:10). And so it was; Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac, when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah about 90 (Genesis 21:1-5).
Scripture says of this, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief concerning the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:18-21 NIV). Hebrews puts it thus, “By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise” (Hebrews 11:11 NIV).
According to all the worldly circumstances, it was impossible for Abraham and Sarah to have a child. But Abraham put his trust, not in the worldly circumstances, not in the “things which are seen,” but in the promise of God, and in God’s power and faithfulness to carry out the promise. He looked to the “things which are unseen.” And it came about as God had promised.
Another example is that of Jehoshaphat, to which I have already referred. By every worldly evidence, it was impossible for Jehoshaphat to stand against a greatly superior force. Again, Jehoshaphat put his focus on the promise of God, given through a prophet. He told the people of Judah to trust in the Lord and in his prophets, he went out to meet the enemy, and God gave him the victory. In the face of what seemed insuperable odds, the power of God prevailed because of men’s faith.
The Psalmist tells us, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7 NIV). Some trust in the things that are seen, but we trust in an unseen God. I believe that is where we need to be today. I rejoice in our excellent military forces, in their weaponry, in their skill and training, and in their commitment. We need them. But our primary trust should be in God. With God to protect and sustain us, we can prevail even against superior forces. Without his protection, we cannot prevail.
My third example is that of Jesus. Jesus went to his Crucifixion knowing that he would be resurrected. He prophesied it many times. When he was hanging, in agony, nailed to the Cross, the outward circumstances did not look like a victory. The disciples certainly did not see it as one. But Jesus looked beyond the outward circumstances to the promise of God.
Let me express a word of caution here. We do not want to commit our lives to something unless we are sure that it is God’s will. In the examples I have given, God’s will was clearly expressed. When the devil tempted Jesus, the devil told him to throw himself down from the Temple, saying that Psalm 91:11-12 promised that God’s angels would protect him from harm. Jesus refused to do as the devil told him. If God had told him to throw himself down from the Temple, Jesus would have done it. He always obeyed his Father. But he would not put God to the test by calling on God to protect him from the consequences of something God had not told him to do. Our faith should be in God, not in our own desires or whims.
In my present situation, I get medical reports of blood tests, CT scans and the like, and it is easy to think of these as being the real truth about my condition. Basically they tell me that the cancer is not going away and is starting again to increase. Over against this, I have the fact that nothing is too difficult for God, that God can heal any medical condition, and that I believe he is healing and will heal my cancer completely. Which will I believe? Whose report will I believe? I have chosen to believe the eternal truths of God. I do everything the doctor tells me to, but I put my faith in God. I find that I have to keep reaffirming that choice, to keep reminding myself that, whatever the medical data may seem to say, God is greater than the medical data.
It may be that God will not give me the complete healing I expect. That’s OK too, as I have said earlier. God is sovereign and he is good, and whatever he does is for the good. But my faith, my reliance, is not just on the medical data, the “things which are seen,” but is primarily on the God who is unseen, and permanent, and greater than the medical data.
Faith Results in Thankfulness
If we truly believe that God has acted in our lives, and that he is acting and will act in our lives, we will feel a tremendous gratitude to God for all that he has done, is doing and will do. If we do not feel that gratitude, that thankfulness, that desire to praise him, are we not saying that we don’t really believe he has done anything for us?
David wrote, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Psalm 103:2). We tend much too easily to forget God’s benefits, to forget, or not notice, the things God has done in our lives. We need to keep reminding ourselves of all he has done for us. When we do this, it builds our faith.
God Responds to Our Faith
“The eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). “The people that do know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits” (Daniel 11:32). Jesus said, “…anyone who has faith in me will do the things I have been doing. He will do even greater things…” (John 14:12 NIV). “All things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23). (Also see Mark 11:23-24.) Paul speaks of “the exceeding greatness of His [God’s] power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:19). (Also see Ephesians 3:20; Philippians 2:13.) Paul tells us to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Ephesians 6:10). Faith is essential.
James tells us that those who doubt will not receive anything from God (James 1:6-8). It was because David was absolutely convinced that “the battle is the LORD’s, and He will give you into our hands” (1 Samuel 17:47) that he was able to confront and defeat the Philistine giant, Goliath.
HOW DO WE GET FAITH?
There is no simple formula for getting faith. Let’s consider first, faith for salvation. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). The faith that saves us is the gift of God. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). Salvation, including getting the faith for salvation, is the work of God. We cannot create, or call up in ourselves, the faith that saves us.
As with any free gift, however, there are things we can do to put ourselves in a position to receive the gift. The most important of these, I believe, is to seek it. God said, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). “He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13). “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8). “Keep on asking,” “keep on seeking,” “keep on knocking.”
Also important is an openness, a willingness to receive.
There are those who are drawn to saving faith by hearing the gospel, the “good news,” spoken by others (Romans 10:17). There are those who are drawn by seeing godly people and wishing to be like them. We are Jesus’ witnesses (Acts 8:8) at least as much by what we are as by what we say. There are those who are drawn by becoming convicted that their worldly way of living is not working for them.
Perhaps an analogy will be helpful. What is it that leads a man and a woman to decide to commit themselves to each other in marriage? Sometimes it is just physical attraction, but more often there is a drawing together that is hard to define or explain. I think it is a little like that with saving faith. There is a drawing that is hard to explain or define. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. What we need to do is to keep ourselves open to it (1 Thessalonians 5:19).
One thing seems clear. This drawing to saving faith is not primarily by the intellect. The intellect may be part of it, but it is basically something deeper and stronger. It is a felt need for something more.
Once we have received saving faith, and have accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior, then we need to grow in faith. The disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). A father prayed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24 NIV). Jude tells us to be “building yourselves up in your most holy faith” (Jude 20). I find that, time after time, there are points at which I find doubt and unbelief creeping in. Each time this happens, I need to reject the doubt and refuse to entertain it. And I need to pray, “Help me to overcome my unbelief.” It is a continuing struggle. In the garden of Eden, satan tried to sow doubt (Genesis 3:1, 4), and he has continued to do so ever since. We must keep resisting him.
I believe growing in our faith is also a gift from God. We cannot achieve it by our own efforts. But it does require of us a decision, a seeking, and constant effort. It may require a willingness to step out in faith. Jesus is “…the author and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV). God gives us our initial, saving faith, and then he increases and perfects our faith.
Faith is a big subject. I have given only some thoughts about it, that I hope will be useful. Faith is something we need to keep studying, and working on, and living by, throughout our Christian life. It is central to that life. We all need to keep praying, “Lord, increase our faith.” It is as we step out in faith that God increases our faith.
At times we may feel that our faith is not sufficient for something we have undertaken or some situation we find ourselves in. I think one of the keys is in what God told Gideon, when he doubted his strength to do what God was calling him to do. “Go in the strength you have… Am I not sending you?” (Judges 6:14 NIV). If we go in the faith we have, however inadequate it may seem, God will supply the additional faith that we need. But we have to take the first step. We have to use what we have, and then God will add to it.