What one understands about saving faith makes a great deal of difference in everyday matters. In this chapter, we will see more clearly that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” Our understanding of faith determines our praise of God and His attitude towards us, our ability to rest in and be at peace with Him, the content of our prayers, and our knowledge of ourselves.
Praise of God
Everyone has a sense of accomplishment when he is completes a task without another person’s help. Individual praise causes greater pleasure than praise received as a result of a team or cooperative effort. If we apply this way of thinking to God, He will receive more praise, if our salvation is entirely of Him than if it is a cooperative effort between Him and us. How God is praised is a serious matter!1 Our God has said, “I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another” (Isaiah 42:8). To say that anyone has some ability (no matter how small) within himself to have faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior is to divide the glory of that salvation between himself and God. Such division of effort is unavoidable. A cooperative effort is a cooperative effort; credit goes to both.
Let’s look at it another way. Are you more amazed when you receive the your pay from your employer or when you receive an equal amount as a complete gift? Your reaction is much stronger to the latter than the former. God anticipates such a response, when He explicitly describes faith as a gift “lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, KJV– see Chapter 10). When saving faith, the most significant event in the life of any person, is understood to be totally a gift of God as He says it is, then it is natural for man to give Him all the glory and thanksgiving.
There is another way in which we may limit His character by our understanding of faith. Dr. Robertson McQuilkin, President of Columbia Bible College, has said, “When a Christian is anxious, he is actually calling into question the character of God.”2 To say that God is “Sovereign” means that God controls all events on both a cosmic and personal level. This control and care is clear (Romans 8:28-39), but I wonder how many Christians who say that God is Sovereign really understand its totality. Dr. McQuilkin has stated it clearly relative to worry. The Christian should increasingly become less anxious as he understands God’s total provision and protection.
These two examples, praise of God for our salvation and the practical problem of worry, illustrate how our understanding of faith affects our understanding of God. As an exercise of praise, one could make a practical application of God’s other attributes as well.
Rest and Assurance
The author of Hebrews exhorts us “… to fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it” (4:1). Anyone who do not believe that faith is entirely a gift of God cannot enter this rest and have its assurance. If he or she is able to decide for God, he or she may decide against Him at some point in the future. Just as one could not have predicted that he would become a Christian, he cannot predict that he will not at some point in the future turn away from God. With any possibility for one to fall away, that person cannot rest and have assurance, if they are consistent with their own position.
Rest and assurance come from what is called, “perseverance of the saints.” This principle teaches that God is the author and finisher of salvation. Because it is totally of Him, once a person is converted, he comes to know that his salvation is sure and cannot be lost. Christians, who don’t agree, might point to certain passages that seem to indicate that salvation may be lost. In one of these (Hebrews 6:4-6), however, I have demonstrated that one’s interpretation of these verses depends upon one’s prior convictions (premises) about faith. (See Chapter 7.)
This lack of certainty manifests itself more clearly in the Christian’s attitude towards works and his relationship with God. In counseling, I ask every person (almost all of whom are professing Christians) the question taught by Evangelism Explosion, “If you were standing before God and He asked you why He should let you into His heaven, how would you answer?” Their answers usually concern a “hope” that they have done more good than bad. Christ’s finished work is rarely the clear answer. Further, their perception of God’s attitude toward them concerns how well they have behaved rather than God’s complete acceptance of them in Christ. Because they are inconsistent in their Christian behavior (as we all are), their lives are often emotional roller coasters, being up “in favor with God with right behavior” and down “as they commit ongoing sins.”
Such a concept of one’s relationship to God is legalism, human effort that destroys the Good News that salvation is a free gift of God (Romans 6:23). Every other religion of the world attempts to please its deity by compliance with a set of rules or laws. It is man’s attempt to correct Adam’s failure to obey. An unacceptable standing before God rests on the merits of Christ and nothing else.3
Paradoxically, legalists achieve fewer good works, because of the emotional roll-a-coaster that results from their uncertainty of their relationship with God. Clearly, one’s concept of faith determines one’s experience of joy, rest, and assurance. If salvation is not totally of God, one cannot rest because he never knows when he has done enough. If salvation is totally of God, stability and consistency increases. The caricature of stern and joyless Calvinists and Puritans could not be further from the truth. Not only have these believers accomplished more historically, their experience of God’s benefits to them have been greater.
