Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Faith and Things Unseen

This is the final and full post. You may want to read it in sections, as it is quite lengthy.

If you read my last post, you may be wondering why I chose the title above. A few months ago, I finished a long exposition of the Christian faith and its relation to facts. Therein I argued that faith is not merely a subjective act of the will that stands in opposition to facts. Faith, as I stated in that paper, is not “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” – one of the definitions offered by Mirriam-Webster online English dictionary – but rather a solid trust in the historically and factually reliable work of God in space and time, most notably demonstrated in Christ's death, burial and resurrection (1 Cor. 15). This understanding of faith sets Christianity apart from the common consensus on faith today. While this first work presented a good starting point for understanding Christian faith, an honest reading of the Scriptures requires that I address more than the relationship of faith and facts. Therefore, this paper will aim to address the future-orientation, and the relationship of Christian faith to individuals and human will. I am going to argue in this essay that this future-focusedness is based in solid trust in the character of God, as it has been made known through His fulfilled promises. In short, I will argue that since God proved Himself reliable and good in the past, we have no reason to doubt that He will be any less reliable and good in binging to pass all that He has promised for the future. Yet, the warranted trust and hope of faith is obscured by a heart, mind, and will that are broken by sin. Therefore, although faith is based in fact (truth) and is not irrational, yet it requires a supernatural intervention to overcome natural human aversion and resistance to the truth (Rom. 1). Saving faith, thus is not within the grasp of even the most rational of human beings, but must indeed be granted by God and carried out by Christians in loving submission and trusting reliance on God and His promises (Eph. 2:8,9; Rom. 10:9).

Two Functions of Faith

I believe there are two primary functions of faith that the Bible presents, though we shall see that they are in fact intrinsically linked. The first is the justifying function. Those who have faith in Jesus Christ and what He did on the Cross for them receive Christ's righteousness, imputed to them, causing them to be declared righteous in the sight of God in spite of being guilty and unrighteous. Perhaps the clearest demonstration of this can be seen in Romans chapter 3.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was 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 3:21-26 ESV)

I often come back to this text because in it we see the Gospel of Jesus Christ set forward in all of its glorious implications for sick, wretched, pathetic sinners like me. This Gospel is the center of Christianity – it's our Good News! You will notice that Paul keeps returning to this word “faith” three times. In each instance, faith is presented as the instrument or means by which people receive redemption: Christ's righteousness imputed to undeserving sinners. Because we are all sinners, we have no access to God and are unrighteous to the core (Rom. 3:23), but God mercifully “passed over former sins” until Jesus was “put forward [to die] as a propitiation,” to bear the wrath that we deserved and to give us His own righteousness. This is what the apostle Paul speaks of when he declares that he has forsaken all trust in his 'good works'that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Philippians 3:9, emphasis mine). Theologians like Martin Luther have called this the Great or Glorious Exchange. How then do we receive Christ's righteousness and experience freedom from the punishment our sins (unrighteousness) deserve? Through faith! This faith is not a result of works, so that all the credit and glory might return to God, who provided it (Eph. 2:8). Faith is the way God has chosen to give that righteousness for redemption to all who believe. So, believers are saved by placing their faith in Jesus and what He did for them on the Cross, not by trying harder and doing better This is the Christian doctrine of justification.

Many Christians are familiar with this part, and it is well worth returning to again and again. But, the Bible's teaching on faith does not end there. Not only are Christians justified and declared righteous through faith, but they are also to live each day by faith. This is faith's sanctifying function. See if you grasp this from the following passage.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

(Romans 1:16-17 ESV)

In these two verses, Paul tells us that the Gospel is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,” that is everyone who has faith (“believes”). So, the power is for the believer's salvation, but this salvation purpose does not stop after a believer receives Christ's imputed righteousness. Paul goes on to say that this righteousness that comes from God to us is “revealed from faith for faith”. The meaning of this verse is disputed but an alternate translation might help in understanding it: beginning and ending with faith.”I believe this rendering comes closest to what Paul means because of the phrase that follows: “The righteous shall live by faith” (v. 17, emphasis mine). I believe that Paul is saying that faith not only allows us to be declared righteous before God, which it absolutely does, but it continues to work itself out in the daily life of a Christian. Faith and Christ's righteousness have a role not only in the first moment of belief but in every step from the moment of conversion until final glorification. To go back to the language we used earlier, Christ's righteousness is imputed to believers at the moment of conversion, through their faith in Jesus Christ. So they are legally justified because of Christ's righteousness credited to them by faith. Yet, something else happens after justification and this is called sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which believers, who are already legally justified before God the Judge, begin to see their thoughts, motives, and actions conformed to those of their Savior. In this second step, Christians received Christ's imparted righteousness, which does not declare them righteous but effectively changes them to look and act more like Christ. Just like justification, sanctification is brought about by God's power, working through faith. (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

So faith has life-long application for Christians, but in what practical ways do we see faith working to bring about sanctification in the lives of believers? We will best be able to do justice to this issue by examining Hebrews chapter 11, the famous “Faith Hall of Fame” chapter of the New Testament. To insure my own integrity in interpretation, I have cited the chapter in full below so you can check and make sure that I am not going off on tangents. You do not have to read through it all at once, you will have ample opportunity to glance back at it later.

Hope in Promise

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.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.
By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rehab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

(Hebrews 11 ESV)

The first thing a Christian familiar with the Bible will notice in reading this chapter is the following verse: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 1:11). This verse has often been misused to justify blind faith and even to counter Christian apologetic efforts. After all, it is said, if the faith we have is placed in “things unseen” then any effort to see clearly in any objective sense would defy the nature of faith itself. I would answer this rather superficial reading of the text by asking why, if the author of Hebrews were attempting to advocate for a totally subjective and fact-divorced view of faith, he would choose to speak of “assurance of things hoped for” and “conviction of things not seen” (ESV, NASB, emphasis mine). These are not words that suggest ungrounded hope or wishful thinking – they point to the validity and trustworthiness of the things believed! Other translations bring out this point even more clearly. For instance, all the latest editions of the King James Version render verse 1 this way: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (KJV Cambridge Ed, American KJV, King James 2000 Bible, emphasis mine). You would expect that if the author meant for us to understand faith as merely an existential leap in the dark he would at least have the decency to avoid using courtroom language. In either of the translations I have displayed, one cannot help but see that, contrary to how this verse is often interpreted, faith is not merely subjective and personal though we will see that it is both personal and volitional rather, it is something solid, immovable, substantial, and I might dare say objective. Yet, we must not miss the last four words of verse : “of things not seen” (v.1). How does this segment fit with the solid evidence-based language that the author has just used to describe faith? How can there be assurance, substance, conviction, or evidence if the object, which these describe isnot seen”? How can such confidence (see NLT rendering of v. 1) be placed in what is not visible. What exactly is it that those of faith do not see?

What follows in Hebrews 11 is a statement that “the people of old” – heroes of the faith – “received their commendation” by faith. I think this verse clearly implies that all Christians will also receive commendation from God if they share and walk in same faith as these heroes (see Rom. 4:16). But how do the following verses illustrate this faith? Verses 4 to 12 give chronological examples from history of those who walked in this faith. Noah is an example of someone who feared the LORD and obeyed what He commanded. Verse 17 gives us the famous example of God's test of Abraham, where this aged man is told to obey a seemingly incoherent command to sacrifice the very son God had promised him. The reason the writer of Hebrews gives for Abraham's faith in that moment is that “he considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (v. 19). Isaac and Jacob are cited as examples of faith because of the blessings they gave to their offspring. Joseph is mentioned for having made mention of the Israelite exodus and given directions concerning his bones (v. 22). Moses is commended for having chosen to be identified with Israel (and by extension Christ) rather than with the household of Pharaoh. The author informs us that he did this because “he considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (v. 26). Moses is again cited for his faith in his keeping of the Passover. Faith is listed as the means by which the Red Sea was parted and the walls of Jericho destroyed. This is not the complete list of heroes, as you can see above, but I mention these because I want to highlight that what the author means by the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” is a grounded future hope (v. 1). Look at verses 13 to 16 with me:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

(v. 11:13-16, emphasis mine).

