For the past fifteen or twenty years, ‘faith-based’ culture has enjoyed something of a resurgence—faith-based films do well at the box-office, faith-based books regularly dominate the bestseller lists, and meditation / mindfulness / wellness seminars abound. What exactly is ‘faith’? Is faith the warm assurance of a higher order that helps us make sense of the world? Is religious faith substantively different from rational belief? Editor-in-chief Michael Horton sat down with a few friends to discuss it.
Michael Horton: Today, we’re talking about faith—what it is and what it isn’t; what the author of the sermon to the Hebrews is saying when he talks about faith being the substance of things hoped for, and what role faith plays in apologetics. Here’s a great quote from J. Gresham Machen, who was a Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary in the 1920s. He was, in his day, sort of the leading Christian apologist—if the New York Times wanted a quote from the conservative Christian camp, Machen was the guy they came to. In a 1932 essay, he said:
“There are indeed those who tell us that no defense of the faith is necessary. The Bible needs no defense, they say. Let us not be forever defending Christianity, but instead, let us go forth joyously to propagate Christianity. But I have observed one curious fact. When people talk this way about propagating Christianity without defending it, the thing that they are propagating is pretty sure not to be Christianity at all. They are propagating an anti-intellectual, non-doctrinal modernism and the reason why it requires no defense is simply that it is so completely in accord with what the age already believes. It causes no more disturbance than does a chip that floats downward with a stream. In order to be an adherent of it, a man does not need to resist anything at all. He needs only to drift and automatically is modernism will be of the most approved and popular kind. One thing need always be remembered, true Christianity, now as always, is radically contrary to the natural man and it cannot possibly be maintained without a constant struggle. Certainly, a Christianity that avoids argument is not the Christianity of the New Testament. The New Testament is full of arguments in defense of the faith.”
Adriel Sanchez: If the church you’re a part of only preaches a social gospel, nobody is going to argue with that–they’re going to say, “Oh, it’s great that you guys go out and feed people and do this and do that; we’ll join you!” But if you preach the gospel of truth, then you’re going to get all sorts of objections, because you’re making claims that create demands of your hearers. God commands all people everywhere to repent and that includes you, regardless of how you feel.
Michael Horton: It means I can’t determine who I am, what my identity is and what I’m going to do; how I’m going to live and where I’m going to go.
Mike Brown: And yet it’s these same claims—the claim that Christ lived the life we ought to have lived, paid the penalty we owed, and was raised from the dead for our justification and glorification—that save us.
Michael Horton: That’s a key take-away—faith is not faith in faith. It’s not the fact that we believe that saves us; it’s the acknowledgement that we’re the problem and that we’ve got to be rescued. That’s where faith comes in—faith trusts the rescue. It isn’t something that we can once again use to draw our focus back to ourselves and our innards.
Greg Koukl: This is a unique thing about Christianity. When I wrote The Story of Reality, I wanted people to get clear that in our story, God rescues man; man doesn’t rescue himself. After man fell, God could have just lowered the boom right then. He had no rescue plan for angels. But for his own purposes and to his own glory, he decided to rescue human beings by becoming a man himself. This is the coherence of our story—God comes down, assumes humanity to do that rescue because we were utterly helpless to save ourselves. He expresses his mercy and his kindness by initiating a plan to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Michael Horton: Greg, you mention he became flesh—isn’t that an indication that our religion here is going to be qualitatively different from every other religious claim? Christianity bases all of its truth and credibility on the claim that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Now, if your God is settled up in his heavens, separated from the earth by a steel partition and ne’er the twain shall meet, he is either blissfully ignorant of earth’s problems or incapable of solving them it from public criticism. You have to, with the apostles, take the gospel out into the Areopagus and let it fly.
Mike Brown: If this is true, that means it’s true for everyone. If Christ is raised from the dead, then everybody should be a Christian. If Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, nobody should be a Christian and this is a waste of time. It’s not, “This works for me; it helps me.” It’s “This is an event that has happened in history—God became a man, lived the life I haven’t, went to the cross to atone for my sins and was raised from the dead and seen by many witnesses.” If that happened, everybody should submit to the king.
Greg Koukl: This whole thing about the incarnation, I think, sometimes gets the short shrift. I mean, we talk about it, but I don’t think we realize the significance of it. Jesus wasn’t just an avatar; he wasn’t just a manifestation of God; God is not in everybody—if he is, he’s part of the problem. If he’s ensconced there behind his wall like Mike mentioned, then he’s inaccessible. But the claim of the Scriptures is that God took on humanity to himself. It’s not even possible to understand the significance of this, because we don’t know what glory is really like; that to sacrifice it would be the greatest sacrifice imaginable. The greatest line in the Bible is not, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” but “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory.” It’s sublime, because it’s the greatest act of humility and love.
