True North Backstory
One reason I enjoyed preaching the sermons in this series was the contrast between a "head" message and a "heart" message.
The message on Scripture was a head message—didactic. We asked folks for questions about barriers to taking the Bible as authoritative, and there were so many good ones I had to rewrite the sermon on Thursday.
N.T. Wright's notion of the biblical story as a play with five acts was extremely helpful.
This enabled me to demonstrate how the nature of a story carries authority, and what it means to read the Bible literally.
The message on grace alone was aimed at the heart. One question I always try to keep in mind is, What are people talking about this week? That week, people were talking about the deaths of Steve Jobs and Al Davis. So the message was simple: How successful, tough, talented, attractive do you have to be? The stories of high "bar-setters" helped set the stage for grace.
We are finishing a series called True North. We have been looking at core beliefs that define our Christian identity: all glory belongs to God alone; Jesus alone is our Lord and Savior; the Bible alone is the authoritative Word of God; and grace alone is the foundation for our life with God. Today we are looking at faith alone.
In Ephesians 2, Paul says we are saved by grace through faith. We grasp grace by faith alone. That sounds simple and clear, but there have been serious arguments inside the church concerning the nature of faith. There are several important issues we need to understand.
Understanding saving faith
A number of years ago, one group of people said this in response to the idea that salvation comes by grace through faith alone: "That's true. You can't earn being saved, but we don't want to have cheap grace. You can't simply say, 'I want Jesus to be my Savior, but I don't want him as my Lord.' Saving faith must include the intention to follow Jesus as Lord." This idea has sometimes been called lordship salvation, the idea that being saved includes the intention of following Jesus as Lord.
Another group responded: "But you can't say that, because that adds works to faith. The Bible clearly explains that nobody is saved by good works. We are saved by grace alone. We receive grace by faith when we believe. That is what gets us into heaven." This group said grace plus nothing is what saves. This group accused the other group of works righteousness, and the other group accused this group of cheap grace. So who was right?
Actually, both sides were wrong. The problem in this debate is not the point on which the two sides disagreed; the problem was that both groups defined the word saved incorrectly. What does it mean to be saved?
Both groups defined "being saved" as satisfaction of the minimal requirements for entrance into heaven. So this became the focus of the fight: how little can you intend to follow Jesus and still be admitted into heaven when you die? But when did Jesus ever say, "Here are the minimal requirements for getting into heaven"? He never said that, and for good reason.
Imagine a groom saying to a bride, "What's the minimal amount of fidelity and commitment I have to give you to remain married?" Imagine applying for a job and saying, "What's the minimal amount of work I have to do?" Heaven is not the kind of place where you want to be if you just want to do the minimum.
Jesus never talked about saving faith like this: "Here's the least amount of doctrinal truth you have to affirm to make the cut." Rather, this is what Jesus said: Through me—through my life, death, and resurrection—the presence, power, favor, and love of God is available for you to experience. If you want that, follow me, because that's the way you receive it and live in it. Trust me with everything, including the eternal state of your soul. Your eternal salvation is a free gift of grace. You can't earn it.
Saving faith is not the least amount you have to believe to get in; saving faith comes by having a posture of total dependence, complete trust, in God. When you put all your trust and confidence in God, you receive forgiveness, acceptance, and life from him. That type of posture is the vehicle by which you receive salvation.
Understanding the relation between faith and works This leads to another issue that causes a lot of confusion: What is the relationship between faith and works?
Paul writes about how Genesis says Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him, reckoned to him, as righteousness. Paul says, "For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Romans 3:28). Commenting on the same passage about Abraham, James says, "And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" (James 2:23-24).
It might seem like Paul and James disagree with each other, but they actually don't. What is at stake here is the nature of faith that matters to God, the kind of faith that actually changes a life. Real faith affects what we do. There is a difference, when it comes to "belief," between what I think I believe and what I actually believe.
There are beliefs I think I hold, but when time passes, when circumstances change, it turns out they are not beliefs I affirm at all. Here is a classic, and funny, example from the Bible. After God meets Moses at the burning bush, Moses and Aaron gather together the Israelites. Moses tells them all about God, all about the burning bush. He shows them signs, and we are told the Israelites believed: "And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped" (Exodus 4:31).
They hear, and at that moment, in the safety of being together with Moses, they believe. They ask Moses to lead them out of Egypt, out of slavery. Moses does. But a few chapters later, while they are leaving Egypt, Pharaoh decides it was a bad idea to free his workforce. So, he pursues them with his armies. In front of the Israelites is the Red Sea, and Pharaoh's armies are behind them. The Israelites are trapped, and they now say to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'?"
Did they really say that to Moses in Egypt? No, they said: We believe. You are our leader. We will follow you. Get us out of here!
But when the crisis hits, they complain and say: Why did you take us out of Egypt?