The same thoughts are echoed again at the end of this chapter:

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

(Hebrews 11:39-40, emphasis mine)

Again, in these statements the author summarizes what unites these heroes is their grounded future hope in things that had not taken place yet, but were promised by God. Indeed, we have yet to see this “better country,” this “city”, which the author describes. Yet, these heroes trusted God to do all that He had said He would. Why? Because their trust was grounded in the trustworthy character of God, which He has revealed throughout redemptive history. They trusted in hope that God would continue to be true to His nature by fulfilling His promises, just as He has done since He first spoke to man. None of the people listed got what God promised them at the time the promise was made, but all trusted God to be true to His word and to His character. Noah believed that God would flood the Earth as He said. Abraham believed God would hold to His promise to give him many descendents through his son Isaac even if that meant He had to raise Isaac from the dead to do it! Isaac and Jacob both spoke blessings that were rooted in their faith that God would continue to bless the descendents of Abraham, as He has promised (see Gen 22:7). Moses had faith in God to bring about the promised reward, a better and heavenly country. Moses also demonstrated his faith in God's promised deliverance from Egypt, and ultimately from sin in the Cross of Christ, illustrated by his keeping of the Passover. The Red Sea and Jericho did not extinguish his faith in the promises of God to give His people a country. Yet, beyond the immediate promises of God that I have listed, the author mentions that in truth, all these people were hoping in the same thing, a “homeland” (v. 14), “a better [heavenly] country” (v. 16), “a city” prepared for us by God Himself (v. 16). This is the eternal kingdom where God will reign over His people. This is not just the hope of some heroic figures in ancient Mesopotamian but the hope of all Christians who live by faith in what God has done in Christ Jesus and what He has promised to give to all who share in this same faith. The Old Testament saints saw Christ and His kingdom from a distance. Like Moses, they were “looking to the reward” (v. 26). It is interesting to note that verse 13 seems to qualify the phrase “of things not seen” of verse 1 by indicating that these things had not been received yet but had been “seenand greeted … from a distance(emphasis mine). Thus, though the final rewardthe promise of a heavenly homeland had not been seen, in the sense of being here to contemplate, it had been seen, in the sense that they could see it coming in the God's true and trustworthy word. The faith that Hebrews 11 calls for is not blind faith but one which is rooted in the sure promises of God!

Can God be Trusted?

It is not difficult to envision someone responding to what I have just outlined in this way: “You make trusting God sound like a mathematical formula! After all, isn't faith supposed to be a big risk? We can't know He is trustworthy until we have trusted Him! How can we know for sure He will carry through on His end of the deal? Faith doesn't make sense without uncertainty!

I can sympathize with the concern here.
Certainly, faith cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula to be simply calculated and and acknowledged. Faith is personal and it requires a kind of trust that functions even when some questions remain. Much of what God has promised has not yet come to pass and there is much that we still only see dimly. Yet, we must not imagine because of this that God is distant or unknown and that he therefore require a blind and unwarranted trust. He has in fact revealed Himself to such a degree as to leave us without any excuse for our unbelief. Romans 1 perhaps most clearly brings out this point that no one on Earth can plead ignorance about God. See the following verses:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

(Romans 1:18-21 ESV, emphasis mine)

Paul here argues that simply from creation we have enough proof to recognize that God is worthy of trust and that He is able to justly condemn us for our unbelief. However, God did not leave us with creation as the only witness to His existence, character, and plan of salvation; He has intervened in human history at many points, in order to reveal to us exactly what kind of God He is! Before Christ, this was most notably seen in God's relationship with Abraham and his descendents, the Israelites.

Where can we start to look for signs of God's trustworthiness? Genesis chapter 15 sets the stage for our understanding of God as a promise-maker. I have listed a section of this chapter below.

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

(Genesis 15:1-6 ESV)

Here are a few important things to highlight. First, God promises Abraham a very great reward offspring more numerous than the stars. Second, after initially seeming to question or test God's word, Abram believed God and “[God] counted it to him as righteousness”. This faith is the same faith that moved this man who would be renamed Abraham to obey a command to sacrifice the son that God did finally give him (see Heb. 11:17-19)! Abraham's faith that God would be true to His word and give him an inheritance through Isaac was the solid foundation undergirding his faithful obedience to God's command to kill his son. Abraham's belief that God is a God who does what He says is a testimony to all believers who share in his faith.

Perhaps you are still unconvinced that this passage speaks of anything beyond an act of human will disconnected from any evidence or proof. Where do we seethe assurance of things hoped for” in this text (Heb. 11:1)? I believe the next part of Genesis 15 helps to lay the foundation for the assurance and conviction of the saints spoken of in Heb. 1:1.

And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

(Genesis 15:7-21 ESV)

Let us start by observing the first statement of God in this passage: “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” This is a perfect biblical example of grounded future hope. Let's take a closer look.

God starts by stating who He is – “I am the LORD.” You might wonder if this is worth mentioning. After all, people introduce themselves to you all the time, and this doesn't necessarily make them reliable people. However, this assumption is right only if that person's self-introduction did not carry with it an implicit understanding of that person's authority. Let's illustrate this with an example: you are a young college undergrad paroozing your inbox one fine morning, you notice a message sent from an email address you do not recognize. In it you read the following message: “Hello, my name is Frank. You probably need some help paying for tuition next semester. If you send me your bank account number and tell me how much you owe on your next tuition statement, I'll be happy to wire you the money.” Now, how would you react to this message? My guess is that the more savvy internet veterans of us would hit the delete button immediately. Now think about it, why wouldn't you trust this guy? He sounded nice and he said he would do something nice for you. Why not show a little faith and trust that maybe Frank just wants to help? The answer is that you have no idea who this “Frank” is! You don't know any Franks personally (at least not that personally!) and the two of you have no history to suggest a reason for this sudden burst of generosity. Furthermore, you know that there are many scammers who use email as a means of obtaining personal and financial information. There is simply no ground here for trust. Now, what if you got this same message, but the writer identified himself as “Dad”? This would elicit a totally different response! You would send the required information right away to the familiar address. You would trust your Dad to do what he promised, because he's your Dad and the two of you have a history. I think that this is exactly what is going on in verse 7 of Genesis 15. God begins his address to Abraham by stating who He is – “I am the LORD...”. This is the all-powerful LORD who created the world by speaking it into being (Gen. 1)! He is also the all-good God who spared rebellious humanity and promised them a Savior to fix what they had broken (Gen. 3:15). Next, He gives the history: “...who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans...” God has been leading Abraham and providing for him ever since he left his home and many possessions to live in tents as a nomad. Like the Dad who raises his child, faithfully instructing and providing for all of his needs, God is reminding Abraham of His history of provision and guidance. Last, God inserts a purpose clause: “...to give you this land to possess.” This is the promise! It is trustworthy because it is made by God – who is both fully able and fully goodand this in the context of a personal history of trust. In the next section we will see how, in spite of the clear trustworthiness of this God and His promises, He offers still more proof to address Abraham's questions.

