The Nature of Saving Faith
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, September 21, 2008
Copyright © 2008, P. G. Mathew
Romans 4:18-22 speaks about the faith of Abraham. Our faith in God is identical to that faith by which Abraham believed God and was justified. Many atheists think that belief in the Holy Scriptures is dangerously irrational. But studies show that atheists are more superstitious and irrational than Bible-believing Christians, and that true Christian belief is antithetical to pseudo-science, occultism, superstition, paranormal phenomena, and irrationalism. They confirm what G. K. Chesterton said, that all atheists, secularists, and rationalists are susceptible to superstition. The first effect of not believing in God is losing one's common sense and not seeing things as they are.
It is most rational to believe in the infinite, personal God of the Scriptures, who created the universe out of nothing. It is utter irrationalism to believe that the universe evolved by itself out of nothing. Abraham believed the God of glory, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Because Abraham was justified by faith alone and is the father of all believers, we want to look at the nature of his saving faith.
Saving faith is not based on mathematical probability, as Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says,1 nor is it natural faith. It is Spirit-created, supernatural faith that believes in the word of God. Saving faith believes in what is humanly impossible, but possible to the infinite, personal God.
I. Saving Faith Goes Against Naturalism
We want to consider several aspects of saving faith. First, saving faith goes against naturalism and human hope. "Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed" (v. 18). Saving faith drives out unbelief as light drives out darkness. It acts in defiance of all human expectations, calculations, and abilities. When the devil says, "No," when our body full of disease says, "No," when our spouse or children or boss says, "No," saving faith cries out, "Yes!" by the power of God. Saving faith puts its trust in God and his promises against everything else.
Saving faith goes beyond fallen human reason and fallen common sense because human reason does not take into account the omnipotent, holy God. The people of this world are described by Paul as being without God and without hope (Eph. 2:12). Atheists, therefore, are hopeless.
But saving faith puts hope in God, who is unseen, rather than in what is seen. In 2 Kings 6 we read about Elisha's servant, who was afraid of all the horses and chariots of the Arameans surrounding him. That was all he could see. But Elisha told his servant, "Don't be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." Then he prayed for him, and the Lord opened the eyes of the servant so that he could see the horses and chariots of fire God had put around them to protect them.
Just as God was around Elisha and his servant, so he is around his church and his people. When naturalism says, "No," supernaturalism says, "Yes." Saving faith, therefore, is not a leap in the dark. It is a leap from the evidence of our senses into the security of God's ability to perform his promises.
Abraham believed that God could produce nations through him, though it was humanly impossible for him to father a child at his advanced age and for Sarah to conceive and bear one. Their situation was as impossible as that of Lazarus, who died and was buried four days when Jesus came. It was humanly impossible to raise him back to life. But Jesus asked Martha, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" (John 11:40). Jesus Christ is God. He is the resurrection and life, and he did raise Lazarus from the dead. So also we hope against hope-against all natural human hope, knowing that what God has promised, he is able to do. He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.
The object of our faith, therefore, is not ourselves and our weaknesses, but God and his promises. Saving faith rests completely in God's promises; hope expects the fulfillment of those promises. So Paul writes that Abraham against hope believed on the basis of his hope in God to fulfill his promises. Saving faith looks away from ourselves and our circumstances and fixes its eyes on God alone.
Certainly, we can imagine that doubts assailed Abraham like fiery darts at times. Yet he always sprang back to faith and hope. Unbelief was not his permanent condition; Abraham was characterized by faith. So he did not waver through unbelief but steadily moved forward in faith and hope to see God fulfill his promises.
II. Saving Faith Believes God's Promises
Saving faith believes God's promise. "Abraham in hope believed" (v. 18). The noun "promise" appears several times in this chapter (vv. 13, 14, 16, 20) and the verb appears in verse 21. What was the promise? That Abraham and Sarah were going to be the father and mother of many nations (Gen. 15, 17). God promised to give Abraham a countless number of descendants-as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Many nations who would believe in God were to come from him. Additionally, from Abraham would come the Messiah, who would save Abraham and all God's people from their sins. Jesus said, "Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). Abraham and all God's people were to become the heirs of the world in and through the Savior-Messiah. Abraham saw God, heard his promises, and put his faith in them long before he had a son.
