Called to believe

Rom 10.9 makes a wonderful text for an Easter baptismal service: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”. I freely confess that I have preached on these words time and again during the season of Easter, and have urged my listeners to put their trust in Christ, crucified and risen.

In the first place, we must believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. To my mind the evidence of the empty tomb and the stories of those who claimed to have seen Jesus are compelling. As Lord Darling, a former Lord Chief Justice, once said:

In its favour as a living truth there exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in the verdict that the resurrection story is true.

But to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead is more than simply believing in a one-off miracle. It also involves believing that in Jesus we too may share in his triumph over sin and death; for the good news is that the risen Lord Jesus is the one who can deal with all our past failures and put us right with God.

I always drew attention to the need to believe with all that we are. “If you believe in your heart”, wrote Paul, “that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”.  We are called not just to believe with our minds, but in the very deepest recesses of our being. Or as one modern version puts it, we are called to embrace “body and soul, God’s work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead” (Peterson)

Paul is not the only writer in the New Testament to emphasis the importance of putting our trust in Jesus. However, Paul is the New Testament writer who had most to say about the role of faith in salvation. For instance, in his very first chapter we have the wonderful statement: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith”. Faith is the necessary prerequisite for both Jew and Gentile.

Later in the same letter Paul declared: “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that I in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith…. He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus” (The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all” (Rom 3.21-26).

When I was an undergraduate at Jesus College, Cambridge, reading theology at Cambridge one of my basic textbooks was The Theology of Paul by  Denys Whiteley of Jesus College, Oxford, who in his treatment of Paul’s doctrine of justification noted Bultmann’s contention that Paul understood faith primarily as “obedience”. Thus at the beginning of his Letter to the Romans Paul wrote that Jesus had called him “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (Rom 1.5); and the same idea reappears in the final chapter where Paul writes of God’s command “to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom 1.26). Or to return to Romans 10 where Paul is wrestling with the problem of Jewish resistance to the gospel, he notes that this was also a problem in Isaiah’s day: “But not all obeyed the good news”. So concludes Paul, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ”. To hear the Gospel is to respond, and to respond involves obedience. Faith is an act of the will, as well as of the mind and of the heart.

Significantly fifty of the sixty-five occurrences of the verb to believe (pisteuo) are in the present participle, which in turn underlines the importance of continual believing. It is more than a one-off act of commitment to the claims of Jesus – rather an ongoing response is called for too.

Finally, as I discovered some years ago when I was preaching in the Central Baptist Church in Moscow, there can be contexts in which repentance becomes more important than faith. In Russia there are a variety of faith groups each of which may believe, but not necessarily believe in Jesus. As a result Baptist-Christians in Russia prefer to call themselves ‘penitents’. Indeed, if an ‘altar call’ is made there, then the invitation is always for people to come forward to the front pews not as an vindication of their desire in the first place to repent of their sin as over against a sign of their desire to place their faith in Jesus. Theologically I had my misgiving of that custom – for me repentance and faith go hand-in-hand. But then, who was I to judge?

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