The Nature of Faith as Joy
Bolton Conference | New England Reformed Fellowship | Bolton, Massachusetts
We move now from the objective ground of justification as the God-exalting death of the Son of God, and from the nature of justification as the forgiveness of sins and imputation of God’s righteousness, to the subjective means of receiving that great work of God for ourselves. How do we do that? Not all people are justified. Who are? The historic, Reformed, biblical answer is people who have faith in Christ. The witness of Romans goes like this:
[Christ died] to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:26)
We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28)
God . . . will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Romans 3:30)
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (Romans 4:4–5)
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1)
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4)
The question I want to pose is: Why did God ordain that faith be the means of obtaining the gift of justification?
There are two answers. One is that the nature of faith is such that it glorifies God. And the other is that the nature of faith is such that it satisfies the one who trusts. The reason that the first is important is that faith preserves and continues the design God had in the whole plan of salvation; namely, upholding and displaying the worth of his glory.
The reason the second is important is that it provides the indispensable link between justification and sanctification. The fact that faith in Christ will be seen by its nature to be satisfying to the human soul will show why we are justified by joy in God and why this faith produces the practical holiness without which we will not see the Lord. I will deal with the first briefly and the second more extensively.
Faith Glorifies God
God ordained a means of justification that accomplishes the same thing that the ground of justification accomplished; namely, the exaltation of God. The nature of faith and the death of Christ are both God-centered, God-exalting acts.
“Faith, by its nature, is being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus.”
For example, in Romans 4:20–21 Paul says of Abraham, “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” What this text shows is that God is glorified when he is trusted to do what he has promised. Luther wrote of this in The Freedom of the Christian:
It is a further function of faith that it honors him whom it trusts with the most reverent and highest regard, since it considers him truthful and trustworthy. . . . So when the soul firmly trusts God’s promises, it regards him as truthful and righteous.
So the first reason God ordains that faith is the means of obtaining justification is that faith preserves and continues the design of God in all of redemption; namely, the magnifying of the worth of God’s glory. Faith, by its nature, draws attention away from us as needy and focuses all attention on God as rich and gracious and strong and wise. Faith exalts God and humbles us. It is perfectly suited to continue what the cross is all about in the first place — the vindication of God’s glory.
Faith Satisfies the One Who Trusts
But there is another reason why faith is ordained as the means of justification. Faith, by its nature, is being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus. It is a resting contentment in the worth and sufficiency of God and all that he is for us in Christ.
And as such, faith has the power to liberate us from all competing sources of satisfaction. In this way, faith becomes the power for practical holiness and therefore forges the indispensable link between justification and sanctification that the Bible so clearly teaches. Let me try to explain. This is tremendously important today.
Saved Through Sanctification
On the one hand, the Bible teaches in Romans 8:30 that “those whom he justified he also glorified.” In other words, none is lost between justification and glorification. Once justified, always justified. Otherwise, that sentence has no meaning. “Those whom he justified he also glorified.”
On the other hand, our final glorification is clearly contingent on our becoming holy people in this life — not perfect people, but transformed people who love righteousness and hate sin and strive to enter at the narrow gate. For example, Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive for . . . the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” First John 2:17 says, “The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” Paul lists the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19–21 and says to the churches, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Paul makes clear that the only pathway to final glorification and final salvation is the pathway of sanctification for holiness. For example, Romans 6:22: “Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” And 2 Thessalonians 2:13: “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”
So, on the one hand, Paul tells us that being justified secures our final glory (Romans 8:30), and on the other hand, he tells us that the only way to that glory is through sanctification — through real, practical holiness.
Justifying Faith Is Sanctifying Faith
How can both of these be true? What is the link that makes the sanctification of the elect as certain as their justification? One answer, of course, is the Holy Spirit. But the problem with stopping there is that we miss the crucial teaching that the Spirit produces obedience through faith. If we do not see this, we will not know what we are to do with all the commands of the New Testament addressed to us.
The practical, utterly crucial answer to the question is that the nature of faith ensures that all who are justified will be sanctified and therefore (and only therefore) glorified. The only kind of faith that justifies is a faith that has the power to make a person holy. And therefore, everyone who is justified will be growing in holiness. Luther put it this way in one of his sermons,
Faith is God’s gift and grace, obtained by one man, Christ. Therefore, faith is something very powerful, active, restless, effective, which at once renews a person and again regenerates him, and leads him altogether into a new manner and character of life, so that it is impossible not to do good without ceasing. (Luther, “Justification by Faith,” in The Protestant Pulpit, 15)
I think Luther is absolutely right here to say that faith necessarily produces obedience in good works, a transformed life. In fact, Paul makes it clear that all obedience that is glorifying to God and pleasing to God is obedience that comes from faith.
Faith Produces Obedience
I don’t just mean a kind of loose connection in the same soul as though faith and obedience just happen to be there in the same heart. I mean that faith produces obedience just as surely as a mountain spring produces a stream.
