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1. Aspects of faith
Behold the elation (or, as others translates,whoever fortifies himself), his soul is not upright within him; but the just shall live by his faith. Hab. 2:4.
This verse is to be connected with the previous one. The prophet wants to emphasize that when all sorts of temptations beset our minds, we can do no better than rely upon the word of God. He does not present us with a new teaching; he tells us once again that our only solid and certain security lies in the promise of God, and that we must seek no other door to safety when we suffer under all the attacks of Satan and the world.
The two clauses present opposites. All who try to provide their own security will always be turning anxiously in all directions, and can have no peace of mind. The second clause is the logical consequence of this: we shall find quiet nowhere except in faith.
The first clause is interpreted in different ways. Some think that ’uppelah is a noun and take it as “loftiness.” This meaning does not fit badly, and I do not hesitate to accept it as the more correct. The Hebrews called the citadel ’ophel, and those who say that the name is derived from the verb ’aphal “to go up” are correct. (Those who think the root means “strength” are wrong.) Others misinterpret the verse as meaning that the unbelieving are seeking a citadel where they may defend themselves. But this makes little difference to the main point.
However, some interpreters differ more seriously and disagree as to substance. They put the predicate for subject and the subject for predicate, and get from the prophet’s words: “whoever lacks peace of mind seeks a citadel for himself in which he 224may rest safely or make himself strong.” Others take it: “Whoever is proud and thinks himself well fortified will always have a troubled mind.” This latter interpretation pleases me more, but I myself keep to the meaning of the word ’uppelah, and I think the prophet said, “Where there is elation of mind, there will be no tranquillity.”
However, we must first see what those who interpret differently are aiming at. They say that the unbelieving, who are perverse and refractory, are always seeking a place to loiter safely, because they are suspicious of everyone; and further that they do not look to God, but try to find in this world some way of warding off all calamities and dangers. That is what they think.
But as I said, the prophet is rather stating the penalty of all unbelievers; he means that, when they torment themselves, they only get what they deserve. This gives us a better antithesis. And the prophet’s teaching is more suggestive when we say that God imposes a due penalty on unbelievers by allowing them to be pulled in all directions and by letting their minds be troubled with hidden torments. When the prophet says that no peace of mind exists among those who think they have protected themselves well [by their own efforts] he knows that they are their own torturers, because they heap upon themselves many troubles, griefs, and anxieties, and are always upset and confused by their many different schemes. They decide first on one thing; then they prefer another. The Hebrews used the term “right-minded” to describe those who agree on some one thing and stand quiet. When uneasy thoughts drive people in various directions, then they say “the mind is not right in us.” We should keep to the plain sense of the prophet’s words. . . .
Then follows but the just will live in faith. I have no doubt that the prophet here sets faith over against all the safeguards with which men blind themselves in order to neglect God himself and to avoid asking aid from him. Because men put themselves in subjection to earthly things, and rely upon the falsehoods in which they trust, the prophet here ties life to faith. But faith, as we know and as I shall later explain more fully, depends upon God alone. Therefore, to live by faith means to abandon voluntarily all the defenses which so often fail us. One who know himself destitute of all protection will live in his faith if he seek whatever he needs from God alone; if he disregards the world and fixes his mind on heaven.
Since ’amunah in Hebrew is “truth,” some take it here a 225“integrity” ; as though the prophet had said that a righteous man had more protection in his own honesty and clear conscience than the sons of this world have in all the fortifications in which they take such pride. But these interpreters chill and dilute the prophet’s meaning because they do not understand the power of justification, which is free and by faith, which alone gives us our security. It is certain that the prophet meant here by the word ’amunah the faith which takes from us all arrogance and sets us naked and helpless before God, to ask from him alone the safety which otherwise would be beyond our reach. . . .
All unbelievers desire to make themselves secure, and they strengthen themselves with whatever they think can help them. But what does the just man do? He brings God nothing of his own, for man takes hold of faith by prayer alone; faith is not in our own hands. He who lives by faith does not have life in himself; he flees to God because he does not possess it. The verb here is in the future tense to show that life in faith will be lasting.
Now we must come to Paul who used this prophet’s witness to teach that salvation is not from works but solely from God’s mercy and therefore from faith (Rom. 1:17). Paul seems to have twisted the words to his own purpose, and even beyond what their sense will bear. For the prophet was here speaking of the present life, and he made no mention of heavenly life. As we have said, he was testifying to the faithful that God would be their liberator, and so he was encouraging them to be patient. Then he added that the just will live by his faith, even though he have no other help, and seem to be completely exposed to all the blows of fortune, of the wicked, and even of the devil. Anyone may well ask what this has to do with the eternal salvation of the soul. Paul seems too subtle when he drags this passage into a discussion of free justification by faith.
But we must keep firmly to this principle: All the benefits God confers upon the faithful in this life are for the strengthening of their hope that they shall inherit eternal life. However freely God acts in our behalf, our situation will still be miserable if our hope is restricted to earthly life. Therefore, as often as God aids us in this world and declares himself our Father, he wishes to turn our minds to the hope of eternal salvation. Equally, when the prophet says that men of faith shall live, he does not shut that life within narrow limits; he does not say that God will watch over us for two or three days (that is, for a few years); he goes much further and declares that we shall be 226truly and solidly blessed. Even if this whole world perishes or keeps changing for the worse, men of faith shall yet endure in firm and real safety. When Habakkuk promises life to the faithful in the future tense, there is no doubt that he goes beyond the bounds of this earth and promises them a life which shall be better than the one they had in this world where it is beset with so many calamities. Besides, the brevity of life here shows that too much of it is not desirable.
We conclude therefore that Paul used the words of the prophet wisely and properly as support for his own teaching. Surely the just live by faith alone, and there is no salvation for the soul apart from God’s mercy. . . .
Yesterday we compared Habakkuk’s statement that we shall live by faith with the teaching of Paul who inferred from it that we are justified by faith apart from works. The purpose of life and of righteousness is the same. Our life can be sought nowhere except in the Fatherly kindness of God. Therefore, for us, to live is to be bound to God. And there can be no hope of communion with God when our sins are charged to us. For since God is just, and cannot renounce himself, sin must always be hateful to him. Therefore, so long as he accounts us sinners, we are necessarily hated; and where God’s enmity is, there is death and destruction. It follows that no hope of life is left us unless we are reconciled to God. And there is no other way for God to bring us back to his favor except by accounting us righteous. Therefore Paul’s reasoning is excellent when he takes us from life to justification. The two are bound together, and are inseparable.
And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him for righteousness. Gen. 15:6.
None of us would guess, if Paul had not showed it to us, how rich and profound a doctrine this verse contains. It is a strange thing, almost a prodigy, that when the Spirit of God kindles so bright a light, most interpreters grope around with closed eyes, as if in the darkness of night. (I am not counting the Jews whose blindness is obvious.) Even those who have in Paul a most lucid interpreter corrupt this passage so insipidly that, as I said, it must be counted a prodigy. Indeed in all ages Satan seems to have fought more violently against free justification by faith than against any other teaching, striving to extinguish it and smother it.
The words of Moses are, he believed God, and he counted it to him 227for righteousness. First, Moses commends the faith of Abraham by which he embraced the promise of God. Secondly, he adds a eulogy of that faith, saying that because of it Abraham acquired (adeptus sit) righteousness before God, and that by imputation. For the verb hashab, which Moses uses, stands in relation to God’s judgment; so also it is used in Ps. 106:31 where we read that the zeal of Phineas was counted to him for righteousness. The exact meaning of the word appears more clearly with the negative. In Lev. 7:18, it is said that iniquity will not be imputed to a man when expiation has been made. See also Lev. 17:4; 2 Sam. 19:19; 2 Kings 12:15.
We know that there exist criminals before God to whom iniquity is imputed. Exactly in the same way, God approves as righteous those to whom he imputes righteousness. Therefore Abram was received into the number and rank of the righteous by imputation of righteousness. In order to show distinctly the force and nature of this righteousness, Paul brings us before the heavenly tribunal of God.
Therefore those who twist this passage and interpret it as a description of righteousness, as if it said that Abram was a righteous and upright man, are talking insipid nonsense. The meaning of the text is corrupted no less by those who say ignorantly that Abram attributed to God the glory of righteousness and therefore dared confidently to credit God’s promises knowing him to be faithful and true. Although Moses does not expressly name God in the second clause, the usual mode of speaking in Scripture leaves no ambiguity. Certainly it is no less stupid than presumptuous to give to the words counted for righteousness any other meaning than that Abram’s faith was accepted by God instead of righteousness.
