Re-post: What is Faith — Really?

A Sunday School lad was asked what he thought the word “faith” meant. He said, “Faith means believing what you know ain’t so.”

The boy’s response may seem extreme, but not entirely off-base because, at times, what you call faith may seem almost non-existent. There is a God; of that you’re sure. But when unexpected adversity strikes, the robust faith that others seem to have is just not there for you. It leaves you asking: what is faith — really?

Here’s an answer right out of the Scriptures: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Heb. 11:1).

The first word of importance here is hope. We usually use the word in mundane ways: “After college. I hope to go to graduate school.” Or “I hope the doctor’s report will be positive.” What we get from such sentences is that hope means optimism about our unforeseen future, and we all need some of that.

But the author of Hebrews uses the word in a much more comprehensive way. It has to do not only with the world our five senses experience but also with the unseen world our spiritual senses engage – the world where God dwells. Elsewhere the writer says that hope is “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure,” and this anchor binds us to where “Jesus who went before us” is (Heb. 6:19,20).

Faith insists that there is more to reality than what we perceive in the moment. In fact, this broader understanding of reality makes one think of St. Paul’s caution to the Corinthian church: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men (1 Cor. 15:19). We believe that Christ was raised from the dead, and based on that belief we must hold our promised resurrection dear.

So, when the author of the Hebrews says “Faith is being sure of what we hope for” he is saying that our trust in Christ for both time and eternity gives us a certainty that anchors the life we live here and now – this life with its hurts and disappointments as well as its pleasures and surprises. This faith makes us sure of Christ; we are sure of our salvation; we are sure that Our Lord will not leave us alone in the tough times; and this faith makes us sure that our faith in Christ makes our eternal future in him secure.

The author of the Hebrews tells us also that faith makes us “certain of what we do not see” — at least what we do not see with our physical eyes. Here again reality for Christians has a broader perspective than just the here-and-now. We have eyes to see in this life and we use them with joy, but there is a larger reality that goes beyond the physical act of seeing. When Jesus promised his disciples that, “where I am you will be also” he was thinking with this larger vision (John 14:3). When this faith is fully exercised, it grounds our lives in a certainty. Call it Heaven.

We need not be in a hurry to get there. We don’t have to renounce the goodness of our present life or our challenges as God presents them in the here-and-now. The call to faith is never a call to be gloomy. In fact, our life needs this broader perspective in order for us to function with strength and joy in the present. So, authentic Christian faith makes us “certain of what we do not see.”

Is there another way to say this? Eugene Peterson in THE MESSAGE paraphrases the verse from Hebrews this way: “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living.”

And Oswald Chambers had a fix on the realities of this kind of faith when he wrote, “Faith is a deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not understand at the time.”

Again, Rabindranath Tagore understood that faith makes us adequate and keeps us calm when the stresses of the here-and-now are severe. He wrote: “Faith is a bird that feels dawn breaking and sings while it is still dark.”

So, the faith we are called to in the Scriptures is really the opposite of “believing what we know ain’t so.” It is being assured of the reality of what we hope for (in Christ) and made certain of what we do not see (with our physical eyes but do see with our spiritual eyes). We know what faith is and, taken this way, it gives us solid footing for life!


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Photo credit: deiseldemon (via flickr.com)

What Book Should Come Next to the Bible?

Classic catechismHere’s a vote for the catechism!

A catechism is a summary of the doctrines of the Christian faith. It is usually set down in questions and answers, presented as simply as possible. The questions and answers are meant for memorization and cover the major doctrines of the church.

Throughout history catechisms have been used to instruct children of believers and in new fields new converts as well.

Catechisms have always been a part of the Christian Church from its earliest days. The Reformation produced Luther’s Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Larger Westminster Catechism, and on and on. I call catechisms embryonic theology.

Here are two examples of catechetical questions:

Question: “What is the first truth found in the Bible?”
Answer: “That there is a God.” (Genesis 1:1)

Here’s another: “If God is everywhere, why don’t we see Him?”
Answer: “Because God is pure Spirit and cannot be seen with bodily eyes.” (Exodus 33:20; John 4:24)

The Reverend Russell Veldman, pastor of the Free Methodist Church in Lawrenceville, Illinois, had an unusual reason for setting about to produce a catechism. Back in 2004 when he and his wife, Jennifer, were awaiting the birth of their daughter, Kiran, he was looking ahead to be sure there would be such a booklet to use for basic instruction in Christian doctrine when she was old enough.

