Our subject tonight is FAITH. So let me start with one expression of faith:
“The mental night that has descended upon me is less brief and promises no awakening after sleep. Formerly the cruelty, the meanness, the dusty fretful passion of human life seemed to me a little thing, set, like some resolved discord in music, amid the splendour of the stars and the stately procession of geological ages. What if the universe was to end in universal death; it was none the less unruffled and magnificent. But now all this has shrunk to be no more than my own reflection in the windows of the soul, through which I look out upon the night of nothingness. The revolutions of nebulae, the birth and death of stars, were no more than convenient fictions in the trivial work of linking together my own sensations, and perhaps those of other men not much better than myself. No dungeon was ever constructed so dark and narrow as that in which the shadow physics of our time imprisons us; for every prisoner has believed that outside his walls a free world existed; but now the prison had become the whole universe. There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness, anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”
That is an intelligent man’s faith - one of the great architects of modern secularism. The Bible, however, would describe that as the faith of someone being “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2.12). It was the nihilistic faith in the late 1960s of Bertrand Russell, the mathematician and philosopher. The fact is that atheism is a faith, and as I trust we shall see, less reasonable than theism.
So the question tonight is not, “are you a person of ‘faith’?” Rather it is, “what is your faith? Are you believing what is true or nor true?” No one is neutral. Deep down every one has some set of fundamental assumptions on which they base their lives. For many these are just uncritical, politically correct assumptions. These they have absorbed while at school, or at university, or at their place of work which today may have its own anti-Christian values and culture. But what you are certainly not, is someone without any “faith”. Well, to help us with our thinking tonight, I want us to turn first to our Epistle reading and Hebrews 11 and later we will be turning to our Gospel reading, from John 20. And my headings for tonight are, first, REASONABLE TRUST; secondly, REASONS FOR DISBELIEF; and, thirdly, THE HEART OF THE MATTER
First, REASONABLE TRUST
Look at Hebrews 11 verse 1:
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
That is so relevant for today. Many believe you can have no adequate knowledge of our ultimate future, and certainly not of anything that is unseen and incapable of empirical verification. That is to say, they do not believe you can be sure of, or committed to, anything that cannot be classed as scientific. That idea started in a renewed and big way before the Second World War. It was when philosophers like Bertrand Russell – they were called “logical positivists” - were arguing that all religious language was meaningless because it could not be scientifically tested. So as Christian teaching both about the future and about present unseen spiritual realities could not be scientifically tested, it was meaningless. Therefore, they said, Christian claims certainly could not be subjects for serious conversation or discussion; and even more certainly they had no place in public life. That is why they must be kept private.
But the simple fact is that when Russell died in 1970 these positivistic views had already been demolished by a new wave of philosophy. Philosophers were now saying these old positivists were talking nonsense. They had confused meaning with truth. So that great statement in Psalm 23 verse 4 of hope and spiritual reality, which tragically Russell could not say - “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” - is not meaningless at all. For there is a meaningful vital question: “is it true or is it false?” which you can and should discuss. Of course, the answer to that depends on whether there really is the God (or not) to whom the Bible witnesses and whom Jesus claims to be and to reveal. Such discussion and such words are in total contrast to a bunch of wrong notes played by a child on a keyboard. They are “meaningless” in terms of content. But those words of Psalm 23 are not meaningless.
Be that as it may, here in Hebrews 11.1 you are told in no uncertain terms that through faith in Christ you can be sure of the future - “being sure of what we hope for”. And you can be certain of the present reality of the spiritual world as the Bible reveals it – “being certain of what we do not see”. Nor is that faith unreasonable or illogical. In the Bible faith is pitted against sight not reason. So Paul says in 2 Cor 5:7: “We live by faith, not by sight.”
Christian faith is reasoning trust. To think that inanimate, non rational nature with an accidental big bang is ultimately responsible for this amazing universe is both unbelievable and unreasonable. As has been well said, it is of the same order as believing the Oxford English Dictionary is the result of an explosion in a printing factory. To act on such a belief is surely utter folly, if there is a more plausible and more reasonalbe alternative. And the Bible says there is such an alternative and it suggests in Romans 1 that we are hard wired to believe it – namely that there is a God. And the Bible says he is a loving, rational God who has revealed himself through prophets, apostles and supremely in Jesus Christ. So when Hebrews 11.3 says that “.. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible,” it is simply saying that there is intelligent design behind this universe. The details of how God commanded we are not told. But that he commanded is more reasonable than saying this amazing universe is the result of unintelligent design or no design. To say that is “meaningless” or as Russell put it before he died “only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.” So Christian faith is reasonable.
But then Hebrews 11 goes on to explain what it means by faith through the examples of some famous Old Testament heroes. Christian faith, it tells us, is fundamentally a trusting response to God’s word. So verse 7 says:
“By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family.”
And verse 8 says:
“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.
”So faith is here seen as trusting God and then obeying God’s word. Both Noah and Abraham realized that God was there and God was good. So he would never let them down and so how unreasonable not to obey. For all the heroes in Hebrews 11 understood and believed verse 6 that:
“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.”
They knew that God was a personal God; and you discover the truth about persons, not through scientific experiment but in “personal ways”. For example, you want to make an appointment. So you interview someone, you get references, but then on, reasonable evidence you have to make a choice. Of course, it is only when that person is in that new position that your faith in them is confirmed. With persons reasonable commitment leads to proof. So it is with our reasonable trust in Jesus Christ.
But if the God of the bible is reasonable and true and he is good, why do people not come to faith in him? So that brings us …
… secondly, to REASONS FOR DISBELIEF
Let me list four reasons. First, Paul’s epistle to the Romans is blunt. It says one reason is “godlessness and wickedness”:
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1.18-20).
