BY DAVID K. BERNARD
Occasionally pastors have the opportunity to write or submit items for their local newspapers. The following columns appeared in the Northwest Austin Life and Times, Austin, Texas in 1998. Permission is hereby granted for you to submit one or more to your local newspaper, or you may use them as examples in writing your own pieces.
Faith That Transforms
Everyone has faith in something, for without faith it is impossible to survive. Whether we trust in ourselves, others, money, tradition, philosophy, or God, we all believe in something.
Ultimately, we must trust in God. While we need to take responsibility for our actions, we cannot, by our ability and performance, ensure our spiritual well-being or earn eternal life. Instead, we are saved by grace–the free gift of God–and we receive this gift through faith-by following His plan instead of our own ideas, by depending on His work in our lives instead of our own goodness.
Faith is not merely accepting a set of beliefs. In the fullest sense, faith means reliance and commitment, and it requires obedience to what we believe. If someone runs into the workplace yelling, “The building is on fire!” the response of faith is not merely a grin, a nod, and verbal acceptance. Rather, if we believe the warning, we will immediately act upon it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian executed by the Nazis, said, “Only he who is obedient believes.”
When Jesus called some Galilean fishermen to be his disciples, he said, “Cast aside your nets, and follow me.” They did not become disciples merely by believing him to be the Messiah, Lord, and Savior, or by verbally confessing him as such. They became his disciples only when they obeyed his instructions and began to follow him. Faith is only real in the act of obedience.
Christianity is more than mental acknowledgment, verbal profession, or even performance of religious duties. If we truly have faith in Jesus Christ, we will obey his gospel, and our lives will be transformed by his Spirit. (See Acts 2:38.)
Years ago, tightrope walkers used to demonstrate their talents by walking on a wire stretched over Niagara Falls. Crowds would gather to see this incredibly dangerous feat. Once, a performer promised to push a wheelbarrow across the wire. First, however, he wanted assurance from the audience that they believed he could do it. Eagerly, the crowd roared its approval several times.
Finally, the performer pointed to one of his most vocal supporters and said, “Jump in! I’ll wheel you across.” Neither this man nor anyone else would accept the offer. They had “faith” in the sense of opinion or agreement, but they were not willing to commit their lives to what they professed.
What kind of faith do we have? What kind of faith does God expect?
The celebration of Independence Day reminds us once again of the freedom we enjoy as Americans. We are fortunate to live in the freest country in history. Although our society is far from perfect, it still affords us great economic, political, and religious liberty.
I was reminded of this truth on a recent trip to Vietnam to teach a seminar for pastors. Because the country’s communist government severely curtails religious activity, we met clandestinely in a home. We ended the seminar a day early because of police surveillance in the area. A few months before, a friend there had been placed under house arrest and interrogated for four days because he helped conduct a religious meeting.
As a society, we must understand that true freedom begins with the liberty to worship God according to the dictates of conscience. When freedom of worship is curtailed, then all other freedoms–including the freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press–come under attack. Once society minimizes the belief in God, then it becomes easier to deny the reality of eternal moral law and inalienable human rights. Freedom becomes relative, and government begins to define what freedom it will allow.
Jesus pointed out that we have freedom only to the extent that we know truth. “Ye shall know the truth,” He said, “and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Real freedom is not based on changing human opinions but on the absolutes of God’s moral order. It is not freedom to ignore truth but to understand truth and act accordingly. For instance, a person who drives off a cliff in defiance of the law of gravity is not free but ignorant, and his ignorance destroys him. In this situation, freedom is the ability to know the truth about the law of gravity and to avoid the danger posed by the cliff.
Freedom in the highest sense, then, is the knowledge of right from wrong coupled with the ability to choose right. It means recognizing the benefits of right values and the devastating consequences of wrong values, and having the courage and strength to guide our lives, families, and communities according to the former. Spiritual freedom consists of deliverance from destructive patterns of thought and behavior and fulfillment of God’s will for our lives.
Governments can neither bestow nor take away this freedom, for it must come from God. Jesus said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). The believers in Vietnam do not enjoy religious or political freedom, but they do have spiritual freedom, and as such they are free indeed!
Spiritual freedom is the work of the living Lord in the believer’s life by the power of His Spirit. “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Corinthians 3:17). Regardless of political and economic circumstances, we can enjoy the highest freedom when we are filled with God’s Spirit and live by His liberating power every day.
In the past year, America witnessed an unusual historic event: the impeachment of its president. While everyone is undoubtedly glad that the ordeal is over and no longer dominates the news, it did raise a question of enduring significance: what is the proper role and application of forgiveness?
The President confessed to serious sins, asked the American people to forgive him, and apparently received that forgiveness. I do not write to renew that debate or to promote one political agenda over another, but to ask what Christianity has to say on forgiveness.
Christianity proclaims that everyone has sinned, that God extends grace and mercy to all sinners, and that we should do the same. On the other hand, the Bible also teaches that genuine repentance is a prerequisite to receive forgiveness. “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).
Humans do not change their sinful ways as long as they seemingly avoid all consequences. If we persist in sinful behavior, the Bible says we will eventually reap what we sow. By the grace of God, we have an alternative: we can impose consequences on ourselves by confessing to those we have sinned against and by seeking help to change our ways. Doing so is often painful and embarrassing, but it is the path of mercy and forgiveness.
If we try to evade all consequences, however, by covering up wrongdoing and yet expecting forgiveness anyway, we only deceive ourselves. We do not deal with the problems in our lives or obtain the help we need, and we set a trap for ourselves in the future.
Each of us must take personal responsibility for our actions. If we have done wrong, we must admit it to ourselves first of all and to God. Then we must admit it to those to whom we are accountable, we must seek to correct our ways, and we must ask forgiveness.
In this way, forgiveness becomes not a trap in our future but a deliverance from our past. Through repentance and forgiveness, we are liberated from our past so that we can enjoy a blessed, productive present and future.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY FORWARD, APRIL-JUNE 1999, PAGES 12-12. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.