One’s understanding of faith influences evangelism. A Christian may consider that the acceptance or rejection of the Gospel depends upon his own ability to convey and to convince the person to whom he is presenting it. If that person “accepts” Christ, then he can be pleased with himself. If that person rejects Christ, he is despondent for his failure.
Without doubt Christianity, rightly understood, has the strongest argument in its favor for any area of knowledge. (See Chapters 3-4.) The trained seminarian, however, encounters more people who will reject his presentation of the gospel than will accept it. Even though his arguments are sound and his presentation polished, he may come to doubt his ability to evangelize. And if this highly trained semininarian doubts, how much more will the layman whose knowledge and training are much less. If conversion is within the ability of the person being witnessed to and the ability of the Christian who presents the Gospel, then Christians should blame themselves for their failure. If conversion is totally of God, however, then Christians may rest in the fact that God must prepare the heart to be saved and it does not depend upon the excellence of their training or lack thereof.4
Certain verses (Matthew 21:21; John 14:14, 15:7,16, 16:23) seem to teach that God will grant our every request, especially if we pray “in Jesus name.” Certainly, the riches that God provides for believers are great beyond our ability to comprehend (I Corinthians 2:9-10, Ephesians 2:6-7). Yet, the limiting condition to our prayers is God’s will, not the subjective condition of our faith. In the Lord’s prayer we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” God’s will infinitely precedes our own. “If you abide in me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). The limiting condition is our understanding of God’s will. And of course, understanding of His will depends upon our understanding of His Word. We cannot know His secret will, but we can know His revealed will, the Scripture (Deuteronomy 29:29).
That answers to our prayers are dependent upon our own ability to “have faith” is prevalent among Christians. It is significant that the focus is again upon the person rather than upon God. Any focus on man should alert us to its being wrong directed. God should be our focus, not ourselves (Matthew 22:37-38). The direction of our faith should be an increasing confidence in His Sovereign (Omnipotent and Omniscient) control of all things that work together for our good (Romans 8:28), rather than our ability to discern what we need or what ought to be accomplished according to our will.
A description of how this focus should be upon God has been described by Dr. J. I. Packer.5 He uses the analogy of a railroad yard full of trains. To the observer there does not seem to be a pattern or purpose to the arrivals and departures of the trains. In the control station, however, every train is directed to a specific destination. The control tower is God’s secret will. The tracks are His promises and directions. Final destinations (purposes) are beyond our vision until we arrive. He states that it is
“futile enquiry … to read a message about God’s secret purposes out of every unusual thing that happens to us (p. 92) …. For the truth is that God in His wisdom, to make us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which He is working out in the churches and in our own lives” (p. 96).
This focus on God does not mean that we should not be diligent in our prayer life for ourselves and the Church. It means that we need to be very cautious in “claiming” what God’s will is or that He has answered prayer on the basis of some nebulous conviction or feeling within us. When we act in this way, we are really saying that we have personal control over the results of prayer. This focus, however, does not mean that God does not sometimes give certainty of conviction that He will grant a specific request. It only means that we should be quite reluctant to make such claims.7 (See Chapter 11, “Miraculous Faith.”)
The worst example of this wrong focus concerns miraculous healing that is conditioned on the sick person’s faith. It is cruel, as well as false, to base the lack of healing on lack of faith. Further, it makes a mockery of God’s Sovereign care of that person. Such use of faith is man-centered and not God-centered. It is not Biblical faith. (See Chapter 11, also.)
Next, we consider what Jesus meant when He healed on the basis of people’s faith (Matthew 8:5-13; Matthew9:18-26, 27-34, 15:21-28). First, careful reading will show that the primary focus of their faith was the character of Jesus, not the specific healing that they hoped would take place. None came to Him and said that they were convinced that He was going to heal them, that is, none “claimed” (the word often used today in expectation of healing) that He would heal them. They all came on the basis of the knowledge that He had the power to heal them and hoped that He would. Their faith was in His Person, not a claim that healing was going to take place. The distinction is subtle but decisive. No one can ever go to Jesus and expect that He will grant a specific request. It must always be in the confidence that He has the power to grant our request and will do so, if it agrees with His will.
