The Gospel: Faith
This is part 2 of some musings based on what some people think of as ‘the gospel in a nutshell’
‘This is how much God loved the world: he gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.’ (John 3: 16, Message)
Last time I focused on the ‘eternal life’ part of the verse; I made the point that for many people, the whole point of Jesus coming was to make sure we ‘go to heaven when we die’. I suggested that such a belief, while factually accurate, is incomplete. Our destiny is not to exist eternally in a disembodied state in heaven. There is to be a resurrection of the dead, we are to be re-united with our bodies and carry out God’s purposes on the renewed Earth. This is ultimately what the Bible calls ‘salvation’ – not just of human beings, but of the whole of creation.
For some, that idea might have sounded controversial. Hopefully, this time I shall be less so. Today we shall be looking briefly at how people can be part of all this. How can a person get saved?
The way in
We often hear people talking about their chances of being allowed into heaven. ‘I’ve lived a decent life,’ they say. ‘I’m sure St. Peter will let me in. I’ve never hurt anybody, and I haven’t committed any big sins.’ Even in the Church, some people think like this.
But the message of the Bible is this: no one is good enough to be acceptable to God.
• For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s standards (see Romans 3: 23)
• The wages of sin is death (see Romans 6: 23)
The conclusion is inescapable. None of us, in our own strength, can make ourselves acceptable to God.
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story.
What we couldn’t do for ourselves, God did for us:
‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God’.
(Romans 5: 8-9)
The word ‘justified’ here is a legal term, and it means that we have no case to answer. The devil accuses us of being sinners, worthy of death. God tries the case in his courtroom and says ‘Not guilty!’
How can God say this? How can he say with one breath, ‘No one measures up to my standards. All have sinned and earned the consequences: death!’ and then, when the devil accuses us, say that we are ‘Not guilty!’
The simple answer is: while we were dead in our sins, Christ died for us. We committed the crime: Jesus paid the penalty. The result? We go free.
At this point some people can get quite upset. ‘It’s not fair that someone else should pay the consequences for my wrongdoing!’ And of course, they’re absolutely right. But when people say this, what they’re really saying is one of two things:
• I refuse to believe it. I’m not really that bad.
• I don’t want someone paying the penalty for my sin; if I’ve done wrong I’m the one that will pay the price.
We’ve already seen what the deadly consequence of taking this path is.
There is, however, a third possibility: we can believe. We can say, ‘Thank you,’ and gratefully accept the gift that’s been offered.
And what is that gift? A verse we quoted earlier begins, ‘The wages of sin is death . . . .’ but it finishes like this: ‘. . . the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ (Romans 6: 23)
That’s the Gospel, plain and simple: we’ve blown it; God has put it back on track again.
How do we get in on it? We believe. We believe that, out of his great love for us, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin. We can’t earn it; we just have to accept his offer of eternal life. This action, this believing and accepting is an example of what the Bible calls ‘faith’.
Is that it? Yes.
So it’s nothing to do with my living up to God’s standards and earning his forgiveness? Absolutely right.
All I have to do is believe like you said? Yes.
There’s got to be a catch somewhere! No catch.
Some thoughts about faith
Although the Gospel message is simple, some people still find it confusing. So let’s iron out a few misunderstandings.
Faith is marketed today in a variety of packages. Unfortunately, not every package with FAITH printed on the outside contains the real deal.
(At this point, some people will be whispering to a neighbour, ‘See? I said there was a catch, didn’t I? If you are one such person, hear me out first.)
When I was at school studying for my exams (that’s a few years ago, now), I had to learn lots of facts that were very useful in helping me pass the exam, but have been of no practical use to me since. Here’s a couple of examples:
• The interior angles of any triangle will always add up to 180 degrees;
• In any right-angled triangle, the square on the hypotenuse is always equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.
I believe these things! But does this make me a mathematician? Does the fact that I believe these things bring me any practical benefit at all? Probably not.
Those of us who have been Christians for some time would probably say they believed in statements like these:
• I believe that there is one God;
• I believe that Jesus is God’s son;
• I believe Jesus died so that my sins can be forgiven;
• I believe Jesus was raised from death to life, and is now in heaven;
• I believe Jesus will come back to earth one day;
• I believe that the Church is the body of Jesus’ followers on earth today;
• I believe that Christians will spend eternity with God. etc. etc.
Did you know that you can believe all this stuff and not be a Christian? James was a leader of the early Church in Jerusalem. One of his letters has been included in the New Testament. In it, we read this:
‘You believe that there is only one God? That is good; but then the demons also believe this – and they shudder!’
(James 2: 19)
So what’s the problem? Not that these beliefs are wrong; James goes on to explain:
‘A body separated from its spirit is just a dead body: and faith that does not lead to action is a dead faith.’
