Author Archives: Jon Paulien

The Methods God Did NOT Use

Conversations About God (4:2)

Some might imagine God visiting one of our churches, inviting our questions in the great controversy. Suppose one of us took courage from the story of how Abraham challenged God (Gen 18:25) and yet was welcomed as a friend (Isa 41:8; Jam 2:23). So we begin the inquiry with the following question: “God, did You lie to us when You said that sin results in death?” How do you think God would reply?
“Absolutely not! You will die precisely as I said. Any more questions?”
“Well God, like Abraham, I don’t want to sound irreverent, but are you the least bit arbitrary?”
“No!”
“Exacting?”
“Certainly not!”
“Vengeful?”
“No!”
“Unforgiving?
“No!”
“Severe?”
“Certainly not! How dare you ask such questions?”
And at that moment the floor would begin to move beneath our feet, and there would be lightning and thunder and fire, and a great cloud. And God would say “Any more questions?” If such a scene were to happen would you be satisfied? Would you feel convinced? Can truth be established by the show of power? Satan tries to do that. He has to, because what he says about God isn’t true. In the absence of evidence He has to use other methods. He loves to bring fire down from heaven, as the Bible says (Rev 13:13-14), or do counterfeit miracles (2 Thess 2:9), to seduce, intimidate, mislead or deceive us.

But since the truth is with our Heavenly Father, He never has to stoop to such methods. That is one reason, I believe, that God does not show Himself to us as a rule. Because if He were to show Himself visibly our tendency would be to say, “God, if You’ve said it, we believe it, and that is all there is to it!” Jesus even told His disciples in the Upper Room, “It’s better for you that I go away” (John 16:7). There was the danger that once the disciples recognized that He was God, they would stop thinking things through. They would simply run to Him and accept His answers to their questions on the authority of who He was. It would seem like the right thing to do.

Yet in the great controversy God does not ask for that. So even gentle Jesus said, “It is better that I go away, and I’ll send the Holy Spirit, who will come as a still small voice. He’ll come to be a Teacher and a Guide to lead you into the truth. You won’t see Him. He won’t intimidate you. He only works with evidence. Most importantly, He’ll help you understand the Bible” (based on John 16:7-13 and 14:26). God does speak to us. He does answer our questions. But He does it through what we call His Word. We talk to God in prayer, and He talks to us as we study the scriptures. That’s why I believe that really thoughtful study of the scriptures is a form of prayer. That’s conversing with God as with a friend.

Now some people pray a great deal, but never hear God speak back because they never spend much time reading the Bible. But if one reads the Bible and then responds to God, there is conversation as one thinks along and says to God, “That’s marvelous, what I’ve just read.” This is conversation with God as with a Friend, and that’s the meaning of prayer.

But now, when we pick up the Bible and have this kind of conversation with Him, what do we find there? With respect to the questions in the great controversy, do we find denials? Do we find claims? No, we find evidence.

Even when a person has been falsely accused, there’s no way to establish the truth simply by denying the charges. If just denying the charges would have worked, think what God could have done back in eternity. He could have assembled all of the angels, all hundreds of millions of them, and He could have stood before them in all His authority. And He could have said, “I understand that I have been accused of the following. I want you to know it’s absolutely false. I can be trusted. I am not arbitrary. I have not lied to you. And I expect you to believe it. And remember who I am, and don’t forget My power!” And all the angels would bow their heads and say, “We agree.”

But in a setting like that, how do you know if people really do agree? So God did not try this. Even when a person has been falsely and unfairly accused of being untrustworthy, it is only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a long period of time and under a great variety of circumstances, particularly difficult ones, that trustworthiness can be re-established and confirmed. And I understand that the sixty-six books of the Bible are precisely the record of just such a demonstration, and every one of those books is an important part.

Chapter 4: “God’s Way of Restoring Trust”

This blog begins chapter four of the book in process Conversations About God. It originated as a series of lectures by Graham Maxwell in 1984. After each lecture Maxwell took written questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church at the time, Lou Venden. This marvelous series has never been put into book form, so I am attempting to do so and sharing the results in progress here with permission from the Maxwell family. The words that follow are Maxwell’s oral presentation, edited by me.

In the previous chapter we concluded that in order to have peace once again in His universe, all God asks of us is trust. And there will be peace again, just as there was before the war that began in heaven (Rev 12). There will be peace once again because all the members of God’s vast family will trust in their heavenly Father and He in turn will be able to safely trust in them. Along with that, the members of God’s family will learn to trust each other. Wherever there is mutual trust and trustworthiness, there is perfect peace, perfect freedom, and perfect security.

