The gift of faith

by Malcolm Ferries

It seems a very short time since I started an address, at this conference, by commenting on the fact that I had recently reached the big four-O. I whimsically gloried in the notion that, though my youth was well and truly behind me, I was still young, given the average age of the attendees at that conference.

Ten years of water has flowed under the bridge since then. I turned fifty in January. As I am a believer, of course, God has blessed me with the understanding that this life is brief and ephemeral. I don't need to clutch at soothing aphorisms like: "age is just a state of mind", to camouflage the truth that, actually, your age is your age.

There is, however, no denying that the passing of the years is, for many, a cause of profound pessimism, and even fear.

If one felt this kind of distress, perhaps there would be a temptation to seek solace with a group of people who call themselves "People Unlimited Inc." They promote the idea that death need never happen! To quote them, they do this by supporting progressive individuals in achieving infinite health, wealth and well being, through the pursuit and practice of death-free living." They tell us:

"we're not a commune, we're not a start-up religion. We're a community of people self-selected by our commitment to deathless living, that have come together to support one another to live without limitations. It's time to end death, and it takes a community of like-minded individuals to do it."

Now, it's obvious that I could use this nonsense to open up a study of death itself. People Unlimited probably do think that, in one sense of the term, death is "our last enemy": that if we get our act together, we will never succumb to it. As believers, of course, we know that death is, indeed, our last enemy, but that God vanquished it for us, through the resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

In fact, however, People Unlimited are providing me with the starting-point for a study of God's precious gift of faith, to those He has chosen as believers.

If we look up the noun, 'faith', in a dictionary, we find many definitions. Only a few of them are relevant to our study. One easily understood definition is: "belief that is not based on proof". Now, clearly, if you think you can live a life which is literally deathless, you do have a very strong faith of a kind. You are flying in the face of the wisdom of God, and of man: if Scripture means nothing to you, then you also have to accept that most other religions, philosophies and scientific understandings are also against you.

Let's now get some perspective on faith, as far as believers are concerned. We'll turn to some words from the writings of A E Knoch. He wrote a marvellous article entitled: "The Vanity Of Reasoning". Its opening words are these:

"Due to the discordant renderings of the English Authorised Version, my heart was not impressed with the futility and vanity of human reasoning, although the evidence has been before me for at least thirty years. I greatly admired the close, consistent ratiocination of the Scripture and could not help comparing this with the reasonings of men, especially the saints. Their manner of making deductions from the Word of God awoke me to the fact that it was all futile. Not till then did I investigate the subject itself in the Scriptures, and I was astonished and delighted to find that my experience was in perfect accord with the written record. Since then I have been on the alert to see if reasoning is ever necessary or profitable in the study of the Word, and to find a remedy to counteract its plague.

"The remedy is exceedingly simple: it is faith. If we believe all of God's Word, we will not need to reason. The Scriptures do not consist of a collection of premises, which we must combine in order to get the truth. When reasoning is necessary, it is done for us. I well remember, in my early youth, reading a statement to the effect that man's highest mental effort is to extract from the Bible a system of theology, to take the scattered fragments of truth which it contains, and build them together into the edifice misnamed the science of God. Man is so irrational that the grotesqueness of these systems, their irreconcilable differences, and the un-Godlike spirit they engender have not discouraged them in his pathetic efforts. Reasoning from the Bible has done unutterably more to discredit God's revelation than all the infidels. This conclusion is one of the most satisfactory helps in deciding between two antagonistic teachings.

"In examining any doctrine I wish to know first of all, is it faith, or is it inference? Is this this? Or is this that? Do the Scriptures directly teach this or is it supposed to follow from their teaching? Then if it is reasoning, the next question is, do the Scriptures teach this directly, or do they deny it? So far there have been very few deductions that have not also been direct denials of plain statements in other parts of the Scriptures."

