I'm a little behind in posting my Sunday messages. Here's the message for January 23, 2005. Remember, I work ahead. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THREE STEPS OF FAITH
January 23, 2005
We continue looking at faith this week, in this series on faith. What is faith? How do we grow in faith?
Part of the answer lies in the subtitle of this series: “Trusting God in the details of life.” Biblical faith bridges the expanse from trusting God for salvation—for being made right with Him—all the way to trusting God to stretch your paycheck to cover your needs.
What I want to do with you today is to explore how faith grows. There are things you can do to feed your faith. And we are going to start from ground level and build our way up.
First, an observation. Nobody lives without faith. If you remember the basic definition that faith always involves the unseen (2 Corinthians 5:7—“we live by faith, not by sight”), then we all exercise faith all the time by the fact that we trust things we can’t see. At the risk of making you kind of paranoid, how do you know that that roof up there isn’t about to crash in on you any minute now? Well, you could inspect it I guess, but most of us don’t go around inspecting the roofs of every building we enter. Instead, we trust that since it’s held up as long as it has, it will keep up holding up—at least while I’m in it. (And as we’ll see, trust is the same thing as faith; as a matter of fact, it may be a better word than “faith”.)
There are three things that are the necessary ingredients to real faith. Any one by itself would not be real faith. And as you grow in each of these, more and more real faith is operating in your life.
Those three are:
Let’s take these one at a time.
Faith requires understanding. And it thrives on understanding. That is, the real kind of faith we find in the Bible. There are some frauds running around pretending to be real faith that say that your brain is your problem, that your mind gets in the way—that real faith involves emptying your head. Not so, not at all.
Let’s look at this from the standpoint of saving faith. The Bible says that you have to know some basic information in order to have faith. Look to Romans 10:14:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
The Bible assumes that no real faith can take place without a basic understanding of God and His love. Words have to be shared that tell what God is like and how He’s acted in sending His Son. In the context of Romans 10, Paul is writing that that faith must be directed toward the person of Jesus Christ and what He has done. In verse 9, he says,
That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Here are the basics, things you have to know to exercise saving faith:
1. Jesus is Lord. He is unique and no one else is like Him.
2. He died on the cross to pay the price of my sins.
3. God raised Him from the dead.
Nobody can be made right with God without knowing these things. Now there is a widespread mood, a concept that many have fallen for, that says faith doesn’t have to have content. People say, “Just have faith.” And I answer, “In what?” Faith always has an object. If you have faith that your car will start, then the object of your faith is your car. That’s a reasonable kind of faith.
But what if I told you that I have faith that if I put an olive pit in my left ear, it will bring me joy, prosperity and eternal life? You would either (A) conclude that I’m insane or (B) say, “That’s some olive pit!” (PS, the right answer is A!)
No we don’t teach the idea of “having faith in faith.” Our faith has content. And the more we know, the stronger our faith can become. Christians don’t believe that knowledge is at odds with faith. As a matter of fact, we believe the opposite. Knowledge feeds and strengthens faith. Faith involves the unseen, not the unknown!
Let me give you some examples. If I read a book like Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, and see all the hard historical evidence for the reality and claims of Jesus, then that’s a faith-builder. My faith isn’t built on that evidence, but it is strengthened by that evidence. If I go to a seminar like the one I did a few summers ago on Biblical archaeology, that’s a faith-builder too. If I read what many modern physicists are saying about design in creation, that strengthens my faith.
But there’s a source of faith building much closer to you: the Bible itself. In that same chapter, Romans 10, verse 17, Paul reminds us that, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Time spent in the pages of Scripture, as we learn the great stories of the Bible, as we meditate on the great passages, expand our faith. God’s word is powerful, and it’s powerful in growing our faith. As we know it better, we are changed by that exposure to the light of God’s word, the same way exposing film changes it and puts a new image on the film. Again, let’s be clear: understanding is not a barrier to real faith; it’s an ally of real faith.
