Words are also subject to inflation. If there is one word for which this holds true it is the word “believe”. We believe that we have assessed the situation correctly and we believe there is a storm on the way.
Even in religious territory believing is not what it used to be. Many in our country believe that there is “something” which transcends our world. To typify these people as unbelievers would be unjust. A vague religiosity answers to what modern people call believing.
Should we wish to discover what true believing is then we need the Bible more than ever. God himself must tell us what this believing is to which he continually encourages us.
A Biblical Faith
The Bible always speaks of believing in the context of God’s covenant. The Lord has bound himself in love to people. He enters their lives with rich promises. You see this so beautifully when the Lord God establishes his covenant with Abraham and adopts him as his child and heir (Gen. 15). From then on the Lord expects Abraham to “walk before me” (Gen. 17:1), to completely trust what he says. A fundamental requirement for this attitude to life is, to use the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the verb heëmin, from which we derive the word “amen”. We read that Abraham heëmin be Jahwe (Gen. 15:6), correctly translated by the NIV as: “Abraham believed the Lord”. Believing in the biblical sense is: saying “amen” to the Lord, to trust him and to entrust yourself to his promises. David teaches us what it is to believe when he says in Psalm 56: “In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid...”
When talking about biblical faith Abraham is a clear example. Despite an empty cot and Sarah and his own advancing years, he held fast to “...God, in whom he believed — the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17). But the best example is still our Saviour! He is the “perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2): if we want to know what believing is then he showed us perfectly when he was on the way to the cross. He even died with Scripture on his lips!
In the New Testament “faith” and “believing” become the dominant indicators for the relationship to our God and his Son, Jesus Christ. “That everyone who believes in him (Christ) may have eternal life” (John 3:15). John wrote his gospel so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Christ praises the church in Pergamum: “Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me” (Rev. 2:13).
Calvin says in his catechism of 1542: faith is that we put our whole trust in God. And that is correct. Seen biblically faith is an absolute reliance on the Lord and his Word. This faith is strongly impressed on us by the witnesses in Hebrews 11 in all that they did and experienced. They persevered by trusting in God’s promises, without seeing their fulfilment (Heb. 11:39).To such faith personal assurance is always irrevocably bound. He who believes is personally convinced that God is trustworthy and that you can depend on his promises. A characteristic of such faith is summed up in answer 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism “that not only to others, but also to me”. Our fathers used to say quite correctly that if you believe the gospel becomes “mine”. It becomes the truth for me, it becomes a “sure knowledge” (answer 21 HC). It is this knowledge that the New Testament speaks about so frequently (see Rom. 6:9; Gal. 2:16; 1 Thess. 3:3; 1 Peter. 1:18).
Luther has said that when it comes to faith it is about those personal words “me” and “mine”. We need to come back to them time and again: Jesus is my faithful Saviour that fully paid for all my sins. It struck me how often you find those words in the Heidelberger and how personally the assurance of God’s Word in Christ is formulated. Faith that does not have this personal assurance cannot be worthy of the name faith. It is therefore also irresponsible when in heavily charismatic circles distinction is made between historical faith and saving faith, whereby in the former the personal assurance is seen to be lacking. Those who claim the gospel to be true but hesitate to speak the words ‘for me’ are missing what the Scriptures call faith!
Luther called faith “a restless thing”. It is, for sure. This is expressed by the Canons of Dort in such a pastoral fashion when it says: “Scripture meanwhile testifies that believers in this life have to struggle with various doubts of the flesh and, placed under severe temptation, do not always feel this assurance of faith and certainty of persevering” (V,11). They also speak of “some do not clearly discern in themselves a living faith in Christ, an assured confidence of heart, peace of conscience...and a glorifying in God through Christ” and of those who “cannot reach that point on the way of godliness and faith which they would like”, upon which they point to the merciful God who has “promised not to quench the smoking flax nor to break the bruised reed” (1,16).