Now, if we really believe that the Bible is the Word of God, it follows that we accept it as the only source of absolute truth. As Knoch's article illustrates, however, there are many supposedly faithful saints who tarnish and complicate their faith because they allow it to be influenced by the world. Paul foretold this in his second letter to Timothy. At verse 3 of chapter 4, he declares:

"For the era will be when they will not tolerate sound teaching, but, their hearing being tickled, they will heap up for themselves teachers in accord with their own desires, and, indeed, they will be turning their hearing away from the truth, yet will be turned aside to myths."

There is an abundance of examples of this phenomenon in today's church. Denominations set up committees to write discussion papers on how to approach supposedly thorny issues, because they cannot accept God's authority. Some months ago, I heard a sermon preached to one of the UK's largest church congregations. It was immediately followed by an announcement encouraging members to participate in a training course on prayer. Great play was made of the fact that the course had been given accreditation by an official examining body. It is hard to understand why a church would want to mount a training course on prayer; to turn something as profoundly spiritual as prayer into an academic qualification is absurd and completely unbiblical. The tools of the world should be laid aside when we study God's Word, and when we pray.

A worldly approach to faith corrodes it. The other side of the same coin is the search of Scripture for information it does not contain. If something isn't in God's Word, we do not need it; He doesn't intend that we should. A glaring example of this kind of false scholarship is the debate between 'Young Earth' and 'Old Earth' creationists.

'Young Earthers' accept that the Orthodox understanding of Genesis is true: that the earth is only a few thousand years old. 'Old Earthers' accept a lot of what modern science says about the origins of the universe in general, and the earth in particular. Not surprisingly, they also, generally, prefer Darwin to Genesis. On their account, man's origins date back anything up to a few million years, and the universe has been in existence for several billion years. In formulating their position, 'Old Earthers' try to knit biblical texts into various branches of science. They may argue that God's Word underlies what they do. Their conclusions, though, make it hard to see what they really hold pre-eminent: science, or Scripture.

Earthers of both persuasions spend a lot of time and effort attempting to prove their positions: they run ministries based on their theologies; they publish closely argued books and papers, and take each other on in public debate. The fact is, however, that this is an instance of what Paul also warns Timothy against in his second letter: both sides are involved in "Controversy for nothing useful" (2 Timothy 2:14). At best, the argument is a large theological red herring.

The Scriptures do not offer us any date for the creation of the universe, or the earth. Neither do they tell us that God has given us the information from which we can, or should, work it out for ourselves. If we become preoccupied with this kind of controversy, we distract ourselves from the Word; we are wasting time which could be spent studying it;we are, in fact, playing the world's game.

We can go further, here, and deal with another vexed question: are Scripture and science compatible? The answer is not "Yes", or No". The answer is that the question is another red herring; it doesn't matter whether science mirrors the Scriptures. If we believe the Scriptures, we believe that Methuselah lived for nearly a millennium, because God's Word tells us that it was so. If a scientist were ever to produce evidence of the fact, it would not add to our understanding, or confirm our knowledge, because we already accept the truth of Scripture through faith, if we switched to science for our acceptance, then our opinion would be subject to change as soon as another scientist - or even the same one! - produced seemingly more credible counter-evidence.

Science has improved our lives in numerous ways, and harmed it in others. The point is that it is capricious and fallible, because it is man's wisdom. We should place no faith in it. With God-given faith, we should not want to do so. As I mentioned earlier, if we go to the dictionary, we find that the noun 'faith' has a wide embrace, from the trivial to the transcendent. At the trivial end of the scale is the disappointment of the soccer fan who sees his team thrashed in an early-season game: faith, of a kind, is needed to believe that the rest of the season will produce anything better!

But, of course, faith in God is the most transcendent form of the noun. It has no relation to any other use of the term: one reason for this is that it is conferred through divine revelation. Without such a revelation, it is beyond the comprehension of anyone, whatever their wisdom or education, and no dictionary can explain it.

At this point, let's establish that faith is, indeed, a gift from God. Our Lord makes it clear, in his Word, that He foreknew those of us to whom He would reveal Himself, and call to faith in Him. Indeed, He chose us as saints before the Disruption of which Genesis speaks.

