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How to have the faith of Abraham

How to have the faith of Abraham

We can’t know anything or anyone without trust

Dear friends

It’s hard to know how to introduce a discussion of ‘faith’. We speak about it all the time as Christians, often without really stopping to think about what we mean by the word. And when we hear it spoken of in by politicians (‘we value the contribution of faith communities’) or by secular critics (‘faith is a cop out for thinking’), we instinctively feel that they don’t understand ‘faith’ or those of us who ‘have’ it.

So in today’s episode, as we come to one of the Bible’s classic discussions of ‘faith’ in Romans 4, we have a bit of baggage handling to do—some clearing up of what we (and our society) really mean by the word. But what Romans then teaches us about this fundamental concept is life-changing and world-changing.

Your brother


How to have the faith of Abraham

Tony Payne: Phillip, I wanted to start off by talking about words, because our problem is that in our current linguistic community ‘faith’ is a word that means so many different things. What the dictionary says a word means or even what the Bible Dictionary says a word means back in the Bible doesn't actually determine what people think a word means or how people actually use words now. 

Philip Jensen: I was always taught that dictionaries define words, but that's nonsense. Dictionaries describe how words are used at this moment in time.

TP: Exactly. 

PJ: So you do need to update your dictionary.

TP: Yes. Historic dictionaries are fantastic because they show you where words came from, how that usage shifted, what the history and background of the word is, and so on. 

Now in our context, the usage of the word ‘faith’ has shifted enormously and it's used in all sorts of different ways. And so before we get into what faith means in this passage, it's worth realizing that we're going to be junked up a bit in our minds on what it means.

PJ: Yes, I've got here in front of me the Microsoft Encarta dictionary.

TP: Oh, there's a blast from the past. 

PJ: Yes, and it's got five different meanings for the word ‘faith’. So that is also part of the problem: when you hear the word ‘faith’ and you know definition one and two, but actually it could be referring to definition three and four. 

Now, here’s the definition of ‘faith’ that I don’t like: “belief in, devotion to or trust in somebody or something, especially without logical proof.” I don’t like that

So the essence of being without proof is a particular view of faith. Faith is a leap into the dark. Faith is when there's no evidence, or when all the evidence works against it. I think Dawkins puts it as “Faith is a cop out from thinking.”

TP: And that's been a trope in our culture for quite a while. Faith is the apprehension of something that is beyond all rational consideration. You cling on to it because you want to cling on to it.

PJ: Yes. But especially when there's no evidence,

TP: Yes. It's the word we use to describe knowledge or belief against evidence.

PJ: There's a problem right there in a sense in that, in our Bibles, the words ‘belief’ and the word ‘faith’ are the same word in the Greek. The word ‘faith’ in English doesn't have a verb form, that's why we need to use the words ‘have faith’. Whereas ‘belief’ has a verb form: ‘believe’. So every time the word faith occurs in a verb form, it's translated as ‘believe’. But when it's in a noun form, it's translated as ‘faith’. So people think there are two different things: faith and belief. But it's exactly the same Greek word. And belief in modern English is different from faith. Belief hasn't got that ‘especially contrary to evidence’ side to its definition. On the contrary, you believe something to be true because of evidence. So people make distinctions about belief and faith which are just not there in the Greek New Testament.

TP: And in our modern world, this distinction of faith as unreasoning evidence is not a neutral thing either, because the evolution of the word is part of a big debate and an ideological struggle in our culture over the last couple hundred years between belief in God and unbelief. There has been a reason behind the shift. 

PJ: Yes. The Enlightenment emphasized the idea that all knowledge is accessible by reason or experimentation. And so from the 18th century onwards, there’s a profound separation between the ‘noumenal’ and the ‘phenomenal’—that is, between the non-rational world of spirit and values, and the rational world of knowledge, which is concerned with physical, scientific, material things. And ‘faith’ gets put into the spiritual, noumenal, religious category–as something you can’t test or reason about but just has to be experienced emotionally or accepted. 

TP: In Enlightenment thinking, the spiritual world of faith may be real–but it’s not accessible to rational knowledge.

