Sunday, October 12, 2014


Faith (Oct 2, 2014) 1 Cor 13: 13 says “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.” Well, the greatest might be love...but the first of them is faith. And we are going to talk about faith this morning. :-)

Now, in this morning’s key verse we see three important concepts: faith, hope, and love. These are the bulwarks of God’s Kingdom. These are the sacred elements of the gospel. Elsewhere in the Bible, we read that “the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love. [Gal 5:6]” Can you imagine? “The only thing that matters!”? Faith, hope and love must be exceedingly important to God. But whenever something is important in God’s economy, you can be sure that the enemy has a strategy to undermine it. So it is no surprise that the enemy either attacks the church where love is concerned or he attacks the church where faith is concerned. How does this happen? Very simple: the enemy would like to deceive us into thinking that we aren’t being loving when we really are, or that we are being loving when we really aren’t. Of course, this happens all too often. Similarly, the enemy would like to deceive us into thinking that we aren’t exercising faith when we really are, or that we’re exercising faith when we really aren’t. Isn’t that devious? It isn’t a “fair fight” at all. Instead, the enemy wants to undermine the things that are important in the church to render us ineffective in the world.

So it should come as no surprise that even the definition of faith is so often mangled. Faith is so misunderstood. But this is partly the fault of the church! If we let our enemy define the terms that are so valuable to us, we’ve already lost half the battle! Here are some bogus definitions of faith that seem current among some people today...

"Faith: belief in the absence of evidence - perhaps even in opposition to the evidence" - Richard Dawkins. Here is someone who defines faith in the absence of evidence, perhaps even in opposition to the evidence, but he believes his own definition anyway.

"Faith: pretending to know what you don't know" - Peter Boghossian. Here is someone else who pretends to know how to define faith, when he really doesn't.

Instead of that nonsense, let’s find out what the Bible tells us about faith. But before we go there, I’d like to tell you what the English language means by the word, and in order to get there, I’d like us to look at a related word: the word “faithful”. After all, the Bible introduces “faithfulness” long before it introduces “faith”. So my strategy this morning is one that I share with the Bible -- the Bible uses the word “faithful” 170 times before it uses “faith” three times! So what do we mean by the word “faithful”. Oxford and Webster agree on three meanings or three senses of the word. Originally, these three senses of the word were very close together, but over centuries, we now think of them differently. So today, we’re doing a bit of linguistic archaeology. By tracing the divergence of the word “faithful” back - by seeing the intersection of these three different meanings, we can get a better understanding of the word “faith”. These three senses (or meanings) of the word “faithful” are: tenacious -- “loyal”/“dependable” true -- “genuine” trusting -- “full of faith” The first definition is perhaps the most common one in use today, and the one in play when we say the phrase “faithful to the end”. It indicates that being faithful involves never giving up. It means that you can be counted on the make it to the end of the course. And in Greek, the end of the course is an idea very closely resembling the “purpose” of it all. So to be faithful is to be tenacious for a purpose. How about that second definition? Well, when a movie-maker turns a book into a movie, and she takes care to be true to the original material, we say that the movie is “faithful to the book”, don’t we? This sense of the word tells us that faith is being true to the source, or the author. So to be faithful is to be true to a person. Now the final definition isn’t in common use anymore, but most good dictionaries still include it. And this definition reminds us that faith is closely related to trust, as we all know. In the first century, when the New Testament was written, the most common context for “faith” was the faith that one had toward a patron. It represented a relationship between a lesser person and a greater person. The lesser person received favor from the greater person, and in return pledged faith toward that patron. It was an expression of faithfulness to look to one’s patron for help. It was also an expression of faithfulness to provide service to one’s patron. Remember how we started? “the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love.” Love is the service appropriate to our faith-relationship with God. These faith-relationships were part of the fabric of society when the New Testament was written, and everyone understood it back then. Unfortunately, we’ve lost sight of this fact: Biblical faith always involves a relationship. To be faithful is to be trusting in a patron. So let’s summarize: Faith is trusting in a patron. Faith is being true to a person. Faith is being tenacious for a purpose. Before we continue, let me just point out that faith is never “alone”. We do not have faith in faith. According to the original understanding of the word, we always have faith in someone. Each of these definitions requires its object. Trusting doesn’t make any sense on its own. The obvious question is “In whom are you trusting?” And being true doesn’t make any sense on its own. The obvious question is “To whom are you being true?” And being tenacious doesn’t make any sense on its own. The obvious question is “For whom are you being tenacious?” With this in mind, let’s turn to the verse in scripture that tells us the most about faith. Of course, I’m referring to Hebrews… chapter… twelve! (and verse 2). (If you thought this was going to be chapter eleven, don’t be too hard on yourself -- you were just one chapter off): “...let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (version?)

