Faith, Unbelief and our Great God (Chapters 2-3)
One of the things I love about Wendy’s section on faith is how she cuts to the chase and makes us confront the incongruity of our sin: if we do trust God, then why are we worried all the time? This is the question that follows us through this whole section: if I trust God, why do I worry? Do I perhaps not trust God as I should?
Wendy rightly helps us realise that this decision to trust God or to have faith in him is absolutely vital. We can’t muck around with it. Her chapter on unfaithfulness is almost alarming in its intensity as she shows us the wickedness of unbelief. Not having faith is not a morally neutral choice; it is an act of disbelief and rejection of God. I think her chapter helpfully shows us how to fear God as we choose to trust him. He has to be bigger than everything else in our heads. It is a chapter that helps I suspect when we are needing to make big choices in life or the major crises of life, and maybe where we realise our sinfulness on an issue and resist the realisation that we need to repent. It’s a chapter about faith in a crisis rather than everyday faith.
Crisis moments are really important to us. What we choose to do then: go our way or go God’s way define who we are and have consequences. Just as Moses’ decision to strike the rock had ongoing consequences for him, though he was still in relationship with God and forgiven by God, so our decision to turn away from God and act in unbelief at the crossroads’ of our lives will have implications for us. So, it’s good to be reminded of this sobering fact. Trusting God is not a decorative virtue: it’s a part of what we do and of who we are if we are his children. This chapter is a sobering and useful reminder to ourselves: we can’t take God for granted. We need to trust him and do things his way.
But crisis faith is not all there is to our Christian lives. There’s the everyday kind as well which we can overlook. Think of all the decisions you’ve made today ... how often did you think that you would not do something or do something because of who you are as God’s child? How often have you apologised or repented today? When you thought about what Jesus had done for you, were you encouraged? When you prayed, did you trust God with the desires of your heart? Did you ask him for help to not lose your temper, to not lie, to be hospitable, to be gentle ...? That is what everyday faith looks like. It’s continually choosing to trust God in everything. It’s turning to him in prayer, which demonstrates our dependence on him. It’s agreeing with him in our hearts when we see that we have sinned and need to repent. This is faith in it’s everyday track-pants and trainers. It’s not glamorous or even particularly noticeable, but it’s where the crisis moments take us. The big decisions to trust God lead to all these small decisions to live by faith, and they in turn train our hearts to trust God when the bottom falls out of our world.
Wendy mentioned the centurion (page 47) as a brilliant example of faith. And it is really inspiring to see absolutely confidence in God in action. Given that the chapter was about crisis type faith, the centurion was a great example and well chosen. But I thought it stood in too much of a contrast with all the examples of unfaithfulness, as though we could only have excellent faith or none at all. I don‘t think this captures how active Jesus is in sparking and growing faith. So, there’s another example which I love and which I think captures the way I think about my faith. It’s the father of demon-possessed boy in Mark 9:24. He asks Jesus to help him if he can and Jesus queries this and he responds immediately, ’I do believe; help my unbelief’. I love this because it helps me realise that I don’t have to screw up my face and believe. I don’t have to depend on myself and my own will to trust God with difficult things. I can run to Jesus and tell him that my faith is in shreds but I want to trust him in this or that, and know that he is uniquely capable of turning my heart towards him and teaching me to trust. Asking God for faith is faith, and this is astonishing.
How do we grow in faith? Wendy’s suggestion of remembering is a great one, I think. She says she often forgets what good things God has done in her life and so journaling helps, and I know a lot of people really find that useful. If you don’t have time to journal or don’t like it, you might like to think about cultivating a habit of sharing how God has answered your prayers recently with a friend. Remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection for us cultivates our faith in all circumstances, so this is also a good habit to get into. I’ve started trying to always be reading one of the Gospels to keep remembering constantly. What about you? What ways do you remember in order to believe? What has worked at different times in your life?
Thanks for your post, particularly for your comments about every-day faith.
I have some questions about the definition of faith in chapter 2 but haven't thought through everything yet... perhaps you can help.
I noticed that she defined faith without reference to the cross, or our future hope, and this started me thinking. She used Hebrews 11, particularly verses 1 and 6 but then concentrated on believing that the unseen God exists and the rewards for those who earnestly seek him. She does not speak of the rewards as material things, but of a transformed character as God works through the hard things for good in our lives;
"We have God's precious promise that he's going to work the hard things in our lives for our good, and part of that good is that we wll be changed more and more to reflect Christ's character and glory." (p36)
"...authentic faith consists of a confident assurance of God's existence and a confident expectation of his goodness to his children." (p39).
