Faith, it is said, can move mountains. But can it really? Have you ever tried to move a mountain with your faith? Of course, we know that when Jesus spoke those words in Mathew 17:20, He wasn’t referring to real mountains. He was referring to metaphorical mountains. With faith the size of a mustard seed (that’s a tiny amount of faith), a believer is able to move mountains of – you name it – pain, illness, debt, emotional problems, marital problems. And yet, if you’re like me, and you have that little bit of faith, you also have mountains that never give way to it.
Was Jesus wrong when He said that faith can move mountains? We know that can’t be true because Jesus is the Son of God and that fact precludes His being wrong or telling a fib. So He must mean something else. But what? Studying faith is like trying to dribble a football (that is, an American football). Just when you think you can, you find out you can’t. Just when you think you get a handle on what faith is all about, you discover you don’t. And it’s back to the drawing board you go.
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to explore Biblical faith. What it is, and what it can add to your life. And this will be an important study because of this single verse:
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6 | NIV84)
If you’re a believer, then you probably want to please God. You need faith to do that, therefore you need to know just what Biblical faith is.
In Romans, Paul wrote about faith, and in his opinion faith isn’t something normally present in a person. It’s not native to a human being.
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 | NIV84)
The word “consequently,” or “therefore” in the KJV, links verse 17 to something preceding it.
But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?”. (Romans 10:16-17a | NIV84)
So Paul was quoting from the book of Isaiah, specifically Isaiah 53:1, when he referred to faith resulting from hearing a certain message. What message? What is the message both Paul and the Old Testament prophet thought was so powerful that it literally brings faith into the hearts of those who just hear it?
Let’s take a look at the context of Romans 10 and we’ll discover the basis of our faith.
Two kinds of people
Here in Romans, Paul has in mind two kinds of people: the zealous Jewish moralist and the believing Gentile. The key to understanding the quandary of faith is understanding what Paul wrote in chapter 9 –
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. (Romans 9:30-32a | NIV84)
In other words, there were zealous, well-meaning Jews who had spent a lifetime pursuing holiness and righteousness before God yet accomplishing nothing of eternal value because they were using the law to obtain that which can only be obtained by simple faith. But on the other hand, there were Gentiles, who had never heard of the law or tried to obey it, yet they had obtained righteousness because they had faith.
How is this possible? How is it possible to be righteous through faith and not through good works? It’s because – as Paul had argued in the first eight chapters of Romans – all men are sinners and simply cannot approach God on the basis of good works.
Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” (Romans 9:32 | NIV84)
So these zealous, misinformed Jews thought they could become holy, righteous people simply by obeying a list of do’s and don’ts. This, Paul maintains, is impossible. Only through faith can a person become righteous in God’s sight. The sad but sincere Jew Paul had in mind, was so busy minding the law that he literally tripped over Jesus, whom Paul refers to as a “stumbling stone,” as he again quoted from Isaiah –
As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”. (Romans 9:33 | NIV84)
That’s actually God speaking through the prophet. God set a “stone” in Zion – in Israel – that caused Jews to stumble and fall down. Jesus, our Savior, became “like a stumbling stone or block” in that Jews who were busy minding the letter of the law missed Him completely or tripped over Him as one would trip over an inconveniently placed stone on a path. Because they were so focused on themselves in relation to the law, they couldn’t see Jesus and they couldn’t hear His message.
That’s the big problem with this legalistic approach to righteousness, by the way. Because man is a sinner, he doesn’t judge himself correctly nor does he see his own moral and spiritual shortcomings. He judges himself against other people, and supposes himself to be all right or as good or better than others. The odds are that a person who thinks this way will become proud and self-seeking, which is the root of all sin. People like this, and the church today is full of them, overlook or trip over God’s way of righteousness, which comes a gift given in grace: faith in Jesus Christ. It’s an ironic tragedy: these people so zealous for God were rejected by Him over their misplaced zeal. Yes, these moral legalists were and are sincere, but sincerely wrong. Here’s the rub: Sincerity is worthwhile only if you’re right. There are a lot of very sincere people who are wrong in their approach to God. They foolishly think they can earn their way through the pearly gates by doing good things or simply by going to church and believing the right stuff. These activities are good and are part of the Christian life, but salvation doesn’t come that way. A lot of churches, for example, make their young people pass a test before making them members of the church. That’s all well and good but that doesn’t make you a Christian.