In particular, I’d like to focus on those eleven words (in English - seven in Greek) underlined above. We fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. The first thing to notice is that the focus of our faith is our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Indeed, he is our patron in a faith-relationship. We pledge faith to him, and on his part he offers us salvation.

But what about the rest of that underlined phrase? Isn’t that an interesting expression? What does it mean to be the pioneer of What does it mean to be the perfecter of Well, if we look at the Greek words, they can mean other things that can help us understand. The word for “pioneer” can also be translated “author” or “source”! Similarly, the word for “perfector” can also be translated “completion” or “purpose”!

So do you see what this verse is telling us? Jesus is simply the object of our faith in literally every sense of the word. Jesus is the patron in whom we trust. Jesus is the person to whom we are true. And Jesus is the purpose for whom we are tenacious. This Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, is the source of all trustworthiness. So naturally it is sensible to trust in him. He is also the Truth. So naturally it is sensible to be true to him. And he is not only the Creator, but he is the ultimate purpose of creation. So naturally it is sensible to be tenacious in our loyalty to him! Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  

And please also notice the example that Jesus sets for us. We trust him with the fragmented details of our lives because he promises to put together all the parts worth keeping. He promises to give us wholeness, and peace, and eternal life. And he demonstrated his ability to keep this promise by his exceptional insight into the human condition, by his remarkable compassion on those he healed from all manner of ailments, and by his rising bodily from the dead, blazing the trail for us! This Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising its shame, and sat down at God’s right hand -- so we must not grow weary or lose heart if we trust in him.

But this, of course, is the reason that tenacity is so important. You see, when we come to Jesus as our patron, we acknowledge his right to address our problems in any way he chooses. If we have Biblical faith, we give up the right to call the shots. Instead, we accept God’s salvation on His terms. The bad news is that those terms often involve trials of many kinds. But the good news is that it is always more than worth it in the end. What does the Bible say? “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” So here is the Biblical definition of faith: Tenacious trusting in the Truth (that is, Jesus). Unfortunately, we live in a day and age that isn’t very open to this message. And it might be valuable to consider why this is. You see, a large chunk of the world feels that all its needs are met by another patron -- a different patron. But there is nothing new under the sun. In Jesus time, the alternative to worshipping God was worshipping idols. And the same is true today. The only difference is that back then idols were physical. Today, not so much. As back then, most people today worship the creation rather than the Creator. And just like in Jesus day, people today are willing to sacrifice a great deal for the sake of their idols. What are the big competing idols in 2014? Some are as old as civilization itself. To identify them, one simply needs to ask, “Where do people look to solve their problems?” Some people look for solutions in economics. Typically, these are the people who are insecure about their wealth -- often very wealthy, but insecure nonetheless. Some people look to government. These feel weakness, and they are really looking for power. Others place their faith in education, feeling that knowledge addresses their problems. Still others trust in technology, wanting more control over their environment. And many, of course, think that fulfillment can be found in experience, often involving sex or substances -- revealing an insecure desire for pleasure. Finally (at least finally for this slide, I’m sure there are others that I missed), some have faith in medicine, because they feel that their health is the greatest good.

Economics, Technology, Government, Experience, Medicine, Education -- these are the things that people today look to for protection, for healing, or for fulfillment. And these things seem so much more accessible, so much more convenient, so much more popular than Jesus. Why, they might ask, would anyone prefer Jesus to iPhones, national health-care, and televised entertainment? Well, for starters, because none of these other things address the human condition in anything but the most superficial manner.

Sure: pleasure and power can distract us or help us feel better about ourselves. But history is full of stories of those who end up miserable because they found sex without love or power without friends. Sure: knowledge can stimulate us mentally and health can maintain us physically. But studies show that after subsistence, health and education do not correlate at all with personal well- being. Sure: wealth and technology have freed us from back-breaking work. But once again, they do nothing at all to address humanity’s deepest longings.

Here, I can’t help but be reminded of my daughter Grace’s experience. The summer that my oldest daughter was sixteen years old, she did a bit of traveling. Two of her weeks were spent in the Dominican Republic, a trip for which she is still grateful for your contribution. There, she worked on building projects and took care of children -- children who had barely enough clothes and food to survive. But after that, she flew to California, and spent some time with her cousins -- where everyone had an excess of everything. When she arrived home, she was fascinated by the contrast. In the DR, the children were always happy. They laughed, they played, they enjoyed the outdoors and relished in the small gifts that they were given. In California, on the other hand, nothing was ever enough. Even the newest and shiniest toys were obsolete in weeks, and they needed to be replaced by the next best thing.

