Living by Faith

It is not by our own ability to be righteous that we are saved. "The just shall live by faith" was originally written by the prophet Habakkuk and is quoted no less than three times in the New Testament (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; and Hebrews 10:38). But what is faith?

Many people, both Christian and non-Christian, hold to the romantic-sounding idea that faith is believing in something even though there is absolutely no logical reason to believe in it. If you "just believe" you can do anything. Just "have faith." The so-called "power of positive thinking" is considered a major key to success, both in religious and secular fields. In the organization I was involved with, the "Law of Believing" was stressed over and over again. What you believe will come to pass. Things that you believe for, you will receive. "Believing equals receiving." It was even said that it is one's believing that makes things come to pass. The emphasis then is all on my believing and not on God.

There was a "classic" writing that was very popular among people who held to this "law of believing" idea. As A Man Thinketh by James Allen was often referred to and thought to be an expansion on a Biblical principle. The fact is, however, that the book is completely man-centered, with no Scriptures quoted, and almost no mention of God. The foreword sums up the purpose of the book, which is "to stimulate men and women to the discovery and perception of the truth that, 'They themselves are makers of themselves' by virtue of the thoughts, which they choose and encourage." The title is a misquotation of a verse that was often used to substantiate the "law of believing." But the verse does not say, "as any man thinketh in his heart so is he." The context is about an evil man.

Proverbs 23:
6 Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats:
7 For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.
[see NASB]

The verse is saying that while the evil man may say outwardly, "Eat and drink," his heart is not with you, and what he thinks in his heart is what he really is. Does that mean that what anyone thinks in his heart, he is? The Pharisees thought in their hearts that they were righteous and doing God's will, but Jesus pointed out that they were of the devil. He also said that some who call him Lord would not be known of him, even though they thought in their hearts that they were (Matthew 7:21-23).

The so-called "Law of Believing" was essentially the key to prosperity and abundance. This "heath and wealth gospel" has become quite popular in many circles, but it is misguided. God's promises mostly have to do with life in the Coming Age. While He does bless us materially in this life, it is not the primary focus of His promises, and it is not guaranteed in every situation. Paul said in Philippians 4:11-13 that he had learned both to abound and to suffer need, and in either situation he could be content, because he trusted God. Because we still live in a fallen world there may be times when we are less than perfectly healthy or wealthy. It is given to us to suffer in this world at times, for the Lord's sake (Philippians 1:29). Verses like Isaiah 53:5, John 10:10, and III John 2 have been taken out of context and misinterpreted. And since it all supposedly hinges on our believing, if anyone does not have perfect health and wealth, it is considered their own fault for not believing God. If they just "had more faith" they would prosper and be in health. I have dealt with this in greater detail in a Closer Look article called The More Abundant Life. The abundant life to which Jesus referred has mostly to do with spiritual realities, and with eternal blessings in the Age to Come.

In addition, the words "believing" and "faith" were said to have different meanings. It was said that "believing" is what you do with your mind but faith is spiritual, or an "inside job." There is no Biblical basis for such a distinction however. The word "believe" is a verb, and "faith" is a noun. "Believing" is only used as a noun once in the English Bible, in Romans 15:13. The verb "to believe" is translated from the Greek verb pisteuo, while the noun form, pistis is most often translated "faith." The two words are simply different forms of the same root.

The root word of both pisteuo and pistis is peitho, which means to persuade, to trust, or to have confidence. Someone tells you something, you believe it. It's that simple. Why do you believe it? Either because you trust them to begin with, or because they persuade you. People speak of "accepting on faith" a doctrine or belief that one cannot explain or understand. But is this kind of "blind faith" what God expects of us? Jesus spoke of believing, but in the vast majority of Scriptures, it had to do with believing what God said, and believing who Jesus was.

God does not ask us to believe in Him without proof. He has worked in mighty ways to reveal Himself to mankind. The greatest of these is His only-begotten Son. That is why it is stressed over and over in the Bible, that one must believe in who Jesus said he was - the Messiah, the Son of God. He did miracles to prove who he was, as well as the fact that many prophecies were fulfilled in him. And the ultimate sign that he was who he claimed to be is the fact that he got up from the dead (Matthew 12:39-40; 16:4; Acts 17:30-31; Romans 1:4; I Corinthians 15:12-19). Without the resurrection there is no foundation to Christianity. But there are many infallible proofs of the historic fact of the resurrection. We do not have to take it on "blind faith."