But understanding alone does not produce faith. For example, in the fall of 2003, we showed a video of a debate between the Christian, Jay Smith, and the Muslim, Sabir Ally, on the topic “Who is the real Jesus?” (This video is now available in our church library.) Most of my experience with Muslims is that they are very ill informed about what Christians believe. But not Sabir. I was impressed with how sharp his knowledge of the New Testament was and how well he knew what Christians believe. His understanding was excellent, but that didn’t mean he had real faith.
So we start with understanding. You also need…
By that I mean, you have to say, “Not only do I understand, I agree. This message about Jesus being God’s Son, the Lord, dying on the cross for me and risen from the dead, I confess to be true.”
It is possible to understand but not to agree that it’s true—like Sabir Ally or like the early 20th century Bible scholar Rudolf Bultmann. I remember reading Bultmann’s NT commentaries when I was in seminary. It was often technically excellent, but it was also soulless—there was no joy in the Lord there. You see, Bultmann may have been a scholar, but he was not a believer. He scoffed at the very idea of a God that does miracles. Although he knew the Bible very well, he didn’t agree with it, he didn’t confess it as truth.
He wasn’t the first scholar in that boat. Remember Nicodemus? In John 3, we read that he came visit Jesus by night (so as to keep the meeting secret, and not tarnish his reputation).
In John 3:1-3 we read,
1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."
3In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
Nicodemus is well beyond where Sabir and Bultmann were. The interesting thing for me is that Nicodemus doesn’t just understand what Jesus teaches (at least, he thought he did)—He also approves of His teaching. “We know you are a teacher who has come from God.” That’s sounds pretty approving!
But then Jesus cuts him off. “Whoa right there, Nick. I appreciate the kind words, but you are spiritually blind. You can’t see God’s kingdom unless you have something more that kind words for my teaching. You need a brand new birth to get it.”
Millions of North Americans and Latin Americans and Europeans are classified as Christians, but would not meet the criteria as laid out by Jesus. There are just about where Nicodemus was. As a matter of fact, they would go a lot further. They would say that they believe that Jesus is God’s Son. They would say that they believe He rose from the dead. There is all the approval or agreement in the world, but there is not the kind of connection and transformation that Jesus is talking about here.
That brings us to the element that ties it all together:
3. Personal Trust
Remember what I said about real Biblical faith last week:
In the Bible, faith is not a leap in the dark, or just an agreement that something is true. In the Bible, faith is immediate, consistent and relational trust in God and in His Son, Jesus Christ. In the Bible, you don’t have faith in a church or in certain doctrines; you have faith in God Himself.
This kind of faith moves a person from being an outside observer to an inside participant. This means moving from approving or agreeing with the teachings of the Bible to engaging in a life-transforming encounter with God that changes me, in which I trust in the living Jesus Christ to forgive me and to ensure that I will spend eternity with Him.
The Bible uses a number of dramatic symbols to represent this kind of faith-encounter with God’s grace. Probably none are as dramatic as the one Jesus used with Nicodemus: being born again, or (you can translate it either way) being born from above. In computorese, to be born again is to reboot your life with a new operating system that comes straight from God. All the old viruses in your system are wiped away, and a no further upgrades are needed. You are new, and the new you will last forever.
Millions of people around the world who call themselves Christians don’t get this idea. They have a basic understanding, and they agree with or approve the message, but there is no element of personal trust involved.
Canberra is the capital of Australia. I know, I looked it up. I understand that, and I agree that it’s true. But I’ve never been to Canberra. There is no “trust” involved in me saying that Canberra is the capital of Australia. It’s a passionless, soulless confession of faith for me to say, “I believe that Canberra is the capital of Australia.” That’s not what the Bible means when it speaks about faith. There is passion, personal experience and personal transformation in Biblical faith.
As theologian Wayne Grudem says, “Because saving faith in Scripture involves this personal trust, the word ‘trust’ is a better word to use in contemporary culture than the word ‘faith’ or ‘believe.’”
As a matter of fact, the word “faith” is often used to express a groundless hope, like when your favorite football team has a 6-10 record, and someone says, “Just have faith!”
