Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Faith-Full Mind

What is faith? Defining it isn’t all that difficult. Merriam-Webster offers this: “allegiance to duty or a person; fidelity to one’s promises; sincerity of intentions.” Oxford provides a more streamlined take: “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” In the Bible, faith is famously defined in Hebrews 11:1 in this way: “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.”
Why does faith matter? The Bible teaches that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6), “we have been declared righteous by faith” (Romans 5:1), and “for by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). From this sampling of scripture we find that faith is central to our standing before God and it is the pathway to salvation itself.
But how do we faith? The Bible provides a lot of examples, but I can’t point to an explicit “this is how to faith” declaration, so I find that faith remains something of an abstract concept. But if it’s so essential, it’s important to know what it looks (and feels) like. The goal of this essay is to suggest a practical, simple-to-employ understanding of biblical faith.
We find two main kinds of faith in the Bible: saving faith and living (or walking) by faith.

Saving Faith
Moses tells us in Genesis 15:6 that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This is the first explicit reference to faith or belief in the Bible. What stands out, even at this early point in history and under the Old Testament framework, is that it wasn’t Abraham’s obedience or moral superiority that made him righteous, it was that he believed God. In contrast, if we look back at Genesis 3, the way the serpent convinced Adam and Eve to disobey the command regarding the fruit was to encourage them to disbelieve God (“Did God really say…?”). So from the very beginning we begin to see this pattern of believing God or disbelieving God, believing God or believing not-God.
Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about belief in John 3:14-21. Here another facet of saving faith emerges. Biblical faith means not only believing God, but also means believing his Son. This is what sets Christian faith apart from Islam and Judaism. All profess belief in the God of Abraham, but only Christians believe in the Son. Also note in Jesus’ words that while believing in God saves, it is the lack of belief in God that condemns. Jesus also defines that which we are saved into: eternal life. Later in the same gospel he defines eternal life for us as knowing God and knowing Jesus Christ (John 17:3). Salvation isn’t just to deliver us from perishing under judgment, or even so that we can go to heaven some far off day. Rather, it is that we are delivered into a state of intimately knowing God—immediately, constantly, and eternally.
Paul parses faith and salvation throughout his writings. In his letter to the Romans, (Romans 3:22-26) he teaches that believing God means believing what he says about us, in particular regarding our sin. We all have sinned. It matters less what our particular flavor of sins are but that we all fundamentally have failed to live up to God’s standard of holiness, and there is nothing we can do about that. One aspect of saving faith is that we must agree with God about this. Another aspect of saving faith is that we must agree with God that we can’t do anything about this on our own, but are wholly dependent on him to rectify the situation. Saving faith is believing that God rectified the situation on our behalf by sending Jesus Christ to take away the punishment that we had earned by our sinfulness. Saving faith, as Paul says here, is “receiving through faith Christ’s atoning sacrifice in his blood” (verse 25).
Back in John, Jesus gave us an image for believing “in our hearts.” In John 3:14-15, he references Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness. This is a reference to an event which occurred while the Israelites were in the wilderness, recorded in Numbers 21:4-9. Snakes had been sent by God as a punishment, but he also provided deliverance from the punishment. He instructed Moses to create a bronze snake and lift it up on a post. When a snake-bitten person looked at the bronze snake, they recovered (verse 15). With this allusion, Jesus is giving us a mental image for saving faith. Just as looking to the bronze snake delivered the ancient Israelites, so looking to the sinless Christ lifted up on the cross, taking the punishment that we deserved for our own sins. The way we practically, right now “look to” Christ lifted up on the cross means to remember, reflect, and meditate on it, believing (“in our hearts” as Paul taught) that Christ’s act on our behalf saves. Believing in our hearts includes the cognitive or intellectual act of accepting it as true, but it also moves us deeply, emotionally.
Consider what Paul teaches in Romans 5:1-2. We have been declared righteous by faith, which ends the war we started with God through our sin (makes peace with God). The result? Joy. The joy of salvation is that our sins do not count against us. This sounds very “New Testament,” but take a moment to read Psalm 32:1-5.
There are many more scriptures we could unpack, but the passages we’ve reviewed so far have laid out the fundamentals. Faith as it relates to salvation is believing God’s version of history: that we all have failed to live up to the standard of holiness for which he created us, that by doing so we have brought eternal punishment on ourselves, and that no action on our part can rectify this situation, but God has rectified it on our behalf through the sacrifice Christ made in our place. Our response to this is what Paul teaches us in Romans 10: 6a,8-10: “The righteousness that comes from faith speaks like this…The message is near you, in your mouth and in your heart. This is the message of faith that we proclaim: If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart, resulting righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.” Saving faith is the message of salvation in our mouths and in our hearts.

