In our last article, we did a brief sketch of God’s mindblowing plan for human history and our place in it. We saw that God, the Sovereign Creator, relates to his people as a Shepherd to his sheep. He has a destination for us, and he guides us to that destination, making sure that we arrive safely.
But how much of a part do we have to play? Do we just sit back and enjoy the scenery? In this, the second article in our series of three, we deal with…
When the evangelists of the NT called on people to act, what did they ask them to do? We need to take careful note of the answer to this question, for it will tell us how we need to respond to God’s plans. Typically, the required response was twofold, and Paul summarizes it in these words: “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21).
Repentance = Turning
Repentance is about changing your mind, or more precisely changing your direction. “I used to live this way, but now I have changed my mind and in future I will live this other way.”
Repentance means far more than feeling sorry. Sometimes it is associated with sorrow, but sometimes it is not (see 2 Cor 7:8f.). It is possible to feel very sorry about something but still keep on doing it—that is not repentance. It is equally possible to have a complete change of mind and action about something without feeling very sorry at all.
A good example of repentance is found in 1 Thes 1:9-10. The Thessalonians used to worship idols, but after hearing the gospel they turned and began to serve the true and living God and to wait for his Son from heaven. Their change of mind altered their whole lives. They had an altered relationship with God, and an altered eternity.
This is just like the repentance that Jesus demands from his disciples. He calls on them to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Mk 8:34). Here is a radical repentance—to pronounce yourself dead and to start living for Christ. Paul puts it like this: “He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor 5:15).
A key part of the right response to God and his plans is choosing NOT to live for ourselves but for our Maker and Redeemer. In his death and resurrection, Jesus obliterates our past and opens up a new future for us. He makes possible a new start, a whole new life, in which we serve the living and true God rather than the dead and false god of our own Selfishness.
Faith = Trusting
The other key part of our response to God’s guidance is ‘faith’, a misused and misunderstood religious word if ever there was one. In modern Australia, faith means believing something to be true even though all the evidence is against you. Faith is a kind of blind, irrational leap (usually into the dark) in the face of all that is reasonable. This is reflected in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, which defines faith as “belief in religious doctrines, especially such as effects character and conduct; spiritual apprehension of divine truth apart from proof”.
The Bible uses the word ‘faith’ simply to mean ‘trust’. To have faith in someone is to trust them, or rely on them, or be confident that what they say is true. You may do this rationally on the basis of detailed evidence, or you may do it irrationally because you are gullible; but either way it qualifies as ‘faith’.
As I write this, I am believing in a chair. I am having faith in it. My whole weight is placed upon it and I am trusting it to do its job. It is not an irrational faith. I have been sitting on this chair for some part of most days during the last fifteen years, and it has yet to fail me. If I felt so inclined, I could examine the chair more closely to see if it was worthy of my trust. I could test its construction, analyze its design, and check all the joints. If it passed all the tests, I could then choose to sit on it, with my empirical rationality finally satisfied. However, I would still be putting faith in the chair (and, incidentally, in my empirical rationality).
Now faith understood in this sense (as trust or confidence) lies at the heart of our response to God. The gospel declares to us who Jesus is and what he has done. It tells of God’s plans for the world and for each one of us, and it calls us to turn from our present way of life (repent) and place our trust in Jesus (faith). Like the Thessalonians, we are to “wait for God’s Son from heaven”—that is, to put our ‘faith’ in him (1 Thes 1:10). The NT makes much of this response of faith to the person and work of Jesus (e.g., Jn 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom 5:1). Here then is the NT way of responding to God—we are to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus.
Is that all?
This all seems very safe and conventional, but is that all there is? Is repentance and faith all that God requires of us? Most of us would acknowledge that repentance and faith should be our initial reponse to the gospel, but what of our on-going response to his guidance throughout our Christian lives?
When we examine this response more closely, we find that the continuing response to God is the same as the initial one. Repentance is something that we do once—decisively— when we hear the gospel and become Christians; and yet it is also something we continue to do throughout our lives.
Paul, for example, wanted the Colossians to ‘put on’ love, to keep clothing themselves in the characteristics and behaviour that befitted their new status as God’s chosen people (Col 3:5-14). They had made a decisive repentance—there was no doubt about that. They had “died with Christ” and had been “raised with Christ” to a new life (2:20-3:4). Yet Paul exhorted them to keep putting to death whatever belonged to their “earthly nature”. It didn’t stop with conversion.
Repentance is a continuing response to God. The good works of Christian living are a natural outworking of repentance. Having turned our backs on our old ways of life, we are now to walk in a new way, following our new Master.
In the same way, faith is the ongoing response of God’s people to their Lord. God is our Shepherd, guiding us towards home. The response of the sheep is to trust. They hear the shepherd’s voice and follow, relying on him to get them home:
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; no-one shall snatch them out of my hands. (Jn 10:25-30)
Jesus reassures his sheep that they will arrive at their destination. And notice that Jesus equates listening with following. We follow our Master by listening to what he has to say and then doing it. The Good Shepherd calls upon the sheep to trust him, to accept his guidance, and to keep following him throughout their lives.
The New Testament describes our response to God’s guidance in the simple terms of repentance and faith. However, many Christians misunderstand this response, often because they do not understand God’s part in the process. Let us look at just two of these common misunderstandings.
We’ve already seen that one of our responses to God’s guidance is faith. But what sort of faith? If God is so completely in control, do we really need to do anything at all? As a famous Christian expression puts it, should we “let go and let God”? Is this the essence of trusting God?
