What Is Hope?

When I came to Bethlehem back in the middle of 1980, the signs were repainted to include the name of the new pastor. Rollin asked me what I would like to see painted on the back side of the north sign that faces the parking lot. I said I would like to see the words from Psalm 42:5 — Hope in God!

That’s the message I want all of us to have in mind every week as we leave Bethlehem and enter another week of work. The whole verse says,

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
   and why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
   my help and my God.

A Sermon to Preach to Yourself: Hope in God!

Richard Sibbes, one of the great old Puritan preachers of Cambridge who died in 1635, wrote a whole book (175 pages) on Psalm 42:5. He was called “the sweet dropper” because of how much confidence and joy his sermons caused. He called his book The Soul’s Conflict with Itself, because in Psalm 42:5 that is exactly what you have, the soul arguing with itself, preaching to itself. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God!”

Hoping in God does not come naturally for sinners like us. We must preach it to ourselves, and preach diligently and forcefully, or we will give way to a downcast and disquieted spirit. This is evidently not well known among all the saints — this preaching to yourself — because in Cameroon I recommended it to several as a way of fighting off discouragement, and it seemed quite a new thought to them. In fact, three months after Noël and I returned I received a letter from one of the young women who struggled most it seemed. She said,

“Biblical hope not only desires something good for the future — it expects it to happen.”

While I was on holiday at the end of May I had time to write myself four sermons on different topics, and it’s been quite helpful to refer back to them from time to time, though sometimes when I’m depressed reasoning doesn’t seem to get me very far and it’s easier just to try to hold on to certain verses or truths.

Indeed! The best sermon you preach yourself this week may be only three words long: Hope in God!

I love the way the psalmists wrestle and fight and struggle to maintain their hope in God. This is a normal Christian experience while we are still just saved sinners. And we better own up to it, or else we may grow sluggish and negligent in our fight for hope. And that is very dangerous, as our text plainly teaches.

The Emotional Reservoir of Hope

A young woman from California asked me for an interview last week because she was doing a psychology project on “forgiveness,” and she needed to record some pastoral interviews. One of the questions she asked was something like this: “What are some of your feelings when you forgive someone?” One of my first thoughts was that I have to have the feeling of hope in order to forgive instead of retaliating. In my life — and I think it is the intended biblical pattern — hope is like a reservoir of emotional strength.

  • If I am put down, I look to the emotional reservoir of hope for the strength to return good for evil. Without hope, I have no power to absorb the wrong and walk in love, and I sink into self-pity or self-justification.

  • If I experience a setback in my planning — I get sick, or things don’t go the way I’d hoped in the board meeting, for example — I look to the emotional reservoir of hope for the strength to keep going and not give up.

  • If I face a temptation to be dishonest, to steal, to lie, or to lust, I look to the emotional reservoir of hope for the strength to hold fast to the way of righteousness, and deny myself some brief, unsatisfying pleasure.

That is the way it works for me. That is the way I fight for holiness in the Christian life. And I believe this is the biblical way to make our calling and election sure.

My prayer is that as we focus our attention on our Christian hope over the next sixteen weeks, God will fill your reservoir to overflowing, and that deep down in the Hoover Dam of your soul the great hydro-electric generators of joy and love and boldness and endurance will churn with new power for the glory of God.

We begin today with the most basic question of all: What is hope? Specifically, we want to know not just Webster’s definition, but the biblical definition. We have to know what we are talking about before we can get very far in our grasp of the great truths about biblical hope.

Three Ways We Use the Word “Hope”

We use the word hope in at least three different ways.

  1. Hope is the desire for something good in the future. The children might say, “I hope daddy gets home early tonight so we can play kickball after supper before his meeting.” In other words, they desire for him to get home early so that they can experience this good thing, namely, playing together after supper.

  2. Hope is the good thing in the future that we are desiring. We say, “Our hope is that Jim will arrive safely.” In other words, Jim’s safe arrival is the object of our hope.

  3. Hope is the reason why our hope might indeed come to pass. We say, “A good tailwind is our only hope of arriving on time.” In other words, the tailwind is the reason we may, in fact, achieve the future good that we desire. It’s our only hope.

So hope is used in three senses:

  1. A desire for something good in the future,
  2. the thing in the future that we desire, and
  3. the basis or reason for thinking that our desire may indeed be fulfilled.

The Distinctive Biblical Meaning of Hope

All three of these uses are found in the Bible. But the most important feature of biblical hope is not present in any of these ordinary uses of the word hope. In fact, the distinctive meaning of hope in Scripture is almost the opposite of our ordinary usage.

