Do You Have Desperate Faith?
Jacob should have been happy as he stood at the ford of the Jabbok, at the edge of his homeland after long years away. Instead, he was frightened, “in great fear and distress” (Gen. 32:7; all Scripture passages from NIV).
He saw in the distance Esau, the brother that he had manipulated and ruined. Esau was fast approaching with a battalion of four hundred men. Jacob saw himself butchered and his wives, children, flocks, and herds plundered by his bitter and violent brother.
Jacob was frightened, “and a man wrestled with him till daybreak” (Gen. 32:24).
Jacob was unusually strong—it looks like an epic contest. But as soon as it was clear that the man could not be mastered, his opponent merely touched Jacob’s hip, which crippled him, and said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak” (Gen. 32:26).
This was not as case of, “I beg you to let go of me!” But, “Okay, little child. The game is over, time to let go.”
Jacob, however, just held on tighter. “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”
See the nature of this battle? The man was moving past Jacob, and Jacob gripped him as though for dear life. For this was no ordinary man:
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. (Gen 32:27-31)
The essence of faith is holding on to God.
Faith is holding on to God. It is not holding on to God as though your life depends on him but because your life depends on him.
The nation of Israel, by its very name, was to be a people who strive with God, and this is no less true for the fulfillment of Israel—the church of Jesus Christ.
It is depressing that faith—so central to Christian thought and life—is at the same time so widely misunderstood. The popular conception is that faith is believing something when there is a lack of evidence, or in spite of the evidence.
So we speak of a “leap of faith.” On this side is evidence—what I know—and on the other side is the thing I’m asked to believe. In between is a yawning gulf of uncertainty and illogicality, a lack of facts and proof and evidence. “Faith” leaps over the gulf with a defiant act of the will.
We don’t have time here to trek to the source of this idea (we would find Barth, Kierkegaard, and Kant waiting for us on the way), but we can say with absolute certainty that this definition of faith, which is more accurately termed credulity, is nowhere to be found in God’s word.
In the Bible, faith is always grounded in facts.
It is a truism that you can’t believe or have faith in someone whom you don’t know about:
“How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Rom 10:14)
Many people, however, heard about the resurrection from eyewitnesses, but didn’t agree with those facts. So faith is not just hearing certain facts but also agreeing with them.
Yet, if we stop at agreement, we still fall short of faith because when it comes to God, “Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19). The demons know the facts about God and are so convinced that they wet their scarlet lycra at the thought.
Faith is Jacob who knew God and his promises that he would bless him and make him a great nation, believed those promises, and trusted and held on to God for dear life.
Trust is the necessary crowning attribute of faith.
The Puritans helpfully distinguished these three elements of Christian faith with three possibly unhelpful Latin words: notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Notitia is knowing Jesus’ claims to be God’s Savior. Assensus is agreeing, having been compelled by the facts, that Jesus is God’s Savior. (In 1911, B. B. Warfield brilliantly described this “compulsion of belief” in On Faith and its Psychological Aspects.) Fiducia is trusting in God’s Savior Jesus.
Unlike the Puritans, the Bible rarely analyzes saving faith and much more often shows us saving faith in action:
Faith is Noah, obeying God, building an inland ark, and getting inside when he was told to do so (Gen. 7:5).
Faith is Abraham believing God that he would have a son, even when his wife was barren and he was “as good as dead” (Heb. 11:8-12; see also Gen. 18).
Faith is the children of Israel following the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of cloud by night to the Promised Land (Exod. 13:21-22).
Faith is Gideon attacking the Midianites, as numerous as sand on the beach, with his three hundred men with only trumpets and lamps (Judg. 7).
Faith is Ruth swearing to Naomi that “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Faith is Hannah crying to God for a son (1 Sam. 1:10-11).
Faith is David taking on Goliath with his sling and stone (1 Sam. 17)
Faith is the three Hebrew teens scorning Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan. 3:17-18).
Faith is Daniel crying out to God for help three times a day in prayer (Dan. 6:10).
Faith is the pagan Magi travelling from afar to worship the baby in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1-12).
Faith is the bleeding woman reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe (Matt. 9:20-22).
Faith is the desperate father crying out, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Faith is the thief on the cross, gasping out to Jesus in tortured agony: “Remember me, when you come into your kingdom!” (Luke 23:42).
Faith is knowing, believing, and trusting in Jesus Christ. And there is something energetic, something desperate, about the trust of those who, like Jacob, take hold of their Savior with desperate, single-minded tenacity.
Those who love Jesus love to obey Jesus.
How do we identify the faithful? Not just by their words, for many will say “Lord! Lord!” who are disobedient and were never known by Christ (Matt. 7:21-23). Instead, those who love Jesus love to obey Jesus (John 14:15). And so Paul also referred to “the obedience of faith” in Romans 1:5 and 16:26; see also Rom. 15:18; 16:19.)
Ultimately, Christ’s faithful sheep are identified by their acts of mercy—their love for him expressed through love for the suffering (Matt. 25:31-46).
So, do you have Jacob’s limp? That wound, that mark of energetic and even desperate dependence on Jesus?
We are not saved by our good works, our passion for Jesus, or even by our love for Jesus. We are saved by grace through Jacob-like faith in Jesus alone. And our faith is seen by our Christ-like love.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.
Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification by R. C. Sproul
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