Our heavenly Father, however, has been accused of being unworthy of the faith and trust of His children. He has even been accused of being a liar; of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. It might seem incredible that the Infinite One would permit such accusations. But in His far-sighted plan, God has allowed these accusations and charges to spread throughout the universe, including our planet. These accusations have led to the point of war, open rebellion, and revolt. In light of this rebellion the question arises, How could God ever restore trust in His universe—in His family?

Questions and Answers (3:4)

Lou: Another individual has written this question: “Do you see the world as a predominantly evil place? If so, how can God’s plan be vindicated, if evil seems to triumph over good?” And this individual adds, “I believe that good must triumph over evil without divine intervention before Christ can come again.”

Graham: The most important words in this question would be “without divine intervention.” If the person who wrote this means it in the absolute sense, it would leave us in a helpless situation. In this conflict we have an adversary who is intervening all he can, manipulating, deceiving and beclouding the intellect. If God had never intervened, we would be in trouble.
But if the questioner wants to say that truth will triumph without God ever manipulating things, I would agree, absolutely. My understanding is that God intervenes in order that truth may be seen clearly, so that truth may have a chance to win. God will not win because He has intervened with power and force and manipulation. That’s the devil’s method. God will win, in a certain sense, without intervention. But He is very much involved in this world in order to protect us from the adversary and give the truth a chance to be seen. God will win because the truth is seen to be true, and we’ll agree.

Lou: Moving in a different direction. “If it is true that the plan of salvation and the death of Christ was needed to confirm the faith of the unfallen angels, would it not seem that God needed a place like this earth to send His Son to die in order to answer Satan’s charges?”

Graham: Must a parent die under the wheels of a truck, pushing his little child out of the way, to prove that he or she loves the child? That is one way such love would be demonstrated, but it doesn’t have to be that way. God doesn’t need the emergency on this earth to show that He loves His children and is worthy of their trust. But when the emergency arose, look how He behaved. Look at the way He has handled it. God is no more trustworthy after the cross than before. But because of the emergency, God is more clearly seen to be trustworthy than He was before. He has taken advantage of an emergency, and I find it very gracious of Him.

Lou: Although the emergency made His heart break, He made something positive out of it.

Graham: Yes, that’s right.

Lou: Here’s a question related to Martin Luther and his problems with Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation mentioned in the previous chapter. Could you give us some actual references where people could go for themselves? People believe what you said because they trust you, but they would like to have a reference.

Graham: That’s fair enough. The prefaces that I read from can be found in a series edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, entitled Luther’s Works. In Volume 35 Luther says there is no way the Holy Spirit could have inspired the book of Revelation. I’ve also mentioned that Luther thought the book of James was totally contrary to Saint Paul. But lest we put Luther in an unfair light, you should read the prefaces for yourself. There he also spoke so reverently of Scripture. He says, for example, “James is a wonderful book, and I like the way it upholds God’s law.” That statement is needed to balance out the other. The only reason I brought it up was to answer the question whether he was able to see the larger, great controversy view. And there are even glimpses of that.
In the first volume of Luther’s Works, the one on Genesis, he says, “The holy fathers have fancied that there once was this war up in Heaven.” He said, “That is a likely idea. It fits in with the statement in Jude that angels fell.” And in another place he said, “You know, it is true that the angels apparently were once able to sin, because some of them fell.” Then he went on to say, “The loyal angels were confirmed, so that they are no longer capable of sinning.” From this evidence it seems to me that he was working with it up to a point, but he never truly followed it through.

Lou: Where will we be going with the next chapter? What is the topic?

Graham: Chapter Four is entitled “God’s Way of Restoring Trust.” God does not seek to restore trust simply by making claims or through spectacular shows of power. Instead he invites our trust on the basis of evidence. And I believe the methods that He has chosen to use are the greatest reasons for trusting Him. That will be the key focus of the next chapter.

Questions and Answers (3:3)

Lou: I hear you saying that James gives us a picture of what happens in our lives when we are truly willing to listen. But here’s another question. Trust sounds like something we have to do. But according to the Bible, doesn’t God do it all? Isn’t faith itself a gift from God?

Graham: It is certainly described in that way in the Bible. “Faith is a gift of God” (Eph 2:8, see also Romans 12:3). This is so important that it is a large part of the next chapter in this book: “God’s Way of Restoring Trust.” In fact, God gives us nearly everything, I believe. He gives us life. He gives us minds to weigh the evidence. He gives us the evidence. He gives us the freedom. He gives us everything except one important piece, He does not cast the vote. If in this great war, God were to manipulate us so we would vote the way He wanted, Satan would cry foul.
God does not win this great controversy by “stuffing the ballot box” through the gift of faith. If faith is the decisive thing, you have the question, “Why does He put faith in some and not others?” If faith is the decisive thing, there’s no responsibility. A person could say, “I don’t have faith. You know why? God didn’t give me any.” But the decisive thing is that God gives us everything, but He doesn’t cast the vote. That’s up to us. That is what freedom is. That’s where responsibility is. And I like it this way. It’s a little scary, but would you want it any other way? As I mentioned, we’ll go a little deeper into these things in the next couple of chapters.

Lou: The question has come up, Graham, how do you decide what translations to use? Are you just picking out the one that says it the way that you want it?

Graham: That’s a very fair question. I have more than a hundred and fifty different English translations and when I prepare a presentation like this, I have versions all over the table and the floor. It’s true that I am looking for what I want, but what do I want? I always begin with the original. I have taught biblical languages for years: Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. What I want is a version that will be as neutral as possible.
In the previous chapter, for example, I mentioned Romans 8:3. Some versions translate it, “God sent His Son as a sacrifice for sin,” or “to atone for sin.” Those are very interpretive. The Greek of Romans 8:3 just says, “He sent His Son concerning sin.” So I chose two versions that expressed the original idea in a neutral way. One was, “He sent His Son to deal with sin.” That’s beautifully neutral. It lets the reader decide how He dealt with it. The other version said, “He sent His Son to do away with sin.” If I can’t find a translation that is truly neutral, I use several to show the various possible meanings. In the chapter where we discuss the Bible (Chapter Five: “The Record of the Evidence”), we’ll go into that in more detail.

Lou: All right. But what if I only have one? You say you have a hundred and fifty. I have maybe twenty or thirty, and I don’t think my wife is going to let me buy enough to catch up with you.

Graham: Unless your one translation is one of the really extraordinary ones, like the New Testament Revised by the Spirits, or the New Testament Translated From Numerology, you should be OK. Any of the mainline versions are very trustworthy, if you read the Bible as a whole. If you make everything depend on a single verse, on the other hand, what if the comma is in the wrong place? It is safer to put many passages together. But the safest approach of all is in reading the Bible as a whole. When you approach things that way, almost every version is dependable.

Lou: Here’s a question that can be related to the earlier chapters of this book. What did Jesus mean when he told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:4, 9). A lot of people say things like “I’m a born-again Christian.” What does that mean?

Graham: Nicodemus himself even asked what it meant. Notice that Jesus did not say “you must be forgiven” or “you must be justified” or you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Rather “born again” is more like what David said in the fifty-first Psalm. “Born again” means having a new heart and a new spirit (Psa 51:10), to be changed from a rebel to someone who can be trusted, to be changed from a stubborn person (who is unwilling to listen) to someone who loves, trusts, and admires God. To experience all of these is like being born all over again. And that’s why Jesus used such a dramatic picture.
That’s also the meaning of being converted. You turn around and go the other way like you sometimes do driving a car. Being converted means to turn around and go the other way. It is a change from being stubborn and rebellious to someone who is humbly willing to listen, love, trust, and admire. Someone who does not want to miss a single word of what God may be saying. One way to describe this kind of change is “being born again.” I think that Jesus was chiding Nicodemus for being a little slow to pick up on something that he should have known very well.

Questions and Answers (3:2)

Lou: What do you say to a person who says “Look, I just want to take the Bible as it reads! I read in the Bible that ‘God’s ways are inscrutable. How can anyone know the mind of God?’ (Rom 11:33) Now why can’t I just accept that statement and say, ‘Why have conversations about God? How can we even know God? I’ll just believe the Bible.’”

Graham: Depending on the person who is saying this, one might reply differently. Let’s assume this is a very devout person who really accepts the Scriptures. I would want to make the most of that. I would say, “Well, what about these other places in the Bible? Do you accept those too? Or do you just accept this one? ”

Lou: What other places?

Graham: Places like Romans 1 that say God can be known. In fact, this individual is accepting one verse in Romans and skipping another one. If that doesn’t work, then I might turn to a place that says “Give wine to the poor, that they may forget their misery” (based on Proverbs 31:6-7), and verses like that. Hopefully this individual will realize that you can’t simply “take the Bible as it reads.” Maxims like “here a little and there a little” (often taken out of context from Isaiah 28:9-13) are not sufficient for accurate understanding of the Bible.
When you say that you accept the Bible, you need to accept it all the way through. And probably that’s what the questioner meant in saying “I accept God’s word– if it says it, I believe it.” Then I would want to point to these other verses that say that God can be known. After all, if He can’t be known, why do we have all this content about Him in Scripture? Why did Christ come to make His Father known? The use or misuse of one little verse can lead us down all kinds of pathways I’m sure the questioner wouldn’t want to go.

Lou: So you are saying that the basic attitude of “I want to accept the Bible as it reads,” is a good attitude provided it takes the Bible as a whole, all sixty-six books, the total message of Scripture.

Graham: Right.