This next section is strange to most westerners like me, and perhaps to others as well. What's all this stuff about tearing animals in half? And what's the deal with the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch? What is going on is a covenant ritual that was common in the ancient Near East. We already looked at verse 6 that tells us that Abraham believed God, but we see in verse 8 that Abraham wants some kind of proof from God. I do not think this implies a sinful kind of doubt, but Abraham is asking God for some more evidence that He can be trusted. What follows is God's command to tear three animals in half and to lay these halves parallel to each other. This practice in ancient Mesopotamia is part of the ritual of sealing (or tearing) a covenant, which was an agreement or promise made between two parties (ESV Study Bible Notes). The idea was that both parties would show their commitment to the promise by walking between the animal halves, thus showing that they both were literally bound by death to do what they had promised. Amazingly, God binds Himself in this way to fulfill His promises, to give Abraham the land and many offspring (see v. 5 – 8, 18 – 21). God's signature on the contract, so to speak, is represented by the smoking fire pot and flaming torch that passed between the animal pieces God is often represented by fire in the Old Testament (v. 17). Genesis 15 gives Abraham and us evidence (“know for certain”) that God is a God who keeps His promises. And indeed God kept His promise to Abraham by giving Him a people that includes all who share in his faith (Rom. 4:16) and a heavenly city, prepared for all the “children of promise” (Rom. 9:8). This is the true land of promise and Christians are Abraham's true promised descendents (Heb. 11:9)! The Bible contains other amazing examples of God displaying and confirming His trustworthiness and faithfulness from generation to generation – as you can explore in the covenants He makes with Noah and Moses. The example of the Abrahamic Covenant is the prototypical example of God's unwavering commitment to fulfill what He has promised. God's faithfulness does not depend on circumstances; it does not even depend ultimately on the faithfulness of His people! Notice that nowhere in Genesis 15 does it mention Abraham walking through the animal halves. God made this promise to Abraham, bound Himself to it, then fulfilled it – at every juncture God initiated, and each promise God Himself fulfilled in spite of Abraham's often half-hearted commitment! As Paul so aptly put it in his letter to Timothy: “if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself” (1 Tim. 2:13).

Ultimately, God's trustworthiness was most fully shown when He provided His Son as the propitiation for the sins of all who would place their faith in Him (Rom. 3:25). In Jesus, the long-promised Messiah, the righteousness of God was manifested (Rom. 3:21). That is, to all who have faith in Jesus, their faith will be counted to them as righteousness, just as it was to Abraham (Rom. 3:22, Rom. 4:11)! God's promise in the garden of Eden, to send a Savior, who would crush the head of the serpent was ultimately fulfilled when Jesus came to Earth, lived a perfectly righteous life of obedience to the Father, and died to satisfy the wrath of God and to defeat Satan, sin, and death (Gen. 3:15). The Cross is the ultimate seal of God's trustworthy faithfulness, because it shows us how far God is willing to God in keeping His promises. As Paul declares elsewhere, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”(Rom. 8: 32). How could we not trust a God like this? He went as far as death, in order to be true to His word and character (both just and the justifier). If this is the case, how can we entertain doubts that He would fulfill any of His other promises?

Faith Applied

What does the fact that God can be trusted to grant what He promises imply for a Christian's daily life? Quite simply, it means that she need not fear that there is anything that the Lord promised that He will not bring to pass, just as He promised. If He went as far as death, He won't fail to deliver on the rest – that is the grounds for Christian assurance (see Rom. 8). There are three practical applications I would like to draw from God's promises in His Word. These will hopefully help in putting doctrine into practice. First of all, God's promise of future judgment frees Christians to love their enemies. Second, God's promise to work all things for the good of Christians frees them from the fear and doubt that come out of bad, even terrible, circumstances. Third, God's promise of a city with foundations frees Christians from the need for comfort and material blessings in this life. I am aware that there are more promises in the Bible, but these should provide a good overview and hopefully they will also serve as a spring-board into other practical considerations about faith.

Faith and God's Justice

Picture this scenario: you're a teacher working to pay your bills and hopefully impact some kids at a pivotal point in their lives. You are a hard worker and you don't take credit for what you do but give it all to God. You come to work early, work as for the Lord, honor your boss as an authority figure established by God, and treat your co-workers with dignity and respect because they are made in the image of God. However, you have noticed lately that your boss keeps picking holes in your performance in a way that seems unjustified. You try to do better while continuing to show him proper respect, but warning follows warning and suddenly your contract with the school is terminated with no reason given besides the vague written statement of unsatisfactory performance”. You wince at this attack on your character, especially considering your love for your students and intense effort to do your job well. Furthermore, you cannot help but notice that other teachers, who hardly care enough to plan a lesson, continue cashing paychecks unabated. The injustice of the situation is nauseating and everything in you wants to kick down the head office door and yell, “This is wrong! You must pay for this!”

This is very close to what I felt after being laid off from my last job, with no clear and legitimate reason given. I'm sure you have different examples from your own life perhaps of much more serious injustices – but everyone knows that burning desire for justice served here and now. These feelings can be unjustified overreactions and can easily lead the victims into sin, but it is interesting that the Bible itself portrays God as a being profoundly concerned with justice. In fact, one of the promises that God makes in the Old Testament is that He “does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex. 34:7). Some are repulsed by this kind of language in the Bible because it awakens in them visions of a capricious God, who decides to strike a few people dead every time He's in a bad mood. This says something about how sheltered many of us are from the experience of truly horrendous injustices; this teaching tends not to encounter much opposition in countries where the church faces perennial persecution (see Book of Revelation). But beyond this, if we consider that every wrong committed on Earth breaks the first of the ten commandments – to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” – we can see that every sin and injustice is ultimately an offense against God (see Ps. 51:4)! It stands to reason, therefore, that God has the right to feel wronged and to retaliate in righteous anger at the injustice and sin done on Earth! Do you feel holier than God on this point? Do you say, “if I were God I wouldn't by so angry about silly little sins”. Well, consider how angrily you react when someone merely cuts you off in traffic. There is no doubt in your mind that this is a ''blatant injustice' that demands retribution in the form of a long lean into the horn and a one-finger wave (credit to Mark Driscoll for the analogy)! Now imagine that not only every traffic violation, but every hurtful word, every murder, every rape that was ever committed in human history was committed against you! Do you think you would have the right to be angry? Now, assume on top of this that you had never done anything wrong that might deserve this kind of treatment from those who had wronged you, that in fact you had continually extended love and patience to those who had done all these terrible things to you. Is it realistic to say that in God's place we would just turn the other cheek? If we see sin through the lens of the Bible we begin to understand why God's wrath is mentioned more times in therein than His love. Justice is a requirement for a just and wronged God, because justice is part of who He is. God is so serious about justice and so angry with sin that Christ literally had tp die on the Cross to “save us from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9)! Sin is such an infringement on God's character that even His great love could not save unless His wrath was also satisfied with justice. This is why Paul in the book of Romans points out that God's righteousness, demonstrated on the Cross of Jesus Christ, allowed Him to be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). He was both just, in pouring out His wrath on Jesus to punish our sin in Him, and the justifier, who in seeing Jesus' righteousness covering us declares us justified before Him! Again, this is the Glorious Exchange.

