Ill-defined, unlabeled faith might keep you free from the confines of commitment, but it won’t make you any bedrock guarantees, either.
Faith—Everybody’s Got It
I recently did a sweep of the top ten Time magazine links that mention faith in the title:
“Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith”
“I’m a Muslim Immigrant and I have Faith in America”
“Hillary Clinton’s Methodist Faith”
“Andrew Garfield on Faith, Politics, and the Making of Hacksaw Ridge”
“Donald Trump, God, and the Depth of Faith”
“Europe’s Crisis of Faith”
“Mother Teresa, A Saint: A History of Her Complicated Faith”
“Faith-Healing Couple Jailed After Child Dies Without Medical Treatment”
“Antonin Scalia Dead: How His Faith Reshaped the Supreme Court”
“Watch Donald Trump Speak at the Faith and Freedom Conference”
That’s a lot of people using “faith” in a lot of different ways—political, social, cultural, and religious. Even when they imply it in the distinctly personal sense, we’re still not exactly sure what they mean by it.
We need to know what we mean by it, though. Christians can use the word “faith” so generically that it means just any old conviction. We promote and encourage faith knock-offs, mere positive thinking, rather than the saving reality of Christ.
Kids who grew up in church and then later checked out of this kind of product as adults, actually abandoned an item that was colorless, tasteless, and ultimately, powerless. They forsook something that wasn’t faith at all. And adults who beat the odds and through sheer force of habit managed to hang onto this substandard product, will find out sooner or later they’ve got a dud.
We need to make sure our faith is the particular faith the Bible describes.
You Can’t Buy What’s Free
Faith has particular importance. Everything depends on it, much like electricity depends on the wiring in your home for transmission.
13 …the promise to Abraham and his offspring [was] that he would be heir of the world
If there ever was a gigantic promise, this one tops the list. God promised Abraham and his offspring (all those of faith), that he would inherit the whole world.
If you take all the promises God made this man—that he would have a vast number of descendants, that he would get the land under his feet, that he would be a blessing to the whole world—and sum them all up, it basically shows God giving everything to Abraham.
In effect, God planned to take everything away from the loud, violent, manipulative, and evil, and put it into the hands of an unknown individual.
Yet this massive promise “did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” God had no intention of giving it to those who try to earn it and strive to prove they deserve it. This is what is wrong with the world already—the proud and self-sufficient are always trying to conquer it, seize it, when God wants to give it for free. They try to wrest if from one another’s hands, but Jesus said, “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
14 “For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void —” works and faith don’t mix, because you can’t tell someone to pay for something and then tell them it’s a gift— 15 “For the law brings wrath,”—it does not stir God’s good will and blessing, but His anger, because the Law keeps a running tab of all your shortcomings—”but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—
This vast promise is only guaranteed as long as it rests on God’s personal graciousness and man’s willingness to receive it by faith.
On God’s end of the equation, everything is in working order. He stands ready to give the gift of righteousness which is bound up with all His blessings, and bigger than the whole world. On our end though, where the human recipient need only receive by faith, things may not be so simple.
Under the influence of a misguided Protestant work ethic, a person may find the notion of a free gift slightly humiliating—insulting, even. Hence the thought, “I don’t accept charity.”
And so rather than feel like an object of pity, the potential receiver prefers to do something that preserves his dignity—to clean up his life first, demonstrate his industriousness, and not be as those who cry out for free lunches. He hopes to gently compel God’s giving, but this warps the grace-faith arrangement into a works-obligation contract.
Suddenly, the guarantee disappears, because those who wish to earn the whole world, must do works as large as the world itself, yes, as large as the solar system. Under those circumstances, no one will get anything. The only way to guarantee the promise is to leave it resting upon God’s willingness to freely give, and man’s willingness to receive.
God Owes Me?
Serious Christians often unconsciously slip into a debt/obligation mindset with God. They’ve heavily invested into religious life and find themselves expecting God to return payment.
Many of us tithe regularly, spend considerable amounts of energy in the church, and have passed up personal opportunities for the sake of Jesus. We’ve amassed quite an account from which to call in favors. But if God doesn’t come through in some matter, or tragedy strikes, the hapless Christian can become disillusioned to the core with feelings of being ignored or cheated.
God might say to them, “Do you really want Me to go with you into an arrangement of law? Do you want me to pull apart all your works, analyzing them for intrinsic value, judging their productiveness, their purity of motive, and then base what I do for you on the quality of what you’ve done for me?”
God loves the works we do out of love for Him, but comparatively speaking, they are like the kindergarten crafts we made for our parents. We glued a couple of beach shells to construction paper, and our mom put them on the refrigerator. But think how it would change the relational dynamic when, after presenting the hand turkey traced at thanksgiving, or the crumbling leaf collection taped to cardboard, Junior says to his mom, “Okay, now you owe me an Xbox,” and he absolutely meant it.
God leads you into a life of good works, but tells you to keep your foundational relationship with Him based on His grace and your faith. Anything else jeopardizes everything. On your end, only faith guarantees you God’s best.