Yet it seems absurd that Abram was justified because he believed that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars of heaven. For believing in one such promise could not make the whole man righteous. Besides, what earthly and temporal promise could be valid ground for eternal salvation? I answer that the faith which Moses records here is not restricted to one point, but includes the whole promise of God. The promise of seed to Abram was not limited to this verse; it is given also in others where a special blessing is added. Hence we conclude that Abram did not in the ordinary fashion hope merely for descendants, but for offspring in which the world was to be blessed.
Now if anyone stubbornly insists that what was said of the 228children of Abram in general is distorted when applied to Christ, in the first place, it cannot be denied that God’s earlier promise, to his servant, is now repeated over again in answer to Abram’s complaint. But we have said before, and the account as a whole plainly shows, that it was his knowledge of the promised blessing which led Abram to desire seed so greatly. Hence it follows that the promise in this passage cannot be taken by itself, separated from the other promises. To conclude the whole matter, I say that if we are to judge the faith of Abram properly, we must consider all that is involved [in the stories about Abram].
God does not promise to give this or that good thing to his servant, in the way that he scatters benefits upon unbelievers who have no taste of his Fatherly love. He assures Abram that he himself will be gracious to him, and he promises him the enjoyment of his own protection and grace, and the confidence of salvation. A man whose heritage is God does not rejoice in flimsy pleasures, but as though already raised to heaven, he delights in the solid joy of eternal life. Certainly it must be held as self-evident that all God’s promises, which are destined for the faithful, flow from God’s gracious mercy and are proofs of his Fatherly love and free adoption on which their safety is founded. Therefore we say that Abram was justified not because he snatched at one little word about producing offspring, but because he embraced God the Father. Truly, faith justifies us for no other reason than that it reconciles us to God, and this not by its own merit, but only because as we receive the grace offered to us in the promises and are certainly persuaded that we are loved by God as sons, we also come to possess the assurance of life eternal.
Therefore Paul argues further that he to whom faith is reckoned for righteousness is not justified by works. For the merits of anyone who seeks justification by works are measured by God [before whom they are worthy of condemnation]. We comprehend the meaning of justification by faith when we know that God reconciles us to himself freely. Hence it follows that [concern with] the merit of works ends when justification is sought through faith. For if anyone is to possess righteousness by faith, it must necessarily be given by God and proffered to us by his Word.
To make this more clearly understood, when Moses says that faith was counted to Abram for righteousness, this does not mean that faith was the first cause (what is called the efficient 229cause) of righteousness; it was only the formal cause.8888Calvin is following Aristotle’s classification of causes as material, formal, efficient, and final. The conventional classroom illustration today is the pair of trousers of which the cloth is the material cause, the pattern is the formal cause, the tailor is the efficient cause, and the reception at which the trousers are to be worn is the final cause. The words of Moses mean: “Abram was justified because relying on the Fatherly kindness of God, he had confidence in God’s goodness alone, and not in himself and his merits.” We need especially to understand that faith obtains (mutuari) from elsewhere a righteousness which we do not possess. Otherwise Paul would not oppose faith to works as a way of obtaining righteousness. And the mutual relation between free promise and faith leaves no room for doubt.
The sequence of time must now be noted. Abram was justified by faith many years after he had been called by God, after he had left his native land and had become a voluntary exile, after he had been a conspicuous mirror of endurance and self-control, after he had devoted himself wholly to holiness, after he had practiced himself in the spiritual and the external worship of God and had led an almost angelic life. So it follows that, even at the end of life, we are brought into God’s eternal Kingdom by justification by faith.
At this point many are grossly deceived. They admit indeed that the righteousness which is given freely to sinners and offered to the undeserving is received by faith alone. But they limit this justification by faith to a moment of time, so that a man, once at the beginning having obtained righteousness by faith is afterwards made righteous by good works. Faith is merely the beginning of righteousness, and as life continues righteousness consists in works. Those who so interpret the teaching must be insane. For if the angelic integrity of Abram, exercised faithfully and consistently for so many years, did not prevent the necessity of fleeing to faith to find righteousness, where in the world will be found a perfection which can meet God’s scrutiny? Therefore we conclude from the time sequence [which I previously mentioned] that justification of works is not to be substituted for justification of faith as if the latter began and the former completed justification; but that the saints, so long as they live in the world, are justified by faith. If anyone objects that Abram had formerly believed God when he followed his call and committed himself to his instruction and guardianship, the answer is easy. No statement is made as to 230when Abram first began to be justified by believing God; but this one passage does show in what way he was justified in his whole life. If Moses had spoken thus about Abram’s first calling the objection I have just mentioned (that initial righteousness, but not perpetual, is of faith) would have more color. But when Abram is said to become righteous by faith after having gone through so much, it easily appears that the saints are justified by grace until they die.
I admit indeed that after those who believe are born again, in the Spirit of God, the mode of their justification differs somewhat. For those born of the flesh only, God reconciles to himself while they are empty of all good. When he finds in them nothing except a filthy heap of dreadful evils, he holds them righteous by imputation. But those to whom he has given the Spirit of holiness and righteousness, he clothes with his gifts. But even then, if their good works please God, this must be by his gracious imputation, because something of sin always remains in them.
This truth holds: men are justified by believing, not by what they do. It is by faith they obtain grace: and grace cannot be earned as a payment for works. Since Abram, with all his preeminence in virtue, after a long life of unique service of God, was yet justified by faith, the righteousness of each perfected man consists in faith alone. It is important to say plainly that what is here told of one man must be applied to all men. For Abram was called “father of the faithful” with good reason, and there are not diverse ways of seeking salvation. Paul rightly teaches that what is here described is not the righteousness of an individual man, but true righteousness as such.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. John 5:24.
It is not enough to know his teaching that he came to raise the dead, unless we also know how he liberates us from death. He declares that we obtain life by hearing his doctrine, but as he soon adds by hearing he means faith. And faith has its seat not in the ears but in the heart; which gives faith its great power, as we have explained before. But let us always keep in mind what the gospel offers us. It is no wonder that anyone who receives Christ with all his merits is both reconciled with God and freed from condemnation of death; for he who receives the 231Holy Spirit puts on a heavenly righteousness and walks in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).
That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death. Phil. 3:10.
Here the apostle describes the nature and efficacy of faith, which is the knowledge of Christ; not a general and vague faith, but the faith we have in the power of his resurrection. Since resurrection completes the work of redemption, it presupposes death. But it is not enough to know that Christ was crucified and rose from the dead, unless we know these things in our lives. This is why Paul speaks explicitly of the power of his resurrection. We know Christ in the right way when we experience the meaning of his death and resurrection within us and as they become effective in us. The expiation and obliteration of sins, freedom from condemnation, satisfaction, victory over death, the attainment of righteousness, and the hope of a blessed immortality — all these are ours by the power of his resurrection.
And the fellowship of his sufferings. After he speaks of the righteousness which was received freely by partaking in the resurrection of Christ, he speaks in addition of the actions of the Godly, so as not to seem to have advocated an idle faith, having no fruits in our life. And, since the false apostles were so aggressive with their empty ceremonials, he indicates the kind of exercises which God requires his people to pursue. Let, therefore, everyone who has shared in all the benefits which Christ has conferred upon us know that his whole life ought to conform to the death of Christ.
Moreover, we participate in the death of Christ and associate with him in it in a twofold way. The one way is inward, which Scripture usually calls the mortification of the flesh, or the crucifixion of the old man. It is of this that Paul speaks in Romans 6. The other is outward, which is called the mortification of the outward man. Of this, he speaks in the eighth chapter of that epistle, and, if I am not mistaken, also in this place. After the all-inclusive power of the resurrection, he sets before us Christ crucified, so that we may be his followers through tribulations and sufferings. When he speaks of the resurrection of the dead in particular, it is to teach us that before we live, we must die. The faithful ought to meditate upon this, so long as they sojourn upon this earth.232
It is our singular consolation that, as members of his body, in all our sufferings we are associated in the cross of Christ; that, as he says elsewhere, through afflictions we are shown a way to eternal blessedness. If we die, we shall live. If we suffer, we shall reign (2 Tim. 2:11–12). We must, therefore, be ready to let our whole life be in the image of death, until it issues in death itself, just as the life of Christ was nothing else than an anticipation of death. In the meantime, we have joy in the consolation that the end is eternal blessedness. The death of Christ, therefore, is joined with his resurrection. This is why Paul says that he was conformed to Christ’s death, that he might attain a glorious resurrection. The phrase by any means, indicates not doubt but difficulty. It is meant to arouse our zeal, because ours is no light skirmish, but a battle against many and great obstacles.
