Bill McFarland

April 6, 2003

The songs we have been singing this morning have all focused our attention on faith. The passage that Scott read in the beginning of our meeting this morning stressed that we as Christians are guarded by faith, that Christian living tends to prove or disprove the genuineness of our faith, and that finally the end, or the outcome of our faith, is the salvation of our souls (I Pet. 1:5-9). The New Testament stresses that we walk by faith. In other words, we live by faith and not merely by sight, II Cor. 5:7. We understand from Paul in Ephesians 6 that faith is the shield which we are to use to quench the fiery darts of the evil one.

Faith becomes our great purpose and our great goal as Christians all through our lives, and so it is no wonder that we hear the scriptures calling on us to strengthen our faith. In other words, not merely to come to the point where we believe, not merely to have faith, but for us to be actively engaged in seeking to strengthen our faith. The nature of Christian living is to be that we involve ourselves in trying to grow and trying to mature and trying to strengthen our faith as we go through life. Peter in II Peter 1 tells us to add some things to our faith. We are to add virtue and knowledge and self-control and steadfastness and godliness and brotherly kindness and love. Our faith, in other words, is to be growing stronger and stronger. Jude, in verse 20 tells us to build ourselves up in our most holy faith. Not only does scripture call on us to strengthen our faith, experience surely calls on us to strengthen our faith.

We find out that it is difficult to keep our faith growing and strong. There are the experiences of life that sometimes challenge us. There are the sneaky temptations of our enemy that threaten us. There are times when we let ourselves down and people let us down. We can identify with the disciples when in Luke 17 the Lord had taught them the need to forgive 70 times 7. Peter voiced it for the disciples, "Lord, increase our faith." Luke 17:5.

The question is how do we go about making our faith stronger. How do we go about living through the years so that as we near our destination, our faith has grown and that it is stronger then than it ever has been. That is kind of what we want to explore as we study the Lord's Word together this morning.

And I think we need to begin by thinking about what it is that we are trying to strengthen. In this case, as in most others, if we begin with unrealistic or inaccurate expectations, then we are going to have trouble succeeding in what we are trying to do. And if we talk about strengthening our faith and we have misunderstood what it is the Lord wants us to build, then we will have trouble. There are a couple of weeds that we need to pull here before we can grow our faith.

One is the idea that if I am a person of faith, I am always going to feel warmly close to God and I am always going to feel on top of the world in my spiritual life. Recently I came across the comment from someone that suggested this: "Read the Psalms. That will alter your perspective on what normal faith looks like. We like to focus on the upbeat Psalms. You know, The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. Or the Lord is my Rock and my Shield, etc. But 60% of the Psalms are laments. With people screaming out, God, where are you? Normal faith is allowed to beat on God's chest and to complain and to lay our cares out before him." Read the Psalms and notice that normal faith struggles at times to understand what it is that is happening in our lives.

Another weed that we need to pull in our beginning here is the idea that if you are a person of faith, your life will be a constant string of successes and victories that you will achieve, that you will win every battle, that you will be healthy and wealthy and prosperous. In Hebrews 11 when the Hebrew writer has given us a number of great examples of achievement and of victory in faith, he comes down to verse 32 and he begins to just name names and not tell everything that happens. And he says, "What more shall I say. For time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection." Boy, it sounds great down to here, doesn't it. Those are the pictures of faith that stick in our minds. But notice carefully, that is not where the Hebrew writer stops. Faith not only sometimes achieves and wins and prospers. Faith also sometimes endures and bears up under and stays with it through life. Notice the rest of what the writer says. And I am in the middle of verse 35 here: "Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated - of whom the world was not worthy - wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth." That was faith, too. Faith is not always feeling like "boy I am strong and I have no doubts," and faith is not always merely having the fulfillment of our dreams and prospering with things well.

What then is faith? Well, faith in scripture involves three great qualities, three different levels. Faith involves the believing of certain facts, the embracing of reality from God's perspective. The person who is a person of faith believes that God is and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him, according to Hebrews 11:6. The person of faith, in other words, accepts certain truths as being real. Now I need to mention here that belief can exists at this level without making us really live by faith or act on what we believe to be true. There were people in John 12:42 who believed in Jesus. They didn't confess it because they were afraid they would be put out of the synagogue. Faith can exists at that level of believing facts, but it has to go farther than that if our faith is really to grow.