Once we have a foundation for that trust, there will be times when we will need to have faith in spite of not being able to see the outcome of things. ("Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" - Hebrews 11:1) But God has given us a solid foundation on which to base that trust. Even if we can't see how a prayer can be answered, He still answers them in His time. The ultimate example of trusting Him for what we can't see is the hope of the coming Kingdom of God. We don't see much in the way of "evidence" in the world around us, but we have seen other proof that the Scriptures are trustworthy, and that God keeps His promises (including the resurrection of Jesus). That provides a basis for our continued faith. It is a reasonable faith based on an intelligent receiving and acceptance of the Gospel message.

Believing implies obedience. If we believe the words Jesus spoke, we must obey his commandments. Paul said we are saved by grace and not by works. Yet James speaks of being saved by works. The supposed "contradiction" between Paul and James is eliminated when you recognize that believing must be demonstrated by works, or it is not truly believing.

James 2:
14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
[see NASB]

There is a difference between doing works to try to make yourself righteous, and doing works out of obedience. When you are acting out of obedience, your works demonstrate your faith. Paul even said that we are saved by faith unto good works.

Ephesians 2:
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.


Titus 2:

11  For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,

12  Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;

13  Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ;

14  Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.

15  These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee.


Titus 3:

1   Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work,

2  To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men.

3  For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another.

4  But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared,

5  Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;

6  Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour;

7  That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

8  This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. [see NASB]

We are saved by grace through faith and not by works, but we are "created in Christ Jesus unto good works." Just being saved by grace and doing nothing is not what God has in mind. We are supposed to believe and obey, and among the things we are to obey are the two great commandments, to love God and love our neighbor. And this is to be genuine love from the heart, remember, not phony, "put-on" love.  But realizing the great grace and love God has shown us motivates such faith and obedience (Titus 3:4-6, above).

We saw in another article that the holy spirit is closely associated with the Word of God. Both are said to work in us and produce change. Walking by the spirit, in fact, is walking according to the words of Jesus as much as, if not more than, walking with supernatural power (although God's power can come into play in a given situation). Jesus told his disciples that the holy spirit would bring to their remembrance everything he taught them. I used to think that "walking by the spirit" mainly meant getting supernatural revelation. But God has already given us an abundance of revelation through His Son, as written down by the apostles in the New Testament Scriptures. When we allow that to develop and permeate our thinking, as well as the holy spirit bringing things to our remembrance, it has the power to change us in a supernatural way. The same powerful Word of God which created the heavens and the earth, and which gave Jesus Christ his very life, transforms us and brings about the godly nature that is the goal of true Christianity.

What is this "Word of God" which we must believe and dwell on? We saw previously that it is not just a general reference to the Bible. First, we have to believe in who Jesus is. It is amazing how often this seemingly simple point is made in the New Testament. Then, in addition to believing in who Jesus is, we must believe the words that he spoke. Moses foretold that God would raise up an ultimate prophet in Deuteronomy 18:15-19, and that God would put His words in that prophet's mouth. And God said "whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him." Jesus is that prophet. He spoke the words of his Father, and called on those who heard him to "repent and believe the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). That Gospel that he spoke is not just that "Jesus died for your sins," although that is part of it. For quite some time Jesus and the apostles preached the Gospel without ever mentioning his death. The Gospel is the good news about God's overall plan to establish His Kingdom on earth.

In most Christian circles, what one is to believe and obey is often unclear. The crux of the Gospel in most cases is said to be "Jesus died for your sins" and hearers are exhorted to "invite Jesus into your heart." But exactly what that means is rather vague. The exhortation that Jesus and his disciples proclaimed is very specific: believe the good news of the Age to Come that he announced, and in light of that, repent, turn your heart, change your direction, change your agenda. Make God's agenda your agenda. You cannot do that if you don't have a clear understanding of what God's agenda is. He promised a world restored to its original perfection, in which there will be only perfect love and righteousness, ruled over by a perfect, righteous king. He has expanded that promise to include all those who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is that Messiah who was to come, and that he died to pay for our sins and rose from the dead as the firstborn of many brethren who will be raised on the last day. This is the clear message which we must preach, and which people must believe, and repent in light of.

The New Birth, as discussed previously, begins with the intelligent reception of the Gospel. We hear the Word and believe it. As we continue to abide in Christ, and let his words dwell in our hearts, the Christlike character that is God's goal for us begins to develop. The works that demonstrate our faith and our righteousness are the fruit of that. George Ladd, in his book, The Gospel of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdman 1959, p. 97) points out that the righteousness necessary for the kingdom is given to us when we believe and obey the Gospel Message.