Well, that's great, but what does God's justice and wrath tell me about how I can deal with injustice in my own life? First of all, Jesus took God's wrath for Christians on Himself. As I outlined above, Jesus died on the Cross bearing the wrath of God. Therefore, for those who have faith in Jesus, “there is now no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1). This means that every Christian can live without fear of the pending wrath of God against them, because Jesus already took their punishment on Himself. All their sins, past, present, and future were laid on Jesus Christ and God's wrath against all Christians past, present, and future was atoned for by Christ's death – as Jesus confirmed from the cross with the words, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Second, everyone who does not place her faith in Jesus will have to bear the fullness of God's wrath in the final judgment, since she refuses to accept Jesus' offer to bear it in her place, by repenting and placing her faith in Jesus. Thus, her sins will be paid for, but unlike the Christian, she has tragically chosen to shun rather than receive God's gift of His Son. So, she accepts to pay for everything she has done against God and others herself, in eternal punishment. Either way, justice will be served for every single sin and injustice. No sin gets swept under the carpet or ignored. A Christian must pray that everyone who has sinned and committed injustice against them and God would place their faith in Jesus, so that all that they have done and the harm they have caused would not be held against them, but would be covered by Christ's death of substitution. If not, justice will still be met, but the offender alone will have to bear the full weight of it – their life instead of Christ's. The sad reality is that this will mean an inescapable eternity of torment in hell. Do not misunderstand, this is not a call to rejoice in others' condemnation. Again, Christians must hope and pray for the salvation of their enemies, for surely they are just as wretched are ill-deserving of grace without the work of Jesus on their behalf! Let us, however, recognize the seriousness of sin and rest assured that every sin and every injustice will be paid for. No sin or injustice will be overlooked or fail to be dealt with. God has promised it.

Perhaps you are thinking that no one with this understanding of Hell and God's justice could live according to the precepts that Christ laid out on the sermon on the mount. Yet, I will argue that faith in the promise of future judgment is an impetus for, not a hindrance to, loving your enemies as Christ commanded in Matthew 5. I must acknowledge that I owe most of my reasoning here to John Piper in his Future Grace seminar at Bethlehem Baptist Church. Let us turn again to Romans. Consider these words carefully:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”

(Rom. 12:19 ESV).

Paul makes two important points in this verse. First, Paul declares that Christians are not to seek vengeance for wrong done to them. The reason Paul gives for not seeking revenge and justice now is that God Himself promised to deal out justice so it's not a Christian's job! God, the perfect judge, will deal with each sin justly and if you were wronged even so far as by being killed, you will be vindicated in the end, because God has promised it. And we have seen that His promises are trustworthy. He will not forget what was done to you and justice will be done! To see what this looks like in regard to Christian persecution read through Revelation chapters 6 and 7.

Realizing that God will vindicate them in the end frees believers from the need to deal out payback now. It even frees them from the need to worry about it! If God sees sin and if He promises to deal with it justly in Christ or in hell it liberates them even to love their worst enemies. Yes, to love them! Christians do not know whether those who persecute them will come to faith in Christ, but they do know that whether they do or not God will not forget their offenses and justice will be served. Therefore, since the injustice will be punished even if the sinner is saved, they must love them even as God loves them and calls them to repent of their ways (Ez. 18: 31, 32). If we get justice either way, if would make sense that Christians should have Christ's heart in not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. In the end, Christians can rest in the God's promise of just retribution for every wrong and injustice even as they love and desire the salvation of their enemies. In fact, I believe that a desire to avenge myself here and now comes directly out of doubt in God's promise to deliver on His promise of justice and future judgment. True faith loves at its own expense, because it knows that judgment and setting things right is God's job, and “His judgments are true and just” (Rev. 19:2). I must emphasize that this does not mean that Christians should be unconcerned about justice in the world nor that they should oppose the establishment of fair laws that protect civil liberties, human rights, etc. That calling is dealt with in other parts of Scripture (ie. Micah 6:8), but I am referring to inevitable wrongs and injustice that faithful Christians encounter in their lives. It is not a contradiction, in my view, for a Christian to simultaneously seek the establishment of a more just society where she is more free to worship God and live a peaceful life while at the same time accepting any persecution and injustice that may come, knowing that ultimate vindication and judgment is in God's hands and He has promised to deliver it in the end.

All Things Work for Good

We have seen how God's promise to judge sins, by means of the Cross or Hell, comforts and frees believers to love even in the face of wrongs and injustice. Now we will deal with another controversial verse that is misinterpreted by some and skipped over by others. The verse in question is a promise found in Romans 8:28 and it reads as follows:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

The promise that Paul presents has been terribly misconstrued by many pastors who fall within the health, wealth, and prosperity camp. I just finished listening to a sermon by Joel Osteen on this very text, in which he suggests that it is meant to show you how you can “get to a new level” in your “spiritual destiny”. “Nothing happens to me, it happens for me,” he proclaimed, before giving a personal example of how a lost job led him into the pulpit -- or “podium,” as he prefers to call it. What Joel and many of these preachers assume is that “the good” of which Paul speaks can all be measured in terms of physical and material benefits here and now (or at latest, in the near future). When things get hard, Osteen strongly insists upon the power of positive thinking and “beliv[ing] it's going to get better”. Faith, in this context starts to look a lot a lot like wishful thinking and blind optimism. This is Peter Pan faith: the same fantasy that says that repeating the words “I do believe in fairies, I do, I do” will make them magically appear. This toothy smile optimism rings very hollow in the face of real devastation and tragedy. I have often wondered how men like Jeolsteen would comfort a victim of sexual assault. Somehow “think positive, put on the new attitude! It's all a part of God's plan for your grand destiny!” (paraphrase) doesn't seem to cut it. In fact, on the basis of the second half of Romans 12:15 and Job 42:7-9, I would feel compelled to rebuke the speaker as an insensitive jerk! You can believe in fairies all you want, but your words will be nothing but salt in the wounds of a rape victim. Evil is evil and Paul's words are not meant to excuse or trivialize it. (Osteen, Joel)

Obviously, we must avoid this kind of reductionist naivete about Christian suffering. For every cute story where everything turns out well in this life there are a dozen unreconciled relationships, illnesses that lead to death, lingering emotional wounds, and unfulfilled hopes. Yet, we must do something with this promise! God didn't let it slip into the Bible by accident, so surly there is truth here to which we must submit our will and mind. I believe the key to grasping this promise is found again in a proper understanding of the words “all things” and “the good”. If we can see what Paul is talking about here it will help us know how to read and understand this wonderful promise. As with any case when we encounter a difficulty with a Bible verse, it is best to begin by examining the whole passage that surrounds it. Here are the verses directly before and after Romans 8:28:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

(Romans 8:18-30, emphasis mine)

Already in verse 18 we encounter a problem with the wealth, health, and prosperity perspective. If “the good” means physical/material gains here in this life, then what is this bit about “the sufferings of the present time”? We will see what impact this has on our reading of verse 28 a little further down. Notice also, Paul contrasts this present suffering with a future glory.Perhaps this future glory refers to the 'cashing in' of our earthly benefits after going through a little bit of hardship”, one might protest, “maybe Paul is just talking about the progression from hard times to mansions, mustangs, and millions as we name and claim what we have by right as children of the King!” Paul goes on to talk about how creation is waiting for the “revealing of the sons of God” so that it might be freed from corruption and “obtain the freedom of [their] glory” (v. 21). Suddenly, it looks like Paul has something bigger in view than SUVs and hundred dollar bills. Although v. 15 (not cited) revealed that Christians have already received the “spirit of adoption” by which they stand justified before God, there is still a strong emphasis on the fact that something is waiting to be fulfilled (ESV notes). This will become plain as we see the parallel Paul draws between creation and the children of God. Just as the creation groans, so also we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23). So, although we are already adopted (v. 15), we do not yet see the full manifestation of this adoption that will come with the redemption of our bodies. Unless we grasp this 'already-not yet' tension, which appears all over the New Testament, we could be drawn to the conclusion that our legal adoption (v. 15) implies a full physical inheritance here in this life. But this totally misses what Paul is saying! Just as creation continues to groan, so also we groan and wait. There is something coming that we don't get to experience while the Earth is still bound to corruption and while we continue to live in these unredeemed bodies (v. 23). Are you seeing what I am getting at? The main focus is not on the here and now, but on eternity!