Mike Brown: There is no truth claim like this one.
Greg Koukl: In Ephesians 2, Paul talks about how Jesus did not regard equality with God a thing to be held on to, but he was willing to humble himself to become a man. I mean, what a huge step that is—he could have been a king of kings in a worldly sense. But he humbled himself to become a servant; to (as Philip’s translation says), “To die the death of a common criminal.” You can’t get lower than that. And this should be a transforming reality to us, which is Paul’s point there in Philippians 2, that we are to take — this is our model that we act towards each other. But there is nothing in world religions that is anything like this in terms of the sublimity of it, in terms of the self-sacrifice of God, in terms of the potential for rescue. Christianity is absolutely unique. I have a friend, he’s Jewish but he reflected to me that the idea that Jesus was God become man does not offend him as a Jew. He doesn’t think it’s true. But he thinks if it were true, it would be one of the most remarkable truths of reality that God would come among us. In other words, he gets it. He gets the significance of it. He just doesn’t believe it. This is absolutely singular in any religion.
Adriel Sanchez: The uniqueness of these claims really exposes how outrageous it is when people say, “Oh, all religions basically teach the same thing.” They’re trying to not be offensive with that statement, but what they’re actually doing is the most offensive thing possible—they’re completely ignoring the one very important thing distinguishes Christianity from other religions.
Michael Horton: One of the most memorable lectures I went to regularly at Oxford was taught by a former evangelical. He did a Venn Diagram that showed how every major religion had a mystical wing, which is where all religions overlap—the one thing they all have in common is a mystical moral core. He said that it was when they began to make claims about history—what he called ‘insignificant claims’—that they begin fighting with each other. He did actually manage actually to bring about warm ecumenical feelings, because a Muslim, a Jewish girl and a Roman Catholic and I went out for coffee after one of the lectures and we all called fire down upon this middle-aged white, Northern European liberal for creating his own religion and imperiously placing that over against the particular religions that we all adhere to. He thought he was taking the best from all of the religions, but what he was actually doing was creating a new religion that none of the religions themselves held to and holding that up as superior to every particular religion. So arrogant.
Greg Koukl: It reminds me of the coexist bumper sticker. If I’m at a gas station, I always ask, “What does that mean?” The answer is, of course, that all the religions should get along. Well, what religions aren’t getting along in the United States of America? We are getting along. The ‘problem’ is that some religions claim that they’re the true religion, and they point to Christianity or Islam. Then I’ll ask them, “Well then, what is the fact of the matter?” and they respond, “Well, you know, all religions are equally true.”
Mike Brown: What they mean is not co-exist, but co-believe
Greg Koukl: Exactly. They’re basically saying that all these religions are wrong in their claims and your universalist claim is right, and you’re trying to correct them. How is that coexistence? It’s a pluralistic point of view that is aggressively, imperialistically evangelizing.
Mike Brown: Christians are all for coexistence—we don’t try to force people to be Christians and kill them if they don’t convert—but we don’t believe that all religious claims are equally valid. It gets to Adriel’s point about degrading other religions as well as Christianity—when you try to ‘save’ religion by somehow making it less offensive or emphasizing the moral-slash-mystical sweet spot, or focusing on the bits where they all agree while simply ignoring the things that make them distinctive, you end up degrading all religions for the sake of the one you’ve invented.
