Sermon: Saved by Grace Through Faith, but What is Faith?
This sermon, with the preparation notes included as per the assignment, was completed for my Preaching course in Winter 2011.
Text Interrogation on Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
After a couple readings over the text and some time in meditation on it, I quickly had a central theological question: what is faith? As I began the more intensive text interrogation, I was open to other ideas but this question remained by far the predominant one and I did ultimately stick with it for the sermon topic.
As the text was one of the few theological treatises of Scripture, aspects like character (with the small exception of Abraham being our example) and plot were not particularly strong or meaningful. The conflict is a theological one between law-righteousness and faith-righteousness. The resolution comes with rejecting the Law as the way to being saved and with embracing grace through faith.
In reflection on this primary theme, I felt like it was something that is often repeated in Protestant churches, so addressing the main thrust of the passage may not lead to any meaningful revelation for my classmates. As a way to make it a deeper topic, I returned to my question of the meaning of faith, and felt like that would work better for the audience. As I looked at my resources, I saw little written on it – the New Bible Dictionary being the main exception with a brief section – although I did go back to a podcast series from Woodland Hills Church I had recently heard that covered the topic very well (see bibliography). I concluded it would be a deep enough subject, although the danger was that it would also have to rely somewhat on personal reflection and less on the hard research as I would normally like.
Let’s pray. Holy Spirit, we ask to hear from you this morning. We ask that you are speaking to us through the Scripture texts. We ask that you are speaking through me and that you are at work in the thoughts, emotions, and will of those listening. Amen.
Within Christian culture we have certain words that we use. I’ve often heard these referred to as “Christianese.” We often don’t even realize how much we do it until we use one of these words with somebody who hasn’t learned this special language. Then we don’t understand why they are asking for clarification. “What do you mean you don’t know what penal substitutionary atonement is?” we ask in shock. One of my housemates over the three years prior to this one would occasionally rant about the phrase “to have a heart for” something. That phrase pops up fairly often in Christian circles. I even heard it yesterday during our prayer time at chapel and tried not to laugh as I remembered my former housemate. “What does that even mean?” he’d ask. “Just caring about something? Well then why can’t we just say we care about it?” He’d usually finish his miniature rant with something along the lines of “it’s not like it’s even Scriptural Christianese, just something our subculture has made up more recently.” Maybe those are more extreme cases, but what about when we talk about the Trinity? “Ok, so Jesus is God, but different than the Creator, but still the same one God as the Creator and the Holy Spirit. What?” Ever tried to explain that to someone outside the Christian subculture for the first time?
This passage has a few of these kinds of words. We use them often, but I can guarantee that a lot of non-Christians don’t understand. For that matter, I can guarantee that even a fair number of Christians don’t really know what some of them mean. What is “justification”? What are “works”, and is that the same thing as following the “law”? What is “grace”? If I had the time for a whole series of sermons or if I was a part of a ministry more oriented toward small group discussion, I’d go through each of these terms. I don’t have time for that in one 15-minute sermon, of course. Because of that I acknowledge that I am breaking one of the cardinal sins of preaching and asking questions I won’t answer, but I hope you can see that my point is not so much the question, but more the nature of asking the questions.
Arguably, the most challenge and the most confusion around its use come with the word faith. We use the word a lot, but what exactly is faith? Especially considering if you take this text as authoritative, then faith is the key to justification and whatever exactly justification is, we can agree that is a good thing. If we have different conceptions of the word faith, then we can very easily have completely different perceptions of what it means to be a Christian. I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to say that a different concept of faith could fundamentally change how everything in your life is viewed.
One very simple definition of faith that I have heard is “believing something despite the evidence to the contrary.” I most often hear this said by atheists or agnostics who pride themselves on their rationality. From their perspective, it is obvious that there is no God, or that Jesus is not God, or that whatever other particular belief we hold is not true. Sometimes I even sense this definition from Christians, although we usually wouldn’t explicitly say it that way. It is a look at the concept of faith as essentially meaning “convincing yourself of something, even though deep down you know better.” When I think of faith in that way, I have no problem agreeing with those atheist friends and rejecting that. But I don’t think that’s really what faith is.
So maybe faith is not the opposite of rationality but many would still look at faith as being only an intellectual concept. I have faith in the idea of gravity. If I jump up, I have faith that I will come back down again. [jump] See, my faith in gravity turned out to be correct and that’s a pretty rational belief. You can come up with some pretty good reasons why we sometimes use the word faith in this way as reduced to an intellectual concept. The most notable of these is misunderstanding Scripture itself. In the most quoted text of the Bible, we hear that “those who believe in [God] will not perish but have eternal life.” “Believing” in John 3:16 is used in the same way that “faith” is used here in Romans 4. Well, isn’t “believing” an intellectual or an informational concept?
Some add a bit more to this concept of faith, saying that faith is the opposite of doubt or an absence of doubt. It is about being absolutely certain that everything that your preacher is saying is true, no questions asked. Or faith is being certain that your denomination’s statement of faith is true, no matter what, or certainty in the Bible, or in your prayer for healing to come true, or whatever the case may be. If you believe surely enough, then that is true faith, and that is what God is looking for. Faith is used in this way to mean not asking questions because we are just supposed to have faith. Asking questions means doubting, and that’s clearly not faith. I recently heard another preacher, Greg Boyd, talk about this as the “faith-o-meter” approach. The goal in this mindset is trying to move more towards the faith end of the scale and away from the doubt end of the scale. He points out that there are certain problems with this perspective. How much faith do you need to go to Heaven? Is it 50%? “5-0 and go” as we sometimes hear on campus with regards to our classes? Or does it need to be 100% certain? And is that even possible? Is that what faith is? I don’t think so.