We do not now see the God of glory as Abraham did, but we believe in him through his written word. The Bible is the very word of God. It is inerrant, infallible, and full of power. Paul tells us, "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Rom. 15:4). Elsewhere he says, "These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:11).
What God promises, he fulfills. In Joshua we read, "Not one of all the LORD'S good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled" (Josh. 21:45). Joshua himself testified, "Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the LORD your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed" (Josh. 23:14). God promises and fulfills because he is mighty and reliable. So Paul writes, "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ. And so through him the 'Amen' is spoken to us by the glory of God" (2 Cor. 1:20).
We have greater historical reason to believe God's promises than Abraham had because we have seen the fulfillment of these promises. We know that Abraham did become the father of many nations and that in time the Messiah came as Abraham's offspring, died and rose again, and is the Savior of the world. We know that Abraham's true descendants now exist as a vast multitude of people who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The past fulfillment of these promises guarantees our future, complete salvation. Paul makes this argument from the lesser to the greater, citing God's past faithfulness: "Since we now have been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him? For if when we were God's enemies we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through life? . . . He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also along with him graciously give us all things?" (Rom. 5:9; 8:32).
Let us, then, believe the word of God with its great, humanly impossible promises which only God can make and only God can fulfill. The Bible tells us, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household." That is what it says and that is what we must do. Let us be like Naaman, the leprous Gentile general who came to Elisha the prophet in Samaria. Elisha directed him to go to the Jordan River, dip himself seven times, and he would be healed. Naaman was angry at that counsel and almost went home in unbelief. But God gave him repentance, and when he went to Jordan and dipped himself seven times, Naaman emerged completely healed. This is the power of God's promise-we must believe and be saved.
The Bible is full of God's good and precious promises. As we believe them and act upon them daily, we will be blessed.
III. Saving Faith Believes in God
Saving faith believes in the God who raises the dead and calls into existence things that are not. Paul says Abraham was "fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised" (v. 21). In other words, God is supernaturally mighty to fulfill his promises.
This God in whom Abraham believed was not an idol from his former pagan life, but the God of glory who appeared to him. He is the living and true God, the eternal, infinite, personal God, the righteous, omnipotent, omniscient, independent, omnipresent, unchanging God of truth who cannot lie or die. He is majestic and transcendent, yet ever-present. Of him Jeremiah exclaims, "Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you" (Jer. 32:17). The Lord himself asked Abraham, "Is anything too hard for the LORD?" (Gen. 18:14). In other words, he was saying, "Don't you believe me, Abraham? Nothing is too difficult for me. I am the God who raises the dead." Abraham and Sarah's bodies were dead sexually. Sarah had never been able to conceive and bear children, and now she was ninety years old, long past childbearing age. Abraham had fathered Ishmael when he was eighty-six, but at ninety-nine he was also impotent, incapable of begetting the son of promise.
But the deadness of Abraham and Sarah was not a problem for God. In fact, God waited until they both were in this state to demonstrate his great power. God alone can raise the dead. In God's time, this couple experienced resurrection in their bodies, and Isaac the son of promise was conceived and born to them.
God raises the dead and calls into being things that do not exist. God called into existence Isaac, who did not exist before. God has called into existence a vast multitude of believers who did not exist before. We ourselves were called by the power of God.
Ours is a rational faith. What kind of God do we believe in? We believe in the true and living God, the God who creates out of nothing, the God who conquers death by life, God who has power (dunatos) to fulfill his great and humanly impossible promises.
Behind all promises lies the character of the one who makes them. We cannot trust in man, for man can lie or die, he can change his mind, or his circumstances can change. As Jeremiah says, "Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength" (Jer. 17:5). But look at the character of God. He is reliable and able. Our God can be trusted.