It does one good to read all these things in a time when the evangelical influence seeks to portray faith as a state of unending jubilation and man becomes ever more distanced from the spirituality of the psalms wherein we discover clearly the battles and temptations that assail God’s children precisely because they know the Word of God. God’s promises are real, but our experience is so often otherwise! It is due to this discrepancy that our faith is such a restless thing. If anyone recognised this it was Martin Luther, for whom faith and temptation go hand in hand. I gladly mention here the book by the emeritus professor A. De Reuver about besieged faith. Luther’s theology is so existential. He knew all about temptation and doubt through his own experience. Luther acknowledged: “I did not learn my theology in an instant, but have had to toil deeper and deeper. That is where my struggles brought me.” For Luther faith was not a life of uninterrupted jubilation, but rather a passage through the darkness of temptation towards the glorious light of the gospel. For him a Christian is born and bred through traversing battlefields of temptations. These temptations are necessary and beneficial, because if they were absent, our faith would no longer be a “yet” faith. A “yet” we see so clearly in Psalm 22:4, Habakkuk 3:18, in answer 60 HC and in the great classical form for the Lord’s Supper.
For Luther a besieged faith is an imitation of Christ. He is the besieged one by distinction. He has descended into the deepest pit. We hear this in Hebrews 5:7 “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” and when it is said: “...but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He who learns to know and follow him, is formed according to his image, because — so says Luther — “we shall experience no better than our King”. Thus he is able to state: “The greater the Christian the greater the temptation”. It is in this perspective that the reformer sees the life of the follower unfolding.
Here we can learn a lot from Luther. Do not think that you should be terribly ashamed if you are struggling with certain situations in your life. Do not think that you actually only muddle on as a child of God. Faith and temptation belong together. Listen to Luther whenever you threaten to drown: “This is a work that we undergo by God’s hand and do not perform ourselves. He is the carpenter, we are the wood. And this work is the precious, holy cross. Here he hammers and labours on us, planes and cuts, to put the old Adam in us to death, so that we conform to Christ in his suffering. Because he, Christ himself, has been treated and prepared in just such a way as an example to which we become alike.” The Lord brings us into the furnace in order to bring us to the “yet” of the faith and so doing bring “the genuineness” of our faith to light (1 Peter 1:17).
Professor Trimp, in his unsurpassed book, Klank en Weerklank, identifies ways that temptation may reach God’s children. The voice of God’s Word may be heard in our lives, but that does not mean that opposing voices are absent! It is precisely the opposing voices which make our faith a besieged faith. Firstly, there is our life experience. How different it can sometimes be to what we believe. A serious illness, a motor accident, a bitter disappointment, unemployment, difficulties associated with aging can easily upset our faith equilibrium. Why does God allow it to happen? Where is the promised blessing for those who worship/fear him? What remains of the promise that the Lord is a Hearer of prayers? For those who take God’s Word seriously and accept that he is good, this understandably brings them into difficulties (Ps. 73).
A second voice that undoubtedly attacks our faith is the world news that reaches us by radio and television day after day. What a lot of misery passes before our eyes! Children emaciated by hunger, terrorists successfully executing violent acts, dictators abusing their power. How can a righteous God allow it to happen? How can he remain quiet? “God, are you really there?”
As a third opposing voice I would like to mention the suffering because of the church. I have noticed that among quite a lot of young people. They are severely disappointed with a lot of things in the church. They are young and enthusiastic. And they want to live for Jesus. But, it is so difficult to get the church moving. How much of Christian life is below par. So much conservatism instead of people fired up with love for Jesus, prepared to offer up everything in order to reach others with the love of Christ. Would God not be easier to find in evangelical circles, where the flame of the Spirit is burning brightly?
Fourthly, we hear an opposing voice whenever we have to go to the cemetery. Is death not an unalterable conclusion? The church is steadfast in expressing victory over death and eternal life. Yet we do have to go to the cemetery to bury someone we love. Resurrection of the body, yes definitely, but we do have to dig a grave and have been waiting for centuries for the day of resurrection!
Can you see how our faith comes under siege? And how a child of God can run into difficulties with God’s own Word? This is actually the crux of all temptation, that you run into difficulty with God himself. With him whose glorious promises ring in our ears but which contrast so much with the reality facing us. That is the paradox you also find in the psalms and with which the poets of Israel did battle. It is precisely this paradox which should bring us to the “yet” of our faith. From this it becomes evident that the faith trusts in what God says, even though everything else appears to point to the contrary. Faith is then also a matter of closing your eyes and hanging onto God’s lips. Lips which testify of his faithfulness, his goodness and righteousness, despite our experiences. There are promises we can depend on. Our experience may be completely different, our faith still says “yet” or “but still”. You could typify faith by saying “but still” again and again. You become seriously ill, but still you hold on to the knowledge that God will not forget you. You are bitterly disappointed, but still believe that all things serve for your good. You are struggling with your conscience, but still you know there is forgiveness of sins. You do not know how to deal with all the atrocities in this world, but still you are certain that one day God will wreak justice and the tormentors be punished. You have to go to the cemetery but still can say: Jesus has overcome death; the resurrection into glory is coming.
