This post is the fourth of five posts on the nature of saving faith. Today, we are looking at how faith involves total reliance Christ for our salvation and sanctification.
The five posts are listed here:
1. The certainty of invisible, spiritual realities: past, present and future
2. The assurance of things hoped for, both in this world and the next
3. The conviction of personal sin
4. Active reliance on Christ as all-sufficient Savior, provider, and protector
5. Reception of spiritual guidance
Lessons from the Old Testament
One of the central lessons of the Old Testament was to teach Israel to rely on God alone. In order to establish a pure reliance on God for all things, God had to strip Israel of all false hopes, all faulty foundations, and all sinful alliances. Therefore the Old Testament gives positive commands and examples of rightly trusting in the Lord, but it also puts on display plainly the wide variety of false hopes which polluted the souls of God’s chosen people.
In the Book of Proverbs, the Lord commanded his people, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5-6). The Hebrew word translated “trust” is a rich one, used in a variety of ways in the Old Testament. It has to do with security and peace: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8); “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident” (Psalm 27:3). This simple lesson of trusting in the Lord was the centerpiece of many of the lessons God taught Israel in the Old Testament.
1) Lessons of God the Savior: During the Exodus of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God put his omnipotence on display in the Ten Plagues by which he judged Egypt’s false gods. Then when Israel was trapped by Pharaoh’s army against the Red Sea with no possible escape, Israel cried out to the Lord, who spoke through Moses saying, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex. 14:14). After Israel safely crossed the Red Sea with the water like a great wall to the left and the right, and the mighty Egyptian army was subsequently drowned, then the nation had a solid basis for trusting in the Lord forever: “And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant” (Ex. 14:31).
2) Lessons of God the Provider: But not only would God be Savior, he would also be Provider as well. The Lord used the people’s own natural rhythms of hunger and thirst to teach them a central lesson—God will supply all your needs according to the infinite bounty of his storehouse. By providing bread from heaven every day, water from a rock, daily guidance in the pillar of cloud and fire, and by miraculously preventing their shoes from wearing out, God taught Israel to look to him for everything they would need in life (Deut. 8:1-4).
3) The Enemy of Faith—Self-Reliance: As soon as the time came for Israel to enter the Promised Land, they soon forgot God. They turned to the basic idol which competes with God above all others: self-reliance. Moses sent out twelve spies to explore the land of Canaan which God had promised to give them. The land they saw was delightfully rich. However, the spies also brought a disease back from their exploration: the virus of unbelief. Ten of the twelve spies spread a bad report about the land. They spoke of the giant warriors in the land and shrank in their own estimation: “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Num. 13:33). This drained courage from the hearts of the Israelites, who murmured against God and wanted to go back to Egypt. Their focus was completely on their own military prowess, and they rightly came up short in that assessment. But they sinned in both this self-focus and the resultant despair. God judged their faithlessness: “In spite of this, you did not trust in the Lord your God, who went ahead of you on your journey” (Deut. 1:32-33). God punished Israel for this unbelief by commanding them to turn around and wander in the desert for forty years.
But then the people rebelled again. Stunned by God’s declaration of their punishment, they looked inward again at their own military prowess and this time put on their armor, “thinking it easy to go up to into the hill country” (Deut.1:41). This was the same sin of self-reliance, with an opposite conclusion. Self-reliance that looks inward and fails to find the necessary resources results in despair. But self-reliance that looks inward and actually finds the necessary resources results in arrogance. Israel clearly displayed both of the results of self-reliance. Despair and arrogance are merely two sides of the same coin: self-reliance. For the rest of Israel’s history, God fought their self-reliance. And for the rest of our lives on earth, God will fight our self-reliance as well.
4) Multiple False Trusts: There are many other false refuges in which people put their trust, and at some point or other, Israel leaned on them all. People can rely on their own understanding (Prov. 3:5), physical strength or personal wisdom (Jer. 9:23), material wealth (Prov. 18:11), the fortifications of a well-built city wall (Deut. 28:52), chariots and horses (Psalm 20:7), self-righteousness (Ezek. 33:13), and worst of all, idols (Isa. 42:17). God has rejected each of these and judges all who trust in them.