Jesus says, "With God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). Elsewhere he says, "What is impossible with men is possible with God" (Luke 18:27). The Lord told Abraham, "Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son" (Gen. 18:14). God's promise was fulfilled.
God is able to do what he promises. Paul writes, "God is able to make all grace abound to you so that in all things at all times having all that you need you will abound in every good work" (2 Cor. 9:8). The Hebrews writer recounts, "By faith Abraham, even though he was past age-and Sarah herself was barren-was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise" (Heb. 11:11). And in response to a later test of Abraham's faith we read, "Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from the dead" (Heb. 11:19).
Therefore, do not focus on yourself and your disease or your poverty or your misery or your children's rebellion. Do not look at your circumstances; look to God alone. Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, as Peter did during a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Peter saw Jesus walking on the waves toward the boat and said, "Lord, if it's you, tell me to come to you on the water." "Come," Jesus said, and Peter started walking on water (Matt. 14:22-31). Let us look away from our own problems and look to Jesus, that we may walk on the waves of our problems through Jesus Christ.
Let us also meditate on God's past faithfulness to us. God appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia and brought him to Canaan. He defended him from every enemy, protected him in Egypt, and blessed him with great wealth. He appeared to encourage him several times. This same God has helped us in the past, and he will continue to help us in the present and the future. God is called Faithful and True (Rev. 19:11).
Let us trust not in ourselves or in men or in princes or in the god of this world or in silver and gold, but in God alone. A.W. Pink writes, "Everything about God is great, vast, incomparable. He never forgets, never fails, never falters, never forfeits his word. To every declaration of promise or prophecy the Lord has exactly adhered, every engagement or covenant or threatening he will make good, for 'God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?' (Num. 23:19)."2 It is God's nature to be faithful. In Deuteronomy we read, "Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love for a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands" (Deut. 7:9). Paul declares, "If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, but he cannot disown himself" (2 Tim. 2:13).
If a person is outside of Christ, it is because of unbelief. The greatest insult we can give to God is to not believe in him and his promises. That is why unbelievers trust in pseudo-science, occultism, cults, and paranormal phenomena. When people do not believe God, they have to believe in other things, though they may scare them. The antidote to all fear, misery, anxiety, confusion, and complaining is to trust in the true and living God of Abraham.
IV. Saving Faith Grows
"Without weakening in his faith, [Abraham] 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" (Rom. 4:19-20). Unbelievers are characterized by unbelief (apisteia). But God's people have supernatural faith which may start out small but grows into great faith, like an infant grows into an adult. There are degrees of faith: little faith, growing faith, and great faith. Our faith grows in strength as we grow in the knowledge of God and obedience to his will.
Doubts toward God and his promises can weaken saving faith and we can become anxious, fearful, complaining, and confused. But in view of the great promise of God, Abraham did not stagger due to unbelief, but was strengthened by God because of his saving faith. God gives strength to everyone who believes in him-strength to do mighty things. Unbelief weakens, but faith strengthens.
We can imagine how Abraham grew strong. While he was a worshiper of the mute idols of Mesopotamia, the God of glory appeared to him and Abraham began to meditate on God's majesty and eternity, contemplating his holiness, righteousness, purity, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, goodness, wisdom, love, and immutability. His faith in God grew as he came to know God and his attributes in increasing measure.
Unlike Abraham, we meet God today in his word. Therefore, the more we read the Scriptures and meditate on them, the stronger we will grow in God. The more we make use of the means of grace, the stronger we will grow in faith. The more we pray and hear the word preached, the more we worship and fellowship, the more we partake of the Lord's Supper, the more we give and serve, the more we witness and obey, the more we will grow until we have gone from little faith to great faith. Then we can say with confidence, "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it."
We also must put our faith to work. Once when they were at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus told his disciples, "Let us go over to the other side" (Mark 4:35). While they were still in the boat, a storm came up and the disciples were afraid. Jesus asked them, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?" (v. 40). These disciples needed to put their faith into practice. Jesus had told them to go to the other side. That is what they had to do, despite any storms or other obstacles.