Lou: James 2 makes reference to how Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac demonstrates that he was a “man of faith.” Couldn’t you call it “blind faith” when Abraham set out to obey God’s request for him to “take your son and offer him as a sacrifice?”

Graham: Remember Abraham’s relationship with God. They were two of the best friends in all of history! Abraham knew God well. He had had a long experience with God. When God had asked him to do things before, it had always worked out well and it made sense in the end. So on Mount Moriah there was no blind faith on Abraham’s part. God asked him to do something that puzzled him a great deal. At the moment he couldn’t understand. But he said, “God, if it is You saying it (and I know You so well) I know that this will make sense at some point and you will provide some kind of solution, so I’m on my way.”
This is the kind of faith that says, “God, I’m on my way, but may I ask You why?” And as Abraham thought it through, he said to himself, “The One who gave me this son miraculously is able to resurrect him as well (Heb 11:19). Or maybe He will provide a substitute at the last minute (Gen 22:8).” So instead of the sacrifice of Isaac being blind faith, I would say he knew God well enough to go, and to know that God would provide a solution that made sense. And so it did.

Lou: But there was in that experience an element of uncertainty and pain. Would all this work out in the end? How would it all work out?

Graham: Abraham certainly wondered and questioned. Faith can include that kind of thing. And when we have found God to be trustworthy in the past, we are willing to obey Him when He asks us to do something beyond our present understanding.

Lou: I want to come back to James 2 again. James seems to be saying that faith alone is not enough. Does that mean that we also have to have works? And isn’t that getting back on dangerous ground?

Graham: I guess it depends on what we mean by “works.” Remember that the word for obedience means “a willingness to listen.” God does not expect perfect performance. Suppose I have just gone to my physician with an advanced case of arthritis, will he ask me to run the four-minute mile on the way home? Of course not! Instead, he helps me down the steps into my wheelchair. He says, “Walk a little further this week, take your medication, and be sure to come back.” What the doctor is really asking of me is “a willingness to listen and cooperate.”
I think to picture God as our Physician is the best model we could have. As with the physician, the performance God really desires of us is the willingness to listen. I might die the next day, but I’m going to die his trusting patient. And at the resurrection I will arise his trusting patient and all will be well. He knows we are too weak to perform perfectly. He wants us someday to be perfect: not just spiritually, but physically, mentally, socially, all those things. But He knows it is going to take a little time. What He wants right now is a sincere willingness to listen, without reservation. Then the healing is guaranteed. God has the ability to perfectly restore every one of His children. He has never lost a patient, except the patients who are unwilling to listen. But when we are willing to listen, Our behavior becomes more and more like God.

Questions and Answers (3:1)

In the original lecture series (Conversations About God) done in 1984 at the Loma Linda University Church, Graham Maxwell spoke for about a half hour each Friday night following by written questions and answers from Lou Venden and also from the audience. The next several posts contain questions and answers from the third presentation, “All God Asks Is Trust.”

Lou: You have said a great deal about trust in this chapter. I can hear a person saying something like this, “When are we going to get on to the really important things, like justification and sanctification, expiation, propitiation, atonement, substitution, and so forth. Haven’t we spent long enough on trust?”

Graham: I think we have been talking about justification, but we’ve given it another name. We’ll even use those familiar names along the way, because they are an important part of our history. And when we talk to our friends for whom those are the words, then we should use them if we are going to communicate at all. But I’d rather use the words the Bible uses. And some might respond, “Well, aren’t those the words the Bible uses?” No, it’s going to be interesting to arrive in the Kingdom and settle all debates about Paul by going up to him and saying “Give us the last word, Paul. What did you mean by justification?”
He’ll say, “Could I hear that one more time?”
“Justification. You know, your favorite word.”
“You think so? Actually, I never used it.”
“How about sanctification?”
“No.”
“Propitiation?
“Not that one either.”
“You mean you used none of those terms? What about expiation?”
Paul never used one of them. Neither did Jesus or anybody else in the Bible. You see, many of our favorite theological words are actually Latin and Greek terms that came from a period when Latin and Greek were the main languages used for theology. Take Sola Scriptura, for example. That’s pure Latin, meaning “the Bible only.” Or think of the word I used in a previous chapter, the Christomonistic principle. That’s based on the Greek. Christos (Christ) and monos (only). Very few people study Latin and Greek these days. So why do we keep using these words? Why not simply say “the Bible only” or “Christ alone?” I would much rather use plain and simple terms to describe these things, but each of these terms has a history and it is good to mention them, so we can see where they fit into the larger picture. But we should keep in mind that Jesus described the whole truth about His Father and how we can be saved without ever using one of those words. Jesus spoke Aramaic, rather than Latin or Greek.

Lou: I wonder if the words become a sort of scholarly shorthand? But the danger of that is we think we understand what we are talking about when we may have loaded the word with meaning that really isn’t fair to the Scripture.

Graham: That’s certainly the hazard. So it’s good to go back to how these things were described in the beginning, and we’ll try to do that in a later chapter.

Lou: All right. Let’s move along to another question. “You’ve talked about faith meaning trust rather than just ‘knowing’ something. Aren’t there some things that we could legitimately say we only know by faith, such as that statement in Hebrews, ‘by faith we know that the world was made’” (Heb 11:3)?

Graham: I would want to reply, “By faith in what? What do you mean when you say you know something by faith? Do you have a feeling of conviction inside perhaps?” Where Hebrews says “we know by faith,” what would the writer mean? Faith in something, to be sure.
How do we know anything about where the world came from? We have to read it in the Scriptures, don’t we? So we read the record. By faith in the Scriptures we believe that God created the world as recorded. But that leads us to another question. Can the Bible itself be trusted?
When we say we know these things by faith and they are things described in Scripture, we are not saying, “I know this because I have a warm feeling down in my heart.” That warm feeling could come from indigestion! So when you say, “I know something by faith,” I would want to know what you are having faith in, and in Hebrews eleven it is faith in the Bible. We will cover this question in some depth in chapter five, “The Record of the Evidence.” Can the Bible really be trusted? Can you say in the most critical company, “I have found the Bible to be utterly reliable from cover to cover?” I believe you can, and I’ll lay that out in chapter five.

How Much Trust Do I Need?

Conversations About God 3:5

Now how much “faith” do we have to have? Must we trust completely, or even perfectly, to be right with God? Couldn’t we get away with a little unfaithfulness now and then? Have you husbands ever said to your wives, “Wife, how much could I cheat on you and this marriage still survive?” Would that make any sense? What if a friend should say to you, “How much could I lie to you or hide the truth—and this friendship still last?” Frankly, that would make no sense at all.

Does God need to leave a little room for unfaithfulness in our relationship? Is a “perfect relationship” asking too much of us? Does it make sense to even ask the question? When we “cheat” on God, and cheat we have, God remains our constant friend. But we may be destroying our side of the friendship. You see, if what God wants is friendship, a loving, trusting relationship; then what He wants is obviously not a requirement demanded, but an absolutely voluntary experience.

This long debate regarding faith, works and obedience has troubled saints through the years, but it could be so readily resolved if we looked at the Biblical word for obedience, which is hupakoē (four syllables, one for each vowel). The first part, “hupa,” means “under.” And the second part, “akoē” (three syllables), means “hearing.” The Greek word literally means “listening under.” It describes a humble willingness to listen. If we truly love and trust God, we’ll be willing to listen. It wouldn’t make sense for us not to listen to one we love, trust and admire.

Now could God’s expectation of our willingness to listen be one hundred percent? Our performance may be weak. We may stumble as we leave our doctor’s office. But a willingness to listen? Is that demanding too much of us? Is it too much to say, “Don’t cheat there. Let that be one hundred percent!” Is it expecting too much of us to ask that we be completely committed to listening humbly to our Friend?

Let’s go back to Hebrews 11, the chapter that opens with a definition of what faith is. It surely is encouraging to read about the heroes and heroines of faith celebrated in that same chapter. Hebrews 11 uses the stories of the Old Testament as illustrations of what faith is and what it is not. Look at Hebrews 11:31-32:

By faith the prostitute Rahab escaped the doom of the unbelievers, because she had given the spies a kindly welcome. Need I say more? Time is too short for me to tell the stories of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets (NEB).

Was Rahab’s life at the time she welcomed the spies in perfect harmony with God’s will? Was Gideon’s trust in God perfect when the angel came to him (remember how he needed at least two miracles before he was willing to listen)? Was Samson’s life an ideal you would teach to your children? Was David’s life a model of Christian perfection? Yet Hebrews 11:39 goes on to say, “These also, one and all are commemorated for their faith” (NEB). Is God too demanding? With all their faults and sins, God holds these people out to us as models of being willing to listen. They were far from perfect, but evidently, at least at some point in their lives, they loved and trusted God and were waiting for Him to heal the damage done. And God puts them in Hebrews eleven for our encouragement.

Surely no Bible story is more encouraging than the story of the thief on the cross. What did he do for Jesus to respond with those wonderful words in Luke 23:42-43? “And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, . . . ‘You will be with me in Paradise'” (RSV). Jesus was hanging on the cross between two thieves (the Greek word tells us they were not just burglers, but violent criminals) who were cursing and swearing, and also mocking Jesus along with the crowds.

Then something happened to one of these thieves. He listened to Jesus say “John, please look after Mother when I’m gone” (John 19:25-27). Perhaps the thief thought of his own mother, and that really touched him. He had heard Jesus saying “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). Then he learned from the placard above Jesus’ head that the one saying “Father forgive them” was “The King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38). So the thief thought to himself, “If Jesus really has a kingdom, and rules over it with forgiveness, that’s just the kind of kingdom someone like me needs.” I’m a thief. I need to be forgiven. I wouldn’t be safe in any other kingdom than a kingdom where the king says, “I forgive you. I forgive you.”

So he turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, if that’s the kind of kingdom you’re going to reign over, I’d like to live in it. Please, could you remember me?” I suspect he was a little tentative in saying that. He didn’t know how Jesus was going to respond. But then he heard the words that confirmed his trust. “Yes, I’d be pleased to remember you.” And then the thief died, with his tithe unpaid, and probably all kinds of unclean things in his stomach. He never made restitution to anyone for his crimes. He was never baptized. He never kept a Sabbath. But he’ll be in the kingdom! The next moment of consciousness after his death will be in the resurrection, and he will come face to face with that same person in the middle. Jesus will say to him, “You have a lot to learn.” And the thief will say, “If you say so, that’s all right with me.”

If anything should happen to any of us tonight, I would hope that we would die God’s trusting friend. Because if we do, we will arise in the next moment of consciousness face to face with God. And we will not be afraid, because we will know the truth about God. We will trust Him, know Him, love Him, and all those other things. We will have been set right. And if He should say to us, “You know, there’s a great deal for you to learn,” we would say in response, “I’d be pleased to listen, because I trust and admire You. I want to be Your friend.”

You see, faith is just a word we use to describe a relationship with God as with a person well known. The better He is known the better this relationship may be. Faith implies an attitude toward God of love, trust, and deepest admiration. It means having enough confidence in God – based on the more than adequate evidence revealed – to be willing to believe what He says, to accept what He offers, and to do what He wishes – without reservation – for the rest of eternity. Anyone who has such faith would be perfectly safe to save. This is why faith is the only requirement for heaven, and for salvation.

Is Trust Really Enough?

Conversations About God 3:4

Doesn’t it seem too little, however, that God would only ask for trust? Isn’t it also necessary to know Him? To love Him? To obey Him? Don’t we need to repent? To be reborn? To be converted? To be justified? To be sanctified? Don’t we even need to be perfect? The list of expectations gets so long it’s no wonder that it discourages many people from really wanting to have a right relationship with God. But don’t be scared by that list. Understood in the larger view of what went wrong and what needs to be set right, every one of those items I have mentioned is an integral part of a single, transforming experience that is made available to us all. It was never supposed to be so complicated, or divided into so many different parts.

Let’s take, for example, the expectation “to know God.” What’s the difference between knowing God and trusting Him? A classic text for this is John 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (RSV). As we noted in the previous chapter, to really know someone is to love, trust, and admire them. To know God is to trust Him, to love Him and to admire Him. That word is even used for the intimacy between a husband and his wife. I can hear God saying, “If only My children really trusted Me. If only they really knew Me. If only they really loved Me. If they were only willing to listen, and let Me help them, I could perfectly heal all the damage done. Everything would be right again. And we could keep it right forever.” Now that’s the whole list, if you want to put it in simple terms. Is there anything He couldn’t do for us if we honestly regarded Him that way?

I often hear God saying in the Bible, “How I wish My children could be My friends once again. And they could see Me as being their friend. And then all would be well.” Now the Bible describes at least one such friend of God, Moses. Notice what it says in Exodus 33:11, 17: “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. . . . And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name’” (NIV). What an honor to be listed in the Bible as God’s friend! And can you see how being a friend is the same as being known? To know someone is to trust them, and one trusts people who are known and who have behaved in a trustworthy manner. So trust includes being loved and all those other things.

Now surely trust in God, and friendship with God, is no “leap in the dark,” as some people describe faith. It is not safe to trust someone we do not know. So God doesn’t ask us to trust Him as a stranger. “So faith (trust) comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10:17, RSV). “Faith comes from what is heard,” because they didn’t have copies of the Bible the way we do. They had to listen as the scriptures were read. And as they listened they heard the truth. They heard the evidence. And some were won to repentance and to trust, particularly when they heard the truth revealed by the Son of God Himself.

David surely knew what God wanted of His children, so that peace could be restored everything be set right. Look at Psalm 51 (selected from verses 6, 10, 16 and 17):

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being: therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. . . . For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (RSV)

This is what God wants, in order to have peace once again in the family. Because that means we are willing to stand humbly in the presence of our God and ask “What must I do to be well, to be saved?” And He says, “You need a new heart and a right spirit.” And then we say, “I’d be very happy to have one. Please give me one soon.”

Hosea understood what God wanted, to have peace in the universe again. Look at Hosea 6:6: “It is true love that I have wanted, not sacrifice; the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Phillips). In Hebrew parallelism, the second line of the sentence simply reaffirms or enlarges the point in the first line. The parallelism in verse 6 shows that true knowledge of God and love for God mean the same thing. That’s what God wants. Hosea goes on in verse 7: “But they, like Adam have broken their agreement; again and again they have played me false” (Hos 6:7, Phillips). They cheated. How much security can you have in the family when some of the children are playing false?

Do you remember what Jesus told Nicodemus had to happen before he would be safe to save? John 3:3: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God'” (RSV). “Born again” means a new heart and a right spirit, exactly what David was saying in the fifty-first Psalm. Jesus didn’t say “Unless you are forgiven.” Or “Unless you are justified (have your legal standing adjusted), you cannot enter the kingdom.” He said “Unless you be changed and become a trustworthy person, a teachable member of My family, you will not be safe to admit into the hereafter.”

How can anyone tell they have really been reborn, and have genuine trust and faith? How can anyone know they have been put right with God and all is well? This is a question which was much debated in the early days, and is still debated to this day. In fact, a leader in the early Christian church wrote an entire book to clear it up, a book that has troubled many saints: It’s in the Bible, the book of James. Note James 2:14, 19, and 21-23:

My brothers, what use is it for a man to say he has faith when he does nothing to show it? Can that faith save him?. . . . You have faith enough to believe that there is one God. Excellent! The devils have faith like that, and it makes them tremble (James 2:14, 19, NEB).

The devils believe God is powerful but there is no friendship between them and God.

Was it not by his action in offering his son Isaac upon the altar, that our father Abraham was justified? Surely you can see that faith was at work in his actions, and that by these actions the integrity of his faith was fully proved. Here was fulfillment of the words of Scripture: “Abraham put his faith in God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness” (James 2:21-23, NEB).

According to James, false faith is useless, but a genuine faith is demonstrated by one’s actions. But then in the following verse is the puzzling word “counted.” If you take the legal view of what’s gone wrong in the universe, you can hear the cash registers ringing as you read this verse. But the word “counted” has another meaning besides its use in accounting or math: It can mean “considered,” or “reckoned as.” Reading it this way God was saying, “Abraham trusts Me, and that’s good. That’s what I want. That’s what it means to be right.” Evidence that this is the correct reading is found at the end of the verse, “Elsewhere he is called ‘God’s friend'” (James 2:23, NEB). When you are God’s friend all is right, all is well.

What Is Faith Really?

Conversations About God 3:3

Perhaps the famous verse in Hebrews 11:1 will help us. First, the familiar wording of the King James (KJV): “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Does it help to know that faith is a substance? Or that faith is the evidence of things not seen? That would suggest that if you have faith in something, that’s evidence that it is really so. But if you have faith that there’s a man in the moon does that prove there must be one? That doesn’t make sense! But do we sometimes use faith this way? Does Hebrews 11 encourage us to do so? Let’s look at those two words, translated “substance” and “evidence.”

Let’s take the word for “evidence” first: the Greek word is elengchos. It’s a noun that comes from a verb used for the work of the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit comes, He will convince you. He will convict you. He will settle you into the truth. A better translation than “evidence” would be “conviction.” Faith is conviction.

Now let’s look at the other word, “substance.” The Greek word it is based on is hupostasis. We get the English word hypostasis from that, although most of us rarely use it. It doesn’t help much to know that faith is a hypostasis, does it? But does it help to think of faith as a substance either? Actually, the Greek word hupostasis means “that which stands under,” and that’s where the “sub” and the “stance” came from. The English “substance” is from the Latin equivalent of hupostasis. That may be very good Latin, but in this case it’s not very good English.

Not until the turn of the century did scholars discover what this word really means. As archeologists were digging in the sands of Egypt, looking for manuscripts primarily, they found some that were title deeds to property, business agreements, covenants; and the title on each of these documents was this very word: hupostasis. And it dawned on them that in Hebrews 11 the apostle was saying that faith is an agreement, a covenant. Covenants are all about relationship, what people need to do if they are to trust each other in business. God offers us many things, but first He presents Himself. If we decide that we can trust Him, that we would like to “do business” with Him, that trusting relationship is faith.

So how should we translate this word hupostasis? Let’s look at three different translations: “Now faith is the title-deed of things hoped for” (Montgomery). “Now faith means that we are confident of what we hope for, convinced of what we do not see” (Moffatt). “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV). Can you see the idea of conviction or certainty coming through? That’s the meaning of faith. This is further clarified by the previous context of Hebrews 11:1, which you find in 10:35-39 (remembering that there were no chapter divisions in the early days):

Don’t throw away your trust now—it carries with it a rich reward. Patient endurance is what you need if, after doing God’s will, you are to receive what he has promised. For yet a little while, He that cometh shall come, and shall not tarry. But my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrink back, my soul hath no pleasure in him. Surely we are not going to be men who cower back and are lost, but men who maintain their faith for the salvation of their souls (Phillips)!