Consider, for example, Romans 9:31–32:
Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. (NASB)
In other words, the obedience demanded by the law was not to be pursued by works, that is, by self-reliant striving to show moral merit. It was meant to be pursued by faith. Faith was to be the driving power of obedience.
“Faith produces obedience just as surely as a mountain spring produces a stream.”
Consider Romans 14:23: “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Or as Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God].” Because without faith all attempts at obedience are self-exalting not God-exalting. God is exalted when we rely on him and are carried by his power and promise.
First Thessalonians 1:3 calls this kind of obedience “your work of faith and labor of love.” It’s a work of faith because it comes from faith. “Works of faith,” as Paul calls them, are acts of obedience that God fulfills in his power as we rely upon his grace and not ourselves. That’s what he says in 2 Thessalonians 1:11, “we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.”
So, I feel strongly warranted by Scripture to say that the obedience, or the holiness, without which we will not see the Lord is the product of justifying faith, so that the dynamic power of that faith is the link that holds justification and sanctification inseparably together.
Why Faith Works
But why is faith so powerful? Why is it “impossible not to do good” when you have this faith? Why does faith produce obedience?
To answer this we need to draw out the essential meaning of saving faith. Here is my working definition of faith: the essence of faith is the being satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ, especially what he promises to be for us in the age to come.
This statement emphasizes two things. One is the personal God-centeredness of faith. It is not merely the promises of God that satisfy us; it is all that God himself is for us. Faith embraces God — not just his promised gifts — as our treasure. Faith banks its hope not just on the real estate of the age to come, but on the fact that God will be there (Revelation 21:3). And even now what that faith embraces most earnestly is not just the reality of sins forgiven (as precious as that is), but the presence of the living Christ in our hearts and the fullness of God himself (Ephesians 3:17–19).
The other thing emphasized in defining faith as being satisfied with all that God is for us is the term satisfaction. Faith is not just a belief of facts about God. It is not just intellectual assent. Faith is the quenching of the soul’s thirst at the fountain of God.
Believing Is Being Satisfied
The biblical evidence for this can be seen easily, for example, in John 6:35: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.’” “Believing” means “coming” to Jesus to eat and drink the “bread of life” and the “living water” (John 4:10, 14) which are nothing other than Jesus himself. And when we eat this food and drink this water we are satisfied with all that God is for us and will be for us in Jesus. That is the meaning of faith.
Here is the secret of the power of faith to break the enslaving force of sinful attractions. If the heart is satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus, the power of sin to lure us away from the wisdom of Christ is broken. Trusting in God to meet our needs through Christ breaks the power of sin’s promise to make us happier. If my thirst for joy and meaning and passion are satisfied with the presence and promises of Christ, the power of sin is broken. We do not yield to the offer of sandwich meat when we can see the steak sizzling on the grill.
Faith is not content with “fleeting pleasures.” Moses looked to the reward of God’s promises, he weighed that against the rewards of unrighteousness, and he rested satisfied in God. With that, the power of materialism and fear was broken, and he was freed to love a rebellious people for forty years. The writer of Hebrews calls this liberating contentment “faith.” By faith Moses chose “to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:24–25).
The definition of faith behind this usage is given in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” In other words, faith is the satisfied assurance that God will work things out in the future far better than I could work them out by relying on myself or by departing from the path of obedience — even if obedience means suffering now. Being satisfied with all that God is for me in Christ — past, present, and future — is the power to resist the alluring temptations of disobedience.
Confidence Produces Love
The writer to the Hebrews gives another, even more graphic illustration of the way faith produces obedience. He tells the story of how in the early days of their faith the Christians showed great love to the imprisoned saints by visiting them at great cost to themselves. What was the powerful source of this obedience to the command to “remember those who are in prison” (Hebrews 13:3)?
Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. (Hebrews 10:32–35)
In these Christians’ lives, the power of love was the confidence that God would take care of their future. So their obedience was the obedience of faith. The cost of obedience — which was immense — was not so great as the offsetting promise of God. The assurance of things hoped for was the source of the obedience of love.
“Trusting in God to meet our needs through Christ breaks the power of sin’s promise to make us happier.”
This is what Paul meant in Galatians 5:6 when he said, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Faith works through love because faith is satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ, and so faith breaks the alluring power of selfish temptations. He showed the same thing in Colossians 1:4–5 when he said, “We heard of . . . the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” Hope is the power that breaks the stranglehold of fear and greed on love (see Luke 12:33; 14:13–14; 16:9).
The upshot of all this is that we are justified by joy in God, because the essence of faith is joy in all that God is for us in Jesus. This ensures that the divine work of justification is from beginning to end a God-centered, God-glorifying work. Because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. And so, the beauty of the gospel stands out: God is for us in Christ.
And the security and assurance we have is that the foundation and application of the great gift of justification are rooted in God’s unwavering commitment to uphold the worth of his glory — or God’s indomitable delight in being God. Jesus died to vindicate the worth and righteousness of God in the salvation of sinners, and now he calls us to a faith that demonstrates the all-satisfying worth of his glory.