We begin tonight our consideration of the one of the great chapters of the New Testament and, indeed, of the Bible. Our preacher has just concluded a great exhortation to keep faith with the Lord Jesus Christ; not to shrink back but to continue to believe. As a stronger, persevering faith is the need of the hour, he is now going to set before his readers examples of those who trusted the Lord through thick and thin and prevailed. The Bible is full of flesh and blood examples of its teaching. It not only tells us how to live, it shows us how it has been done by people just like us. It is, of course, comforting to be reminded that the temptations one faces are neither unique nor even as severe as those that others have courageously endured and the stirring examples of steadfast faith will nerve his readers to aspire to the same for themselves. Before we take up this wonderful series of examples from the ancient church, tonight I want us to look at the chapter as a whole and see the argument that our preacher is making with it. And, then, I want us to look at his two definitions of faith, the first in v. 1 and the second in v. 6.
v.1 A parallel to this definition of faith is found in Romans 8:24-25: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
v.2 A kind of chapter title, for he is about to list a number of the ancients and tell us how it was that they exercised this faith.
v.3 The definition of faith just given is illustrated by reference to the creation by divine fiat. We might have thought that v. 3 would come before v. 2 as this is not the first in a list of the ancients who were commended by faith. But, apparently the author thought that since the biblical narrative began with the creation, he should begin there too. No one was there, no one saw the creation. It is a truth that can be known to us only by divine revelation. We should not miss the importance of this point for the current debate in our culture. More is at stake in the evolution/creation debate than simply getting the science right. If we do not believe the Bible on creation than, at a capital point, we have failed to have true faith, no small failure according to this author.
v.4 There is a long debate, you may know, over whether Abel’s offering was preferred because it was itself the proper sacrifice, that is blood sacrifice, the offering of the herd, while Cain gave simply the fruits of the soil as his offering to God. I used to incline to that view, but am now persuaded that the Genesis text lays stress instead on Cain’s lack of faith, not the particular nature of his offering. His sin was tokenism. The text says that he brought “some of the fruits of the soil” for his offering, but that Abel brought “the fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” That is, Abel brought the very best, as he should have, and Cain didn’t. He should have brought the firstfruits. His tokenism was the sign of a lack of living faith and of true love for God. Cain’s type of offering would be repeated many times in Israel’s history and the prophets would point out that what was wrong with it was precisely that there was no care to give the best. They were checking the box and filling the square, they were not giving expression to faith and love.
v.5 Enoch was judged a man of true faith because it is said that he pleased God, and, as the author will say in v.6, without faith it is impossible to please God. Enoch and Elijah, of course, are the two figures in biblical history that did not die in the natural sense. You children remember the puzzle: the oldest man who ever lived, died before his father did. How can that be true? Well Methuselah’s father was Enoch and Enoch never did die.
v.6 Noah’s faith consisted in his believing, against the evidence of his eyes, that God would keep his promise to destroy the world. His faith was vindicated while the world that did not heed God’s warning was destroyed.
It is an interesting lesson that we are given here. The three ante-deluvians, the three men mentioned who lived before the flood, were all exemplars of this living faith. But having the same faith did not mean that they lived the same lives. Abel believed and was murdered. Enoch believed and did not die. Noah believed and everyone else died. We cannot predict or control the outcome of our lives. We want, of course, Enoch’s outcome. But God will decide that. Ours is to believe, always to believe.
In v. 1 of chapter 11 faith is defined as the unshakeable confidence in the reality of the yet unseen world and the certainty of God’s yet unfulfilled promises. That is what faith is. And, again, in v. 6, we have a variation on the same theme. Faith is belief in what you cannot see – in this instance, the existence of God – and that he will keep his word and reward those who trust in him. Alexander Whyte explains these two statements this way:
“Faith in its most elementary sense, faith in its first and foundation sense, simply means the reliance place by one man on the truthfulness and power of another. You make a statement of fact to me or give me a promise and offer an assurance and faith is that state of mind in me to you, that state of mind in me which accepts your statement and relies on your promise.” [Sermons of 1881-82, 68]
Now, of course, that it a great deal easier to say than it is to do. Sometimes people speak as if faith were the easiest thing in all the world. They make it seem as if God’s kindness is shown in this: that instead of requiring us to keep his commandments for salvation, he lowered the bar and requires us now only to believe in him. But, of course, it is exactly the reverse. Faith, true faith, is the most difficult thing in the world, it runs directly counter to the entire tendency of our inner being. No one ever believes by himself or herself. No one can believe. Faith is and must be the gift of God otherwise no one would ever believe and be saved.
