Monday, May 23, 2011


I've been considering faith of late. We use the word "faith" a lot these days, and it seems to mean a whole lot of nothing. The Bible uses the word in two ways: it uses "the faith" to mean the truth we have received, but more commonly "faith" is a synonym for "belief".

Faith is a funny thing: we all believe all sorts of things we can neither prove nor really understand. I was talking to an adolescent boy recently who was telling me that the speed of light is 186,282 miles per second. I told him that he accepts this as fact solely on faith; he didn't agree with me at first, so I asked him how he would go about measuring the speed of light. He very quickly saw my point.

Scripture talks about faith a great deal. One of my favourite verses is Romans 4:5,
but to him who does not work, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness (JND)

This verse certainly equates faith with believing. But more than that, it tells us the value of faith lies in who is being believed. Notice the focus of the verse: we're not told what the person believes, but whom the person believes. I think my good friend Epimenos said something along those lines once.

Really Romans 4:5 is an audacious verse. It says something that I would never dare to say, except that God said it first: there's nothing you can do to please God except take Him at His word. Ultimately that's the Gospel, God doesn't want you to be good or act better... He just wants you to believe Him. This is what we mean when we say "justification by faith alone in Christ alone". There's nothing to do (as Epimenos says), only someone to believe.

But really Scripture is full of audacious statements. How about Acts 13:38 & 39
Be it known unto you, therefore, brethren, that through this man remission of sins is preached to you, and from all things from which ye could not be justified in the law of Moses, in him every one that believes is justified. (JND)

Now there's an audacious statement: take anything that the Law of Moses condemns then select from those the things for which a person's sentence is certain death: you end up with quite a list. There are some that don't seem like a big deal (collecting firewood on Saturday), but you get some pretty terrible ones too: murder, rape, incest, abduction, blasphemy--- the list goes on. But Scripture says that remission of sins--- the same sins for which there is no remedy in Moses' Law--- and everyone who believes is justified from them. This is a recurring theme, isn't it? God justifies freely the one who believes. Want to be forgiven of all your sins? Just believe God.

And notice there's no limit in this one: no hint that there's something you can do to really put yourself beyond what God will forgive. God will freely justify you from all things, if you believe Him.

Here's an audacious verse, 1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (JND)

Have you sinned? Of course you have! What sort of penance does God want? Why, He wants nothing at all except for you to agree with Him about it! He simply wants you to confess it, and you're forgiven. It's that simple: no tears, no promises to do better... you don't even have to beg for forgiveness. No, Scripture makes the audacious statement that when we confess, God forgives.

The next chapter goes even further:
My children, these things I write to you in order that ye may not sin; and if any one sin, we have a patron with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1, JND)

When does Christ represent our interests to God? When we sin. Does Christ begin to advocate for us when we repent? or when we confess? or when we clean up our act? Nope, He advocates for us when we sin. What if we sin and sin and sin and continue in it for years? Well, it seems to me like this verse would indicate that He advocates for us for years.

Hebrews is full of that sort of thing:
[Christ] being the effulgence of his glory and the expression of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, having made by himself the purification of sins, set himself down on the right hand of the greatness on high

Here's some more: Christ made purification for sins by Himself. How much help did He have? None. What's my part in all this? Nothing. There's some audacity.

I suppose it's the sheer audacity of Scripture that makes it so hard to believe sometimes. It's easy to believe I'm no good, it's pretty hard to believe God's willing to justify me without any effort on my part when I believe Him. It's easy to recognize the wickedness of things that I do and say and think, but awfully hard to believe the remedy is simply to agree with God about them.

And I suppose that's why so many people fall into the "try harder" trap. It's awfully hard to accept that trying harder is actually the problem... it's a lot easier to think we need to put in some work.

On the other hand, if faith is audacious then unbelief is arrogant. If the Bible really is the word of God--- if this book really is the actual words that God told men to write down--- then not believing them is much worse than audacity: it's outright arrogance. If the Bible declares that men (and women) are justified from all their sins solely by believing God, then it's staggering arrogance to try and add something more than that. To add the slightest human effort to that is not humility: it's actually saying that you know better than God.

And if we choose to ignore what the Bible says about sins: that God only wants us to agree with Him about them; then it's inconceivably arrogant to suggest that what God really wants is some penance or good works to help convince Him. As Paul said, let God be true and every man a liar.

And I suppose this would equally apply to those who on the one hand claim to believe God and on the other doubt what He said. There are some tough passages in Scripture; but to make light of God's words isn't humility, it's arrogance. It seems a lot of people are trying to excuse their disbelief as humility these days, but to question God's veracity isn't humility. Casting aspersion on God is purely arrogance.

G. K. Chesterton made some insightful comments about this arrogance-as-humility:
We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own devices. Disbelievers and cynics of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.

It's striking how well he describes a world he didn't live to see...

"The just shall live by faith": Paul quotes Habakkuk three times in the epistles: Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38. The old "brethren" preachers would say that each epistle emphasizes a different word in that verse: Romans is all about the "just", Galatians is about "living", and Hebrews is all about "faith". I think there's a lot to that.

Ultimately, what God wants from beginning to end is for women and men to believe Him. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness. What did God say that Abraham believed? I'm pretty sure it was merely that he would have a son; it's not so much what we believe, but whom we believe. The Lord Jesus told the crowds at the Sea of Galilee, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he has sent" (John 6:29, JND). What does God want us to do? He wants us to believe Him.

There's an audacity to faith. Hebrews 11 lists a whole bunch of people who believed, and then lists some of the consequences of their believing. They did some pretty audacious things. Some of the things they did were incredible, some seem surprisingly mundane. The value of what they did is not implicit in their actions: the value is that they stem from believing God.

I'm pretty sure if I walk out what Scripture actually teaches I'll be called a lot of things, and I'm sure arrogant is one of them. And I know that I've been far too timid when it comes to what God has said: I've let myself be cowed far too many times. So call me a hypocrite: but I can't help but think that audacity is infinitely better than arrogance.