Today, many people use the word faith in this do-nothing sense. Several couples I have spoken to before marriage have told me that they planned not to use contraceptives because they were “just going to trust God”. Similarly, some missionary societies call themselves ‘faith missions’ because they make no organized, human attempt to raise money—”We just look to the Lord to supply the money”.
This is how many people today use the word ‘faith’, and we cannot say that God won’t bless people who live this way. God, in his mercy, may give the non-contraceptive couple the two children they were hoping for (and no more). God is able to control the reproductive process—just look what he achieved with Abraham and Sarah! In the same way, God can finance a missionary society without the normal fund-raising efforts. The people of Israel did not leave Egypt empty-handed—God provided them with plunder from the terrified Egyptians (Ex 3:21-22; 11:2-3; 12:35-36).
But if we want to use the word ‘faith’ in its biblical sense, then we must not equate it with doing nothing. In some circumstances, doing nothing may signify a great trust in God; in other circumstances, it may signify unbelief of the worst kind. Faith in the Bible is an active reliance on God such that we choose to live his way. Having faith in God means taking action as he directs. If he directs us not to organize our missionary finances, then doing nothing is indeed the response of faith. But if he does direct us to organize ourselves, then doing nothing is lack of faith.
It is just this confusion that James addresses in the second chapter of his letter. Faith without works is dead, says James. It is not faith at all. Real trust in God will always result in good works, actions, deeds. Real faith will listen to what God says, accept it as the truth, and seek to put it into practice. Deeds are not the opposite of faith; disobedience is the opposite of the faith. (A careful reading of Heb 3-4 brings this distinction out very clearly).
Some may raise other parts of Scripture such as this:
In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it.
You said, “We will ride off on swift horses.”
Therefore you will flee!
However, when we look at such passages in context, we see that trusting God in that situation meant doing nothing because God had told his people to do nothing. This is quite different from saying that faith always means doing nothing and waiting for God. God does not get angry with people because they take action. He gets angry with them for taking their own action, rather than his.
In the Bible, ‘faith’ is not fatalistic. It is not sitting back and letting God do it all. Faith is an active relationship of trust and dependence and it is expressed in thousands of ways. If we trust God’s power and love towards us, then we will pray to him for our needs and thank him for all that he gives us. We will listen to what he says and obey it. We will confidently follow his directions, knowing that they lead heavenward.
The ‘second best’ heresy
A second common misunderstanding revolves around the strange idea of God’s ‘second best’.
Some Christians are taught that if God wants them to follow a particular course of action (marry Mary-Lou, or serve on the mission field of Bolivia) and they choose not to do it, then they are committed for the rest of their lives to God’s ‘second best’. God had something better for them, but they missed out on it and so are required to settle for Plan B, so to speak. Many Christians today live in resentment, disappointment and guilt, believing that they have irrevocably missed out on God’s perfect plan for them.
This view is a travesty of the biblical understanding of God. It contains numerous errors.
Firstly, there is a misunderstanding of sin and its consequences. The ‘second best’ theory seems to assume that there are only relatively few decisions that might place us outside God’s will. However, our wrong decisions are not limited to a few areas (like marriage and career). We choose to rebel against God in hundreds and thousands of ways throughout our lives. Does each of these mistakes take us further and further away from the perfect plan? By the end of our lives, are we somewhere up around the ’10,000th best’?
Closely related to the first error, is the very selective nature of the decisions that can consign us to the ‘second best’. Things like marriage, career, answering the call to the mission-field, and so on, seem to be viewed as very important matters of guidance, while the thousands of other decisions we make each week are somehow unimportant. This perception is false. The things we think are very important are often quite unimportant to God—and vice versa.
Most importantly, the ‘second best’ heresy denies the power of God. According to this view, once I have chosen my course of action, God is powerless to redeem the situation. He cannot rewrite the script. In fact, he is no longer a God with plans; he is a God with hopes. He is unable to achieve his goals without my indispensable co-operation, and is dependent on me making the right choices. He becomes subject to the whims and follies of human sinfulness.
Needless to say, this view of God is at complete variance with the way God is revealed in the Scriptures. God over-rules the minds and hearts of people to achieve his plans. He uses even our sinful decisions to bring about his purposes. He can take an action that was wrong and intended to do harm, and achieve his own good purpose through it.
The story of Joseph is a good example. His brothers did an evil thing in selling Joseph into slavery, but God “intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done: the saving of many” (Gen 50:19-20). The cross of Jesus is the supreme example of this (see 1 Cor 2:7-8; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).
God over-rules everything—including the hearts and minds of people—to achieve his purposes. We reject God’s power (and his guidance) when we act as if this were not true.
God’s power stretches over all things, even over our wilful and sinful decisions. He may, and indeed does, call us into conscious cooperation with him in his plans. As we have already seen, he does demand a response from us.
However, we must not think that the accomplishment of his plans are somehow dependent on our participation, as if he were limited by our freedom. The ‘second best’ heresy makes this mistake. It is a classic instance of what is a distressingly widespread problem amongst Christians—the rejection of God’s power.
So far, then, we have looked at the big picture. In the first two articles of our series, we have thought about the character of the guiding God, at his plans for us, and at how we should (and shouldn’t) respond. However, we have yet to explore the means by which God guides us along the way. How does God guide us? What methods does he use? How do we hear his voice so that we can follow?
It is to this subject that we will turn in the third article in the series.