The second level of faith is trust, beginning to rely on what it is that we say we believe. I read of a young man in a speech class who was called on to make a demonstration speech. He was quite a scientific fellow and having thought over what he would do, he decided to do a demonstration of the law of the pendulum -- the idea that the pendulum cannot swing higher than the point at which it was released, that gravity and friction will slow it down and it will begin to wind down. He took a little child's toy, tied it on a string, and put it out on a little long tack deal from the top of the blackboard and lifted it up and marked the place. And then as it swung back and forth, he marked how far it went every time. He explained to the class that the law of the pendulum is that pendulum won't swing back higher than where it was let go. Do you believe that? Everybody in the class, including the teacher, raised their hand and said they agreed. Then he proceeded a little farther. He asked the teacher to come up and he sat the teacher on the edge of a table with his back against the wall. He took a piece of cord (ski rope) and he tied some weights from the weight room in the athletic department on the end of that cord. He held it up close to the teacher's nose. He said "Do you believe in the law of the pendulum?" Sweat started popping out on his face and he says yes. And the young man pulls that weight up close to his nose and lets it go and it swings over here, starts swinging back, and the guy dives under the table! It is one thing to say you believe something. It is another thing to actually trust, to rely on, to live on the basis of what it is. Now, faith in Scripture is our believing to the point that we are willing to base our lives and even our eternity on what we say it is that we believe. That's why you find believing attached to confessing and to living on the basis of what God has done for us through his Son.

The third part of belief, the third level of faith, grows out of what I have just said, and it is obedience. It means that we are willing to take what we know and what we trust and to turn that in to real action and behavior and conduct in our lives. One of my favorite examples of this in all of Scripture is the story of the Philippian jailor. The jailor, if you will remember, is a man who had beaten Paul and Silas and thrown them to the deepest part of the prison. About midnight when they had been singing about their God, an earthquake hit and the doors of the prison were open, the prisoners were unbound. He is ready to take his life when Paul and Silas stop him. And the man says "sirs, what must I do to be saved?" He must have been talking about something that grew out of what they had been singing about. He wasn't just talking about being kept alive physically. And I know that based on what Paul and Silas tell him. Verse 31 of Acts 16, they said "believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household." Now watch what happens. "They spoke the Word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house." Why did they do that? Because believing involves embracing certain facts. You can't believe what you haven't heard. "And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds." Now why did he do that? Because trusting changes your action. If you believe and you trust on it, then you begin to be changed by it. "And he was baptized at once, he and all his family." Why did he do that? Because in obedience he is relying on what he has believed and what he has trusting. "Then they brought him to his house and set food before him and he rejoiced along with his entire household." Why? That he had believed in God. When had he believed? When he heard the Word, and he had repented, and he had been baptized into Christ. He had obeyed. He was a man of faith.

Peter in Luke 5 was with the other disciples and he had fished all night and he hadn't caught a thing. Some of you fishermen find out you are in good company. He hadn't caught a thing. It is morning now and they are washing their nets, they are cleaning up, and Jesus, remember, who had worked in the carpenter's shop, met him on the bank of the lake and said to him, "Put out on the other side and take up a draught there." Well, can you image Peter having toiled and worked all night with those smelly, wet - you know what happens when you get wet in the boat - he says to him, "Lord, we have toiled all night and we didn't catch a thing. Nevertheless, at your word, we will put these nets out on the other side." That is faith. Acting for no other reason - just because that is what the Lord said. People of faith act that way.

Now, look what we have said. If I am going to strengthen my faith, I am going to have to deepen my convictions about the truth of what the Lord says. I am going to have to increase the level of my trust and reliance on the one who said those things. And then I am going to have to begin to act in obedience to the instructions of that one that I believe in my everyday life. That is what increasing my faith will involve. Now how do I do it? I want to suggest four or five ideas here that I have gathered up from people over the years that seem to me to be helpful in applying these matters to our lives.

The first is if you want to strengthen your faith, then make up your mind that you really want to believe. This is the biggest question about faith. Do I really want to believe? Jesus said in John7:17, a principle that I'm drawing this from, "If anyone's will is to do God's will." That is what I mean by do you really want to. Do you really want to do God's will? "He will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority." An illustration of this happens over in John 12:37. This passage follows fairly closely, if you remember, at a time as we have sung about - Jesus raised dead Lazarus. The Bible says that "when Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him." Why? Because they didn't want to believe. Lynn Anderson wrote that "when you scratch below the surface, there is either a will to believe or there is a will not to believe. That's the core of it. It is a choice." That's first. Do you want your faith to be stronger?

