Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter four: the mystery of faith and the means of grace

But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ. Romans 10:14-15, 17

Christians do no work to earn God’s forgiveness and redemption. Jesus Christ has done all the work necessary to save the entire world from sin and evil and death. If someone tries to purchase God’s love and forgiveness, that person is insulting God by trying to pay for the gifts that God has already given for free.

Yet the preaching of Jesus was summarized with this sentence: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The prophets and the apostles also told people to repent and to believe. The Bible repeatedly warns that no one can be saved from sin and death without believing in Jesus Christ. The mystery of faith, quite simply, is that we must have faith to be God’s people, yet nothing we do causes us to be God’s people.

Repentance and faith are not our gifts to God; they are his gifts to us. Repentance and faith are the result of God the Holy Spirit working within us. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3). Paul is not describing the sounds made by our mouths, for any person can utter either sentence. Paul is describing the absence or presence of faith. If a person has faith in Jesus, that person has been given faith by the Holy Spirit. Christians cannot take credit for their own faith; only God deserves credit for the faith of his people.

Repentance and faith require no effort. They are not work done by Christians. If you believe that two plus two equals four or that Tokyo is in Japan, you trust the truth of those statements. You trust the people who first taught you those facts. Even though some facts are harder to learn than others, believing what you already have learned is never hard work.

Repentance and faith are more than mere facts, though. A person might say “Jesus is Lord” in twenty different languages and still not believe that it is true. A person might be able to recite long statements of faith from memory without agreeing with that faith. Repentance and faith involve knowledge, but they also involve a relationship with that knowledge. Repentance and faith require a relationship with Jesus Christ. That relationship happens, not when we find him, but when he finds us. He is the Shepherd who has gone out into the wilderness to bring his wandering sheep back to the fold. He is the Priest who sacrificed himself on a cross to pay for the sins of the world. He is the Savior who rescues sinners through his own life and death and resurrection.

Repentance and faith are not things that Christians do once and then never have to do again. Because they both involve a relationship with Jesus, both are ongoing parts of a Christian’s life every single day. If a Christian were to say, “I already repented—I don’t have to repent anymore,” or, “I already came to faith—I don’t have to believe anymore,” he or she would be badly mistaken. Christians constantly repent and constantly believe. Even while they sleep, Christians are still in a relationship with Jesus. They have faith both awake and asleep. If the brain of a Christian is damaged by injury or illness, that Christian might lose many things—the ability to talk, the ability to walk, or even the ability to think clearly. That Christian would not lose his or her faith, because Jesus and the Holy Spirit remain unchanged; and the relationship of faith is their work, not a Christian’s work. By the same token, even little children too young to walk or talk can have true Christian faith. John the Baptist had not been born when he leapt for joy at the sound of his Savior’s mother (Luke 1:44). Jesus spoke more than once about the faith of little children. (See Matthew 18:2-4 and Matthew 19:13-15 for two examples.) Repentance and faith do not require intelligence, because they are mysteries. They happen even without being understood.

Jesus commands us to repent and to believe. We could not do these things without his help. Jesus often works this way. A paralyzed man was brought to him, and Jesus commanded him, “rise, pick up your bed, and go home” (Mark 2:11). This man wanted to do these things, but he could not do them until Jesus gave him that command. When Jesus gave the command, the words that he said made the man able to do those things. On another occasion, Jesus visited a grave and commanded, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). Lazarus came out of the grave. He would not have been able to leave the grave without the command of Jesus, for he was dead; but the words of Jesus gave him the ability to do what Jesus commanded. Lazarus left the grave alive because Jesus, by calling him, made him able to obey.

In the same way, when Jesus tells people to repent, he gives them the ability to repent. When Jesus tells people to believe, he gives them the ability to believe. The Holy Spirit works through the words of Jesus so that people can do what Jesus wants them to do. The Word of God has great power to do marvelous things. God created the world by his Word. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Paul wrote that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). That is true, not merely because God is so good that he would never lie, but because God is so powerful that he cannot lie. Whenever he speaks, God’s Word makes things happen. Whatever God says is true because, by saying it, he makes it true.

Repentance is the awareness that we are sinners who need a Savior. When we repent, we acknowledge that we have done wrong (or failed to do right) and that we cannot fix that problem. Repentance can sometimes be emotional, but the feeling is not the repentance. Repentance is that part of our relationship with God that moves us to throw ourselves on his mercy. When we repent, then, we are responding to God’s commands. He has told us what to do and what not to do. The Holy Spirit guides us by comparing our lives to God’s commands and showing us our guilt. This awareness of guilt is good when it brings us to God for forgiveness. Awareness of guilt is bad only when it stands between ourselves and God, keeping us from knowing his forgiveness.

Faith is the awareness that we are sinners who have a Savior. When we believe, we acknowledge that Jesus has rescued us from our sins. We acknowledge that his life and death and resurrection guarantee us forgiveness and eternal life. Faith can sometimes be emotional, but the feeling is not the faith. Faith is that part of our relationship with God that trusts his mercy and all his promises. When we believe, we are responding to the gospel. God sent his Son to be our Savior, and now God tells us what Jesus has done for us. Awareness of Jesus and his rescue mission is always good. Without this faith, no one can be saved.

Some people claim that “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you have faith.” That claim is nonsense. Believing in Jesus as Savior is not the same as believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Nor is it the same as believing in yourself. Believing in Jesus means knowing and trusting his promises. Believing in Jesus is an ongoing relationship that was started by Jesus and is continued by Jesus. He gives us faith as a gift, not as something we deserve. He gives us faith because he loves us and wants to bless us.

God could bestow repentance and faith any way he wants. He wants to give those gifts through his Word. He created the universe through his Word, and now he creates new life in us through his Word. That Word comes to us in several different forms. These forms are sometimes called the means of grace. That label applies to them because, in each of these forms, God’s Word brings grace to his people so we will repent and believe. God does not intend for any Christian to choose just one of the means of grace and neglect the others. He wants his people to be strengthened by all the means of grace. Trying to be a Christian without regular use of the means of grace is like trying to survive without eating. The means of grace are not optional; they are God’s way of keeping repentance and faith alive.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God said, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish what I purpose and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). The Word of God accomplishes its purpose when it is spoken. Moses, the prophets, and the apostles all spoke before they wrote. Their spoken word had as much power to save lives as does their written word. When they delivered God’s commands, the Holy Spirit used those commands to cause people to repent. When they delivered God’s promises, the Holy Spirit used those promises to cause people to believe. Moses and the prophets spoke about a Redeemer who would come, and people were saved by believing that he would come. The apostles spoke about the same Redeemer but said he had already come, and people were saved by believing that Jesus had come as promised.

Christians have several names for the means of grace that is spoken. They call it mission work, evangelism, witnessing, outreach, and sharing the faith. Jesus specifically gave this power to his apostles and to all Christians. To Peter he said, “I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Later he said almost the same words to all the apostles: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). This gift was so important to Jesus that he said it a third time just hours after his resurrection: “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23).

Keys are powerful. They lock and unlock doors. Who has the keys to the kingdom of heaven? Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just missionaries, and not just preachers. Every Christian has those keys. Just before giving the keys to his apostles on Easter night, we are told that Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). Anyone who has received the Holy Spirit has also received the keys to heaven. As Paul indicated to the Corinthians, anyone who believes in Jesus has received the Holy Spirit. When a Christian announces forgiveness, that message is as sure and certain as if Jesus stood there himself and said, “I forgive you.”

Generally when Christians gather together for services, one Christian (or sometimes more than one) has been chosen to lead the services as a pastor or minister or preacher. In those gatherings, that minister speaks the words of forgiveness. When the service has ended and the Christians go home, each one of them carries the same keys.  No one who believes God’s Word is lacking the power to share God’s Word with others.

Sharing God’s Word includes warning sinners that they need a Savior. The message, “God loves you, he forgives you, and he wants you to live forever with him in heaven,” will be misunderstood by any hearer who thinks he or she is pretty good, deserving God’s love and a place in heaven. The mystery of redemption has no meaning to someone who does not understand sin. When Christians speak God’s commands and apply them to the lives of others, the Holy Spirit works through those commands to guide people to repent. Christians do not talk about sin to make other people feel bad. Christians do not talk about sin to show that they are better than other people. Christians do not talk about sin to try to control other people. The main reason we share God’s commands is that we want also to share his promises. We want people to repent because we want them also to believe the gospel.

