I remember this illustration about faith that I always heard growing up and I hear it still today. Faith in God is like having faith in a chair. We sit on a chair and have faith that it will hold us up. So, too, is our faith in God. I find this illustration troublesome. Faith in a chair to hold me up when I sit depends largely on my own observation and my own experience. If you’ve ever had a weird dream, then you know how terrible it is for us to rely on our own experience. I had a nightmare once, where I experienced my wife breaking up with me. I don’t know what a psychoanalyst would say about that sort of dream, but I woke up that morning just crying my eyes out because my wife decided she didn’t want me anymore. I’m done. I’m not getting up today! After a few moments of torrential downpour from my tear ducts, there is this hand that reaches over me across the bed and it freaks me out! It was my wife asking if I was okay. My experience led me astray. My wife is so faithful and she laughed at me for believing this terrible thing about her.
As we think about family, friends, and faith this Christmas, I have to wonder what faith actually is. I realize that we don’t often talk about what faith is, we just sort of expect people to have it! Faith is so foundational when it comes to our relationship with Christ that we need to at least try to understand what it is. What is Christian faith in the life of the Christ-follower and in the life of the local church?
Deuteronomy 30:11-20 HCSB
“This command that I give you today is certainly not too difficult or beyond your reach. It is not in heaven so that you have to ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven, get it for us, and proclaim it to us so that we may follow it?’ And it is not across the sea so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea, get it for us, and proclaim it to us so that we may follow it?’ But the message is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you may follow it. See, today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I am commanding you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commands, statutes, and ordinances, so that you may live and multiply, and the Lord your God may bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not listen and you are led astray to bow down to other gods and worship them, I tell you today that you will certainly perish and will not live long in the land you are entering to possess across the Jordan. I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, love the Lord your God, obey Him, and remain faithful to Him. For He is your life, and He will prolong your life in the land the Lord swore to give to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Source of our faith
In this part of the biblical story, we get to witness God calling the generation of promise to willful decision and willful action in response to a command that He is giving: the command to love God and obey His commands. Scripture doesn’t begin here. We need to remember the first part of chapter 30 and chapter 29, which say that it is impossible for people to follow God without first receiving new minds, eyes, and ears. Even then, God predicted that the community would break His covenant, but that Jesus would still shepherd His people and restore them. Scripture begins with God’s glory. From God’s glory, it declares the preeminence of Christ. From God’s glory and the preeminence of Christ, it promotes grace alone as the means for both salvation and sanctification. Here, we discover that grace alone actually produces abiding faith within the person.
Just for clarification’s sake, I have to point out the importance of verse 14. The doctrine that comes out of this text hinges on this verse in context. God is saying to the people that it is possible for them to love Him and obey Him. He has not left the message in Heaven or Placed the message in some other place so that they would have to work to receive it and obey it. God has already placed the message in their mouths and in their hearts. God poured His own grace on the people first and, by God’s grace, people receive faith.
We think back again to Numbers 14. Caleb was the only one described in that chapter as being able to love God and follow God fully because He had a different spirit that was produced in him by God. As we read through Scripture we always see regeneration precede the faith of God’s people. It is only after God predicts that this generation of Israelites will fail and only after He promises physical restoration that He commands the people to be faithful to Him.
In society today, we have two definitions of faith and you can look to any dictionary to find these definitions. The first definition applies to the kind of faith people inherently have in things like chairs. It is complete trust and confidence in someone or something. This sort of faith relies on the assumptions that we make about the world. It fails to describe the sort of faith that Scripture points us to. The second definition applies to majority religion. It is a strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion based on some sort of spiritual apprehension rather than on proof. In some dictionaries, you will see “the Christian faith” listed as an example. This definition, though, doesn’t even begin to capture the essence of biblical Christian faith because it assumes that faith relies on human conviction. This notion is completely obliterated as we read the Bible. It is God who arrests the human heart and transforms the person, producing faith in that person. It is not by human conviction, experience, tradition, government or reasoning, but by the pouring out of God’s grace upon people who will be saved. Just for emphasis, we can journey through Scripture together, again:
Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
1 John 4:19
We love because He first loved us.
For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.
Our faith is not produced by us. It is produced in us by God’s grace. If there is anyone who thinks that faith is produced by us, I might just remind us of what God has been declaring throughout history as He has drawn people to Himself. How competent are we when it comes to producing our own faith?
