Faith is Personal — It Always Has Been
Popal’s faith impressed me. He was an Afghan refugee who had begun questioning the Islam of his youth. Such questioning put his life in danger and so he fled to the U.K. One Sunday he showed up at our London church, eager to learn about Jesus. Soon Popal was professing faith and was baptized despite the dangers of family retributions.
One morning we prayed about his asylum claim, knowing that, if he was returned home, his life would be in danger. As we rose from prayer he said, “Let’s see. Whatever God wants, God wants.” I was amazed. Such faith in a new disciple. Such submission to God’s will! And then the penny dropped… He’d just said “inshallah,” but in English. It was an essentially Muslim kind of faith, translated into Christian discipleship. But much is lost in the translation. Resignation to Allah’s will is not at all the same as heartfelt trust in a Saviour’s providence.
It was the first sign that something wasn’t quite right with Popal’s faith. Within a year he had drifted from his Christian profession entirely. And ever since I have wondered about what kindof faith Popal had.
A Faith That Fell
In many ways he had the kind of faith that Christians envy, applaud and encourage — a surrender to divine sovereignty, a determined submission to God’s determined will. But what about the personal dimension of faith? Not just knowledge of the content of the faith (what older theologians have described with the Latin word notitia); not just confidence in the truthfulness of the faith (what such theologians have called assensus); but confidence in the person in whom we trust (that is, fiducia). It was the personal that always seemed lacking.
Yet the Bible insists that faith is a personal trust. “I know whom I have believed” says Paul (2 Tim. 1:12). “Whom”, not what! And the “whom” is “Christ Jesus” who Paul says sums up all God’s purposes and grace from “before the ages began” (v9). Christian faith is irreducibly a personal trust in the person of Jesus. Strip this personal element from your faith and you have only an empty profession left. You have no root — and when trouble or persecution come, you fall away (Mark 4:17). Christian faith is irreducibly a personal trust in the person of Jesus. Click To Tweet
The Faith of the Fathers
The Bible shows us many heroes of the faith, but the focus is not simply a trust in “promises,” “shadows,” or “plans.” According to Hebrews 11, Moses forsook the treasures of Egypt for the sake of Christ (Heb. 11:26). As Moses weighed up the cost of leaving his riches and royalty, as he chose instead to be “mistreated with the people of God,” the factor that decisively tipped the scales was Christ himself. Christ himself was better than the fleeting pleasures of sin. Faith, you see, has always been a personal trust in the person of the Son.
But you might object: was Moses’ faith really that particular? Did he rest, specifically, on Christ? Surely he had a more general faith, and surely the Bible is a more general proclamation. Well that’s not how the New Testament sees it. Here is how Jesus and Paul saw the Hebrew Scriptures:
Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)
[I am] saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles. (Acts 26:22-23)
From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 3:14-15)
The Bible is about Jesus. It always has been. This must be the case since Christ has been the Father’s one Word — his one revelation — from the beginning (John 1:1; cf Matthew 11:27; John 14:6; Colossians 1:15).
Faith According to John
According to John 1:1, Jesus is not just the best Word of God, he is the Word of God — the One and Only who reveals the unseen Father (John 1:18). Commenting on this passage, John Calvin said,
The fathers [i.e. the Old Testament believers], when they wished to behold God, always turned their eyes to Christ. I mean not only that they beheld God in his eternal Logos, but also they attended with their whole mind and the whole affection of their heart to the promised manifestation of Christ.
In his Institutes, Calvin is even clearer:
Holy men of old knew God only by beholding Him in His Son as in a mirror (Institutes, IV.8.5).
If this teaching sounds foreign to our ears, it might be because we have lost touch with the common witness of the early church, the Reformers and the Puritans. Such a Christ-centred view of the Old Testament was assumed prior to the Enlightenment. And, more important than the teaching of John Calvin, this is also the teaching of John the Evangelist. Having introduced Jesus to us as the eternal Word of the Father, he takes the challenge someone may put to him: If Jesus has been the one revelation of God from the beginning, what about Old Testament believers? John gives us the examples of three towering giants of the Hebrew Bible. Abraham rejoiced in Christ (John 8:56-58); Moses testified to Christ (John 5:39, 46); Isaiah saw Christ and wrote about him (John 12:40-41). It is all about Jesus.
Faith In Perspective
Today we stand shoulder to shoulder with Old Testament heroes — not because we all share a generic belief in divinity. Such belief is never the rooted, fruitful faith that saves. We stand together, with the saints of every age, as people of the Messiah: glad, hope-filled trusters in the Son of God. Faith, therefore, is not about impersonal plans, unfolding programs, or divine principles. Faith is heartfelt trust in the person of Christ — as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever!