THE EVIDENCE OF SAVING FAITH
For the Feast of John and Charles Wesley
What a time to be living! What a time to start serving!
--The religious and moral state of the nation exhibiting appalling aspects; rapid decaying of religious influence in the land;
--In the established Church, doctrines preached (if being preached) verging on Pelagianism and Antinomianism; the plain Gospel being not merely ignored but often opposed;
--In great numbers the Clergy, ignorant of God's Word and often disobedient to His will, giving the wrong messages to the people; and the people sinking in blindness and profligacy.
Such was the state of things when John Wesley began to preach the Gospel in England. Things do not seem to be that different in our country today!
Wesley came preaching repentance and the remission of sin through faith in Jesus Christ. He expounded the doctrines from Scriptures, offering to people free salvation by the grace of God through the shed blood of Christ. Many clergy objected to his doctrine; doors were shut. But John and Charles Wesley persisted in proclaiming through preaching and music the theme of justification by faith through the atoning sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our readings today harmonize very well on this message. In John 3 we read about a teacher in Israel who should have known these things but did not. To him Jesus explained that unless he were born again he could not see the kingdom of Heaven; but if he believed in the only begotten Son of God he would not perish but have everlasting life. Those who truly believe in Jesus Christ are not condemned, because they have been born of God by the Holy Spirit. And Paul in Romans 4 expounds the meaning of justification by faith, referring to Abram who believed in the LORD and was thus credited with righteousness. Therefore, by faith we have a new standing before God.
Listen to how John Wesley described the glorious state of the justified: "Born again, begotten of God, a child of God, joint heirs with Jesus Christ, a member of His body the Church, at peace with God and kept in Him in mind and body by the peace that passes all understanding, sealed by the Holy Spirit until the day of redemption, and in Him already seated in the heavenlies; washed, redeemed, sanctified, and glorified in Christ--a new creation, a trophy of grace, made the righteousness of God in Him." (From a sermon on "Justification by Faith.)
How much we have lost in our feeble words of praise, failing to praise God for his provisions through justification by faith. But this is the heritage of those who truly believe in Christ. And this was the testimony of the Wesley's faith that carried them through life and death. The memorial at John Wesley's grave reports that he died "in sure and certain hope of Eternal Life, Through the Atonement and Mediation of a Crucified Savior." And here is Charles' inscription:
With poverty of spirit blessed
Rest, happy saint, in Jesus rest,
A sinner saved, through grace forgiven,
Redeemed from earth to reign in Heaven;
Thy labors of unwearied love,
By thee forgot, are crowned above,
Crown'd, through the mercy of thy Lord
With a free, full, immense reward.
Such is the expectation of the one who truly believes in Jesus Christ. We have been justified by faith, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, made the righteousness of God through the imputation of Christ's righteousness to our accounts. We therefore do not fear condemnation, or as Charles Wesley wrote it and we shall sing it,
No condemnation now I dread,
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine;
Bold I approach th' eternal throne
And claim the crown through Christ my own.
If we have placed our trust in Christ, we belong to him, forever! Our confidence is certainly not in ourselves, but in Him who is able to save to the uttermost.
This, then, is the heritage of being justified by faith; this is the effect of saving faith. But what is the evidence of saving faith? What does it look like? How can we know if we have it? Our other reading today, Genesis 12, provides us with a tremendous picture of saving faith. It is the story of the call of Abram out of pagan idolatry into God's program of blessing. In Abram we can see what faith looks like, for his was a living faith--he became known as the "father" of all who believe
Genesis 12:1-9 records Abram's great response in faith to the Word of the LORD. The biblical commentary on this is found in Genesis 15:6--quoted by Paul in Romans 4: "And he believed in the LORD, and He reckoned it to him for righteousness. (The comment is placed there to introduce the cutting of the covenant, but refers to his initial act of faith here). Because he believed, God counted him as righteous.
In our passage we have two parts: there is the Word of the LORD that makes up the call, and the response of Abram--the believer.
I. The Call: God calls people to leave everything to receive His blessing (1-3).
The structure of this poetic account of the Word of the LORD is very interesting.