Paul's letter to the Ephesians encapsulates the entire revelation he was divinely inspired to give us. He sets out this particular truth at verse 3 of the first chapter:

"Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who blesses us with every spiritual blessing among the celestials, in Christ, according as He chooses us in Him before the disruption of the world, we to be holy and flawless in His sight, in love designating us beforehand for the place of a son for Him through Christ Jesus; in accord with the delight of His will, for the laud of the glory of His grace, which graces us in the beloved: in Whom we are having the deliverance through His blood, the forgiveness of offences in accord with the riches of His grace, which He lavishes on us; in all wisdom and prudence making known to us the secret of His will (in accord with His delight, which He purposed in Him) to have an administration of the complement of the eras, to head up all in the Christ - both that in the heavens and that on the earth - in Him in Whom our lot was cast also, being designated beforehand according to the purpose of the One who is operating all in accord with the counsel of His will, That we should be for the laud of His glory, who are pre-expectant in the Christ."

A few weeks ago, I heard about something called: 'The Atheist Prayer Experiment'. The idea took root when a Christian philosopher wrote a paper suggesting - apparently in all seriousness! - that atheists should pray to God that He would reveal Himself to them. One of the UK's leading Christian radio stations got into the idea, and the experiment was born: interested atheists were asked to commit themselves, for forty days, to praying for a divine revelation. The results would then be pored over, leading to probably voluminous, but certainly pointless discussion.

Unsurprisingly, this idea has been vociferously derided from all quarters. The most pertinent question to be asked about it is, simply: why? It doesn't say much for philosophy, but, far more importantly, it doesn't testify to faith based on Scripture. Of course, God will use this situation in accordance with His will and purpose. The fact is, though, that God's Word gives us no reason to believe that His revelation works like this. God could have made faith available to all of us; indeed, He could have embedded it in each of us, so that we had a realisation of Him from the moment of our birth. But Scripture tells us that it is a gift. We saw, in that passage from Ephesians, that God lavishes His grace upon us. It is through that grace that God gives faith to those of us He has chosen as saints.

Back in the mid-nineteen-eighties, I read a book on the history of Christianity, by the author and broadcaster Bamber Gascoigne. He is perhaps best-known as the original host of University Challenge, and he is, to say the least, an intellectual.

God withheld His revelation from me for several more years, but I was, nevertheless, intensely interested in theological and philosophical questions as an agnostic.

In his conclusion to this book, Gascoigne said that, in preparing to write it, he had read the Bible from beginning to end. Furthermore, though not a believer, he had maintained an openness to the possibility of divine revelation. Nothing happened.

Now, Gascoigne and the originator of the Atheist Prayer Experiment clearly have fundamentally different perspectives. They are, however, making the same mistake: they have not grasped what the Bible tells us about faith. Both men are doing what A E Knoch warned against in the passage I quoted from his article: they are relying on human reason. Gascoigne, though, was probably being as open-minded as it is possible to be as an unbeliever.

We should note, here, that this matter is a vivid instance of the necessity of accurate translation of God's Word: let's turn to a passage from Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians. At the beginning of chapter 3, Paul writes:

"Furthermore, pray, brethren, concerning us, that the Word of the Lord may race and be glorified, according as it is with you also, and that we should be rescued from abnormal and wicked men, for not for all is the faith."

That is how the Concordant Version renders this passage. It will be no surprise that, if we go to the King James Version, we find a different rendering. The obstacle to understanding occurs with the second half of verse 2, where we read:

"For all men have not faith."

We can say something about this rendering which applies to much else in the Scriptures, and many other versions of them: while it does not exclude the possibility of correct understanding, it is an inaccurate translation. As such, what should be explicit may be, at best, implicit. From the Concordant rendering, we can clearly understand that divinely-inspired faith is not accessible to all of humanity. We know, however, because God inspired Paul to tell us, that while faith is not for all, all is of God (2 Corinthians 2:5-18). It follows that there will be those who know nothing of God, or His purpose, during this life. God planned it that way.