In Genesis 1, God created people in His own image. In Genesis 3, people, to merit their own godlike knowledge, sinned against God and merited condemnation. God, by grace, covered their shame and had mercy on them. After this, the whole world was wicked and would not produce faith in God. God, by grace, selected one man, Noah, and his family for righteousness. At the Tower of Babel, people decided that they would build a kingdom for themselves and build a tower to Heaven. They failed to produce fruit and God, by His grace, scattered them over the face of the world to “fill the earth (command given in Genesis 1).” Abraham tried to bring about the promise of God by having an illegitimate son. God, by His grace, blessed that son also, but still fulfilled His promise to Abraham. Abraham could not produce faith. We know that faith was produced in him, though, because he was willing to follow God’s instruction to later offer up his only legitimate son to God as a sacrifice. Even then, God provided a proper sacrifice. God gave the Law through Moses. People were unable to produce the faith required to obey God. Still, as we see with this generation in Deuteronomy 29-30, God regenerates His people by grace. By grace, God fulfilled the Law in the person of Christ. Still, we try to produce our own faith. Later in time, before God brings His renewing work to fruition, Christ will establish a material kingdom for 1,000 years on this earth and will prove once again, with finality, that people are incompetent. He is the only one who, by grace, can produce faith in the human heart and human mind.
Faith is not some trust that we can will ourselves to have. We can’t expect sinful people to just have faith and suddenly receive salvation. We cannot produce the faith through politics, through discipleship strategy, or by entertaining the public to bring the public into churches. God, by grace, must produce faith in the human heart. He must change us so that we can follow Him and obey Him.The pouring out of grace comes first, then the response of human faith. For us to think faith, the kingdom of God in our hearts, is any work of our own is to trust in human government rather than the government of God, and He has already proven that we can’t do it!
Genuine Christian faith does not come from within, as the common definitions would have us believe, and it is not blind. God produces it in the individual. Without God’s grace poured upon our hearts, we are unable to have faith. We cannot merit either grace or faith.
Thus, we see that, both logically and biblically, Sola Fide follows directly from Sola Gratia. Sola Gratia follows directly from Solus Christus. Solus Christus follows directly from Soli Deo Gloria. If God receives all glory, then everything, even human faith, is from God and there is no boasting in it for us. To say anything else, or to insinuate in any way that we can add something to grace and faith, is to try and gain some glory for ourselves by trying to reach up to God’s throne with our short little arms.
This is where faith comes from, but we haven’t answered the question as to what exactly faith is. What does it mean for the life of the Christian? What does it mean for the genuine local church?
Presence of our faith
As we continue in our story above, we see God telling the Israelites that if they obey they will be blessed. If they do not they will not. This statement only comes after God is, by grace, producing faith in His true people. Those who had faith, a different spirit like Caleb, would abide in and be dedicated to God’s Word alone. Those who did not have faith would continue in sin. So we see that Christian faith, when it is produced in the person, actually has substance. It is not just a feeling. Faith is not just some belief system that we subscribe to. To say this would be to trivialize what it means for the person to have faith. True faith doesn’t just call us to believe in a certain set or subset of doctrines. It doesn’t just call us to talk about who Jesus is. It doesn’t mean that our interest in Scripture is just memorizing verses or entertaining ourselves with the stories. It’s not just going to church, singing a few songs, and sitting through a boring lecture or some guy screaming dogmatically at the crowd. Genuine faith, produced in a person by God, actually has substance. It is something that we can abide in and that abides in us. So, we don’t just theologize about what it means for us to love poor people or to love our spouses or our children. God’s amazing grace that has been shared with us in our incompetence drives us to do everything that we can possibly do to share that type of grace with others unconditionally.
The author(s) of Hebrews noticed this. After describing, in chapters 8-10 that Jesus fulfilled the old covenant and established a new by grace (which was the goal of the old covenant); after they had already, throughout the book, argued that human faith comes by grace and is produced in the person because of Christ, they actually define faith for us. Not only can we not produce our own faith, but we don’t even have to try and define faith by ourselves!
Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. For our ancestors won God’s approval by it.
By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible.
Faith is the reality, or substance, of what is hoped for. It is by faith that God approves of us and has always approved of His people. In Hebrews 11:3, the author(s) are not using an apologetic argument to defend the faith against materialists. It is an illustration concerning what faith is. Faith produces outwardly what we have been given by grace alone. So, God pours His grace into the hearts of His chosen people. By this grace, faith is produced in us and bears fruit from us. As we produce this fruit, God is so pleased with His own work, which is done for His own glory, in our lives that He approves of us (His handiwork), delights in us, and glories in us. This is biblical faith. This is why James states that without works, faith is dead. Faith always produces fruit and is a work of God, so that no one can boast.
