The Spirit Gives Faith, and Puts It To Work
Many of us see faith itself as if it were something you had to do or learn in order for God to love you and save you. Maybe it's right beliefs (orthodoxy), or right actions (orthopraxy). Maybe it's having common cause on the right issues. Some even think we're saved by 'love' -- by which is meant our own meaning of love and our own ability to love. When these ways of trying to save ourselves falter -- and they will -- we look at ourselves as cursed, even eternally damned.
We're starting in the wrong place. The first thing we need is something we can't do for ourselves. We can't make the faith that will help us out of the fix we're in. Only God can create it in us. Luther was furious (as was his way) at medieval theologians such as Duns Scotus who could speak so grandly of an 'acquired faith' that we can get for (or make within) ourselves. He went back to the Bible to show that the only faith that counts is that which is 'poured in' to us by the Spirit. Faith does not spring forth from our inmost self, no matter how much spirituality we practice or how many loving deeds we do. It comes from outside of us and then lodges itself inside of us. It's not our senses which give us faith, but the Spirit through the Word of God, who then lights up and directs our senses and our reasoning. It's not how strong your faith is, but it's who you have faith in. We can't have a right faith by anything we do, but only by what is given to us by the Holy Spirit.
God's track record of being faithful to us can lead us to being faithful to God. God's stubborn, and doesn't give up on us or give in to us. It's hard to win the trust of folks who've been betrayed and manipulated as often as today's people. But God's way of doing things -- God's character and stick-to-it love -- is how real trust is built and how surreal cynicism is killed. It is a slowly-built response to true character, and not something one 'chooses' like clothing or brand of cola. It's like, 'how could you not choose to trust someone so worthy of trust?'
Faith is caught like a disease, not taught like a subject. It grasps us, shapes our passions, travels all over our systems, and redefines who we are. In that way, faith becomes truly our own. We open up to it in hope because the Spirit works through other people who live their faith honestly and bear its message to those who haven't grasped it yet. It is done and shown in concrete ways of daily living, and in 'moments of truth' where matters of faith most clearly make the key, mission-critical difference.
Faith trusts God to forgive us. It trusts that God will make us holy. It trusts that God will make us effective. Faith trusts that God never abandons us.
Faith is what the Spirit uses to light the fires within you. When the Holy Spirit gets to work inside of you, the Spirit causes an internal revolution. All of your life gets turned in God's direction -- thoughts, aspirations, behavioral standards, priorities, and such. It's not just about how you come to Christ, but how you live your life by way of Christ. The Spirit works overtime to lead us to be obedient (Romans 8:4; Philippians 2:13; 2 Corinthians 3:5). The Spirit does this through faith.
The Word-Field of 'Faith'
- confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, an idea, or a thing.
- belief which does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.
- loyalty or allegiance to a person or thing; especially, holding to a promise.
- the theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God's will.
Faith leads to unswerving action, devotion, and direction of one's self, and is often charged with emotion.
There can be more or less faith, and stronger or weaker faith, even though there's no direct way of measuring it. It's not a constant in people; it's different with each moment and situation. It can go untested for long periods of time, but life will eventually put it to the test. Faith can be strengthened and it can become weak. Weak faith leads to fear and inaction. You can pray that God will give more faith to you or to someone else.
There's more on other English-language words which cover much of the same turf as 'faith', in our definitions pages. Check them out. In what ways do these words describe how God is toward you, or how you are toward God or toward the gospel message?
Faith is related to promise. Think of it this way: it's faith that the One you have faith in will act as promised.
- Without some sort of a promise, there's nothing to have faith in;
- Through faith, we grasp God's promises;
- God fulfills these promises for free;
- We can be confident in God's promises (Genesis 15:16; Mark 11:22)
- "to have faith means to want and to accept the promised offer of forgiveness of sins and justification" (Phillip Melanchthon, Apology IV, 48)
Because God is worthy of trust, God's promises can comfort the sin-sick soul and the troubled conscience. You're not dealing with a Cosmic Invisible Man who gets his divine jollies out of tossing you forever into a blazing inferno. You're dealing with a God who wants to be a part of your life and wants you to be a part of God's. The Letter To the Hebrews, chapter 11, recounts how the greats of ancient Israel acted powerfully on faith. 'Christ is calling you', the Spirit says. The comfort comes when we embrace God's promises and surrender to God's love. God's promises become personal when we experience them for ourselves: the body and blood of Jesus were shed for me.
