March 16, 2014

It Depends on Faith

Passage: Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
Service Type:

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.


It seems common place now, in the public sphere of Canadian life, to talk of religions as “faith-groups” or “faith-communities.”  What is assumed, then, about religions is that “faith” is something they all share in common.  Faith may look different in each group but it is nonetheless a feature common to them all.  In this regard, “faith” becomes a word that denotes, in some measure, the spiritual part of life.  I even hear this in Christian circles where the descriptor “peoples of faith” is used to mean people who identify with the various religions of the world.  In fact some pollsters who survey religious attitudes speak of those who subscribe to no religion as those having no faith or “nones”.  The word “faith,” used in this way, has become a category title for religious life as if faith were a human faculty like conscience or will or emotion that some choose to exercise in particular ways or not at all.  Is this what Paul means when he says “it depends on faith”?

Is faith, scripturally speaking, a human faculty we all possess?  We sometimes speak of faith this way; as a synonym for spirituality.  We all have faith in something, it is thought, the only difference is where you faith is placed.  As a Christian I place my faith in Christ, my neighbor places their faith in Budda or Mohammed or in the Bank of Canada.  But is this how the New Testament speaks of faith?  Is the important thing that people believe is something?  Is “faith” merely your personal capacity to muster up confidence to believe in something or someone outside yourself?  

I invite you to think with me about faith as it is used in the New Testament.  When Paul writes “it depends on faith” he does not use “faith” as a synonym for something he thought that Christians had in common with the other religions of his day.  When he cites Abraham as the father of faith he isn’t saying that there was something special about Abraham; as if Abraham was smart enough the place faith in God and bright people ever after him should do the same; as if Abraham triggered God to so something by his efforts of believing.  These popular uses of faith—as synonym for some human spiritual faculty—are not what Christians mean by faith; faith in the New Testament can never be reduced to merely human faculty.

1. Then what is faith?  Faith, Biblically speaking, is an encounter with God.  The Apostle Paul—in Romans 4—is making a point about the necessity of faith, when he recounts the story of Abraham; the story of Abraham begins this way—“Now the Lord God said to Abram.” (Genesis 12:1) (This is before God changed his name to Abraham) Specifically, faith is an encounter with God that God initiates; after all, he has pursued us since the day we were conceived.  This is to say that God is ever seeking us—“Listen, I stand at the door, knocking,” says our risen and ascended Lord. (Revelation 3:20)  Through the encounter God initiates with us he awakens us to him, turns us to face him, and wants only that we look upon him as longingly and lovingly as he has long looked upon us.

Faith is entrusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him.  This is how it begins.  Regardless of how much we think we know of ourselves, we know very little.  We may respond by saying that we know ourselves quite well.  John Wesley we fond of asking the crowds who gathered to hear him preach, “Do you know yourself to be a sinner?”  He didn’t mean by that question, can you make a list of things you have done wrong in life—as if the question were about being more or less morally upstanding?  The question he asked is—have we accepted God’s judgement of us that we are sinners and that our condition is a dire one.  Do we know that we have a heart problem—out of the intentions of the heart evil comes, said Jesus.  Are we cognisant that we have each gone our own way; turned away from God ourselves?  We may know lots of things about ourselves—we describe problems socially, psychologically, physically, emotionally—but  only the gospel tell us we are sinners.

Sin isn’t to be confused with vice or crime.  Vice is an offense against a moral code.  Crime is an offence against society.  Sin is an offense against God because we are creatures of God, who are answerable to God. The Anglican prayer book urges us to admit each Sunday that we are “miserable offenders.”  We aren’t miserable in that we feel bad about ourselves.  Most of us feel quite good.  It is our condition before God that is described as “miserable.”  Just imagine, says C.S. Lewis, just imagine a trainload of vacationers on their way to a beach resort.  They are having w wonderful time on their train, as carefree as vacationers should be.  Someone perched high on a hillside suddenly sees another train approaching the first head-on.  The vacationers inside the train are not feeling miserable.  Yet the person with the objective perspective outside the train recognizes that their situation is miserable indeed.  

