Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
As Reformed Christians we believe that faith is a gift of God. There is nothing more significant and important about the nature and character of true saving faith than this truth. It is not only difficult for the natural man to believe, it is impossible. Faith, is not something simple, a simple decision to “accept Christ,” which all men have the natural ability to perform at their own free will. For the natural man faith is absolutely impossible.
It is a devilish delusion that is propagated in many churches that faith is something as easy as the proverbial “rolling off a log.” This idea is completely contrary to what the Bible teaches about faith and deceives many to imagine that they have faith when they do not. Outside of the grace of God no man will ever come to God and believe that He is. The rebellious sinner will never acknowledge God and submit to Him. He is so enslaved to sin and the devil that he will never of himself forsake his sin even though he knows that it will lead him to destruction. Even when tormented with the terrors of the judgment of God in the natural man cannot be persuaded to flee to God for salvation. No man will ever of his own freewill accept Christ.
Faith comes only by the mighty and wonderful operation of the Spirit of God in the hearts of His elect. It is a work that He alone can and does accomplish by the irresistible operation of His grace and Holy Spirit according to which He breaks our naturally rebellious hearts and makes us willing and able to believe in Him. None of us believe of ourselves. We believe only because God gave us the wonderful gift of faith. Faith is the greatest gift of God to His elect. All the other blessings of salvation are received by God’s children through the gift of faith. Without faith we cannot be saved. Without faith we cannot please God. Without faith we would all perish everlastingly.
Faith gives us a true knowledge of the greatness of our own sin and the awful judgment it deserves. Faith makes us conscious of the desperate situation we are in. Faith causes us to know the Lord Jesus Christ as the only hope of our salvation and constrains us to flee to Him.
Faith enables us to know and understand the mysteries of the Word of God about God Himself and about Jesus Christ the only Savior. Through faith the child of God receives for true all that God has revealed in His Word. Faith makes us wise unto salvation.
Faith is the spiritual bond that unites us to Christ. We are, according to the language of Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism, engrafted into Christ by a true and living faith. This is a wonderful thing. By faith we know Christ spiritually as our Lord and Savior and we are mystically united to Him. Through faith we have intimate communion and fellowship with our beloved Savior and Lord. He lives in us and we live in Him. And we are by faith made conscious of this great wonder. This truth of the wonder of faith is illustrated by our Lord in the beautiful figure of the vine and the branches recorded in John 15. He tells us there that He is the vine and we are the branches. Through our living union with Christ Jesus He abides in us and we in Him.
By faith we rejoice in Christ Jesus, though now we do not see Him, with joy unspeakable and full of glory (I Pet. 1:8). Through faith the perfect righteousness of Christ Jesus becomes ours and we have the blessed assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins through His cross and the knowledge of the favor and love of God for us. Through faith all the blessings of salvation which Christ merited for us on the cross become our possession. Through faith we receive the strength and power of Christ Jesus so that we can boldly say with the inspired apostle Paul: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:14). Through the power of faith we are able to endure the sufferings of this present time, in the hope of the glory that awaits us in heaven. Through faith we have the certain hope of the return of our Lord at the end of the ages and watch daily for the signs of the times with eager expectation of the fulfillment of that hope.
It is good to distinguish faith as God’s power working in us and the activity of our faith. Faith as the gift and power of God is given to us in our regeneration. We are passive in receiving that gift. God does not give us faith because we first asked Him for that gift or because we are ourselves willing to receive it. God by His irresistible grace of regeneration delivered us from our natural rebellion and unbelief and worked faith in our hearts.
Through the power of God we become active in faith. By the activity of faith the elect child of God consciously knows the almighty sovereign God of salvation and relies on Him completely. Faith is active forsaking of our sin and wickedness and going out to Christ. True faith involves denying all confidence in ourselves and depending completely upon Christ and His righteousness, His strength, and His faithfulness. Faith is the activity of the heart of the child of God by which he embraces all of the promises of the gospel, and believes that these promises are true and certain. By faith we find in the gospel all our comfort and assurance.
Only when we understand this about faith can we understand how it is that the gospel everywhere commands us to repent and believe. That command of God demands a conscious and active response of the child of God. In this respect faith is not at all passive. Faith demands a tremendous and constant activity on our part. Even then Scripture clearly states that God works in us “the willing and the doing.” Also the activity of faith flows forth from the working of God in us. Nevertheless, by this work of God we ourselves also become consciously willing and active, so that we can rightly say, “I believe. I trust completely in Christ Jesus. All my glorying is in Him alone.” (See Canons, Third and Fourth Heads, Articles 11 and 12.) When God in His Word commands us to believe, then we must respond with the heartfelt confession, “Lord, I believe!” In the discourse of John 15 on the vine and the branches Jesus commands us to abide in Him. He adds to this command negatively the absolute statement that without abiding in Him we can do nothing, and the positive statement that by abiding in Him we shall bring forth fruit to the glory of God.