Speaking the commands without the promises, then, is even worse than speaking the promises without the commands. We cannot make anyone believe in Jesus. We cannot even make ourselves believe in Jesus. When we describe his promises to other people, though, we are using the keys to the kingdom of heaven. As the Holy Spirit uses the commands of God to guide people to repent, so he uses the promises of God to guide people to believe. Christians are blessed by Jesus with the opportunity to bring his treasures to the people we know.

God’s spoken commands and promises are powerful. His written commands and promises are also powerful. The Bible describes itself as the Word of God, but believing it is so because the Bible says it is so is circular reasoning. The Bible conveys God’s power because it was delivered through the prophets and apostles, God’s authorized messengers to the world. The word “apostle” means “messenger,” not in the sense of a mail carrier, but in the sense of an agent who has power to speak for the sender. An agent representing a corporation or an ambassador representing a government is an apostle. Therefore, when the apostles wrote letters to churches and to individuals, their letters were considered messages from the one who sent the apostles; namely, Jesus.

Odd conspiracy theories have been invented to explain the origins of the Bible. The truth is far less dramatic than the theories make it seem. As Christians gathered the writings that are now known as the Bible, they asked three questions about each writing. They asked: Does it come from a prophet or apostle chosen by God? Does it agree with the message that is being taught in all the Christian Churches? Is it known to most Christian congregations? Books that did not meet these three requirements were not included in the Bible.

Some books were easily included: Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Psalms, Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets; likewise the four gospels, the thirteen letters of Paul, and the letters of Peter and John. Although Mark’s gospel and Luke’s two books were not written by apostles, their association respectively with Peter and Paul earned them approval. The anonymous letter to the Hebrews, the letters of James and Jude, and the book of Revelation were questioned by some Christian leaders, as was the Song of Solomon. Because these books were well-known to Christians and agree in content with the rest of the Bible, they were eventually included. Many books were omitted—the Gnostic writings because they disagreed with Christian teachings, and letters from other Christians such as Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, because they were not written by apostles.

Christians disagree with each other about the authority of the Bible. Some say that the prophets and apostles were just writing their own opinions about God, his commands, and his promises. Such Christians consider themselves free to disagree with any part of the Bible they do not want to believe. Other Christians picture God dictating the words of each book of the Bible to the various writers. Such Christians know that, when they disagree with the Bible, they are disagreeing with God himself.

The Bible is a mystery, though, because it comes entirely from God and yet comes entirely through ordinary human beings. Every word of the Bible is God’s Word, yet every word of the Bible is also of human origin. The Bible might be compared to Jesus, who is completely God and completely human all the time. The Holy Spirit guided the writers, but he did not dictate to them. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote accounts of Jesus that were shaped by their own personalities. John and Paul have noticeably different writing styles. The Bible can be studied with all the techniques used to study human literature, because it is human literature. The Bible can be trusted as a true message from God, because it truly is a message from God.

As literature, some statements in the Bible are straight-forward while others use figurative language. When the Bible says God “will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Psalm 91:4), the Bible does not teach that God has wings and feathers. The statement is true—that God protects his people—but it is written as poetry and must be read as poetry. Many of the significant disagreements about what the Bible means in various places is a disagreement about whether a statement is literally true or telling the truth with poetic imagery. The best way of handling such disagreements is to interpret the difficult passages of the Bible by comparing them to clear passages about the same topic.

Some people read the Bible as nothing more than literature. It is, of course, literature, but it is also far more. Some people read the Bible for information about history. The Bible contains information about history, but it is far more than a history book. Some people read the Bible looking for God’s commands. The Bible contains many commands from God—experts have identified more than six hundred commands in just the first five books of the Bible. God’s commands tell people why they were created and what they are meant to do. Merely reading the commands does not make people able to do what God has commanded.

Along with literature and history and the commands of God, the Bible also contains God’s promises. Even the commands help to emphasize the promises, since the commands of God show where we have sinned, and the promises of God show how we are saved from sin. The Bible, as a means of grace, has the power to shape lives. The Holy Spirit through the Bible tells people to repent and believe the gospel, and it also causes people to repent and believe the gospel. The Bible describes itself as “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16), but the Bible’s main purpose is “to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15).