The KJV's translation means that this teaching is reduced from a statement of fact to a possible interpretation. It therefore leaves the way clear for all the terrible errors of interpretation and teaching which have entered into Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism;

  • it provides a foundation for the notions of hell and eternal damnation;
  • it allows for the idea that those who are not believers have chosen, entirely of their own free will, to reject the truth.

All this dishonours God, and denies His supreme sovereignty. As if all this were not serious enough, the consequence has been the denial of God's very purpose: the reconciliation of all through Christ.

The correct rendering of this passage, surely, contributes to "the peace of God, that is superior to every frame of mind." (Philippians 4:7): it is a proof of the sovereignty of God.

Let's now turn to a passage from chapter 14 of John's gospel. This time, we have an example of material being read into Scripture which clearly is not there. This chapter contains part of the narrative leading to the arrest of Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Passover meal is underway. At verse 6, Jesus says to Thomas:

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one is coming to the Father except through Me."

Paul has given us truths which were never part of John's Gospel and were never known to him. his declaration, however, is absolute. It is never qualified, let alone withdrawn, throughout the rest of Scripture. God's Word offers us the only set of truths of which we can be certain; this declaration is one of them.

One of the signs of our times which Paul foretold is the occurrence of many religious movements which claim that there are many paths to the truth. Some of them even claim that there are many versions of the truth, or that we can adhere to more than one faith simultaneously.

It should not surprise us that Christendom has been infected by these tendencies. Scripture gives us no grounds for these ideas, and Paul explicitly refutes them. However, orthodoxy is equally guilty of imputing things to Scripture which it doesn't actually say. In this instance, orthodoxy accepts the first of these two sentences, but it swaps the second one for an entirely different and utterly fallacious proposition: if you reject this truth during this life, you face eternity in hell during the next one. The actual Scripture does not even hint at such a notion, and the entire body of God's Word refutes it.

If this were not so, Paul's letters to Timothy would certainly look rather different: He would not instruct him to:

"Rely on the living God, who is the saviour of all mankind, especially of believers."
(1 Timothy 4:10).

Crucially, Paul would not be declaring the grand truth of universal reconciliation in 1 Corinthians 15:22:

"For even as, in Adam, all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified."

If we don't accept that Scripture from John 14 literally, we are claiming to have a say as to whether we accept God's revelation. Another possible conclusion is to say that ignorance of God's word and its blessings is no defence to unbelief.

One of the principal leaders of the Alpha Course ministry is a former barrister, and I did, indeed, hear him preach a sermon in which he made this equation. The legal maxim that 'Ignorance is no defence' is a worldly, practical device. If it were absent, some law-breakers would have ready-made excuses for what they do, and society could break down. None of this has anything to do with faith, which God apportions according to His will and purpose.

Let's now move to a consideration of what faith means in the 'here and now': how should we think of it, in a practical sense, as we lead our lives?

Unbelievers who nevertheless have some understanding of what the Bible really teaches about universal reconciliation, may feel that our lives in the flesh can have no meaning. It is certainly true to say that we should have a detached perspective on the significance of our lives: they are vaporous things; fleeting shadows by comparison with what is to come. The Old Testament contains plentiful testimony and reflection on the brevity of human life, and the transience of our fleshly endeavours.

All this, though, is set against an awareness of God's sovereignty and the security which that should give us: our lives are given to each one of us, by God, for our unique role in His purpose. That much applies, whether or not we know it. As believers, though, we are indwelt, from the moment of our revelation, by the Holy Spirit. We should always be conscious that God directs our every thought and action; indeed, he has ordained it.

Being aware of all this, we must nurture the minds and bodies which God has given us. They are fleshly, but they are of God. It follows that, in faith, we should constantly seek to lead our lives in accordance with His will, through prayer and study, being what He wants us to be, not what we would like to be ourselves.

The writer of Hebrews gives us copious teaching on what faith means. Let's look at chapter 11 of this letter. Here, we find exposition on what constitutes faith in principle. We also, though, find a kind of inventory of vivid examples, which testify to the meaning, power and depth of faith. The examples themselves, and the Old Testament texts from which they are drawn, may be far removed from the kinds of situation in which we are likely to find ourselves, but they show us that nothing pertaining to faith can be taken for granted.