Michael Horton: I had a great conversation with a Jewish friend a while back who said, “You know, the thing that really ticks me off about my Roman Catholic friends is that ever since Vatican II, they keep talking about me as though I really belong to the church. We’re really saved even though we don’t know it as Jews. Of course, we’re not as quite as privileged as people who are officially in communion with the Pope, but we’re still part of the people of the God. You don’t realize how condescending and rude that is. I prefer your take when you say that we are cut off from the covenants and the promises of God unless I’m united to Christ as the vine. Yeah, it offends me, but it lets me be a Jew and say no. The liberals out there are refusing to let me be a Jew.” Here’s another Machen quote:
“It is perfectly true, of course, that argument alone is quite insufficient to make a man a Christian. You may argue with him from now until the end of the world. You may bring forth the most magnificent arguments but all will be in vain unless there is one thing, the mysterious creative power of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. But because argument is insufficient, it does not follow that it is unnecessary. Sometimes, it is used directly by the Holy Spirit to bring a person to Christ. But more frequently, it is used indirectly. Someone hears an answer to objections raised against the truth of the Christian religion and at the time when he hears it, he’s not impressed. But afterwards, perhaps many years afterwards, his heart, at last, is touched. He’s convicted of sin. He desires to be saved. Without that half-forgotten argument, he could not believe. The gospel would not seem to him to be true and he would remain in his sin. As it is, however, the thought of what he has heard long ago comes to mind. Christian apologetics, at last, has its day. The way is open and when he will believe, he can believe because he has been made to see that believing is not an offense against truth. It is useless to proclaim a gospel that people cannot hold to be true. No amount of emotional appeal can do anything against the truth. The question of fact cannot permanently be evaded. Did Christ or did he not rise from the dead? Is the Bible trustworthy or is it false? The Christian religion flourishes not in the darkness but in the light. Intellectual slothfulness is but a quack remedy for unbelief. The true remedy is consecration of all of our intellectual powers to the service of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This is what Greg is talking about, aren’t you, when you say you’re doing spade work; that in this culture (more so now than when Machen was writing!), this needs to be done. And we have to stop doing this sort of short-term operation where nothing that you can’t immediately see fruit from is unimportant.
Greg Koukl: Exactly. In the second chapter of the Tactics book, I address this idea that says that you can never win someone to Christ through an argument. In one sense, that’s true, but it’s also true that you can’t win someone to Christ just by preaching the gospel. Now that sounds like heresy, but here’s what I mean—there are all kinds of people that hear the gospel that never become Christians. The power is in what the Holy Spirit does—the Holy Spirit is happy to use the gospel—but without the Holy Spirit, the gospel is not going to make a difference. But the Holy Spirit is also happy to use other things, too, like good arguments. I know lots of people that have been won to Christ through a good argument, that is, they will say that this was one of the things that was absolutely critical in their steps towards putting their faith in Christ. Is this bereft of the Spirit? No; bereft of the Spirit, nothing works. With the Spirit, lots of things work—the preaching of the gospel, loving someone and reasoning with them—all of them can and have been used by God to bring people to faith.
Adriel Sanchez: That’s why the disciples would reason in the synagogues with the Jews to try to convince them that Jesus Christ was the Messiah.
Michael Horton: And was it a good day in Acts 17, when Paul was talking with Epicureans and Stoics who loved to debate the latest ideas? At the end that of this great oration, this great defense of the faith, it’s kind of a letdown.
Greg Koukl: Everybody is laughing. He did a good comedy routine.
Mike Brown: But some said, “We’ll hear you again,” and there were a few who believed.
Michael Horton: There was only one couple, Damaris and Dionysius who said, “Yeah, okay, we’re following.” But it was still a good day in the history of the church.
Mike Brown: Paul didn’t waste his time—it’s not his job to create faith in the hearts of people. That’s God’s business. But books like Greg’s are very useful, because they help us understand that we don’t have to hit a home run every time—we can just go to bat, swing well, maybe get a stone in someone’s shoe that will help them think about something a bit more carefully, and pray for that person, that the object of our faith, which is the person and work of Jesus Christ, will begin to become more clear in that person’s mind. That may take years or days; we don’t know—that’s God’s business. But we can still help people begin to understand who the object of our faith is.
Greg Koukl: It’s our task, but it’s God’s problem. We can use the skills and resources we have to do our task well, and trust that person to God to do the rest.
Michael Horton: We have to have patience and the faith to trust that even small things can contribute to someone becoming a believer. But we’re so used to seeing immediate results that we sometimes can have wrong expectations—if we’re going to have an discussion about the intellectual aspects of the Christian faith, then the person has to repent and believe immediately, or we don’t talk to them at all. But this isn’t how we approach other kinds of evangelism—we are kind to people who have mistreated us; we encourage people in their grief by just being there for them and living with integrity in the office of believer in our relationships in the neighborhood and family.
Adriel Sanchez: It’s that character that you’re describing, Mike, that actually gives us as Christians the opportunity to make that defense. In 1 Peter 3, Peter talks about always being ready to make a defense for the hope that is in you. The people that he was writing to were being persecuted, but they were suffering righteously—you can expect that people were going to want to know how it is that they were living with such hope in the midst of persecution, and that’s why Peter encouraged them to be ready and able to talk thoughtfully about their reasons for having such a hope.