Some come to this conclusion in a different way, juxtaposing faith with action. If works doesn’t justify us but faith does, then the opposite of works is thought, they reason. Faith and works are not the same things; that is made clear in this Romans 4 text. Abraham was justified by faith, not works, and the same is true of us. The text is dramatic, laying out the two concepts as different, but the tone implies almost more than that. Based on the literary structure of this text they appear to be total opposites. In the various Protestant churches and groups I’ve been a part of – both mainline and evangelical – almost all of them had this understanding of faith and works as unrelated or even opposing ideas. Sometimes I’ve heard that explicitly said and sometimes it is there more subtly when you really dig at it. Scripture doesn’t seem to view them as opposites, though.
One of the reasons I would say this is actually less obvious in this text itself. The text points to Abraham’s faith as the Roman church’s example and subsequently as our example as well. If we look at Abraham’s story, it is hardly one of doing nothing but just “believing.” God calls for Abraham and Sarah to completely relocate their lives, and they do it. In the most dramatic part of their story, after God has promised them a son and they wait until old age for that to happen, God then tells Abraham to offer that son as a sacrifice. Abraham acts out of his faith and is prepared to do so. Faith then isn’t the same as works, but it can’t exclude works either.
Suppose for a moment that faith is only about accepting the right information with enough certainty. When this text says that Abraham had faith in God, which specific idea was it which justified him: that God exists? That God is love? That God would one day incarnate as a human being in Jesus? On the bigger theological scale, is it really possible that what life boils down to is simply head knowledge? Or are we looking at this all the wrong way, that Abraham’s faith in God was more than just information about God? Could the information-driven paradigm for faith be setting the bar too low?
Considering how important the concept of faith is in this passage of Romans 4, you might be inclined to think that there would be some clear idea what faith is within this text. There are hints for sure, like what I just said about it not eliminating actions, but there is no pat perfectly-explained definition. Although Romans is the closest it gets, the Bible is not a systematic theology textbook. We often can’t just flip it open and have the answer in front of us. No doubt God could have provided us with all the exact answers if he wanted to. He didn’t, and that says a lot to me. The Bible does not operate on a purely-intellectual framework. There is lots of good information in there, but the Bible is ultimately a story, a story of God and God’s people. The Bible ultimately comes out of a relational paradigm.
Faith is hard to define because faith is not first and foremost an intellectual concept. Like the Bible, faith is a relational concept. It is hard to define precisely because the very way that we try to define things is based on an intellectual framework. We try to pigeonhole the idea into a neat little package, but relationship is far bigger than that. It is bigger than any form of a religious system. It is not a system of cognitive acknowledgements. Neither is it a system of rituals nor a system of morality out in the world. I’d argue psychologically that we are all inclined to go to one or more of those three because it is easier to live by “the rules” than by a relationship. We’re attracted to reducing faith to a list of ideas to accept, or going to church and taking the sacraments, or laws of moral living. But that is the very mindset that Paul is saying here in Romans 4 that gets us nowhere. Faith is far bigger than that. Yes, that’s far more challenging, but also far more beautiful. We need to come out of the informational mindset of faith and enter into the relational.
This completely shifts the paradigm for what faith is. It’s not just a different thought; it’s a totally different way of thought. We do intuitively know this in the way that we sometimes use the word faith in everyday language. I may say that I have faith in my friend Bob. This faith is built not just on facts about Bob. Much more importantly, it is based on my experiences with Bob over the years that I have known him. That faith in Bob will manifest itself in my actions, as it did for Abraham, so neither is faith contrary to action. In general, as a culture we do use the word faith in two different ways: as faith in an idea or as faith in a person.
The problem is that we often treat faith in God as the former, as faith in an idea. It isn’t unusual to hear somebody say that they have faith in God, and mean that they are fairly confident that God exists. They’re above whatever that magic threshold is on the faith-o-meter. Imagine I said “Oh, I have faith in Bob; I’m more than fifty percent sure he exists.” You’d intuitively know that there was something very odd, very wrong even, to speak about a person in that way. So why do we so often speak of God more like an idea than like a personal being? Obviously it is necessary to be fairly sure of the idea, such as the idea that God exists. We need, though, to move beyond faith in the idea of God to faith in the person of God.
Let’s take a moment to ask God for that. God, we ask that we are impacted by what you show us today and every day. We ask to not only learn about you, but that the wealth of knowledge we gain here, in these sermons, in our readings, in our other classes, and elsewhere in our lives is used to truly change us. We ask to not just know about you, but to go beyond that to something so much better. We ask to know you. Let it be so, Amen.
Beinert, Wolfgang. “Faith.” In Handbook of Catholic Theology, edited by Wolfgang Beinert and Fiorenza Schussler Francis, 249-253. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995.
Bruce, F. F. Romans: The New Testament Tyndale Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, USA, 1985.
Church, Woodland Hills. Faith and Doubt – Sermon Series – Woodland Hills Church . March 6, 2011. http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon-series/faith-and-doubt (accessed March 8, 2011).
Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Vol. 3. 3 vols. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008.
Life Application Study Bible: New Living Translation. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2004.
MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005.
Michael, D., Carol A. Newsom, Pheme Perkins, and Marc Z. Brettler, . The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible. 4th. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Morris, L. L. “Faith.” In New Bible Dictionary, edited by I. Howard Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer and D. J. Wiseman, 357-360. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, USA, 1996.