There are two imperatives, each of which have three promises that follow the compliance with those commands. The two commands are "Get you out" and "be a blessing."
The initial command to get out begins a sequence of actions by God. Abram is told to leave his land, his relatives, and his father's house, to go to the land God will show him. This is so characteristic of God's calls--it is very specific what he is to leave, where he is not to be; but it is vague about where he should go. That takes faith.
When Abram got out when he obeyed the first commandment, God promised to do three things: "I will bless you, I will make you into a great nation, and I will make you famous (make your name great)." The idea of "bless" here is general, but it encompasses enrichment--make one rich materially, spiritually, socially. Once Abram got out, God was bound to do all this.
But the call came with a purpose, and that purpose is the second command: "be a blessing." Note how this works in the sequence: you get out, and when you do I will do this, this and this; and I will do these things that you might be a blessing, but you must be a blessing, and when you are, I will then do this, this and this. God's blessing of Abram would enable him to fulfill the other part of the command, to be a blessing. The faith, the promise, the vision for the future was to be shared.
Then God would bless those who blessed Abram, for they would share in the faith; but if someone treated it all lightly, derided it, held it in contempt, God was bound to remove such a one from the place of blessing: "The one who treats you lightly I must curse." But ultimately, every family in the world would have the opportunity to share in the blessing. We know from the New Testament that Jesus Christ is the ultimate Seed of Abraham through whom God would bring blessing to the world. Out of this would spring the great missionary and evangelistic movements of God's people.
Participation in God's program to bless the world begins with the divine call of God. Thus it always has been. When Jesus came to this earth, he called people to leave all and follow him--that is the kind of commitment he wanted by faith: Everyone who forsakes father and mother, houses, lands, brethren, for my sake . . . shall inherit everlasting life. And the apostles affirm that we who believe were called out of darkness into his marvelous light, for we were redeemed, begotten, not of corruptible seed, but of the Word of God.
So all who believe in Jesus Christ have responded to His efficacious call in the Word of God by the Spirit of God.
II. The Response of Faith: Those who truly believe forsake all else to become faithful worshipers (4-9).
Here, now, is the great demonstration of saving faith displayed. There are three main descriptions I should like to focus on for a few minutes.
A. The true believer follows Him obediently.
Verse 4 simply says, "And he got out." Genesis 15:6 explains that he believed in the LORD, and so in contrast to others who may have migrated west, Abram's journey was an act of faith.
He got out. There was not wavering like Lot in Sodom; there was no trial period, no turning back, no retaining lands and positions in case it did not work out. Abram turned his back on idolatry and the pagan world and followed God's call to a totally new beginning. In fact, even in burial there was no going back, as the Semitic culture would believe that the dead would be gathered to their ancestors. Rather, when Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah to bury Sarah, he was saying here is where they will be gathered.
A good way to measure commitment is to ask what it cost the person to follow the LORD. Or, to put it another way, if it all turned out to be false, what had Abram lost? Well, the answer is, everything. What about our commitments today? If it all turned out to be wrong, what have we invested, what have we lost to follow Christ? When I was in Russia, in the eastern countries, it was very convicting to find pockets of Christians--doctors, teachers, scientists--who had lost their posts because of commitment of Christ. Here was no easy-believism.
But Christians continue with this type of faith in their walk with the LORD. That is the way of true faith. A number of years ago there was a college student who wanted to go to Seminary. He applied, and was turned down flat for his grades. And they were terrible. I thought I had heard the end of the matter, but in August Brad called me up. I asked him what he was doing; he said, "I'm here." He was so absolutely convinced God called him to Seminary he sold out and moved. He said he would do what it took to get in, and would keep applying. Unknown to him, his father had written a letter on his behalf. His father was not a believer, but was the president of a major university on the west coast. He said he had so hindered Brad in his faith that he had been his worst nightmare for four years, and that was probably the reason for the grades. The seminary took another look. Brad was admitted, went on to graduate, and is out there serving the LORD. That is the kind of faith that God desires, faith that will take the risk, faith that follows obediently.