Chapter 11 opens with these words:

"Now faith is an assumption of what is being expected, a conviction concerning matters which are not being observed; for in this the elders were testified to. By faith we are apprehending the eons to adjust to a declaration of God, so that what is being observed has not come out of what is appearing."

We have already seen, in our study, that faith should have no truck with the worldly concept of proof. This passage teaches us that while the ingredients of our faith cannot be verified by observation, we don't just accept them 'on trust'. We assume; we accept; we are convinced. I heard a prominent evangelist within the Christian student sphere say, without apparent irony, that he believed in God because Christianity provided 'the best explanation' for the way things are. Beyond his evangelistic work, this man is a noted academic micro-biologist. His words show that his science has leaked into his faith.

At this point, let's introduce the notion of doubt. There are many in Christendom, today, who make a virtue out of doubt. It is claimed that, in order to consolidate one's faith, and one's relationship with God, one needs to experience periods of doubt. This argument defies logic. It simply does not make sense to suggest that periods of doubt are essential to your faith. Indeed, there are many believers who have lived out an almost life-long, deep, unwavering faith, based on constant prayer and Bible study. It would never occur to such people to look elsewhere for answers to questions about the meaning of life. It is nonsensical, and rather insulting, to suggest that their faith would have been strengthened by a dose or two of doubt.

On a related point, the testimony of this kind of life-long, unquestioning walk with God is something which is sometimes underrated. Ministries often emphasise testimony from believers who have received their revelation late in life, or at a time of personal crisis. These situations do, indeed, testify to God's overwhelming grace and power. Surely, though, there is a valuable testimony in the life lived in a continued consciousness of God's presence, unaffected by the answers and approaches offered by the world.

But what do the Scriptures tell us about doubt? If you look at God's Word, you do not find a doubtful disposition being recommended to us. Doubt is a worldly, fleshly thing. The classic occurrence of doubt, in Scripture, is that involving the apostle Thomas. 'Doubting Thomas' has become one of the most ubiquitous Scripture-based phrases in the English language. We find the narrative of this event in chapter 20 of John's Gospel. Thomas was not present when Jesus, having been roused from the dead, appeared before the other apostles. Hearing of the encounter, Thomas says (at verse 25):

"Should I not perceive in His hands the print of the nails, and thrust my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into His side, I will by no means be believing."

Eight days later, Jesus appears before the apostles again, this time including Thomas. He invites Thomas to do those things which we have just seen quoted. Having accepted that his doubts have been refuted, Thomas is told by Jesus (at verse 29):

"Seeing that you have seen Me, you have believed. Happy are those who are not perceiving, and believe."

Thomas's doubts were resolved by the evidence of observation. He was given grounds for belief which the writer of Hebrews explicitly excludes from faith. Thomas's doubt was purposed by God. Jesus had performed miracles throughout His ministry. Here, He was laying down a template: there would be a time when miracles would not be forthcoming, and faith would be the instrument of God's revelation through His Son. This was direct teaching about the nature of faith. It was pre-ordained to show us that faith is an assumption of things which cannot be seen, inferred, or deduced.

Mention of miracles leads naturally to the question of whether faith can, in itself, bring them about. A number of years ago, my wife had a work colleague whose husband died of cancer. The lady belonged to a denomination which believed that, with enough prayer and faith, God could be prevailed upon to heal her husband. When he died, her natural grief was aggravated by the horrible feeling that, if she had believed and prayed more fervently, he could have recovered. The security and blessings which that lady could have gained from knowing that her husband's life, as well as its end, was worked out according to God's will and purpose, was obscured by the misunderstanding of God's Word by her church!

If we are not careful, this kind of teaching could lead us to misunderstand a couple of quotes which I now want to mention. At Philippians 3:17, Paul writes:

"Become imitators together of me, brethren, and be noting those who are walking thus, according as you have us for a model."