Calvin spoke to the difficulty of faith. [ad loc.]
“Eternal life is promised to us, but it is promised to the dead; we are told of the resurrection of the blessed, but meantime we are involved in corruption; we are declared to be just, [but] sin dwells within us; we hear that we are blessed, but meantime we are overwhelmed with untold miseries; we are promised an abundance of all good things, but we are often hungry and thirsty; God proclaims that he will come to us immediately, but seems deaf to our cries…. Faith is therefore rightly called…the evidence of things not seen.”
Now that is the difficulty at the very outset of the Christian life, of course. Think of what must be believed in order to become a Christian. That you are God’s creature, that you have rebelled, that he is holy and you are guilty as a sinner before him, that he sent Jesus Christ into the world to atone for sin, that by believing in Jesus his righteousness and the virtue of his death are imputed to you so that your guilt is swept away and you are accounted righteous in God’s sight, that, if you believe in Jesus, you have been made a new creature in Christ, have been given a summons to live a new life and the power to live it, that when you die and your body is laid in the ground, your soul will be immediately and gloriously in the presence of God in heaven, and Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead and to vindicate those who have trusted in him, and that endless bliss and perfect satisfaction of human life, body and soul, awaits, at the resurrection, those who have trusted Jesus Christ. You can’t see any of this. You can’t prove it in a laboratory. No one ever comes back from the other world to tell us of how things are there. The evidence of our eyes is against all of this. We can’t see sins forgiven, we have to believe it. We can’t see the soul in heaven. We have to believe it. We have to believe it all on the strength of God’s promise. Christ said he would return, but it has been 2000 years! We must believe that he will keep his promise.
That is a lot to believe. And the proof of how much it is to believe is the billions of people who live in this world today – including millions upon millions who call themselves Christians – who don’t believe it. It is unnatural for rebels against God – which all sinful human beings are by nature – to confess the truth about themselves and their rebellion, to acknowledge their need of Christ and his atonement, and to surrender their hearts and wills to the sovereignty of God.
We Christians tend to think that unbelievers must regret their unbelief, that they must wish that things were as we know them to be. After all, we think, what can life be if you have no hope of heaven, no way to justify some high purpose for your life, and do not know the love of God which you were made for? But, by and large, though unbelief very definitely has its costs, the typical unbeliever does not regret that he is not a convinced Christian. C.S. Lewis, remembering his own life as an unbeliever, spoke of the pleasure he found in that state of mind in which “there was nothing to be obeyed, and nothing to be believed except what was either comforting or exciting.” [In Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert, 46]
In The Pilgrim’s Regress he makes a point of showing how liberating it can be to lose one’s faith.
