There are many misconceptions of faith abroad today. Some think of it as a commodity. They say: “I wish I had your faith.” Others think of it as simply the means of salvation, to deliver us from hell. Much of the evangelistic preaching in recent years has been directed in that way. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31) is understood as though a decision is made and there were no further implications for an ongoing life of obedience. Many are under the impression that their exercise of faith frees them from the law. “Once saved, always saved.” Such faith is superficial.
Is this the faith that is so highly extolled in Hebrews 11 in particular? In that eulogy on faith Abraham is given the chief place. He is more fully portrayed than anyone else in the gallery. He is the father of the faithful. Reference is made to him some ninety times in the New Testament. He is the pattern we are to follow. There are three things in particular in his life that demonstrates the nature of true faith.
1) True faith changes our whole perspective
In God’s dealings with Abraham we have the beginning of the redemptive activity that will lead to the unfolding of the Covenant of Grace. We see three things:
i. The Divine initiative. Abraham is a shining example of the divine initiative. At the time of his call he was living in Ur of the Chaldees, “worshipping other gods” (Josh. 24:2), and in pagan darkness. He had no thought of the true God. Suddenly, as we are told in Acts 7:2 by the martyr Stephen: “The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia”. He is described as the “the God of glory” because His glory is His self-manifestation. What kind of reaction this must have produced in Abraham’s mind! It was like the revelation that Isaiah had in the temple. It was a sovereign revelation and call, and he was given grace to respond to it. So it is for everyone that is “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
ii. Absolute obedience. “By faith Abraham, when he was called…obeyed” (Heb. 11:8). It was an efficacious call. He had not fulfilled the purpose of his creation, which is to glorify God. He had dethroned the living God and set up idols of his own imagination. God’s call was to bring Abraham back to allegiance to Himself and there must be an immediate and unqualified response. He had to come out from among the pagan worshippers and make God his own God and his inheritance. The Word of God became everything to him. He did nothing that was not by the command of God. As Thomas Manton observes: “Faith is the life of our lives, the soul that animates the whole body of obedience.”
iii. Separation to God. Abraham’s whole perspective changed. He was living for the things of this life and the riches and honours of it. He began to live life in terms of his final destiny. He was set free from the desire to make this world his home. God promised him an inheritance. This inheritance was a “better country” (Heb. 11:16), and “a city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God” (v.10). It is the fatherland or the homeland where God dwells. He has prepared it for His people and He is their ultimate inheritance. The whole plan is beautifully portrayed in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, wherewe see Christian fleeing from the City of Destruction and journeying on to the Celestial City.
2) True faith stands on the promises of God
The second characteristic of true faith is trusting in the promises of God. The writer is still talking about the faith of Abraham but he brings in Sarah. Both had to be committed to the promise because it pertained to their offspring. “Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed” (Heb. 11:11). It seemed an impossible situation. Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90. She was past the age of childbearing. When first hearing the news of an heir, her faith wavered: “Sarah laughed within herself” (Gen. 18:12). Unbelief had a temporary hold. “And the Lord said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:13-14) What brought the change? She stopped looking at the problem and started looking to the Lord, “because she judged him faithful who had promised” (v.11). She took the problem to the Promiser. He became the object of her faith. “True faith”, says Sinclair Ferguson, “takes its character and quality from its object and not from itself.” Is anything too hard for the Lord? He created the world out of nothing (Heb. 11:3). He promised and He will bring it to pass. Isaac was conceived in the normal way.
3) True faith is tested
The third characteristic of true faith is that it is tested. “By faith Abraham when he was tried, offered up Isaac” (Heb. 11:17). There is a Jewish tradition that Abraham was tested on ten different occasions. If so, certainly this must have been the most painful. The commandment forbade the taking of life. Isaac was the best gift God had given to him. In Isaac he had everything he longed for, and yet he was to be taken away. It was through him the promise was to be fulfilled. Is providence going contrary to the promise? But Abraham believed that the God who had promised was able to raise him even from the dead. He did in effect offer him in will, heart and affection. God accepted the will for the deed, “for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gen. 22:12). “From hence also he received him in a figure” (Heb. 11:19).
As Christians we should not be afraid of trials and troubles. Indeed an undisturbed life is great cause for concern. James begins his Epistle with the words: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations [trials]” (James 1:2). It is the great common experience of the Redeemer and the redeemed. There is a purpose in it. “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith works patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” (vv.3-4) Trials and tribulations blow away the chaff and produce endurance in a life of undivided obedience. Peter, in his First Epistle, speaks of rejoicing in our great salvation, and then he brings in a caution, “though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations. That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6-7). The genuine element in faith is proved by a process similar to that of metal-refining and is found to be something more precious than the most precious metals. The result is what meets the approval of God and redounds to His glory.
Many passages of Scripture warn us of the dangers of a temporary faith and a faith that fails. The faith of the Hebrew Christians was wavering, “Cast not away your confidence” (Heb. 10:35). The writer goes on to say, “we are not of them which draw back” (v.39), and then immediately introduces to us the gallery of faith, of whom it is said, “these all died in faith” (11:13). Faith dominated their lives while trials abounded. As John Calvin says, their achieving such triumphs with limited resources ought to put us to shame. Luther puts it in his own way: “When Abraham shall rise again at the last day, then he shall chide us for our unbelief, and will say: I had not the hundredth part of the promises which ye have, and yet I believed.” (Tabletalk, 2009, p.233)
The “cloud of witnesses” are there to stir us up to endure unto the end (Heb. 12:1-4). This faith, as Luther maintained, is an operative grace, it is an overcoming grace and ultimately it is a victorious grace. God grant that it may be ours!