For the Father himself loveth you, because ye have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God. John 16:27.
These words remind us that the only bond which unites us with God is union with Christ. But the faith which unites us with Christ is not something contrived; it grows out of a genuine feeling which is here called love. Such faith does not merely believe about Christ; it embraces him with the soul. Therefore, love expresses well the power and the nature of faith. Truly, if God begins to love us only when we already love Christ, it follows that our love comes before God’s grace, and that the beginning of our salvation is in us. But many passages in Scripture cry out against such a statement. The promise of God is, “I shall make them to love me,” and John says, “It is not that we first loved him” (1 John 4:10). It is unnecessary to cite many passages. There is nothing more certain than the teaching that the Lord calls a people who are not; that he revives the dead, unites to himself those who are strangers, turns hearts of stone into flesh, and appears to those who do not even seek after him. I reply that the elect, before they are called, are secretly loved by God who loves his own before they exist. But before they are reconciled to God, they are rightly regarded as his enemies, as we read in Paul and elsewhere (Rom. 5:10). We are here said to be loved of God when we love Christ; because when we love Christ, we receive a pledge that God loves us as Father; whereas, before we love Christ, he terrifies us as a hostile judge.233
And keep my Sabbaths holy, and they will be for a sign between one and you, for understanding (that is, that you may understand or know) that I am the Lord your God. Ezek. 20:20. (Calvin’s wording.)
The way to keep the Sabbath holy had already been explained. Mere idleness was unimportant. Therefore he repeats and they shall be for a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God. God bears witness in these words that if the Jews kept the Sabbath rightly, they would experience the working of his grace, which he wished his Sabbath to represent. For we have said that God wished the Sabbath to be a sacrament of the new birth. He promises the people that his Spirit will work among them if only they do not close the door to him by their own impiety and contempt.
Hence we see that sacraments are never without the power of the Spirit except when men make themselves unfit to receive the grace offered. The papists say of the sacraments that they are effective if we do not interpose the barrier of a mortal sin. They make no mention of faith. For example, if someone without a single drop of faith pushes up to the Lord’s Supper, they say he will receive not only Christ’s body and blood but also the fruit of his death and resurrection, on the sole condition that he has not committed a mortal sin; that is, if he cannot be convicted of theft or murder. We see in what blindness they are sunk; and this by the just judgment of God.
But by us the mutual relation between faith and sacrament must be steadily maintained. The sacraments become effective through faith; and men’s unworthiness does not lessen their effect.
Sacraments always retain their own character. Baptism is the water of rebirth, though the whole world disbelieve. The Table of Christ is the communion of his body and blood, even if there were not the tiniest spark of faith in the world. But we do not perceive [without faith] the grace which is offered to us. And although the spiritual content remains always the same, we neither obtain the effect nor feel the power of the sacraments unless we are careful that our lack of faith does not profane what God has sanctified for our salvation.
But continue thou in those things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them. 2 Tim. 3:14.
He commands Timothy to stay put, even when evil is on the rampage and scatters destruction very far and wide. And surely 234this is the real proof of faith, that we resist all the machinations of the devil with a tireless constancy; that we be not deflected from the right course by every wind that blows, but remain fixed on God’s truth as on a sacred anchor.
Now with the phrase knowing from whom thou hast learned them, he tells us we can be certain that the doctrine is true. No one who has been taught a wrong doctrine should hold on to it. On the contrary, if we would be Christ’s disciples, we ought to unlearn any doctrine which ignores Christ; wherefore, the beginning of sound instruction in the faith is to reject and forget the whole doctrine of the papacy. In fact, the apostle enjoins Timothy not to keep every doctrine handed down to him, but to use discrimination, and to retain that which he has confirmed as true. Besides, he does not claim that what he himself has taught as a private person should be received as an oracle. He confronts Timothy confidently with his own authority, which was already recognized as evident from the apostle’s calling and his faithfulness. Since Timothy was convinced that he was taught by an ambassador of Christ, he understood that the teaching he had received belonged not to men but to Christ.
This passage warns us that as we must be zealous to avoid obstinacy in matters where no certainty is to be had (and to this class belong all the teachings of men): we must be adamant in our constancy only in holding on to God’s truth. Besides, we learn here that faith needs to be combined with good sense, to distinguish the word of God from the word of men, so that we may not grab at everything that happens to be within our reach. Nothing is further from faith than lightheaded credulity which embraces and champions senselessly everything, no matter what it is and where it comes from. Above all, the foundation of faith is the knowledge that its author is God.
Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. Josh. 10:12.
Joshua spoke to the Lord is the literal translation. But some explain this as before the Lord, because to speak to the Lord whom reverence teaches us to petition humbly seems inconsistent with the humility of faith, and also because Joshua immediately afterwards addressed his words to the sun. However, I have no doubt that in the first clause a vow or prayer is meant, and that the second clause gives evidence of Joshua’s faith after he has 235been heard by God. It would certainly have been an act of rash pride to order the sun to stand still, if God had not granted the favor.
Joshua consults God and petitions him, and when he has been answered, he boldly orders the sun to do what he knows God approves. Such is the strength of the privilege of faith, praised by Christ, which subjugates mountains and seas to its power (Matt. 17:20; Luke 17:6). The more the strength of the faithful is exhausted, the more generously does God transfer his power to them, revealing his own power through that faith which is bound to the Word. Briefly, faith founded upon the Word is transmuted into confident power. So Elijah closed heaven and opened it at his command and brought fire down from heaven (1 Kings 17–18). So Christ endowed his disciples with heavenly power so that the elements were subject to them.
Only, it is necessary to be on guard against bursting out with rash commands at one’s own will. For this reason, Joshua did not begin to delay and hold back the course of the sun until he was duly informed of God’s plan. When it is said that Joshua spoke with God, the words do not properly express the meekness and submission with which a servant of God ought to begin his prayers. Yet they serve to show us that Joshua asked of God the thing he desired and then, after he had prayed, he was the free and brave herald of an incredible miracle which had not yet occurred. He never would have given a command to the sun so confidently in front of all Israel unless he had been sure of his own vocation. Otherwise he would only have exposed himself to shame and humiliation.
Unhesitatingly he shouts his order to the sun and moon to turn aside from the perpetual law of nature. He knows that he is commanding them by the power of God which has been given to him.
For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day. 2 Tim. 1:12.
This is the only refuge of the godly; whenever the world counts them condemned and without hope; it is enough that God approves of them. For, what would be the end if they depended upon men?
This shows how different faith is from opinion. When Paul says, I know whom I have believed, he means that it is far from enough for you to believe unless [your belief rest] on the 236authority of God, and unless you be certain of what you believe. Faith therefore does not lean upon the authority of men; and as it leans upon God, it knows no wavering. Thus, faith must be joined with knowledge, otherwise it would have no firmness against the countless assaults of Satan. Anyone who possesses this knowledge with Paul knows by experience that it is not for nothing that our faith has been called the victory that overcometh the world; or that Christ said, The gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). I say, The man who remains tranquil in the midst of storms and tempests is one who has the firm knowledge that God has spoken, and will not lie; that he will not deceive, but will certainly perform what he has promised. On the contrary, anyone in whom this truth has not been sealed is swayed endlessly back and forth like a reed.
This passage deserves special attention as a superb statement of the power of faith; it teaches us to glorify God, even in the most desperate situations, by not doubting that he is true and faithful; it also teaches us to be content with the Word, as though God himself appeared to us from heaven. Anyone who is not thus persuaded understands nothing. Besides, let us always remember that Paul does not philosophize in the dark, but testifies to the power of confident hope in eternal life as one who, even at present, knows it.
And I am persuaded that he is able. Since the perils which assail us are at once great and powerful, and often tempt our spirits to distrust, it is necessary for us to go about with the shield that God has power enough to protect us. In the same way, when Christ bids us to be confident, he argues, saying, “The Father, who gave you to me is greater than all” (John 10:29). He thus declares that we are above the reach of peril, because the Lord who has taken us under his protection, abounds in power and is able to repel every assault. Satan does not dare to suggest directly that God is powerless, or that he can be prevented from doing whatever he promises, because our minds abhor such blasphemy against God. But he does deprive us of all sense of God’s power, by preoccupying our eyes and our minds with other things. The soul of man, therefore, needs to be purified, not only to taste the power of God, but also to keep tasting it under sundry temptations.