And then it goes on to say that God’s wrath is revealed in the present by letting people drift into idolatry, sexual decadence and then things like greed and violence, all of which have long term dire negative social consequences. Aldous Huxley had the honesty to admit how it works:
"I had motives [he wrote], for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption … For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political."
But, secondly, some do have real questions about belief. That is why we run Christianity Explored discussion groups. So I shall not tonight begin to discuss any of the many issues that people genuinely do have – time forbids.
Then, thirdly, there is simple drift. As C.S.Lewis said:
“If you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?”
Jesus spoke in his Parable of the Sower of
“the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4.19).
Who is like that here tonight? Be warned. These things can lead to a drift and a creeping paralysis of faith. This happened to Charles Darwin. He wrote:
“I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation … disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.”
But, fourthly, our Gospel reading suggests another common reason for being faithless. It there tells you why Thomas could not believe in the Resurrection – the great evidence for the Christian faith. The reason was something quite simple. Look at verses 24 and 25 of John 20. It says:
“Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.’”
For one reason or another Thomas kept himself away from the other disciples on that first Easter evening. He was, therefore, absent when Jesus appeared. You ask, “How is that relevant today?” Well, Jesus’ promise still holds good, namely that “where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18.20). So if you keep away from coming to Church to hear the Bible preached and Christian truth taught; or if you don’t go to your home group or focus group or other small bible study group, don’t be surprised if you drift from the faith. In an increasingly pagan world it is so important to keep in regular touch with other believers in Christ. For it seems we are also hard wired to conform, even in our thinking and believing, to the group with which we spend most time. There is a famous psychological experiment called the Asche Experiment that appears to confirm that. But in the case of Thomas, Christ in his goodness and in his risen glory came to him on that next Sunday evening. And after greeting the others he said (verses 27 and 28):
"Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
So for Thomas absence from Christian fellowship meant doubt while being present with other Christians meant a simple but profound faith in Christ as truly risen and truly God. That brings us …
... thirdly, to what I have called THE HEART OF THE MATTER
We need to understand three vital truths.
First, Christian faith is dependent entirely on God’s grace and goodness, as Thomas experienced. We do not just give ourselves “saving faith”. Saving faith is in response to God’s first move through his word.
“Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10.17)..
God speaks and we respond – in that order. And the Holy Spirit uses as his great means to communicate God’s word Jesus and his apostles (John 14.26). And you have their teaching now in the Bible. It is amazing how people come to faith and grow in their faith simply by reading the Bible. I knew a Muslim once who came to faith in Christ through reading Mark’s Gospel as an A Level set book. So Christian faith is possible because of God’s grace and goodness.
Secondly, biblical faith is not simply head knowledge. It is quite unique. In the original the verb for having faith or believing so often is followed by a preposition – the word into, or upon. This usage is not found in classical Greek but only in the New Testament. It is special. So in John’s Gospel chapter 3 and verse 16 you read:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in [literally into] him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Faith in Christ, Christian faith, is more than head knowledge. It means, as we have said, a personal trust. Jesus compared it to the trust of a young child. And faith in Christ relates to Christ’s love which comes before our human response. As 1 John 4.19 says: “we love because he first loved us”.
Then, thirdly, the really good news is that saving faith, while involving knowledge, is not like the knowledge you have to mug up for an exam or a driving test. Even someone can exercise faith in Christ who finds learning very difficult. The Bible is insistent that it is not some sort of achievement we bring to the table to persuade God of our goodness. No faith is more like a hand grasping a life-belt.
And the life belt is needed because we all are in a desperate mess. This is the teaching of Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. You there learn about God’s divine law; and that it is not like our human law. Human law has a minimum standard that relates to external conduct and behavior that disrupts society. Divine law (God’s law) has a maximum standard, namely the perfect righteousness and goodness of God himself. And we all fall short of that. And we know it. But God cannot live with imperfection of any sort.
On the one hand that should make us glad. It means one day, in heaven, there will be no more illnesses, no more crime, no more greed or any of the negativity we endure in this life. On the other hand, because we are all part of this current imperfect world order, we stand under God’s judgment and so in need of his forgiveness and acceptance. But the good news is that that is available to our faith. However, we must get this right.
Salvation is because of Christ’s death for us and not because of our faith. God is not rewarding us for our faith. Faith is simply the means through which we are united with Christ. And because Christ has paid the extreme penalty for our sins, we are forgiven. Through faith we receive that forgiveness. God then accepts us because he sees not our imperfection but Christ’s perfection “imputed” to us (to use an old word). All this is what Paul means when he talks of “justification by grace through faith”.
And not to miss the point and to make faith in Christ as clear as possible, Christ himself and other Bible writers use all sorts of words or metaphors to help you get the gist of what faith in him means. So you read in the Bible of coming to Christ, receiving Christ, building on Christ, putting on Christ, laying hold of Christ. And John 6 even speaks of eating and drinking Christ (and this Communion service symbolizes that truth).
Also there is committing yourself to Christ and looking to him and opening the door to Christ.
I must conclude
At the end of John 20 in verse 31 (in the context of Thomas and his faith) you read this:
“these [the reports of Christ’s miraculous signs and certainly of the Resurrection] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
So faith is a matter of life (and therefore death). The Bible is clear. Heaven and eternal life are real but so are eternal death and hell. But Jesus’ good news is that faith in him is the way to life. But ignoring him is the way to death and despair (as Bertrand Russell became aware even in this life).
What will your choice be?
Surely it is more reasonable to choose life?