Whether God’s Word is spoken or read, it changes lives. Through its message, God’s Word brings the mystery of redemption, causing faith in Jesus Christ and strengthening that faith. Sometimes believers are not sure of their faith. If they would look at their Redeemer, they would be confident they have been rescued and redeemed. Instead, they look at themselves and ask, “Is my faith strong enough? Do I believe as much as I should believe? Can I be sure that the message of the Bible really is meant for me?”

To answer those questions, God combines his Word with basic elements of the world he created, bringing us the power of his promises in ways that do not rely only on words, even though the Word of God is the only power that gives the elements any power. Even before Jesus was born, God had ceremonies for his people to observe, promising them forgiveness and a place in his kingdom through these ceremonies. He commanded that every boy born to a family among the people of God be circumcised. If a man wanted to join the people of God, he also had to be circumcised. Circumcision happened once in a lifetime, but it was a reminder to a man for the rest of his life that he belonged to God. God also commanded that various animals be sacrificed in specific ways. The sacrifices were given often, according to the commands of God, but through them God promised forgiveness of his people’s sins.

Jesus was circumcised a week after he was born. He was obedient to all the commands of his Father, including that of circumcision. For the first time in his mission of redemption, Jesus endured pain and shed his blood. Through his obedience and through his blood, he was rescuing sinners. Now that Jesus has completed his mission, God no longer requires the ceremony of circumcision. Before the work of Jesus was finished, circumcision was very important. Now it does not matter whether or not a believer has been circumcised.

The system of sacrifices that God commanded was very important to God. All those sacrifices were pictures of Jesus and of his mission of redemption. As animals shed their blood and died, forgiveness was conveyed to the people of God because they were foreshadowing the suffering of Jesus and his death on the cross. For this reason, the sacrifices required faith to bring the forgiveness of sins. When God’s people went through the motions of sacrifice without thinking of his promises of redemption, God hated the sacrifices they offered (Isaiah 1:11-14 and Psalm 50:8-11). Yet when the same sacrifices were offered in faith, God accepted them and kept his promise to forgive the sins of his people. Like circumcision, though, the system of sacrifices ended when Jesus offered himself on the cross. Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice, and now God’s people are no longer required or expected to offer animals to God. After all, the animals were only pictures of redemption; the death of Jesus on the cross accomplished real redemption.

Even without circumcision, God has a ceremony that declares that certain people belong to him. This ceremony is called baptism. It involves water, although different groups of Christians apply the water in different ways. More important, it involves the Word of God, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Through this ceremony people are claimed for the kingdom of God. Some Christians baptize children, even infants, just as boys were circumcised when they were only a week old. Other Christians have children wait until they are old enough to say that they believe in Jesus and want to be baptized. In either case, baptism is a mystery. How can some water and a few words mean the difference between belonging to God and not belonging to God?

Baptism must be important, because Jesus commanded baptism. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” he said (Mathew 28:19), and he added, “Whoever who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). Paul linked baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus, saying that a baptized Christian takes part in that redeeming work that Jesus did, the work that brings forgiveness and eternal life (Romans 6:3-6).

Paul was also thinking of baptism when he wrote about the “washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Jesus spoke the same theme when he said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).Peter also wrote, “Baptism, which corresponds to this” (the flood in the days of Noah) “now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (I Peter 3:21).

Baptism saves people. It regenerates people. It brings people the forgiveness that Jesus guaranteed by dying on the cross and rising again from the dead. Baptism does not save because the water has magic power. It does not save because it is obedience to a command, a good work that buys love from God. It saves because of the Word of God. It saves because of the promise of God. It saves as an adoption ceremony, one which brings people not only into God’s kingdom, but even into God’s family.

Jesus was baptized. He had no sins for which he needed to be forgiven. He had no need to be adopted into God’s family—he is already the only-begotten Son of God. One could say that Jesus was baptized to show how important baptism is to him. He commands us to be baptized, and so he obeys his own command. More than that, the mystery of baptism is the promise of adoption, which is linked to the mystery of redemption, particularly the Great Exchange. A Christian who is baptized is seen as clean and new, no longer stained by sin. The sins do not merely disappear; they go to the cross, where Jesus pays for them in full. When Jesus takes those sins, he replaces them with his perfect goodness. Through baptism, God the Father now looks at a Christian and says what he said when Jesus was baptized: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). For whenever God looks at a baptized believer, God is seeing Jesus his Son.

