Doubt and the Nature of Faith (Refiner’s Fire Pt 4)

NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. It deals with the story of John the Baptist as a vehicle for navigating our own struggles with doubt, disappointment, and crisis of faith. I’m working on it daily and will release the whole thing as a book once it’s done. What you see on the blog is a work-in-progress. It may make the most sense if you start from the beginning, so if you wish to read it that way, I’d recommend visiting the gospel of Matthew index page and looking for the Refiner’s Fire section. Please note the central passage of Scripture at issue is Matthew 11:1-19.


Faith does not exist in a vacuum. Not biblical faith, anyway.

In the catchphrasey way “faith” is frequently used these days, the word seems to mean a special feeling of belief or certainty. Like hope on steroids.

Without having read The Secret, I’ll venture to say that many of us think of Faith the same way true believers think of the Law of Attraction: it’s something we summon up from within us in order to influence God, or the Universe, to behave in accordance with our preferences.

As Christians we may believe God wants us to summon up this faith when we approach him, so it’s common in some circles to say we “have faith for” something or other—“faith for healing,” “faith for breakthrough,” “faith for my children to come back to the Lord,” “faith for a good grade.”

Faith as the Bible describes it, however, is not something we initiate or call up from within ourselves. Most basically, biblical faith is trust in God himself—that is, trust in God in the same sense that we trust in a person we consider trustworthy.

Drilling down further, biblical faith for a specific thing is a response to something God says or does. That is, it’s based on God’s initiative and will as he chooses to express it. That being the case, it isn’t “faith for” we need; it’s “faith in.”

Romans 10:16–17 states this clearly, and the rest of the New Testament clearly comes back to it. God, in his nature, words, and actions, is the basis of real faith. “Faith” that doesn’t originate in what God says and who he reveals himself to be is not really faith at all:

So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:16–17, NKV)

[Abraham] did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. (Romans 4:19–21, emphasis mine)

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without foundation, and so is your faith. (1 Corinthians 15:13–14)

The Content of Faith

Since faith requires God to have said or done something specific, it’s not nebulous or self-generated. To put it another way: “faith” as it is described in the Bible, and as it has traditionally been understood throughout Christian history, has a specific content, and that content is drawn from the words of God.

This concept will be more familiar to us if we come from a background grounded in creeds or liturgy. We might then think less in terms of “faith” as something personal and dynamic, and more in terms of “the faith”—something fixed and entirely external to us.

“The faith” can be understood as a set of doctrinal statements to which we give intellectual assent, along with a set of practices to which we commit ourselves. The faith, unlike faith as an inner energy of our own, existed before us and will still be there long after we are gone, and it arose entirely without our help.

This is closer to biblical faith than the wishful thinking espoused by popular culture (in and out of the church) today. But again, the key is that in order for anything to be worthy of our faith (in the sense of trust or believing), God must have originated it.

And in most cases, it will begin with his speaking—his “word.”* That’s why it matters so deeply that “the Christian faith” be based on the Scriptures and not just on the traditions or reason of human beings.

This shouldn’t be really surprising. Within a Christian worldview, it’s completely reasonable. After all, we believe that we live in a universe created by the speaking of God: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” … “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” (Genesis 1:3, Hebrews 11:3, ESV).

God’s words create; what he says, is; or if you prefer, what he says, becomes. God’s Word defines and creates reality. At times we hear the speaking before we see the manifestation, but that doesn’t mean we are putting our faith in something unreal; it just means God has given us reality in a latent form.

Jesus frequently compared the kingdom of God and the word of God that brings the kingdom to seed: it is here, it real, it is alive, and it is changing things, but we do not yet see it in its fully grown form.

At the outset, this is both comforting and humbling. We live in a day and age when faith is so often spoken of in highly subjective, personal, and internalized terms that it’s easy to forget we actually possess a heritage of content, a set of teachings, practices, and beliefs — a faith.

We may question this faith, but in doing so we aren’t just questioning our own perceptions or assumptions, nor are we questioning a fad diet or a meme we saw on the Internet. We’re questioning something that has been laid down over nearly three thousand years by some of the most intelligent and remarkable people who have ever lived. That doesn’t mean it’s right, of course, but it does mean it’s not a flash in the pan.

If you go beyond Christianity to the question of theism (belief in God) generally, the picture is even more stark: nearly every human being who has ever lived has believed in a god of some kind; nearly every human being living today still does. (Roughly 93%, statistically speaking.)

Again, this doesn’t make theism true, but it should make us humble in the way we approach our questions.

To return to the main point: in biblical thinking, faith is based on something external to us: in most cases, it’s based on God’s stated nature and intentions. If we believe something, even believe it with all our hearts, but it did not originate with God, then our belief is not biblical faith. It’s little more than wishful thinking.

The roots of all kinds of crisis lie right here: that we have a tendency to try to put God’s feet to the fire in ways that are not justified by his own words—to hold him to promises he hasn’t made.

Resolving our doubts is not as simple as giving ourselves a slap on the wrist, though. We may have good theological reasons for believing we can claim certain promises. We may believe we have personally heard God speak to us.

We may be reading a promise right off the page of the Bible, with its context and conditions recognized and accounted for, and yet we are still not seeing it fulfilled and we are still feeling disappointed and angry and offended and afraid, or we are feeling just the glimmers of any of those things, and they are shaking our world.

It was that way for John, I think.

What John Believed

John had certain expectations of the Messiah, and of Jesus as the Messiah, and none of them came out of a vacuum. His expectations did not originate with himself. He knew the Scripture and he heard from the Spirit of God. He had faith, and he was committed to “the faith.”

In every possible respect, his faith was real and biblical in nature.

So what did John believe?

[To be continued …]


* In recent years the terms “word of God” and “Scripture” or “Bible” have become conflated in our thinking, but while they overlap, they are not the same thing. The term “word of God,” as it’s used in the Scripture, means anything that God says. It includes his prophetic word, spoken directly or through messengers; the words he speaks to our hearts; and his promises. In a more mysterious sense, Jesus himself is the “Word of God” (John 1:1, 14). The word “Scripture” comes from the Latin root scribere, which means “to write”: the Scriptures are the written word of God. And the Bible (again from Latin, biblia, which means “books”) is the collection of those writings.


This is Part 162 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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