In a recent conversation with a non-believing friend, he told me that he figured the only reason I believe in Christianity is that I was raised and encouraged (read: coerced) into following the status quo of the culture around me. If I had been raised in Muslim country, I’d be a Muslim, and so forth. He said we are all a product of our upbringing, which we cannot control and certainly cannot escape until we are older and wiser.
Now, I believe exactly the opposite of that.
An honest view of faith
It is really worth considering for a few moments where we all get our belief system from. My purpose is to refute some popular notions of where faith comes from. I think that the Christian faith is compelling because it is full of careful and thoughtful reasoning, consistent with personal experience, and carefully explained in the pages of Scripture. But first, let’s clear up any confusion and explain about what faith is not. Here are three common misconceptions of faith.
1. Faith through the family tree
Some believe that faith comes from family conversion. Ask yourself if you believe the same things as your parents. I highly doubt it. Many might claim to hold to a certain religion because of their parents, but every child eventually matures to the point of facing a decision point: are these beliefs and traditions good, real, and true? A child can be presented any number of religions as true, but that kind of faith is not a sustaining faith. Every child eventually reaches a moment of decision. I challenge you to put aside your preconceptions of your own upbringing (maybe you were in fact raised to believe that the Christian worldview was not true) in order to examine the arguments and evidence for each of the claims of God in the Bible.
This theory of faith through the family tree does not square with biblical history, either. The disciples left their posts as fishermen to follow Jesus. It’s pretty insulting to consider them as having gained faith through the family tree. It cost them much to leave Judaism, the faith of their fathers. Indeed, the founders of Christianity (Jesus and his disciples) quite literally did not follow the faith of their fathers or the current leaders of the day, mostly because the leadership did not understand the Scriptures, and had twisted the faith to their own destruction (Matthew 22:29; 2 Peter 3:16). In fact, the fathers of Judaism (the Jewish leaders) were the ones that killed Jesus for claiming to be the Messiah (John 5:18).
That being said, the Bible very clearly blesses generational faith. With commands to “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6) the pages of Scripture clearly indicate the family as a vehicle for some conversion stories. But it is only a vehicle, not the driver. God may use the vehicle of the family to deliver the message of the gospel, but it is God who gives (and sustains) faith. Far from the modern prevalent thinking that parents should avoid presenting any religious claims to young children, the Bible commands it. Even as a parent introduces a child to the faith, the responsibility to continue to walk according to that faith lies with the child into adulthood. Every child (you, me, or even Jesus himself) raised in a religious or non-religious environment will have to come to terms with the facts and arguments later in adulthood.
2. Faith through bargaining with God
Have you ever heard of what’s called a foxhole conversion? These stories are common. Perhaps the most famous example is Martin Luther traveling home in a terrible storm. He promised God he would become a monk, devoting his life to God in exchange for his safety through that storm. He was in a metaphorical foxhole (the storm), and bargained his faithful obedience to God in exchange for safety.
The ironic part of Martin Luther’s foxhole conversion is that it did not necessarily work. This so-called “conversion” took place on a stormy night in 1505 when he called out to Saint Anne: “Help me! I will become a monk!” He participated in the fasting, pilgrimages, and long hours of prayer and confession during his time with the Augustinian order only to later describe the time period of his life as “one of deep spiritual despair.”
It wasn’t until much later that Luther came to understand the true gospel whereby Christians come to receive righteousness entirely outside of themselves through faith, as made clear to him while reading about the righteousness of God revealed in Romans 1: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” So yes, his foxhole bargaining led him to deeper study which led him to uncover the truth. But the true conversion happened with his nose buried in the Bible, not in a foxhole.
By the very nature of a foxhole conversion, a person who cries out to be delivered from danger is no longer in need of faith at the moment of deliverance. This is just as true for faith-adherents who are simply trying to avoid hell. Faith as a bargaining chip for salvation from danger is not fooling anyone: least of all God. Faith is more than a gamble to avoid physical dangers or even a ploy to twist God’s hand away from our own spiritual punishment after death, as we’ll see in the next misconception. This is not to say that God isn’t pleased to use foxhole conversions to bring many people to Himself. After all, Luther’s foxhole led him to the Scriptures to discover the gospel in a round-about way. But I’ll say it again: this type of faith is just not sustainable.