The law versus faith boils down to a message
The whole point of this discussion is boiled down in these verses –
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. (Romans 10:1-3a | NIV84)
So, where does the knowledge come from? You and I know this knowledge as the Gospel. Paul does too. But remember to whom he’s writing: Jews. That’s why he quotes so freely from the Old Testament. All through Romans 10 Paul quotes from the likes of Moses, Isaiah, Joel; all men held in high esteem by Jews. Paul uses what these men wrote and sums up his argument this way –
For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:12-13a | NIV84)
That last bit is a quote from Joel 2 and what Paul said here, though obvious to us, must have been a stunning declaration to the Jews of his day: God doesn’t distinguish between people when it comes to salvation. Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter because all people without Christ are lost and in need of saving. In our time and corner of the world today, we might say something like this: Whether you are a good person or a sketchy criminal type, you both need to be saved. God doesn’t prefer the good person over the bad. Both are sinners and God is the only one who can save them both.
The problem Paul sees is two-fold. First, how do we get this word out to people? And, second, who’s going to take it? Paul addresses this problem, and again he uses the words of Isaiah –
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15a | NIV84)
We’re getting close to discovering what “the message” is that produces faith one’s heart. There’s a lot going on in these two verses in the form of questions:
How can a person call on someone to be saved if they don’t believe in him in the first place? That’s a good question and points to the fact of the necessity of salvation. The “belief” here is not a mental exercise. A lot of people believe in Jesus Christ – that is, they believe He existed and so on. But that’s not what we might call “saving faith.” How can a sinner call out for salvation if he has no confidence or belief in the one to whom he is calling? If a sinner is to call out for salvation, then, he must have faith planted in him. Why? Because that faith isn’t there naturally; human beings aren’t born with “saving” faith in them.
The second question indicates the necessity of a sinner learning about Jesus Christ, the only one who can save. If a person hasn’t heard of Jesus Christ – or more specifically what Jesus Christ did for him the Cross – then he can’t be saved. Remember what Peter said in his famous Pentecostal sermon –
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 | NIV84)
What’s really interesting about Paul’s quote from Isaiah in Romans 10:15 is the context of Isaiah 52. The prophet has in mind the exiles in Babylon. Not all, but many of the exiles living in Babylon were faithfully waiting for the Lord to come to their rescue. Here’s the Word of the Lord to them as Isaiah proclaimed it –
For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “At first my people went down to Egypt to live;lately, Assyria has oppressed them. “And now what do I have here?” declares the Lord. “For my people have been taken away for nothing, and those who rule them mock,”declares the Lord.“And all day long my name is constantly blasphemed. Therefore my people will know my name;therefore in that day they will know that it is I who foretold it.Yes, it is I.” (Isaiah 52:4 | NIV84)
Tempted to give up and give in, these exiles stuck in Babylon longed to be set free. The exclamation, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news,” is what these sad and sorrowful exiles exclaimed when saw the messengers coming with the news and they heard that “good news” that their exile was over and that they could go home.
Such are the “beautiful” feet of Paul and the countless preachers and missionaries down through time who were called by God and went out to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all the spiritual exiles longing to be set free. Our Lord put it this way –
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6 | NIV84)
In this first study of faith, we learn the powerful lesson that without Christ nobody can be saved; that it is faith in Him and His work that results in our salvation. But nobody can gin up the faith to believe in Him unless He puts it there first. The faith to believe comes from the message of the Gospel – the Word of God. And the Gospel came first through Jesus Christ and then through the innumerable men and women whom He called to take it to those who need to hear it.