Two friends of ours were staying in Los Angeles in 1994 when the city experienced a major earthquake. They were actually sight-seeing in another part of the San Fernando Valley and felt absolutely nothing at the time. In fact they didn’t even know there had been an earthquake until they got back to their hotel. Seemingly, the part of the valley they had been visiting stood on a gigantic slab of rock that proved impervious to the earthquake tremors. They were standing on a firm foundation.
Paul concludes his first Letter to the Corinthian Church by exhorting them to ‘Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong’ (1 Corinthians 16:13) which seems in hindsight to be a good word for us today as we find ourselves living in the midst of tremors of various kinds seemingly coming one after the other at this present time. The encouragement to ‘stand firm’ is one of Paul’s favourite exhortations cropping up in various of his letters. In that classic passage on the need for us to clothe ourselves in ‘the armour of God’ (Ephesians 6:10-20) it occurs four times in just a few verses alone. The Apostle also possibly gives us a clue of exactly what he means by ‘standing firm in our faith’ when he speaks about ‘taking up the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one’ (v.16).
When Paul was writing this wonderful passage about wearing the armour of God he no doubt had in mind the armour worn by a Roman soldier. According to tradition, he wrote the letter while he was in prison in Rome (around AD 62) so perhaps he was actually looking at one of his guards as he wrote these words. The shield that he refers to here would have been the scutum, the large oblong shield we are most familiar with, a convex surface measuring two and a half feet in width and four feet in length, made up of various layers of wood and hide glued together to create a formidable barrier capable of turning aside the most formidable blows of stones, pikes, and heavy missiles in general including fiery darts or arrows.
In much the same way the faith Paul speaks about here – the faith we need to stand firm in in order to withstand the pressures of the spiritual warfare we find ourselves in – is made up of various layers, each one essential if we are to win through in battle. In particular, the Bible speaks of four kinds of faith, different layers, or kinds of faith, that we need to know in personal experience.
Firstly, there is what we might call saving faith. Writing earlier in this letter to the Ephesians Paul reminds us that we are ‘saved by grace, through faith’ (Ephesians 2:8,9). Whilst our salvation is all of grace – God’s agape love in action primarily through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on our behalf – it only becomes real to us in dynamic experience through personal faith. For some of us that may happen in a moment just like Paul on Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-19), for others it may be the result of a journey of discovery like the two on Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35).
Secondly, there is what we might call the fruit of faith or faithfulness. Writing to the Galatian Church, Paul suggests that genuine saving faith eventually results in the fruit of a Christlike character: ‘The fruit of the Spirit [of Christ] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22,23). Here ‘faith’ or ‘faithfulness’ (the same word in the Greek) is not so much a kairos moment as an ongoing, day after day, consistent, faithfulness to Christ and his ways. The kind of person and life exemplified by Silas, whom Peter describes as ‘a faithful brother’ (1 Peter 5:12).
Thirdly, there is what we might call the gift of faith. Writing about some of the specific supernatural gifts of the Spirit in his first letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul refers to ‘the gift of faith’ (1 Corinthians 12:9). Paul is not speaking here of saving faith, nor the fruit of faith, but of a specific deposit of faith implanted into the human soul and heart and mind, enabling that person to believe God for something specific. Think for a moment of the various Heroes of Faith described in Hebrews 11. Each of them were not only called by God to a specific task – Abraham to find the Promised Land, Noah to build the Ark, and so on – but each was also given a specific gift of faith to accompany their specific calling, so much so that it was actually easier for them to believe (rather than not believe) that what God was calling them to would be accomplished. Noah could not have found his way to the Promised Land, Abraham could not have built the Ark, because that was not what God had called them to … but he did give them the gift of faith for that which he had called them to!
And finally, there is what we might call the doctrines of the Faith. Jude (the half-brother of Jesus himself) exhorts the believers of his day to ‘contend for the faith that was once and for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3). Whilst the New Testament Church clearly were still in the process of working out the doctrinal implications of the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus Christ, it would seem that there were already a number of doctrines or teachings that were considered essential, indispensable, non-negotiable if you like which those first Christians needed to contend for in the face of scoffers and heretics alike. It is not my intention here to discuss or debate what those essential doctrines may or may not be (although it could be something for us all to think about), but rather to underline the importance of having what has been described as ‘a thought through faith’.
Part of having a firm faith foundation is to ‘know the one in whom I have placed my confidence, and [be] perfectly certain that the work he has committed to me is safe in his hands until that day’ (2 Timothy 1:12 J B Phillips) and to know why we believe what we believe. As Peter tells us elsewhere, ‘reverence Christ in your hearts … honour him as Lord … be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have within you’ (1 Peter 3:15).
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus Christ, my righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.
When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found;
In Him, my righteousness, alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.
~ Edward Mote (1797-1874)