Dave, a young man who worked with me when I first came to Miller Avenue Baptist Church, wanted to preach a sermon on faith. It would be his very first sermon. About two minutes into it he staggered a bit, his knees buckled and I caught him just before he hit the floor. Later he told me that he thought the subject of faith would be so easy but as he got into it he found he was confused about it. He came into the pulpit without confidence and understanding.
Is faith a mental process?
Faith is perhaps the most misunderstood biblical concept there is. Through the efforts of Norman Vincent Peale and, more recently, Robert Schuler, faith has become identified with or defined as ‘positive thinking’, a mental process, something the individual can attain apart from the work of God.
A young man called me recently and urged me to think positively all the time; my reward for doing so would be great, he said. He was convinced this was so because Jesus had told him to think positively.
I asked, ‘How do I get that done?’ His response: ‘Think good thoughts, think loving thoughts, and try to be kind to others’.
His exhortation was not altogether without merit. These are good things to do, and we do them as God gives us strength, but it has nothing to do with either saving or sanctifying faith. If it were, then faith and grace would be separated.
Faith and grace are linked
God’s grace, given to us freely, is better understood than faith, at least intellectually. Grace and mercy, the prime characteristics of the love of God towards us, are clearly things we cannot work for or earn.
But are we aware that grace manifests itself through faith? We are aware that grace and faith are linked together, for Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us: ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast’.
So to receive God’s grace I must have faith. Should we then try to have faith, working hard at it? No, for then ‘faith’ is in danger of becoming a work, nullifying grace altogether!
Because, you see, faith is also given to us. It must be so. The Scripture is clear on this point. Examine these passages: Romans 10:17; Galatians 3:2,5; Colossians 1:29; Ephesians 1:19 and 2:8-10; Philippians 2:12-13; and 1 Corinthians 15:10.
We are often told in Scripture to have faith and believe. It looks as though we have the capacity to do this by nature. But wait a moment! We are also told in the above passages and many others, that faith comes from hearing the word of Christ. How can these two notions be reconciled?
Here I run into trouble, because the Bible makes no attempt to reconcile them. Such an attempt on my part, therefore, would drift off into speculation. I must hold this truth in tension. Here is my thesis: I cannot believe unless God, through his Holy Spirit, gives me faith. Then, whatever my faith achieves, it is all of grace and there is no room for boasting.
Certainly there is a mystery here, and we are tempted to resolve it. We want to be precise as to faith, so as to acquire it ourselves and explain to others how they can have it. Thus, in the eagerness of human nature, we make faith a work and grace is thrown out. Of course, such man-made ‘faith’ is counterfeit, since true faith is not a work.
In examining myself, I see that I do believe in Jesus, I do trust him as my Saviour. I know I have been born again since I have a living hope in Jesus. Where does this come from? Shall I congratulate myself? Or is the honour and glory due to God alone?
It is all of grace from beginning to end. My justification came through a faith worked in me by the Holy Spirit. My sanctification continues by the working of God’s will in my life by the Holy Spirit. And my glorification has been (and will be finally and completely) brought about by his power alone.
Faith and grace are intimately linked together, because both are the work of almighty God.