Reverend Veldman had been raised in a congregation of the Reformed Church of America and had been “catechized” as a young boy. Though he is now a Wesleyan in theology, the importance of this catechizing had left a permanent impression on him.

The catechism he began developing was intended only for family use. But he found starting with a blank page made for a heavy task. Investigating, he discovered an original Free Methodist Catechism had been prepared for the young denomination by the four bishops serving the church in 1902.

He also found that this catechism had been republished in 1952, and for the next nearly half century had been a part of the curriculum for children and young people.

Working from the 1952 Free Methodist catechism as a base he updated certain words and replaced King James language with New International Version language. He also included a few further questions that seemed to him necessary.

When he tested his family project on adult Sunday School classes the interest this generated surprised him. Eventually the project was approved for use by the Free Methodist Church-USA, and published as the Classic Catechism.

Based on experiences in his own church he recommends that it be used for special Sunday School classes that encompass ages from early youth into adulthood. Or, taking three questions at a time, it can be used in Sunday evening services. Once the learners experience its value, he reports, they receive it with enthusiasm.

This valuable resource has not yet been fully discovered by North American pastors but churches in Asia are receiving it with enthusiasm. Bishop Narendra John from India came upon a copy and said, “This is what we need”.

Bishop John noted that in some places in India the only book a pastor has is the Bible, and he reported that he has been able to translate and publish 2000 copies of this catechism for a mere $700.

The Classic Catechism now exists in six languages in the Free Methodist denomination in Asia and more are being added.

How important is all this to an evangelical body of the 21st century?

Considering the special place catechisms have filled in a wide range of Christian communions across history, and the effectiveness with which they give understanding to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, the claim may well be true that the catechism is the second most important book to the church after the Sacred Scriptures.

Re-post: Do Christians Worship One God or Three?

Muslims charge that Christians worship three gods. Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses make the same accusation. The word, Trinity, offends them.

Even some Christians are vague about what Trinity means because it seems mysterious. Mysterious indeed: God reveals himself first as one God, and, at the same time, as three Persons in one Godhead.

When God addressed Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3) Moses’ world reeked with many gods. He knew that. Yet, Moses did not ask, “Which God is this now?” From the beginning, it was revealed to him that there was only one true God to reckon with.

Listen to the Shema of the Old Testament: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). In that ancient world teeming with gods, the Old Testament holds Jehovah to be “the Sovereign Lord” (Hab. 3:19).

The New Testament continues the claim. During Jesus’ forty-day fast, Satan tried to entice Jesus to worship him. Jesus said, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’” (Lk. 4:8).

At the same time, Scriptures show that this One God manifests himself in three persons, and this reality is set forth repeatedly.

After the resurrection, Thomas worshiped the risen Savior. He exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.” If this declaration had been false but Jesus had accepted it, his acceptance would have been blasphemous. Instead, later the Apostle John reinforces Thomas’s declaration. He testifies of Jesus, “the Word was God” (John 1:1).

But what about the Holy Spirit? In the early church, when a couple named Ananias and Sapphira tried to deceive Peter over a money gift, Peter saw through their ruse. He said to Ananias, “… you have lied to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3). Then he added, “You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4). It is not possible to lie to a mere influence. The Holy Spirit is obviously more than a feeling or an influence. He is “personal.” He is God, the Spirit.

So, Jesus, at his baptism “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove” and heard the voice of the Father saying, “This is my Son whom I love” (Matt.3:16, 17). In that moment we have the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in one event of revelation.

During the first four hundred years of the early church, the church fathers wrestled with these affirmations made in both Testaments. To give them order, they formulated this precious truth under the title of the Trinity.

They said, God is one in “essence” and three in “persons.” He must be worshiped without dividing the essence or confusing the persons. God the Father rules over all; God the Son is our Redeemer; God the Spirit is our sanctifier.

He is one God manifesting himself in three persons. The hymn our congregation sang to conclude worship on a recent Sunday morning included the following words:

Laud and honor to the Father,/ Laud and honor to the Son,/

Laud and honor to the Spirit,/ Ever Three and Ever One./

We sing this 700-year-old hymn in praise to our God who is revealed to us as the Three-in-One – the God who creates, redeems and sanctifies us.

