Faith can be so impersonal

Faith can seem like a commodity we trade in for goodies in return. What’s the first thing that comes to mind, for instance, when Romans 5:1 says we are “justified by faith”? To some Christians it’s a direct trade: Have faith, get justification. In the great market of heaven one can buy salvation by turning up with a wallet load of faith. Hand over your ticket with faith stamped on it, and your entry into heaven is guaranteed.

It’s like going to a restaurant knowing the restaurant is obliged to serve you a nice meal because you’ll be paying for it. So you sit down, order your meal, eat your fill, pay your cash, leave the restaurant and go home, without any personal contact whatsoever with the chef who cooked your meal, and no relationship with him even necessary. It was a lovely meal, stamped with the chef’s personal touch and skill, but none of that entered the picture. It became a simple, cold transaction instead: Have money, get fed, go home warm and filled.

That was Job’s life too, a simple and rather cold transaction: He obeyed God and God churned out the blessings. And life could have continued that way, with Job choosing God as his favourite restaurant and God, the chef, coming up with fantastic meals for his favourite customer, but never any actual contact between them. Job had no clue what the chef was like because he’d never met him. There was no need to meet the chef and get to know him, though, because the chef kept feeding Job anyway.

But then things turned horribly sour. Suddenly, Job was served a meal with maggots. Well, into the kitchen he shot to have serious words with the chef, and that’s when, for the first time, Job saw him. The chef was surrounded by steaming plates of food in various stages of development. He was singing to himself, his concentration totally fixed on the plate in front of him. The kitchen was a marvel of creativity, organization and love. And that’s when the chef raised his eyes to Job and said, “Now do you see?” Could Job now see how personal it all was, that every plate was a work of art, and at every step in its design and mix of flavours was the love and skill of a genius?

And yes, Job did see. He saw how sterile and mercenary his relationship with God had been, of cold trading his faith for goodies in return. But that wasn’t how it was from God’s point of view. For God it was all personal, and so was it now for Job.

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Jesus healed to show Israel had been forgiven

In Matthew 8:17 Jesus healed people “to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases,'” a quote from Isaiah 53:4. To watch Jesus heal a person physically, therefore, took the Jews right back to Isaiah 53, which spoke of a “man of sorrows” (verse 3) who “poured out his life for many, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors,” verse 12.

And there you have the context for why Jesus healed people physically. He healed people to point to the time he would suffer and die to take the brunt of sin on himself. “By his wounds we are healed,” verse 5, which in context meant the healing of our sin by his suffering and death on the cross.

When Jesus healed their physical bodies, then, it pictured the healing of sin, which Jesus himself made clear when a paralytic was lowered through the roof to Jesus’ feet in Mark 2:4, and Jesus told him “Son, your sins are forgiven you” (verse 5). Jesus immediately put the focus of the healing on the healing of sin, because the purpose of the healing was to show “that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” verse 10. This is what Jesus had come for, to heal sin, and the healing of the paralytic’s body served as dramatic proof he had the power and authority to do it too. And to a Jew of Jesus’ day this should have been the greatest news, because forgiveness of their sin was the sure sign that the time of their deliverance was on its way.

Jesus made that clear too, in Luke 10, when he sent out seventy two disciples to heal the sick and tell people “The kingdom of God is near you,” verse 9. Healing the sick was associated directly with the kingdom of God and the time of the Jews’ deliverance coming soon. So, first of all, healing people physically pictured the forgiveness of Israel’s sin, and that meant, therefore, that the kingdom of God was about to begin its rule in Israel and spread to the whole earth.

But there was a problem. When Jesus tried to explain to his disciples that he had to suffer and die they were “afraid to ask him about it,” Mark 9:32. They didn’t catch on that the healing of their sin and their deliverance as a nation could only be accomplished by Jesus being “pierced for our transgressions” and being “crushed for our iniquities,” Isaiah 53:5. But that’s why Jesus was healing people, to point the Jews back to Isaiah 53 so they could make the connection.

Salvation eternal and salvation now

The gospel talks of two salvations, the salvation of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” and the salvation of Acts 2:40, when Peter cried out to the crowd, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”  The first salvation is about saving us from the penalty of our sins forever, and the second salvation is about saving us from the influence of sin now. Salvation eternal and salvation now, the two great salvations included in the gospel message.

It started with John the Baptist and his “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” in Mark 1:4, and it continued with the apostles and their preaching in Luke 24:46-47, that “Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.”

And that’s exactly what Peter preached in Acts 3:19, when he told his fellow Jews: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may wiped out,” and verse 26: “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you (Jews) to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” It was the same message in Acts 5:31 too: “God exalted Jesus to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” And thousands of Jews believed it, that their sins had been forgiven forever and their lives could be straightened out now.

That same message then went to the Gentiles in Acts 26:17-18 when Jesus sent Paul “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” That’s the first salvation, salvation eternal, the total forgiveness of their sins forever made possible by Jesus’ death, and then in verse 20: “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” That’s the other salvation, salvation now, where real changes start happening in one’s life now.

Peter talks again about both salvations in 2 Peter 1, how God has made it possible for us to “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires,” verse 4. That’s the salvation we experience every day, but what stirs a person to live that salvation from the wrong ways and thinking of this world now is the ever present memory of being “cleansed from his past sins,” verse 9. He never forgets his salvation eternal either.

Jesus the choirmaster

An intriguing TV series traced the almost insurmountable difficulties of a choirmaster putting a choir together out of school boys who think singing is for girls. Their school hasn’t had any singing for thirty years, and only two boys out of 1200 are in choirs already. The choirmaster is starting from scratch.