Besides, whenever Paul speaks of God’s power we must conceive it as, so to speak, active, or ἐνεργουμένην, as he calls it elsewhere (Col. 1:29). Faith always connects the power of God with the Word, and does not imagine it as something distant, 237but conceives and possesses it in the inner man. So, Rom. 4:20 says of Abram, “He did not hesitate, or dispute, but gave God the glory, being fully convinced that what he had promised, he was able to perform.” And it was life eternal that the apostle trusted in God: which means that we are to put our well-being in God’s hand as we put our possessions in the hand of a trustee whom we trust as a faithful man. If our well-being depended upon ourselves, it would be endlessly exposed to peril: it is well, therefore, that we turn it over to such a protector; for then it is safely beyond all peril.
Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect, and the acknowledging of the truth which is after godliness. Titus 1:1.
I believe we shall interpret this verse rightly if we take the word and in the latter half of the sentence as meaning that is. Thus the last clause of the verse explains the nature of the faith of God’s elect, even though what we have here is not a full definition of faith but a characterization of it adapted to the apostle’s present purpose. He sets his apostleship apart from error and imposture, by asserting that it contains nothing except truth which is at once evident and certain, and which instructs men in a pure worship of God. But since every word in this verse is weighty, we would benefit greatly if we looked at the whole mosaic, section by section.
In the first place, faith is called knowledge, not as against opinion, but as against the hazy affair invented by the papists: for they have contrived an “implicit faith” with no understanding in it. But when Paul makes this knowledge of truth a proper function of faith, he makes it clear that there is no such thing as faith without knowledge.
And the word truth expresses even more clearly the certainty that is essential to faith. For faith is not content with the probabilities provided by our reasonings. Its proper object is the truth itself. Besides, we are concerned not with any truth, but with that truth from heaven which stands in contrast to the vanities proposed by the human mind. Since it is this truth which reveals God himself to us, it alone deserves to go by that name; and so it is honored commonly in Scripture: John 16:13: And the Spirit shall lead you unto all truth; John 17:17: Thy word is truth; Gal. 3:1: Who hath bewitched you that you do not obey the truth; Col. 1:5: Having heard the word of truth, the gospel of the Son of God; 1 Tim. 2:4: He would have all come to the knowledge of the truth; 2381 Tim. 3:15: The church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. In short, truth is that right and sincere knowledge of God which frees us from all lies and error. And surely such knowledge should be very precious to us, since there is nothing more miserable than for us to wander around all our lives like dumb cattle.
According to godliness, which follows, puts a special restriction upon the meaning of truth; at the same time, it commends the teaching of Paul by its fruit and end, which tends toward nothing else than the right worship of God and the flourishing of pure religion among men. It is thus that he defends his teaching as free from every mark of godless curiosity, as he had done before Felix (Acts 24:10) and then before Agrippa (Acts 26:1). Therefore, it is only right that the godly should be suspicious of and detest all empty questioning which does not make for the building up of the church. The only legitimate recommendation that can be given to doctrine is that it teaches reverence and the fear of God. Thus we are reminded that the best disciple of Christ is one who has made the greatest progress in reverence; and he alone is to be considered a true theologian who builds up the consciences of men in the fear of God.
Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entered into that within the veil. Heb. 6:19.
This is an eloquent comparison between an anchor and faith resting upon the Word of God. It is obvious that while we wander in this world, we do not stand on firm ground; on the contrary, we are as in the middle of the sea, tossed about by turbulent waves. The devil does not cease stirring up innumerable storms, which almost overturn and sink our ship, unless we throw our anchor deep in the sea. Our eyes see no harbor anywhere. In whatever direction we look, we see only water, and the waves keep rising with deadly threat. Just as the anchor is thrown into the midst of the waters to some dark and secret place, and while it remains there, it keeps the ship from being broken up by the waves surrounding it — so our hope needs to hold fast to the invisible God. But there is a difference between the anchor and our hope; the former is thrown down into the sea because the earth is at the bottom of it; the latter, on the other hand, is lifted up and soars on high because it finds nothing to hold on to on this earth. For our hope must not cling to the creature, but must find its quietness in God. As the cable tied to the anchor connects the vessel with the earth at a long 239distance through the dark waters, so God’s truth is a bond which connects us with himself; and no distance, or foggy darkness, can keep us from clinging to him. When we are thus tied to God, even when we struggle constantly with storms, we remain beyond the danger of shipwreck. This is why he says that the anchor is sure and firm. It can, of course, be that the rush of the waters will pull the anchor off, or break the cable, and tear the beaten ship to pieces. Such a thing can happen in the sea. But the power of God which sustains us is different; different is the fortitude of hope, and different the firmness of his Word.
Which entered into that. As we have said, unless faith reaches God, it finds nothing except what is unstable and in flux. Therefore, it needs to penetrate as far as heaven. But since the apostle was dealing with the Jews, he refers to the old tabernacle, and says that they should not tarry with the things visible, but should rather penetrate into the inmost holy places hidden behind the veil: the old and external copies are to be set aside in order that faith may rest in Christ alone.
But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering; for he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. James 1:6.
Here he teaches first the right way to pray. Since we can pray only as we are led by the Word of God, it follows that faith comes before prayer. When we pray, we testify to the grace which is the promise of God to us: and so testifying, we have hope. Thus, anyone who does not believe the promises, has only the semblance of prayer. Thus also we learn what true prayer is; for as James bids us to ask in faith, he explains in addition that we are to hesitate at nothing. Faith, therefore, rests upon God’s promises and gives us the certainty that what we ask for we shall receive; whence it follows that a confident trust in us goes with the love of God toward us. The word διακρίνεθαι used in this place means properly to inquire into both sides of a controversy. He would have us be persuaded that once God has made a promise there is no room left for doubt as to whether we shall or shall not be heard
He who wavers. By an elegant simile, he tells us how God punishes the infidelity of those who doubt his promises. Such people are tortured by their own inquietude, for there is no such thing as tranquillity for our spirits unless they lean upon the truth of God. He concludes finally that those who doubt God do not deserve anything from him. This is an excellent 240passage with which to refute the impious dogma, accepted as an oracle throughout papal lands, that we should pray in a state of doubt, hardly knowing what will come out of our praying. On the contrary, we hold the principle that the Lord will not hear our prayers unless there is the confident expectation that what we ask for we shall receive. But considering the weakness of the flesh, it is all too true that we are agitated by various temptations, which are engines for the shattering of our confidence in God. Hence, we find no one who is not in fact led by the feelings of his flesh to waver and shake in his boots. But it is the business of faith finally to overcome temptations of this kind; for faith is like a tree which has sunk deep roots; indeed, when the winds blow, it sways and bends, but it is not heaved out of the ground; on the contrary, it remains standing and firm where it belongs.
2. FAITH AS FAITHFULNESS AND COURAGE
Jesus saith to him, Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed; blessed are they who have not seen and have believed. John 20:29.
Here Christ commends faith on the ground that it does not in the least depend upon sense and carnal reason, but acquiesces in the mere Word of God. Therefore, in this brief definition, he brings together both the power and the essence of faith; namely, that it does not consist in seeing what is before us, but penetrates to the very heavens, so as to believe the things which are hidden from the human senses. For surely we ought so to know God that his truth may be to us αὐτόπιστος (to be believed simply because it is his Word). Faith indeed has its own sight, but it is not fixed on things upon this world and earth. For this reason, it is said to be a demonstration of things invisible and not seen (Heb. 15:1). Paul, also, who contrasts it with sight (2 Cor. 5:7) points out that faith, without holding to a consideration of the state of things present, or looking about at things visible in this world, hangs on to the mouth of God; and putting its confidence in the Word of God, it rises above the whole world and casts its anchor in heaven.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego answered the king and said: O Nebuchadnezer, we are not anxious with what words we are to answer thee (or negotiate with thee). (Others translate it, “It is not right that we should answer thee in this matter” ; they say l is here, 241as often, superfluous.) Lo, God whom we serve is able to (that is, can) deliver us from the furnaces of raging fire and will snatch us from thy hand, O king. But if not, be it known to thee, O king, that we shall not worship thy Gods, and we shall not adore the images which thou hast set up. Dan. 3:16–18. (Calvin’s wording.)
The chief emphasis in this account is upon the unbroken spirit of the three holy and God-fearing men, when they knew that they were in imminent danger of death. Although a horrible death was before their eyes, they did not swerve from the right path but set the glory of God above their own life — even above a hundred lives if they had had so many and such a sacrifice were required.
