How do we live by faith? For the preacher, this question is even more complex: "How can I challenge my people to live by faith when I live by faith inadequately myself?"
There are two passages in Scripture that speak particularly about the life of faith. The first of these states:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)
The second passage concludes:
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Cor. 5:6-10)
There are some helpful points to make from these passages.
Firstly, when Paul says that believers live by faith, he does not mean that they live without any visible means of financial support. In actual fact, the life of faith does not refer to something special or saintly, attained by only the few, a higher victory life-it means simply the Christian life. A Christian person lives by faith because his faith is focused in the Son of God; the Christian life is the life of faith in the Son of God. Christian faith is well and truly tethered and secured to Jesus Christ, to the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.
I don't think that there is a more glorious description of Christian faith in the whole of the Bible. Paul shows us that Christian faith takes its roots and its meaning and its shape from an object, namely Jesus Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 5:7, faith is contrasted with sight, with our final experience. But believers aim to please the Lord while they are waiting for sight. In other words, faith lives the Christian life, and that life will be tested when they stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
Why do you think God chose faith as the salvation point? Why did he not choose love? Because faith is the very opposite of pride and exaltation and glory. If he had said love, then there would have been something in us that would have made us worthy of salvation. Faith is the empty hand grasping hold of the promises of God. It has no power until it is itself attached to God's power.
In Matthew 17:20, the Lord Jesus says: "I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." What did Jesus mean when he said that faith could move mountains? He meant that God provides the power when faith attaches itself to him. There are many mighty works of faith revealed in the Bible, and I want to look at three of them in particular.
We read in Romans 5:1: "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God." Perhaps you do not think that justification is as impressive as resurrecting someone from the dead or moving a mountain. However, I think that moving the mountain of our sin is a fairly significant thing for faith to accomplish.
We were legally condemned for our sins. Not even repentance can wipe away the sins of the past. Not even a life filled with the good works of Florence Nightingale would make the slightest bit of difference to the adverse judgment against us. Because of what we have done, we are indeed the fitting subjects of the wrath of God. In Exodus 23:7, God says, "I will not acquit the guilty." But in Romans 4:5 Paul says that God "justifies the wicked." In between those two statements there lies the cross to make them both true.
What power faith has that we may be justified, that forgiveness may come into lives that are corrupt, ignorant of God, and rebellious against him! Some people think that God gave us the Ten Commandments so that we could be saved by keeping them. But when that didn't work, God sent Jesus and all we have to do now is have faith. In this view, faith is a substitute for obedience. But justification has always been through faith in Jesus Christ. It was so for Abraham, as well as for Paul and Peter. Faith is the cry to God from the despairing heart. It is the response to Jesus' invitation to the weak and heavy laden to come to him. How powerful faith is that it can bring justification to the ungodly!
The Christian life begins with faith in Christ, and it goes on by faith in Christ. It is not as though we begin as sinful people, but are turned suddenly into sinless people who no longer need the cross. On the contrary, the more we go on in the Christian life, the more we become aware of the depths of sin, of the sinfulness of our hearts. As we go on in the Christian life, the Son of God appears more and more glorious in all his saving power through the cross. We become more and more grateful to the grace of God displayed at the cross of Christ. We can never graduate beyond this point, because faith in Christ always takes us to Christ and to the cross of Christ. Our life is a life of walking by faith.
It is that faith that we read about in Hebrews 11. Undoubtedly those early heroes of the faith had only the scantiest information about what God was going to do. But the word of God which came to them-to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses-was a word of promise. It pointed forward to the Lord Jesus Christ. So their faith was exactly the same as ours-it was faith in that word that pointed them to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Notice that the great heroes of faith had very different circumstances. Some lived in easier times than others, although most had their difficulties. Some knew triumph, such as Noah, who was vindicated in this life. But others experienced apparent defeat, where there was no vindication in this life:
They were stoned; they were sawn in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated-the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Heb. 11:37-38)
But what we see in all cases is faith in the word of God and triumphing in that.
We could not judge from their outward circumstances whether or not God was with them, just as we cannot judge from personal circumstances whether a person is a great person of faith. For faith is a hidden, private, invisible thing. What we do see is a consistent, steady, powerful trust in God in all circumstances.
What of us? The writer continues in Hebrews 12:1-6:
Therefore, 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. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."
What a marvelous picture of the life of faith: fixing your eyes upon Jesus, struggling against sin, being aware of the Lord's discipline, enduring suffering and pain and inconvenience. Faith introduces us to our heavenly and sovereign Father, who is in charge of our lives. If Jesus Christ is our Lord, then we may be sure that the sovereign hand of God is upon our lives, and that he is towards us as Father, not as Judge. When faith is sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we see God in all his fatherly goodness beaming upon us, and even though the circumstances in our lives may be extremely rugged and even involve the disciplining hand of God upon us, yet nonetheless by faith we know that all things work together for our good.