Secondly, if you want your faith to be stronger, then fill your mind with evidence or information which is likely to strengthen your faith. You can choose to dwell on things that increase doubts. You can focus on either the weakness of believers or the deep questions that raise or increase doubts, or the things that unbelievers object and say, or you can choose to focus on things that increase faith. The Hebrew writer in writing to people who need stronger faith, says to them in Hebrews 3:4, "Every house is built by someone, but he who built all things is God." From time to time I walk through a new neighborhood that is being constructed near us. And I notice out in front of those houses as they are being erected will be signs, "so-and-so building" or a "so-and-so custom home," etc. None of them say, "This house is built by no one, it just happened." I assume that the earth upon which that house is built did not just happen either! The Hebrew writer says in Hebrews 11:3: "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." There are great books that will help strengthen faith but a whole lot of what will strengthen faith is looking at what God has made and what God has said. Romans 15:4, for example, says: "The things written afore time are written for our learning, that we through the patience and the comfort of the Scriptures might have hope." Remember that in Romans 10:17, it said that "faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God." Some versions will say by the Word of Christ. I think it means not only the words that they have revealed but also what those words say about them. By focusing on God and on Christ, who they are, what they are like, and what they have done, our faith can tend to be built up.

First, we have said choose. Second we have said fill your mind with evidence. Third, be around people of faith. In other words, use some examples in your life. Not merely of people who have failed and who have had terrible disasters in their lives where they have made shipwreck of faith, but instead people whose faith has flourished and people who have been strong and people who have grown. Something strikes me as I read what Paul writes to Timothy. In II Timothy 3, if you will remember, it says in verse 14: "But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it." Look at that. How is Timothy going to continue and be strong in his faith? By knowing from whom he learned it. Who was that? Do you know? Back up to II Timothy 1:5. "I am reminded," Paul says, "of your sincere faith. A faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and now I am sure dwells in you as well." There are examples of faith for us to look at! The Hebrew writer in Hebrews 13:7 says consider those who are over you in the Lord, your leaders, in other words. Consider the outcome of their faith and imitate it. So I can choose to either look at people who have terribly failed at living by faith or I can choose to dwell on the examples of those who have stayed with it and have grown in the Lord over the years.

The fourth principle that will help us with this is that we need to begin to act as people of faith. Sometimes we want to wait until we feel like our faith is strong and then we will do that. Do you know that is not how life works? The things that are really important, if we wait until we really feel strongly that way to act, we will never act. It is when we launch out and begin to do and use what we already know and what we already believe that we grow stronger. In other words, experience is crucial when it comes to strengthening our faith. Back to Paul's example with Timothy. At the end of Paul's life, near the end, among the last words that we know of that he wrote, as he is imprisoned and as he is lonely in that situation, he says in II Timothy 4:16: "At my first defense no one came to stand by me but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them. But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might here it." Look what happened. Nobody stood by me. The Lord stood by me and delivered me. Now look what he says about the future and look how his faith has grown through this. "The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory forever and ever." Faith grows by experience, by exercise, by using what we already have -- the same way your body grows strong.

And that brings us to the other principle, and that is to keep on doing this over a period of time. Barry Mackey and I are people who enjoy the old Andy Griffith show - the Mayberry characters. Ernest T. Bass showed up in town throwing rocks through windows and threateningly proclaiming that he was going to bust every window in town if he didn't get an education. The reason was that he wanted to court Roweena and Roweena would have nothing to do with an uneducated man. Ernest T. Bass had come to get his diploma, and he wanted it that week! You and I are sometimes that way with our faith. Why, I came to church two weeks and I got nothing out of it. Why I went to class for six months. I tried that once. Faith doesn't grow stronger that way, does it? In fact, the opposite happens. It takes time for anything precious to grow. Strengthening our faith means investing time.

Back to what Scott read earlier now. The beauty of this is that if we invest ourselves in strengthening our faith, over time the whole process will prove to be genuine and precious and we will receive the outcome or the end of our faith, which is the salvation of our souls. That is something precious enough to be worth the trouble! I want to encourage us all today to focus on strengthening our faith. Use the principles that will let that happen and to remember that the salvation of our souls is worth it. Do you, as this song said a while ago, believe in the one they call Jesus? Has that belief come to the point that you are willing to trust Him to do what he says, to base your whole destiny on what he has done for us? Are you ready then today to repent and to be baptized into Christ like that jailor we studied about awhile ago? Are you a Christian who made that beginning and didn't remember to keep on strengthening your faith? Is there something that you are needing to correct today that we can help with?