Now I’ve mostly applied this to saving faith—the fact that you need to have a personal, passionate trust in Jesus Christ and what He did for you on the cross to be made right with God and to be part of His family forever. But there’s more.
That same kind of passionate trust is what fuels the whole Christian life. Again, to follow Jesus Christ is not a one-time decision—although it starts with a decision. To follow Him means a life of following in His example of love of the Father and love of doing the Father’s will. It means a life of continuous growth as we face trial and challenge with a trusting heart. And that happens when God gets into the details of our lives.
One way we symbolize this is giving thanks before meals. Do you know why that’s the Christian habit? The idea is to teach us to trust God for every bite we take. We live in such plenty we get in the habit of taking for granted that there’s always food. Giving thanks is something we do to remind ourselves that food is a gift of God to sustain our lives.
Let me suggest to you that there are four areas in which we really see our faith grow:
1. When we need to make a decision
2. When we are tempted
3. When we go trough a crisis and
4. When we need provision.
I’m going to say more about all these in the weeks to come. But let me finish with a few thoughts about how important personal trust in the Lord is in the first case: when we face a decision.
I’ve mentioned Steve Robbins before. Steve is a pastor (at First Baptist of Pico) and also runs Robbins’ Nest Ministries, which focuses on advancing the spiritual formation of pastors and churches. The slogan of the ministry is “Stop. Look. Listen.” That’s not only a good warning for kids when they cross the street, it’s good spiritual advice.
STOP. We run around doing our own thing, and hope that it’s OK with God. That’s backwards. If you want to make sure that God’s in something that you do, make sure it’s His idea. It’s good to sit at Jesus’ feet and just stop. God designed us to take regular Sabbath breaks.
So stop, and come before Jesus. Stop and recognize Him as Lord of your life. Stop and seek His will. Don’t expect that God’s job is to bless the mess that you plan. God’s plans are so much better. Paul says in Romans 12:2 that God’s will is “his good, pleasing and perfect will.” That’s always better than my plans.
LOOK. Look around, now that you’ve stopped. Look at God’s word, look at circumstances, and look at God’s work in your life thus far.
Above all else, look to Jesus. Hebrews 12:2a says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…” Listen carefully: The primary pattern of God’s will being worked out in a person’s life will always be found in the example of Jesus Himself.
James Dobson has some great advice. He says when he needs God’s guidance, “I get down on my knees and say, ‘Lord, I need to know what you want me to do, and I am listening. Please speak to me through my friends, books, magazines I pick up and read, and through circumstances.” Jesus had the same pattern: He prayed, and He listened, and He allowed the so-called interruptions show Him what His Father wanted done.
This isn’t a formula; it’s a matter of personal trust. One thing I have noticed is that the believers I know who consistently make bad decisions are people who would never even cross their mind to take to someone else about their decision. Cut off from other believers, they are cut off from Jesus’ own voice. There’s a reason the church is called the body of Christ. He speaks through His people.
LISTEN. Listen to God’s word, to God’s Spirit, and to God’s people. All three of those—the word, the Spirit, and God’s people—because God’s guidance will never contradict His word, and God will speak through His people.
Listen to God especially in those quiet times of prayer and meditation on God’s word. (And if you don’t have such times, don’t expect to hear much! It’s like saying, “Lord speak to me, if you can just yell over all the noise I’m making!)
God promises to answer and to guide. Jeremiah 33:3 says,
Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.
That’s the kind of fruit real faith produces: knowing that God hears and answers, having Jesus go before us to guide us and to show us what He has in mind for us. That’s the fruit of a life of personal trust in the Lord who loves you and watches out for you. He wants to restore the closeness we were designed to have with Him. And that happens as we have real faith in Him, real trust.
Lord Jesus, help us pursue You with all our hearts. Teach us the value of growing in understanding, in agreement with you and especially in personal trust. Then we will live the life you intended for us—as we see your guiding hand on all parts of our lives.
Thank you for the adventure you created us to enjoy.
In Jesus, Amen.
© Glenn Layne 2005