3. Faith through trying my best, leaving the rest up to God
This is perhaps the most appealing definition of faith. It goes like this: I’ll leave my destiny to God to decide, but in the meantime I’m going to try my hardest to make the decision easier on him. It’s even more appealing when we hear the common refrain of the modern times: “God is love.” Well, if God is love, He seems like the kind of guy that I can trust to sort out the details of whether my faith is “good enough.” I’ll do my best and His love will do the rest.
The seventeenth-century philosopher Pascal devised a rational posit for this kind of faith: a rational person should seek to live and believe that God is real. The cost of living a life of faith is finite (some pleasures forgone, some wealth given away) but the potential reward is infinite. On the other hand, living as if God is not real is irrational: the potential gains are finite with the possibility of infinitely bad punishments (eternal destruction in hell).
Another friend once told me that my faith was the “just in case” faith. I’m not surprised or offended by that accusation, but I cannot imagine a more worthless, pitiful life. This kind of faith is an insurance policy. Fire coverage, flood coverage, just-in-case-God-is-real coverage. No one expects to be on the receiving end of a house fire or a flash flood. So also, no one really expected that this whole God/Bible/Jesus thing would turn out to be real. That kind of faith is worth nothing.
Cheap faith (a faith that costs me nothing) is not a sustaining, vibrant faith. Just as an insurance policy that only costs $1 is probably going to be worthless the day after your car collision, a “just in case” faith in God will be burned on the threshing floor on God’s day of judgment (Luke 3:17).
But that’s not even the main problem with this kind of faith.
Historically, the faith of the saints has never come close to faith as insurance. Pascal’s wager has all the workings of logical consistency but the satisfaction of plain, tasteless, day-old cardboard toast without butter or jam. Do you think that the disciples of Jesus would dare to be delivered to their deaths if their faith were an insurance policy? Do you think they might leave their family, risk persecution and loss of social status, wealth, and health for something in which they weren’t fully convinced?
Which of these three types of faith lead men to their graves to defend it?
Only faith given is faith sustained
What do all these misconceptions have in common? I’ve labored to make the point very clear: a faith based on family history, bargaining with God, trying really hard, or just plain guessing is not sustainable.
So then, what is faith?
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
If faith is believing and trusting in God’s promises (confidence, assurance), then we need a persistent faith. Does that make sense? We cannot settle for a faith that happened one day, long ago, with a decision made in a fleeting moment during childhood that fades into distant memory. We need an unshakeable confidence that abides and grows daily until the day of our death. We need sustainable, enduring faith.
Without endurance, we will die without faith. The book of Hebrews echoes this call saying, “for you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” (Heb. 10:36) In other words, if we want to receive the promise we must believe it until our last day of life. Yet, daily assurance of that faith is hard. Prominent theologian Carl Henry goes as far as to say that “the central crisis of the modern age is a growing consensus that we can’t hear any sure word from God.”
Faith is believing a promise
Yet God has made himself known. Known. God has made himself known in his own words, namely The Word (Heb. 1:1). God communicated to us at many times (over thousands of years) and in many ways (through dozens of his prophets, scattered over several continents) to help us understand one central message. Faith is believing in this message. The central message is the gospel message of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus rings forth as a central theme in all 39 Old Testament books (predicting his coming and death on the cross) and all 27 New Testament books (explaining his life, death, and resurrection).
What is the gospel?
It’s the same promise that was given to Abraham. Read on as the Bible describes how one hero of the faith is justified through faith, and how his justification relates to us today.
“That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
It’s a promise of salvation. What’s so special about faith that it would cause God to let us into heaven? Aren’t I the same sinner before and after faith? Faith is a specific response (your response) to a specific promise (God’s promise of propitiation, or redemption from sin). To quote B.B. Warfield, “It’s not so much faith in Christ that saves, but Christ who saves through faith.”
And it’s Christ who gives that sustaining faith.