There are two things about Abram's faith I would like you to see.
l. He made disciples in Haran. The text says that he brought "the souls he made in Haran." The expression is very unusual. It cannot refer to slaves, and certainly not children--they didn't have any. The Jewish commentators all confirm that the expression refers to making disciples, proselytes. Apparently Abram had proclaimed his faith in Haran, had spoken of Yahweh, the one true God. And people came with him. Not only had he left; he was being a blessing.
2. He was placed in the most needy location. The text says he came down into the land as far as Shechem, to the "Oaks of Moreh." "Moreh" means "the teacher"; and we know that Canaanite shrines were usually in clumps of trees, places of fertility. This was a Canaanite shrine; may I suggest, a Canaanite seminary? The next line tells us, "Now the Canaanite was at that time dwelling in the land." So God calls Abram to be a blessing in the midst of the most wicked religious society on earth. It is a little like God's planting a Church in Corinth; the question then would be, Who will influence whom? Abram did better than the Corinthian believers.
So the first evidence of saving faith is that the believer follows God obediently. He may falter, doubt, wonder, even stray--but follow no other way. To whom can we go, for He has the words of eternal life.
B. The true believer worships Him reverently.
The second evidence of a living faith is true worship. Twice in this short passage we are told that Abram built an altar to the LORD. It need say no more. That tells us that he made a sacrifice to worship God. Everyone knew what altars and sacrifices meant; to make one to Yahweh set him apart.
There are three significant aspects to sacrificial worship that must not be missed:
1. Surrender. When the ancients brought the animal to the shrine, they were taught that this animal would represent them, would substitute for them, would atone for them. It was up to the worshiper, then, to kill the animal in the holy courtyard. He would identify with the animal by placing his hand on its head, and then slit the throat with the other. The animal would die "in his hand"--the priest catching the blood in a basin. The believing Israelite would know that that blood should have been his, that that carcass on the ground should have been his, for sinfulness brings the penalty of death. But God in His grace allowed a substitute, so that the true worshiper could walk away free.
Thus it had always been. Adam and Eve never dreamed that God would deprive an animal of its life to clothe them; they snatched leaves from a tree, leaves that would grow back and not be missed. But God demanded life for life.
So when a worshiper brought the sacrifice for atonement, it signified his complete surrender to God by faith; it being burnt on the altar signified God's complete acceptance of him by grace.
Fifty years later the Word of the LORD would come to Abraham again: Get you out of this land to a mountain which I will show you; and there offer to me your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac. My how he poured it on to display the cost of sacrifice. And Abram obeyed; he was willing to give back to God the dearest possession he had, what he considered the future, God's gift to him. But true worship is surrender, no holding back. And at times God will test us, to see if we truly are worshipers, willing to relinquish whatever He asks of us. Of course God did not take Isaac from him; he wanted to see if he would obey. Abram praised God there, saying the LORD will provide. And it is this idea that led Paul to expound on the theme of Genesis 22--If God the father did not spare his only Son, but freely delivered Him up for us all--how shall he not also give us all things?
Yes, when we come to worship we praise God that Jesus Christ gave his life a ransom for us. But we also come with the attitude of surrender, holding nothing back from God.
2. Gratitude. This praise is central to our sacrificial worship. Both testaments call for us to offer to God the sacrifice of praise. That is why we call it the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving. When Noah offered sacrifices after the Flood, he was expressing his profound gratitude that God spared him and his family from the judgment, and would begin a new program with him.
3. Devotion. Sacrificial offerings were gifts to God; and giving is the greatest evidence of gratitude. It cost Israel to worship, to bring the animals. But true faith did that, because it was devoted to serving the LORD who delivered from the bondage of the world.
So true worship centered in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ becomes the second evidence of saving faith. In John 4 Jesus was speaking to the Samaritan woman about true worship: ". . . they who worship will worship in spirit and in truth . . . the Father is seeking such to worship Him." This is why God is calling people. Today we are curious about meeting the greatest needs. What is God looking for? Great evangelists and missionaries? Some would agree to that. Great preachers and teachers? Probably. People who pray? Surely. But first and foremost, "The Father is seeking worshipers." If they are true worshipers, God will have them, and everything else. For they will have surrendered to Him, be filled with gratitude to Him, and devoted to Him.
