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Chapter 6

Commentary on Some Verses about Faith

Hebrews 11:6

It may seem pretentious for a layman to interpret Bible verses. All Christians, however, interpret the Bible whenever they think that they understand a verse, apply it to practical situations, or attempt to teach its meaning to others. Thus, interpretation is common to us all, although most Christians will never write their interpretation, as I am doing here.

Do I claim special qualifications? No. But, one must be convinced that he has something to say or he would never engage the arduous task of writing. My qualifications are a gift of teaching and a serious endeavor to understand Godís Word. I have heard hundreds of sermons and read dozens of books; some are serious theology and ethics. I feel compelled to simplify concepts in order to understand them. Most of those books and sermons have not answered the basic questions: what is God, who am I, and what meaning does my existence have? Obvious to anyone familiar with the Bible, "faith" is quite central to its message. Without an understanding of faith, we will not be able to understand what it means to be a Christian or to live a Christian life. This first verse illustrates the importance of our subject.

"And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that he is a rewarder of those who (diligently) seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6).

The conditions of belief are twice present: as the noun, "faith," and the verb, "believe." One must know that the Greek stem in both the noun and the verb are the same because the English translations use words with spellings that do not identify this common stem. To "please God" one must believe 1) "that He is" and 2) "that He is a rewarder of those who (diligently) seek Him."

In order to please God both the subjective and objective components of faith must be present. Subjectively, a person must have been regenerated to have as his most basic premise that the Bible is the Word of God or that the Bible is revealed truth. Objectively, he must make decisions that are logically based upon and consistent with the Bible. The former always results in the latter, but the latter may be apparently, but not actually, present without the former. In other words what a person is and what he does is necessary to please God (that is, both the internal and external self). The external actions without the internal change do not please God. "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). The external actions flow out of what one is. "That which proceeds out of the man is what defiles the man" (Mark 7:20).

Because man's spirit is invisible, we are not able to determine for sure whether another person is regenerate or not. We are able, however, to determine whether his behavior is consistent with Biblical standards. This distinction between internal being and external action is the basis upon which we judge. Many people are confused on this issue. Only God can see the invisible spirit and judge it, Hebrews 4:12. That is why only Jesus Christ can say to the person who has done what are apparently mighty works, "I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness" (Matthew 7:23). It is also the reason that unregenerate people ("tares") exist in the church ("wheat", Matthew 13:24-30). They are able to behave in a manner consistent with Biblical standards, as far as we are able to determine. They are able to "please" us, but God will cast them out. In this way the correct concept of faith explains Biblical texts.

The recognition of the subjective state is the minor focus of Hebrews 11:6. We do not actively participate in the act of regeneration at which time we receive the gift of faith. In that sense, God pleases Himself by the change that He has wrought in us. Thus, the emphasis of this verse, as far as our responsibility to please God is concerned, lies in our knowledge of God and of ourselves. It is logical that the greater our knowledge, the more we think His thoughts after Him and, thereby, please Him. Obviously, God would not be pleased with false knowledge, so "greater knowledge" is not equated with greater quantity alone. This knowledge must be true; then, the more extensive it is, the more God will be pleased. Since the Bible is a composite of history, poetry, letters, and formal teaching, and God is a unity, it can only be understood as a whole, that is, as a unified system. This verse directs us to a systematic understanding of God and man as revealed in the Bible in order to "please Him."

Someone may object that I have ignored the practical aspect of this verse, that we please God by our practical service. In a direct way I have ignored it, but indirectly the most practical "work" for anyone is to achieve a systematic Biblical understanding of God and of man. The Bible is clear that man's understanding causes his behavior. One verse was mentioned from Mark 7. Proverbs 23:7 states, " ... as a man thinks in his heart, so is he" (KJV). Luke 6:45 reveals that "... out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks" (NIV). In the Biblical sense, to expand one's knowledge is to increase one's behavior that is "pleasing" to God.

Someone has said, "A proof text without a context is a pretext." Any context is always the entirety of Scripture, not a verse by itself. Of course, the immediate context must be considered, but no verse can conflict with or have a different meaning than all the rest of Scripture put together. The Reformers called it the "Analogy of Scripture" or "Scripture interprets Scripture." It is never enough to quote one verse to substantiate one's position without knowing the system of Biblical understanding with which it is consistent.1 What is your system? Obviously, mine is Presbyterian or Reformed, best demonstrated in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The degree to which one pleases God, then, is the degree to which one has a systematic understanding of Him and of man as revealed in the Bible. Calvin recognized this relationship when he opened his Institutes with: "Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves." Certainly, wisdom and pleasing God are the same.