Daniel does not report all their words but selects only a few in which glows the unconquerable power of the Holy Spirit who instructed them. The king’s threat, be hurled into the furnace of fire, was certainly horrible, and terror before his rage would have been very natural. For we know how dear life is to us and what dread of death fills our minds. Daniel has described the whole situation to make it clear to us that God’s servants, when they are led by the Spirit, have too much courage to yield to any threats or give way to any fears. They say to the king, “We need not deliberate.” When they say that they are not anxious, they mean “the matter is settled; we have no desire to hold a consultation about what is expedient or helpful. Not at all. . . . In so holy a matter no deliberation is possible. We have already decided that we must not depart in any way from the pure worship of God.” Clearly, the fear of death, however closely it hangs over them, and however deeply it is ingrained in their hearts, does not make them deviate a hair’s breadth from the true and right worship of God.
They give two reasons for rejecting the king’s proposal. They say that God has sufficient power and might to rescue them; and then they add that even if they must die, life is not so precious that they would deny God to prolong it. They declare themselves ready for death if the king still insists that they worship the statue.
This passage is especially worth our study. We should note the first answer which shows us that when we are urged to deny the true God we must close our ears and do no deliberating. For we begin to dishonor God when we debate whether it be allowable for any reason whatever to depart from his pure worship. How I wish that all men would become so conscious of the supreme excellence of the glory of God that they would 242disregard all else whenever there is any attempt to lessen or hide God’s glory!
But many today have accepted a fallacy. They think either that they have a right to sit on the fence or that at times it may be better to swerve temporarily from the true worship of God. They reason: “There is some good on both sides. . . . Or if I did not compromise, I might harm others as well as myself. If our ruler had no advisers to counsel moderation, the wicked could go to extremes and urge him, without restraint, to all kinds of cruelty. Therefore, it is better to have some middle-of-the roaders, who humor the wicked and who keep a watch on their schemes, so that without open opposition they may by underground means avert danger from the heads of good men.” So they convince themselves that they are doing their bit for God.
Could not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have given the same kind of excuse? Could they not have thought: “We have some power to help our brothers. How much greater barbarities and cruelties would follow if open enemies of religion replace us! For they would try their best to destroy from the earth both our race and the memory of our religion. Isn’t it better for us to yield temporarily to tyranny and the king’s harsh decree than to leave our office to be occupied by raging men who will totally destroy our poor people who are already in enough trouble?” They could have found plenty of excuses for their faithlessness if, to avoid danger, they had bent their knees before the golden image. But they did not.
As I have said, God’s right remains unviolated only when we adhere unquestioningly to his service and are convinced that no consideration is important enough to permit us to make it lawful for us to deviate in the slightest degree from that course of action which he commands by his word and which he requires of us. . . . Why do we live except to serve God’s glory? If we lose our purpose in living for the sake of life — that is, if we desire too much to live in the world — we set aside the purpose of life.
When the three declare that God is able to save them, but if not, they are ready for death — they reveal a truth which ought to raise our hearts above all temptations. Since our life is dear to God, he himself, if he wishes, can rescue us. Since, then, we have in God a sufficient protection, let us not try to imagine any better way of preserving our life than by surrendering ourselves wholly to his direction and casting all our anxieties upon him. And we must also consider the second clause. Even if God wishes to make his glory shine by our death, this would be a rightful 243sacrifice, and it should be offered to him. True religion does not flourish in us unless we take our life in our hand, that is, unless we hold it always ready for sacrifice. (I wanted to present briefly today what, if God permits, I shall treat more at length tomorrow.)
By faith, Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house: by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith. Heb. 11:7.
It was a wonderful example of courage that, while the whole world did as they pleased, and gave themselves up to pleasure, without fear and without restraint, Noah alone kept his eyes on God’s judgment, although it was delayed for a time; and for one hundred and twenty years he went through the weariness and misery of building an ark. All this time he remained adamant, while the godless crowds jeered at him; he never doubted that the world would perish and he would be saved. Yea, he lived in the ark as in the grave. But I need not say more about this; let someone else who can do better expand on it. [It is enough to say that] the apostle attributes this marvelous courage to faith. So far he had been speaking of the faith of the fathers who lived in the first age of the world. But when Noah and his family came out of the Flood, faith became a kind of regeneration. The case of Noah shows that in all ages men neither have been approved by God, nor have deserved his praise, except by faith.
Now, the story of Noah leads to the following considerations: first, that warned of things to come, which he still could not see, he was filled with awe and fear; secondly, that thereupon he built an ark; thirdly, that by building it he condemned the world; fourthly, that he inherited the righteousness which is according to faith. My first point brings out the power of faith best. It always recalls us to the primary truth that faith is the evidence of things not seen; for it is surely the property of faith to see in God’s Word the things which are hidden and far beyond the competence of our senses. When Noah was told that after one hundred and twenty years there would be a flood, the length of time involved might have taken away all his fear. Besides, the whole thing was incredible. He saw the unbelievers going ahead, safe and secure, with their life of pleasure. He might have thought that the dreadful news of a flood was an empty threat to terrify the people. But Noah held such respect 244for the Word of God that he turned his eyes away from the things present, and feared the destruction threatened by God as though it were already happening. The faith he had in God’s Word was turned into the obedience to God which was demonstrated in his building the ark.
Now, somebody will raise the question, Why does the apostle say that faith produced fear if it be true that faith is bound to promises rather than to threatenings? It is the gospel, in which the righteousness of God is offered to us for our salvation, that Paul calls the word of faith (Rom. 10:8). It seems therefore wrong to say that by faith Noah was led to fear. I answer, Faith grows properly out of the promises; it is founded in them and rests upon them. Therefore, we say that Christ is the true end of faith, since it is in him that the Heavenly Father has been reconciled to us, and in him all the promises of salvation have been sealed and ratified. However, nothing keeps faith from being fixed upon God and accepting from him every word he speaks. Or, if you would have it put more briefly, it is the function of faith to hear God as he speaks, and to embrace without doubt whatever proceeds from his holy mouth. Thus, faith acknowledges precepts and threats, as well as God’s free promises. But since no one manages to obey God’s precepts properly and sufficiently, no one is moved to pray that he may be delivered from his wrath, unless he has laid hold of God’s gracious promises and knows him as a good Father and the Author of salvation. Therefore, the gospel is called the Word of faith, for it is the principal part of the Word of God; and this is how faith and the promises are related one to the other. Faith attends to the promises of God; but is no less intent upon his threatenings, in so far as it needs to be taught to fear God and to submit to him.
Prepared the ark. Here the apostle points out the obedience which flows out of faith as water from a fountain. The work of building the ark was long and laborious. It might have been hindered by the scoffings of the ungodly, and thus interrupted a thousand times; for there is no doubt that the holy man was pelted with insults on all sides. The very fact that he bore their derision with an unbroken spirit shows the uncommon zeal of Noah’s submission to God. But what was the source of this constancy of obedience if not that he rested in the promise of God, which gave him the hope of salvation, and led him to believe in God to the very end? For he would not have had the courage to meet willingly so many troubles, or to overcome so many 245obstacles, or to stand firm at his task so long, if he had not already trusted in God. Faith alone therefore is the teacher of obedience, while unbelief keeps us from obeying God. And in our own day, the world’s unbelief shows itself in a frightful way, for there are few who obey God.
By which he condemned the world. It would be strange to say that Noah by faith condemned the world. The context of this verse hardly bears this out. Therefore, the reference is to the ark. The world is said to have been condemned by the ark in a double sense. Since the building of the ark took so long, it left the wicked without any excuse. Besides, what followed the building of it showed that the condemnation of the world was just. Why indeed did the ark become the means of salvation to one family, if not because by his righteousness one man was spared the wrath of the Lord, and did not perish with the wicked? Had he not been left as a remnant, the condemnation of the world would not have been so conspicuous. By the very example of his obedience to God’s command, Noah condemned the perversity of the world. The very fact that Noah was snatched away so marvelously from the jaws of death is proof enough that the condemnation of the whole world was just; for certainly God would have saved it had it not been unworthy of salvation.
Of the righteousness which is by faith. This is the last thing about Noah which the apostle brings to our attention. Moses says that Noah was a righteous man. History does not tell us that the root and reason of Noah’s righteousness was in faith. But the apostle testifies to this as a fair inference from the facts of the case; not only because no one obeys God with sincerity unless, after receiving the promises of his Fatherly goodness, he trusts him with his very life; but also because no one can please God without his forgiveness, no matter how righteous his life is according to the rule of God’s law. Therefore, it is necessary that our righteousness rest in faith.