To a Christian, faith is confidence and assurance, but it's not self-confidence or self-assurance. It's confidence in Someone Else who you know can do anything but wants to do it with you. It's a confidence you can live by. It's confidence that even if this Someone isn't 'on your side' of an issue or battle or dispute, this Someone is 'by your side' working to make good things come of your life. That Someone is Christ, who is there in your faith, thanks to what the Spirit does in you.
back to top
How Are We Rescued?
- You aren't saved by what you know or how much you know, or how well you know it. The Creator Of the Universe leaves us in the dust on that. Besides, the more you know, the more there is to learn. On most things, we know just enough to really mess things up. And that's assuming our motives are good, which they often aren't.
- You aren't saved by the tendency of most people of good conscience towards the act of believing. Americans and their counterparts in Scandinavia and England generally have faith in faith itself. But having faith in faith is no different than having faith in a molded calf, an ethnic heritage, a social ideal, a political platform, a romantic partner, a stock portfolio, or even a 'religion' as such: it is powerless to do anything to set you right with God, and can actually get in the way. Faith does no ultimate good unless it is faith in the One who could -- and did -- deliver on the promises. In faith we acknowledge the real cause for hope, confess that we can't help ourselves, and trust Jesus with it all. The Spirit creates the momentum for it.
- You aren't saved by believing the right things. Unorthodox believers (like Origen and Tertullian in the past, and like some of the people best known today as Christians) can be helpful with this, because just by being there they remind us that neither doctrine nor dogma nor hierarchy nor institution nor office are faith.
- You aren't saved by being right about issues of the day. Those we make common cause with are not saved by that common cause, no matter how Christlike that cause is.
- Doing right does not itself save you, no matter how much your right living might be in line with God's commands. (Though, you would be headed in the right direction.)
- You are not saved by being 'nice' or by being 'loving' -- you can never be nice enough or loving enough to merit God's attention.
You are saved by Jesus, through the faith God put into you.
back to top
Faith is Illogical
Faith in Christ does not 'make sense'. If it depended on factual knowledge or mental logic, it wouldn't hold. Current fact does not define our future. If Abraham depended on factual knowledge, like, say, the relative comfort of his homeland in Mesopotamia or his advanced age, he wouldn't have stepped forward in a way that would have affected the generations that followed him. The evidence of history is that if you fully trust God, you get executed -- Peter, Paul, Stephen, numerous prophets, numerous martyrs, and most of all Jesus. What kind of a worthless God is that? The Christian claim, however, is that after being executed, Jesus returned from the dead, and continues to be at work today. If that is true, then God really has decided to act, spurred by divine love for us. Jesus' followers, who saw Him when He returned from the dead, report that Jesus said the same thing would happen to those who follow Him. A Christian is someone who trusts that this is so. But since we don't personally know anyone who has returned from the dead, this trust is faith, not knowledge. Each morning the Christian steps forward into each new day of the unknown based on this faith, trusting that the day ahead is in the hands of God's love.
Faithful folks with no position or rank give God's love and grace every day in tough circumstances, creating (or better, discovering) sacred space when and where something happens to reveal where real hope is found. Yes, it sometimes seems weirdly superstitious and merely coincidental, but real spiritual meaning may lay beneath the superstitious surface, and people of faith don't believe in coincidence. At the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster, there was a series of 'coincidences' that sustained the hope of those who worked the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero (and through them, the rest of us). The most stunning 'coincidence' was when beams of steel stuck in the ground together in the pattern of a cross. Within moments, those at the scene understood what this cross meant : the God who suffered on a cross for us was now suffering with us over this large-scale human cruelty. No theologian had to interpret. No translators were needed. No priest had to come and bless it (they soon came to bless it, but that's after everyone knew what it was). It marked not just a burial plot, but sacred ground. I was surprised at how many agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Jews and even hard-edged media types got the point of such a Christian symbol. You didn't have to be strongly Catholic, like most of the firemen, to grasp it. Today's world levels the playing field, and a flatter field means there are new opportunities for holy space and meaningful symbols, and the loving use of the Spirit's gifts by faithful people.
