But He Grew Strong in His Faith

Nearly 30 years ago, when I was a freshman at Sterling College, I was selected as a member of a group of students to take part in a research project about youth and faith. I don’t remember the name of the doctoral student who was doing the research, and I don’t think that I ever saw the results of the study or paper he was writing, but I still vividly remember the conversation, and one particular question that he asked that day.

As I was talking about my “Christian experience” I had routinely mentioned wanting to grow stronger in my faith. At one point the researcher broke from his prepared questions and asked me what I meant by that. I didn’t really know.

And that became a point of concern for me.

I had used the phrase “strong faith” all the time, but I never really stopped to think about what it meant. Did I mean “strong” as in muscular, able to say to the mountain, “Up,” and then watch the mountain walk away? Or did I mean “strong” as in unmoving, resilient, able to face whatever came my way.

Keep in mind, I was only 18 at the time, and barely that. I was naive, having grown up in the church and been sheltered from most of the ugliness of the world. I think I hoped that a strong faith would help me “Just say no!” to sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. I thought a strong faith meant never having any doubts, never struggling to make sense of things, never wrestling with what I believed and what I saw in the world around me.

In reality, I had no idea what I was talking about. I was ignoring much of the revelation of Scripture, that showed the faith of those who believed but needed God to help them in their unbelief. I overlooked the fact that the disciples, who witnesses the mighty acts of Jesus firsthand, still often struggled to have any faith at all. I was oblivious to the truth that it was these experiences (times of loss, pain, hardship, and doubt) that were often the means through which God worked to strengthen the faith of His people. Consider the example of the passage above: Abraham was as good as dead, but he did not waver, for he considered the promise of God, and grew strong in faith (Rom 4:19-21).

If I could go back and talk to 18 year old me – I’d have a lot to say. But on this matter of a strong faith, I’d try to tidy things up a bit.

For faith to be strong, you must know what you believe. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). To grow strong in faith you must have a thorough and deep knowledge of the Bible, which tells us what God says about who He is, who we are, and how we are to get right with Him. To be strong in the faith is to continue to grow in understanding of God’s Word.

But the other side of this is equally true. A strong faith is not just knowing a set of teachings; Satan himself knows the word of God, probably better than most of us, and yet he has no faith. A strong faith is knowing God as He is revealed in His Word, and trusting God in all that He says. To grow in strength in faith is to take God at His Word. Like Abraham, who had questions and struggles along the way, but he continued to trust in the promises of God, convinced that God could do all that he promised.

But the most essential thing for strengthening one’s faith, and it almost seems contradictory. If you were to start body building, you would want to constantly look to your muscles to see how you are growing. If you want to improve as a runner, you track your miles and times. But that’s not how faith grows – you don’t think more about your own faith.

Instead, faith is a holding on to the faithfulness of God. Martin Lloyd-Jones once wrote, “Faith does not look at itself. Faith is never interested in itself and never talks about itself. That to me is a very good test. I always distrust people who talk about their faith. That is the characteristic of the cults. They always direct attention to themselves and to what they are don for have done. You have to be ‘thinking positively,’ or you have to be doing this, that or the other. The emphasis is always upon self. but faith does not look at itself or at the person who is exercising it. Faith looks at God, holds on to the faithfulness of God. The big thing about faith is not what I am doing, but God’s faithfulness. Faith is interested in God only, and it talks about God and it praises God and it extols the virtues of God.”

Beloved, trusting in the knowledge and the promise of God, may you be strengthened in your faith as you glorify Him.

SDG

Don’t Ignore the Warning

“And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6)

There’s a game that I think every guy out there plays, but we just don’t talk about it too often. I don’t know if there’s a name for the game, but maybe we should call it: “How far can I go?” The way you play the game is simple, when the gas light comes on in your car, you ask yourself, “How far can I go before I REALLY have to put in gas?” 