Isn’t it awe-inspiring to think that God loves His people in such a way that He would not leave their faith up to chance or up to their own ability? If we lack the sort of faith that we think we have to will for ourselves, God doesn’t depend on that! If you know Jesus, if a local church is abiding in Christ, God is producing faith in you so that you are able to follow Him and obey Him. He is giving you a different spirit and, by grace, you are bearing godly fruit. If there is no fruit, then, question your salvation, question your household faith, and question the direction of your local church. God has shown that He alone is competent to produce living faith in us. He has shown that He alone is competent to build His church. This is the reason Jesus came to earth to be born in human flesh more than 2,000 years ago.
What other love is so unconditional; only the love of God. Our hope then, is that we get to abide with God forever and that we are justified before Him, the reality of that hope is produced in our lives and in every arena of our lives. It should be clearly evident to us whether or not we have been brought by Christ into His kingdom. It should be clear whether or not our local church is abiding in Christ. Is true abiding faith present or is our sort of faith the sort that we have tried to produce for ourselves so that we can only feel, or look, spiritual or religious?
Result of our faith
As faith is defined in Hebrews 11, we also learn that it is evidence, or proof, of what is unseen. This is not some apologetic for God’s existence. In context, the visible actions of faith in the life of the believer are proof that the person has been arrested by Christ and set free from the bondage of sin. Faith is the proof that God’s grace has been poured upon the individual and on the local church. If faith, the yearning to follow God and obey Him, is absent, then we have not been saved by grace or yet realized God’s saving work in our lives. If a church is without faith, it is a church full of people who have not experienced God’s saving grace and is no better than a secular, political, or merely religious meeting and is of no spiritual value.
Faith, then, has two parts: the passive reception as God arrests the human heart by grace alone, and the active participation as the arrested heart draws the person to follow and obey God. Active participation always follows passive reception. All of this, remember, is a work of God’s grace alone, that no person can boast in his or her own spirituality.
We might make a few applications, here. I often hear someone complaining about the shortening attention span of our youth and students. People fail to realize that shrinking attention span is a myth. The problem is not attention span, but interest. You notice how the same child we think might have attention span problems will spend hours and hours playing the same video game. We devote time to the things that we are interested in and it is that simple. So, we think on the local church. If we are a people saved by grace, then our interest will be based on the faith that God provides. We will think outwardly, of others first. We will soak up the word of God as it is proclaimed and taught. To live by faith is for us to be where you are, soak in the sights and sounds, God is working all things together and we don’t have to waste our current moment worrying about tomorrow! The social media account of the true Christian will present the outworking of his or her faith. The way we use information reveals what God has done in our hearts. The household of faith will just present differently, more graciously, than a household with parents who have not genuinely experienced the outpouring of God’s grace. Faith presents even in the methodology, administration, and organization of the genuine local church.
The righteous, according to the prophets and the author(s) of Hebrews, will live by faith (Hebrews 10:38, Habakkuk 2:4). We don’t have to work to produce spirituality within ourselves or within our local churches! In fact, this would be the very opposite of what it means for us to have faith. There is no methodology that will save us and we end up hurting ourselves when we think things have to be a certain way because we have designed them that way or because of human tradition. The freeing truth is that the true Christian is simply a steward of the grace that has been given.
In the local church, then, the pouring out of God’s grace means that we are driven to further God’s administration by faith. In fact, we might briefly observe 1 Timothy 1:3-11:
As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach different doctrine or to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith. Now the goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. Some have deviated from these and turned aside to fruitless discussion. They want to be teachers of the law, although they don’t understand what they are saying or what they are insisting on. But we know that the law is good, provided one uses it legitimately. We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and irreverent, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral and homosexuals, for kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and for whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching based on the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was entrusted to me.
A genuine local church will operate by faith, not by mere human intuition, strategy, power, or religiosity. To operate by faith does not mean that we can’t see or discern. It means, according to the context in 1 Timothy and according to what it means to live by faith, that the local church is operated in plain pursuit of God’s plan in obedience to God. After describing the godly administration of the local church, we arrive in chapter six. If a church is not operated in by faith, specifically in its administration as described in 1 Timothy, it is a false church, an organization that “…does not agree with the sound teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the teaching that promotes godliness, he is conceited, understanding nothing, but has a sick interest in disputes and arguments over words. From these come envy, quarreling, slander, evil suspicions, and constant disagreement among people whose minds are depraved and deprived of the truth, who imagine that godliness is a way to material gain” (1 Timothy 6:3-5). When God is not producing faith, yet we try to have faith anyway by merit or means of our own, we end up with this stereotypical religiosity that produces more quarrels and hate than grace.
It is by grace alone through faith alone that we are saved. It is in faith alone that we can possibly be a genuine local church. When we try to produce this for ourselves, we reveal just how depraved we truly are. Thank God for the faith that He gives! Thank Him that faith is not a chair. Merry Christmas.