When Jesus spoke of “your faith,” He was indeed speaking of that person’s faith as a personal possession. When God gives us saving faith, a measure of faith, or a faith that He will grant a specific request, it is OUR faith.7 He has given it to us and it becomes our own possession. It was bestowed in accord with His Sovereign will, not from anything within us. The proof that we had discerned God’s will is always by hindsight, not by any claim beforehand (as the destination of the trains above). The notion that God will grant a request may be our own hope or it may be God’s gift of certainty to us. Whether it is one or the other is determined by whether the request is fulfilled. On this basis, almost all claims to healing are easily proven false, especially if any objective criteria at all are applied.8
Presumption upon God whether it concerns healing or any other specific expectation is the practice of magic. This word is not heard often among Christians, but the attitude is quite prevalent. Magic is an attempt by man to control nature, other men and other natural or supernatural powers. Usually, some ritual is involved that gives the person that power. As Christians, we have our rituals and our expectation of control. As we have seen, we determine the specifics of answered prayer beforehand and are even sometimes angry when God does not answer them accordingly! To understand that such an attitude is magic is to understand that such thinking and practice is man-centered and thoroughly pagan.
As Christians, our prayers and expectations of results are based upon faith that is determined entirely by our objective knowledge of the Person and Character of God and His revealed will. We can never make specific “claims” upon God. He does give us personal faith relative to specific issues, but the proof of its presence is the answered prayer itself, not the prior claim. As our knowledge and experience of God increase, our prayers should show an increasing correspondence with our expectations and His answers.
Use of Time
We have seen that a person’s faith is revealed by what he or she does. It will be useful to extend that fact to our use of time. We live in a society where most of us have a considerable amount of “leisure” time, that is, time that is not required to provide necessary income for food, shelter, clothing, needs, and wants. Further, the money that we spend on leisure time activities is considerable.
You can carry out a simple exercise. For two weeks keep an account of your daily activities. Divide the day into thirty minute blocks and in each block fill in the predominate activity for that period of time. Activities can be divided into groups, such as house/yard chores, recreation (include TV), attendance at church (not just Sundays), family time, exercise, investments, eating, sleeping, personal care (taking showers, shaving, and putting on make-up). Records will have to be kept at intervals throughout the day or what you did at given times will be forgotten by the end of the day. At the end of two weeks add up the time spent in the various groups. Then, ask yourself this question, “How does each activity promote the development of my faith, glorify God and advance His Kingdom?” Unless your have actually kept this time schedule carefully and added the numbers, you cannot make such an assessment. It is amazing that we often have little concept of how we actually spend our time. It was an “eye-opener” for me the first time that I kept this schedule. Likely, little Bible study time will be found during these two weeks. (Devotional time, as it is usually done, is not Bible study.)
In addition to this schedule, take a look at other activities throughout the year. We will often take a whole day off to spend at the lake or to see a ball game, and we will take one week or more for an expensive vacation (that often returns us more tired than before we went!) Yet, would we spend the same effort and expense to further our Bible study, even to spend a week or more at an intensive theological seminar?
We are not a Christian people who emphasize the objective side of faith. Except for prescribed church activities we spend little effort to develop our knowledge of God and His plan for our lives. We spend less time and energy in our development of the knowledge of God and His plan for our lives than we do in leisure activities. We are living a life of faith whose reality is church activities and pious thoughts, rather than solid intellectual development. If we are not doing the study outside of these formal times, our faith in a real sense remains second-hand because it is always coming from someone else. The hope and message of this book is to understand the second-hand nature of our faith and practice and to make the correction that is consistent with its being a first-hand acquisition and application.
- In general, Christians have become too concerned with practical application and experience to the neglect of the more important study of God’s character. Evidence for this situation is to ask yourself and other Christians how much study you or they have been devoted to God’s attributes and character in the past year.
- This quote comes from unpublished notes for Dr. McQuilkin’s undergraduate and seminary course at Columbia Bible College.
- See my brief discussion on Justification in the Appendix. For a more lengthy and practical discussion of guilt and forgiveness, see Jay Adams,More Than Redemption, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979, pp. 184-232.
- This difference in the receptivity of unbelievers to the Gospel is not new. Thomas Aquinas and other Scholastics of his time believed, and many Christians today believe, that rational arguments can prove the existence of God and convince people to be saved. This belief overlooks the mighty hand of the Holy Spirit to cause regeneration and the saving faith that is a subsequent fruit.
- Packer, James I. Knowing God. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1973, pp. 89-97.
- See Chapter 11, “Faith to Move Mountains.” Also, see 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. 421.
- Lloyd-Jones, Martyn, “The Supernatural Natural in Medicine,” London: Christian Medical Fellowship, 1971, p. 22.
- Payne, F. E., Biblical/Medical Ethics, Milford, Michigan: Mott Media, 1985, pp. 112-116.