As I mentioned last week, today—the last Sunday in October—is Reformation Sunday, a day celebrated by many Protestants in honor of Martin Luther’s bold action in posting 95 Theses against the church of the day on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31st of 1517. In so doing, he planted the seeds of the Protestant Reformation. Again, Luther’s intent was to reform the church, not divide it. He wanted to fix what was wrong, especially the selling of papal indulgences whose proceeds were used, despite widespread poverty, to pay for St. Peter’s Cathedral. Further Luther had come to understand that our salvation is by faith alone, not works. So having considered the first “Sola” of the Reformation last Sunday, Sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone, this morning we’re going to turn to the second “Sola”—Sola Fide, or faith alone.
Perhaps a good place to begin is by trying to understand the meaning of faith. Is faith something subjective—like a wish over which whose outcome we have no control—or is there more to faith? According to the dictionary, faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something” and, more specifically, “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.”
If we accept the first definition of faith being “complete trust or confidence in someone or something” then I would argue that even in this basic sense faith isn’t purely subjective, that is, it isn’t based upon “personal feelings, tastes, or opinions” like preferring chocolate over vanilla ice cream or the Spring over the Fall. For if faith is a complete trust or confidence in someone or something, then there is usually a cause or reason for that confidence. Take a moment to think of someone you consider trustworthy. Do you have someone in mind? Now think of why you consider them to be so. It’s probably because when they say they’re going to do something, they can be counted on to do it—to follow through. Well so, too, our faith in God, as he has disclosed himself to us in the world, in Christ, by his Holy Spirit, and in Scripture has a cause. There is a reason why Christians can have faith in him. This is the heart of Christian witness and testimony—telling others the many ways we have seen God work in our lives and in that of others. Our faith in him isn’t simply due to personal whim or fancy.
The second definition provided for faith, however, proves more challenging. If faith is “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof,” then there’s an implicit challenge to people of faith, isn’t there? At least for those of us living this side of the Enlightenment there is. Prior to the Enlightenment—or the cultural shift that took place around the 1700s in the western world that turned to human reason as the final court of appeal for truth—people didn’t separate the spiritual from the rational. Before this time, belief in the spiritual, whether the God of Scripture or other gods, would have been the norm. But by limiting discussion on truth to that which could be proved by reason, the Enlightenment came to remove the spiritual dimension for, by definition, who is able to prove—or disprove—for example, God’s existence or the existence of a soul for that matter? Some tried, of course—Immanuel Kant argued for the reasonableness of belief in God; Rene Descartes argued for the reasonableness of belief in the thinking soul—but if by definition faith is understood as being a matter of spiritual apprehension rather than scientific proof then faith—and all its objects—is doomed for how can we ever prove the existence of things not seen?
By assuming that what all humans have in common is the possession of reason rather than a soul or spirit, the Enlightenment changed the nature of discourse about truth. What resulted was a shift from accepting the continuity between the natural and supernatural worlds to accepting a discontinuity between the two and, eventually, disgarding of the supernatural not because people no longer believed in God but because belief in God can neither be proved or disproved. And we who are living a few hundred years after the Enlightenment are now heirs to this way of thinking for we, too, have come to accept its premise: namely, that we should only believe things that are provable—whose truth or existence can be demonstrated by evidence or argument. But again, how do we “prove” the existence of God? What undeniable and unequivocal evidence or argument can we put forth to make the case for God?