Get Out Of Jail
The century that just passed saw many thousands of people criss-crossing the globe to share Christ with others who hadn't considered the message of Christ. Whether they wanted to or not, what they often created was a photocopy of their own belief system, followed by attempts by the new believers to amend their lives on their own strength. That sounds spiritually ill, but a very real and vibrant 'baby' faith in Christ was often kicking around beneath that belief system. Too often, this baby faith couldn't get out and grow up because it was shaped to be trust in a belief system more than a faith in Jesus.
The soul does not really know it is freed from the prison of sin. It still acts as if it must saw away at the shackles and dig a hole out of prison, and then follow a sketchy set of blueprints to make an exit. The good news is that the cell door is already open, the guards have fled, and the shackles are off of their moorings. All the work has already been done by someone else, and the coast is clear. Yet if we just sit there, or keep digging, we're still in jail. Anyone who doesn't use this opportunity is no less of a prisoner than before.
If Christ is not God's living communication with us, then religious behavior is a sick diversion, an illusion, maybe even a sham.
The Holy Spirit is:
- The only One who can bring Christ's authority, Christ's righteousness, or for that matter, Christ Himself, into anyone,
- The only One who connects the Sacraments with all of what makes us who we are,
- The only One who can bring us into awareness and acceptance of God's mission for us,
- The only One who gives birth to the New You.
Christ engineered this jailbreak for you. Have you escaped yet?
Some questions on faith:
- What was your earliest thought about Jesus (the earliest one you can remember)?
- How did you feel about what you were thinking?
- Did it carry through to your behavior in any way?
- Did you share it with anyone?
Quotations on Faith
"Faith...comes only when the outward fact penetrates to the inner heart of man and takes possession of him there -- and this is the work of the Spirit."
------ George Hendry, *The Holy Spirit in Christian Theology*.
"Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope."
------ Herman Melville, *Moby-Dick*
"The greatest art in life is to believe in Christ. That art is learned only in the Holy Spirit's school."
------ Christian Scriver
"Faith, if it be true faith, is a sure trust and confidence of the heart, and a firm consent whereby Christ is apprehended: so that Christ is the object of faith, yea, rather he is not the object, but, as it were, in the faith itself Christ is present."
------ Martin Luther
"Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."
------ H. L. Mencken
"By faith we receive the saving grace of God that delivers us from guilt and sin. In love we participate in the victorious struggle of God against the principalities and powers of evil."
------ Gabriel Fackre, *A Christian Story*, p.203
"If knowing answers to life's questions is absolutely necessary to you, then forget the journey. You will never make it, for this is a journey of unknowables -- of unanswered questions, enigmas, incomprehensibles, and, most of all, things unfair."
------ Jeanne Guyon, in *Spiritual Torrents*
"Faith is deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not understand at the time."
------ Oswald Chambers
"Whoever throws away love will not retain
faith, however strong it may be, for that person does not retain the Holy Spirit."
------ Book of Concord, 153:219, Kolb/Wengert transl. (Apology, Art IV : Justification)
"You pay a great deal too dear for what's given freely"
------ William Shakespeare, *The Winter's Tale*, 1.1.18
"Faith is the bird
that feels the light and sings
while the dawn is still dark"
------ Rabindranath Tagore
"Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all."
------ G.K. Chesterton, *Orthodoxy*
"To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless."
------ G. K. Chesterton
An old preachers' story.
(This version found on-line.)
A preacher was caught in a horrific flood, and a man in a canoe offered to evacuate him. "No, I put my faith in the Lord to save me," he said. After being forced to the roof of his porch, another man in a speedboat offered assistance. "No, I put my faith in the Lord to save me," he again responded. Eventually forced to the highest point of his chimney, a Coast Guard helicopter attempted rescue but was turned away in the same manner.
The preacher drowned and went before the Lord. "Why didn't you honor my faith and save me?", he asked. "What do you mean, I didn't?" the Lord replied. "I sent you two boats and a helicopter!!"
back to top