5) Wonderful Examples of Genuine Trust: Of course, Israel did not always fail the lesson of trust. Under godly leadership, occasionally the Jews openly trusted in the Lord and won great victories against overwhelming odds. King Asa, faced with an army of over a million Cushites prayed, “Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army” (2 Chron. 14:11). God delivered Israel. King Jehoshaphat, faced with a vast army of Moabites and Ammonites prayed, “we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (2 Chron. 20:12). Again, God delivered Israel. Many such examples exist.
The question remains before us as well: On what are you relying?
Christ: All-Sufficient Savior
Salvation From Sin
This is precisely what the Holy Spirit seeks to work in a desperate sinner who has come to realize that he has nowhere else to turn. The finished work of Christ on the cross is the only foundation on which our souls can rest. The issue here is one of total reliance, of placing your entire hope of salvation from sin in the risen Christ. We must trust in nothing else, especially not our own righteousness earned by good works.
Strength for the Two Journeys
As we must entirely rely on Christ for the beginning of the Christian life, so we must rely on him alone for the completion of it: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…” (Heb. 12:2). Jesus is faith’s “author,” the one who wrote its first lines on the blank pages of our soul. Jesus is also faith’s perfecter, the one who will complete the work he began in us. This is a vital lesson: sanctification must proceed along the same principle by which we first began. As Paul said, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3, ESV).
What is true of the internal journey of sanctification is also true of the external journey of Kingdom advance. The Kingdom cannot advance one step by unaided human effort. Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China’s inland regions, trained himself before he even left for China to rely on Christ alone through prayer:
To me it was a very grave matter […] to contemplate going out to China, far from all human aid, there to depend upon the living God alone for protection, supplies, and help of every kind. I felt that one’s spiritual muscles required strengthening for such an undertaking. […] When I get out to China […] I shall have no claim on anyone for anything. My only claim will be on God. How important to learn, before leaving England, to move man through prayer alone.[i]
Christ Constantly Supplies Our Faith: God gave us our faith to begin with, and only God through Christ can keep it alive. As Jesus told Peter: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). So Jesus is at the right hand of God and is continually praying for all Christians that their faith will not fail, no matter how great are the trials they are facing (Heb. 7:25).
In his allegory of the Christian life, Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan did a masterful job of portraying our ongoing reliance on Christ’s ministry for the maintenance of the work of grace in our soul. “Christian,” the allegorical pilgrim who is making his way to the Celestial City, stops at Interpreter’s house, where he is trained and prepared for his journey. Interpreter uses living parables to teach many vital spiritual lessons. The “Fire Burning Against the Wall” was one of the most potent:
Then I saw in my dream that the Interpreter took Christian by the hand, and led him into a place where was a fire burning against a wall, and one standing by it, always casting much water upon it, to quench it; yet did the fire burn higher and hotter.
Then said Christian, What means this?
The Interpreter answered, This fire is the work of grace that is wrought in the heart; he that casts water upon it, to extinguish and put it out, is the Devil; but in that thou seest the fire notwithstanding burn higher and hotter, thou shalt also see the reason of that. So he had him about to the backside of the wall, where he saw a man with a vessel of oil in his hand, of which he did also continually cast, but secretly, into the fire.
Then said Christian, What means this?
The Interpreter answered, This is Christ, who continually, with the oil of his grace, maintains the work already begun in the heart: by the means of which, notwithstanding what the devil can do, the souls of his people prove gracious still. And in that thou sawest that the man stood behind the wall to maintain the fire, that is to teach thee that it is hard for the tempted to see how this work of grace is maintained in the soul.[ii]
By this we can see how much we are totally dependent upon Christ for everything, even for believing in him for one more day.
[i] Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor In Early Years—the Growth of a Soul (OMF International, 1998), 131.
[ii] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, in The Works of John Bunyan, vol. 3 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991),99-100.