“Soon after his unsettling visit with the Steward, the boy John, struggling under the burden of all the rules he has broken, meets Mr. Enlightenment. After explaining that he was raised in Puritania, John finds his heart lifted up when Enlightenment tells him what a good place that is to leave. Though he is offered only the flimsiest imaginable arguments against Christianity, John is only too glad to bow to Mr. Enlightenment’s authority, and he becomes ecstatic over his newfound unbelief. ‘There is no Landlord,’ he exclaims, feeling so relieved he could almost take wing. … ‘There is no Landlord.’ John repeats gleefully, chuckling at the thought of the ‘old card of rules hung over his bed in the bedroom, so low and dark, in his father’s house.’ Almost dazed with exhilaration, he cries out yet again, ‘There is no Landlord. There is no black hole.’ Clearly a great burden has rolled away – not a burden of sin but rather of fear and self-accusation.” [Ibid, 46-47]
There is, so they think, a liberty, a freedom in unbelief that contrasts very favorably with the submission required of Christian believers. And, of course, you have the philosophers confidently, even triumphantly proclaiming their unbelief and their undisguised contempt for historic Christianity and the doctrines Christians are required to believe because they are taught in the Word of God. Here, for example, is John Stuart Mill:
“I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my
fellow creatures, and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling
him, to hell I will go.” [In Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln, 107]
Of course, Mill did not really believe in hell, did not really believe in God as he is revealed in Holy Scripture, and, certainly did not see himself as a sinner deserving of God’s judgment, or he would not have said what he did. But, let us all be clear about this. It is no small thing to believe what cannot be seen and to be sure that God’s extraordinary promises will be kept when one cannot see the keeping of them. That is what makes conversion such a remarkable thing. That is why a man or woman, boy or girl must be born again to enter the kingdom of God. Only God can bring to pass something as unlikely as a sinful human being believing what he or she is taught in the Word of God and committing himself or herself to Christ and his promises in the certainty that they are true, real, and certain of fulfillment.
But, what is true for the unbeliever who becomes a Christian, remains true for the Christian himself or herself through the course of the Christian life. That, after all, is what Hebrews is about. This author is writing to Christians, who came to faith in Jesus Christ some time, perhaps some years before.
I was reading the other day about Walter Marshall. Walter Marshall is one of those great Christian men who is known because of one thing and one thing only. In his case it is a book. He is known for one book. Marshall was a 17th century English Puritan, one of those cast out of his pulpit in the great ejection of 1662. His was, by and large, a quiet life, the life of pastor. But he wrote a book and that book has been regarded the standard work on the doctrine of sanctification ever since. It’s title is The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification and you can still buy it today. And I urge you to buy it and read it, though it is not an easy book to read. William Cowper said of Marshall’s book, “I never met a man who understood the plan of salvation better, or who was more happy in explaining it to others.” James Hervey, the Great Awakening Calvinist, said of Marshall’s book, “…was I to be banished into some desolate island, possessed of only two books beside my Bible, this should be one of the two…” [Cited in An Appreciation, appendix to A. Whyte, The Apostle Paul, 225]
The thesis of the book is that the mystical union of the believing sinner with Jesus Christ is the central principle of the course of salvation. He points out how by faith the sinner receives Christ, how both justification (forgiveness and a righteous standing before God) and sanctification (the moral and spiritual renewal of one’s life) are both given in Christ and received by the faith that unites us to him. It is this emphasis on sanctification by faith, as well as justification by faith that has made it the standard work in the Reformed tradition on the subject of sanctification. Christians, even well read Christians, tend to slip into a way of thinking in which justification – their pardon – is received by faith, but that sanctification – their renewal – is by our works. After all, doesn’t the Bible tell us to “work out our salvation by fear and trembling?” But Marshall will persuade you that that working is the working of faith and that it is only by faith, by an active union with Christ by faith, that we receive the power and the strength to do any working out of our salvation.
Well, all that by way of introducing Walter Marshall to you. Marshall was not always such a clear thinking Christian. For sometime in his life as a Presbyterian minister, he struggled with his own sins and a very disquieted conscience. He tried this and that to conquer his sins, but he had no success. He struggled with depression because, rightly, he felt that God was angry with him and he couldn’t effect the change in his life that would remove God’s displeasure. Well, finally, he bit the bullet and disclosed his problem to some ministerial friends. The first was the celebrated Richard Baxter, the famous Puritan preacher and pastor, and Baxter told him simply that he felt Marshall was being too “legal” in his approach to his Christian life. Then he talked to Thomas Goodwin, often described together with John Owen as one of the Atlases of Puritan Christianity. He was even more candid with Goodwin about his sins and his failure to rise above them and he mentioned the sins in particular. After he finished Goodwin told him that Marshall had forgotten to mention the greatest of his sins, the sin of unbelief, because he did not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ both for the remission of his sins, for their forgiveness and for the sanctifying of his nature, the transformation of his life. He was confessing the wrong sin; repenting of the wrong sin; seeking to mortify the wrong sin. The master sin, from which the other sins came, was lying in his heart undetected and unmolested.