By faith, Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son. . . . Heb. 11:17.
The author goes on with the rest of the story of Abraham, and tells of his offering up of Isaac. Here we have an example of singular courage, and we are not likely to find anything like it anywhere. . . .
And he that received the promises. All that was said so far, how 246ever deeply it may have wounded Abraham, was a mere prick compared with this trial in which, after he had received the promise, he was commanded to kill his son Isaac. For all the promises were founded upon this: In Isaac shall thy seed be called (Gen. 21:12); and without him no hope remained of any good or blessing whatever. Besides, what was at stake here was nothing earthly. It had to do with the everlasting salvation of Abraham; yea, even of the whole world. We can imagine what anguish took hold of the holy man when he realized that in the person of his son the very hope of eternal life was to be extinguished! And yet by faith he escaped such dark thoughts, and did as he was commanded. What a wonderful power it was that enabled him to overcome so many and so arduous obstacles! No wonder that faith deserves the highest praise, since it alone made it possible for Abraham to persevere without defeat.
But here we meet a difficulty which is no small matter. How is it that Abraham’s faith is praiseworthy if it was separated from the promise? For, as obedience is from faith, so faith is from promise. Therefore, when Abraham was deprived of the promise, his faith also must have failed. Now, the death of Isaac, as we have said, would have been as it were the collapse of all the promises; since Isaac was no ordinary man, but one who included Christ. This difficulty, which would otherwise not have been easy to deal with, is resolved by the apostle when he adds soon after that Abraham honored God by believing that he could raise his son from the dead. Therefore, he did not reject the promise made to him, but extended its truth and God’s power beyond the life of his son; because he did not set the power of God within narrow limits, as though it were tied up to Isaac’s death and would become void with it. He held on to the promise, because he did not bind God’s power merely to Isaac’s lifetime. He was persuaded that it would be active and efficacious in the ashes of a dead Isaac, as it was when he was alive and breathing.
By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible. Heb. 11:27.
This may be said of the first time Moses left Egypt as well as of the second, when he took the people with him; for, he did leave Egypt in a real sense when he ran away from the Pharaoh’s house. When the apostle says that Moses left Egypt before the celebration of the Passover, he means the first flight. His adding that Moses did not fear the wrath of the king does not invalidate 247this view, though Moses himself says that he fled because of terror.
Still, when we consider the early career of Moses, we see that it was when he came out as the champion of the people that he was not afraid. When I consider all the circumstances, I prefer to think that here we have to do with Moses’ second departure. It was then that he scorned the wrath of the king, and was so armed with the power of God’s Spirit that he often excited the fury of that beast. Such certainly was the energy of his faith that, taking along with him a multitude untrained in warfare, and bearing the burden of many obstacles, he went with the hope that God by his own hand would open a way through the countless difficulties which beset him. He saw a most potent king seized by impotent rage, and knew that he would do his utmost to the very end. But since he knew that he was departing by God’s power, he commended the situation to God, and did not doubt that God would in time bring the assault of all the Egyptians to a dead stop.
As seeing him who is invisible. But Moses did see God in the burning bush; besides, it looks as though this point is introduced here improperly and without relevance to the matter on hand. I admit readily that Moses was fortified by his vision, as he set out for the glorious task of delivering his people. But I deny that his vision of God divested him of his bodily senses and put him beyond the perils of this world. Strictly speaking, God gave him a sign of his presence; but he was very far from having seen God as he really is. What the apostle means to say is that Moses endured as though he were lifted to heaven and saw God alone; as though he were beyond intercourse with men, beyond the reach of this life’s perils and the struggle with Pharaoh. And yet, he was certainly beset with so many difficulties that he could not but imagine sometimes that God was far away from him; or, at least, that the obstinacy of the king, supported by overwhelming arms, would be impossible to resist effectively. In short, God presented himself to Moses as living, but not so that faith became superfluous. Moses himself, beset by terrors on all sides, turned his whole mind to God. As we have said, his vision helped him to do this; but he saw more in God than was visible by the sign of the bush. His apprehension of God’s power absorbed all fear and every peril; leaning upon God’s promise, he saw his people, even while they were being oppressed under the tyranny of the Egyptians, as already lords in the Promised Land.248
So, we learn first that the true nature of faith is to set God always before our eyes; secondly, that faith has insight into things higher and deeper than those which fall within the scope of our senses; thirdly, that only a sight of God is sufficient to remove our softness and to make us as rocks against the assaults of Satan. It follows that the more indolent and the weaker a man is, the less faith he has.
By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they were compassed about seven days. Heb. 11:30.
Before this, he taught us that the yoke of bondage was broken by faith; he now reminds us that by that same faith the people took possession of their inheritance. As they entered the land, they first came up against the city of Jericho; fortified and almost impregnable, it forbade further progress, since they had no means for assaulting it. The Lord ordered that all the fighting men go around it once every day for six days, and seven times on the seventh day. All this going around was childish and extremely ridiculous. Nevertheless, they obeyed God’s command; and their labor was not in vain. It ended happily, according to the promise of God. Surely the walls fell down, not because the people shouted and made a big noise, nor because of the din and the clamor of the trumpets, but because the people believed that God would do as he had promised.
The Lord your God, he is God in heaven above and in earth beneath. Now, therefore, I pray you, swear unto me by the Lord. . . . Josh. 2:11–12.
The image of the faith of Rahab shines clear as in a mirror when, throwing away all idols, she ascribes the rule of heaven and earth to the God of Israel alone. Without question, when [men acknowledge that] heaven and earth are subject to the God of Israel, the fictitious gods of the nations amongst which they distribute the majesty and the power and the glory of God are wholly repudiated. Therefore Rahab was not too highly honored when two apostles referred to her faith.
Certain arrogant and over-punctilious men make a face at this. I wish that they could weigh fairly what it really involves to distinguish the one true God from all fictions and at the same time to exalt his power so highly as to declare that he by his will rules the whole world. Rahab speaks without hesitation and asserts unequivocally that all existing power belongs to the 249God of Israel alone, that he rules all elements, orders all things above and below, determines all human affairs.
However, I do not deny that Rahab’s faith was not full-grown. Indeed, I freely admit that it was only a germ of faith, not yet sufficient for her eternal salvation. Nonetheless we must recognize that, however small and frail was this woman’s knowledge of God, yet when she submitted herself to God’s rule, she produced the certificate of her election; and from such submission as from a seed springs the faith which grows to full measure.
Now, swear. Here is another evidence of her faith. She is convinced, relying on no evidence except the promise of God of which she had heard, that the sons of Abraham are the sure possessors of the land of Canaan. She did not think that God favored robbers who were bursting with unjust violence and unbridled lust into the territory of others. She declared rather that the Israelites were coming into the land of Canaan because God has assigned them the rule over it. . . .
The words of Rahab illuminate what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews says of faith: that it is the vision of things unseen. For Rahab lived among her own people in a fortified city; and yet she trusted her own life to half-dead foreigners as if they were already in possession of the land and could kill or save alive whomever they chose. Certainly this willing offering of herself was truly a laying hold of God’s promise and a surrender of herself to God’s Fatherly care.
By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace. Heb. 11:31.
Even though at first sight this example, because of the ignoble character of the person involved, may seem less striking and hardly worth mentioning in this series, the apostle used it fittingly and with good reason. So far he had shown that the patriarchs, whom the Jews regarded with honor and reverence, did nothing praiseworthy except by faith; that the most memorable benefits which God bestowed upon them, were the effects of the same faith. Now he teaches that a woman of alien origin, among the dregs of her own people, and even a harlot, was by faith placed within the very body of the church. From this it follows that even those who are placed highest among us have no worth before God except as they are valued according to their faith; that on the contrary those who are hardly given a place among the godless and the reprobate are by faith taken into the company of angels.250
And what shall I more say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthah; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets. Heb. 11:32.
The apostle was afraid that by giving a few examples, he would be taken to limit the praises of faith to a small number of people. He anticipates this objection and adds that, if he were to mention everybody one by one, there would be no end to his recital. His point is that what he said of the few applied to the whole church of God. He turns first to the period between Joshua and David, when God raised up Judges to govern the people. He mentions four: Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah.
It was ridiculous of Gideon to go and attack a host of enemies with three hundred men; to make his men shake the pitchers in their hands and engage in an empty ghost play. As for Barak, he was no match for his enemies, and ruled by the counsel of a woman. Samson was a mere farmer, and was used only to the tools of a farmer. What could he have done against proud conquerors whose power had brought the whole populace to subjection? And who would not at first thought condemn the foolhardiness of Jephthah who set himself up as the champion of a people who were already lost? But because they all followed God’s leading and, inspired by his promises, took hold of the task enjoined upon them, the Spirit glorified them by his witness.