Now, Scripturally speaking, the opposite of faith is unbelief, not reason. Further, Scripture never attempts to prove God’s existence. God’s existence is presented as a given and is assumed to be reasonable. The very first verse in the Old Testament begins with a statement that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Moses, the inspired author of the first five books of the Old Testament, doesn’t begin by trying to convince the hearer of God’s existence. He simply presents God’s existence as a given and indicates that this God who has ever existed, at some point chose to create. In fact, in verse 3 of our passage this morning, the author of Hebrews presents this first act of God in the Bible as the first component of our faith noting that “3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” The God who made us and all the world we see has left his imprint upon this world such that, as the existence of a sculpture points to the existence of the sculptor who made it, or a painting to the artist who created it, so, too, all of creation, which we see, points to God, its maker, whom we do not see. So the fact that God is Spirit doesn’t mean we are unable to know him for this unseen God is the author of all we do see. In fact throughout Scripture we are reminded of the many ways that God’s creation point to its creator. Psalm 19:1 tells us that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” If we fast-forward to the New Testament, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt—which we celebrate each Palm Sunday and is recorded for us in Luke 19—we’re told that when “the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:” and said 38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” then “39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’” But rather than rebuke his disciples, Jesus replies in verse 40, “I tell you…if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Unlike God’s human creation, his creation in the world of nature always recognizes and proclaims its maker.
Yet the God who made us has made us in such a way that we, too, inherently ought to recognize and proclaim our maker. We, too, ought to see the continuity between the natural and the supernatural, but our scientific mentality leads us to view life in an unnatural manner, putting asunder what God has brought together. Today, belief in the supernatural is viewed by many as human wish-fulfillment. Yet Scripturally the relationship between the natural world we see and the supernatural we do not see is meant to be seamless. In Romans 1:20, the Apostle Paul states “20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” The fact that God made all women and men in his image—in the image of God—means, as Anthony Hoekema has observed (Created in the Image of God), that you and I are inescapably related to God. Therefore to deny belief in him is something that is unnatural, not natural. To deny belief in God is to deny belief in the source of our very being. Do you see how very counter-cultural the Christian faith can be??
In this great faith chapter of Hebrews 11, the author begins with a God-inspired definition that differs a bit from the dictionary definition I’ve presented. Verse 1 states, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” adding, in verse 2, “This is what the ancients—or followers of God in the Old Testament—were commended for.” Confidence and assurance are rock-solid words, aren’t they? There’s nothing subjective about them for the source of their strength lies not in us, but in their object. What the ancients are commended for is not their ability to rally their belief based on how they would like things to be. No, they are commended for believing God and his promises. And these promises have now been preserved for us in the 66 books of both the Old and New Testaments.
If we were to take each of the examples of faith provided in Hebrews—and don’t worry, I do realize we don’t have time to look at all of them although I think it’s valuable to have read all of them—but if we were to consider each of these examples in their Old Testament context, we would find that what they have in common with one other is that all of those mentioned took God at his word. When God made a promise to them, they believed him and for this they were commended for this is what biblical faith is—believing God. Having a confidence that what he has promised is real; having the assurance even of the truth of that which we do not now see.
Faith is important because, as verse 6 tells us, “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” For the past six weeks or so, in the Adult Ed class we’ve been considering the nature of prayer—what it is, why it can be so hard for us to practice, what barriers we come across as believers that affect our desire and ability to pray, what prayer does. In my heart of hearts, I believe that one of the key things that prayer can do for us is to increase our faith. Prayer can increase our belief in God because prayer is an acknowledgment that we need him and are dependent upon him even for the very next breath we take. As I’ve shared before, one of Ron’s insight into prayer is that it enables us to see how God is working, much like those of who wear glasses are enabled to see what is before us by means of those glasses. Through the glasses of prayer, we are able to please God because in the very act of prayer—in talking with God, asking his wisdom, seeking his help, expressing our gratitude to him—we are acknowledging our creaturely status as those who have been made in his image and are therefore embracing the truth that we are inescapably related to him.
And the “reward” spoken of in verse 6 isn’t that if we pray we will get what we pray for. No, since prayer is an expression of our faith in God and demonstrates that we do believe him, our reward is God himself. Time and again, we are admonished in Scripture to seek God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33); that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also (Matthew 6:21; Luke 12:34); that is impossible to serve two masters (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13). God wants all of us, not part of us. But the good news is that if we seek him, he will show himself to us—he will help us to see him. What better reward could we ever ask for in this divine game of hide-and-go-seek?
So the first thing we learn of these exemplars of faith is that they believed God. They took him at his word and acted on what they knew to be true. They embraced their creaturely status and the God for whom they were made. They sought God, found him, and lived their lives in order to please him—and were rewarded for their endeavor.
But another thing we learn in verse 13 is that even when they died, “all these people were still living by faith.” In other words, we’re told, “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” Now this is sobering, isn’t it? It also highlights what we just said. That the “reward” we receive for believing in God isn’t primarily about getting what we want but it is about getting God. And what he promises may not be granted until after we die. We’ve a fine line to walk, don’t we? On the one hand, we’re not to love our earthly lives so strongly that we shun the existence of a future life; on the other hand, as the saying goes, we’re not to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. I think the balance is found viewing our earthly lives as one of sojourning. Ultimately, we who know, love, serve, and follow God are all foreigners and strangers on earth for our true home is heaven. We, as those mentioned in this faith chapter, are to long “for a better country,” verse 16, “a heavenly one.” And if we do so, then, God will not be “ashamed to be called [our] God, for he has prepared a city for [us].”
So faith has both an earthly orientation and a heavenly one. For as many years as God may grant us on earth, we are to live our lives by reading, studying, meditating upon, and living and acting on the truths he has disclosed to us in Scripture for Scripture is the primary means that God, by his Holy Spirit, uses to address us—and remind us—and encourage us— and convict us—of the truth of who he is and of how much he loves us. But this world isn’t the final word. Beautiful though this world may be, it is also filled with devastating hurricanes and random shootings and intentional shootings and diseases that are able to weaken and kill both body and soul. But because of God in Christ—because the second member of the Godhead took on human form in the person of Jesus, and lived, and suffered, and died, and rose again for us and our salvation—even death has been conquered and we can enjoy him not only now but forever for he gives us his life. In Christ God gives us himself by his Holy Spirit. He gives us his very nature as a loving and living God who rewards those who seek him with finding him. And there is no greater reward than this.
Near the end of our passage in verse 38, we’re told about these exemplars of faith that “the world was not worthy of them” and that, verses 39 and 40, “These were all commended for their faith, yet—again—none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” You know, we’ve been considering a lot about what it means to be a follower of Christ, specifically that it means that because of his dying and rising for us, we are now all able to have the privilege of calling God our Father for we are now his children and, as his children, we are now all brothers and sisters—family—of one another. But these closing verses remind us of something even more profound—we are all brothers and sisters of all who have ever and will ever know the one true God in Christ. The faith of these faithful ones of Hebrews 11 was not only for our sake but also was somehow mysteriously completed or made perfect through us. Believers in Christ are incomplete apart from all of their brothers and sisters—past, present, and future—with whom we will one day live before God, together, for all eternity. Whatever heaven may be like, we can be certain that in it we will find fulfilled the summary of the law and prophets, in a way that we can now only know partially, what it means to love our Lord and Maker with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength and our neighbor—our family—as ourselves.
Brothers and sisters, do you see the beauty and the wonder of living by “faith alone”? Of knowing that the only thing it takes to please God is that we seek him and, if we do, of knowing that he will reward us, revealing himself to us, in helping us find him?
This week let us ponder the truth that no matter how wonderful or painful or bittersweet our earthly lives may be, earth is not our final home, but a better one awaits us—one in which we will no longer walk by faith but by sight, for we will finally see Christ, our heart’s desire, not in a mirror dimly as we do now, but face to face; not in part, as we do now, but fully, even as we are fully known by him (I Corinthians 13).
Let us consider as well that wonderful though our Linebrook family gathered here this morning may be, one day we will join with countless brothers and sisters of faith throughout all ages, of whom this world is not worthy and with whom we will one day be rejoined. And only then will the faith of each of us be made complete.
We are provided with an exquisite application of this “faith chapter” in Hebrews 11 in the opening verses of the next chapter, Hebrews 12, and I want to close by reading this magnificent exhortation: “1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Let us pray.