When we believe God and his word, we shall be victorious. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. If God is for us, who can be against us?
If you have faith, apply it in your daily life. Do not operate on the basis of fear or defeat. Jesus tells us to go forward through the storm, through the river, through the mountain. And as you apply faith in your life, you will grow strong. Obedience builds faith.
Do not be like unbelievers, who regard our holy God as a liar. John writes, "Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son" (1 John 5:10). The same truth is found in John 3:32-33. Every unbeliever treats God with utter contempt. But Jesus exhorts us, "Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them" (John 13:17).
V. Saving Faith Faces Facts
"[Abraham] faced the fact that his body was as good as dead-since he was about a hundred years old-and Sarah's womb was also dead" (Rom. 4:19). Faith faces facts. Faith faces the challenges and adversities of reality. (PGM) Abraham faced the facts of the deadness of his body and Sarah's womb, but he did not weaken in his faith. Instead, he looked to God and his mighty promises, to God who is the resurrection and the Creator. Abraham and Sarah's sexual deadness ruled out any confidence in themselves. They had to trust fully in God to raise them up and enable them to become parents of the son of promise.
Faith is not self-delusion, positive thinking, or repetition of a mantra. Faith says, "I can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens me." Faith says, "I am what I am by the grace of God." Faith says, "I can do nothing, but God can do all things through me." Satan blinds the eyes of unbelievers; but God opens our eyes to see the reality of our deadness and incompetence, and the reality of God who raises the dead and fulfills all his purposes concerning us.
Abraham and Sarah had no previous historical evidence of a very old, sexually dead couple becoming parents. But they believed God can do the humanly impossible, and he did. They believed the naked word of God without seeking additional proof.
VI. Saving Faith Gives Glory to God
"[Abraham] gave glory to God" (v. 20). Faith gives glory to God even before the fulfillment of promise, because if God makes a promise, it is as good as done. So we can thank God before the fulfillment comes as well as after the promise is fulfilled. As Abraham grew in faith, God strengthened him, and he gave glory to God.
It is the habit of unbelievers not to thank God. Paul writes, "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him" (Rom. 1:21). In fact, it is their nature to exchange the glory of God for idols (Rom. 1:22). But believers are always glorifying God. Salvation by grace through faith alone excludes all human boasting; therefore, believers give all glory to God. In fact, that is the purpose for which we are created and redeemed (Jer. 13:11, Is. 44:23; 49:3; 60:21; 61:3; 1 Pet. 2:9). God delivered us from darkness, death, corruption, and hell itself that we may declare the praises of him who brought us out of darkness into his marvelous light. We glorify God when we believe him, worship him, and do his will.
I hope we will emulate the three Hebrew children who were about to be thrown into a fiery furnace because they worshiped the true and living God. They were determined to glorify God, whether by life or death: "Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, 'O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up'" (Dan. 3:16-18).
What does it mean to give glory to God? It means to reckon God to be what he is and rely upon his power and faithfulness. Thomas Watson says, "Faith is a grace that takes a man off himself, and gives all the honour to Christ and free grace."3
VII. Saving Faith Enjoys Full Assurance
"[Abraham was] fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised" (v. 21). God filled Abraham with full assurance that God would fulfill his promise. There was no more doubt, for Abraham knew God fulfills all his promises. The Hebrews writer says, "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Heb. 11:1). Faith substantiates what we hope for, giving full assurance of things we do not yet see. The same writer declares, "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance" (Heb. 11:13).
Jesus told Thomas, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:20). On the basis of the historical work of Christ and the written Scriptures, we hear, we believe, and we are given certainty of our salvation.
Peter writes, "Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls" (1 Pet. 1:8-9). As God's people, we are filled with certitude that we are on our way to heaven because of the promises God has given us in his word.