PJ:  The high watermark for this kind of materialism was the 1960s. And so here's a quote from Professor Alan Isaacs’ book called The survival of God in the scientific age published in 1966. Basically, he didn't want God to survive. He says, “We define faith as a mental process which replaces reason in deciding human belief and behavior under certain circumstances. Faith and belief are distinguished, but fundamental to faith is no reason.” That is where scientific materialism reached. And it's still around. That's the kind of thought that Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would say, that faith is a kind of wishful thinking, superstition. So, faith is the irrationality of religion. 

But the word ‘faith’ in biblical times in ancient Greek was not a religious word. In fact, it is only became a religious concept in covenant religion. Our politicians talk about ‘faith communities’, but Hindus and Buddhists don't have faith in the sense that faith is not their way of accessing God. Their way of accessing God is meditation and all kinds of other things, but it's not faith. Faith is the response to a God to a covenant-making God; to a God who speaks and makes promises. We are called upon you to trust his promises and to trust him. And so faith is a very Judeo-Christian concept. But these days, all religions are called faith communities. 

TP: It is all those people who believe in stuff without any evidence, without any logical reason; all those kinds of slightly soft-headed types who have faith, we'll lump them into one category. And we'll treat them as either worthy of some respect or not, but that's who they are, and the separate space in which they operate. There's the rational empirical space where we can discuss things reasonably and logically and have normal secular discussions. And then there are the faith people over there… we respect them and maybe look after them or even have a delegate to kind of liaise with the faith communities… 

PJ: Or even appreciate some of the things they do, as they often do some good stuff. 

But there’s been a shift in the 21st century that parallels postmodernism, which has said that that kind of scientific neutrality, epistemological neutrality, thought neutrality is not true. Everybody’s biased. The idea that you are neutral in your thinking and not having faith in something else is nonsense. So scientists who give the impression of impartial neutrality are fooling themselves, because they have values, morals and ethics which affect how they study, what they study, and what use their work is going to be put to. 

TP: It's interesting how, even within science itself, there's occasionally a recognition that there are these underlying commitments that are really beyond and underneath reason, that are just what we assume and believe to be true, that drives science itself. 

PJ: And the postmodern ones will say, you should have feminist science, and you should have African-American science, because things are seen from different perspectives. And they also want to say social justice science: you should do the science that leads to these good outcomes rather than the ones that lead to bad outcomes. But I think the Christian wants to be challenging the very basic assumptions of neutrality itself. 

There is a wonderful book review done at the turn of the century by Richard Lewontin. He was the professor of zoology and biology at Harvard University and he was reviewing Carl Sagan’s book about demons and things like this, and Sagan was talking about why do people believe in this nonsense? Lewontin’s review turned out to be the reverse of what you'd expect, for he says this:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science, in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated “just so” stories, because we have a prior commitment to materialism. It's not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world. But on the contrary, we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.

The imminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything; to appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment, the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen. 

Now Tony, could you help explain what a priori means? 

TP: It means ‘in advance’. So an a priori assumption is something that you already hold in advance; it's some commitment or belief that I had at first and on the basis of which I then come to something else. 

PJ: So he's saying he has prior faith in the regularity of the world; he has faith in materialism prior to any investigation, that it's all built on a whole set of assumptions for which he has no evidence. So the whole of the scientific exercise is an exercise in faith. 

Well, I don't have a problem with that. I think he's right. But I don't think that's negative. I think that's how the world operates. I think that's how it should operate, that faith has got to do with trust. You can't operate without trust. You've got to trust that your brains are working, you've got to trust that answers can be found. You've got to trust that there are regularities in this world that can be investigated. You've got to trust that your teachers have taught you well to do good science, that they've taught you correct information. You don't check out every piece of information you've ever been told, and you can't. You've got to take a certain amount on trust. You've got to trust your collaborators, you've got to trust the publishers… There are so many matters of trust that are necessary before you can do any kind of discovery yourself. And trust is just faith. We operate in faith, in a context of a faithful community. Without faith, you'll have no knowledge.

TP: Interestingly, Lewontin wouldn’t use a word like ‘faith’ to describe his a priori commitment to materialism, even though that's exactly what he's describing. 