I really agree with all of this and am really challenged by much of what she says, but something keeps nagging at me. In light of the rest of Hebrews 11 (which, in looking at examples from the OT shows how their faith was believing in the promise of God, and acting upon that belief, despite that promise being unfulfilled and 'unseen' in their lives), surely our faith must also be defined to include faith in the promise of the gospel; faith in an unseen yet victorious saviour; faith in his certain and glorious return? There is an element of the future hope that is fundamental to christian faith that hasn't really been explored in this chapter (chapter 2).
And then I started to wonder about whether there is a danger that this sort of description of faith (the future hope) can lead to a faith that is distant, faith in some sort of eternal salvation which makes no difference to our daily lives. Is this want Wendy is trying to avoid? Faith that is defined soley by eternal consequences that has little bearing on here and now?
And so given that I think that christian faith ought to be defined with reference to Christ and the future hope of the gospel... how does this play out in "practical theology"... in our daily lives? Is this where your examples of "every-day" faith come in?
(I see that there'll be more on Jesus as the book continues, chapters 10 and 11... I haven't read that far yet... and perhaps more on the future hope? And if I've been unfair, please say so!)
Thanks so much for your comment.
I think your understanding of faith in Hebrews 11 as forward looking, and so cross centred and focused on Jesus’ return is right. Hence, the great cloud of witnesses to helping us keep our eyes on Jesus. (Heb 12:1-2) And I don’t think having that kind of understanding of faith is too distant or something that doesn’t have an impact on our daily lives. In fact I think Hebrews 11-12 pushes us to realise that knowing for certain that we have a future with God changes everything for us down here.
I suspect why Wendy didn’t go there is the same reason that I didn’t go there in my post. Between ourselves, I went 423 over the word limit (this can be our little secret). I only included two extra elements of ‘faith’ that Wendy hadn’t really covered: living by faith in everyday life and a specific, explicit Jesus-focus (and relational element) to our faith. On the way, I discarded any reference to faith as an instrument of salvation, a gift from God, faith versus works, whether belief and faith are similar or distinct, anything at all to do with the new perspective and so forth. Faith is a huge topic and people stop reading (apparently) when you write too much.
Having said this, I think your observations about Wendy’s definition (drawn from Hebrews 11) are correct. In a sense she stays with her definition and doesn’t fill it out much more. I suspect space might be an issue here, but I wonder as well whether it is something that we all face when we start to think about something like faith. Where do we start? If we start in Hebrews 11, our thinking will have a particular shape. If we start in John 3 or Romans 4, that shape may well be different (I think it would be). We have to start somewhere of course, but I think one of the things this book demonstrates (particularly in the chapter on prayer) is that we need to be careful where we start. Integrating other Scripture into our thinking so we don’t distort any one aspect of Scripture or create a contradiction where there is a tension (and so forth) is really hard. I think ‘doing theology’ properly is something we keep on doing all our lives. So, I’m not too surprised that Wendy stayed close to Hebrews 11 because I suspect that is her bedrock when thinking about faith.
(to be continued...)
(Continued from previous comment)
We probably also need to notice what else is implicitly part of her thinking throughout the chapter, even if not explicitly mentioned. A person can have a definition of faith without having any mention of Christ, but still be Christ-centred. So, Calvin’s definition in his Institutes:
Briefly, he alone is truly a believer who, convinced by a firm conviction that God is a kindly and well-disposed Father toward him, promises himself all things on the basis of his generosity; who relying upon the promises of divine benevolence toward him, lays hold on an undoubted expectation of salvation.
Although it doesn’t mention Christ or the cross, it doesn’t make a lot of sense without them. We can’t know the Father without Christ and can’t expect him to be ‘well-disposed’ towards us without the cross, as just two examples.
In the same kind of way, I think Wendy does indicate a focus on Jesus and his death for us as the chapter (and the book) unfolds - and I think we’re meant to read that back into the definition. The definition is a starting point and is important, but it isn’t a limit. Particularly in our context, I think we want certain things explicitly expressed, which people in other cultures might take for granted or not feel need to be explicitly expressed.
So, I suspect that the outcome of your thinking about application will end up in a fairly similar place to Wendy’s: trusting God with our lives. You’re right that I wanted to explicitly extend that to the minutiae of our lives, as a kind of way of expressing what the Reformers were getting at when they talk of changing a dirty nappy being an act of faith when done by a believer. Everything we do when we know Jesus (unless it is sin), is part of living by faith, which I find very helpful!
When you add a strong future-hope note to a definition of faith, I think you also get a strong sense of perseverance and the suffering here not being comparable to the glory that will follow. And that is probably just for starters (I was just thinking of Romans 8 and Hebrews 11-12). This has to enrich our understanding of faith.
I guess that I’m trying to argue that what we might add to Wendy’s definition extends and explicates what is there, but not expressed, probably because of space constraints. (You can see from my long answer that I haven’t been given a word limit on replying to comments…, except the one imposed on me by blogger) :)
No, I don’t think you are being unfair. You are trying to understand Wendy on her own terms and check that against the Bible, which is exactly what she’s told us to do in her book!
I hope reading all these words has been of some use; I’m keen to hear what you think in response if you have time.
Thanks for your question. Love your work.
Love in Christ,
Jennie, apologies for the previous deletion, I needed to carefully edit before posting.
I wanted to thank Rachael for her very humble, but very clear, critique of the book. I was encouraged.
It seems irresponsible to call the 2nd chapter of a book What is faith? – calling faith 'one of the fundamental concepts, possibly the most important concept in all of Scripture' (p29) – with no explicit explanation of faith's relationship to the atonement, the sacrifice, holding onto the hope of salvation, the cross or any of the shorthand summaries of the gospel. If the author’s formative understanding of faith was based on Hebrews 11 (read in context with the rest of Hebrews), chapter 2 of Practical Theology has failed to grasp with the bedrock upon which the ‘Hebrews 11 faith’ is based.
Further, Allsop’s definition of faith cannot be compared to Calvin’s (my husband and I bought The Institutes for Calvin’s 500th this year). Calvin’s definition is very much grounded in the key theme of Hebrews of holding on to the hope or ‘expectation of salvation’ – one of those ‘shorthand summaries of the gospel' (as coined by Phil Jensen at a past NTE).
Allsop’s summary of faith is not so gospel-focussed: ‘faith is the confident assurance of God’s existence and a confident expectation of his goodness to his children’ (p39). Even my husband’s uncle, a Franciscan monk, believes in this – without believing in the solas!
in him Naomi
Just thought I'd let you know Naomi, Jennie responded to your original comment, but it didn't go up because of comment length constraints, so I was going to see if I could tweak the settings on that, but unfortunately I can't. So, since you've edited your original comment, I thought I'd let Jennie edit her response. However, she lives in England so there are time zone factors working against us! But you haven't been ignored.
Thank you for your comment. You’ve raised some issues that I think are really valuable.
I heartily agree with your comments about Rachael’s contribution. I think her serious thinking, weighing the book against the Bible is a great model and one Wendy rightly encourages us to follow. I'm glad you found it encouraging.
As I read over your comment you seem to be raising two related concerns. In your first paragraph you argue that Wendy’s definition of faith doesn’t reflect Hebrews 11:6, because the gospel is the bedrock of Hebrews, and isn’t there in Wendy’s definition of faith. And in your final paragraph, that Wendy’s definition is not gospel focused because a Franciscan could agree with it, without believing in the Reformation’s solas. In a sense, each of these concerns seeks to establish a criteria by which a work like Wendy’s can be judged for its faithfulness to the gospel. A definition needs to have the gospel in it somehow, there needs to be a discussion of the gospel somewhere nearby, and the definition to be of the kind that excludes people who are not Reformed Evangelicals.
I want to strongly agree with you about the importance of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus and the importance of it being central and at the heart of our teaching. But I think your criticism of Wendy’s chapter because of these things flags a deeper problem: some of the NT writers don’t fit your criteria, and that is a serious concern.
In passing, I’ve been fairly keen to note in more than one post that what Wendy is doing is not exhaustive and needs to be read that way. She isn’t explaining all of doctrine, and not even all of a particular topic in doctrine. And not even the most central aspect of a particular topic in doctrine. There are great books out there that do and I’m grateful for them.
The reason I don’t think it is a bad book or ‘irresponsible’ is the same reason that I think your husband‘s Franciscan uncle would certainly have difficulties with the book as a whole. For Wendy does not omit or deny the gospel. Let me demonstrate from pages 89-90 (though it is clear in other places throughout the book):
Paul says that though we were dead in our sins, God in his mercy made us alive with Christ. Because of our inability to keep God‘s righteous law, we deserved death and judgment. In our place, God sent his Son to die on the cross as our substitute.
There is more--in fact the entirety of those two pages is given over to a sustained and (for the book) relatively dense exposition of justification and penal substitution that includes important biblical concepts such as humanity’s incapacity to turn to God. Through reading this book, a person could potentially come to trust Christ alone by faith alone through grace alone, to his glory alone.