(James 2: 26)
What do we do with dead bodies? Actually, these days they can be put to all kinds of uses, but in James’ day, they buried them – disposed of them. And that’s what James is saying about dead faith, belief that is just a mental assent to a series of propositions: it is of no use at all and best got rid of.
All kinds of people and things promise us a variety of things:
• Political parties say, ‘Trust us with the government of this country and we will bring you prosperity and security.’ And in a limited way, they may be able to deliver something of what they promise. But long ago, before all the latest stuff about corrupt politicians hit the headlines; in fact, long before our nation existed, God was telling his people:
‘Do not put your trust in princes (or, governments), in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth. On that day, his plans perish.’
(Psalm 146: 3-4)
Don’t get me wrong; there are lots of godly people in government. God tells us to submit to the authorities, and to pray for those who rule over us. But ultimately they can’t save us; there are forces at work in our society over which they have no control.
• The possession of wealth holds out the promise of long life, protection against disaster. Recent events in the banking world have shown just how fragile the appearance of wealth can be. Jesus gave a short, blunt warning to his followers about pursuing wealth:
‘You can’t serve God and Money.’
(Matthew 6: 24)
But even sincere Christian folk can suffer from a misplaced faith.
Some years ago, the car I had at the time died suddenly; some major part gave out and the cost of the repair greatly exceeded the value of the car.
A well-meaning Christian friend asked me if I was going to believe God for a new car. My answer was that I had no plans to do so. Why? Because I can only believe God if God has said something. And God hadn’t at that time been having a conversation with me about cars.
The phrase ‘believe God’ sounds so spiritual; but actually what my friend was encouraging me to do was dream up a good idea and then assume that God would back the plan. Maybe even believe that God was the originator of the idea in the first place?
Does this sound far fetched?
How many of us in the Church today have heard sincere Christian leaders, godly men and women, speak about what God was going to do, bought into what was being said, only to discover down the road that God hadn’t bought into it – or at least, not in the way we had expected him to?
Only last week, Keith and Tim spoke to us about the hurts, frustrations and disappointments many of us carry about with us – the memories of things that didn’t work out as we had been led to believe. We were encouraged to see these memories for what they are: encumbrances, unnecessary weights, entanglements (see the Amplified version of Hebrews 12: 1), and deal with them appropriately. And how should we deal with them? Hebrews 12: 1 again (and v. 2): strip them off, throw them aside, focus on the life we are called to live and on Jesus who has gone before us.
May I urge you to take that on board? To leave these things undealt with can give rise to all sorts of problems and can choke the life of God within:
‘Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger . . . . forgiving one another, just as in Christ, God forgave you.’
(Ephesians 4: 30-32)
If there’s a problem and you need help, speak to the elders about it, or your 1-2-1 partner. But please don’t leave it.
The real deal
So what can we say about real faith?
Firstly, you can’t work it up, hype it up, wish it up, or earn it. If you can, it’s not real faith. Real faith is a gift. In Ephesians 2: 8-9 we read:
‘It is by grace you have been saved, through faith: and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. It’s not earned by works, so no one can boast.’
And what is this faith that is a gift from God? The classic definition can be found in Hebrews 11 v 1:
‘And what is faith? Faith gives substance to our hopes, and makes us certain of realities we do not see.’
The Greek word translated ‘substance’ can also be translated as ‘assurance’ or, ‘title deed’. It’s the conviction that what God has promised, what we hope for in God, we will receive.
And what do we mean by hope? We often use this word today to mean some kind of wishful thinking. But that’s not the Bible means. When the New Testament talks about hope, it’s talking about what we’ve set our hearts on.
You can see that when we talk this sort of language:
• We’re not in the realm of mere intellectual assent to a set of propositions;
• We’re not in the realm of thinking up good ideas that we’re expecting God to buy into;
• We’re not in the realm of wishful thinking.
We are firmly in the realm of:
• Knowing what God has promised;
• Setting our hearts on it;
• Dedicating ourselves to pursuing it.
Faith is not a passive word; it’s active. And it begins with us reaching out for God’s offer of forgiveness through what Jesus did on the cross.
But it doesn’t stop there. Let’s read again the passage from Hebrews 12 vv 1-3. The writer has just been focusing on faith and people from our Old Testament who demonstrated what living by faith was all about. He then says:
‘Do you see what this means . . . it means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running – and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished the race we’re in. Study how he did it.
Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honour, right alongside God.
When you find yourself flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he ploughed through. That will shoot adrenalin into your souls!’
Faith has nothing to do with sitting on our backsides waiting for God to bless us in the sweet by-and-by. It is a call to action.
And what will our response be? Remember Mary’s words to the stewards at the wedding feast in Cana:
‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it.’
(John 2: 5)
Let’s go for it.