PJ: Yes, but I've come across modern philosophers who are beginning to use the word ‘faith’ the way we do. For example, Professor Ichikawa in Canada, who has written several books published by Cambridge University and Oxford University. He says:

Faith, a central topic in the philosophy of religion, really receives focus in mainstream epistemology. When it does, it's most often disparaged as a kind of wishful thinking. Skeptics about faith write that faith is sometimes a kind of wishful thinking. Exercises of faith can be problematic. But although faith can be misplaced, an exclusive focus on epistemologically vicious faith will be as much a distortion as will be an exclusive focus on proper faith.” 

And so he then talks about the nature of proper faith using the Grand Canyon skywalk as an illustration. 

TP: Yes, I’ve been on it. At the Grand Canyon, there is this massive 4000-foot drop, and they've constructed a glass platform that looks over the drop so that you can observe it more clearly. So to see it, you really need to walk out on the glass and look down through it. 

PJ: It’s extremely safe. There is no risk of falling through the grass. But if I were to walk out on it, and if I jump up and down on the farthest end with as much force as I can muster, I would be putting faith in the bridge, even though there is no risk. Faith is not the alternative to knowledge. And Professor Ichikawa rightly understands that the kind of skepticism of materialists that disparages faith as being a leap in the dark is not true. 

In most cases, ‘faith’ means ‘trust’. You can't know anything without trusting. You don't have any friends without trust either. Because unless I trust, no one will relate to me.

TP: And in Romans 3, which is where we started this conversation, it's about a relationship–with God by faith in Jesus Christ. 

PJ: Yes. Because faith always requires an object. You've always got to have faith in something or someone. Another word for ‘faith’ is ‘depend on’. 

TP: And the passage today is teaching us about the nature of this faith. Last week, Romans 3:21-26 repeatedly talks about faith as being the means by which–or the response–that connects us to God in Jesus Christ through whom we receive all these wonderful benefits. But then the question of what faith really is, and how it works is really what comes up in the passage.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

And then to illustrate this, he starts speaking about Abraham. 

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

  “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,

    and whose sins are covered;

  blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

PJ: Well, they're terrific arguments in those passages. One is no boasting, whether it’s the Jew in his desire to be above the rest because he's a law keeper, or the Greek who desires to be above the rest because he's a philosopher and ethicist. Both want to boast about themselves. But when you recognize we're all under sin, and we're all justified in exactly the same way, namely, by the death of Jesus on our behalf, we don't have anything to boast about. Faith does away with that kind of hierarchy of religiosity.

TP: Which is what that first section is about in verse 27. Boasting is excluded because God, the God of everybody–both Jews and Gentiles–justifies everybody by this new law: a law of faith. There's a new principle that both the Gentile and the Jew are justified in precisely the same way.

PJ: And then you can hear the Jew coming back with the question: But what about the law? What about circumcision? We were given something that is special. And so Paul then turns to the Torah–to the law–and picks up on Abraham being justified by faith, just as we are justified by faith, because of a reference in Genesis 15:6 where Abraham believed God, where he had faith in God and God's promises to him. And God declared him right with him. So it’s the same back then as it is now. 

They think that Abraham is the father of Israel, but no, he's the father of those who have faith. Israel should have faith, but the Gentiles are also going to have faith because God promised Abraham that he'd be the father of many nations. And so he is, which really is really strange if you think about it, because the man lived in tents. There's no footprint of Abraham in the world. But he went around telling people, “God told me I'm going to be the father of great nations.” 

TP: “And even changed my name from Abram which means ‘father’, which was a joke, because I don't have any kids, to Abraham which means ‘the father of many ', which is even more so a joke because I still don't have any kids.”

PJ: Yes. And yet, all of Islam looks back to him and says, “He is our Father, through Ishmael.” All Jews look back to him and say, “He's my father through Isaac.” But in fact, Christians look back to him and say, “He is the father of faith, before Ishmael, before Isaac. He is our father through the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

TP: So when it says that Abraham had faith in God and believed in God, in context, he was believing in the promise of descendants and of land, but which at that point in time seemed ridiculous and impossible because of his childlessness. And so his trust was in God's promise made by a covenant with him, which referred to the future but which at present seemed difficult or under threat.