Usually, you can play this game in your head, estimating your mpg, the distance to home or the closest gas station, and work out your chances of making the destination. Nowadays, your car will probably tell you your “miles to empty” estimate, taking all the fun out of the game.

Still, we all play it, and every now and then, we lose. I lost once. I was working as an admissions counselor for Sterling College, and was coming home late at night from a High School play in far western Kansas. I left Dodge City heading east, thought I could make it home. When the light came on 30 minutes later, I knew I was in trouble. It was after 10:00, there were few stations between there and Sterling, KS, and this was long before cell phones and 24/hr pumps. The light was steady at first, but then started flashing, and finally, heading uphill into Stafford around 11:30, the car sputtered and died. I had ignored the warning lights too long, I lost the game.

In our passage above, Jude continues to warn the church of the dangers of false teachings that would twist the Gospel into a license for immorality.  In the previous verse, Jude used the illustration of how many of the Israelites, having been delivered out of Egypt by the mighty hand of God, persisted in unbelief and refused to obey the Lord. Because of this, they died in the wilderness, and never knew the promised rest of the Lord.

As a second warning light, Jude now turns to the angels. Maybe its best to clear up some common misconceptions. When people die and go to heaven, they don’t become angels. Angels are beings that were created to serve in the presence of God. They don’t earn wings when bells ring, nor do they waft on fluffy clouds strumming harps. Angels are ministering spirits (Heb 1:14) who are often tasked with communicating God’s word to His people (Matt 1:20), or executing God’s will (see Revelation). Angels were given positions of authority, serving for the glory of God.

And yet some of these angelic beings abandoned their position, their proper dwelling place, and have rebelled from God’s reign and rule. There is a lot of speculation about these fallen angels. Is Jude referring to the original downfall of Satan and his league of angels, alluded to in Isaiah 14:12-15, and referenced symbolically in Revelation 12:7-12.  This is often referred to as the great “civil war” of heaven, in which proud Lucifer sought the glory of God for himself, and with his angels, was cast out of heaven.

Others speculate that Jude is referring to the passage Genesis 6:1-4 which speaks of the “sons of God” who lusted after the daughters of man. As we read in Genesis, these “sons of God” (a title for angels also used in Job 1) took wives for themselves from the daughters of men, and they became, or their children were, the Nephilim. Whereas Lucifer’s fall was the result of his pride, these angels fell in their lust.

What’s most telling here, whether the cause of the angel’s downfall was pride or lust, is that these heavenly beings, who once beheld the light of God’s glory, were now bound to utter darkness and reserved for judgment. There is a clear play on words that the ESV lets slide: the angels did not keep their position, so God has kept them in chains. 

The warning is clear, “the pride that knows better than God and the desire for forbidden things are the way to ruin in time and eternity” (William Barclay, The Letters of John and Jude). If God did not spare the unfaithful in the wilderness who saw first hand His mighty power but refused to believe; if God did not spare His angels who abandoned their position of authority because of their pride and lust; what hope is there for those who, having tasted the goodness of God in Jesus Christ, then abandon him for immorality and disobedience (Hebrews 6:4-8)?

Christians, the Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ has borne the wrath of God’s judgment for all those who believe and trust in Him.  The punishment for sin has been taken away, the stain of sin blotted out, and the mercy of forgiveness is freely offered. We may, we will, continue to experience the discipline of God hone we stumble in sin (Hebrews 12:3-11), but this discipline is ultimately meant to correct and sanctify God’s people, that we may learn to die to sin and live for Christ.

But the warning remains. Those who do not trust in the grace of God in Jesus Christ are still in their sin, and will stand before the judgment seat of God, right there with the unbelieving Israelites in the wilderness, and the angels who left their post. Those who claim to believe in Jesus, but twist His grace into a pass for immorality, those who deny Him as master and Lord through their disobedience, they too are bound for destruction.

Jude once again sounds the warning. The lights are flashing. It’s time to repent and believe.