When we speak of weak and strong faith we have reference especially to the activity of faith and to our calling and responsibility to exercise our faith as children of God. We may never charge God for giving us only weak faith. Weak faith is a disgrace; it is a sin on the part of the child of God. We dishonor God when we fail to exercise our faith and yield to the temptations of sin. Faith is one of the great pieces of the armor of the Christian soldier. We are exhorted by the inspired apostle of our Lord in Ephesians 6 to put on that armor. If we do not put on that armor constantly we will fall miserably before the onslaughts of our enemy, the devil. We must be concerned about and ashamed of a weak faith. It is often the case because of our sinful nature that we have weak faith. This is inexcusable and will have very serious consequences for our Christian life. For this reason we are called to examine ourselves constantly whether we are in the faith or not. We need often to confess the sin of lack of faith and of weak faith that so often characterizes us. We need to repent from that sin and know what we must do about it.
We have a beautiful biblical illustration of all of this in the account of Peter walking on the raging waters of the Sea of Galilee. We can find this account recorded in Matthew 14 for our instruction about strong and weak faith. Peter really was often characterized by a mixture of strong and weak faith, as we so often are. When Peter saw Jesus walking on the stormy sea Peter asked Jesus for permission to come out and walk with Jesus on the fearful billows of the sea. Jesus commanded Peter to come, and by faith Peter went out to Jesus. What exhilaration Peter must have felt at first when the power of Christ enabled him to walk on the water. But an instant later Peter was sinking in the sea and crying out to Jesus to save Him. It was necessary for Jesus to catch Peter and keep him from certain drowning in the sea because of the weakness of his faith. After Jesus had lifted Peter into the boat He rebuked Peter sharply with the words, “Oh thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”
This account is a vivid illustration of the Christian life. It has many spiritual lessons for us concerning the nature of faith and the urgency of exercising that faith. What wonderful power was given to Peter when He looked at Jesus and went out to meet Him on the tossing waves of the sea! But also how quickly Peter began to sink in the sea when he took his eyes off Jesus. How in a moment Peter could change from strong to weak faith! How beautiful the truth that Jesus responded to the cry of Peter, “Lord, save me!” by catching Peter and delivering Peter from death. Certainly this vividly illustrates that in the final analysis our salvation is dependent on the Lord and not even on the strength of our own faith. What a comfort this is!
Another familiar story about Jesus and Peter illustrates the reality of weak and strong faith. This history is recorded in Matthew. I refer to the whole account of Peter’s denial of the Lord and what led to this sad history. Remember how the Lord told His disciples on the night in which He was arrested to be crucified that they would all be offended at Him and forsake Him and flee? At that time Peter, in seemingly strong and bold faith, said that he would never forsake his Lord and that he was ready even to die with Jesus. And remember how Jesus had to warn Peter about denying His Lord that very night. Jesus spoke concerning this as involving the desire of Satan to have Peter and to sift him as wheat. What a dreadful thing this was by itself! Satan is constantly working his evil work to destroy the faith of God’s saints. Through this evil work Satan desires to have those who belong to God by faith. The grievous fall of Peter took place as Jesus had prophesied. But no doubt the most important detail of this history is the fact that Jesus, in warning Peter about his impending fall, also assured Peter that He had prayed for him that his faith would not fail.
Once again there are many great spiritual lessons to be learned from this history. How foolish it is for any of us to boast in the strength of his own faith. How miserably even a seemingly strong disciple of Jesus can fall because of the weakness of faith. “Let him that standeth take heed lest he fall.” Most beautiful is the truth that Jesus constantly prays for the faith of His own so that their faith does not fail.
In our next article we want to consider some of the characteristics of a weak faith. We ought to be concerned about weak faith. Being weak in our faith has very serious consequences. We need to be on our guard against those things that weaken our faith and avoid them. In the life of every Christian, even the greatest of them, faith has its so-called ups and downs. But this does not mean that we maybe careless about this. We are called by God to be strong and courageous in our faith. We need strong and robust faith to live in this wicked world. What according to the Word of God are the characteristics of a strong, vibrant faith which pleases God and glorifies His Name? What are the ways in which God strengthens His work of faith in us?