The basic demand of the Kingdom is a response of manís will. Men must receive it. They must yield to it. Godís Kingdom does not ask us to find in ourselves the righteousness that it demands; God will give us the righteousness of His Kingdom. Godís Kingdom does not ask us to create the life that it requires; Godís Kingdom will give us that life. Godís Kingdom does not set up a standard and say, "When you achieve this standard of righteousness, you may enter the Kingdom." Godís Kingdom makes one demand: Repent! Turn! Decide! Receive the Kingdom; for as you receive it, you receive its life, you receive its blessing, you receive the destiny reserved for those who embrace it.

How do we then live according to this Gospel of Christ? First, we must endeavor to live according to the standard that he set. This means holding his words in our hearts, and allowing the holy spirit to work within, as we do our best to be like Christ. It means being separate from the world, but reaching out to it with Christlike love and compassion, since it is the goodness of God that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). It also means recognizing that the Kingdom of God is coming, anticipating it in our own hearts, and telling others about it on the way.

This includes not trying to change the world, for that is not our mission. We are commanded to preach the Gospel, not to change the world. The world will be changed when Christ returns. In the meantime we are not called to social change, political involvement, or any such thing that involves the world's systems. The world's systems are dominated and directed by the current god of this world, Satan. We are called to be ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, and are not to be entangled with things of the world, but rather we are to preach the Gospel so that as many people as possible hear it.

We should not participate in the evil systems of this world, either. But this brings up some questions that some in the Church have varied opinions about. For example, some would say that a Christian, being an ambassador of the Kingdom of God, has no business even voting in an election. But this begins to resemble legalism. There is no specific command not to vote. At best it is pointless, since God allows leaders to be in power as He sees fit. But if something is not specifically stated in the Scriptures it is unwise to be dogmatic about such opinions.

A similar situation involves Christians serving in the military. Make no mistake, I do not advocate killing and/or violence of any kind. We are commanded by the Lord to love our neighbors. You can't do that if you are personally involved in killing them, even in a military context. But does this mean that no Christian should ever serve in the military? This is another example of legalism causing division in the Church. It is indisputable that a Christian should not kill another human being. But it has been argued that one could serve in the military without actually killing anyone, if he served in some other capacity. Many military personnel complete their entire tour of duty without killing anyone, and benefit in various ways from learning service and discipline. In addition, a Christian in the military could have a unique opportunity to reach other military personnel with the Gospel, in ways that someone else could not.

On the other hand, it is argued that any military involvement is participating in the whole system that is designed for killing. But one could argue that paying taxes does the same thing, since taxes finance the military among other things. Yet Jesus said we should pay our taxes. Also, Jesus dealt with soldiers and never told them that military service was evil in and of itself. When John the Baptist was preaching about bearing fruits in keeping with repentance, people of different occupations asked, "What should we do?" When the soldiers specifically inquired what they should do, John did not tell them to get out of the military. He just said to do violence to no one, donít accuse anyone falsely, and be content with their wages (Luke 3:14). Also, in Acts we read of the disciples dealing with soldiers, but there is no record of them being told to leave the military because it was sinful.

The fact is, there are many other occupations in which a Christian may be called upon to do something that goes against what the Lord commanded. Lawyers or salesmen may be asked to lie. Accountants or bankers may be asked to "fudge" a few numbers. Politicians and government employees may be asked to do other unethical things in order to ďplay the game.Ē All of these sins are just as much sin as killing in God's eyes. Any number of professions carry the same possibility, and each situation should be considered individually. As with other things that are not explicitly commanded, we should avoid dogmatic or legalistic attitudes, especially when they cause division in the Body of Christ. After all, maintaining unity in the Body and avoiding division are explicitly commanded (I Corinthians 1:10-12; 3:3-4; 12:25; Ephesians 4:1-3; Philippians 2:1-2; Colossians 3:12-14).

We are called to preach the Gospel, so it is vitally important that we get the message right. The Gospel of the Kingdom was the central focus of the preaching of Jesus Christ, and yet it is rarely heard about in modern preaching. If we are to obey the words of our Lord, we must preach the Gospel that he instructed us to preach.

Matthew 24:
14 And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
[see NASB]

More than believing to receive abundance, or operate power, our primary focus is to speak the truth in love, so that others may share in the glorious Gospel that we have been entrusted with. Let us get busy preaching the Gospel, and not become entangled with things of the world. This is what we are commissioned by our Lord to do.

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This page last updated September 28, 2017

Mark Clarke