Someone may further complain that "knowledge" is cold and sterile. By this statement he would reveal, however, the degree to which many Christians are influenced by "thinking" that is based on emotion and the degree to which Christians in general have neglected serious thought. The Christian faith is as systematically and logically defensible, and philosophically coherent, as the Person of God is. "Pleasing God" is based upon true knowledge; the greater the knowledge, the greater He is pleased; practically, the greater He will be served. Man cannot avoid practicing what he knows or believes consciously or unconsciously to be true (see Chapter 1). The intensity and consistency of his practice will depend upon the clarity and extent of his knowledge. Hebrews 11:6 directs us to a greater systematic knowledge of God.

Hebrews 11:1

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  Many Christians use this verse as a definition of faith. This conclusion is understandable since this chapter in Hebrews is concerned with faith. They err, however, for at least two reasons. First, they misunderstand that the predicate "is" is not always used to define; it may only describe. (See Hermeneutic #12.) For example, a dog is a four-legged animal, but he is more than a four-legged animal: he has teeth, fur, claws, a tail, is unable to sweat and so forth. Similarly, faith in this verse is a description, not a definition. John Calvin states, "Greatly mistaken are they who think that an exact definition of faith is given here; for the Apostle does not speak here of the whole of what faith is, but selects that part of it which was suitable to his purpose ...."2

Second, those who think that this verse is a definition of faith fail to see the whole of Scripture as a system, as detailed above. A definition of faith must first be developed from all its appearances in the Bible. Then, it would be apparent that this verse is not a definition.

This verse does illustrate our definition of faith. "The assurance of things hoped for" refers to the reality of heaven that is yet to be realized. We are assured that heaven is real because "the Bible tells us so!" Heaven cannot be seen with our eyes (that is, it cannot be sensed), but its reality is accepted by faith without sight. Thus, we have assurance. "The conviction of things not seen" is more general and applies to all that is invisible, such as God, angels, our souls, and heaven. The contrast is again faith and sight.

Hebrews 6:4-6

"For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to shame."

We will not review this verse in its parts, but as a whole. It identifies people who once had a clear profession and practice as Christians turn away and are lost forever. The correct understanding of this verse is a very important matter. Our Biblical concept of faith, however, explains its meaning. Saving faith involves both (1) subjective regeneration and (2) objective (practical) evidence of decisions based upon Biblical principles. The persons referred to in these verses are like those of Matthew 7:23 and Matthew 13:24-30 (above). They have outward evidence in their profession and practice, but their souls have not been regenerated. The faith with which it is possible to "please God" is that which is both subjective and objective. Subjective regeneration is lacking in these people. They were never truly "saved." They have not fallen from saving faith, but have become consistent with their unregenerate heart. Those who are unregenerate, whether or not they have ever had a profession and practice as Christians, are "dead in their trespasses and sin" (Ephesians 2:1) and are without hope and God (Ephesians 2:12b). In time, this state of their heart will become outwardly evident.

The question arises whether a person can know for sure (assurance) whether or not he or she has been regenerated. On the evidence of this verse and years of observation of others, I am convinced that one cannot always be sure, at least for some period of time. These people with "temporary" faith are usually not hypocrites. They do not fully know themselves, indeed, as none of us can fully know himself. Who is it that does not repeatedly do some things that he does not understand? (The Apostle Paul did, Romans 7:15). Over time, however, the true self is revealed as one's outer life becomes consistent with his heart. How long does this take? For most, it may take several years, and for some it may not occur in their lifetime. As above, however, we are to judge behavior, not whether the heart is regenerate or unregenerate

"How can assurance be possible?"  "How can I know that I have saving faith?" This challenge returns us to our definition of faith in which absolute certainty is not possible in this life, but exists only to the extent that is necessary to make decisions and act upon them. Our assurance lies with the character of God, as stated by A. W. Tozer, "We rest in what God is .... this alone is true faith"3 To the extent that we have knowledge of Him (the objective component of faith), to that extent will we rest, that is, have certainty in Him. Having said that, let me also hasten to say that, most regenerate Christians will have assurance. We wrongly direct those who doubt, however, when we direct them for assurance to something that they have experienced or something that they have done, a conversion experience, for example. The character of God and His faithfulness to the promises of His Word are the basis for our assurance; not experience. (See Assurance of Faith, Chapter 11 and Assurance of Salvation: Simply Considered.)

James 2:19

"The devils believe and shudder."  In the past, have you wondered how the devils can believe and not be saved?  One is compelled to conclude that they have some kind of faith other than saving faith. This apparent discrepancy is that the devils have the objective knowledge of God's existence and His omnipotence, but their subjective nature rebels against Him. Sin darkens all minds so that faith must be relied upon rather than sight. Since the devils sin, they too must rely on faith. Perhaps, because they are spirits without bodies, they see God more clearly than unregenerate people who neither believe nor shudder (for now!).

Galatians 2:20

"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me."