Suppose a father is in a pool and his little son is standing at the edge. The father tells his son to jump and promises to catch him. The son not only believes the father, but he is also fully assured he will keep his promise. So he jumps, and his able, loving father catches him. So also we can be fully assured of our final salvation because Jesus said we are in his hands and the Father's hands, and nothing can snatch us out of them. Underneath us are the everlasting arms of God.
Saving faith is not mental assent without any feeling. It is not merely saying, "Jesus is Lord" and thinking that is all there is to Christianity. Such mental gymnastics are what Dr. Lloyd-Jones calls Sandemanianism. Mere mental assent has no conviction, trust, feeling, or life. Saving faith is full assurance given by God to those who believe in him. Assurance of faith is a blessing every saint can enjoy.
VIII. Saving Faith Works
Saving faith obeys God gladly and constantly; faith that does not obey God does not save anyone.
Abraham's faith manifested itself in obedient acts.
When the God of glory came to Abram in Mesopotamia and said, "Leave your country, your kindred, your father's house, and your gods," by faith Abram left in obedience "though he did now know where he was going" (Heb. 11:8).
By faith Abram settled in Canaan and worshiped the true God of glory by building an altar and sacrificing to God instead of worshiping the gods of Canaan.
By faith Abram in faith waged war against four powerful kings and rescued Lot.
By faith Abram refused to receive his due from the king of Sodom, for he trusted in God to bless him materially.
By faith Abram gave Lot first choice of the land. Lot chose the Jordan Valley and pitched his tent toward the secular city of Sodom, while Abram chose the hill country of Canaan, which God had promised him.
God appeared to Abram when he was ninety-nine years old and told him that he and every male in his household must be circumcised. By faith Abram obeyed what God commanded and became a man of the covenant.
God came to Abram and said, "I am going to change your name from Abram, which means 'exalted father,' to Abraham, meaning 'father of many nations.'" God also changed the name of Sarai to Sarah, indicating that she would be the mother of many nations. Though the son of promise had not yet been born, Abram believed and obeyed God. By faith he told people to start calling him Abraham and to call his wife Sarah. Abraham relied on God to fulfill his promise of offspring.
By faith Abraham sacrificed Isaac. This was the most difficult act of obedience of his life. In Genesis 22 God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the son of promise, from whom many believers and the Messiah himself was to come. It is likely Abraham reasoned in this way: "Isaac is not married and has no son. Yet the God of glory wants me to kill him and burn him up in worship. How can God ask me to do this? How can God's other promises be fulfilled through Isaac? There is a paradox here, two ideas colliding, both from God. How can this be resolved?" Abraham exercised his mind, reasoning that God cannot lie and always fulfills what he promises. He concluded that the God who raises the dead and creates out of nothing would have to raise Isaac from his own ashes. Abraham believed this God who is the resurrection and the life, and "figuratively speaking, [Abraham] did receive Isaac back from death" (Heb. 11:19).
Though God spared Isaac, he did not spare Isaac's son, Jesus Christ. He was crucified, dead, and buried. Then God raised him from the dead, and through him his people are saved.
Do You Have Saving Faith?
What about you? If you do not believe the true God of the Bible, you are calling him a liar and are dishonoring him. You are without God and without hope. But God will come to judge all his enemies. Therefore, I urge you to believe on the Lord and be saved. The Messiah has come, and in him all God's promises are "Yes."
What if you have already trusted in Christ? I counsel you to grow in faith. Get to know God more through his word. Then you will have strength to love and obey God, strength to believe, and strength to do God's will. And as you serve and obey God, your faith will grow until you become fully assured of your salvation and will be able to give glory to God, even at the moment of your death. I pray that all of us will live in faith that we may die in faith and in sure hope of dwelling in God's presence forever.
1 D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Atonement and Justification, Exposition of Chapters 3:20-4:25 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), 232.
2 Quoted by James M. Boice in Romans, Vol. 1: Justification by Faith: Romans 1-4 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 489.
3 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 218.
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Copyright © 2008, P. G. Mathew
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