Faith in Hardships is the Same as Saving Faith
First published 25 March 2010
I was brought up in a Christian home, going to church every week. I am very thankful to God for that upbringing. But there came a time, when I was twelve years old, when I consciously committed myself to the Christian faith. That’s, I guess, the time I go back to and say that’s when I “became a Christian”. I am not precious about the terminology. I know there is a sense in which it was a “conversion” and a sense in which it was simply growing in faith.
The point of me mentioning it is that I can remember various things awakening at that point. I can remember conscious thoughts, probably none of which I shared with my family at the time. I was listening to a sermon in the morning service at church. I have no recollection of what the subject or text of the sermon was. The main thing I remember thinking was that I had been listening to sermons and reading the Bible week in and week out for years, but it had never previously consciously dawned on me that this was all real! I thought to myself, heaven is real, hell is real, Jesus and his atonement for my sin is real (although I may not, admittedly, have put it exactly like that at the time!). So if it is all real, then I had better live as if it is real, and therefore start to pay attention to what it means to put my faith into action. And by the grace of God, that is what I started to do.
And it’s the reality of the truth of our hope as Christians that I am reflecting on now. The issue I started to think about in my last essay was whether the emphasis on the unseen makes the Christian faith a bit “pie in the sky”. I have been reflecting on how we find comfort in hardships as Christians. And our comfort comes from an invisible God, who promises a new perfected world that we cannot see now, in the future which by definition cannot be seen by us.
I’ve already shown that belief in God is not only possible but necessary, because of other unseen things like natural laws and the requirement to be rational. (I didn’t even mention other unseen things like our internal moral conscience, consciousness per se, self-awareness, the ability to conceptualise, and the ability to know anything at all – with similar logic all these things strengthen the argument that we all actually act like we believe in God even if we say we don’t. That’s because none of these things make any sense outside a Christian theistic worldview.)
Now I’m going to take that for granted. But now I’m going to acknowledge that even for committed Christians it sometimes feels difficult to rest all our hopes and our faith in what God will do in the future in an unseen world. I have had people who call themselves Christians say to me, “you simply can’t rationalize all your suffering by saying that God has a purpose and he will sort it all out in the future anyway. That would be stupid! It’s just trying to explain away bad things through wishful thinking!”
And it would be uncharacteristic of me if I pulled any punches at this point – that attitude is sinful and requires repentance. Ultimately it shows unbelief and if you persist in this unbelief then you will be judged with unbelievers. Why? Why should I be so bold about this? Isn’t some doubt a healthy thing? Is it sin to be weak? Is it sin to be uncertain? I should temper my point by saying that I do not in any way fail to remember that we Christians do still struggle with sin of all kinds, and unbelief and sinful desires of different kinds are the root of all that sin. Struggling with sin will not rip us from our Saviour’s gracious hand, even when the sin involves unbelief. But if we fail to recognize our sin when we are confronted with it, and if we do not repent even when we know we should, and if we persist to the end in rebellious unbelief, then we show that we never had saving faith, and we will be lost.
So my aim here is to encourage Christians, who have put their faith already in the invisible God to save them through Jesus Christ, his Son. I want to show you that this same God is the one who is with us when we suffer, and that the same hope of salvation through Jesus Christ is the hope that strengthens us through every hardship. I want to show that the unbelief that underlies despondency in hard times is of the same character as the unbelief that we turned from when we turned to Christ. And I want you to know that our most fundamental faith in God for our salvation is future orientated, so our faith in God for our endurance and perseverance must be future orientated too.
1. Questioning God’s promise to bring us into a New Creation is as sinful as the first sin.
Let’s think about the first sin, and it’s context.
Adam and Eve were created and put in the Garden of Eden, and were given a specific instruction regarding one particular tree. “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;” said God, “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) As we know, Adam and Eve chose to disobey that instruction and ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. But the sinful action came from a sinful attitude that arose earlier.
First, in Genesis 3, the serpent tries to twist God’s words and paint him as unkind, introducing doubt into the woman’s mind about God’s goodness and care for them. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?'” (v1) The woman rebutted that one, but in doing so misquotes God. She quotes God as saying that they “must not touch it,” or they will die.