At Ephesians 5:1, he says:

"Become, then, imitators of God, as beloved children, and be walking in love, according as Christ also loves us, and gives Himself up for us, an approach present and a sacrifice to God, for a fragrant odour."

It is clear from these passages that, in seeking to do God's will as we walk with him, we should 'aim high'.

But the point here is this: the Bible tells us a lot about faith, but it never tells us to be perfect. God did not create us as perfect beings. He made us as sinful beings, and we cannot redeem ourselves out of that condition; only the Son of God could do that, and He has.

Let's turn to Paul's letter to the Romans, to find Scriptures which illustrate this point. Firstly, Romans 9:20, where Paul writes:

"That which is moulded will not protest to the moulder, 'Why do you make me thus?' Or has not the potter the right over the clay, out of the same kneading to make one vessel, indeed, for honour, yet one for dishonour? Now if God, wanting to display His indignation and to make his powerful doings known, carries, with much patience, the vessels of indignation, adapted for destruction, it is that He should also be making known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which He makes ready before for glory - us, whom he calls also, not only out of the Jews, but out of the nations also."

It's clear, from this passage, that we are each made the way we are because God has ordered it thus, in accordance with His purpose. Part of that purpose is that His sovereignty is displayed in the part we play in His creation. The second passage from Romans I want to look at, on this point, is Paul's teaching at the beginning of chapter 12. Here, we read:

"I am entreating you, then, brethren, by the pities of God, to present your bodies a sacrifice, living, holy, well pleasing to God, your logical divine service, and not to be configured to this eon, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind, for you to be testing what is the will of God, good and well pleasing and perfect. For I am saying, through the grace which is given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to be overweening, beyond what your disposition must be, but to be of a sane disposition, as God parts to each the measure of faith. For even as, in one body, we have many members, yet all the members have not the same function, thus we, who are many, are one body in Christ ..."

A lot of the teaching in this passage emphasises the momentous effect that revelation has upon each of us to whom it happens. Paul is clear about the kind of disposition we should maintain as believers. The words I want to focus on, however, are: "as God parts to each the measure of faith." If we had read on in that passage, we would see references to specific gifts, as Paul underlines that we are all unique creations, with unique roles in God's purpose. The same applies to faith.

Obviously, the believer who has had a genuine revelation will, from then on, seek to progress in their knowledge and understanding of God's Word. They will want to deepen their relationship with Him, and live a Godly life. Faith, though, is not injected into us like a specific dose of fluid from a syringe. Neither is it a box-ticking exercise, or something you complete after a couple of years of Bible study. God has a plan for the nature of our biblical understanding, as for everything else. He will not impart to all of us the understanding which A E Knoch had.

Clearly, though, God gave him that understanding so that, beyond his own edification, he would be an instrument of profound revelation to others.

I shall close with another quotation from Ephesians, but I want to lead into it by referring to one of the most famous chapters in Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13. at verse 13, Paul writes:

"Yet now are remaining faith, expectation, love - these three. Yet the greatest of these is love. Be pursuing love."

These three qualities, clearly, are fundamental for the believer. They all have in common the fact that we should cultivate them during this life. Only love, though, transcends our earthly existence. When we are resurrected, we will not need faith, which currently sustains our knowledge of God. Neither will we need expectation, because that which we have through faith will have been met. Only love will be ever-lasting. In fact we will know, and feel, an infinitely greater love then, than we do now, because God will be 'All in all'.

At Ephesians 3:14, Paul places love and faith in perspective for us. He links them with these words:

"On this behalf am I bowing my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, after Whom every kindred in the heavens and on earth is being named, that He may be giving you, in accord with the riches ofHhis glory, to be made staunch with power, through his Spirit, in the man within, Christ to dwell in your hearts through faith, that you, having been rooted and grounded in love, should be strong to grasp, together with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and depth and height to know the love of Christ as well which transcends knowledge that you may be completed for the entire complement of God. Now to Him who is able to do superexcessively above all that we are requesting or apprehending, according to the power which is operating in us, to Him be glory in the Ecclesia and in Christ Jesus for all the generations of the eon of the eons!"


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