It made me think of what God is doing with his church. He takes the “weak things of the world,” 1 Corinthians 1:26, to one day reveal them in glory, Colossians 3:4. What a challenge. It’s like taking a bunch of kids in a school who can’t sing, have never experienced singing and wouldn’t be caught dead singing, and turning them into a choir that will one day sing in the Royal Albert Hall in London.

But that’s exactly what the choirmaster does. He takes kids without any training whatsoever, who feel totally embarrassed singing in public, and turns them into a performing choir that blows people away.

It’s HOW he did it that caught my attention. First of all, he sang to the entire school himself. He did, by himself, what he would be asking the kids to do. So did Jesus. He came here as a human and lived the life he’d be asking us to live, first. The choirmaster then put together a motley crew of the school’s teachers into a choir and made them sing to the school to show the kids it was possible. So did Jesus. He gathered a motley crew of disciples and put them through the life he would be asking his church to live. And when it’s the boys’ turn to have a go at singing, the choirmaster is constantly and relentlessly encouraging them. So is Jesus with us. He sends us a Comforter and Encourager who “will be with you forever,” John 14:16.

And from that point on, success for the kids depended on just one thing: Trusting the choirmaster – trusting that he knew what he was doing, and trusting that where he was leading them was worth it. When they trusted him, that’s when they came together as a choir.

It’s exactly the same for the church: Jesus, the church’s choirmaster, “from whom the whole body supported and held together by the ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow,” Colossians 2:19, knows exactly what he’s doing. He did it himself, paved the way himself, showed through his disciples it was possible, and encourages us through his Spirit along the way when it’s our turn.

And all he asks in return is that we trust him, because if we trust him, we too, one day, will blow people away, Colossians 3:4.

Is it OUR faith that “justifies” us?

When Paul talks of us being “justified by faith,” Galatians 3:24, WHOSE faith is it? Is it our faith? If it is, and it’s up to us to come up with faith, isn’t that a bit scary? You mean our salvation depends on our faith? But how do we know our faith is enough faith, or the right kind of faith, or faith for the right motive? And if Israel couldn’t come up with the necessary faith (Hebrews 4:2), what makes us think we can?

Ah, but Abraham “believed God,” verse 6, so he had faith. But what made Abraham believe? Was it something deep down within himself that did it? Or that God suddenly made sense after Abraham considered all points of view? Or that Abraham had better believe or there’d be consequences if he didn’t (like Christians today threatening people with hell if they don’t believe)?

Something made Abraham believe, but what? If we can pinpoint what led him to believe, then surely all we need do is figure out the formula and follow it ourselves, and hey presto, we can believe too, right? And for some Christians that’s exactly how it works. In their minds, you can get people to believe by promising them health and wealth, or by scaring them with prophecy and eternal torment, or by hitting them with logic, or by demonstrating the beauty of God’s way through charity work and good deeds.

But that isn’t how it happened to Abraham. God simply told Abraham to leave home for another country and Abraham obeyed (Genesis 12:1, 4). God didn’t give Abraham a long explanation of the gospel first, or take him through a concentrated study of the pros and cons of belief. God didn’t even offer Abraham a choice, nor did he wait a couple of days for Abraham to respond. God didn’t require Abraham to repent first either, or do a  sinner’s prayer, or make a confession of belief. He gave Abraham a command and Abraham obeyed without hesitation. Why? Because God had a purpose for him, and Abraham FOUND himself trusting and obeying.

And isn’t that how it happened to us? Did we not find ourselves with faith? One day we weren’t the least bit interested in God, but suddenly we found ourselves openly talking about him, and having no trouble trusting and obeying him. And how did it happen? The same way it happened to Abraham – because of God’s direct intervention. And why did it happen? Because God has a purpose for us too, and when God has a purpose for someone, he doesn’t wait for belief. He calls us, and that’s why we believe (Romans 9:11-12).

“I live by faith in the Son of God”

According to the New International Version of the Bible the quote above – “I live by faith in the Son of God” in Galatians 2:20 – could mean it was Paul’s own faith that he lived by.

But if it was his faith it conflicts with the sentence before, because Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live.” Paul viewed himself as dead, meaning there was nothing in himself that he lived by.

Was his faith an exception to that, though? No, because Paul knew that every part and every step of his salvation came from God. It was all done by God’s grace, and “I do not set aside the grace of God,” verse 21. The last thing Paul wanted to do was create some misunderstanding about God’s grace. Grace was grace, meaning God is the source and sustainer of our lives from start to finish, and there’s absolutely nothing we contribute to it. Or as Paul phrases it in verse 20: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.”

The faith that Paul lived by wasn’t his faith, then, it was Christ’s. To properly reflect what Paul himself is saying, therefore, the word “in” would be far better translated with the word “OF,” so that Paul is now saying “I live by faith OF the Son of God,” so there’s no doubt where the faith is coming from. But even though that may be more accurate, it still sounds awkward – and it doesn’t fit in with the flow of Paul’s thoughts either, because in context Paul is focusing on the love of Christ “who loved me and gave himself for me,” verse 20, not on Christ’s faith.

Could the word “faith” be better translated too, then, to reflect Paul’s focus on Christ’s love? Yes, a better word would be “FAITHFULNESS,” so that Paul is now saying, “I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God,” which puts the attention exactly where Paul wants it, on Christ’s love and faithfulness as the source of his life. It fits in with Paul’s train of thought much better too, because it removes all hint of Paul being the source of his faith, and it “does not set aside the grace of God.” It also puts the focus entirely on Christ, because that’s who Paul totally depended on and trusted in for his life.

In Paul’s mind there was nothing he could do to make himself more righteous (verse 21), but that wasn’t a worry for him because he wasn’t depending on anything from within himself anyway. It was Christ and HIS love and faithfulness that he lived by.