Paul goes on to depict Christians' fully manifested adoption, which he represents by the redemption of their bodies, as the hope in which they were saved (v. 24). The hope here is again “not seen”, the same thing that was said of faith in Hebrews 11:1 (v. 24). The hope must also be waited for with patience (v. 25). Paul frames this again in terms of grounded future hope. The focus is not on what we can see, touch, and receive now. We do not yet see creation or our bodies freed from corruption. The hope is yet to come, but we know it is coming and we need patience (v. 25). It will be a while yet and there is no guarantee that things will get easier before we die or Jesus comes back.

In verses 26 and 27, we get a picture of God the Holy Spirit interceding for us. Interestingly, the Spirit here is said to help us in our weakness (v. 26). This is precisely because “we do not know what to pray for as we ought”(v. 27). Next, the Spirit is said to “intercede for the saints according to the will of God,” not according to what we think or feel like we need to live a full and comfortable life now (v. 27, emphasis mine)! The Spirit is not portrayed here as our personal messenger boy who we command to make God give us what we deserve as royal children. Ironically, the Holy Spirit is not shown here as one who obeys our every word but rather the One who overcomes the weakness of our own foolish, perhaps even sinful requests, by interceding for us in line with God's will, not ours! It is odious, arrogant, and absurd to use these verses to turn the Holy Spirit into a glorified spiritual waiter! He is called the Helper, not because He jumps every time we say jump, but because we need some serious help! We aren't awesome, self-sufficient lords of our own destinies! As Martin Luther so aptly put it at the end of his life: “we are beggars, this is true.” Think of it this way, we are so bad at praying in line with God's will that we need the Holy Spirit to ask God for the right things! We demand every conceivable earthly comfort – any way of avoiding pain and spiritual growth – meanwhile, the Spirit might well be asking the Father to send some suffering our way to make us start displaying some fruit and showing the world the supreme sufficiency of Christ in the face of loss and want (see Titus 2:14, Heb. 12:6, Psalm 118:6, 7)! If you know yourself at all, it is hard to deny that the moments of most significant growth do not tend to take place when you are surrounded by ease and entertainment, but when you hit rock-bottom, when all your idols turn their backs on you and you cry out to God, because He is all you have left in the world! We would all do well to pray more for this kind of brokenness rather than dishonoring the Spirit of God with our presumptions.

We have set up the context, so let's consider verse 28 and following. Once again, here is verse 28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Remember that verse 18, mentioned “the sufferings of the present time,” which are “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us”. There is no way that after portraying the present as a time marked by suffering that must be endured until glory is revealed that Paul could go on just ten verses later to declare that God's plan is for you to have your best life now (title of Osteen's best-seller). We would expect Paul to be more consistent than that! Again, let's look at verses 16 to 17 (not cited above): “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him(emphasis mine). How do you get health, wealth, and prosperity out of that? The very condition of being called an heir appears inseparably tied to suffering with Jesus, not raking in the dough while your sip your Martini! This makes sense, if we know our Bibles, because Christ Himself promised that if we were faithful to Him we would have it just as bad as He did in this life – and He got crucified (Matt. 10:24 - 25)! I must insist that any interpretation that both leads us to deny clear teaching in Scripture and to claim that we have our act together better than Jesus did is absolutely unacceptable and borders on blasphemy. So, what does it mean? Well, the verses preceding helped us to find out mainly what verse 28 does not mean. Where better to look for what it means positively than in the following verses. Let us take another quick glance at verses 28 to 30.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

The “and” at the beginning of verse 28 indicates a connection with the thought from the preceding verse, cited earlier. You will recall that in verse 27 Paul had described how the Holy Spirit intercedes for believers “according to the will of God”. Based on this connection and the one we will see in the following verses, I will argue that the “all things” of verse 28 refers to every earthly circumstance, good or bad, that allows a believer to accomplish God's “will” (v. 27) and “purpose”(v. 28) – whether that be in living or in dying (Phil. 1:20). In other words, “all things” truly means “all things.” The “good” I believe refers to the personal benefits of being a part of God's work, namely spiritual fruit in this life and the promised reward in the next life. This is going to be hard for some to accept, but please hear me out.

Verse 29 begins with another connecting word: “for”. This kind of link indicates that the thought in verse 28 derives from the logic that is laid out in the next verse(s). Sound confusing? Well, to make the connection between these verses more clear, switch out the conjunction “for” in your mind with a near synonym like “because” of “since” and you will see right away what I mean. So, after telling his readers that all things work together for good for all those whom God calls according to His purpose, Paul goes on to say that the reason that all things work for good is that God is in control of salvation. How is that for confusing? But perhaps it is not so difficult and obscure of a reason as it seems. Look at it this way, verse 28 already tells us that Christians have been “called according to [God's] purpose,” so in verse 29 and 30 it is not surprising to see Paul continuing to expound upon what that “calling” looks like and what it means. Paul begins to unpack this by stating that “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Here we get a picture of the doctrine of predestination: believers are foreknown and predestined. The classic Arminian technique for tackling this verse is to latch on to the first verb in an attempt to somehow cancel out the second. “Aha! See, he foreknows, so that means He's not talking about election or predestination!” However, even if the Aminian understanding of the word “foreknown” were correct – I would argue that foreknowledge has more to do with God knowing, loving, and having a plan for believers in eternity past, not just knowing whether they would pick Him (ESV Notes) – even so, it proves nothing, because predestination implies foreknowledge! God has to know who will choose Him (foreknowledge) if He is the very one who brings about the change in them that causes them to turn toward Him (predestination). Predestination happily coexists even with this diminished view of foreknowledge, but foreknowledge cannot stand apart from predestination unless you take a pair of scissors to the Bible. Appealing to foreknowledge ultimately undermines the Arminian's argument. If you keep reading Romans like this you'll probably wind up a Calvinist, but that was the subject of a previous paper and it isn't my primary concern here.

We see at the end of verse 29 that the end to which believers are foreknown and predestined is “to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Thus, foreknowledge and predestination are not the end of the matter, but they effect a transformation in the Christian to cause him to look less like the world and more like Jesus – this is the process that we already mentioned, called sanctification. Verse 30 tells us that “those whom he [God] predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified”. I believe this is depicting the Christian progression from rebel, to heir of God. First, the believer is predestined by God in eternity past (Eph. 1:4). Then, he is efficaciously called by God to surrender from his rebellion, repent, and trust and serve King Jesus, who bought Him with His blood. The Christian then receives justification whereupon Jesus' Christ's righteousness is imputed to him and this rebel's sin and unrighteousness is transferred to the Cross, where Jesus bore it all in his place. Last, having been justified, the Christian is slowly conformed to the image of Christ through the killing of sin in the believer's life and the manifestation of fruits of the Spirit (v. 29) until finally he is glorified, leaving behind the old sinful nature entirely and being united with His Savior for eternity in a redeemed body. This last part is not fully accomplished until he dies or until Jesus comes back. The picture is clear: it's all God's work, from first to last.
We've been dealing with a lot of nitty-gritty details, so let's take a step back and look at the big picture. What do we see? First of all, where in all of these verses is there anything said about material benefits of following Christ in this life? Everything in verses 29 to 30 is concerned with maters of salvation, sanctification, and eternal reward. There is no mention at all of health, wealth, or earthly prosperity! Second, because of its logical connection to verses 27 and 29, we must conclude that the “good” of verse 28 does not refer primarily if at all to physical/material “good” – according to this world's standards, but rather to God's sovereign control over a Christian's whole redemption and the way He uses every event in History for the ultimate benefit of believers. This includes growing that Christian in holiness and alignment with God's will, and leading him toward the reward that is so unfathomably great that it will be seen in the end to have been worth even the worst suffering. Indeed, all suffering and earthly pain pales when compared with this glory, which we do not see but wait for with eager expectation (Rom. 8:18, 25; Gal. 5:5).