For this reason, a Christian declares, not “I was baptized” on a certain day, but “I am baptized.” Baptism is a ceremony that happens once in a lifetime, but baptism is also a continuing relationship with God. Of course this relationship is still centered on Jesus Christ. A person without faith in Jesus is not saved, even if he or she was baptized. To the Christian who believes in Christ, though, baptism is a personal guarantee from God. It answers the question, “Do I have enough faith?” It answers the question, “Can I be sure that the messages of the Bible are really for me?” Baptism is God’s “yes” to those questions. It is his assurance that his promises are true and will not be broken or rescinded.

Another mystery is known by several names, including Communion, the Eucharist, and the Lord’s Supper. By any name, this meal in miniature is something that Jesus told his people to do often. His establishment of this meal is recorded four places in the Bible (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20, I Corinthians 11:23-26). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes additional comments about this mystery, calling it “participation” in the blood and the body of Christ (I Corinthians 10:17).

Jesus established this mystery during the Passover meal just a few hours before he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he would begin the final steps on his way to the cross. Jesus took a piece of Passover bread, made without yeast. He prayed a prayer of thanks, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body, given for you.” Later in the meal, he took the cup of thanksgiving—the third of four cups of wine traditionally drunk during the Passover meal. When he had given thanks, he gave the cup to his disciples, saying, “Drink of it, all of you. This is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” He then added, “Do this often, remembering me.”

Christians have struggled to understand this mystery. Some say that, when the words of the Bible are spoken over the bread, it actually changes into the body of Jesus, although it still seems like bread to all the senses. They say that, when the words of the Bible are spoken over the wine, it actually changes into the blood of Jesus, although it still seems like wine to all the senses. Other people say that the bread is only a reminder of the body of Jesus, given on the cross, and that the wine is only a reminder of the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross. Some, embracing the mystery, say that the bread remains bread but is also the body of Jesus. They say that the wine remains wine but is also the blood of Jesus. They compare this paradox to that of Jesus himself, who is entirely God and entirely man at the same time.

Jesus did not give this mystery so that his followers would have a reason to argue among themselves. Nor did he give it as an empty ceremony, something to be done just because he said so. Jesus told his disciples to remember him when they ate and drank of the mystery. Specifically, they are to remember that the body of Jesus was given for them on the cross to remove all their sins. The blood of Jesus was shed on the cross to take away all their sins. Jesus was not being morbid or gross when he spoke about eating his body and drinking his blood. He was speaking of an intimate relationship, more intimate than we can have even with any other human being. As Christians, we want to be close to our Redeemer. By this mystery, Jesus comes closer to us than any of us would have imagined possible. He actually serves himself to us in order to remind us of how he sacrificed himself for us.

Jesus serves this meal of mystery to his people to bring them the same blessings that come through the spoken Word and the written Word. He brings the same blessings that come through the Word with water in baptism. Now, through eating bread and drinking wine, Christians are blessed with forgiveness, with redemption, and with victory over all their enemies, even death itself. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is not a good work that earns any blessing. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is not a favor we pay to him. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is an opportunity to receive the good things that Jesus wants to give. It is time spent with our Redeemer, participating in what he has done for us so we can receive the benefits of what Jesus has done.

This mystery sometimes is compared to the feast promised to God’s people in the new creation.  There once again Jesus will serve his people, inviting them to join in the victory celebration that marks his victory. On his own, Jesus has conquered sin and evil and death. He does not want to celebrate alone. All his people will be with him forever in that new creation. Aside from a few scattered verses in the last book of the Bible, eternal life in the kingdom of God is not described as wearing white robes, sitting on clouds, or playing harps. Instead, it is described as an enormous party—the best of foods, the best of wines, music, dancing, and the company of all our best friends. When Jesus invites us to his house to share a meal today, we remember the invitation he has given us to the great unending celebration in the world to come.

The means of grace are the spoken Word of God, the written Word of God, the Word of God with water in baptism and the Word of God with eating and drinking in Communion. The mystery of the Word of God in each of these forms generates in every Christian the mystery of faith. Jesus commands us to believe, but the Word that commands us to believe also causes us to believe. By this mystery, we are redeemed.

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