So when we gather to worship in His name, we are reminded that it is sacrificial worship--it is centered around His sacrifice, but it calls for our sacrifice. And yet we walk away from the altar with greater confidence and brighter hope than ever before. Listen again to the words of Charles Wesley:
Arise, my soul, arise, shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding sacrifice, in my behalf appears;
Before the throne my surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.
Five bleeding wounds he bears, received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers, they strongly plead for me:
Forgive him, O, forgive, they cry,
Nor let that ransomed sinner die.
My God is reconciled, His pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child, I can no longer fear;
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And Abba, Father, Abba, cry.
This is the confidence of saving faith, of the believer who has truly surrendered to God and come into his presence on the basis of the blood of the Lamb. Paul affirms, "He had made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor 5). That is appropriated by faith, and commemorated by the Eucharist. We worship at the alter; we go free.
C. The true believer proclaims Him triumphantly.
We are told that at the altar Abram "called upon the name of the LORD." I should like to rephrase this to catch what is actually going on: "And Abram made proclamation of Yahweh by name." The usage of the clause indicates that this is the meaning, especially the usage in Exodus 34:5ff., where the LORD is the subject, proclaiming "The name of the LORD": and what follows in His speech is a list of divine attributes--that is the "name" of the LORD.
Luther translated this line, "And Abram preached" in the name of the LORD. He is not too far off. When Abram made the sacrifice on the altar, he would stand there and proclaim who the LORD is and what He is like--that He is alive, He spoke, He calls people to follow Him, He is gracious and beneficent, offering blessing and fame, He is faithful to His own, but He will judge those who refuse the divine blessing. And of course this message would grow the longer Abram would walk with God.
Here was no simple talk, no message with weakened contents, no pagan musings. This was solid doctrinal discourse from divine revelation and personal experience. It would go with the sacrifice, so it spoke of commitment by faith. Thus, we have from the beginning the two parts of worship--the ministry of the sacrifice and the ministry of the Word. They belong together; the one explains the ritual, and the ritual gives life to the Word.
Did you note one amazing thing about Abram? God had promised to make his (Abram's) name great--but Abram proclaims the name of the LORD. It is in honoring God that fame comes, on earth and in heaven.
Here then is saving faith displayed: it follows God's word obediently, it worships Him reverently, and it proclaims His name triumphantly. Thus it is with us as well as with Abram.
The evidence of saving faith displayed here should bring us all great confidence in Christ: if during this lent your heart condemns you and you repent, that is evidence that you have the Spirit of God within, sealing you to redemption; If you desire to follow Him in righteousness, the Spirit is moving you and you are a child of God; if you can even call Him Father, you belong to Him; and if you worship Him sincerely, surrendering yourself to Him to His service in deep gratitude for what He has done, then you have evidence of saving faith, you have been born of God, and you are His, forever.
But the reminder of what saving faith looks like should also inspire in us: greater obedience in following His Word, so that we like Abram can demonstrate our faith by our works; greater zeal in proclaiming His name to a world that doesn't have a clue as to how to get to God; and greater adoration and devotion in worship, as we lose our pride, our self-sufficiency, our self-righteousness, at His altar.
1See Claus Westermann, The Praise of God in the Psalms, pp. 65 and 70. The "oracle" could be a word from a prophet, inner conviction, or a change in circumstances--something to let the one praying know that God was about to answer.
2The Theology of
the Old Testament, p. 165
3The verb hoshia‘
(pronounced ho-she-ah) is a perfect tense. It is to be taken as a prophetic perfect, or as Delitzsch
terms it, a perfect of confidence (fairly common in lament psalms).
The action is considered done by the speaker, and so written to
4These also are
prophetic perfects. He is so
confident of the result that he describes it in the past tense.
5The Hiphil is
to be classified as an inner causative, meaning that one reminds oneself,
keeps it in mind, ponders, or meditates on something. In essence this means confidence in, trust in, or even making
boast in something.