Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. [Heb 11:1 NIV]
So then, those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. [Gal 3:9 NASB20]
As promised, I’d like to continue this post I started a few weeks ago and talk about the words “faith” and “believe.” There has been quite a bit of discussion already from several well-known Christian teachers who, like me, have a desire to address and correct what is called “easy believism” in the Church today. It carries with it the idea that one needs only to believe in Jesus to be saved without anything ever further required, that intellectual agreement with the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He promises eternal life to everyone who believes on Him is all that is necessary for our salvation.
To me, the whole idea of “easy believism” reacts to Catholicism and takes the idea of grace into the opposite ditch in the road. I get the image from proponents of easy believism that we are “born again,” then left on a spiritual doorstep somewhere in China. I mean, even a gardener knows his seedlings need tending to grow into strong and fruitful plants! I think the crux of the matter has to do with the fact that there are scriptures in different places in the bible that seem to be incongruous with each other or seem to, when isolated, support this more extreme idea of grace, or misinterpretation of it. My understanding of easy believism is that it twists the grace of God into a justification for ongoing sin, which Paul warned against several times, saying that those who practice immorality will not inherit the Kingdom of God. I also think that to understand grace, we must consider that there is an order to things, God’s order, that helps us reconcile what seems to be two conflicting scriptures. A classic double-bind develops in our minds when we are presented with two truths that seem to disagree. For example, Martin Luther, our champion of salvation by grace through faith, struggled with the epistle of James because this leader in the Church at Jerusalem stated that “faith without works is dead.” Luther considered it an “epistle of straw,” or of lesser value than other books of the bible.
I once talked with a Lutheran pastor who said that all you need to do is believe in Jesus, and God expects nothing more. But don’t we expect more of our children as they grow? Wouldn’t we be REALLY concerned if we were still changing diapers on our eight-year-old? [Heb 5:12-13] Don’t we expect and desire obedience? True faith listens to God and obeys: “because Abraham obeyed Me and fulfilled [his] duty to Me, [and kept] My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” [Gen 26:5 NASB20]
Now, this pastor would most likely support his statement based on the following scriptures:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. [Jhn 5:24 NIV]
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. [Rom 10:9–10 NIV] And a little further on, Paul says, “for “EVERYONE WHO CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.” [Rom 10:13 NASB20]
There are more verses, of course, but for the sake of space, let’s limit the discussion to these two. In the first given, in the gospel of John, Jesus is defending His healing work on the Sabbath and declares that, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.” His entire thought process seems to be that his own work, based on what he sees His Father doing, is offending the Jews who think that breaking their religious rule proves that Jesus is a false teacher. So He answers that those who hear His word and believe in God have eternal life, will not be judged, and have crossed over from spiritual death to spiritual life.
So, what is His “word?” The Greek used here is “logos,” which means spoken words, message, or teaching and instruction. Now, obviously, Jesus spoke more words than just those in this passage, so He must have in mind the first necessity in this instance: to believe in Him as the One promised and sent by God to save Israel and the whole world, the Messiah. The idea of “first things first” makes sense in scripture. Nowhere does Jesus say you have to do any work or task to receive eternal life. His only requirement is repentance, to turn from our way of doing things to God’s way, and to turn from our sins and embrace the Lord’s provision for our salvation. The thief on the cross could do nothing more, and Jesus assured him of his home in heaven in that instance. So please don’t say that proves that to be grace all I need to do is believe in Jesus. Because, when you stand before Him after a long life and He asks you what you have done with His gift, and you point to the thief on the cross to justify your lack, He will ask you if you were nailed to a cross and nigh about to die these past forty years!
Now, the Lord presents Himself as the Giver of a gift always. We receive the Kingdom like a child. [Luke 18:17] We don’t break down heaven’s doors. He states elsewhere to the Jews who ask Him what work they must do to do the works of God, “The work of God is this: to believe in the One he has sent.” [Jhn 6:28–29 NIV] Again, first things first. The Greek word “believe” here is pisteuō and can mean to have a mental persuasion or to commit to the charge and power of someone. Bill Mounce defines it: to believe, put one’s faith in, trust, with an implication that actions based on that trust may follow; to entrust.
Like a child who depends on their parents for the necessities of life, we, too, depend on our Heavenly Father to provide for our eternal life. Any child brought up in a loving family simply trusts the parents to feed, clothe, and shelter them, and to love them. In other words, a well-adjusted child does not need to hunt, sew, or be a carpenter and mason. He or she does not need a religious ritual, like climbing steps leading up to some religious historical site on one’s knees to hopefully gain their mom and dad’s favor (or redeem a bad little brother!). In a normal family, love is freely given and assumed. Children know that a pilgrimage to a “holy place” to somehow feel closer to their parents is not needed because the holy place is at home in dad’s lap.