Two "I's" (Greek, ego) are present in this verse: I who no longer live, and I who live in the flesh by faith. This verse has to do with the inner life of a Christian. After regeneration the Christian has two dispositions or directing forces within him: his regenerate self and his unregenerate self. It is a mistake to say that a Christian has two natures because the nature of a thing is what it is, and since one person is a unity within himself, his nature cannot be a duality.4 Within that unity, however, he is pulled in two directions: his own or Christ's.

Again, faith is used to denote the knowledge by which a Christian is directed in his new life. Here, faith cannot be anything else. If faith is only a motivating force, then it has no direction. If it has only direction, it has no motivation. It would be like a ship without a rudder that wanders aimlessly or a ship with its rudder intact but no power to move. "The life which I now live in the flesh" is directed "by faith," that is by Biblical knowledge.

Romans 12:3

"For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith."

Our concern is with "measure of faith," rather than the first part of the verse that deals with an accurate evaluation of our spiritual abilities and not with overconfidence or false humility. Here, "faith" has a special emphasis that is also seen in I Corinthians 12:9. "Measure of faith" is sometimes thought to mean that Christians have different degrees of saving faith. If these degrees were present, however, then Christians are faced with an impossible task: how to know when they have enough saving faith to be saved or to please God. We are thrown back to a works-salvation that Christ came to fulfill and give freely (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation is determined by the simple presence of saving faith, not any degree or quantity.

... our comfort is this, that faith's saving power depends, not upon some special believing act; nor upon acts less conscious; nor even upon the acquired ability of faith, but solely upon the fact that the germ of faith has been planted in the soul.5

"Measure of faith," rather, refers to the ability given to each believer according to his spiritual gifts. The context of spiritual gifts requires this interpretation. This ability has to do with the subjective dimension of faith, an inherent ability given by God that enables the believer to exercise the functions of his or her spiritual gifts. It is a focus on a particular function of saving faith. Saving faith brings us into the body of Christ; our measure of faith gives us our function within the body of Christ. It is inconceivable that Christ would give spiritual gifts and not give the ability to accomplish its required tasks. "Each gift requires the grace necessary for its exercise and is itself the certification of this grace, for they are gifts given according to grace."6 The reader is referred to Dr. Murray's more complete discussion of these concepts.)

Thus, "faith" in Romans 12:3 and I Corinthians 12:9 is a particular dimension within the broader category of saving faith. To say that the subjective dimension of saving faith exists in differing quantities is to refute saving faith as "the gift of God; not ... a result of works ...." (See Chapter 10.)

Ephesians 6:16

"... in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one."

This verse is commonly interpreted to refer to the subjective side of faith. That is, we are to defend ourselves by summoning up reserves of spiritual strength to meet the challenges of the evil one. This emphasis, however, is incorrect. First, we have just seen that saving faith cannot involve degree or quantity, but simply that it is either present or absent. The variables are the individuality of spiritual gifts and the quantity of Biblical knowledge.

Second, since the evil one is clearly Satan, we should look at Scripture to see what his "flaming missiles." are. In his first appearance, he distorts God's Word to Eve (Genesis 3:1, 4-5); later, he confronts Christ with misused Scripture (Matthew 4:6); he deceives, disguises and falsely represents (II Corinthians 11:13-15); and he "deceives the whole world" (Rev. 12:9). His "flaming missiles," then, are lies and distortions of Scripture. How are they extinguished? They are extinguished by knowledge of the Word of God (Scripture). He cannot take away the subjective presence of faith in the Word by regeneration, but He can take away assurance and effectiveness when Christians believe his lies and distortions Only by Biblical knowledge can his designs be thwarted.

Calvin comments on this verse paired with the one that follows.

... faith and the word of God are one .... because the word is the object of faith, and cannot be applied to our use but by faith; as faith again is nothing, and can do nothing, without the word.7

Paul concludes this great chapter on spiritual life with confidence, not in a subjective strength, but in the objective knowledge of God's omnipotence and love (Romans 8:31-39).

Notes

1. Clark, Gordon H., In Defense of Theology, Milford, Michigan: Mott Media, 1984.

2. Calvin, John, Calvin's Commentaries: Hebrews, Trans. by John Owen ,Reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979 on Hebrews p. 260-1.

3. Tozer, A. W. Knowledge of the Holy. San Francisco: Harper and Row,1961, p. 68.

4. That is not to say that man is not made up of body and spirit. His body and spirit, however, are a unity, not a duality.

5. Kuyper, Abraham, The Work of the Holy Spirit. Trans. by J. Hendri De Vries., Reprint. Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1900. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979, p. 406.

6. Murray, John, The International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans. Volumes I and II, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1959, p. 118.

7. Calvin, John, Calvin's Commentaries: Galatians and Ephesians, Trans. by William Pringle, Reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979 on Ephesians, p. 339.

 


 

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