The Faith That Conquers (3)
Part 3: The Golden Key
Refined Faith Saves Us
Gold has been a store of value for millennia. It took that mantle because it is relatively rare and never deteriorates. As one brother has told me, every atom of gold ever created on earth still exists. Gold matters because God uses it to describe perhaps the most important subject He wants us to understand — faith.
Faith is golden in two vital ways. It has extraordinary value to us — it saves us. And it is derived from a process exactly like the one that yields pure gold — refining. Both features of faith deserve some deep pondering.
Peter puts both ideas together in one passage that should be bedrock for us as we think about faith and how to grow it:
There is no escaping the simple power of Peter’s words: Faith saves us. We also cannot avoid the conclusion that our faith gets refined through a fiery process, just like gold. That fiery process is difficult to go through, but just as with the noble metal, the outcome is beautiful in the end.
The gold standard of faith
Before we take up those two ideas, though, it’s useful to start with the true gold standard of faith — Abraham. Over and over, he is presented as the towering example of trust in the Almighty to which we should all aspire. That is exactly why Abraham is often called the “Father of the Faithful.” The gold standard was established when God told Abraham to go out, look up at the sky and try to number the stars. Then God told Abraham that his offspring would be just as numerous, even at a time when he had no children. Having stood at night on the shores of a wilderness lake where the nearest manmade light is far away, I know what an impossible counting that is. Undaunted, Abraham believed God.
God was extremely pleased by that act of trust. Genesis puts it simply: “Abraham believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness” (15:6). God created the heavens and all those stars. He created the earth and all its amazing forms of life. Yet He left one thing to us to create — faith. He gave us the innate capacity to believe in a Higher Being. The choice, however, is ours to make.
God apparently did this because He is immensely pleased when we freely and willingly put our trust in Him. That seems to explain the simple principle we’ve noted several times in this series:
We also cannot avoid the conclusion that our faith gets refined through a fiery process, just like gold.Abraham’s expression of faith while gazing at the star-filled sky is quoted no less than three times in the New Testament (Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6; Jas 2:22-24). The Romans 4 passage is helpful because it not only drives home how critical faith is to our salvation, but it also gives insight on the vital ingredient in Abraham’s faith.
When he was Saul, Paul lived under a Pharisee’s formula of salvation. Get your doctrine straight, believe it completely and then earn your salvation through good works. That is the very legalistic thinking that he tackled head-on in the book of Romans. Salvation, Paul said, is about faith in Jesus:
If we want to be righteous in the eyes of God, if we want to be saved, faith is the key. That faith is all about trust — trusting God in every decision, in every corner of our life.
That was the defining characteristic of Abraham’s faith — his unassailable trust in God when confronted with decision and adversity. He had a comfortable home in Ur. But he left for parts unknown — trusting God to lead him. He had no son with Sarah, but he trusted the angel’s message. He loved his son Isaac and was willing to sacrifice him when asked, because he trusted in God’s promise.
This kind of unflinching trust in the Almighty is, quite simply, the gold standard for us. Paul powerfully sums it up:
There can be no doubt in our mind. We must be fully persuaded that God can do what He has promised. That is what triggers God’s counting us as righteous.
Faith saves us
The older I get the more I conclude we too often try to complicate the subject of salvation. The Bible presents it forcefully and simply, a sort of formula on which the whole creation rests. The formula can be put this way: Our Faith, His Grace.
The two parts imply that salvation requires something from us and something from God. The faith we supply is a rare thing, one that God did not create. He created the capacity for it (unique to humans in all his creation), but He leaves it to our choosing. The grace He supplies is beautifully given through His Son. Together, the four words frame a very deep topic. But the formula is brilliant, elegantly simple in its design. A highly intelligent design.
Paul expresses it this way:
No matter how hard we try (and the Pharisees tried mightily), we cannot earn salvation to eternal life. It is a gift from God, but one predicated on our faith — the very kind of faith that Abraham had in God. Such faith is also the very kind that Paul discovered after being struck blind on the road to Damascus.