They were sincere when they first expressed their belief. They really thought they believed, but when crisis hit, when trouble came, their belief turned out to be fickle. When their circumstances changed, it turned out they didn't really believe at all.
This happens in our lives all the time, more than we would think. For example, if you were to ask me, I would tell you I believe marriage ought to be an equal partnership. I believe in equal servanthood between a husband and a wife. I believe the husband and the wife should share equal division of labor around a household. But in reality, I often find myself doing way more than my fair share of serving around the house, and I rob my spouse of her opportunity to serve in ways that aren't good. And I lie a lot.
Here is another example: Jesus says it is more blessed to give than to receive. We go to church, open our Bibles, and say, "I believe the Bible. I believe what Jesus says." Or Jesus says we should not be anxious about what we will eat, drink, or wear. He tells us not to be anxious about money or possessions. He tells us to trust our Father in heaven. We hear that, and I think, Of course, I believe that. I don't trust in money. Then the economy goes south, and I have less money. I find I get anxious and stressed.
I find out I don't believe I trust in money as long as I have money. When I lose some, I find out I actually trust in it. But I'm not going to starve. I'm still far better off than most people in the world. But when I lose some, when things get a little shaky, I find out what my real beliefs are. And they are not what I thought they were.
If you haven't noticed, we are in rocky economic times. But this is a great time to strengthen our trust in God. Do you realize that? Are you glad for this opportunity? This is a great time to realize money does not love you. Money cannot protect you. Money cannot save you from death. Money cannot save your soul.
It is good to have illusions dispelled. That is what Christ does. He does that with our beliefs. It is important for us to realize the difference between what we think we believe and what we actually believe. When people don't understand this, they become incredibly confused about faith and works. What I believe makes up what could be called my mental map. We all have a mental map about how we think things really are.
I believe if I touch fire I will get burned. I believe coffee gets me going in the morning. Thank God for coffee. I believe in gravity. I don't have to psych myself up or constantly reaffirm myself regarding my convictions about gravity. I don't have to consciously restrain myself from stepping off a cliff or a building. My core convictions are demonstrated by my behavior. You never violate your mental map, what you believe about this world.
But it turns out our beliefs can be quite fickle, even though in the moment we think we are sincere. It turns out I may not be the best judge of what I actually believe. You might look at my life and my behavior and be able to do a better job of telling me what I believe than I could. The real test of what you really believe isn't what you say. It's not even what you think you believe. It's what you do. You never violate your mental map about how things are.
When James says faith without works is dead, he is not saying you need to add a certain level of behavioral compliance in order to be saved. What he means is this: If you claim to believe something, but your actions speak otherwise, then you don't actually believe what you thought you believed. Your actions are a more reliable indicator than your words.
Paul recognizes the same dynamic: "Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith." He is not talking about obedience that you tack on after you believe because you are supposed to. He is simply saying that your actions show what you really believe.
Martin Luther, the great champion of justification by faith alone, makes the same point. Luther said,
Faith is a living, creative, active, and powerful thing. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn't stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever.
It is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire. It cannot be done. When you understand the nature of your mental map, your realize your beliefs and actions go together.
Trusting in the object of your faith, not the quality of your faith
This leads to the next problem, which is personal and quite painful: What do you do when you feel like you don't trust God enough? What do you do when you want to believe that you are saved by faith alone, but you feel like you don't have enough faith?
Abraham is the champion of faith, and Paul talks about him in Romans 4. Paul's words are pretty dense, but he tells us we are able to have a trusting relationship with God, even if we feel like our faith is weak. Listen to what Paul says:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness' .… He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not. Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him.… Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised (Romans 4:1-3, 16-21).
Abraham is presented frequently in the New Testament as the model for faith. But if you know his story, you know his faith was not very impressive. In Genesis 12, God comes to Abram and tells him to leave his home and to go to a place where he will have a son. God changes his name to Abraham—meaning "father of many people"—and tells him he will be the father of a great nation. God said he would bless the entire human race through Abraham's offspring.
In the very next episode in Abraham's life, in the same chapter, Abraham and Sarah travel to Egypt. Abraham says to Sarah: You're a beautiful woman, and I know these Egyptians. Someone will want to take you as his wife, and he will kill me in order to do so. So let's lie. Let's tell them you are my sister so they won't kill me. If one of them wants you, they can have you, but I'll live.
It doesn't seem like Abraham is confident that God will protect him. So they go through with his plan. He throws Sarah under the bus, and Pharaoh takes Sarah into his palace to join the royal harem. He gives Abraham sheep, cattle, camels, slaves, and all sorts of other goods. But Pharaoh finds out that Sarah is Abraham's wife and that Abraham's God is unhappy about the whole arrangement. Pharaoh asks Abraham the same question that God asked Eve after the Fall. The writer of Genesis is being very deliberate here. Pharaoh says to Abraham, "Why did you do this thing? What is this thing that you have done?" In other words, the story reveals that Pharaoh, a pagan, is more concerned with doing right than God's man Abraham. Not only that, Abraham does the same thing a second time in Genesis 20.