Living by Faith
Saving faith is not just a one-time, set-it-and-forget-it thing. Faith continues to save us not only from the eternal punishment of sin, but also it delivers us from sin itself as we walk by faith. Read Romans 8:1-17. Here Paul again spells out saving faith, but also declares to us that if we are saved, we will live differently. Note that we can still choose to live according to the flesh, living in sinfulness, so being saved doesn’t automagically override our decision-making and turn us into hyper-moral automatons. But saving faith means that we now have God’s Spirit living inside of us, and we can access the power of that Spirit to continually put sin to death in our lives. How do we do this? The same way we came to saving faith—it starts in our minds.
To receive saving faith, we renewed our minds. That is, we removed our old thoughts about God, ourselves, sin, and righteousness, and replaced them with God’s truth about those things, as revealed in Scripture. But continuing in the faith works the same way, as we continually remove those old thoughts and replace them with God’s truth, and the external evidence of this is changed living, changed desires.
Read Ephesians 4:20-24. Notice the imagery here of removing or taking off the old, worldly way of life and having our minds renewed, which allows us to clothe ourselves in the new self. This is how faith not only saves us from the punishment of our sins, but actually recreates us into the likeness of God which we originally lost in our sin. Faith is being taught by Jesus through the Holy Spirit to take off our old sinful way of life and to be clothed in God’s righteousness . And the battle for this happens in our minds.
This imagery points to a pretty useful mental-imagery discipline. The articles of clothing of my old self and those of my new self both are available to me in my wardrobe for as long as I am in this mortal body. As I grow in my saving faith, I recognize more and more of the old-self clothing that needs to be removed, and more and more new-self clothing—which “looks like” Christ and his righteousness—to be put on. But the old-self clothing is still there, and sometimes I’ll find myself wearing it again, and will need to take it back off and replace it again with new-self clothing.
Paul takes the imagery a step further in his letter to the Galatians (2:20): “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Here we’re not only taking off the old self like clothes; the old self is dead and the only life we live now is one of faith in the Son of God. This provides an even more powerful imagery and mental discipline. My old self is a rotting corpse. Why would I keep dragging it out? We read earlier from Romans 8, in which Paul talks about putting to death the deeds and desires of the flesh. Living by faith involves mentally—and emotionally—killing those behaviors and desires and replacing them with desire for fellowship and intimacy with God and with a desire for his righteousness.
But is this our daily experience? Why not? Paul helps us out again in Romans 7:14-25. Pay particular attention to verse 21, “When I want to do what is good, evil is present in me.” So, the capacity for sin and evil are still present while we are in these bodies. But because we are new creations, the capacity for intimacy with and obedience to God also is there. Where our minds are focused at any given moment will determine which master we are serving.
Paul illustrates this for us in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 5:16-25), in particular 24-25: “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” Here we see it is not only where our minds are focused, but also where our desires are focused. If we are seeking to satisfy God’s desires, we’ll bear the fruit of the Spirit. If we’re seeking to satisfy the desires of the flesh, of what the world tells us is worth pursuing, we’ll not be bearing spiritual fruit. Both desires are always available for “feeding,” but we control the food supply with our thoughts and our behavior.
So we find in these passages that there is a moment-by-moment, pushing-and-pulling dynamic to walking by faith. Faith is not a set it and forget it thing. It’s something that in any given moment we are either doing, or we simply are not doing. In the moments we do not live like or feel like new creations, we simply are not living by faith. More accurately, we are living by a kind of faith, but we are replacing faith in God with faith in something else. Ultimately, that’s what every single individual sin boils down to: replacing belief or reliance on God with reliance on something not-God.
Now we understand that faith is not simply believing that once upon a time Christ died for our sins so everything is hunky dory. Faith must be a living, breathing presence that characterizes every moment of our lives. In a follow-on essay, we’ll dig a little deeper into what this looks like and practical steps for how to do it.