The grace of believing God is a supreme gift that is beyond our natural ability, but it is also not left up to us. Though the will be ever so present with us, to truly believe God is a gift that, no less than grace itself, is also “not of yourselves” (Eph 2:8-9). Yet, He has promised that when we ask for bread, we can know the heart of a Father who will not return to us a stone, but will freely give the faith that is far from our natural power to generate. As a dear brother once said, “It takes God to love God;” I would say the same is true of faith.
Paul says “All joy and peace is in the believing” (Ro 15:13), but that is just the problem when we feel after a faith that seems to elude us in a time of crisis. What are we to do? We look to Him to give the faith that is beyond our natural power as a gift of grace. We also continue in hope, as Jesus said, “men ought always to pray and not to faint.” We also follow His command to build ourselves up in the most holy faith. Not least of those divine directives is the calling to pray in the Spirit.
Though outside and beyond our power to perform our responsibility apart from the Holy Spirit’s special enablement, the promise is magnificent in its encouragement that says, “Faithful is He who calls you, who also will do it!” (1Thess 5:24). The ability to truly believe God is not in us; it’s in Him who is in us. Only in this way is the glory all His alone. Just as the scripture says, “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure,” the same can be said of our need of faith. It has been “given” to us even to believe on Jesus (Eph 2:8-9; Phil 1:29). If faith were not a gift, but depended instead on our will and ability, then we might have whereof to glory, but that can never be.
This puts even the weight of our ability to trust and believe God squarely on His shoulders, because the commandment finds us unable to answer its just demand. As Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God …” (Jos 24:19). Joshua was essentially saying that God is too holy for you in your present condition. To fulfill all righteousness is indeed our just and necessary responsibility, but how to perform it, truly and consistently, “I find not” (Ro 7:18). Our fallenness defeats and incapacitates us to fulfill the just and holy requirement, but that’s the glory of grace: He does the work in us when our trust is not in ourselves but in the God who raises the dead (2Cor 1:9).
Because the holiness of the requirement is beyond our natural ability, we are cast in utter dependency on the working of His mighty power through mercy and grace. His power is revealed at the end of ours. The work of God will not mix with our work (Jn 6:29; Ro 11:6; Gal 5:9). He cannot brook mixture! The scripture is clear that only the works of Christ through the Spirit can ever count with God where eternal life or reward are concerned (Gal 6:15). It is only Christ in us and His works through us that God can accept or reward. All else is brushed away as wood, hay, and stubble.
Though our “responsibility” is to believe, and unbelief is utterly condemned, we must not confuse responsibility with ability. That is another question entirely. The ability to believe God is altogether a gift of grace. This is why He receives all the glory when we trust and obey. It is a responsibility that only grace can fulfill. “This is the work of God that you believe on Him whom He has sent” (Jn 6:29). The faith that “overcomes the world” is utterly outside and beyond the will and ability of the flesh to perform; it is necessarily “born of God” (Jn 1:13; 1Jn 5:4). It is only the faith that is born of God that endures to the end, as scripture speaks of another kind of mere belief that lacks depth of root (Lk 8:13), or as James says, “the devils believe and tremble (James 2:19). In contrasst, the “faith that overcomes the world, the faith of God’s elect,” survives every test. It must; precisely because it is born of God, and the proof is in the perseverance. The day of testing proves the kind of faith, of what sort it is, whether it is truly born of God (Jn 1:13).
How then do we distinguish the gift of grace that enables us to fulfill a responsibility that is beyond our ability? The gift of faith comes to us in the Word itself. It does no violence to the will. We freely and willingly believe, but it is also not anything of our flesh that is participating in the creation of saving faith. That belongs to an act of divine creation through the Word. The Word itself is the creator of our faith, and receives no help at all from anything that the fallen nature of man can supply. We create nothing! Just as God says, “I am,” so we simply “are” in Him the moment the Word of faith is quickened by the Spirit. In the Word that preexisted everything, we have become a new creation and the faith that unites us to Christ must itself be quickened in us by the Spirit that raised Jesus. This kind of faith excludes all boasting, since it too is a creation by the same Word that made the worlds. In a wonderful paradox, we are first met by the commandment that requires everything of us (as though still un-fallen), but expects nothing of us and receives nothing from us (as fallen), but freely gives us all things pertaining to life and godliness. Our only part is to hear God’s no to all the powers of the first creation, and so despairing of anything in ourselves, apply to His mercy and grace as the only source of every good and perfect gift.
In Heb 4:12, we see a distinction that helps us understand what was lacking in those with whom God pleaded in the wilderness. In chapters 3 and 4, we see the absence of the new heart that only comes when the Word is truly ‘heard’ in this special sense. This is what Moses lamented in Deut 29:4. Paul distinguishes between two kinds of hearing. To really hear the Word, one must also hear what God has rejected, what He will not receive from us as substitute for what He requires, though it be beyond our ability. He will not receive anything that issues from man. He demands a new creation (Gal 6:15). He will not work with anything in man or of man, nothing of the old. He only works with what He first puts in and this comes only to the humbled and penitent heart that has been devastated by the revelation of sin when the Word has been truly ‘heard’.
The quickened Word kills, even as it makes alive. We do not suppose any formula that establishes an order that is perceptible to time or sense, but there is an order, just as it was necessary that the law precede Christ. The Word creates a crisis of travail that reveals Christ as the end of our power (Deut 32:36; Dan 12:7). The Word of our acceptance in Christ is of a piece with the word of rejection of all that issues from man apart from the Spirit of Christ. To hear the one is to be convinced of the other. This is the word of devastation that puts to death confidence in the flesh at the same time it imparts life to the soul. It assumes the complete despair of all that is in man (Jer 10:23; Mk 10:18; Jn 2:25; Ro 7:18).
Here is where Christ is revealed, at the end of strength. The law was intended to bring us to see and feel the degree of our inability as utterly dead and without strength (Mt 19:25-26; Ro 5:20; 7:8-9; 8:2; 1Cor 15:56; Gal 3:10-12, 19, 22-24; 4:21; James 2:10; Heb 7:19). This is why Paul can speak of the law as having the effect of shutting us up to the righteousness of faith. We are, so to speak, ‘crowded to Christ’, as the word of requirement destroys all hope in man (Gal 3:23). Such faith is only ‘revealed’ when there is an utter despair of man, not at his worst state but his best (Ps 39:5). The cross is God’s statement of rejection of anything that man might bring or contribute towards his own salvation. Therefore, whatever is not born of God is fatally short of the glory of God, since the only thing that God can receive must be the production of a new creation (Gal 6:15).
When the scripture says, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God,” we must understand that this kind of hearing is only possible as the Word that divides between soul and spirit is quickened by the Spirit (Heb 4:12). This is what was missing in those in the wilderness who did not hear the Word with what Paul calls, “the hearing of faith.” When this Word is heard by “the hearing of faith,” it quickens death to all carnal confidence. That is to say, when this Word is quickened, the old is put to death, as a new creation is raised in its place in a kind of replication of Christ’s cross and resurrection, crucified in weakness, raised in power (1Cor 15:43; 2Cor 13:4).
When Simeon said to Mary, “a sword shall pierce through your own heart also,” he was not prophesying of her sorrow at the sight of her son’s death on the cross, as taught by the Catholic Church. Rather, He was referring to the sharp sword of the quickened Word that divides between soul and spirit. Though regenerate and fully alive to God, Mary also would be searched and convicted by the dividing Word that would issue from Jesus.
The quickened Word is is something very distinct from the canon of Scripture which one can hear without the hearing of faith. This is what was missing in Heb 3:15-19, when the Word did not profit them that heard it (Heb 4:2). Heb 4:12 is a key to understanding Paul’s point. Because the Word was not quickened by the Spirit, they were not able to ‘hear what they heard’. We are judged when we fail to judge ourselves in agreement with the Word (1Cor 11:31). By trusting in themselves, they did not look to their Rock. Remarkably, in Isa 57:10, God rebukes Israel for failing to say, “there is no hope.” The resilience of their humanistic hope in themselves aborted God’s intention in the severe chastisements that were sent to turn them (Isa 1:5).
When the Word is ‘heard’ in this sense, it drives us off of any hope in ourselves. Since trust in man is the antithesis of trust in God, it is the irrepressible resilience of this misplaced hope that is the one thing that can abort the work of grace (Gal 2:21; 5:2-4). This is what must be forcibly crucified by the Spirit in order for His life to triumph in us. When we can still look to ourselves to answer the requirement, it is a sign that we’ve not yet ‘heard’ the commandment (Ro 7:10; 2Cor 3:6-7; Gal 4:21). So long as there is any hope in ourselves, it is a sign that we have rejected the unapproachable holiness of the law that was given to bring us to the end of strength. That is where Christ is revealed, at the end of our power.
The veil that stands in our human self sufficiency (“confidence in the flesh”) must be shattered by the quickening of the Word. This is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit that receives not the help of man! It is a resurrection event of new creation. It is as miraculous as Isaac’s birth, the virgin birth and Christ resurrection. It depends on nothing of natural fertility. The faith that is born of God is the issue of that holy seed, which is Christ and the Spirit of Christ alone. That is its source and it comes by the same creative speaking of God. To still hope for something out of ourselves (I would say even faith), is to reject the Word that tells us that all that can possibly issue from man is already rejected as utterly short. In this sense, such hope is really a stout hearted rejection of the Word that declares God’s advance rejection of every form of human potency that stands within the powers of the first creation.