Therefore, the apostle attributes their every praiseworthy deed to faith, even though there was not one of them whose faith was not lame! Gideon was too slow in taking up arms, and had trouble in daring to commit himself to God. Barak at first shook in his boots, and was forced into battle by Deborah’s insults. Samson was so overcome by the coaxings of his concubine that he was senseless enough to betray the safety of the whole people as well as his own. Jephthah, having let himself in for a stupid vow, and being stubborn enough to perform it, cruelly spoiled a splendid victory with the death of his own daughter. So, in every one of these saints, we meet something which deserves censure. And yet, faith, however deformed and imperfect, is approved by God. Therefore, the wrongs which burden us should neither dishearten us nor break us down, provided only that we follow our calling by faith.
Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Heb. 11:35.251
Having recounted instances where God rewarded the faith of the saints with a happy ending, he now presents us with a different situation, in which the godly, reduced to extreme misery, carried on by faith and remained indomitable even to the death. At first it looks as though there were a great difference between these two outcomes of faith. Some enjoyed magnificent victories over their beaten enemies. They were preserved by the Lord through various miracles, and were rescued from death itself in new and uncommon ways. Others, on the contrary, were subjected to outrage. They were spit upon by almost the whole world; were poor and needy, and so hated by everyone that they had to hide in the holes of wild beasts; and in the end they were dragged out and subjected to cruel and inhuman tortures. So, for all one could see, they were abandoned to the arrogance and savagery of the godless, and were altogether without God’s help. Their lot, therefore, would seem to have been altogether different from that of the saints mentioned in the earlier parts of this chapter.
Nevertheless, faith reigned in both instances, and in both it was equally effective. In fact, in the latter it shone even more brightly. The victory of faith is more splendid in contempt of death than in a life stretched out to five generations. The glory of faith is more striking in its effects, and is worthy of greater praise, when we endure want, reproach, and utmost difficulty with a calm and constant spirit, than when we are restored to health by a miracle, or enjoy some other benefit from God.
For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye may receive the promise. Forget a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. Heb. 10:36–38.
He says patience is necessary, not only because we need to endure a while longer until the end, but also because Satan is resourceful in innumerable devices with which to trouble us. Therefore, unless we are taught great patience, we shall be cut down a thousand times before we are even halfway through our course. It is indeed certain that we shall inherit eternal life; and yet, since this life is like an athletic event, we need to strain every muscle until we get to the finishing line. The course itself contains many obstacles and hardships, which not only slow us down, but would even stop us altogether in our race, unless we overcome them with a prodigious fortitude of spirit. Satan is clever enough to put into our heads every kind of disquiet, so 252as to break us down. In short, Christians would be unable to take two steps unless fortified by endurance. This then is the only way we can steadily go ahead. Without endurance we neither obey God nor receive the promised inheritance, which is here called the promise.
For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. But endurance is hard for us. Therefore, he reminds us that it will not be for long. Nothing lifts the spirit so well when it is weary as the hope that the end is at hand. As a general encourages his soldiers by saying the battle will not be long, provided they hold on a little longer, so the apostle tells us that the Lord will come shortly and deliver us from all evil, provided we do not go soft and let our spirits fail.
He gives this consolation greater credibility and authority by an appeal to the witness of the prophet Habakkuk, ch. 2:4. But since he follows the Greek version and departs somewhat from the words of the prophet, I shall first explain the latter, and then compare both with what is said by the apostle.
When the prophet had discoursed of the dreadful fall of his nation, and was terrified by his own prophecy, there was nothing left for him to do except, as it were, to leave the world and withdraw to his watchtower. (But our watchtower is the Word of God by which we are directed toward heaven.) Having been placed in his station, the prophet was commanded to write a new prophecy which affirmed to the godly the certainty of their coming deliverance. But since men are importunate, and their precipitate desires make them always judge God as much too slow, even when he is quick, the prophet declares that the promise will be fulfilled without delay; and at the same time he adds, “If there be delay, wait for it.” What he says is that, no matter how quickly God fulfills his promises, he seems to us too slow. As the old proverb says: To desire, even haste is delay. Then follow the words: “Behold, he who lifts himself up shall not have a stable spirit, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” With these words, he warns that the ungodly, however armed with their defenses, and however confident they be behind their ramparts, shall not stand: because life is not stable except by faith. Let the unbelievers arm themselves as they please; they will find nothing in this whole world that will not perish; therefore, they have to be always in a state of panic. But the faith of the godly never fails, because it leans upon God. This is what the prophet is talking about.
Now the apostle applies to God what the prophet had said of 253the promise, and that rightly, since when God fulfills his promises, in a way he reveals himself. There is little difference between the prophet and the apostle as to the heart of the matter. I say that when the Lord stretches forth his hand to help us, he himself comes. The apostle follows the prophet in saying, “In but a short while” ; because God does not defer his help any longer than fits his purpose. Unlike men, God does not dally in order to deceive and fail us. He knows the time of opportunity, and does not let it pass by without coming forth to our help at the right moment. The apostle says: He that shall come, will come; he will not tarry. There are two parts to this sentence. The first says that God will come, because he has promised; the second, that he will do it at the right time, and not later.
And now, the righteous shall live by faith. He means that endurance is born of faith. And this is true, because we shall never be equal to our contests except as we are sustained by faith; as John says truly in other words, Our victory which overcomes the world is by faith (1 John 5:4). So it is that we rise on high; so we bound over the obstacles of this life, over its sorrows and troubles; so we have quietness in the midst of storms and tempests. Thus, the apostle’s whole point is that all those who are righteous before God shall live by faith. And the future tense of the verb to live indicates that life by faith shall be life without end. Let the reader look up Rom. 1:17 and Gal. 3:11, where the apostle cites this same verse from the prophet.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Heb. 11:1.
Whoever made this verse the beginning of chapter eleven did wrong in breaking up the continuity of our text. As the apostle has said, his purpose is to show the need for patience. He has already quoted the testimony of Habakkuk, that the righteous shall live by faith. Now, he shows further that faith can be separated from patience no more than from itself. His argument goes as follows: We shall never attain the goal of salvation, unless we learn patience; because the prophet teaches that the righteous shall live by faith. But faith calls us to a destiny which is far off. Therefore, there is no faith without patience. Hence, the syllogism includes the minor proposition: faith is the substance of things hoped for. It is wrong to think that here we have a full definition of faith. The apostle does not speak of the whole of faith, but of that aspect of it which fits his 254present purpose; namely, that it is always bound up with patience.
Now let us consider his words. He calls faith the hypostasis of the things hoped for. We of course know that we hope for things not in our hands and still hidden from us, or at least for things we expect to enjoy at some other time. The apostle teaches us here the same thing that Paul does in Rom. 8:24, where the latter says that we hope for what we do not see, by which he implies that we must wait for it with patience. Thus, the apostle warns us that we must exercise faith in God not for things present but for things about whose fulfillment we are in suspense. And this paradox is not without its beauty. Faith, he says, is the hypostasis, that is the prop, or the place we have, on which we may plant our foot; but the prop for what? I answer, For things not in our possession, things which are not under our foot, which are in fact even beyond the grasp of our minds.
The same applies to the second clause, where he speaks of the evidence, or demonstration, of things not seen. But demonstration has to do with things that are seen; it is used commonly with regard to things open to our senses. Thus faith and demonstration apparently do not go together. And yet they do go together very well; for the Spirit of God demonstrates to us the things hidden to us and quite beyond the kind of knowledge which depends upon the senses. We are promised eternal life, but we are dead; we are told of a blessed resurrection, but we are in a state of corruption; we are pronounced righteous, and yet we are dwelling places of sin; we hear that we are happy, and yet we are buried under countless miseries; we are promised riches of every kind of good, but are exceedingly hungry and full of thirst; God cries that he will come to us quickly, and yet to our own cry he seems to be deaf. What would become of us if we were not upheld by hope and if our minds did not escape the darkness of this world through the bright light of God’s Word and his Spirit? Faith, therefore, is said rightly to be the reality (subsistentia) of the things we affirm in hope, and the evidence of the things we do not see. It does not displease me that Augustine sometimes translates evidence as “conviction,” because it is true to the apostle’s meaning. But I prefer to render it as “demonstration,” because this is less forced.
