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Faith is...?

Series: Better: A Study of the Christian Life in Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jul 28, 2013

Hebrews 11:1-7

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 11.  As you’re doing so, I want you to be sure to look at the last verse of Hebrews 10.  You’ll remember last week, as we looked at Hebrews 10:26-39, we encountered a chilling warning passage, the main point of which is - if you turn your back on Jesus (because the whole theme of the book has been that Jesus is better; Jesus is the only Savior; Jesus is superior to anything offered anywhere else) if you turn your back on the only Savior, Jesus, there are dire eternal consequences.  And you may be asking yourself the question, “How do you get from that kind of a warning in Hebrews 10:26-39, to a chapter on faith, in which the heroes of the Scriptures, Old Testament and New, who trusted God, are celebrated?  What is the connection  between Hebrews 10:39 and Hebrews 11:1?”  

Indeed, there is a connection.  Look at verse 39.  He ends that section of warning with an encouragement.  Remember, the last few verses turned to a positive exhortation and he says to his congregation in verse 39, “We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”  In other words, he’s indicating to that congregation of Hebrew Christians that he has good and solid hope for their spiritual condition in Christ Jesus.  “You are not of those who are going to turn your backs on Jesus and look away from Him and thus be judged.  You have faith.”  And so that statement in Hebrews 10:39 leads him into this exploration of faith in Hebrews 11 in which he says, “And that’s always the way it’s been with the people of God.  We’ve walked by faith from the very beginning.”  And so he begins to explore the vital subject of faith.  

Well before we read God’s Word together, let’s pray and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word and our prayer this morning is the same prayer of that old disciple who said, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Lord, we come before You believing; help our unbelief, even as we study this word about faith today, in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is the Word of God.  Hear it, beginning in Hebrews 11 verse 1:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the people of old received their commendation.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.  And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him.  Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.  And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household.  By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Faith is an important and repeated subject in the New Testament.  Two hundred and forty plus times, God speaks to us about faith in the New Testament.  God is a good teacher; good teachers repeat points that need to be brought home and brought to bear into the hearts of their students.  And when God repeats something 240 times, He wants you and me to understand!  Interestingly, Christians are called various things in the New Testament.  Sometimes, Luke, for instance, calls us “followers of the way.”  But one of the important titles for Christians in the New Testament is in fact found in Acts 2:44.  Do you know what we’re called there?  “Believers.”  Now think about that for just a second.  We are being defined as people who believe, as people who have faith, as people who exercise faith, as those who are of faith, as the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 10:39.  So our very title, our very designation, the denomination of believers is those who believe, those who have faith.  Faith is vital not only to salvation, not only to the beginning of the Christian life, and our justification, our forgiveness, our acquittal, our pardon; faith is vital to the ongoing living of the Christian life.  So the author of Hebrews wants to address us about faith.  He’s given us warnings in this book - chilling warnings, sobering warnings.  Now, he wants to instruct us in the instrument that God has appointed for our living of the Christian life.  

FAITH DESCRIBED

And he begins in Hebrews 11:1-2 not so much giving us a definition of faith but giving us a description of what faith does, of how it works.  

And I want to look with you this morning at a few things that he teaches us about faith in these opening verses of Hebrews 11.  The first thing I want you to see is this.  What he’s teaching us about in verses 1 and 2 is the necessity and the role of faith.  Faith is necessary for the Christian life and it has a unique and important role in the Christian life.  And what he’s saying in verses 1 and 2 is this:  “Here’s how faith functions in your life.”  Now if you are a believer, one who has faith, you will be interested in how it is that faith functions in your life, and that’s exactly what he’s going to explain in these verses.  Look at verses 1 and 2.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  In this passage, he is telling us that there is a crucial relationship between faith and our assurances of the promises that God has given to us, the rewards that the Lord has pledged to us, which we have not yet received.  Faith assures us of those things hoped for.  The very word that he uses in this passage for assurance is a word that was used in the day that this letter was written for a title deed to a house.  So he is saying faith is the title deed to the things that you hope for that God has promised to you.  Faith is the instrument whereby you are assured of receiving what God promises to you in the Word.  

And then he goes on to say, and it is “the conviction of things not seen.”  In other words, it is the way we become convinced of things that we don’t see yet.  And think of how important that is in the whole story of the Bible.  God comes to Noah - we’ll be told this story in verse 7 - God comes to Noah and He says, “I’m going to flood the world.”  And Noah looks up to the sky and he says, “It doesn’t look like rain.”  And God says, “I’m going to flood the world; build an ark.”  And Noah looks all around and it’s all dry land.  And Noah built that ark - how?  By faith.  He doesn’t seen any evidence that there’s a flood coming.  All he has to go on is God’s Word.  That happens over and over in the Bible. God comes to an old man, Abram, and He says, “Abram, you and your wife, Sarai, are going to have a little boy.”  And Abram says, “Lord, I’m pretty old and Sarai is pretty old.”  And God says, “You’re going to have a baby.  You’re going to have a boy; you’re going to have a son; you’re going to have an heir.  You, yourself.  I’m going to give you a son.”  And we’re told in Genesis 15 that Abraham believed and the Lord credited it to him as righteousness.  Over and over, believers are called to trust God’s Word even when they don’t see it yet.  And the author of Hebrews says this is how faith works.  It is the instrument whereby you are convinced of things that you can’t see yet.  And so in this passage, he’s describing what faith is like and how it works.  It works in our assurance in the Christian life; it works in our conviction of the promises of God to us that we don’t see yet.  

Now he doesn’t give a definition in this passage.  He gets close, doesn’t he, in verse 6.  Take a look at that.  “Without faith, it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God.”  And then he says two things - “must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”  In other words, he indicates that faith is both in God’s person - you believe that He is - and in God’s promises - you believe that He will fulfill His promise to reward you.  And indeed that fits with the whole New Testament testimony to the definition of faith.  In our second question of membership, and we say it so often around here you can probably say it yourself along with me, in our second question of membership we ask, “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners” - that’s part one - “and do you receive and rest on Him alone for your salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?” - that’s part two.  And do you listen to both of those parts?  The first part asks you, “Do you believe?”  The second part asks you, “Do you trust?”  Do you believe and do you trust?  Those are the two parts of faith.  Faith is believing in God and what He says, especially Christ as He is offered in the Gospel, and trusting God’s promise to fulfill His pledge to you.  It is both believing and trusting.  

And each of these things are emphasized in the stories about faith in the New Testament. And I want to especially think with you for a few moments about the way that trust is brought home to us, for instance in the gospel of John.  Over and over in the gospel of John, we encounter metaphors or word pictures of what faith is.  For instance, in John chapter 6, verse 37 especially, faith is described as coming to Christ.  Now you’re familiar with Matthew’s words in which he records Jesus saying, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  Well the idea of coming to Christ is a picture of faith.  And in John 6:37 when Jesus talks about coming to Him, He’s talking about faith in Him.  What’s the significance of that metaphor?  It’s simply this.  You’re transferring your trust from whatever else it is you’re trusting in to Jesus.  You’re coming to Jesus with your trust.  Jesus, I used to trust in this; now I’m going to You and I’m going to put my trust in You.

But there are other pictures of faith in the gospel of John.  In John chapter 6 there’s the metaphor of eating of Christ.  You remember when Jesus says, “Unless you eat My flesh, you have no part of Me?”  He’s not talking about cannibalism.  He’s talking about depending on Him for the sustenance that you require to live.  Do you remember the passage that David read from Jeremiah?  At the end of the story, what happens to poor old Jeremiah?  Well he’s not sent back to the house where he’d been jailed before, but he is kept under the courtyard and what do they give to him each day?  Each day they give him one loaf of bread, until it ran out, because you remember the city’s under siege.  So that was his allotment.  He was given one loaf of bread every day to live on.  Well when Jesus says, “Unless you eat my flesh you have no part of me,” He’s saying this - “I am the sustenance that you need to live on.  Man does not live by bread alone.  He lives by faith in Me.  You can only get the sustenance from Me.  I’m the only one who can provide that.”  

Or, there’s the metaphor of drinking.  You see that all the way back in John 4.  And drinking is a picture for how Jesus alone can provide us with satisfaction.  When we’re hot on a Mississippi summer afternoon and we’ve either been running or we’ve been working in the sun, nothing is like cool water to slake the thirst.  It rehydrates us, it rejuvenates us, and boy does it taste good!  But it’s a picture, in this passage, John 4, of how Jesus is the one who ultimately can fulfill our desires.  Just as that cold water slakes our thirst, so also Jesus is the only one who can fulfill our desires.  And then of course there’s the picture of John 15 of abiding in Christ.  Faith there is pictured as finding our fellowship and our communion in Him; it’s finding our strength from Him.  All of these are pictures of trusting God, of trusting Jesus in the New Testament.  And the point of course is simply this.  Faith involves in believing in a person, Jesus, and in His promises.  And it involves trusting who He is and what He has done for you.  So faith is both belief and trust.  

FAITH AND CREATION

And the author of Hebrews wants to explain how that faith works in the Christian life and here’s what he says.  Look at verse 3.  He begins by saying that faith frames the whole way that you look at the world, even its creation, even its origin.  Notice his words.  “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”  By faith we believe that God created the world.  None of us can go back and see the beginning with our own eyes and none of us can see what God created this world out of, but God has told us in His Word that He created this world and by faith we know this.  

FAITH AND WORSHIP

Then again in verse 4, he explains how faith and worship go together.  Have you ever read the story of Cain and Abel and come away scratching your head, thinking to yourself, “Okay, so why is it that Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s was rejected?”  It’s not immediately apparent in the text as you’re reading it.  And the author of Hebrews says here, in verse 4, “By faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain., through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.”  The author of Hebrews identifies faith in Abel’s worship of God as the quality that set him apart from Cain.  What’s the difference between Cain and Abel?  Abel worshiped by faith.  He offered sacrifice by faith. He believed God, he trusted in God, and God commended him.  This reminds us that we cannot worship God without faith.  We must have faith if we are going to worship God rightly.  

FAITH AND COMMUNION WITH GOD

And again, if you look at verse 5, the author of Hebrews goes on to explain that faith plays a role in our communion with God.  Faith is not only important for our understanding of creation, it’s not only important for our worship, it plays a significant role in our communion with God, and he tells the story of Enoch.  “By faith, Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death, and he was not found because God took him up.  For he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God.”  And so he indicates that God took pleasure in Enoch’s faith.  Faith was the quality in the fellowship which God enjoys with Enoch that he commended.  And so we are being commended to fellowship with God by faith, the author of Hebrews is explaining.

FAITH IS BOTH NECESSARY AND ESSENTIAL

And then, in verse 6, he explains that faith is both necessary and essential.  “Without faith it is impossible to please him.”  And then he says these words; I want you to listen very closely.  He says, “He who comes to God must…”  Now when an author of Scripture says that, he’s got my full attention.  “He who comes to God must…” because I want to come to God, I want to fellowship with Him now in this life, and I want to be with Him forever.  I want to come to God.  So when an author of Scripture tells me, “He who comes to God must…” I’m all ears.  Must what?  Must what?  I want to know!  What’s the answer?  And he says two things - “must believe that he is and that he is the rewarder of those who seek him.”  In other words, faith is both belief in a person and a promise. It is a belief in the person of God and especially in our Lord Jesus Christ, and it is a belief in the promises that God has made to us in His Word.  So faith is both personal and it is based on the Word of God to us in His promises.  Faith is believing God’s person and promises.

And then he says, look at verse 7, that faith takes God at His Word despite the evidence to the contrary.  “By faith Noah, being warned by God about things yet unseen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household by which he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.”  Noah believed what God said to him and acted on it.  And the author of Hebrews is saying this to us because he wants us to understand that this is exactly how it works in the Christian life.  Believers believe God and His Word more than we believe anything else, and it changes the way that we look at the world, and it changes the way that we live this life.  And that’s what we’re going to be studying together for the next several weeks as we work our way through Hebrews chapter 11, this hall of fame of faith.  

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we do believe.  By grace we believe, by the work of Your Holy Spirit we believe, but help our unbelief.  Help us to understand what faith is.  If we are here today with flagging faith, with failing faith, with evaporating faith, with struggling faith, fighting with doubts, Lord, help our unbelief, strengthen our faith.  We ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

Now if you’d take your hymnals in hand we’re going to sing about faith in Christ.  Number 705, “I Know Whom I Have Believed.”

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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