Greg Koukl: I think Christians today are scrambling under the heat that they’re getting from the culture, so it’s helpful to remember that the churches that Peter was writing to were also in distress. It’s interesting to note the way Peter puts it—he says, “You’re suffering, it’s true—so don’t suffer doing something stupid. Who’s going to harm you for doing good if you’re doing good? But even if they do—and there are probably a few people that will—then be sure to suffer for Christ’s sake. Commend your soul to God and always being ready to make the defense that you’re talking about for the hope that’s within you.”
Michael Horton: Right. Now, we have several Scriptural examples of faith in God and Christ, but where would we go in the Bible to get an actual definition of faith?
Adriel Sanchez: One text that I was thinking about is Hebrews 4, where the author is trying to encourage the people that he’s writing to by sharing this story about the wilderness generation with them. He says:
“The promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear, lest any of you should seem to fail to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them but the message they heard did not benefit them because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest.”
Faith is receiving, resting and laying hold of the promises of God. The wilderness generation had the good news of the gospel, but the ones that perished in the wilderness didn’t lay hold of that truth. They weren’t united in faith with those who received that word, rested and trusted in it, and held fast to those promises that God had made. It’s our job as believers who are, hopefully, hearing the gospel every week, to extend the hand of faith to lay hold of what’s being put before us, and then to enter into the rest that comes with knowing that those promises are fulfilled in Christ.
Greg Koukl: Michael, you’ve mentioned before that sometimes we can get a clear fix on what a thing is by looking at what it is not, and there’s a passage that I use to show what faith isn’t, which comes from John 20, where Jesus is talking with Thomas and says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Now, this doesn’t mean that faith is some kind of leap in the dark, and that we don’t need apologetics (I actually heard a pastor say that from the stage once). The very next verse says that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The purpose of John’s gospel is to show the marvelous works and miracles of Christ so that those who read it may have confidence that Jesus truly was and is the messiah. In this context, it’s clear that Jesus could not mean that blind faith is somehow better or more spiritual than faith that’s based on solid evidence. Thomas had good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead—he’d spent three years with him; their mutual friends had told him that they’d seen and spoken to him—but he still said, “Man, I’m not going to believe until I can stick my fingers in the wound.” That’s a bit much, and I think Jesus intended a bit of a rebuke here, but he wasn’t upholding faith divorced from fact and argument.
Adriel Sanchez: So many people today contrast faith with reason. But it’s not reason that faith is contrasted with; it’s works—it’s not reason versus faith; it’s faith in Christ versus your faith in the ability of your works to save you.
Mike Brown: That’s precisely right. You think of Galatians 2, where Paul writes that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. So also, we have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law because by works of the law no one will be justified. Faith is what receives Christ; receives the obedience, holiness, and righteousness of Jesus Christ and if it’s contrasted, as Adriel said, with anything in scripture, it’s works. Our works play no part in our justification; our works are simply the fruit of faith.
Michael Horton: We’re justified by Jesus—not our good works, not our faith.
Greg Koukl: Dr. David Nobel from Summit Ministries said, “The opposite of reason is not belief. The opposite of reason is irrationality. The opposite of belief is not reason; the opposite of belief is unbelief.” You could have a reasonable belief and you can have an irrational non-belief. Michael Horton: That’s a great point. The confidence that we have in what Christ has done has to be communicated to us. It’s not by the emotional assurance of that confidence that we’re justified, but we have to know enough to know where the helicopter is. We have to board in order to get out of the line of fire on the battlefield. That is why faith in a Christian understanding differs from the way faith is usually talked about in our culture.
Greg Koukl: You got to have a chopper that works and a pilot than can fly it.
Mike Brown: And that’s Christ.
Greg Koukl: Exactly right.
Mike Brown: John Owen gave a sermon called ‘The Strength of Faith’, where he said:
“A little faith gives a whole Christ. He that hath the least faith hath as true an interest, though not so clear an interest, in the righteousness of Christ as the most steadfast believer. Others may be more holy than he, but no one in the world is more righteous than he; for he is righteous with the righteousness of Christ. You, who have but a weak faith, have yet a strong Christ. So that, though all the world should set itself against your little faith, it should not prevail. Sin cannot do it; Satan cannot do it; hell cannot do it. Though you take but weak and faint hold on Christ, he takes sure, strong, and unconquerable hold on you. Jesus Christ takes special care of them that are weak in faith. On what account so ever they are sick, and weak, and unable, this good Shepherd takes good care of them.”
Adriel Sanchez: If we’re faithless, he remains faithful.