That reply changed Marshall’s life. He realized that he had been seeking to live as a Christian by the principle of works and not of faith; he saw that it was in fact unbelief that lay at the root of his weakness as a Christian, and was the cause of his cloudy conscience and lack of success in dealing with his sins. He understood now that it would be his faith in Christ that would tell the tale in his sanctification. And it was this discovery and insight that led to Marshall’s immortal book about sanctification by faith, about the Christian life as a matter of union with Christ and as a matter of Christ at work in us and of our trusting him and not ourselves.
So, you see, when the author of Hebrews tells us that faith is the way he means faith is the whole way! It is the way we begin our Christian life and the way we continue it and must be the way we end it. That is precisely what the examples he will set before us will demonstrate.
Faith – that is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” – is the way in which we become Christians, receive the forgiveness of our sins and membership in God’s family. Faith is the way we walk with the Lord and face and meet all of the vicissitudes of life.
Samuel Rutherford’s first wife, Eupham, died after suffering terribly through an entire year with a wracking disease.
“…my wife’s disease increaseth daily, to her great torment and pain night and day. She has not been in God’s house since our communion, neither out of her bed. I can hardly believe her disease is ordinary, for her life is bitter to her, she sleeps none, but cries as a woman travailing in birth.”
When his wife died, Rutherford’s response was “The Lord hath done it; blessed be His name.” That is faith! He couldn’t see the Lord taking his wife’s life. He couldn’t see the Lord’s faithfulness to his wife in her wracking torment. But he believed what he had been told and what he could not see.
He was like Anne Bradstreet, who saw her house, with all her manuscripts burned to the ground in colonial New England:
And when I could not longer look
I blest his Name that gave and took
That lay’d my goods now in the dust
Yea so it was, and so twas just.
[All the above in J. Coffey Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions, 90-91]
And that is what these Christian folk to whom Hebrews was written needed, the same sort of real faith, the same sort of confidence in what they could not see, but what had been promised to them: the same spiritual sight of Christ on the Right Hand interceding for them, the same spiritual sight of his coming back to earth, the same spiritual sight of the heavenly country, the same conviction that in Christ and only in Christ is a man or woman able to ascend to heaven. They would not have admitted this to be sure, but they were choosing a religion of physical sight to one of faith. But it is by faith and faith alone that one can please God because it is by Christ and Christ alone that one can please God and one gets Jesus Christ by living faith. By looking to him, trusting his word and promise, believing his presence, practicing his love and grace, day after day.
Tell me, brothers and sisters, is this not what we must do? And is it not what we so often fail to do. We know we should believe, but we look back and realize that there has been much more doing than believing in our lives for sometime, much more checking of boxes and filling of squares, than real looking to Christ, counting on him, loving him for what he has done and will do as he has promised, and living ourselves in the active confidence that we are connected to him by an unbreakable bond.
What was happening to these Jewish Christians can so much more easily happen when we stop believing and start doing. Our doing must be the overflow of our believing. We must obey because we are actively looking up to our Savior and trusting him to direct our lives in the right way. The believing always comes first. That is what we are going to see in these many examples of faith in chapter 11. The believing comes first and motivates, strengthens, directs, and shapes the doing. That is why the doing was so fine and so powerful. Because it was the doing of believing, the doing of being sure of what we hope for and confident of what we do not see.
Try it this coming week. Call yourself to attention, time after time. Make yourself do it five times a day. Am I believing at this moment? Is my doing flowing from my believing? Is my believing the first thing and my doing the second? What fact about Jesus Christ am I believing right now that is shaping my living? What promise am I sure of right now that is controlling my thoughts and words and deeds? Am I living as one who is sure, at this moment, of what I cannot see and confident of what the Scripture teaches me to hope for? That is living by faith and that is the secret of everything!