Now, God may grant earthly joys and comforts along the way, and certainly every good and perfect gift comes from Him (James 1:17), but God is in no way obligated to grant earthly comforts on the basis of our faith. Misuse of earthly gifts/comforts will also lead to judgement, and thus they are not a reliable indicator of God's ultimate blessings (Jas. 5:5). Furthermore, neither the good of holiness nor that of final glorification depend on earthly and material blessings for their fulfillment; though God may grant them as He pleases. In fact, comfort, prestige, and money can be some of the greatest barriers to living a life of conformity to God's will and keeping a consistent walk towards holiness. That's not because material blessings are bad in themselves, but because they so easily become idols that take the place of God in a Christian's life. What Romans 8:28 implies is that there is a plan in all the pain, loss, and the suffering (Rom. 8:37) – not just in the apparent blessings! Every tear, every broken heart will be used by God for good, for those who are called according to His purpose, because He is sovereignly good. The pain is real and the wounds really hurt, and we shouldn't try to provide simple “here's why” answers; but we can rest in the assurance that God wastes nothing. God has promised that He is working it for the good of His followers. God is the one who foreknows, who predestines, who calls, who justifies, who sanctifies, and who glorifies. Only a God who has such sovereign control that even salvation and faith are granted by Him could be trusted as having the power to work all things for the good of His children (Eph. 2:8). He has promised to do all these things and to turn every circumstance in the universe towards this plan of salvation and glory for those who place their faith in Jesus Christ. That sounds good to me!

That's a lot of analysis, but let's try to make it practical. What does this understanding that God works everything for my ultimate good mean for me as a Christian, working my job and living my life? I mean, it's interesting and all, but does it make a difference for the way I live and act here and now? My answer is that trusting in God's promise to work all things for good for all Christians frees them from the fear and doubt that often accompanies bad circumstances and suffering. One of the main points I tried to articulate from that section of Romans 8 is that God is concerned with working a plan for the sanctification and final glorification of all believers. All things are “good” in so far as they serve this purpose. The circumstances themselves may be bad , unpleasant, or altogether wicked, but they gain meaning when placed within the scope of God's glorious plan (see Romans 8:18). What this naturally implies is that the circumstances in a Christian's life are not an indicator of whether God is being faithful and working all things for a Christian's good. So many believers find themselves doubting God's plan for their lives because they are looking to material blessings as the indicator of God's faithfulness and their obedience. Thus, when they loose their job, experience a broken relationship, or get diagnosed with a serious illness, they question whether God is still good. If believers peg their belief in God's goodness to earthly prosperity, health, and heavenly circumstances in this life their faith is never more than a roller-coaster dive away from paralyzing doubt or even apostasy. As soon as things get tough, like the seed that fell on rocky soil, their faith shrivels up and dies (Matt. 13:20, 21). They begin questioning God, His goodness, His promises, and their own salvation! But, if we apply what we have learned from Romans 8 to our own lives, it will teach us to successfully wield the shield of faith against all the flaming darts of the adversary. Whatever afflicts us, we will be able to rest in the promise that God is working it all for our good! God does not create evil and suffering but even these are forced to bend the knee to King Jesus and His plan of salvation. God wastes no wrong but turns it all ultimately for good for all those who place their faith in Jesus and His promises (Gen. 50:20). Thus, even the worst things that have ever happened to you will, in the end – if you are a Christian – be used by God for your sanctification and glorification. In a word, for your good. Only with this kind of faith can we echo with confidence the words of Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him(Job 13:15, KJV Cambridge Ed.)! True faith trusts God even to death, because its hope is grounded in the sure promises of God, not in payoff in this life.

So far, we have considered how faith in God's promises of justice and full providential care empowers Christians to live promise-grounded and seemingly counter-intuitive lifestyles. Now let's look at the final hope and good, which God promises to all Christians.

The Kingdom

It is said that in any good three-point presentation, one must always save the best for last. With this in view, I now turn to the final establishment of the Kingdom of God, the reward of all who place their trust in the Son of God. This is the spire on the tower of God's faithfulness and it appears often amidst the other promises of God. This is apparent in what has been the key text of this essay, Hebrews chapter 11. In speaking of Abraham, the author informs us that “he [Abraham] was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (v. 10, emphasis mine). This theme is drawn out further a few verses down.

These [heroes of the faith] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”

(Hebrews 11:13-16 ESV, emphasis mine)

In verse 26, the author again alludes to this “better country”; here it is called “the reward”.

He [Moses] considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.”

(Hebrews 11:26 ESV, emphasis mine)

This theme comes out in two more sections, listed below:

Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.”

(Hebrews 11:35 ESV, emphasis mine)

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

(Hebrews 11:39-40 ESV, emphasis mine)

I have laid out what I believe is every reference in Hebrews 11 to the ultimate coming of the Kingdom of God, which I will argue represents the apex of Christian hope – the ultimate reward. There are so many appearances of and references to this kingdom and eternal life in the Bible that any attempt to say all that could be said about it is well beyond the scope of my knowledge and the space I wish to devote to the subject. However, I believe that by carefully considering how the author of Hebrews presents the subject in this chapter, as well as a few other sections of Scripture, we will glean some insight into this great hope for all followers of Jesus Christ.

I believe that each word italicized above refers ultimately to the same thing – the Kingdom. Jesus Christ inaugurated this Kingdom at His first coming, and He will fully establish it at his second coming. It is important to grasp that the the Bible does not speak of the Kingdom of God as if it were simply a new governmental establishment, nor is it an esoteric sort of ideal meant to motivate Christians to change the world. This Kingdom represents the reign of Jesus Christ over all of the cosmos, which He secured by His death. Hebrews chapter 2 gives us a picture of how God the Father put everything in the universe under Christ's control and reign; how Christ was “crowned with glory and honor” because of His atoning death for sinners on the cross (Heb. 2:8, 9). Jesus today is King of the cosmos! Everything is already under His control, yet the author also points out that “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Hebrews 2:8b). This means that there is an inherent tension within the biblical teaching of the Kingdom of God. Christ is King and He is reigning, but we do not yet see His reign fully displayed. We await a final climax when all will be set right and Jesus will be seen and acknowledged for who He is – the Sovereign King of the Universe. This understanding will lead us a long way in understanding why all of the great hope clauses of Hebrews 11 include an inherent future-oriention.

Christ's reign was inaugurated when He died and rose victorious over Satan, sin, and death, but the effects are not all visible today. Christians still get sick, suffer persecution, and die. They continue to face temptation to sin from their old nature (the flesh), which is in a perpetual state of war against the new nature in Christ (Rom. 7). On a larger scale, injustice persists in society. In many places the poor are neglected or taken advantage of by more privileged members of society. So, we can see that all is not well on planet Earth. However, Hebrews chapter 11 reassures us that this is not the end of the matter. Verses 13 to 16 tell us of a sought after “homeland,” a desired “better [heavenly] country.” The word better suggests a contrast in quality between what is now and what will be. Verse 26 speaks of a “reward” that is tied to suffering “the reproach of Christ.” Verse 35 sets forward the hope of the martyrs, to “rise again to a better life.Verses 39 and 40 beautifully summarize all of this: “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (emphasis mine). This is the hope of Christians who place their faith in the the God of the promises. There is something better, beyond this life (though it begins in this life) and the world in its current state. Christians must yearn and pray for the day when all creation and their own bodies will be finally redeemed and perfected again. On that day, all wrongs and injustices will be set right, all that is crooked will be made straight, and all circumstances will prove to have worked for the good of God's people (Romans 8:20, 21, 28). All of a Christian's hope finds its fulfillment in this great promise of God. It is not foolish hope, because we know our God can be trusted!

Faith is Personal

How do we understand the “unseen” part of our hope and faith in this context of promise? I briefly addressed this question in the section dealing with Hebrews 11:1. However, it is such an important point – as you can see from the Title of my essay – that I feel compelled by fairness and necessity to explore another passage that addresses the subject. This passage is again found in Romans 8, and it reads as follows:

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

(Romans 8:24-25 ESV)

As I demonstrated from Hebrews 11, I am going to suggest that the broader context of Romans 8 excludes the possibility that “unseen” could mean “unwarranted by reason” or “merely a blind choice of the will.” Look closely. This chapter contains three foundational promises of the Christian faith. The first verse in the chapter promises that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This is the bedrock of the Christian doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Christians are promised that they cannot lose their salvation because, as Christ Himself insisted: no one can snatch His sheep out of His hand (John 10:27-29). The promise of verse 1 serves as assurance (Hebrews 11:1) of salvation. The whole point of assurance is that it can be counted on as certain, otherwise it is useless. The promise is not grounded in an existential leap away from reason; Paul simply presents what he assumes to be a fact. The next promise is Romans 8:28, which we have already explored at length. This promise is likewise grounded not in human experience or unwarranted trust, but in facts concerning God's salvation plan (v. 29 and 30). The eternal scope of these verses (ie. “predestined”) only makes this more clear. The last promise is found in the final verses of Romans 8 and here it is:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Romans 8:35-39 ESV)

Up until this point, we have seen that Paul states the promises in this chapter as fact. They are assumed to be true and trustworthy, for on them Christians must literally stake their lives. And yet... And yet, we would be wrong to ignore how deeply personal these promises are. You may have already seen this in the promises of Romans 8:1 and 28. In each case, the truthfulness of the promises is assumed by Paul, given all that he has already laid out in the book of Romans about who God has shown Himself to be, in character and history. Yet, the application of these trustworthy promises is to individual Christian lives. These are not abstract truisms or vague general predictions that speak nothing to struggling, doubting Christians. Paul pinpoints incredibly specific fears and doubts and answers them with words of hope! “I am a Christian, but I still sin,” someone exclaims, “how do I know that God won't get sick of me and decide I wasn't worth saving after all?” Paul's answer: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). You didn't earn your redemption, it was a gift, and Christ will finish the good work He has started in you. “I don't see why God won't give me a child,” a young wife demands, “being a mother would certainly make me more holy. Does God not want the best for me?” Paul's answer: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). You may not see it now – perhaps you will never see it in this life – but God has promised that even the most terrible and truly devastating disappointments and evils will be used for your good. God did not create the evil nor was this the way it should have been (see Gen 1 and 2), but God will redeem it in the end. You can still mourn, but know that our God is a God who takes what is bent and makes it straight again. He himself did not look at our sin from a distance but became a man to suffer in our place, deprived of justice, hated, and abandoned to die alone. He is the only one who knows suffering first-hand, so He is the only one you can trust to use even evil for your good. The price He paid in order to give us such promises is itself a guarantee that they are trustworthy and goodness. As Romans 8:32 so clearly puts it: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” You can trust this God, because He paid so dearly to keep His promises and to redeem you! (Keller)

Agendas for Doubt

We have seen that faith is both rationally coherent and personal, but now we will consider how faith involves the human will as well as the need for inner transformation before faith can be excersized. Faith rests in the knowledge of God's character and His history of fulfilling what He promised, but it also involves a volitional choice and commitment. Revelation 13, which describes as period of intense persecution and Christian martyrdom, calls for “the endurance and faith of the saints” (v. 10). This faith is not only a mental acceptance of God's promises as true, but is directly tied to this notion of endurance through trial, doubt, even death – an act that requires personal commitment. Again, the rational component is not removed or replaced, but we must acknowledge that faith includes an important role for the will. The New Testament book of James digs deep into the implications of faith, which must lead Christians to live lives that exhibit Godly actions and choices. Lives of intentional obedience to God are not what saves Christians (justification), but they are the evidence that the Holy Spirit is doing a transformative work in a Christan's life (sanctification). Ephesians 2:8-10 tells us that both faith and the good works it produces are a gift from God, so you can't boast about either of them or use them as leverage before God. Yet, we are exhorted to act, to display faith through trusting obedience to God. Christians must live out faith in obedience to Christ or it is not faith.

Alright, faith is volitional, but anyone using their head should be wondering: “Why would it be so hard to trust God and believe His promises if God is so predictably true to his Word and character?” The answer will have huge implications for how Christians understand their own faith and how to share the Gospel with their neighbors. Assume you are a non-Christian for a moment. If you come to the Bible as a book of evidence for God and His promises, you may easily miss the fact that, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, you cannot make heads or tails of it. Even when you start to see what God's Word is saying, you will try to suppress it in your mind, because you don't like it. You are not a blank slate. You come to the Bible with your own sinful ideas about what you will and will not let it say to you. In the words of Paul, you “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). I have become increasingly aware of this in discussions with non-Christians about the Bible and what it teaches. People who at first seemed to be rather open to considering new ideas would flat-out refuse to interact with good arguments. I started to notice that this often happened when people ran up against beliefs that came directly in conflict with their current lifestyle and choices. “That's narrow/regressive/sexist!” was the common refrain, and no sound argument would convince them otherwise. This shocked me for a long time, because when I first committed to studying the Bible as a Christian, I saw things in it that were so coherent and rationally consistent to me that I could not fathom how any thinking person could deny them and retain their integrity. Again, Romans 1 sheds light here. Let's consider Paul's argument in this passage.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
(Romans 1:18 – 31)

As you can probably tell, this is not most people's favorite part of Scripture, but if the whole Bible is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, then it follows that we should listen to what it says – even here (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV/NIV). We already used verses 18 to 21 to establish that humanity is accountable to God for judgment, because of what they know about God from creation. Now, we will see what Paul does with this argument. Notice again how bold and sweeping Paul's statements are in verses 19 and 20. “For what can be know... is plain to them, because God has shown it to them(v. 19, emphasis mine). “For his invisible attributes... have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world... So they are without excuse(v. 20, emphasis mine). Verse 21 is the most striking and it develops the argument further. Here, Paul insists that people “knew God” – not meaning in a personal sense like Christians know God, but in the way that Paul established in the two previous verses (as divine creator). The verse goes on: “...they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him...” This is humanity's great sin – we act like God doesn't exist! Although all humans have enough understanding from creation to tell them that there is an eternally powerful, sovereign God who deserves their honor and thanks, no one thanks him, no one thinks of what He desires from them. We act and think that we are God, that we deserve thanks for all the great things we do and honor for the great contribution of our presence to the world! The next section of verse 21 reveals the punishment due: “...but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Since people would not use their thoughts to honor and thank God for all that He is and does, God repaid them in kind: he gave them over to a futile mind. Because people would not use their hearts to give gratitude and honor to God, He darkened their hearts. Again, the punishment fits the crime. This is an example of God's passive judgment. Instead of directly intervening to punish this sin, God simply lets things follow their natural path and consequences – choosing not to intervene as a form of punishment. This is not God's only way of judging (see Rev. 19), but it shows the horrifying consequences of getting exactly what we want – a world where God has withdrawn His protective hand. Verse 22 shows us the pathetic state of a humanity that does not acknowledge God. Fools masquerade as wise men, rejecting the God who made them in favor of things or mere representations of things that this God created for them (See v. 25 and Gen. 2). This is akin to an ungrateful child who tears open her Christmas presents and immediately retreats with them to her room, without so much as a “thank-you” or a hug for Mom and Dad. The implications of this kind of ingratitude towards God are blasphemous.

