Thursday, August 12, 2010

Faith: Heb. 11

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. ... And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Heb. 11:1-3, 39-40)

Hebrews 11 is a classic passage on faith. From a practical definition of faith in verse 1, the hall of faith gives us living examples of what faith works in the lives of saints throughout the Old Testament. Each of these examples (i.e. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham etc) can be shown to have exercised faith in God, trusting and hoping in him.

In the cell group bible studies, we have gone through Heb. 11 in order to learn more about faith. After going through the various examples given for us, at the last part I have decided to place the beginning and the end of Heb. 11 together, so that we can indeed see in a more summarized form the manner of how faith should work in our lives.

We can see that faith has as its orientation the future. The things that are yet unseen will one day be manifest in reality. Faith looks forward to the future when God will fulfil his promises made beforehand to us. In the economy of the Covenant of Grace, God has made promises to his people, and God who is always faithful (2 Tim. 2:13) will fulfil them.

In Heb. 11, a key point of the narratives is that the saints trusted in God for what He has promised them. They looked forward to the fulfilment of what God has promised them. Abraham for example was looking forward to the eternal heavenly city "whose builder and designer is God" (Heb. 11:10), the promise God made to him which was shown in the type of the promised land Canaan. Many of these saints died without receiving what was promised in their lifetimes, a reality starkly portrayed in verses 35b to 38. Yet their faith was commended despite them not having received what was promised to them.

The essence of the practical outworking of faith is this hope in the promises of God, knowing that they would be fulfilled in the end. Such hope should transcend the grave, for God did not promise that his promises would be necessarily fulfilled in our life times. In this life we can expect persecution and suffering (2 Tim. 3:12) but our faith looks forward to the end of days whereby all would be made right and our faith in God will be vindicated.

Faith is thus receiving and with full confidence trusting in the promises of God, with this attitude transforming how we live our lives in light of eternity. It is not a vacuous hope against all hope or any existential "blind faith", but it is substantive (ύποστασις , cf Heb. 11:1) because its basis is on the solid rock of God's faithfulness which is always sure. Our spiritual eyes see the spiritual reality of God's Word and His promises as being more certain than even our physical reality, and on that basis we "see" eternal reality and order our lives accordingly.

I would close off with this quote from Michael Horton's book The Gospel-Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Books, 2009) on p. 134 which deals with this aspect of God's promises.

... “After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, ’Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great’ ” (Gen. 15:1). Abram and Sarai had been called out of the barrenness of moon worship in the city of Ur by God’s powerful word which created faith in the promise (12:1). There is the reward of the land of Canaan, but ultimately the whole earth (“father of many nations”), of which the land of Canaan will serve as a type. The New Testament even tells us that Abraham himself was looking through the earthly promise to its heavenly reality (Heb. 11:10, 13-16). The earthly land of promise would be a small-scale copy of what God would one day bring to the whole earth from heaven forever.

The message that God delivers is sheer promise. This covenant is not like the one with Adam or, later at Sinai, with Israel, which was conditioned on their personal fulfillment of the law. It was a gift to be received, not a task to be undertaken. God simply declares, “I am your shield. Your reward shall be very great.” …


Faith does not create; it receives. It does not make the invisible visible or the future present or hope reality. It receives that which is already given. Grace precedes faith. It is not finally accepting the goodness toward me in spite of the way things really are with me and with the world.

Further, this passage tells us that Abram believers God and was then and there declared righteous. Abram is not exactly the perfect picture of moral integrity. He routinely argues with God, questions God’s promise, and in his own effort to secure his own future, has a child by his servant Hagar even though God had declared that the promise would come through Sarai. Trying to save his own neck, at one point Abram even lies to a king, telling him that Sarai is his sister rather than his wife! This is hardly the moral character we would hold up to our children for imitation. Yet God preaches the gospel – the utterly one-sided Good News of what he has done and will do – and Abram suddenly finds himself believing.

Trusting God’s promise, Abram is “justified” then and there. The Hebrew word for justification (chashav) is right out of the legal terminology of the courtroom. If the accuse is “righteous” (i.e., in the right before the law), then he or she is acquitted – more than that, actually judged to be a fulfiller of all righteousness and therefore the rightful heir of his kingdom. It is clear enough from the story (before and after this event) that Abram is not personally righteous, yet he is declared righteous.

This doctrine of justification is at the core of the divine-human paradox: How can I have the assurance that I am accepted before God as righteous when I continue in sin How can I trust God for ultimate relief when, right now, my life is full of hopelessness? It all seems like pie in the sky. I see my life. I know my circumstances and the possibilities for my future. Nevertheless, by pronouncing Abraham just, Abraham is just. The promise makes it so, and it is received through faith. If we can get this right in our understanding of justification – our standing before God – it will radically alter every other aspect of life. So decisive is this event in the patriarch’s life that he is literally renamed. No longer Abram (“father”), he is now Abraham (“father of many”) and Sarai is Sarah – even while Sarah herself is still barren. We already begin to see that the promise itself – the word spoken by God as “Good News” or “gospel” – gets the ball rolling and keeps it rolling. It not only speaks of a new world, but already creates it.

May we indeed learn to live by the spiritual "eyes" of faith and live in light of God's promises. Amen.

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