If this truth still mystifies you, remember that it is in our worship of the God who is three-in-one that we come closest to grasping the reality of this great mystery of the Christian faith.

When we pray, “Our Father which art in Heaven” we worship the one and only God. When we say of Jesus, “He is Lord and Savior,” we acknowledge the one and only God. When we entreat the Holy Spirit to intercede for us, we entreat the one and only God. Three persons in one Godhead!

Let us worship our God!

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Can A Loving God Also Be Wrathful?

PCUSAThe new hymn, In Christ Alone, sets the Gospel in fine, tightly-knit lyrics, with singable music.

But in one case it has raised a serious theological question. A hymnal committee of the Presbyterian Church (USA) wants to include the hymn in its upcoming new hymnal, but they want to change one line.

The hymn as written says, “On that cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.”  The hymnal committee wants this to say instead, “On that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” The composers will not agree to the change.

The hymnal committee would probably argue, how can the holy God whose love for sinners is boundless also be wrathful against their sins?

Consider the following analogy: The father of two boys loves them deeply. Throughout the community his love for them is observed and admired.

But one day as the father is walking home from work he glances down an alley and sees a big ruffian known to be a drug dealer taking them by force towards a nearby car.

Does the father stand there and say to himself, “Everyone knows of my great love for my sons; I am too loving to be angry about what I see.”  Instead, laying his life on the line, and at great risk, the father goes into action. Each state of mind — love and wrath — shows the other state to be real. Both compel him to do what’s necessary to rescue his sons.

We see this to an infinite degree in the character of God. Except that his wrath is more than the deep passing anger that humans experience. Wrath has to do with his settled and relentless opposition to sin. This is presented clearly in both Old and New Testaments.

In fact, in making his case to the young church in Rome for salvation through faith in Christ the Apostle Paul’s very first sentence refers to the wrath of God as follows: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18).

In that same letter he refers at least eight times to God’s wrath against sin. God’s wrath is the other side of his measureless love for sinners.

Moreover, the Psalter speak of God’s wrath at least 26 times and this sacred Psalter is the hymn book of the ancient church, used regularly in worship.

So what is to be done about God’s wrath? To identify fully with the predicament of mankind in our sins and to appease the wrath of a holy God against sin, Jesus came to die a substitutionary death offered for all, but given to those who turn to him in faith for salvation.

When we truly feel our plight as sinners we are drawn to Calvary where we understand that all sin is an offence to God’s holy character but God loves sinners enough provide a way to escape its consequences.

Here are the words to the contemporary hymn in question:

 

In Christ alone my hope is found

He is my light, my strength, my song;

This cornerstone, this solid ground,

Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace,

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My comforter, my all in all —

Here in the love of Christ I stand.

 

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,

Fullness of God in helpless babe!

This gift of love and righteousness,

Scorned by the ones he came to save.

Till on that cross as Jesus died,

The wrath of God was satisfied,

For every sin on him was laid —

Here in the death of Christ I live.

 

There in the ground his body lay,

Light of the world by darkness slain;

Then bursting forth in glorious day,

Up from the grave He rose again!

And as he stands in victory,

Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;

For I am His and He is mine —

Bought with the precious love of Christ.

 

No guilt in life, no fear in death —

This is the pow’r of Christ in me;

From life’s first cry to final breath,

Jesus commands my destiny.

No power of hell, no scheme of man,

Can ever pluck me from his hand,

Till he returns or calls me home —

Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.*

The essence of the Gospel pulsates in these lines. God’s wrath against sin is not to be trivialized or wished out of existence. But God’s love for sinners shines brightly into our lives from Calvary.

* Words and music by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend

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Do Christians Worship One God or Three?

Muslims charge that Christians worship three gods. Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses make the same accusation. The word, Trinity, offends them.

Even some Christians are vague about what Trinity means because it seems mysterious. Mysterious indeed: God reveals himself first as one God, and, at the same time, as three Persons in one Godhead.

When God addressed Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3) Moses’ world reeked with many gods. He knew that. Yet, Moses did not ask, “Which God is this now?” From the beginning, it was revealed to him that there was only one true God to reckon with.

Listen to the Shema of the Old Testament: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). In that ancient world teeming with gods, the Old Testament holds Jehovah to be “the Sovereign Lord” (Hab. 3:19).

The New Testament continues the claim. During Jesus’ forty-day fast, Satan tried to entice Jesus to worship him. Jesus said, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’” (Lk. 4:8).

