Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why is Faith Necessary for Salvation?

First, I want to apologize for taking so long since my last post. I commented on a couple of other blogs, and although I enjoyed the discussions, they went on for far too long. This is a habit of mine that I'm going to try to conquer, so I can take less time between blog posts.

However, I had planned to answer a couple of questions on Think and Wonder. Wonder and Think . . . about two months ago, but since that post is now old, and my answer is kind of lengthy (very atypical for me, I know), I figured I would just do a blog post on it. Maybe others have the same questions.
Why is belief a necessary component of Christianity? Of salvation? 
Why this mental affirmation of the death and resurrection of Christ for our salvation? 
Hebrews 11:6 addresses the first question: "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him."

In other words, in order to come to God, we have to believe that he exists and that seeking him is worth it. There is nothing esoteric about this concept.  Unless we believe that a hospital exists and is likely to cure our disease, we will not go to the hospital either.

And it is by coming to God, through Christ, that we are saved. This theme of God calling us to come to him runs through the Old and the New Testaments:

"Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number" (Jeremiah 2:32).

"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David" (Isaiah 55:1-3).

"If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him" (John 7:37-38).

These verses talk about persistently coming to God, not just responding to an altar call. It is the lifestyle described in Micah 6:8: "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

And why does God require us to come to him or walk with him? So he can heal our souls. Walking with him has great reward, which is why Jeremiah 2:32 asks rhetorically: "Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments?"

When Jesus laments unbelief, he says: "For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them" (Matthew 13:15). Unbelief shuts us off from the healing God wants to give.

However, Hebrews 11:6 implies that simply seeking God earnestly is indicative of sufficient faith. And this is illustrated in the story of Mark 9:19-25, where Jesus tells the father of the convulsing boy: "Everything is possible for him who believes." The father responds with, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" This man did not have very much faith, but he had enough to seek Jesus and to ask for help--even help to believe.


What is Faith?

There are two facets of the Christian faith: First, there is the intellectual belief that it is true. This depends on objective evidence and reasoning. And second, faith means the ability to receive what God wants to give. Jesus frequently chided his disciples for their unbelief--in spite of having seen many miracles--referring to it as the hardness of their hearts. The disciples had evidence, and yet they often doubted (Mark 16:14).


The Intellectual Aspect of Faith

Christmas movies often tout the virtues of faith, but faith in and of itself is entirely neutral. It is good to believe something true and bad to believe something false. And to know the difference, we have to think critically.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is highly intellectual. The Jews have always valued literacy, and the Book of Proverbs continually exhorts us to acquire wisdom and understanding. Proverbs 8 is a celebration of wisdom, saying, "For wisdom is better than jewels; and all desirable things cannot compare with her" (Proverbs 8:11), and characterizing wisdom as God's companion when he planned out and created the universe (Proverbs 8:22-31).

When the Book of Acts describes Paul's evangelistic efforts, they almost always involve him reasoning with people (Acts 17:2, Acts 17:17, Acts 18:4, Acts 18:19). He reasoned with the Jews from the Old Testament Scriptures, but when he addressed the Greeks in Athens, he met them where they were by referencing what was familiar to their culture (Acts 17:22-31).

Of all the groups that Paul addressed, only the Jews from Berea were called "noble" or "noble-minded," because they "they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11). In other words, they were receptive to the message, but they didn't accept it uncritically--they checked the Scriptures to see if what Paul said about the Messiah was true.

The Bereans were not motivated by jealousy like the Thessalonians, nor did they scoff like some of the Athenians. They simply evaluated the claims of Paul rationally, and this earned them the description "noble-minded."


The Spiritual Aspect of Faith

Although intellectual belief is important, by itself it cannot save us. James 2:19 says: "You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless." The faith that saves is the kind that changes our hearts so that our actions follow. This is a gift to us from God, by his Spirit.

Ezekiel 36:26-27 prophesies: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws." Saving faith enables us to receive what God wants to give, so that we may become everything God intends for us to be.

How do we get this kind of faith? Revelation 3:20 says: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me." All we have to do is surrender to God and permit him access to our hearts and our needs.

This is not something we do just once. If we want to grow spiritually we have to keep an open door policy with God, so that we come to know him and let him do the renovation that needs to be done in us. The more we let that happen, the more we make it possible for God to work through us, building his kingdom.


Why Is Faith in the Resurrection Necessary for Our Salvation?

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins." And in Romans 6:10-11, he says: "For the death that [Jesus] died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus."

In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N. T. Wright uses the analogy of a bank account to explain what this means (he is referring to the word translated "consider" or "reckon" in Romans 6:11).
When Paul says 'reckon', he does not mean that the act of 'reckoning' something creates a new entity . . . the language of 'reckoning' is that of adding up a sum, a column of figures. When I add up the money in my bank account, that does not create the money; life is not, alas, that easy. It merely informs me of the amount that is already there. When I have completed the 'reckoning', I have not brought about a new state of affairs in the real world outside my mind; the only new state of affairs is that my mind is now aware of the way things actually are.
When Jesus died for us and rose again, he set up an eternal "bank account" for us with everything we could possibly need or desire forever. By his stripes we are healed from the explosive temper that controls us, the demanding ego that makes us and those close to us miserable, and every affliction of body or soul.

And we have to know about that for the same reason that if we possess a bank account containing a large sum, it does us no good if we have no idea it exists--or if we know about it but rarely get around to making a trip to the bank.

As Paul says in Ephesians 1:18-20: "I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms."

Faith means having the eyes of our hearts enlightened, so that we can understand that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to us. And that power comes from the Holy Spirit, whom we are given as a pledge of our inheritance when we believe (Ephesians 1:13-14).

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