What does it mean to have faith? Is having faith similar to having a dog? In other words, is faith simply something Christians possess or is it something more alive and active than that?
Before you answer that question, though, I actually think a helpful thing to consider at the foundation of it relates to the difference between having faith in God and having knowledge of God.
I think most would readily acknowledge that exercising faith involves more than having knowledge. Experientially, it’s fairly evident. I can significantly grow in knowledge and truth and yet at times act less spiritual or godly than days when I knew less. This was a big crisis moment for me in seminary when I hit a dark season. How could I explain my experience of weak faith after years of ministry training and education? How is that possible? How is it that I could grow leaps and bounds in my knowledge of God in 2019 and yet live less like Christ in 2020? I now really think the key to answering that question comes from understanding the difference between knowledge of God and faith in God.
1. What does it mean to have knowledge of God?
Here are three verses that speak about the effect and potential of having knowledge about God. Each verse adds its own key component. These examples exclude the type of knowledge that is gained through general revelation (Rom. 1:19-21); in a more narrow sense, these examples refer to knowledge in a believer’s life through divine revelation.
Knowledge Makes Possible A Godly Life
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Peter 1:3-4)
Peter is saying that there’s something in this “knowledge of him” through which we receive “all things” needed for a godly life—and, specifically, it’s through knowledge of his promises that we partake of the “divine nature,” which enables us to escape the corruption of the world. This passage opens the door to what a knowledge of God and his promises makes possible—a godly life.
Knowledge Motivates A Godly Life
“Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)
An important consideration is the relationship between these two phrases—the first about being steadfast, immovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord and the second about knowing that God will reward that work. What seems evident is that the knowing is the means of the being. In other words, knowing that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him is what motivates or energizes this kind of steady, fruitful, godly living.
Knowledge Necessitates A Godly Life
“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” (1 John 2:3)
How do you know that you know God? The answer—you keep his commandments. There is such a close tie between having a knowledge of God and having a godly life that John almost draws a one-to-one connection between the two. Not with an understanding of perfectionism, but in a general sense—if someone does not keep God’s commandments, they don’t actually know God.
These passages result in the conclusion that knowing God motivates, makes possible, and necessitates a godly life. But here’s why that conclusion actually presents a problem. The thought process goes like this: 1) Christians know God, 2) knowing God is supposed to result in a godly life, but 3) Christians still sin. Something is going to have to account for this gap between what my knowledge of God should be doing in my life and what is actually happening in my life. Part of this answer has to do with the possibility of being simultaneously described both as godly and sinful. But I still want to know the reason why we have “all things needed” for a godly life and yet often lack in godly living.
2. What is the danger of only having knowledge of God?
How does the Bible describe a Christian who knows God but whose knowledge of God is not having its intended effect in their life? The following verses are listed to bring attention to what can happen with our knowledge of God.
- “being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8)
- “so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten he was cleansed from his former sins (2 Peter 1:9)
- “the message they heard did not benefit them” (Hebrews 4:2)
- “now that you have come to know God… how can you turn back again” (Galatians 4:9)
- “today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart” (Hebrews 3:15)
- “set your minds… not on things that are on the earth (Colossians 3:2)
These words are a shock of warning to those that know God. We are constantly exhorted to rightly respond to our knowledge of God in order to avoid barrenness, ineffectiveness, blindness, forgetfulness, hardness of heart, and distraction. These are all ever-present dangers in the life of a Christian.
The benefit of knowing God is that it has the incredible power to transform your life as you behold his glory, but the problem with that knowledge is that we can easily forget and live in contradiction to what we have known to be true and glorious. And this is what leads to an important point—Christians need more than an offhand knowledge of God.
Head knowledge isn’t enough, which is why the rest of what I am writing to you is to persuade you that this is exactly why we need faith in God.
3. What does it mean to have faith in God?
Hebrews 11 starts with a helpful description of faith. “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6). What follows in the book of Hebrews is the fleshed out, real life examples of this faith in action.
- Noah: “being warned of things not yet seen, in reverent fear constructed an ark…”
- Abraham: “obeyed when he was called to go out… for he looked for a city which has foundations”
- Sarah: “received power to conceive… because she considered him faithful who had promised”
- Abraham: “offered up Isaac… accounting that God was able to raise him up”
- Moses: “choose rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin… because he esteemed the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward… He endured, as seeing him who is invisible”
A general theme of faith becomes evident when reading through their stories. And towards the middle of Hebrews 11 we get this somewhat of a summary statement about the faith at work in their lives. I believe here is where we see the various dimensions of faith at work.
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)
It’s maybe typical to stop our understanding of faith with the first two phrases: 1) seeing something far off or invisible and 2) being persuaded of it. But how critical are the proceeding verses of embracing, seeking, and thinking about those things we believe! Verse 15 emphasizes the point that if these people had a knowledge of God’s promises but had been mindful (thinking) about the land which they had gone out from, they may have gone back. In other words, they might not have obtained the promises if their minds were attached to the things God was pointing them away from. Exodus 14:11-13 exemplifies this well. It’s soon after God’s initial and triumphant deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt that they start complaining and wishing they could go back, saying things like “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians.” That is exactly what we are warned against and what faith doesn’t do—taking our eyes off of the glorious and unshakable promises of God.
Faith is simply seeing and believing only if our understanding of seeing and believing includes these elements of actively seeking and embracing. Faith is at work when we are mindful of God and moving towards Him because of it. This means we have an answer for the discrepancy between what we know and how we live. Faith closes the gap between our knowledge of God and our life for God. Faith is what makes our knowledge of God effective, and it happens through actively considering, seeking, and embracing those unseen truths.
Christians Use Three Eyes.
Until Christ returns, every Christian ultimately functions spiritually not by what they see but by faith. The very life of a Christian depends on it. “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). Offhand knowledge of God may get you through a test in a Bible class, but it can’t get your through cancer with joy. Tests on paper assess your knowledge, but tests in life assess your faith. You won’t be able to persevere, counting suffering and death as joy, with just knowledge. It requires knowledge of the unseen, but it is precisely through seeking and setting your mind’s eye on those unseen glories that provides the strength needed to live in light of it.
Weigh this against your own experience. Why don’t you just take a break from devotions this year and rely on all the Bible reading and prayer you’ve done throughout your life? Why do you feel a great need to daily set aside time to focus your attention on God and his Word? My guess is that it’s because you’ve felt the power of faith. There is nothing like the power and sweetness of truth that is fresh in your mind’s eye. And that is what I am arguing for—that faith in God is only present and effective when our mind’s eye is actively considering and embracing unseen realities.
Wholesome habits are great, and knowledge of God is helpful—but they can lack the most important thing: faith. A life that only relies on what is seen is not pleasing to God. The glory comes through gazing at an unseen God; the life of a Christian necessitates using three eyes.
“Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Hebrews 11:6)
[Part two is on its way. This first part is mostly foundational to what I’m excited to hopefully communicate in the next post, which gets at the implications and significance of this.]