At the same time, Scriptures show that this One God manifests himself in three persons, and this reality is set forth repeatedly.

After the resurrection, Thomas worshiped the risen Savior. He exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.” If this declaration had been false but Jesus had accepted it, his acceptance would have been blasphemous. Instead, later the Apostle John reinforces Thomas’s declaration. He testifies of Jesus, “the Word was God” (John 1:1).

But what about the Holy Spirit? In the early church, when a couple named Ananias and Sapphira tried to deceive Peter over a money gift, Peter saw through their ruse. He said to Ananias, “… you have lied to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3). Then he added, “You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4). It is not possible to lie to a mere influence. The Holy Spirit is obviously more than a feeling or an influence. He is “personal.” He is God, the Spirit.

So, Jesus, at his baptism “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove” and heard the voice of the Father saying, “This is my Son whom I love” (Matt.3:16, 17). In that moment we have the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in one event of revelation.

During the first four hundred years of the early church, the church fathers wrestled with these affirmations made in both Testaments. To give them order, they formulated this precious truth under the title of the Trinity.

They said, God is one in “essence” and three in “persons.” He must be worshiped without dividing the essence or confusing the persons. God the Father rules over all; God the Son is our Redeemer; God the Spirit is our sanctifier.

He is one God manifesting himself in three persons. The hymn our congregation sang to conclude worship on a recent Sunday morning included the following words:

Laud and honor to the Father,/ Laud and honor to the Son,/

Laud and honor to the Spirit,/ Ever Three and Ever One./

We sing this 700-year-old hymn in praise to our God who is revealed to us as the Three-in-One – the God who creates, redeems and sanctifies us.

If this truth still mystifies you, remember that it is in our worship of the God who is three-in-one that we come closest to grasping the reality of this great mystery of the Christian faith.

When we pray, “Our Father which art in Heaven” we worship the one and only God. When we say of Jesus, “He is Lord and Savior,” we acknowledge the one and only God. When we entreat the Holy Spirit to intercede for us, we entreat the one and only God. Three persons in one Godhead!

Let us worship our God!

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When the Church is Grounded in Truth

Kathleen and I read and discuss a chapter from the Scriptures together every morning. I wish you could have been with us for that exercise today.

The passage was Acts 6, telling how the young church resolved a social problem. The church at that time was made up of Jews, but some of them spoke Hebrew and others spoke Greek. Among both groups there were widows who were being supported by the benevolence of the church. But the Greek-speakers complained that their widows were being overlooked when the food was distributed.

The early church was a vigorous movement, not shackled with the complexities of today’s more institutionalized church. Nevertheless, they showed focus in the church’s primary duty — to proclaim — and administrative savvy — to respond — when an internal problem arose that needed addressing.

Here’s how the Apostles engaged the whole body of new Christians:

They themselves clearly held primary authority, but they did not rule autocratically. Instead they called the believers together to seek their assistance. This displayed a wonderful example of openness and shared responsibility.

First, the Apostles cast the problem in terms of right and wrong: “It would not be right for us,” they said, “to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”

They asked the large body of believers to choose seven men who would be assigned to deal with this disturbing problem. They were to be men full of the Holy Spirit (foremost) and wisdom (God-anointed common sense).

The seven were consecrated by the laying on of hands and put to the task of caring for the apparent inequity among the widows. At the same time, the Apostles underlined that their own first priority was to “give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Proclamation and teaching must dominate.

How the young church went about this choosing is not known since the number of converts had swelled into the thousands. Interestingly, the seven who were chosen all have Greek names and they are likely Greek-speakers. Stephen, the first-named, stands out as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”

Although set apart to serve in administrative ways, Stephen is singled out as a miracle worker and a strong proclaimer of the word. This got him into trouble. First, some members of a Greek-speaking synagogue began to argue with him, but they were no match for his wisdom and the energy of the Spirit he possessed.

So they went a step further and rounded up some false witnesses, plying them with lies. This stirred up the masses and irritated the city elders and teachers of the law. Stephen was dragged before the Sanhedrin – the most influential court of the Jews.

Fearlessly he spoke to this body, and his speech cost him his life. But as they stoned him a man named Saul of Tarsus was looking on.

Here’s what appears to stand out for us today. To be effective in our world, the church must be committed to the truth of the Gospel in all aspects of its life — in preaching, administration, facing of opposition, and seizing its opportunities.

The Apostles had a keen sense of their primary duty to preach the word of God, so they could speak about that duty in terms of right and wrong. Not better or worse. Not preferred or unsuitable. What they were to do was right and to neglect it would have been wrong.

There is the same sense of “oughtness” with regard to the needs of the Greek-speaking widows. The Apostles acknowledged the need, set the number at seven, and called the community to assist in the choices. It was done cleanly, openly. In reading the account one gets a sense of clarity and truth.

The issue of truth is critical today because truth — as the Scriptures see truth — is under attack. The Psalmist prays: “Surely you desire truth in the inward parts.” Jesus said, “I am the truth.” He also said repeatedly, “I tell you the truth.” John writes that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The Apostle Paul encouraged the Galatian Christians to “speak the truth in love.” When we read the story of Stephen we feel like we’re reading about the embodiment of truth.

The relativism regarding truth is so wide-spread in our times that it makes it harder, sometimes even for Christians, to face many issues of life as either right or wrong. This episode from the functioning of the early church challenges us to give ourselves to God’s truth in the proclamation of his word and in the administration of his church.

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What is Faith — Really?

A Sunday School lad was asked what he thought the word “faith” meant. He said, “Faith means believing what you know ain’t so.”

The boy’s response may seem extreme, but not entirely off-base because, at times, what you call faith may seem almost non-existent. There is a God; of that you’re sure. But when unexpected adversity strikes, the robust faith that others seem to have is just not there for you. It leaves you asking: what is faith — really?

Here’s an answer right out of the Scriptures: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Heb. 11:1).

The first word of importance here is hope. We usually use the word in mundane ways: “After college. I hope to go to graduate school.” Or “I hope the doctor’s report will be positive.” What we get from such sentences is that hope means optimism about our unforeseen future, and we all need some of that.

But the author of Hebrews uses the word in a much more comprehensive way. It has to do not only with the world our five senses experience but also with the unseen world our spiritual senses engage – the world where God dwells. Elsewhere the writer says that hope is “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure,” and this anchor binds us to where “Jesus who went before us” is (Heb. 6:19,20).

Faith insists that there is more to reality than what we perceive in the moment. In fact, this broader understanding of reality makes one think of St. Paul’s caution to the Corinthian church: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men (1 Cor. 15:19). We believe that Christ was raised from the dead, and based on that belief we must hold our promised resurrection dear.

So, when the author of the Hebrews says “Faith is being sure of what we hope for” he is saying that our trust in Christ for both time and eternity gives us a certainty that anchors the life we live here and now – this life with its hurts and disappointments as well as its pleasures and surprises. This faith makes us sure of Christ; we are sure of our salvation; we are sure that Our Lord will not leave us alone in the tough times; and this faith makes us sure that our faith in Christ makes our eternal future in him secure.

The author of the Hebrews tells us also that faith makes us “certain of what we do not see” — at least what we do not see with our physical eyes. Here again reality for Christians has a broader perspective than just the here-and-now. We have eyes to see in this life and we use them with joy, but there is a larger reality that goes beyond the physical act of seeing. When Jesus promised his disciples that, “where I am you will be also” he was thinking with this larger vision (John 14:3). When this faith is fully exercised, it grounds our lives in a certainty. Call it Heaven.

We need not be in a hurry to get there. We don’t have to renounce the goodness of our present life or our challenges as God presents them in the here-and-now. The call to faith is never a call to be gloomy. In fact, our life needs this broader perspective in order for us to function with strength and joy in the present. So, authentic Christian faith makes us “certain of what we do not see.”

Is there another way to say this? Eugene Peterson in THE MESSAGE paraphrases the verse from Hebrews this way: “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living.”

And Oswald Chambers had a fix on the realities of this kind of faith when he wrote, “Faith is a deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not understand at the time.”

Again, Rabindranath Tagore understood that faith makes us adequate and keeps us calm when the stresses of the here-and-now are severe. He wrote: “Faith is a bird that feels dawn breaking and sings while it is still dark.”

So, the faith we are called to in the Scriptures is really the opposite of “believing what we know ain’t so.” It is being assured of the reality of what we hope for (in Christ) and made certain of what we do not see (with our physical eyes but do see with our spiritual eyes). We know what faith is and, taken this way, it gives us solid footing for life!


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