3. FAITH AS HUMAN ACT
And behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood for 255twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment. Matt. 9:20.
The Evangelist makes it clear that the issue of blood had lasted continually for twelve years. She had neglected no remedy, and had even spent everything she had on doctors. The glory of the miracle shines all the more brightly, because an incurable disease was cured suddenly by the mere touch of a garment; and this was obviously not a human accomplishment. However, we must not generalize from the woman’s notion that if she touched Christ’s garment she would be immediately healed, because it came to her under a special impulse of the Holy Spirit. We know how superstition presumes thoughtlessly and stupidly to play at imitating the saints. But those who try to follow a unique example without the command of God, moved by their own fancy rather than by the Spirit, are not imitators; they are apes.
It is even possible that the faith of this woman was mixed with some sin and error, which Christ was generous enough to endure and ignore. Certainly, when afterwards her conscience troubled her, so that she feared and trembled, her doubting, which was the contrary of faith, was without any excuse or justification. Why did she not rather go straight to Christ? If it was reverence that kept her back, why did she not trust his mercy, which alone was to be her help? And why was she afraid of giving offense if she really believed in his kindness?
And yet, Christ acknowledged her faith with high praise. And this agrees with my previous statement that God deals kindly and gently with his people; that even though their faith be mutilated and sickly, he accepts it, without holding against them the sin and defect which run through it. Therefore, the woman came to Christ as guided by faith. When she clung to the garment, instead of asking Christ to heal her, the force of her thoughtless zeal pushed her somewhat off the right way, as soon became especially evident when she made her venture with such doubt and perplexity of spirit. Even though her behavior was enjoined by the Spirit, it still remains a fixed rule that we must not allow special cases like this to cause us to waver in our faith. Faith needs to be bound directly to the Word of God; for, according to Paul, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). And this is a useful warning, that we may not dignify every opinion, picked up one way or another, with the title of faith.256
But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. Matt. 14:24.
Readers will find my exposition of this story in my commentary on John 6. Here I shall be brief. When Christ permitted his disciples to be tossed about for a while during a dangerous storm, he intended to fix their attention upon the wonderful help which he provided for them. For the adverse wind began to blow about midnight, or a little before. But Christ came only at the fourth watch, or at the earliest, three hours before sunrise. By this time their faith was shaken by terror even more than their arms were tired by rowing. In this predicament they were sorely in need of their Master’s presence; and yet, when they saw him, they were seized with a gross stupor, as though they had seen a ghost.
For this reason Mark says that their heart was blinded and they did not understand about the loaves; for that miracle might have taught them well enough that there was no lack of divine power in Christ for helping them, and that he cared for them and would come to their aid when they needed him.
Therefore they are rightly condemned for feebleness of spirit in forgetting the power of God which they had seen the day before and which should have been still right before their eyes. They were surely blameworthy to have been struck with such stupidity that they had failed to profit from the earlier miracles they had witnessed. But they are reproached mainly for their blindness, which wiped out of their minds the memory of so recent and striking an event, or rather for their failure to acknowledge the Deity of Christ which had been obvious when he multiplied the bread.
But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. Matt. 14:27–28.
Since Christ is not known as a deliverer until he comes forward as one, it is by his Word that he invited his disciples to know him. Besides, he set forth his own presence among them as the real basis for the trust to which he called them. It is as though he said that, since they know he is there, they have solid ground for good hope. But since terror had already taken possession of their souls, he took them under his care, to keep their dread from hindering or destroying their confidence. Of course, he did not expect that they would be emptied of all fear and filled instead with sheer joy. He sought to break down the 257strength of their fear, that it might not crush their faith. Whereas the voice of the Son of God is deadly to the wicked, and his presence terrifying, its effect upon believers, as described here, is altogether different; it makes our inner peace and living faith triumph within our hearts, so that we may not succumb to the fretting of our flesh. If we are alarmed and agitated blindly and precipitously, it is because we are ungrateful enough and wicked enough not to take up the shields of God’s countless benefits, which, properly wielded, would fortify us against all evil. Now, even though Christ appeared in good time for help, the tempest continued to rage, so that the disciples might be roused to rest their hope and expectation in his grace. From this we know that the Lord often delays the deliverance, which he has in the palm of his hand, for some good reason of his own.
And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. The condition which Peter lays down shows that his faith is still immature. If it be thou, says he, bid me come! But he had already heard Christ speak! Why then does he, doubtful and perplexed, argue with him? Such a rash desire burst out of him because his faith was both little and feeble. He should have estimated himself rightly, and prayed for an increase of faith sufficient to lead and guide him across seas and over mountains. As it was, he was trying to fly without wings; or, without having the voice of Christ firmly in his heart, he desired to turn the water under his feet into solid land. And even though Peter’s zeal was doubtless good at its source, yet, since he overdid it and so corrupted it, it is not worthy of praise.
But Peter soon began to pay for his rashness. Let his example teach believers to avoid too much haste. When the Lord calls, we should of course run. But anyone who overreaches himself will find out, from the unhappy consequences, what it means not to know one’s limit. Yet, it may be asked, why did Christ comply with Peter’s wish? For, in so doing, he seems to have approved of it. The answer is easy. God often helps us better by denying us what we ask of him; and at other times, he is indulgent with us, so that we may see our folly by experience. It happens every day that God, by giving his faithful people more than they need, trains them for sobriety and modesty in the future.
Thus, Christ’s dealing with Peter on this occasion was profitable to him and to the other disciples; and it is profitable for us today. The power of Christ appeared to better advantage in the person of Peter when, rather than walk upon the water 258by himself, he took Peter along with him. In this way, Peter understood, and the others saw plainly, that when he did not rest in and lean upon the Word of God with a solid faith, the secret power of God, which had previously solidified the waters, disappeared. Nevertheless, Christ dealt kindly with him and did not let him go under and perish. Both of these things happen to us: as Peter began to sink, when fear seized him, the passing and the unstable thoughts of the flesh soon make us lose our foothold when we should be firmly occupied with our calling. Meanwhile, the Lord deals kindly with us in our weakness, and stretches his hand out, that the water may not suck us in altogether. But we should notice that Peter, seeing the unpleasant and unhappy effect of his temerity, throws himself upon the mercy of Christ. And we also, even while we are receiving our overdue punishment, should seek help from him, unworthy as we are, that he may bring us help in our misery.
And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? Matt. 14:31.
While Christ was kind enough to save Peter, he did not justify his behavior. The weakness of his faith is properly rebuked. But one may ask, Is every kind of fear an evidence of defect in faith? For, Christ’s words seem to imply that, where there is faith, there is no place for doubt. I answer that the doubt which Christ condemns is the precise opposite of faith. It is possible for a man to doubt when there is no Word from God to give him certainty. But Peter’s case was quite different. He had received Christ’s command and experienced his power; and yet, letting go of such a double mainstay, he fell prey to a fear which was at once foolish and perverse.
Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give to thee. Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day. John 11:21–24.
She begins with a complaint, even though in this way she tells him shyly what she wants. What she means is: “If you had been here, you could have snatched my brother from death. You can do it even now, because God denies you nothing.” But speaking in this manner, she gives vent to her feelings more than is proper to a believer. I admit that these words were 259spoken partly by faith; but I submit that they were mixed with a confused feeling which pushed her to speak improperly. For, what is the ground of the confidence which leads her to assume that if Jesus had been there, her brother would not have died? Surely, it was not based on a promise of Christ. It must therefore be that she was rash enough to follow her own wishes rather than yield to Christ. It is [the nature] of faith to attribute all goodness and power to Christ; but it is alien to faith that she believed more than she has heard from Christ. We must recognize that the Word and faith agree the one with the other, so that we dare not presume to invent more than the Word of God allows. Besides, Martha was far too attached to the physical presence of Christ. It follows that her faith was mixed and confused with excessive desire; not being free from superstition it could not shine with full brightness. Hence her words exhibited only a few sparks of faith.
Your brother shall rise again. The kindness of Christ is amazing. He simply ignores Martha’s faults, which we spoke of above, and promises her more than she dared ask openly and in so many words.
I know that he shall rise again. Here Martha’s lack of courage is evident because she weakens Christ’s words. We said above that she went too far when she devised a hope out of her own desires. And now she falls into the opposite error; when Christ stretches out his hand to her, she draws back with trepidation. This is why we should avoid both errors. On the one hand, we should not fill ourselves with hopes which, being empty of God’s Word, are like so much wind. On the other hand, when God opens his mouth to us, he should not find our hearts closed and shut firmly against him.260
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