Faith is our conviction. It’s being certain about things that at the moment we cannot see. There is a background to that verse in Hebrews, Habakkuk chapters one and two. There Habakkuk says to God, “Why don’t you do something” (Hab 1:2-4)? And God says, “I am. But you wouldn’t believe it if I told you” (Hab 1:5). And Habakkuk says, “I’m going to wait and see” (Hab 2:1). And God says, “If what I have predicted seems slow, wait for it; it will come. My righteous One will live in trust” (Hab 2:3-4). That famous verse, “the just shall live by faith (Hab 2:4),” is not discussing forgiveness or justification. The verse is saying that the one who is right with God will trust Him and be willing to wait. That’s the kind of trust and right relationship with God that really counts. And when we come to Paul’s use of the same phrase in Romans 1, (chapters 8 and 16 of this book), we’ll want to remember that Habakkuk is the background for it.

The angels had such trust, at least the loyal ones did. They also had questions! But they said to God, “We trust you enough that we’re willing to wait,” and they waited all the way to Calvary for some of the answers to their questions. They heard the promise to Adam and Eve that God was going to do something, and they were willing to wait because they trusted God. This certainly helps us to understand “salvation by faith” and “righteousness by faith.” Faith is trust in the way God chose to save us. We’re not saved by faith. Faith does not save us, God saves us. But God can only save those who trust Him.

Like a physician, God stands ready to heal all the damage done. But He cannot force us to be well. If we don’t trust Him enough to listen, to cooperate, and to let Him heal the damage done, there’s no way He can heal us. Physicians cannot heal rebellious patients who stay away because they think the doctor is a quack. Only when there is trust in the physician can healing really take place.

All God Asked of a Jailer in Philippi

Conversations About God 3:2

Seeing trust as a central issue in the universe helps explain Paul’s very brief reply to the jailer in Philippi. An earthquake brought down the doors of that jail (Acts 16:25-26). The jailer was afraid that the prisoners had escaped, in which case he himself would be executed. But when Paul called out to him, he ran in and fell down at the feet of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:27-29). He then brought them out of the jail and earnestly inquired, “What must I do to be saved?” At least “What must I do to be safe?” Paul did not reply, “If you have the time, I have 20 lessons for you. As we sit here in the rubble of the jail, I’ll lead you through the doctrines of the church.” No, all Paul said was, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” So we need to clearly understand what Paul meant by that word translated “believe.”

We often go to great lengths to explain the difference between belief and faith. Of all the illustrations I’ve heard to explain the difference, the one that impressed me the most was the story of the man who strung a cable over Niagara Falls. A preacher described how a crowd watched the man crossing over the Falls on the cable, pushing a wheelbarrow in front of him. Upon his return, he turned to the crowd and said, “Do you believe I can do that again?”
A man in the crowd replied, “Yes, I believe you can.”
“Then climb into my wheelbarrow.”
“Not on your life!” said the spectator.
The preacher telling the story would then say, “You see, he believed he could make it across, but he didn’t have faith.”

The difference between belief and faith matters in the English language, but there is no such difference between belief and faith in the Bible. There is only one word for both and that word is pistis. You see, the original conversation between the jailer and Paul was in Greek. And that’s the reason these Bible versions read differently.

Let’s look at Acts 16:30, 31 in several versions. The first reading is from the King James Version (KJV): “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.'” But in the New English Bible (NEB) it reads, “Put your trust in the Lord Jesus. . . .” The Berkeley version has; “Have faith in the Lord Jesus. . . .” All three translations are based on exactly the same Greek word. In English the word pistis means belief, faith, trust, confidence. And the versions vary, just for variety.

Among these options, we’re most familiar with the word “faith.” As Christians we talk about it a great deal. But what is faith? What do we mean when we say to a person “Have faith,” or “You should have more faith,” or, “We’re saved by faith,” or, “Righteousness by faith”? Faith means so many different things these days that we almost need another word. The most notorious definition of faith is the one given by a small schoolboy. He said, “Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.” You see, in some people’s minds, if you’re prepared to believe what “you know ain’t so,” that’s real faith.

Now, most of us wouldn’t go that far. But we might say, “Faith is believing something for which you have insufficient evidence,” because if you had sufficient evidence, you wouldn’t say “I accept that by faith,” you would say, “I know.” Does that mean that the more we come to know God, the less faith we’ll have? When we actually stand in His presence will we say, “God, I see you now, and that’s the end of my faith? I’ll never believe in you again, because now I know you”?