A larger proportion of the world’s money has never been spent on education and medicine. But our society’s levels of depression -- to say nothing of asthma, diabetes, autism, heart and autoimmune diseases have never been higher and appear to be climbing. This is not to dismiss the successes of modern medicine or technology or education -- just to call into question whether they deserve their place in the world’s imagination as a replacement “patron” for the only true Saviour. Besides, as Jesus would remind us, “what good will it do you to gain the whole world if you forfeit your soul?”

At this point, however, even if a skeptic might be willing to concede that these substitutes may not be worthy of our faith, he would be well within his rights to call into question Jesus as an alternative. And while we do well to point people to the Bible to get a sense of the moral genius of Jesus, many have great prejudice against the Bible. Besides, people would be correct to think that if there were some truth to the Christian gospel, surely there should be evidence of its benefits. After all, while the gospel does point to a greater reality after this life, Jesus does call his followers “the light of the world” and the “salt of the earth”. If those aren’t just empty compliments, we should see evidence in the world today that at least suggests their value, right? Right! At which point, I’d like to show you a few maps… yes, really: maps!

First I’d like you to hold this image in your mind. Here we have a world map of major religions. The blue and purple countries here are those with significant (Protestant) Christian influence. Upper left; lower right... Most of these maps you will see are from wikimedia, available on the internet with presumably no political or religious affiliation. The one exception is from Freedom House -- a non-profit organization that ranks countries for personal freedom. Do you notice any correlation between those two maps? Top left; bottom right... Here’s another map: what are the best places to be born? Once again, notice the correlation? How about economic opportunity? Same deal. Education. Notice the pattern?

economic freedom
status of women
life expectancy
corruption index

Well, the skeptic would say -- and quite correctly! -- that correlation doesn’t mean causation. He might suggest that freedom and opportunity are rather a result of education or perhaps of democracy or perhaps economic freedom. Sounds reasonable enough, but did you know there also appears to be a causal link between Christianity and democracy? It is true. In 2011, Robert Woodberry published a paper that shook up the world of sociology -- it was called “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.” And it showed, with all the appropriate mathematical tools and scientific rigour, that protestant missionary activity was, more than anything else, a predictive factor toward democracy in the third world. Check out this quote from his paper:

“Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”
Isn’t that remarkable?

In fact, the strong evidence is that Jesus is more responsible for freedom, opportunity, education, economic stability, human rights and civilization than anyone or anything else in history. The most effective programs for criminal rehabilitation, for troubled teens, for alcoholics, and for drug abusers all have foundations on the person of Jesus. Study after study shows that faith in Jesus makes people experience better relationships, and live longer, healthier, more enjoyable and generous lives.

In fact, any honest appraisal of society or history gives lots of room for the truth of the Gospel. And if I had time, I’d love to show you the research on modern miracles. I’d love to call your attention to the many prophecies concerning Jesus that were fulfilled. I’d love to try to convince you of the historical fact of Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead, and the strong evidence for that. I’d love to tell you stories from my own life that indicate that Jesus is alive and active in the world today. And I’d even love to try to convince you that any honest appraisal of the state of modern science also begs for a Creator of beauty and truth and goodness and language and love. And this is Jesus -- the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

This Jesus is the patron, who, offering us so great a salvation, deserves our trust. This Jesus is the person to whom we should be true. This Jesus is the purpose for which we engage in faith -- that tenacious trusting of the Truth.

You see, as the Bible teaches, there isn’t any good thing we have that hasn’t been given to us by God. And all those good things -- power, health, wealth, pleasure, knowledge -- they come to us most genuinely when we receive them through the generosity of God. It is when we put our faith in other sources to supply these things that we get into trouble.

Of course, there are no promises in the Bible that we will have as much of these things as we want. But we are told that “our God will meet all our needs according to his riches in glory.” We are also told that “godliness with contentment is great gain”. These are only some of the “great and precious promises” that our Patron offers to us. But please don’t misunderstand. Those aren’t the reasons we trust in Jesus. Those are the results of our trusting in Jesus. If we focus on all those things - health, wealth, knowledge, pleasure - we lose our bearings, and they would become our idols. Instead, if we seek first Jesus’ Kingdom and Jesus’ righteousness, then all these things will be added to us as well. But more than that, we are told that by these same promises we can even participate in the divine nature -- that the Holy Spirit of God comes and takes up residence in our lives. This is our hope of glory: Christ in us -- and if we are in Christ, we will not only share in his righteousness, we also share in his resurrection. What glory!

This morning, I’d like to close with a question. It is a question from Jesus own lips. “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?” - Luke 18:8 Will he? I hope so!