I don’t mean that in Scripture hope is a desire for something bad (instead of something good). And I don’t mean that in Scripture hope is rejection of good (instead of desire for it). It is not the opposite in those senses. It is the opposite in this sense: ordinarily, when we use the word hope, we express uncertainty rather than certainty.

  • “I hope daddy gets home early,” means, “I don’t have any certainty that daddy will get home on time, I only desire that he does.”

  • “Our hope is that Jim will arrive safely,” means, “We don’t know if he will or not, but that is our desire.”

  • “A good tailwind is our only hope of arriving on time,” means, “A good tailwind would bring us to our desired goal, but we can’t be sure we will get one.”

Ordinarily, when we express hope, we are expressing uncertainty. But this is not the distinctive biblical meaning of hope. And the main thing I want to do this morning is show you from Scripture that biblical hope is not just a desire for something good in the future, but rather, biblical hope is a confident expectation and desire for something good in the future.

Biblical hope not only desires something good for the future — it expects it to happen. And it not only expects it to happen — it is confident that it will happen. There is a moral certainty that the good we expect and desire will be done.

Moral Certainty

Before we look at the Scripture, let me say what I mean by “moral certainty.”

Not Mathematical or Logical Certainty

It is different from, say mathematical or merely logical certainty. Mathematical or strictly logical certainty results from the necessity of non-moral laws. If we have two apples and add two more, we may be “mathematically” certain that we now have four apples. That is mathematical certainty. If all men are mortal and if Plato was a man, then we may be “logically” certain that Plato was mortal. That is logical certainty.

That kind of thinking is important. In fact, it is indispensable in biblical studies as well as all other areas of life. But most of our experience is not like that. There is a kind of legitimate certainty and confidence that does not come from mathematical calculations or merely logical laws. I call it “moral certainty.”

I call it moral because it is rooted in the commitment of the will of persons. And the will is the seat of morality. That is, we can only speak of moral right and wrong in relationship to acts of will. So whatever has to do with the will is an issue of morality. And moral certainty is a certainty that is based on acts of will.

Confident Expectation

Let me illustrate. I have a strong moral certainty that Noël and I are going to stay married to each other as long as we live. This is based not on mathematical laws or merely logical syllogisms. It is based on the character of our wills and the promises of God — which are just expressions of the character of his will. We have almost twenty years of evidence about the nature and commitments of our wills and the graciousness of God’s will.

“Perseverance in godliness is the proof of the genuineness of a person’s salvation.”

When we speak of our future, we do not speak in the ordinary terms of hope. We don’t say, for example, “We hope that we don’t get divorced.” We speak in terms of confidence and certainty, because the character of a God-centered will is like iron.

But of course, we could be wrong, couldn’t we? Yes, and all the communists in the world may convert to Christianity this afternoon. And it may be that not a single deceptive word will creep into any advertisement for the next five years. And every pornographic publisher may go out of business by year’s end because men will gain mastery over their lustful desires.

All these things are mathematically and logically possible. There is no mathematical or logical certainty that they won’t happen. Why, then, do we have such strong confidence that they will not happen? Because we know something about the human will. There is a kind of certainty that comes from knowing the character of a man or of a group of men or a wife. It is not infallible, but it is secure and confident. It lets you sleep at night. It carries you over rough times. Eventually, it can see you right through the grave.

Biblical hope is not a mere desire for something good to happen. It is a confident expectation and desire for something good in the future. Biblical hope has moral certainty in it. When the word says, “Hope in God!” it does not mean, “Cross your fingers.” It means, to use the words of William Carey, “Expect great things from God.”

Scriptural Evidence

Now let us go to the Scripture to see where I get this understanding of biblical hope. We will begin at Hebrews 6:9–12. After warning his readers that it is possible for people who have had remarkable religious experiences to commit apostasy and go beyond the point of no return, he says,

Though we speak thus, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things that belong to salvation. For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

The Writer’s Confidence in His Readers

The reason the writer is so sure that his readers will not be among the apostates is that they have not only been loving servants for God’s sake in the past but are still serving. You see that emphasis on perseverance, don’t you, at the end of verse 10? You showed love in serving the saints in the past, and you still do. Their religious experience was not a temporary decision at camp or at a Keith Green concert or Billy Graham crusade. It was continuing. Perseverance in godliness is the proof of the genuineness of a person’s salvation. That’s why the writer feels so sure of the people: they had served the saints, and they still do.

The Writer’s Admonition to His Readers

Now comes the admonition in verses 11 and 12 to press on and not become sluggish. But now the battle is described in terms of hope, not just in terms of love and service:

And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end.

In other words, with all the zeal of the past that enabled you to work and love in the name of Christ — with all that zeal, keep on pursuing the full assurance of hope to the end. There is no fight, no quest, no challenge, no war more urgent than this. Keep your hope hot!