Why did God choose this formula for salvation? That’s a question worthy of some very deep reflection. Yet, no matter how far we go in understanding the answer, I believe the essence of the formula reveals much about who we are and who our God is. Paul offers this tantalizing glimpse into the mind of the Almighty:
Our faith, His grace. This is salvation simplified. If we would be saved, we need the same Golden Key that Abraham found. God spoke; Abraham believed what He said. Does this lead to other faithful steps, including baptism? Of course. But the key, as Paul drives home over and over again, is our faith.
That essential trust is what connects us to God’s power to save. Here’s another way in which Paul describes faith as the key:
The things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ are truly good news. They represent the blueprint by which the powerful hand of God is creating a beautiful new creation. But from first to last, from Abraham to us, the key to connecting with that power is our faith.
Faith Is Refined
Faith is key to our salvation, but it is no ordinary key. It’s made of gold. Gold has always been refined by only one process: fire, a very hot fire. Peter plainly compares our faith to gold. He’s telling us that our faith will be refined by fire — fiery trials.
Each of us wonders why there is suffering in life. We wonder when we watch terror attacks on our televisions. We wonder when we see those we love battling cancer or other ailments. We wonder when someone suffers a horrible accident. We wonder when we lose a loved one.
I’ve passed through my own period of deep wonder on why there is suffering. Our beloved daughter died tragically nearly four years ago. Her loss is with us daily. There is no rational explanation, no matter how often my mind seeks it. The pain remains. The questions remain.
I’ve learned I cannot explain my daughter’s death, no matter how hard I try. But I have taken great comfort from gaining a much deeper understanding that there is an intentional design to our state of suffering. A design for our good.
Suffering is the soil in which faith grows. In ways we will never fully wrap our minds around, suffering is God’s design for us. When we are brought low by suffering, we are far more likely to turn to God for strength. Paul learned and later expressed this very principle, “When I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:10 KJV). Real strength comes from our God, not from ourselves. True for Job, true for Paul, true for us today.
There is a method to our affliction. When we pass through fiery trial, we learn to trust him more. Without that fire, we are far more likely to rely only on self. Yet, when we rely on our own instincts, we never learn the true essence of faith. Without his own fiery trial, Saul would have kept going right on to Damascus. He would have continued to terrorize Christians because he was absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t, of course. God literally brought Saul low and made him blind so that Paul could learn what real trust in God is. Saul went blind only to discover true sight — the sight that comes only from faith. (Paul alone speaks of walking by faith! How ironic.)
When all seems darkest, when we seem weakest, that is exactly when our trust in Him grows. God seeks a faith that proves it is genuine. We have a good metaphor for this “proof” every time we watch the Olympics. One image lingers from every Games — the champions putting their gold medal between their teeth. This “bite” is actually an ancient image, one that dates from a time when coins were made of gold. Kings had a nasty habit of replacing the gold with counterfeit alloys that looked like gold. In doing so they were able to keep more of the gold for their own pleasure in the palace. So, before accepting a coin in payment, peasants quickly learned to bite the coin and see if it was as malleable as real gold (and hope they didn’t break a tooth if it wasn’t!).
This is exactly why our faith is refined — to prove it is genuine, the real deal. Do you trust God through thick and thin? Or only part of the time, only when you need Him? This is Peter’s core message:
God wants genuine trust in him — not a counterfeit faith that merely blows in the wind. He wants trust that lasts a lifetime.
The refining process cannot be avoided but it is good for us in the end. What is that end? It is surely a faith just like Abraham’s. We can too easily come to think of our salvation as depending on some sort of bar exam — being able to answer all the right questions about first principles. Is that knowledge really what’s being refined? Are we passing through tribulation so we can correctly answer 92 out of 100 questions on first principles instead of just 77?
The lives of countless faithful people in Scripture supply the answer. Life, with all its trials, is about developing a deep, abiding trust in God. That trust is going to be tested in ways we cannot anticipate. When all seems darkest, when we seem weakest, that is exactly when our trust in Him grows. And the most beautiful part of all, as discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, is this: When we trust God, victory is always assured. Faith brings nike. Faith is the Golden Key to the greatest victory of all.
(Kansas City, MO)