“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
“But the righteous one will live by his faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4)
More than thirty years ago, when I still lived in western New York, we operated a small Christian bookstore for about a year. Even before Amazon, first an online bookstore before it became the juggernaut it is today, an independent bookstore like ours in a rural area wasn’t going to be a profitable business.
And guaranteeing its demise, the associate pastor of a local fundamental Baptist church told me matter-of-factly one day that they had started a bookstore of their own “because we wanted something for our own people.” (Aren’t all Christians “your own people”? It’s hard to imagine hearing a conversation like this in the Roman catacombs.) And the local horse-and-buggy Mennonite community had their own bookstore as well. All this in a county of about 20,000 people.
Despite the steady decline of nominal Christianity, which had left lots of church buildings with not enough people to fill them, there was nevertheless quite a denominational variety for the small community I lived in. Every so often the conversation with a customer turned to questions like, “So what do you (or they, if discussing a third party) believe about . . . ?
That’s the sort of question answered by a church’s Statement of Faith. Nowadays, every church with a website has a page devoted to that. What you believe comes under the heading of articles of faith, a set of theological statements or propositions that you agree with. That’s what you believe in.
I never really liked the “what do you believe in?” discussions. Usually, when I mentioned that I attended a “Spirit-filled” church—the standard euphemism for charismatic at the time—the other person recoiled a bit, as if a silent alarm had gone off in his head like the ones activated by bank tellers during a robbery. But it was useful as an opportunity to change the subject.
I also didn’t like the subject because it was a concept of faith totally different from the one we had been thrust into by starting a never-to-be-profitable bookstore. Traffic could be slow to non-existent at times. Receipts barely paid for stock replenishment, so I became a one-man remodeling business outside the store to pay the bills and keep the store going. (Or tried to.)
We were living by faith, in other words. I depended on a steady flow of jobs, referrals and promptly paid invoices to survive, and any blip could spell trouble. There were a few times we barely had enough to put food on the table. We were dependent on God in a way that the phrase what we believe in hardly scratched the surface of.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have foundational, non-negotiable beliefs. “You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine,” Paul wrote (Ti 2:1).
Paul also warned, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim 4:3). You must have a solid foundation, or faith is like a sailboat with no rudder, at the mercy of the shifting wind.
But even with a good foundation someone can build by cutting corners, using cheap materials or poor practices. Spiritually speaking, Paul wrote, on the sound foundation he had laid anyone can build “using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw” (1 Cor 3:12). Obviously, if fire “test[s] the quality of each person’s work” (v. 13), wood, hay or straw won’t even come close to gold, silver or precious stones.
One of the unconscious lapses in applying the Great Commission is casually interpreting it as “teaching them everything I have commanded you.” That’s not what Jesus said. The whole command is “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). There’s a big difference.
Teaching them what Jesus taught can be summarized in a Statement of Faith. Teaching them to obey means living by faith.
For obedience to Jesus’ commands is a swimming-upstream-against-the-current enterprise nearly from day one. The opportunity and temptation to compromise, water down and rationalize away is ever-present.
It’s not for nothing Paul exhorted us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Conformity is the path of least resistance—and little or no faith.
There is also the temptation to accumulate knowledge of what is right rather than do what is right. “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1). It’s gratifying to uncover the meaning of the Scriptures, but it’s also a magnet for spiritual pride.
That’s partly what’s behind Paul’s words as he dismantles the “righteousness” of the self-righteous, aka those with knowledge of God’s word only:
“If you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?” (Rom 2:18-21) What kind of “righteousness” knows what is right but doesn’t do it?
As it turns out, one of the prophet’s: Jonah. Consider some of Jonah’s Statements of Faith:
“I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). God as Creator of heaven and earth. Perfectly orthodox.
“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them” (2:8). Alludes to the covenants God made with his people and the associated blessings and curses. Perfectly orthodox.
“I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord’” (2:9). Soteriology (doctrine of salvation) perfectly orthodox.
“’Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (3:9-10). God fulfills the promises he makes. Perfectly orthodox.
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2). Perfectly orthodox description of God as merciful.
By now it should be obvious that all of these statements are things every one of us—Jonah included—can subscribe to.
In all of these things Jonah– in what he believed–honored God as God. But his life was a different story.
His life was a living denial of what he believed. So that as Paul wrote, “As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles [i.e., those without the Law] because of you'” (Rom 2:24).
In fact, Jonah has the brass to say, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2).
In other words, I disobeyed because I knew you were a merciful God and such a thing might happen (i.e., you would show mercy to repentant Nineveh).
Is this living by faith—or subverting it? You who survived certain death at sea only because of his mercy–are you merciful?