This primacy of simple belief is important, because God always directs attention to Himself. He is the embodiment of love and justice. To point to any other person or thing would harm us. He demands His glory for our good! He is the catalyst and initiator of faith so that we don’t detract from the focus and honor due Him. Just as a baby cannot contribute to his formation in his mother’s womb or “help” her give birth, so we are spiritually. The work is God’s. We can’t take credit for any heroic efforts to make our labor and delivery into this world any easier on our dear moms. I’ve also often envisioned the ember of faith and grace (as opposed to works) along the lines of the potter and the clay analogy in scripture. The Word says that we are God’s workmanship, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. [Eph 2:10 ESV] An artist or sculptor will use the right tools and his skill to fashion his work according to the image he envisions. So, too, the Lord wants to fashion us into the image of His son [Rom 8:29]. The sculptor needs no “help” or “input” from his slab of marble. Imagine then, us, some layman in the field of humanity, trying to direct, correct, or help the Master Artist!
So, Jesus’ above words ARE true. He always speaks truth. We can think of it in reverse: that if our new birth needed anything else, any requirement or action outside of trust in God’s ability, then we could and would take credit for, take pride in, our part. It’s like the Lord is saying YOU NEED ME and He demands dependence on Him because in and of ourselves we work foolishness. We cannot help Him. He is always helping us. I envision salvation like a chain reaction, that the Lord initiates the momentum that begins with His word, then the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, the good news is preached, we hear and accept (faith), the Holy Spirit gives us new birth, we continue to be nourished on the milk of God’s Word, and we grow. I once heard it explained that Jesus has saved us, is saving us, and will save us. He is always teaching, correcting, and protecting us. This is His grace at work in us. Whatever we do (work), or however we act, after salvation, is good fruit because it is directed by God.
On the flip side, for an example of man-directed work for God, there is a well-known Christian ministry to the poor and dying in a country where Hinduism is the main religion. The people involved are so enamored with doing and providing physical relief and comfort to the people that they’ve lost their focus on these folk’s eternal welfare and God’s heart. They are taught to not attempt to convert people to Christ, but to make them the best Hindu or whatever faith tradition they happen to embrace. So the ministry workers meticulously clean festering wounds, give baths, provide medicine, and heroically tend to some very base problems. They then subtly boast about their humility in serving such poor people. They feel satisfied that the comforts given provide for a dignified death and look good on their spiritual resume.
But the reality is that these poor people, in man-pleasing politeness and misplaced compassion, are being prepped for hell. It’s like the nominal Church is dressing people up in the finest lace and embroidered silk, but fails to clothe their sin-sick souls with Christ’s robe of righteousness. They leave this world in “dignity” but stand before God naked and ashamed. These ministry “projects” die and go to an eternity without Christ! No wonder Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” [Rom 1:16 ESV] No wonder Isaiah says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. [Isa 64:6 NIV] We cannot, in our flesh, spiritually care for others. Our goal should always be to guide them to the One who can.
Now, Paul is also in complete agreement with Jesus when he says that it is with our hearts (i.e. our inmost being) that we believe. It is not just mental knowledge, although even that can prompt action. For example, I know that the sun in the summer makes for a hot day. I know this by experience, and also because I can Google just about any fact out there and find out that the surface of the sun is 9,941 degrees Fahrenheit. Because I have mental knowledge of these things, I am careful to use sunscreen if I go swimming, or wear a tank top and shorts to stay cool. This is mental assent in action. I have a fact known and experienced to be true, not only by myself, but others, too, and I have science to back it up. But is this believing, pisteuō? The other related word, faith, in Greek, is pistis, and is defined one way in Strong’s as: “conviction of the truth of anything, belief; in the NT of a conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervor born of faith and joined with it.” That begs the question, “Is fact the same as truth?”
So many people do not believe the gospel (the gospel truth!). They will argue it is not factual or that it was written by mere men, men who, oddly, gained fame and fortune for their own opinions. Oh. Wait. I’m thinking of another book, The Power of Positive Thinking. Like all of God’s faithful instruments used in writing the bible, I think that author was persecuted, insulted, beaten, crucified, or beheaded for his testimony for Christ. Oh. Wait. I’m all mixed up again. That was the mere men who wrote the bible! In direct contradiction to the bible, the message in the “Positive Thinking” book is to just “believe in yourself.” And that has even been shortened now to just, “Believe.” When believing in ourselves gets old, we seem to need to reinvent ourselves from time to time. When we recommend our sinful selves, it only draws people to our grossly inadequate selves and away from the One perfectly adequate to author a book that does not present man in glowing terms or mince words or placate sinners. The shortened quip popular today, just “Believe,” conveniently relegates any true Object of our belief to oblivion. I mean, congratulations, folks. If it has achieved bumper-sticker status, why, let’s advertise it. And our actions illustrate what we do believe–everything and nothing! It’s as if we first replace God with ourselves, then with an open-ended invitation welcome a host of other more palatable possibilities, which actually, upon reflection, look a lot like ourselves and bend and shift and change to be acceptable to our own whims and society’s mores. We may not bow down to wooden idols in this country, but we certainly do bow down before our mirrors.
There have been many great minds that have argued for and have done fact-finding for the cause of Christ, such as Lee Strobel and Sean McDowell, so I don’t want to go over ground already covered, but only suggest that sadly, even if all the facts were supported by history and science, presented, and proved, there would be many people who would still not believe the gospel. Jesus said, “But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe.” [Jhn 6:36 NIV] And, “But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'” [Luk 16:31 NKJV] We must remember that Jesus, God in the flesh, walked this earth, taught, performed miracles, and indeed, raised someone named Lazarus from the dead, yet the Jews not only didn’t believe Him–they crucified Him! Does fact, or proof, then, cause faith?
Please don’t hear me saying we should not even try to put our efforts into apologetics. My point is that the gospel message is the power of God for salvation to all who believe, the Holy Spirit gives us words to speak, and the Father draws people to the Son to place saving faith in Him. [Rom 1:16; Matt 12:11-12; John 6:44] Jesus, by the very fact he performed miracles to testify to the truth of His message in order that people would believe shows us that the Lord is always trying to plant and grow faith! We just need to be aware of God’s authorship in salvation. He is the Architect and Prime Mover in all things! And we also need to be aware that sometimes people will be engaged in mental ping-pong because they simply want to win the match or enjoy the exchange, not because they are truly trying to understand.
I digressed a bit. So, is fact the same as truth? A certain Roman prefect must have wondered this, too: Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say [rightly] that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” [Jhn 18:37–38 NKJV]
Jesus said He was born to bear witness to the truth. He lived up to this, didn’t He? There are 79 search results in the bible for Jesus saying, “Truly I tell you.” He himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. [Jhn 14:6 NKJV] And, “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [Jhn 8:31–32 NIV] John describes Jesus this way: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. [Jhn 1:14 NIV]
Now, in the natural world it is a fact that the number one Contemporary Christian song as of the date of this post is “Scars in Heaven” by Casting Crowns. It is also a fact that the number one CC song is “Hurricane” by Kanye West. How can both be fact? The former is based on popularity according to iTunes, and the latter on popularity by Billboard.com. So, iTunes ignores all other streaming and supporting evidence and ranks songs and bases popularity on actual purchases and downloads on their own service. Billboard.com uses sales information, radio airplay data, and streaming statistics from many sources to rank their artists. So you see, while both are facts, truth is skewed because of a different data set. A fact or truth is only as good as the data set that is used. If the data set is flawed, the conclusion will also be flawed. We see this in the scientific method used in clinical trials for medication efficacy or in cancer research.
Recently, some studies on the efficacy of ivermectin to prevent death from COVID-19 were found to contain erroneous data by independent reviewers. The result of the faulty studies was to lead people to take the ivermectin and have high hopes in it. However, when the data errors were exposed, its credibility lessened. My point in all this is not to take sides on anything too personal–it is to illustrate that our minds are all filled with different data sets, and for the most part, they are all faulty! The only way to correct the situation is to “independently review” the many conclusions we leap to, to consider that they may be wrong. We need a source of absolute Truth, which is found in Jesus Christ and the Word of God. “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” [Mat 4:4 NIV] He is our Source for the perfect data set.
So, the Lord in His infinite wisdom, first keeps faith simple. We trust Him when He says He is the promised Savior. But then, like any new acquaintance, we learn more about Him, and our love for the Lord grows. We read His Word and at some point we hear Jesus warn us, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’ [Mat 7:21–23 NLT]
This seems to be in direct contradiction to Paul’s saying that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” However, the word translated “calls on” in the Greek is epikaleō and has the sense “to appeal unto for help or worship.” In plain English, then, Jesus is saying our words add up to a pittance if we do not practice God’s revealed will. What is God’s will? First and foremost, Christ preeminent, it is this: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” [Jhn 6:40 NIV] I’m sure I have read somewhere that the words “looks to the Son” has a sense of ongoing activity. We don’t just look once and forget. We keep on looking to Christ throughout our entire Christian life. If we don’t, Jesus said we are like branches that break off from a vine. We whither and die without the nourishment from the firmly-planted root we have in Jesus. We grow from the Vine and find our security in Christ. The same God that keeps the entire cosmos in complete order, who pitches earth on a perfect axis, who spoke into existence the sun, moon, and stars, also guides our eternal destiny. This is the same power He uses toward us who believe. Our confidence can rest in Him. He is always working. He is always speaking!
