June 1, 2013 § 4 Comments
Last night I again had the privilege of addressing the graduating class at Trinitas Christian School. I had been asked to speak about, simply, faith. Here is the text of what I shared.
Tonight I am talking to you about faith. Not faith in general—but the faith that is the foundation of our living, moving and being. It is the faith that Paul speaks about in two passages. The first is Hebrews 11:1-3:Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3)
Faith Defined: The Ground of Assurance, Certainty and Understanding
What are the things you hope for? A good college career? A job? Marriage and family? Relative peace and affluence? Opportunity to positively impact your community? Certainly these are the kinds of things you rightly “hope for.”
But these can’t be the “things hoped for” which Paul talks about here—not merely because they are material in nature but primarily because everything in the book of Hebrews up to this point has been directed to one thing: exalting Jesus as the Christ so that who he is and what he does stays the focus of our repentance and trust.
So, in context, the “things hoped for,” as Paul has made his case for Christ’s supremacy, are the assurance of the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s finished atonement (1:3; 7:27; 10:12-14); the conviction that Jesus is able to empathize with our weaknesses (2:18; 4:15); the promise of a new and better covenant (7:22; 8:6-8; 13:10); the pledge of a clean conscience before God (9:13, 14; 10:22); the confidence that we may draw near to God without fear (4:15, 16; 10:19-22; 12:18-24); the guarantee of a band of like-minded brethren (10:24, 25; 12:1); and the security of an eternal city whose designer and builder is God (11:10).
All of these are the “things hoped for”—and by Paul’s definition in Hebrews 11:1, not one of them hangs in the balance, not one of them is unsecured or waits for our completion—they have been sealed to us by faith in who Jesus is, what Jesus did—and what he continues to do by the gifts of the ordinary means of grace: the Word, worship, prayer, fellowship with the body, and the sacraments.
Biblically speaking, true faith is assurance, it is certainty—because it accepts what is proposed on the assured authority and certain trustworthiness of the One proposing it: the one, true living God who is Father, Son and Spirit. So it is no surprise that the very next thing Paul says is that is by faith that the “people of old” were commended by God. They believed him and their belief was credited to them as righteousness—and became the means by which they learned to understand the world that God made and put them in to live.
This has always been the case with God’s people, as the prophet Habakkuk said, “…the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). The glorious reality for those of us who live by faith under the New Covenant that Paul extols in Hebrews is that this faith has been sharpened in its particular focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection; what the saints of old by faith longed to see, we, the saints of today, have possessed by faith in Jesus. That is what Hebrews is all about.
Faith Valued: The Means of our Knowing Jesus
And that brings me to Philippians. Paul in Hebrews 11 defines biblical faith as the ground of our assurance, certainty and understanding; in Philippians 3 he values biblical faith as means of our knowing Jesus. The only thing for Paul that is more precious than faith is the One who is known by that faith: Jesus. Listen to the passion of his language:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him…
Hopefully you remember the context of Paul’s passionate words here; the “gain” that he says he counted as loss was nothing less than his academic, professional, religious and cultural reputation and standing, things which had up until coming to faith in Christ had been his confidence and assurance:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4b-6)
In other words, from an academic, professional, religious and cultural standpoint Paul had an elite heritage; he had influence; he had respect—and though he was born into some of these things, much of it came by hard work and effort on his part. And for that reason he was confident—and proud.
But it was when Paul was laid flat by the proposition that he gained the righteousness of God not by his pedigree or by any of his efforts but by faith in Christ, he considered all of his “gain” to be, comparably, “rubbish.”
You, candidates for graduation, have much to be proud of, because of your hard work and effort. We have heard the awards and scholarships—and with them comes a proper measure of confidence. And in what I am about to say I plead with you not to hear any suggestion that there is no value in what you have achieved—there is. And don’t let anyone tell you that what I going to say ultimately leads to being anti-intellectual or shallow—even though some very readily erect a wall between heart and mind.
Here it is: Next to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus, none of the last 12 years, or the years ahead, will ultimately matter — unless you know Jesus. That is, what will matter is your faith: knowing Jesus.
That makes a lot of people uncomfortable—and it should, because it puts everything in perspective, jwhich is what Paul does right here in Philippians 3. Faith is the means by which we know Jesus, as he goes on to say, both in “the power of his resurrection” and in sharing in “his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…..” What this means is that knowing Jesus and resting solely by faith in the righteousness that he supplies solely by his grace gives us a reference point for all other things. Simply put, I believe Paul is saying that anything that ultimately keeps me from knowing and growing in Christ is rubbish.
This is precisely why yours has been, or at least has been an effort to be, a Classical Christian education. It is not an end unto itself but an means to the end of knowing Christ by faith, and in that knowing to love him with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength—whatever you do in word and deed (Luke 10:27; Col. 3:17).
Again—my charge to you does not at all lessen Christ’s very call to you pursue academic and intellectual excellence. What it does is give that pursuit ground, goal—and guardrails.
Do you know Jesus Better?
J. Gresham Machen was a brilliant and articulate Presbyterian theologian of the early 20th century. He was a professor at Princeton Seminary—until the seminary board, which rejected, among other things, the inspiration of Scripture, the deity of Christ—fired him. His denomination stripped him of his ordination for having the audacity to believe that Jesus was the only name “under heaven given among men by which we are saved” (Acts 4:12). Academically, professionally, in the community—he lost everything—except the assurance of things he hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen: Jesus.
Here is what Machen said: “The more we know of God, the more unreservedly we will trust him; the greater our progress in theology, the simpler and more childlike will be our faith.” That is beautiful—and it is what matters most, tonight, tomorrow morning, this summer, next fall and every day and night until your dying breath and you exchange faith to faith for face to face.
The year before I graduated from seminary I had the opportunity to attend a graduation function, a banquet in which the Seniors were congratulated and acknowledged for their hard work, perseverance and vision. What the President of the seminary said in his closing remarks that night propelled me to persevere to my own graduation the next year—and have stayed with me these last 22 years: “A seminary education is complete only if, at its end, the student knows Jesus better than at its beginning.”
I trust that is case as you leave Trinitas; I pray it will be the standard of how you evaluate all you do from here forward, growing in your child-like trust in Christ of his sufficiency, his comfort, his strength and his delight in you as his redeemed sibling. Every choice you make must be guided by this focus of faith—what you study and why, who you “hang around” with, where and with whom you worship, the person to whom you pledge your covenant and promise in marriage if God so ordains—everything must have as its reference point “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [your] Lord.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins has always been one of my favorite poets—mainly because of the way he makes nouns and adjectives into verbs. In a very weak Hopkinsish way, indulge me to charge you to “faith forward.”
Faith forward—with each step an endeavor to know and love Jesus more deeply, to serve him more passionately, to find your satisfaction in the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen, that God might grant you the privilege to have the same testimony of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and martyr for the Lord he loved: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and he never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?