PJ: Two lessons about it in terms of the nature of faith. One is, you see how opposite it is to works. Abraham didn't do anything; he was promised something. You pay a person a salary for doing something because you owe it, it’s a matter of justice. But faith is putting your trust in something that you haven't done. You’re putting your trust in God who makes the promises. 

The second thing you learn comes up later in Romans 4:19, where it talks about how he didn't weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old. Or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God. He grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised”, because the God who had made the promise is the God that he knew. He knew that he was the God who makes things out of nothing, who gives life to the dead, and who calls into existence the things that do not exist, and so his promise of being the father of many nations is reasonable. It's a rational, logical consequence. 

So he continued to trust God, and that is why his faith was counted to him as righteousness. And that faith is the same faith we have. As it says: “The words ‘that was counted to him’, were not written for his sake alone but for us also because it will be counted to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, and who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” So the faith we have in God raising Jesus from the dead, in God putting forward his son to die in our place, is the same faith that Abraham had in God. We walk by faith in his promises just as Abraham walked by faith in his promises, and God declares those who trust him righteous. 

TP: So this is why it says that this righteousness from God, this extraordinary new thing God has done, is received by trusting in God and in the Lord Jesus Christ who has paid the penalty, in the same way that Abraham trusted the promise of God. 

PJ: Yes. And that changes everything for us. It's extraordinary. It changes us personally, it changes us socially. The consequences of this simple yet marvelously profound idea that we are justified by faith alone creates universalism. It stopped God's people being one nation–Israel–and opened up the gospel, the message of salvation, for all nations across the world. So it not only gets rid of Jewish boasting and Greek boasting, but it opened it up so that the barbarians could be saved as much as the Jew and the Greek. It created world mission. And in a sense, this is what turned Judaism into a world religion called Christianity because we’re justified by faith, not by works or ancestry. Our ancestry is the ancestry of faith.

TP: Going all the way back to Abraham. 

PJ: Yes. And it also helps us to see the honouring of God because this passage is really about how God is right in justifying the guilty because God does it the right way, namely by taking the guilt upon himself. And so it's the Bible's theodicy where the Bible actually shows you the righteousness of God and the meaning of Christ's sacrifice. The death and resurrection of Jesus transforms everything intellectually, but you don't need faith just for knowledge; you also need faith for relationships, so it transforms relationships too. I'm a friend of God; God is my friend. Not because I've thought great thoughts, not because I've lived a moral life, but because God is the gracious, generous father who has sent his son and borne my sins, and he is the one who has promised me that I am welcome, guilty as I am, because I have the righteousness of Christ. 

And once I've grasped that, then the way in which I relate to other people is transformed. I no longer am always seeking justice. Now I'm seeking atonement. Now I'm seeking reconciliation. Now I'm hoping and praying and working for forgiveness from them and for them. And so the whole structure of human relationships is transformed by this right understanding of how God relates to us and wants us to relate to each other. It reminds me of Ephesians 5: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

So it gives a whole new paradigm of how we relate to each other.

TP: And how lives change, how families change, how relationships and churches operate and change. It means that the relationship that's based on faith in the promises of God and what he's done for us changes the way we think other people will change. 

PJ: Yes. And one of the commonly expressed concerns in our society today, especially amongst the younger generation, is lack of trust in the institutions, in history and  in the culture of our society. People doubt all the time, and without the social capital of trust and faith that the Western civilization built out of the gospel of Jesus, we are coming undone.

TP: I think that's true. There's another line of conversation we could go down here, Phillip, about the breakdown of trust in those mediating institutions of society that hold a group of people together and allow them to get on despite their differences—it’s one of our real problems. And it's hard to see how trust can be rebuilt in those institutions, especially since as Christians we would point out that the whole basis for trustworthy mediating institutions in a civil society springs out of this whole way of thinking about relationships. 

PJ: And perversely for the materialists to hear me say it, because Christian faith is rational. So yes, one can tell people that we've got to have more faith and trust, but the secularist has no rationale for being faithful. Society will work better if we do, but that argument doesn't motivate us enough. But the gospel of Jesus does motivate me to live differently.

Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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