Faith is entrusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him.  And if we are taking our first steps in faith, then of course we know very little of God.  Still, we begin by exposing as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him—which is to say, faith begins as simple encounter with God.  It is an elemental meeting with God; dialogue with God.  To say it all differently: in Jesus Christ, and specifically in the arms of the crucified, God embraces us.  In the strength and desire that his embrace lends us, we now want to embrace him in return.  Faith, then, is an encounter with God as he awakens us to his initiative and awakens our response.

When we say that faith is encounter or dialogue with God it isn’t dialogue, of course, in the sense of presumptuous chattiness.  The Bible everywhere presumes that God addresses humans; in the Genesis creation story the distinguishing feature that makes the human different from all the rest of God’s creatures is that God speaks to the human. You and I are being addresses by God.

By “dialogue” we mustn’t understand “after dinner conversation.”  It isn’t an armchair matter.  Engagement with God can be riddled with turbulence.  Our engagement with God can take the form of anger as well as elation, accusation as well as adoration.  Following his all-night encounter with God Jacob’s name is changed from “Jacob” (“deceiver”) to “Israel” (“he who contends with God”).  In all genuine faith there’s an element of wrestling with God.  When someone dear to us dies horribly; when disappointment falls on us like a collapsing wall; when betrayal savages us and shocks us, it’s appropriate that we react as Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Jeremiah react: “What are you up to?  Why did you let me down?  Where were you when I needed you most?”  Everywhere in scripture one of the surest signs of faith in God is his people’s anger at him.  For these people at least are serious about God.

We must never think that genuine faith in God means that someone is henceforth perfect, understands perfectly, behaves perfectly.  God’s people are his people just because they have encountered him and are serious about him.  Still, their engagement with him can and will contain elements of confusion, imperfection, moral deficiency and spiritual defectiveness.  Everywhere in scripture Abraham is foreparent of all believers, the prototype of faith.  Under terrible pressure Abraham lied twice, passing off his wife as his sister, aware that if men wanted to rape his wife they would kill him first; if they wanted to rape his sister they wouldn’t bother to kill him.  “She’s my sister,” Abraham shouted.  Cowardly? Yes.  Self-serving? Yes.  False? Yes. Deplorable?  Yes.  It all disqualifies him as person of faith and even model of faith?  No.  Perfection is never a condition for the reality and solidity of faith.

James and John selfishly seek places of honour in the kingdom—but they are still disciples.  Peter lies and betrays his Lord three times over.  Martha fiddles with trivia even as the master visits her home.  Martin Luther King jr., civil rights leader and martyr, behaves with women in a manner that no one can extenuate.  John Wesley, leader of the Eighteenth Century Awakening, lacks self-perception to the point of appearing ludicrous.  But none of this disqualifies people as disciples.  Our engagement with God is real, true, substantial, all-determining even as it remains riddled with assorted deficits, deficiencies and imperfections.

2. When Paul writes that “it” depends on faith what is the “it”, upon which faith depends.  It is the subject that he introduces in the first chapter of this letter to the Romans that he discusses from a number of angels of vision in the unfolding chapters.  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17)  The righteousness he speaks about is right relationship with God.  Another word Paul uses to speak of this is justification.  The sin problem has been overcome in Christ; relationship is restored through faith—through encounter with God.

When Paul says speaks of Gentile believers as those “who share the faith of Abraham” he does not mean that we have a set of beliefs identical with Abraham.  He means those who, like Abraham, share in encounter with God; we know ourselves addressed by Jesus Christ and awakened to this very encounter by him.  This is what Jesus is talking about with Nicodemus when he says that in order to see the kingdom of God “you must be born from above (again).”

3. Faith is more than encounter, however; it is also understanding.  Imagine that we have newly been exposed to Mozart’s music.  Gradually we are drawn into the world of Mozart’s music.  We know beyond doubt that this world is real.  It’s so very real, in fact, that it brings before us riches and wonders and human possibilities that we had never before had reason to imagine.  Now at this point we understand next to nothing of music theory or music history or music technique.  Still, once we’ve been exposed to Mozart’s music and it has captivated us we surely want to learn something of Mozart’s music, its structure and its glory.  We surely want to learn something of his relation to other composers, his place in the musical tradition, his musical “signatures” by which we can identify characteristics that tell us, “This is Mozart.”  As our understanding grows we find that our new perception in turn magnifies our delight in his music.

Understanding does as much for us in our encounter with God. Once he’s got our attention, however he managed to do that; once he’s turned us to face him, moved us to embrace him in light of his embracing us; once we are captivated by that sphere which he is himself, we are constrained to gain understanding.  We do gain it.  Gaining it doesn’t mean merely that our minds are richer than before (even though this is not to be slighted); it doesn’t mean that we now have more words in our vocabulary; it means, rather, that our richer understanding in turn admits us to richer depths in God himself.

It is a mistake to speak of faith as a sort of blind believing, a blind following. We have often heard of Soren Kierkegaard’s depiction of faith as “a leap of faith,” and have misunderstood what he meant.  He never meant that we shut off thinking activity.  He meant that we find that knowing God is greater that the intellect can fully conceive; that faith is never merely a function of the rational; as if faith says, understand these things and you are home and cooled out.  At the same time it is never the suspension of thinking.

Wilfully suspending one’s intellect in the interests of a blind believing and blind following is never God-honouring.  God requires us to love him with our mind.  We sometimes worry that when our children go off to university and study it destroys faith.  Does studying philosophy, for example, foster unbelief? If faith can’t survive rigorous intellectual examination then faith is no more than superstition. Faith is going to be strengthened; faith will come to possess greater certainty; faith will avoid being blown away by devastation or fished in by hucksters only as the understanding aspect of faith is enlarged and deepened and enriched.

At the same time we should be aware that greater understanding of God issues in greater understanding of life under God.  It yields an understanding of history; not of the details of history, but of history as the theatre (or at least one theatre) of God’s activity.  It yields an understanding of the human; not the sort that a medical education provides, but awareness that human existence is inextricably related to God and can be apprehended only as God himself is apprehended.  Faith includes understanding, an understanding that newly understands the truth of God and the truth of God’s creation.

4. Faith is something more: a venture, a life-venture.  Life is more than understanding.  Life is a venture that has to be lived.  Faith is life ventured under God.

Sometimes that last thing we want is to venture anything.  Past wounds hurt and we fear being so badly wounded in the future, that venture is the last thing we want.  We prefer a quiet corner of life that feels safe and secure hoping to freeze it; preserve it; hang on to it; protect it.  Understandable as this is, however, to do this is simply to put in time.  We note that Abraham, in encounter with God, was called to make a journey to a place he did not know.  The book of Hebrews says, “We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed; we are of those who have faith….”

This story comes from the pen of my friend Dr. Victor Shepherd.  “When I was seven years old my family rented a summer cottage for one week.  I longed to row the rowboat.  But I was also afraid of the lake.  I tied the boat to shore with a ten-foot rope and began to row.  After two strokes of the oars the boat jerked awkwardly, drifted back to the dock, and I rowed again.  I had done this several times when my father said, “If you want to row the boat and go somewhere, untie it.”  Then he saw my divided mind: I wanted with all my heart to venture forth on the lake but I was afraid to. What could he do to quell my fear and free me to row the boat into deeper water?  He climbed into the boat with me.  I untied it and we set off together.”

In the person of his Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, God has embarked on the life-venture with us.  The Easter narrative of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus reminds us that the same risen Lord who kept company with the two men then keeps company with all his disciples now.  Because he does, our fear is checked, checked enough to let us get started on the venture and to keep us in it.

For this reason it depends on faith ….