So the gospel is clearly in the book, even though chapter two is particularly concerned to link faith with knowing God, which has been the focus of her discussion as to why we do theology in the opening chapter. Knowledge of God is an important dimension to salvation as well, so the discussion on faith is linked to an aspect of the gospel, that of knowing God. It also reflects a concern to base theology on expounding specific texts of Scripture, rather than imposing one’s own definition on a biblical topic. (to be continued...)
With that in mind, we can have a look at the concerns you’ve raised.
First, you protest Wendy’s definition, which in the book is a direct quote from Hebrews 11.1-6. She says she doesn’t want to import another definition and so uses one from the Bible. Rachael gets the definition she quotes from page 39, which is the summary of Wendy’s exposition of faith, which commences in Hebrews 11, continues to unpack that chapter and considers Romans 8 also. So the sentence in question clearly draws upon Hebrews 11:6 and Romans 8:28ff. And as one sentence summaries go, I think it’s pretty good.
But this now raises a problem for your concern that Wendy’s summary and the whole of chapter two doesn’t have enough gospel in it. Does Heb 11 have enough of the gospel in just itself to pass this test? I think you’ve suggested that it needs to be understood in light of the book of Hebrews as a whole. But if we are happy to read Hebrews that way (and I think that is a good way to read it), then surely we should read Wendy that way, and we read her comments about faith in light of her comments about the atonement elsewhere in the same book. Neither Hebrews nor Wendy mention the gospel in their short pithy statement about the nature of faith, and nor does Calvin. But all three need to be read in light of their statements elsewhere about the atonement, not just Hebrews and Calvin, with Wendy needing to have it all contained in a single sentence, or even in a single chapter.
So Wendy isn’t really guilty of what you seem to think she is.
But my real concern is that I doubt that either the NT books of James or Jude could meet your concerns. You are concerned that it is irresponsible for Wendy to indicate that she is talking about what faith is without discussing the gospel:
no explicit explanation of faith's relationship to the atonement, the sacrifice, holding onto the hope of salvation, the cross or any of the shorthand summaries of the gospel
But James discusses faith and even justification at some length and, unlike Wendy, never discusses the atonement, and only mentions Jesus explicitly once (James 2:1) in the entire book. Jude never expounds the gospel either, and yet is a call to faith from start to finish. Both books have, in their own way, authoritative declarations about the nature of faith and its consequences. And neither discusses the gospel explicitly.
For James and Jude the gospel is assumed common ground between them and their audience. They are writing to people who have heard and believed the gospel and use that shared bedrock to address the issues they are concerned about without explicitly discussing that bedrock. It is a very different strategy from Paul, 1 John, Hebrews, and even 1 Peter, but it’s authentically apostolic and scriptural. Your criticism of Wendy is implicitly a criticism of certain NT books. (to be continued)
I have a similar concern with your final paragraph:
“Even my husband’s uncle, a Franciscan monk, believes in this – without believing in the solas.”
This means that every piece of Christian communication (or even every substantial bit of, such as a chapter) has to say things so precisely and so explicitly that only a Reformed Evangelical could feel comfortable affirming it.
Wendy’s definition of faith quoted above certainly fails this test (although again I‘ll say that the book as a whole does not). But so does James and Jude, once again. There is nothing in either book that is distinctly evangelical in that sense. My impression is most main Christian traditions read these two books and agree with them. If anything, James’ discussion of justification is so far removed from what is at the core of justification by faith (but still very important, which is why it is in the Bible) that it is evangelicals, who grasp what the Bible says about justification, who find the need to work very hard not to misunderstand what James says, but to read it in light of what Paul says.
So with your concerns Wendy strikes once (and only if we read chapter 2 in a way that you don‘t want us reading chapter 11 of Hebrews), but James and Jude strike out both times.
It seems to me that there are therefore only three paths open at this point.
First, we say that there is such a difference between Scripture and Christian exposition and teaching of Scripture that the concerns you raise don’t apply to the NT, only to Christian teaching. So it is OK for James and Jude to so take the gospel for granted that they never mention it explicitly, but assume it as a ‘given’ between them and their audience--even when James is discussing justification and faith. But it is never OK for Christians to do that.
This seems to create a tricky situation for us if we are to preach and teach God’s Word faithfully as it is written in James or Jude. If we take this path, most of the focus of our exposition of the text of James will focus outside of James and be on issues that aren’t in the text of James. To teach on faith from James will be to spend most of our time focusing on all the things James doesn’t say--otherwise we will fail your criteria. You may take that option, but I think you sacrifice any commitment to the importance of expository preaching if you do.