Verse 24 brings us back to the consequence of humanity's choice: “Therefore God gave them up...” (emphasis mine). Let that sink in for a moment. This is the God who meticulously formed Adam from the dust of the earth, and Eve from Adam's side (Gen. 2). Imagine a parent saying this to their child. It would take a very serious offense to bring about this kind of reaction. What does God give them up to? To “impurity” and “the dishonoring of their bodies”, in line with the lusts of their own hearts. Again, we see here God's passive judgement, where God lets humanity reap the natural consequences and outcomes of their actions and desires. Why does God do this? Verse 15: “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” You have to feel the appalling injustice and cheapness of this exchange. It's scandalous! The God who made everything, who created people in His image, blessed, and continues to provide for them surely deserves to be revered more than a piece of carved wood, a cow, or a computer screen! But we trade the unspeakably majestic for things that have no power to provide for or save us (see Hosea 2: 5-8).

Verses 26 and 27 describe in more detail the impurity to which Paul referred in verse 24. Again, God here is depicted as giving people up to the natural outcomes of their perversion and irreverence for Him. Sinful rebellious humanity is given up here to “dishonorable passions.” Paul goes on to describe these passions as homosexual sexual acts in general and their effects – not pedophilia, for those of you who took a religion class in college and heard your professor try to explain this verse away without actually reading it.

Verse 28 echoes verses 21, 23, and 25. Since people did not see fit to acknowledge God as the gloriously worthy Creator of the universe, He “gave them up to a debased mind, to do what ought not to be done” (emphasis mine). This is the third mention of God giving people up in passive judgement. We also see here that the debased mind that God gives them up to functions as an impetus to and a justifier of sin, as well as a barrier to the truth. Their mind now has lost any inclination to glorify its Maker. It seeks only to devote itself to seeking illegitimate pleasures and damnable sins, and to worship things that are not the source of its blessings. Paul then says that they are “filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice” and he goes on with a list of some of the sinful habits of the debased mind that extends until verse 31. We will not go into detail here, but notice that one of the sins listed is faithlessness (v. 31). The human mind, as Paul depicts it, is sick, vile, and faithless.
Last, in verse 32 we see that even people of debased minds still possess some knowledge of God's righteous decrees. They know the wrongness of their actions. They know that if they violate the decree they deserve to die. Yet, they not only keep sinning, but they encourage the same behavior in others. This is the guy who is doesn't say anything about his brother's live-in girlfriend, because he doesn't want be confronted by him about his porn addiction. We often allow others to sin and even give them a pat on the back, because we know that once you do something that our consciences have a problem with that person will side with us. This can also play out as a sick kind of partnership, wherein both parties egg each other one as they work to destroy the moral rudder of conscience that God gave them.

I hope this helps you to grasp the gravity of the human condition. We aren't nice well-meaning folk on a journey towards truth, happiness, and prancing ponies. We are despicably sick, rebellious, and self-consciously evil creations whose deepest inclinations are always evil all the time. We love lies, cling to sin, and run headlong towards Hell. We have taken God's good gifts and the wonderful mind He gave us and horribly perverted them. We learn to cope with and justify our own sin by allowing others to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn't interfere with our sinning (v. 32). We are sick to the core. Paul tells us later that “none is righteous … not one” (Rom. 3). His next sentences in this chapter are even more damaging to our self-esteem: “no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:11-12). This is the point: “People, you stink! Worse than you think!”

Now, how does all of this connect to faith, the human mind and will? Isn't it obvious? Our intellect stinks because we broke it when we rebelled against God. All human beings have forfeited the good mind and obedient heart that God gave them and traded them in for a darkened heart and debased one that refuse to listen to and obey the truth. Thus, we now have a vested interest in sin, and our thoughts and intentions fight to hold on to it all costs! So, it is not a question of God simply proving how good, wonderful and trustworthy He is. We will not listen, though the message is true and trustworthy and has been demonstrated time and time again! He must literally transform our heart, mind, and will to make them serve Him. The way the mind thinks, the arguments it uses to legitimize past and ongoing sin – all of this has to go – and it must be replaced with what Paul calls “the new self” (Col. 3:10). This 'new self' includes a renewed mind and an enlightened heart, leading to different thoughts, desires, and actions (Romans 12:2, Eph. 1:18-19). God has to reinstall the original operating system, as it were. Only once this takes place – when God grants us the faith to trust in Jesus and His atoning death in our place for our sins – can we start to see start to see the rest of our thinking and actions lining up with the truth. Our minds and hearts must be opened to God's truth and our wills trained to obey it (1 Cor. 2), as we are renewed in the image of Jesus Christ, the prototypical man of God's new humanity (Rom. 5). Let's not be fooled, apart from God's intervention and the work of the Holy Spirit, no one will ever be willing or able to overcome their vested interest in believing error and justifying lifestyles of sin (1 Cor. 2:16). That's why every conversion is a miracle – none of us want or seek it!

Closing Thoughts and an Invitation

I have set forward a very long and I hope thorough exploration of the topic of faith as grounded future hope. We have seen that faith has a saving function and many practical applications to everyday life for believers. Faith is personal and volitional. We saw that while faith is placed in things unseen it is no less trustworthy because of this. Yet, there is a barrier of sin, self-interest, a darkened heart, and a futile, depraved mind that stand in the way of hearing and submitting to the words of God and trusting His promises in faith. All of this leads us to conclude that God's work in us is the only thing that will make the difference between our condemnation and the salvation that comes through faith in the Son of God. With this backdrop, I would like to make two appeals. First, I would ask that Christians, like myself, recognize our dependence on God for understanding and faith. We could and would never have trusted God or submitted to Him if He had not ransomed us from our own corrupt thoughts, desires, and actions. We should remember this every time we tell someone the Gospel. Let us present the Good News about Jesus with rational integrity – yes! – but we must never forget that the key to a person understanding and accepting this invitation is not the soundness of the reasoning but the work of the Holy Spirit in that person's heart and mind. Thus, prayer is always a key component of witnessing. Second, I would like to address any of my readers who are not Christians. What I would say is simply this: do you trust your own judgement when it comes to Jesus and His words? Do you not believe because you have carefully, impartially analyzed all the evidence, or do you fear deep down what implications the truth might have on your life? I would encourage you to keep asking questions, and even to doubt your own doubts – try to figure out where they are coming from and what is motivating them. And last, I would urge you to read the Bible for yourself and to pray to God to show Himself to you through it. If you believe He doesn't exist, you have nothing to lose, but if He does you have everything to gain. Jesus promised that whoever comes to Him He will never drive away (John 6:37b, NIV), so I would invite you to come to Him. It's worth the cost.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Works Cited

ESV Study Bible. Web. <http://www.esvbible.org/esv>.
Keller, Timothy J. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008. Print.
Online Parallel Bible: Weaving God's Word into the Web. Web. 24 July 2012. <http://bible.cc/>.
Osteen, Joel. "All Things Working Together for Your Good." YouTube. YouTube, 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 17 June 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzXfu37hhjg>.
"Righteousness: Imputed, Imparted or Infused?" Christian Classics Ethereal Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 June 2012. <http://www.ccel.org/node/4123/18197>.

*** All Biblical citations are taken from the ESV 2007 Edition, unless otherwise indicated.

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