Furthermore, after 11 years of waiting for a child, Sarah says to Abraham: We've been waiting a long time. Why don't you have a child with my servant girl, Hagar?
Did Abraham say no? Did he say, "No, Sarah, we have to trust God"? No! Abraham agreed that it was a good idea. But it was a disaster.
Thirteen years later, God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear him a child. Does Abraham say, "I believe, God"? No. Abraham fell on his face, laughed, and said, "Will a son be born to a man 100 years old?" He laughed at God under his breath, and Sarah laughed, too. Then the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord?" Does Abraham man up and admit that he laughed? No. He said nothing. But Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said she didn't laugh. But God confronted her, and God and Sarah go at it while Abraham looks on from the side.
His faith is so weak that he pretends Sarah is not his wife, twice. His faith is so weak that he impregnates a servant girl. His faith is so weak that he laughs at God. But Paul says Abraham didn't waver in his belief, that he believed beyond all hope, that he was fully persuaded of God's power. Paul of course was a rabbi. He knew Abraham's story backwards and forwards. So what's going on? What is Paul thinking? We have to go back and try to enter Abraham's world.
When Abraham said yes to God, he began from scratch. There was no Old Testament. How many of the Ten Commandments did Abraham know? None. There were no Ten Commandments. The story of Moses, Mount Sinai, the giving of the Law, the consecration of priests, the story of David, the Psalms, and sacrifices had not occurred yet. He didn't know any stories about the Lord God, Yahweh. He had zero information. He was the product of a brutal, superstitious, ancient culture.
Joshua told the Israelites, "Long ago, your forefathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham … lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods." In other words, Abraham was raised like everybody else in his culture—a pagan in a pagan world. As far as we know, Genesis 12 is Abraham's first interaction with a living, good, all-powerful, personal God. And this God says to Abraham, "Go from your country, your people, your father's household, to the land I will show you."
Here's the key: "So Abram went, as the Lord had told him." Abraham is deliberately not presented in the Old Testament as a brilliant spiritual genius who innovated ethical monotheism. He is an average, ignorant, confused, superstitious, passive, and cowardly man. So how is it that his faith was so strong? It was because he chose to wait for God to provide him a son. He realized only God could do that, that he could do nothing.
Paul says Abraham knew his body was as good as dead. He was an old man with an old wife. No pharmaceutical company could help him. He did not allow his life to be determined by what was possible due to human power. He was completely dependent on God, God alone. This story does not depend on Abraham's certainty. Abraham didn't say, "Sarah, we just have to believe God. We just need to have more faith. We just have to claim this promise."
The hero of this story isn't Abraham; it's God. Abraham's dad, Terah, might have had stronger faith, but he put his faith in the wrong gods. Abraham put his faith in the right God, and he just stayed where God told him to go. It was better for him to put little faith in a big God than big faith in a little god. This is good news. This is why Jesus says you only need faith the size of a mustard seed. Why? Because it is not about the size of your faith; it's about the size of your God.
Pastor Tim Keller talks about this. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, Pharaoh pursued them, and God parted the Red Sea. The Israelites went through the sea on dry ground with a wall of water on their right and a wall of water on their left. Keller says some of them probably loved it. Some of them probably said: In your face, Pharaoh. Eat your heart out. We are cruising now!
Some of them were probably more timid. Some of them probably said: We're going to die. I'm going to die!
Not all of them expressed the same quality of faith, but they were all equally saved. It is not the quality of your faith that saves you; it's the object of your faith that saves you. That's the good news of the gospel. That's why Paul inserts this description of God in Romans 4:17: "He [Abraham] is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed." What God is that? "The God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that are not."
I love this quote from James Dunn: "The character of Abraham's faith is determined by the character of the God in whom he believed." His hope is not in how strong his faith is; his hope is in God. What God? The God who calls into being things that are not. The God who created all things. The God who called the dead to life. Abraham's old body and Sarah's old womb are pointing to a Son, to Jesus, the object of our faith.
There has never been anyone like Jesus. His life, his love, his teaching, his sacrificial death on the Cross, and his resurrection all express his uniqueness. You can bet everything you have on Jesus. You will not be able to find a better object for your faith. It is worth betting everything, every moment, every gift, and every possession, on this man Jesus. If you are not placing everything at the feet of Jesus, then you are missing the greatest opportunity anyone has ever had.
So walk by faith. Don't worry about whether or not you have enough faith. Don't focus on the quality of your faith; focus on the object of your faith—Jesus. You can actually do that. If you've committed your life to Jesus, think about this phrase: Friend of God. Know that you have been accepted, forgiven, and loved by God. Let that knowledge influence the way you live. Don't live your life based on the quality of your faith. Live your life in the knowledge of who God is.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.