This raises for me a further concern that we might wrongly limit the authority of Scripture by taking this path. In this view, the rules for teachers are so different than those for the apostolic writings that we cannot appeal to the example of Christ’s apostles to regulate how we can and cannot declare the gospel. We are left to derive our own rules for how to proclaim the gospel from the gospel itself, without any reference to the NT’s own examples to guide such rules. I know some people think this, but I find it very scary, and think it is a step towards liberalism.
The second path is to go with Luther and hold that while all Scripture is the inspired Word of God, not all Scripture is created equal. Paul, Hebrews, and John’s Gospel and letters are more edifying than James. James is in fact, ‘a right strawy epistle’ because it does not clearly teach justification by grace through faith alone. There is no clear explanation of the gospel in James, and that is so central to the life of the Church that even Scripture must give way before it. James is, in fact, an example of how not to teach as a Christian, even though we acknowledge that it is God‘s Word to his people. This path finds its home more in Lutheranism than in a Reformed submission to the whole canon of the written Word of God. (to be concluded)
The final path is to say that the concerns you have are good and right, but that they need to be used with some care. To raise the concern that key things haven’t been said, or that they have been said in a way that doesn’t clearly and explicitly nail one’s colours to the mast are good guides to discerning the spirits when receiving Christian teaching. But they are not ‘rules’ found in Scripture. Instead they arise out of the reflections of wise and godly people in light of Scripture and are to be received as wisdom. They are meant to prompt and shape the way we think about things and alert us to possible danger. They are not meant to be a set of rules that can be quickly passed over something and so easily determine whether it is in or out. They are meant to make us better and more alert readers - wiser readers. They are tradition, not gospel, even though they were birthed as a concern to guard the gospel (as almost all Christian traditions begin).
All the concerns you raise are very important to me and have profoundly shaped the way I read Scripture, relate to my Saviour, and teach his Word. I would not have written chapter 2 the way Wendy has. (But then, I wouldn’t have written James or Jude the way they are either.) But I think these principles you put up have arisen to deal with problems we are having at this point in time in the West, and primarily within an Evangelicalism that is constantly straying from its roots in the gospel. I’m glad you know them; I’m glad you use them. They’re important. They need to be understood as capturing something critical in our time and place because they are really needed. But if they get flattened out as a set of tests that everything has to pass then I think they we use them to do a lot of regrettable, and quite unnecessary, harm.
That is why I think is so important. And why I’ve tried to answer thoroughly and (consequently) at some length.
I would be interested in hearing your further thoughts, if there's more that you'd like to discuss about this issue.
Love in Christ,
Hi, all. Thanks for the thoughtful criticism. When I wrote this book originally (and taught it originally to members of my church), I assumed a common understanding and acceptance of the gospel. Now I realize that assuming anything is a mistake. I should have somewhere at the beginning set up a foundational set of beliefs that I was working from. I hope to do that better in my next book.
If I were to rewrite it, I would try to clarify that as best I could. The writer of Hebrews is clear that Jesus is the exact representation of the nature of God. So saying that faith is believing that "He exists" most certainly refers to Christ, and that "He rewards those who diligently seek Him" is that He rewards those who diligently follow Christ. Hope that helps some.
Hi Jennie, and thanks for your reply to my comment. I attempted to post a comment earlier in reply, but it seems to have been lost in the ether somewhere. Probably I clicked the wrong button.
I agree with what you say about limitations of space when talking about a subject like faith; and can see (from Wendy's comments here and at end of chapter three) that she really is addressing people who say they have faith, but it doesn't seem to affect their lives (much like James perhaps!).
I am also glad to hear that (as I suspected) she does fill out later in the book things that are assumed here. I look forward to reading the rest of it.
You are right that I think Wendy and I would end up in the same place regarding application, that is trusting God with our daily lives. I was mostly wondering about the absence of 'the cross' and 'future hope' (which, incidently, is the context of Romans 8:28) because it has a huge impact on the outworking of faith our daily lives, particularly dealing with the hard times that Wendy discusses. As you said, knowing that we have a future with God changes everything for us down here.
Possibly the comment software was still grumpy over my last four-part comment when yours came in and had a word to its union.
I think you are right and the future aspect of hope as well as the certainty of what Jesus accomplished on the cross are both important to understanding faith. And both make a huge difference to dealing with suffering and success. Thanks for your comment!
Thank you for insight into where the book came from and where your thinking is up to about it. Those kind of things help me read a book much more sensitively.
I do hope you are feeling much better.
Love in Christ,
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