Then, the serpent goes for complete contradiction, “‘You will not surely die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.'” (v4) He questions God’s motives. Effectively he’s saying, “God is just trying to hold on to power by withholding the knowledge necessary. Humans have the potential to compete with God and do their own thing. All they need to do is to reach out and take and eat this fruit. God’s not really in charge, he’s just trying to force you to do what he says.”
And the sinful attitude that came before the sinful action was that Eve and Adam bought into that lie. Instead of trusting God, their creator, to provide for them in the perfect world that he had made, they allowed themselves to question his care for them.
What I realized when I thought about this was that for Adam and Eve they had very little past experience of God to go on, except the knowledge that he had created everything including themselves. They had the whole of the future to trust him for. The call was to have faith in him for his future grace in everything they needed for the rest of eternity. But instead they fell into unbelief and then sin.
We, who live thousands of years later, have the whole of the history of God’s people, the whole of the Bible, God’s only Son dying on the cross and rising from the dead for us and ascending into heaven to the right hand of the Father, the teaching of the apostles, prophecies, pages and pages more of what God has said. Still the call is to have faith in God for his future grace in everything we need for the rest of eternity in Christ… And still, instead, we call into question his goodness and his love, and his ability to do what he promises. We too fall in unbelief and in sin.
So when we doubt the reality of the unseen hope in the unseen future we are falling into exactly the same sin as Adam and Eve. And we need to repent of that sin, just as with any other sin.
2. When we became Christians we were expressing our faith in God’s promise to save us in the future from his wrath through the atoning sacrifice of Christ. So why is it so difficult to have faith in God’s other precious promises for the future through Christ?
It hopefully only takes a moment’s thought to realize that when we became Christians we were putting our hope in an unseen future. At least I am assuming that would be true in most cases. If you became a Christian for some solution to something entirely in this life then you will be disappointed, and you need to reassess the gospel you claim to have believed. So let’s spend that moment looking at a few of the Bible verses we probably came across when we became Christians, and remember what they promise.
First, the problem that human race has in relation to God is sin. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Sin is what separates us from God and causes his punishment to fall on us. “You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live… gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)
We talk about repentance, which is turning away from a type of behaviour or attitude. And what we are called to repent of is our sins. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38) “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.” (Acts 3:19)
Then, what is the problem with sin? It is that it separates us from God, the main consequence of which is that it brings us death and hell in the future. It prevents us from living forever with our perfect God in a perfect relationship. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” (John 3:36) “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
We look forward to a Day of Judgment and realise we need a Saviour in that day. “Now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice.” (Acts 17:30-31)
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has the power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Luke 12:4-5) He was contrasting the fear of bad things happening now with the even greater bad things that could happen in the future if we do not repent.
And so we trust Jesus Christ to take away our sin and enable us to avoid God’s wrath and to have eternal life in the future. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28) He also said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:51-54)
So our faith for salvation is future orientated. We believe in Jesus and repent in order to escape God’s wrath and to have eternal life. Both these things are things that are in an unseen world in an unseen future. And yet they are the reasons we are Christians.
What I have been saying elsewhere about the unseen world and the unseen future being a comfort to us in times of hardship cannot, then, be seen as “pie in the sky” by Christians whose hope for salvation is already future and eternity orientated.
In conclusion, let’s examine our hearts.
I can understand if those who don’t call themselves Christians look at what we believe and try to fire it down as “pie in the sky”. They just need to look carefully at the basis for what they believe before trying to shoot down Christianity, because they will find that shooting down the basis of Christian faith ends up destroying their own foundations for any understanding of reality, knowledge or morality!
But if Christians falter when being comforted by our invisible God, with promises of an unseen world in a far-off future, then we need to first recognize that faltering as sin, and second go back to Christ, our Saviour, and remember what he has done for us. And let’s not just remember what he has done for us. Let’s study, investigate, and search the Scriptures, to understand the full, enormous, glorious magnitude of our salvation.
“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”