Expect Challenge and Desire Growth
Biblical faith has particular characteristics; it is not amorphous. Yet neither is it structured according to one’s limitations and desires.
Abraham’s faith corresponded to the kind of God that God is. He didn’t expect God to conform to his faith, but made his faith conform to God.
“in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Abraham believed in a God who is not deterred by hopeless situations. If something is dead He gives it life; if it doesn’t exist to begin with, He calls it into being. The natural result was that Abraham’s faith looked a certain way.
18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”
Abraham’s hope quotient, a chief characteristic of his faith, was through the roof. In the hope of God, he believed against all human hope, “As he had been told.” He believed in God’s Word as it was spoken to him without changing it into something fictitious, such as “I have faith to be the first man on Mars,” nor did he reduce it to something petty like, “I have faith to get a new camel.”
19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.
Abraham didn’t reject reality like a fool who walked in circles telling himself, “I’m young enough and strong enough, and I can do this.” He took into honest consideration the frailty and infertility of his and his wife’s bodies. At the same time, however, he didn’t mull over that difficulty to the point it weakened him. In fact, his faith grew:
20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.
Though external circumstances will always pose long-term challenges to biblical faith, faith grows. It does so while being focused on the ability of God (“God was able”) and God’s Word (“What he had promised”).
Why I’m Not Crazy about Christian Flicks or the Latest Cool Books
In my opinion, faith-based movies have a bad habit of over-simplifying faith. They tell a story, in which the protagonist faces initial challenges, but toward the end of 90 minutes, all prayers get answered and everything works out.
We feel encouraged and uplifted by these tales, but know somewhere down deep, in places we don’t like to admit, that things in real life don’t travel along such smooth upward vectors. Both our own experience and clear biblical examples show us as much. Faith commonly faces serious, long-term challenges, where setbacks and frustration try every bit of the believer’s patience.
But over the last twenty-five years or so, some brilliant Christian writers have appeared who think the preferable alternative to simplistic faith lies in cynicism. They’ve glamorized doubt almost to the point of virtue, thinking it makes them look more intelligent and realistic. Their books have been effective, fueling skepticism about the veracity of the Bible, the authority of biblical doctrine, and the relevance of sexual ethics.
These folks crank out new titles like puppy litters, confusing impressionable readers with ingenious prose, and cementing the idea that doubt is cool. Yet nowhere in the Bible is such a thing applauded. The Word of God never positively appraises doubt, and when the people of faith sink into uncertainty, the Scriptures show them growing out of it, not building a nest in it for the sake of looking hip.
Your faith never needs to shun honesty, but at some points you will need to shut down idle, useless speculations, and recommit to robust growth.
Be Careful What You Grab Off the Shelf
In addition, biblical faith substantiates particular things of God. It is not an empty Christmas stocking meant to collect whatever random items we’d like to claim, to achieve, or to believe in.
23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
We believe in the same God Abraham did, but redemptive history has developed into something much more particular and complete since his time thousands of years ago.
Abraham believed in the God who gives life to the dead. We believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead after He had been put to death for our trespasses. This faith is the faith that justifies a person in the eyes of God. If you follow the end of verse 24 through the end of 25, you can trace its particular ingredients: “Jesus,” “Lord,” “Delivered up” (cross), “raised” (resurrection)—and all for our “justification.” There’s no ambiguity here, nor should there be.
Imagine getting home from the grocery store. You’re exhausted, but glad you splurged on that designer coffee. You whip the bag out, brew a quick pot, drink a cup, and it doesn’t do a thing for you. After a second cup with no perky affects, you look closer at the bag and there on the front, written in letters you should never have missed, is the word, “Decaf.” No wonder your coffee didn’t affect you. It’s missing a prime ingredient.
You want to make sure your faith as well includes everything that ought to be in it —in particular, Jesus the Lord, crucified for your sins, and raised for your justification.
A Pastor’s Worst Nightmare
This entire section of Romans (1:1 to 5:11) deals with the idea of getting “Out of condemnation, Into Justification.” It is every pastor’s nightmare that a long-time church member might sit through a message series of this kind and read the verses, only to continue thinking he is justified by being a good person and believing in God. That kind of generic faith is risky.
My step sister has been married for less than a year. About a week ago, her new husband hopped on his motorcycle and hit the Arizona freeway.
Like a lot of young guys with fast bikes, he probably had the thing wide open. We don’t know the details as yet, but apparently traffic ahead of him slowed down, so he flew around it into the next lane, and slammed into the rear of an SUV. The driver of the vehicle later reported seeing the riderless bike in a microsecond after the collision, skidding along on its side, engulfed in flame.
Now after having three brain surgeries, severe facial injuries, and a crushed pelvis, he is not yet able to breathe on his own. He missed death by an inch, and holds onto it by even less. His name is Casey. I hope you pray for him. Due to distance and busyness, I hardly know him, but I have to wonder about his faith, and what he believed.
My guess is that he believed in something. And that is exactly my concern.
Let’s all be done with generic faith.