No, we do not get to this “but still” by ourselves. It often takes a lot of struggle. Israel’s poets teach us this. We look into their hearts. Hearts filled with darkness, questions and worries. But you also see the light piercing the darkness when they in prayer, despite everything, cling to God’s promises. That is the glorious work of God’s Spirit which works perseverance in God’s children and in the face of many bitter experiences brings them to praise the God of their salvation.
We may pray for this Spirit whenever our faith threatens to collapse. He causes us to sink but does not allow us to drown. He teaches us to say “but still” and to follow the Lord Jesus on the road through all attacks and temptations. There is the majestic promise that strongly spurs us on whenever we are in difficulty: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13). This “way out” is: that you as a believer are able to persevere, that the Holy Spirit brings you to profess “but still” in the midst of all your questions!
Be Assured of Your Faith
It is important to make a distinction when it comes to the assurance of faith. There is the assurance of your faith. This we have discussed until now. But there is also the assurance about your faith. In this connection we need to ask: is my faith functioning, am I someone who — to use Calvin’s words — “hangs on God’s lips”? Do I know the Lord Jesus in truth? This question surely needs to be posed every now and then. Just think about the classic form for the Lords Supper which calls us to examine ourselves whether we believe in God’s sure promises. I always find it so comforting that the word “sure” is connected to God’s promises and not to our “faith”. We do not come to the Lord’s Supper because our faith is always so sure, but because God’s promises are sure. In the meantime we do have to believe them. Because the Lord’s Supper is the supper of faith in Christ’s offer.
How do you know that you are a believer and truly love the Saviour? How can you be sure of that? The answer to this is found in answer 86 HC which says: that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits. The Kort Begrip is even clearer in answer 65: the fruits assure me of the genuineness of my faith. It is by its fruits that we recognise the tree. Every good tree produces good fruit. So it becomes evident from the fruits of the faith whether we truly believe. Because, “it is impossible that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (answer 64 HC).
And so our life comes into focus. Are the fruits there? Do we display “the marks of Christians” mentioned in article 29 of the Belgic Confession? That which is described in answer 81 HC prior to partaking of the Holy Supper? I will also point out what the Canons of Dort say about the life in the faith (in V,2,12).
If we find this in ourselves, we may be certain that despite all weaknesses which remain in us we are true believers. Then comes the “know” which John speaks of: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers” (1 John 3:14); “We know that we are children of God...” (1 John 5:19).
Whenever our ‘know’ is weak and we have difficulty finding peace in it, we may cling to the comfort John offers: ‘whenever our hearts condemn us: For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything’ (1 John 3:20). He knows that despite all our sins and shortcomings we wish to be his child.
The comfort we draw from God knowing all things and can gauge our hearts, may encourage us whenever we think little of ourselves. I am thinking here of what Peter at the last exclaimed: ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you’ (John 21:17).
The Way to Assurance
How do you get to this personal assurance that is inextricably entwined with true faith? Not by an anguished search inside yourself but by embracing God’s promises. H. Bavinck writes: “Have the plant of faith...shoot roots in the depths of God’s promises, then she will automatically produce assurance as fruit.” The personal pronouns “me” and “mine” are born when time and again you yield to the gospel. The Canons of Dort point God’s besieged children to “the means” (I,16; V,14) through which God exercises his power. And then they mention preaching, sacraments and discipline. The medicine for all our weaknesses is: go to church, have ourselves strengthened through preaching and sacrament.
Thus the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts and makes it stronger (answer 65 HC). Yes, but then the preaching really has to help us. Help by discussing our temptations, by addressing problems which face us today, by drawing attention to all the Canons of Dort have to say about the life of God’s children. I hear too little about it. I will never forget the reaction of an elderly sister when I mentioned in a sermon the doubts that can assail the aged, and said that the devil also knows how to attack them. She found this liberating because she recognised it in her own life. In all situations we need pastoral sermons which do not ignore how our faith comes under attack. I am thinking here of home visits where too often we bypass all that reformed people experience as temptations today. May our leaders “watch over you”, over souls, (Heb. 13:17), souls that today are under siege!
I cannot resist closing with a word from Luther: “No-one should think that he can pray without fear and distress. That is why the holy cross is a great treasure.”