Michael Horton: And the more you preach that to me, the more faith I’ll have. Don’t tell me to have more faith. A lot of people, when defining faith, looking for a definition in the Bible turn to Hebrews chapter 11 where the writer says that “faith is assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Some will read that verse as if they’re Plato, saying that faith is concerned with believing what is invisible, intangible; and therefore, doesn’t have any arguments, evidence or anything tangible—it’s a leap. The writer is actually saying something different—previously, he was underscoring the fact that God’s promises were invisible at the time he made those promises to our elder brothers and sisters in the faith in the Old Testament. Now, the New Testament Christians have seen the fulfillment of those promises, but are still waiting for their full realization—specifically, our bodily resurrection and the new heavens and the new earth and so forth. The authors encourages them to look back at all of God’s promises fulfilled in history and have good confidence that the rest of it will be fulfilled in time. That’s what faith is.
Mike Brown: Right, that’s the point that the writer to Hebrews is making. He’s writing to Jewish believers and reminding them that Christ is the fulfillment of the whole Levitical law, he’s the fulfillment of Moses; he’s our prophet, priest and king; the entire fulfillment of all the type and shadow of the Old Testament, and he has ascended into Heaven. Now, we don’t touch and see Mount Sinai, we don’t have the temple, the tabernacle, the smells and bells because all of those things pointed to the necessity and superiority of Christ, who is the fulfillment of all the prophecies, who has made a perfect sacrifice and is our eternal king, is in heaven at the right hand of the Father. The author goes on in that rest of that chapter to say, “If we’re going to imitate faith, let’s imitate the faith of those who died in faith,” these imperfect sinners and what we call the hall of faith—they’re not all heroes by any stretch of the imagination, but they all believed in God’s promises. Those promise always had some substance; they weren’t emotional placebos designed to placate superstitious nomads. God said and did tangible things to give his people reasons to believe—he made a covenant with Abraham and separated the animal halves and walked between them, indicating that if he failed to fulfill his promise, he would place himself under the curse of death. Abraham believed. Now, you, too, believe that God will fulfill everything that he has promised—that Christ will return; that we will dwell here on Earth and then he is the substance of all the type and shadow of the Old Testament.
Greg Koukl: We also see this in the gospel of Luke, when Mary receives the promise that she is going to bear a child. Now, this is a very unusual circumstance and it puts her at great risk in her community. But, after she receives the promise, she goes to see Elizabeth and Elizabeth greets her by saying, “How is that the mother of my Lord would come to visit me?” All of these things the angel said—the information about the virgin birth, which must have been hard for her family to believe, is validated by Elizabeth’s confirmation of her own pregnancy.
Michael Horton: He gives the promise and the sign.
Greg Koukl: Exactly. Mary received the promise, trusting that God will fulfill his word, just as Abraham did, and God graciously gives a kind of substantive validation, not just for her personally, but for everyone, so the truth of it is demonstrably established.
Michael Horton: We also see it with the disciples—first, he calls them away from their nets; there’s a moment of recognition where they say, “You’re the guy; you’re the one sent from the Lord! Wherever you’re going is where we’re going!” But then they don’t really know what that means; they make mistakes along the way, and Jesus keeps revealing who he is, bit by bit. Peter renounces him and is restored; the disciples run away, and then they all come back, except one. The point is that Jesus continues to reassure and confirm who he is, thereby strengthening their faith and growing them in their confidence that he is who he says he is, and will do what he says he will do. It’s not how much you know, it’s not how much you feel, it is who you’re looking to. That’s the question. The writer to the Hebrews is not saying faith is confidence in what you cannot see—he’s saying that faith is the confidence and the assurance that God’s promises (which you have heard) are reliable because of what you have seen him do. There are some things that we don’t see yet because we’re still waiting for them, but faith is the conviction that because God has already fulfilled the purposes that he promised long ago to the prophets, you have every reason to believe that the things we don’t see yet, he’s going to make good on. That means that we have enough assurance to be able to rest on Christ. If you’re being told to have more faith, without being told about whom your faith is grounded in, then you’re basically being told to turn your faith into work. Don’t do that—remember the faithfulness of God to fulfill his promises; remember the love of Christ that prompted him to save you when you didn’t know you needed saving, trust him when he says that he will never leave you or forsake you, and that he will come again to restore and renew all things.
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine, co-host of the Core Christianity radio program, and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California.
Adriel Sanchez is the pastor of North Park Presbyterian Church in San Diego, California, and co-host of the Core Christianity radio program.
Michael Brown is the pastor of Chiesa Riformata Filadelfia in Milan, Italy, and author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.
Greg Koukl is the President of Stand to Reason and adjunct professor at Biola University. He is the author of The Story of Reality: How The World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important That Happens In Between and Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions.