Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Requirement of Faith: Arbitrary or Essential?

Why has God decided to save by faith instead of by good deeds? It seems both misguided and arbitrary to many. They argue that if God is really concerned about justice and love, He would make these the requirements of salvation. After all, shouldn’t He reward good behavior rather than believing a set of doctrines! One skeptic expressed it this way: 
  • I can’t believe in a god who requires mental gymnastics in order to believe the unbelievable. And then, when we can’t perform, he throws us into eternal hell. I’ll take my chances without your god. 
However, if God did grant salvation by virtue of good deeds, it would convey the wrong message. It would communicate that some can be good or do what is good to earn salvation.

This notion, of course, is highly erroneous. No one has ever been good enough that God owes him anything. (Rom. 11:35; 3:19-20) Also, this notion would also produce bad fruit – pride and arrogance – the very thing that God wants to guard against:

  • For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephes. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:23-28; 1 Cor. 1:26-30)

Boasting, the fruit of pride, divides and causes conflict, jealousy and resentment. It is the product of hardening our heart so that we don’t see the ugly things about ourselves; all we see is the ugliness of others. 

While humility represents a willingness to truly confront our failings, arrogance represents either a denial or a justification of that ugliness. Instead, it entitles, and entitlement provides the justification to harden our hearts against the promptings of our conscience, thereby enabling evil. After all, I’m a superior person!

Instead, faith and salvation are the gift of grace and are to be received as a free gift, understanding that we do nothing meritorious to earn them:

  • Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:27-28)

Understanding this humbles us and brings gratefulness. These truths allow us to let down our fa├žade and face the truth about ourselves. If salvation doesn’t depend on our virtue, then we need not pretend to be virtuous.

Spirituality and growth must proceed from faith - from the inside out. A changed heart must precede a changed life. Jesus expressed this concept in numerous ways:
  • "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean.' " (Matthew 15:17-20)
We are made “unclean” or spiritually contaminated by what proceeds forth from our attitudes and motives and not by what impacts us from the outside. In fact, Jesus found fault with the idea that we could cleanse ourselves by acts or rituals:
  • "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” (Matthew 23:25-26)  
Theoretically, if we could cleanse our hearts and thought life, the rest of us would also be cleansed. However, we can’t and won’t do this! As the Bible says, “…a leopard can’t change its spots.” Therefore, we must be born again (John 3:3). We need a new heart (Ezek. 36:25-27), and this will change our thinking (faith).

Faith is more than believing some new doctrines; it requires a new heart!  We will not believe differently until we are transformed from the inside out. In other words, faith isn’t simply a matter of learning a new set of doctrines. It reflects radical changes in the very center of our being. Paul explains why:
  • [Unbelievers] are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.  (Ephes. 4:18)
The house cannot be stable until the foundation is stabilized. A bad heart will produce bad thoughts. It is the “hardening of their hearts” that produces “ignorance” and even contempt for God.  Until our heart is converted, we will hate God and His doctrinal truths (Rom. 8:6-7; 5:8-10; 3:10-18):
  • “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:19-20)
We have hardened our hearts against the light. The light of God exposes the painful truth about ourselves. Therefore, we prefer the darkness of self-delusion and the struggle to maintain it to the truth.
In contrast, the gift of faith is not a matter of strenuous mental acrobatics but the willingness to receive the light and to come under its scrutiny.  When we understand faith this way, we see that faith is not a matter of believing the unbelievable but a willingness to step into the light to receive what had always been patently obvious.

However, the light is painful. It often carries a personal rebuke. The Book of Proverbs informs us that we are surrounded by the truth. Wisdom is always looking for takers:
  • Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares. (Proverbs 1:20)
However, we shut our eyes to the light of wisdom, because it hurts our pride:
  • Since they hated knowledge…since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. (Proverbs 1:29-31)
Therefore, faith isn’t arbitrary. It isn’t something that God dreamed up because He wanted to try out a new idea. Faith is truth and light. Faith is something that we’ve rejected, and we have hardened our hearts against it. (Rom. 1:18-20; 2:14-15)

You don’t have to be a Christian to see glimpses of this. There is a wealth of evidence that humanity willfully resides in denial and self-delusion. If we are being honest, we are also aware of our own mental gymnastics to justify and prove ourselves. We are aware, to some extent, of our elaborate efforts to manage our image and to avoid the light.

Instead, faith fixes itself on the light and follows it like a flower following the sun across the sky. 

Faith and repentance from sin are inseparable. The same born-again heart that turns to the light in faith simultaneously turns away from the darkness in repentance. They go together as opposite sides of the same coin.  

Paul explained to King Agrippa the ministry to which God had called him by reciting the very words of God: 
  • “’I [God] am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place [salvation] among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'” (Acts 26:17-18)
Turning from the darkness of sin to the light of faith are inseparable concepts. Together, they lead to salvation, the “forgiveness of sin.” Consequently, it is impossible to have the light of faith and to continue to walk in the darkness of non-repentance:
  • If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. (1 John 1:6)
Living faith doesn’t exist in isolation from repentance, the rejection of sin. Therefore, in choosing faith, God also chose the most fertile soil for the growth of morality and love. If we trust in our Savior, we will do what He tells us to do. If He tells us to love, we will try to love. And when we fail, we confess our sins to find cleansing and the reopening of divine channels to the life-giving light.  

Therefore, the charge that God’s requirement of faith is arbitrary and non-moral fails to understand the nature of faith. Faith is a living seed that grows and produces fruit. 

Faith sires many children. One of them is love. What we believe and know is so critical to the rest of our lives. If I believe that my wife is a real catch, I will treasure her. If I believe that the plumber wants to kill me, this will affect how I feel about him. Closer to home, if I believe that God loves me and is always providing for me, I will want to pass it on. If instead I believe that God might condemn me, I will resent Him and feel jealous of those who are in good stead with Him. 

What we believe is the soil from which everything else grows – our attitudes, desires, motivations, and even behaviors. If I am convinced that nothing will ever disrupt this love-relationship that I now enjoy with my Savior, I can begin to look beyond my own crying needs to the needs of others. If I know that God accepts me, I can begin to accept myself and even others. 

It is possible for the seed of faith to lie dormant until the rains come, but it will germinate and produce fruit. The Book of Hebrews gives us many portraits of the impact of faith:  
  • Through faith [they] conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. (Hebrews 11:33-34)
 Faith and morality are so closely related that James can say: 
  • Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead…I will show you my faith by what I do. (James 2:17-18)
A real faith is not morally barren. A faith that doesn’t attempt to follow Jesus isn’t a real faith. Instead, faith and action are so closely associated that James can say “I will show you my faith by what I do.” If we believe, we will act!

An intimate and saving relationship with God depends on faith – a sharing of the common reality. This principle also applies to interpersonal relationships. It’s hard to have meaningful relationships unless there are broad areas of agreement: 
  • Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (2 Cor. 6:14-15)  
Intimate and bonded relationships require broad areas of agreement. We want friends who will laugh at our jokes, empathize with our pains, and understand our deepest thoughts and concerns. When our most intimate self-disclosures are met with blank stares, dismissals or contempt, we will experience alienation, at best.  
Turning the tables, if our friend believes he is Jesus, there can be little meeting of minds. The parties occupy different non-negotiable realities, and these realities will separate people, unless they adopt common delusions. If one thinks that he is Jesus and the other thinks that he is the Apostle John, and they are in agreement about their identities, they can enjoy a relationship, at least until their delusions change. 

If faith is the light of truth, then only in this light can we and God stand together. 

The doctrines of faith are essential for our mental well-being and growth. These doctrines aren’t inert facts but truths that penetrate into our being. For instance, one doctrine assures us of forgiveness:

  • If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
Without this assurance of forgiveness, we would become vulnerable to lingering guilt and even resentment towards God. In short, the doctrines of faith protect our minds and bring growth:
  • In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. (Ephes. 6:16; Col. 1:23; 1 Thess. 5:8; 1 John 5:4)  
Although many regard the Christian faith as “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18), it represents the wisdom of God: 
  • For the “foolishness” of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. (1 Cor. 1:25)

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