“The Full Assurance of Hope”

Now, what does “the full assurance of hope” mean in verse 11? It means hope which is fully assured. Hope which is confident. Hope that has moral certainty in it. It is not finger-crossing hope. It is not the lip-biting gaze as you watch the placekicker go for a field goal in the last ten seconds when you are down by two points.

In fact, verse 12 implies that hope and faith are almost synonymous. Notice the connection: verse 11 says, go hard after full assurance of hope; verse 12 says the result of that pursuit of hope is that you will be like those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. Pursue hope so that you can be like men of faith.

The Connection Between Faith and Hope

Let’s pursue this connection between hope and faith a little further. The term “full assurance” (used here in verse 11, plerophorian) is found one other place in Hebrews, namely, 10:22. However, there it is “full assurance of faith” instead of “full assurance of hope.” It says, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” Then in the next verse, it says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” Notice, hope is something that should not waver, because it is rooted in the faithfulness of God. There should be moral certainty in it because the will and purpose of God are like iron, not chalk.

But what about the relationship between full assurance of faith and full assurance of hope? Is there a difference? I would suggest that faith is the larger idea and hope is a necessary part of biblical faith. Hope is that part of faith that focuses on the future. In biblical terms, when faith is directed to the future, you can call it hope. But faith can focus on the past and the present too, so faith is the larger term. You can see this in Hebrews 11:1. This is the closest thing we have to a definition of faith in all the New Testament, I think.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Here’s how I would paraphrase this verse. Wherever there is full assurance of hope, there is faith. Faith is the full assurance of hope. Biblical faith is a confident expectation and desire for good things in the future.

But faith is more than that. It is also the “conviction of things not seen,” and some of these are not future. For example, verse 3: “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God.” Faith can look back (to creation) as well as forward. So faith is the larger idea. It includes hope, but is more than hope. You might put it this way: faith is our confidence in the word of God, and whenever that word has reference to the future, you can call our confidence in it hope. Hope is faith in the future tense.

Why This Relationship Is Important

There are two reasons this is important to see.

  1. One is that it helps us grasp the true nature of biblical hope. Most of us know that biblical faith is a strong confidence. Doubt is the enemy of biblical faith. But if hope is faith in the future tense, then we can see more clearly that hope, too, is a strong confidence and not just wishful thinking.

  2. The other reason it is important to see this relationship between faith and hope is that it shows how indispensable hope is. We all know that we are saved by grace through faith. Faith is necessary for our salvation. But we don’t as often speak of hope in those terms. But we should. Hope is an essential part of faith. Take away hope and the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 is destroyed. We are not merely saved by grace through faith. We are saved by grace through hope.

Paul Shares This View of Hope

Now briefly let’s notice how Paul shares this same view of hope in Romans 4:18. He describes Abraham as the great example of faith, and in particular, of justification by faith. In Romans 4:22 he says, “This is why Abraham’s faith ‘reckoned to him as righteousness.’” And the faith Paul is speaking about is the faith that God would fulfill his promise by giving him a son, Isaac.

So the faith which justified Abraham was faith in the future work of God. Verse 21 makes this crystal clear: he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” In other words he had what Hebrews 6:11 called the “full assurance of hope.”

Verse 18 describes how faith and hope worked together: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations.”

“Wherever there is full assurance of hope, there is faith. Faith is the full assurance of hope.”

“Against hope” means that from the ordinary human standpoint there was no hope: Abraham was too old to have a child, and his wife was barren. But biblical hope is never based on what is possible with man. Biblical hope looks away from man to the promise of God. And when it does, it becomes the “full assurance of hope” — the expectation of great things from God.

It is not easy to describe exactly what Paul means in verse 18 when he says, “In hope Abraham believed . . . that he should become the father of many nations.” But from the whole context I think it is fair to say that Abraham’s faith was his strong confidence in the reliability of God’s word, and Abraham’s hope was his strong confidence in the fulfillment of God’s promise.

In other words, whenever faith in God looks to the future, it can be called hope. And whenever hope rests on the word of God, it can be called faith.

A Confident Expectation

Therefore I pray that the main point of the message is plain from Hebrews and from Romans, namely, that the biblical concept of hope, which we are going to be examining for the next 16 weeks, is not the ordinary concept we use in everyday speech. It does not imply uncertainty or lack of assurance. Instead, biblical hope is a confident expectation and desire for something good in the future. There is moral certainty in it.

I count it a great privilege and delight to spend the next sixteen weeks with you unfolding what it means to say that our God is a “God of hope”; (Romans 15:13) and that the central exhortation of our church is very simply and very profoundly, Hope in God!