There is a hearing that is a savour of life unto life or of death unto death (2Cor 2:16). That is why Jesus said, “take heed how you hear.” To truly ‘hear’ is to live (Jn 5:25, 37). When the Word is quickened, there is a division between soul and spirit. This is true death and true resurrection. This quickening of faith is a new creation; it is nothing of ourselves. The same can be said of true repentance unto life. It too comes as a gift, as we see many who come short of the fruits of a God given repentance. It is a mystery that defies logic, whereby we are made willing in the hearing of the Word, yet it is not in the power of our old man to believe, since this belongs to the life of the new creation.
From this moment of divine quickening, the progressive work begins that is a continual process of death and resurrection. It is that inner conquest of the Spirit that subdues the soul by degrees (‘little and little;” Ex 23:30) and works a growing conformity to Christ’s image. Through both the blessings and the fires of our walk we learn to trust Him more and more to the perfect day. In this way, all the works of lasting value, even the faith that overcomes, are shown to be His and His alone. His is the one Seed who alone receives the promises (Gal 3:16). All covenants and promises are yea and amen in Him alone (2Cor 1:20), as He alone is worthy to receive anything (Rev 4:11). We receive by Him because we are in Him.
How do we reconcile the commandment to believe when, because of the fall, there is not the ability? The Spirit helps our weaknesses. We hear the inexorable command; we agree with the Word, but in desperation of our ability, we are constrained to cry out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Inability is never an excuse, since all are free to apply to God for what is not in their nature or power (Acts 5:21; 2Tim 2:25).
The only thing that can defeat this glorious arrangement is the confidence in the flesh that looks not to God but to ourselves. So there can be no excuse or complaint, since “all we have needed, His hand hath provided,” even our faith. Nothing is left to us, yet every holy demand is fully met by the faith that works by love, the love that was quickened when Christ, and therefore, the perfect fulfillment of the law, was freely imputed, not in the part but in the whole! All is made to depend on Him, so to Him alone is all the glory. It seems plain to me, and I believe to Paul, that where there is a division in the labor, there is necessarily a division in the glory, but this can never be.
He is jealous in His insistence that any presumed contribution on our part is rejected as an affront to grace (Gal 2:21). Our part is absolute surrender of everything, even our ability to surrender, to Him who insists on doing it all for us and then in us as a free gift. According to Paul, we proceed in grace by the same freeness that we began, through a total dependence on Him for everything, even our further sanctification and maturity (Col 2:6-7). This means our continuance is by the same rule and approach as our beginning in grace. We continue by the same freeness of faith that we began, but our constant vigilence must be against being moved from this simplicity, most often through the subtlety of Judaism, which had the right standard, but was fatally wrong in its approach (Ro 9:30 -10:2).
It is precisely because of such freeness and goodness that no one will ever say to God, “you didn’t do enough or give enough.” It is precisely because God has promised to do it all that makes damnation so much the more without excuse, as completely self inflicted. Conversely, in grace, no one can be disqualified, since despair of any qualification in ourselves is the beginning of true faith. We must find no hope in ourselves, not even in our presumed willingness, since the only willingness that counts must also be quickened by the Word and the Spirit (Jn 1:10-11). This is because grace, and even the faith that receives grace, must be entirely free in the sense that it operates completely apart from either human vice or virtue. It cannot be biased by anything in man, whether good or bad (Ro 9:11, 16). It saves the worst and takes no help from the best.
As new creations, believers are created by the Word, because when the Word is heard and received in faith, this is by no power or virtue in ourselves, since in us is no good thing (Mt 10:18; Ro 7:18), and we are told that we have nothing that makes us to differ from another that we did not first receive (1Cor 4:7). Only in this way is all boasting excluded.
We cannot know all the mystery of its workings, but we can know that from start to finish, trusting and loving God, which is also to obey Him, is all of grace, as Paul credits any faithfulness on his part to mercy alone (1Cor 7:25), as he is careful to always add to every report of success that all important disclaimer: the “yet not I” of gospel grace (1Cor 15:10; Gal 2:20). From start to finish, it is of Him, through Him, and to Him” (Ro 11:36). The faith that is demanded of us is not expected of us, but from the God who gives freely. Because of the fall, the ability to believe God is not in us. That is why it must be born of God. The one thing needful whereby we are united to every divine supply cannot, therefore, be attributed to any virtue of endeavor that we supply out of ourselves, even our will (Ro 9:16). That is why Paul is careful to add, lest we should imagine otherwise, that not only grace, but the faith that secures saving grace, is itself no less the the gift of God, lest anyone should boast even in that (Eph 2:8-9).
All’s to say that when we are not foolishly looking to ourselves for vital faith, but look away to Him alone for what only He can give by His quickening power, we may be sure that our request will not be disappointed. He does not give stones when we ask for bread (Mt 7:9).