All of this reminds me of the parable of the seed scattered on different soils. Jesus explained:
“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. [Luk 8:11–15 NIV]
There’s so much in these verses! We can see how “believe” in these sayings of Jesus is defined or implied to have a sticktoitiveness, something long-lasting and ongoing throughout and in spite of life’s distractions and challenges. Another gleaning we can get from this parable is that the impetus behind belief is the word of God. All things begin with God, His Word begins with “In the beginning.” John starts his gospel with, “In the beginning was the Word.” The Lord is “the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” [Rev 22:13]
An active belief…one that is engaged over a long period of time–for the long haul–should also be congruent with one’s behavior. For example, when I accepted Christ as my Savior, I just knew I could not go on living the kind of immoral lifestyle that I had. The Holy Spirit convicted me of my sin. I understood that it was my sin that separated me from God–how could I go on living in it? I didn’t just give mental assent and walk away. I acted upon my belief. Now, what about the reverse of faith? Most people know that stealing is wrong and we have laws to enforce it. But many people still steal. They are then violating what they know to be true by doing the contrary. They are acting in bad faith. Can one know stealing is morally wrong in God’s eyes, but still do it and escape His displeasure? So we see, knowledge, even that which is sublime, does not save us. Knowledge of a fact can’t always motivate us to do right. Knowledge needs to find an “amen” in our hearts, a robust love for its Source, an agreement to it in our spirits and appreciation for its purpose, which in God’s heart is to keep us and our neighbor from harm.
So, what about a natural event, like our response to a hurricane warning? Most people believe the hurricane is real and will act in accordance with that belief, either by seeking shelter, shoring up their homes, or leaving the area. Belief will always, at some point in time, spur on or influence our behavior, whether for the good or for the bad. It is obvious with the COVID-19 pandemic that some folks in this country believe our government has a hidden agenda in mask and vaccine mandates and so refuse the recommended remedy. Others trust the government to have their citizen’s best interests in mind and so follow CDC guidelines. We can see even in this that our behavior starts out with what is seeded in the mind, progresses to what facts we decide are true, and results in action in accord with our faith. And I would like to point out that a belief in a fact is different from faith in what God says is true–faith entrusts one’s whole life on the entirety of His teaching. Just like we can’t pick and choose what subjects are required in a college major because we would not graduate with the knowledge and skillset needed, so too we need the totality of God’s teaching to be conformed by Him to the likeness of His Son. And just like any secular education, learning takes time. God only expects us to use what we know or have learned at a certain point in time, as we can see from His parable of the talents. [Matt 25:14-30]
Now, what about a positive belief, such as that mountains are beautiful, breathtaking, and awesome to behold? That is pretty much a universal belief, yet we know other things about mountains that inform our actions, such as that they can be dangerous to climb, that you can get altitude sickness from their tremendous elevation, that avalanches can occur, and the like. If we only believe they are beautiful, and act only with that information but disregard everything else, we could easily get hurt! Likewise, Jesus’ words do not exist in a void. He speaks truth all the time, so we must pay attention to ALL He speaks. Amen!
I hope this post has clarified the nuances of the words belief and faith. Please don’t use it to judge (look down on) another person’s spiritual state. We are better served by looking at our own face in the mirror of God’s Word. Then with the mercy we receive we can humbly and mercifully minister to others. And I don’t want to so much make a distinction in another’s quality of faith, but rather his or her spiritual fruitfulness, for God works and improves that over time, too! Doesn’t the Lord say, “”A BENT REED HE WILL NOT BREAK [OFF,] AND A DIMLY BURNING WICK HE WILL NOT EXTINGUISH, UNTIL HE LEADS JUSTICE TO VICTORY?” [Mat 12:20 NASB20] Good seed + good soil = good fruit! My intent is rather to encourage you to grow in His loving care.
In my next blog post in the series, I’d like to talk about the semantics of the word “works” and the ongoing rift between Catholic and Protestant theology. I have touched on it somewhat in this post, because the words seem so intertwined. I will be writing a lot more on it, and sharing my own personal struggles, so if you sometimes get the feeling that you may be “working” for your salvation, please come back (and hopefully be blessed!).
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. [Psa 119:103–105 ESV]