So we have seen two of the Bible's teachings on faith: it has the power to justify, and it has the power to sustain the Christian life.
As mentioned earlier, Paul points out that all Christians are to walk by faith and not by sight, and are to make it their goal to please him. There are five points to note about obedience.
First, by faith we receive the Holy Spirit, who enables us to obey. As we put our faith in Jesus, so we receive the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit within us brings forth the fruit of obedience.
Secondly, because we have been justified, we are free to do good works for the right reason. We obey simply because the Lord has asked us to do so and we wish to please him who has done so much for us. Out of the faith that justifies emerges a tremendous explosion of obedience. This obedience is a recognition of grace and all that God has done for us. True obedience to God can only come through justification by faith. If we cease to preach the grace of God through justification, we will cut off the roots of obedience. There will be no true worship of God and living for God if people do not understand the grace of God in justification.
Thirdly, by faith we are prepared to trust and to do the commands of God that to the world are ridiculous. Have you ever thought about how strange it is to love enemies? Such behavior is unusual, even ridiculous, unless we have faith in the word of him who tells us to do it. Then we are free and released to do what seems so foolish. God sometimes does give us what, humanly speaking, may seem like ridiculous commands to obey. Only by trusting God will we do what he says.
Fourthly, by faith we are led by the Spirit's word, the Bible. Living by faith does not mean always living without support, although sometimes it may. I am not denying the great stories of faith where Christians have had their needs supplied from no obvious human source. But if you think that is what the life of faith is, then it will lead in the end to superstition. The Scriptures tell us to work for our living, although there may be certain circumstances where God will bring about great blessing in ways that are unexpected.
Fifthly, by faith we will live without religiosity before God. Matthew 6 describes how faith gives in secret, faith fasts in secret, faith prays in secret. Religiosity, which we see all around us, is created by lack of assurance. Religiosity is the religion that whispers in our ear again and again that God can't really do this, that we have to do it. Religiosity brings the law of God down to our size and makes up for it in fussy enthusiasm, with extraordinary church services, with wonderful clothes, and all that sort of nonsense. Religiosity makes up for the lack of obedience to the Word of God.
By faith we can look at God's law and not falter or step back. We can look in awe, without the need to reduce the law of God to our own size as the merely religious do. By faith we seek to obey God's law directly and faithfully. When failure occurs, as it will often do, it will not lead to despair or cover-up; faith will lead us back to the cross and to grace and to repentance. Thus, faith in the gospel creates a godliness which is invisible but genuine. A genuine evangelical godliness is not boastful, it is not showy, it thinks much about fearing the Lord and serving the Lord, rather than the development of the self.
The power of faith is not seen in spectacular healing miracles or in getting people to laugh or make animal noises. We see the power of faith in an honest Christian businessman or businesswoman. We see the power of faith in a pastor who prays in secret.
The Bible tells us that Stephen and Barnabas were full of faith. It is true to say that we all ought to be full of faith, for it is sinful of us to doubt God's Word. We ought to be full of faith in the Word of God. If we wish to grow in faith, if we wish to see others grow in faith, it must be through the preaching of the Word of God. Faith also grows. As we experience God's goodness, our faith grows, but it is all controlled and sourced by the Word of God itself and prayer.
Actually, faith doesn't give much attention to faith. Faith gives attention to Jesus. Therefore, if it is your wish to grow in faith, then grow in your knowledge of Jesus and he will call forth that faith by which you should live.
In conclusion, I would make two points. First, large faith, if it is resting in nonsense, is quite useless or even dangerous. Secondly, even small faith in the truth brings great blessing. In Luke 17:5-6, when the disciples said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" did he instantly send them to the bookstall to find books on the techniques of living the Christian life? Did he send them away for a week's silence? No, he said, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you." What an extraordinary answer! Small faith in the truth brings great blessing. It is not the size of our faith that matters in the end; it is the size of our God that matters.
A little faith in a great God is enough to bring great power, even the power of salvation. Your justification, your sustaining day by day, the power of obedience, these are the great works of God in our midst. This is the life of faith. God be praised that the work of faith is going on magnificently. God is moving mountains every day and we rejoice at the great things he has done.
The author is the archbishop of Sydney of the Anglican Church of Australia. This article and the other two articles this month are reprinted (with slight editing) from the book Preaching the Living Word: Addresses from the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, edited by David Jackman. We thank Christian Focus Publications for their kind permission to use these articles. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2003.