And we have reached the end of this mini-series. Some further conversations and thoughts have prompted other ideas since writing this, and I may revisit them in the future. But consider this the finale for now. Thanks for reading, and I welcome any thoughts or feedback!
Part VI: Beyond Wishful Thinking
What is faith?
Many modern, psychological views of faith see it as wishful thinking we commit to and internalize. Hence religion is also seen as a ‘crutch’ for the needy, people who want to believe in a God and greater power to get them through life. (The cheeky Christian response to faith being a crutch is, “Well, who says you aren’t limping?” Or even better: “Actually, it’s a life support system. Cause we’re basically dead.”) The wishful thinking explanation seems to make rational, human sense. But I think our society has a way of and proclivity to explaining everything psychologically, and just because they can overlay a framework on a phenomenon, doesn’t nullify that there is a greater spiritual reality they can’t explain.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Assurance and conviction extend beyond wishful thoughts—there is a solid sense of certainty there. Faith is not the same as feelings, and it is only as good as the object of that faith. We can be very sincerely wrong about things.
The Bible gives numerous examples of faithful men and women, parables of what faith is, and principles for a life of faith. It’s hard to summarize succinctly when we need all of them for a full picture of genuine faith in the genuine God of the Bible.
But it is also crucial to get faith right. The Bible teaches that we are saved and justified before God by his gift of righteousness in Christ, and we receive that righteousness through faith. During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers identified three key aspects of saving, biblical faith, so I will defer to that and present them here:
Notitia: intellectual awareness
There must be an object to our faith, whether content or a person. Our faith must be informed, and genuine faith must be informed by truth. Sincerity isn’t enough to make the cut – if I believed Satan is God, that’s not going to save me.
Assensus: intellectual assent
We need to know the truth first, but then we must believe it. There must be an intellectual assent to the truth claims of Scripture – that I am a sinner, that Jesus is God and came to die for my sins, and the He rose from the dead.
Fiducia: personal trust
The Bible says that even Satan and the demons intellectually assent to the fact that Jesus is God, and they know the Word of God is true. That assent doesn’t save them. A crucial element of true faith is personal trust in Christ, in who He says He is, and trust in Him alone for salvation. This encompasses the mental and intellectual, but extends to the heart and will also.
The Bible teaches faith is not just a posture of the mind and intellect, but of the heart before God. It is an exercise of intellectual belief, but it is also a posture of the heart before God that acknowledges our intellect is limited, our desires are selfish, and our works are futile before a holy God. It acknowledges our faith is easily shaken because we are weak, but we know deep in our hearts that we are made for more. Logic and reason will present a strong case for Christianity, but it will not give you everything because we are called to faith.
What about doubt?
“Christ never failed to distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is can’t believe; unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness.” –John Drummond
I think one of the great stories of faith wrestling with doubt comes in a very simple cry a man makes to Jesus. He brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus and asks for healing, after Jesus’ disciples are unable to castle the spirit out.
“And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:21-24)
This man came to Jesus with faith. If he didn’t believe Jesus could do anything, he might as well not have shown up. But his initial request, if you can do anything, also reveals the weakness of his faith—of course Jesus can cast out the demon. Christ gently rebukes him, and the father very honestly, very humbly, with genuine but imperfect faith, says, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
No one has “perfect faith.” Nowhere does the Bible give a percentage, or bullet points, or ratios of head knowledge to heart acceptance, to indicate how much faith is enough faith. Faith does not believe perfectly, but it does believe humbly. We do not pick and choose what we like from God’s Word, but we accept it wholly. And the Word teaches that there is no other name under heaven by which we are saved except through Jesus Christ.
The life of faith
“Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world. Behavioral compliance to rules without heart-change will be superficial and fleeting.” –Tim Keller
The life of faith is not a life of cheap grace, which says because I am forgiven in Christ, I can now live however I want. Nor does it say, I will try harder to obey God so He will be pleased with me. These mentalities reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel. They reflect a mentality that is still conforming to one of those two paradigms—of moral conformity or self-discovery. Ultimately, it reflects a heart that has not grasped the depth of the love of God, or an understanding that while forgiveness is offered to us freely, it came at a costly price.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:1-4)
Jesus Christ, God Himself, left heaven’s glory to walk this Earth and suffer for our sins. When we really acknowledge the depth of our sin, and the cost of our salvation, we begin to understand the boundless love of God. How can we live for ourselves, or anything else for that matter, in light of that truth? Living by a paradigm of fear or control manipulates externalities, but only love transforms the inner heart.
John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace,” also penned these words:
Our pleasure and our duty,
though opposite before,
since we have seen his beauty
are joined to part no more.